Last edited: February 21, 2022
Two and half years ago I wrote a Nikon D700 Review (and D850 Preview) that – for most potential buyers – came a little late. The D700 was long taken off the shelves, replaced by newer models. This time I try to be a little faster and post my Nikon D850 review when this camera is still sold.
I decided to get the Nikon D850 during a photo tour in Jerusalem. I had brought my D700, some lenses and a tripod. The couple I was guiding both had the D850 and I got a first feel of that camera.
So I went and purchased the Nikon D850, together with a new set of lenses:
- Tamron SP 15-30mm f/2.8 Di VC USD G2 – I sold the lens and regret it
- Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 70-200mm f/4G ED VR – my day-to-day tele zoom
- Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 200-500mm f/5.6E ED VR – works great with wildlife
- Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 24mm f/1.8G ED – my day-to-day wide lens
Coming from a 12 megapixel camera (respectively a 24 MP APS-C camera), it took a little getting used to the Nikon D850 in order to ensure sharp photos. I wrote an article about Sharpness and the D850 where you can read about the challenges yourself.
I will not repeat what I already wrote more than two years ago under Nikon D850 – First Impressions – read it to get the whole picture. However, I do have a perhaps broader perspective today, after I have also used the Canon EOS R5 for more than half a year. Let’s say that my Canon R5 and RF lenses left a less favorable impression on me.
When one buys a high resolution camera, it is all about image quality! Everything else comes second. I have split my image quality review into two sections: Sensor and lenses.
D850 Sensor Quality
Well, the Nikon D850 does deliver in the image quality department. Paired with some good glass, the Nikon D850 is capable of producing outstanding detail, tonality and dynamic range. You can recover shadows way above 2.5 EV, as I’ve shown with examples in my D850 Preview (see under Dynamic Range).
The photo of Florence above shows an incredible amount of detail when taking the full sized image. In a few places such as some of the window shutters you could recognize some moire when zooming in 1:1 in the full-sized image. I removed it using a brush and the moire removal slider in Lightroom, which works perfect.
Moire used to be an issue in older, low resolution cameras, which is why they employ an anti-aliasing filter. The D850 doesn’t and I’m really glad – that lack of an AA filter helps bring out more detail. The price you pay is a potential for moire. At 45MP it will be hard to distinguish in any reproduction ratio other than 1:1, and then you need to look closely. So far I’ve noticed it only in perhaps a dozen or two photos with objects that have lots of horizontal or vertical parallel lines no wider than a few pixel.
So far I’ve shown landscape or cityscape images that were minimally cropped or not at all. One of the big advantages of a high resolution camera over lower megapixel cameras is the ability to crop and “zoom in”. This is why I sold my Nikon D7200. Cropping down a 45 megapixel image to the size of the APS-C sensor leaves me with 45MP/(1.5×1.5)=20MP. The difference between that and the 24MP of the D7200 is negligible. Factor in the benefits of the D850’s more advanced focusing system and higher frame rate, the decision was easy.
I didn’t realize how good the D850 image quality actually is until I bought a Canon EOS R5. While some of my complaints regarding the Canon R5 are related to the lenses I had purchased, particularly the Canon RF 24-105mm f/4 and the Canon RF 15-35mm f/2.8, I find that the Canon images show somewhat less detail. Both cameras have the same sensor size and resolution (give or take a few pixels).
Full Frame Lenses for the Nikon D850
Nikon and Canon have the most complete array of lenses for their DSLRs, perhaps followed by Sony for their mirrorless system. The lenses that worked well on my D700 are often not good enough for the D850. I saw that with the Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 16-35mm f/4G ED VR which I replaced for the Tamron SP 15-30mm f/2.8 Di VC USD G2.
Tamron SP 15-30mm f/2.8 Di VC USD G2
The Tamron 15-30 is significantly sharper, even in the corners. But I ran into quality issues with the Tamron lens. The problem was that some (quite many) images were blurred on the right side, about 1/3 into the frame. Only after sending it in twice for repair did they finally fix it. After that the lens performed flawlessly. Well, at least within its capabilities. It had a pronounced tendency to produce flares – see the photo below (click to enlarge).
The Tamron 15-30 is a big and heavy lens and doesn’t take any filters. The lens hood is integrated. The lens also comes with a vibration control system (VC) that works reasonably well. I never felt that the VR (or VC) makes a huge difference with wide angle zooms, but it does help with longer shutter speeds when needed, for example under low light conditions.
Looking for a smaller and lighter kit, I eventually sold the Tamron and bought the Canon EOS R5 together with the highly regarded Canon RF 15-35mm f/2.8. I wish I hadn’t. Every manufacturer has sample variations. But when buying top glass for top $$$$, one expects to receive good quality. Below is a photo taken with the Canon EOS R5 and RF 15-35mm f/2.8 – click to enlarge!
The above “selfie” shows the issue with my Canon RF 15-35mm f/2.8. At first it looks OK, but have a closer look at the bottom left side where the green bushes are. The entire area looks blurred. Further up in the frame, you can see that the mountain is sharp. This photo is resized to a resolution of only 1800 pixels wide. I have hundreds of images with the same issue. I’m sure not every sample of that lens is as bad, or even has this problem. I got another 15-35mm as a loaner to see how it compares, but it had similar issues. As of now, 2 out of 3 Canon RF lenses in my bag are bad. Unfortunately I can’t return them.
This can happen with Nikon lenses too, but so far I guess I was lucky. I do own perhaps a dozen or more Nikon lenses.
Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 200-500mm f/5.6E ED VR
I got this lens together with a D7200. At first, I had some back-focus issue and needed to adjust the focus in the D7200. On the D850, however, it focuses perfectly without any adjustments.
Right now it is sold for a little more than $1000, which is a steal. The lens I own focuses quickly and accurately. The vibration reduction is really helpful both with fast moving and with static subjects. When shooting birds in flight, it reduces the jitter and helps keeping track of the bird. For static subjects, it allows one to close the aperture for bigger depth of field while staying in the lower ISO.
Some photographers prefer the Nikon 500mm PF. I can’t say which is better, as I haven’t used the 500 PF. As you can see in these photos, all of them are shot with the 200-500mm fully extended to 500mm.
I usually shoot the 200-500mm handheld, camera in Manual mode and Auto-ISO to handle the exposure. To catch birds in flight, especially fast birds, 1/3200s works well, but sometimes you may need a higher speed. The little female Palestine sunbird below was hopping around erratically, with very fast movements. I was hoping to catch it when it took off, but this little one was way to fast for me.
Another day another place. A friend and I had just completed a rather steep descend down from Mt. Barkan into the Yizreel valley when I noticed the crested lark below. The moment the D850 locked onto that bird, it kept tracking it despite all the straw around it.
If you’re on a budget and/or you need a long telephoto lens that can still be handheld, look no further. For an extra 200mm reach but some loss of light (f8) you might want to consider the Nikon AF-S Teleconverter TC-14E III.
Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 24mm f/1.8G ED
Anytime you ask me which lens is currently mounted on my D850, the answer would most likely be “the Nikon 24mm f/1.8”. This is my landscape/cityscape lens. It’s wonderfully sharp edge to edge. The only downside is that it doesn’t have stabilization. This kind of limits its use to either outside / good light scenes, or tripod.
The lens is small and weighs only 355g. It comes with a lens hood (unlike for example the Canon RF 35mm f/1.8, the Nikon NIKKOR Z 40mm f/2, or the Nikon NIKKOR Z 28mm f/2.8). Luckily this bad habit hasn’t yet been introduced to the DSLR lens lineup.
24mm is pretty wide, but often not wide enough, especially when shooting indoors or in narrow streets.
Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 70-200mm f/4G ED VR
I bought this lens as a lightweight telephoto zoom for our Italy trip. I didn’t want to carry the heavy 70-200mm f/2.8 VR lens I own. Nor did I like the 70-300 VR that I have. This 70-200 f/4 was definitely one of my better purchases.
Together with the 24mm f/1.8 this zoom became my regular companion in my camera bag. It weighs only 850g (compare that to the 1430g of the current Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 70-200mm f/2.8E FL ED VR), yet it delivers very nice and sharp images.
Vibration reduction works great with this lens, delivering sharp handheld shots down to 1/60s and perhaps lower when shooting at 200mm.
The lens is good for landscapes and travel, but less suitable for portraits or indoor sports (low light action photography).
If you plan on buying this lens mainly for portrait work, there are better lenses for the job that deliver better background separation and bokeh. This is why I still keep my f/2.8 version.
I’m only writing about the lenses I own and use. My lens collection also includes the 70-300mm VR, the 180mm f/2.8, the 105mm f/2.5 AI-S, the 50mm f/1.4 AF-D, the 50mm f/1.4 AI-S (both 50mm are very different), the 70-200mm f/2.8 VR, and some other third party lenses.
I have tried a few of these lenses on the D850, but not all of them. All I can say is that the old 70-200mm f/2.8 VR (the first VR version) is not really shining in terms of sharpness. The newer f/4 version is much better.
I never liked the 70-300 VR, it seems too sterile.
Lenses I do want to test, but haven’t gotten to, are the 50mm f/1.4 AI-S, a manual focus lens that delivered a beautiful micro-contrast on the D700.
Another lens I need to try out is the 105mm f/2.5. Again a manual focus lens, this one will be difficult to handle when photographing people because of the shallow DOF.
The Nikkor 180mm f/2.8 produced amazing colors and contrast on the D700, and also had a pleasing bokeh. It remains to be seen if it’s useful on the D850.
Don’t get your hopes high: The Nikon D850 does NOT have in-body stabilization (IBIS). You need to buy stabilized “VR” lenses to enjoy the benefit of this technology.
Many of the newer Nikon lenses, especially the zooms and the long lenses, have vibration reduction (VR) built in. However, primes such as my 24mm or the 20mm f/1.8 do not have VR. This is quite a bummer as it would be a great help for indoor architectural photography.
My Canon EOS R5 has built-in sensor stabilization which has become a standard for mirrorless cameras.
When choosing lenses, you may want to consider VR lenses. This was one of the reasons I chose the Tamron 15-30mm f/2.8.
The shutter sound of the Nikon D850 deserves a special mention, which is why I decided to add this paragraph. An Australian photographer (Margaret Weiss) and I recently went to a bird hide at a nearby park to photograph birds. It was early in the morning and the only sounds we could hear were the sounds of the birds. Until I started to take photos…
I quickly switched from CH (Continuous High speed) to QC (Quiet Continuous). The shutter sound was still very noticeable. A little later, at a nearby location, we joined another photographer who was photographing jackals that had gathered at the little lake. I hesitated taking photos as I knew I would draw the attention of the animals. Once I pressed the shutter release, some jackals stared right at me.
My Australian fellow photographer shot with the Sony Alpha 1 in electronic shutter mode, which is absolutely quiet. I cannot say what camera or shutter mode the other photographer used, but it was pretty quiet (it sounded like my Canon R5).
My Canon R5 in mechanical shutter mode is significantly more quiet compared to the Nikon D850. In fact, any Canon I’ve seen so far is quieter than the D850. If you find yourself in situations where the Nikon shutter sound could distract your subjects, you may want to choose another camera.
While in Q mode, the shutter sound is a little dampened, but still very noticeable. But when shooting in QH mode you get a delay and the shutter speed drops significantly. We were lucky that these jackals have become so used to humans that they didn’t really mind my presence.
I can only hope that all new Nikon (mirrorless) cameras will do away with that rattling shutter sound. Nikon seems to be on the right way with the Z9.
I only briefly mentioned focus acquisition in my “Nikon D850 – First Impressions” post. Time to expand on that.
I never really understood all the fuss about focus systems. Until I started to shoot birds in flight. This made me appreciate the D850 much more. The D850 is able to acquire and follow focus on fast-moving subjects so much better than for example the D7200.
The photo I took of the crested lark would never have come out sharp if it wasn’t for the focusing system that kept up with this little and fast moving bird. I have perhaps 6 or 8 shots where it nailed the focus, and in each shot the bird is in a different position.
Unfortunately I can’t compare it to the Canon EOS R5 simply because I don’t own any long lenses for that camera. I would like to try the Canon 800mm lens, but I’m not ready to spend more money on a system that has let me down.
What I can say is that the Canon EOS R5 has practically edge to edge focusing, the Nikon doesn’t. Canon’s eye detect focus also works really well. When shooting video, the Canon focuses smoothly without jumping.
Update: I did a short video test of the Nikon and the 24mm lens on my DJI RSC-2 gimbal. Yes, the D850 can shoot 4k video, but the focusing system in video mode is inferior to my Canon EOS R5. Focus with the Nikon is jumpy, and the focusing motor of the 24mm is loud. I haven’t tried other lenses. Video is definitely the D850’s weakest spot.
The Nikon D850 has given me the opportunity to shoot birds in flight with a surprisingly high keeper rate. That together with the high resolution allowed me to take photos I would never have been able to get with my previous cameras.
About 4 years after its release, the Nikon D850 is still one of the top high resolution DSLRs money can buy. Its image quality is hard to surpass, not even by the much newer 45MP Canon EOS R5 camera.
The camera is complemented by Nikon’s wide selection of F-mount lenses. In addition there are many third party lenses that support this camera.
Every time I grab the camera, I’m amazed by the solid performance of this photographic tool. Come rain or sunshine, cold or heat, this camera just works. So far I managed only once to drain the battery, after several thousand shutter releases.
The downside is that the camera is quite big and heavy. The shutter sound is loud, much louder than the Canon R5 which is almost silent. The Nikon has a “Quiet” mode, which may be needed during weddings, in some wildlife or other scenarios where the shutter sound would be disturbing. However, the “Quiet” mode is far from quiet and significantly increases shutter delay while also reducing the frame rate.
Dust has not been an issue, which surprises me. I did have to clean the sensor perhaps twice or thrice. Considering that I often take the camera into the desert or into some other dusty environment, this is a real blessing.
The lenses I use, with the exception of a faulty Tamron lens that was eventually repaired, work great and produce sharp images across the frame.
While the Canon R5 has an even better, more versatile focusing system, the Nikon delivers the goods in terms of image quality and reliability. That is also largely due to the lenses.
However, the Nikon D850 is not a good choice for shooting video. If that is important to you, you may want to consider the Nikon Z series, or Sony or Canon.
And now the key question: If my Nikon D850 and lenses were stolen, what would I buy now? For shooting stills – the Nikon D850 of course. Though I admit that the newly released Nikon Z9 does tempt me.
Update December 5, 2021: I just read Tom Hogan’s Nikon DSLR Advice for the End of 2021. You might find this helpful.