A Few Thoughts About the Nikon D850. From Someone Who Owned the D810.

A portrait I shot in the Samsung booth at Photo Expo back in 2013.
You remember, that's when Samsung thought they wanted to be
in the camera business...

Camera marketing seems to me, sometimes, to be like a gunshot wound. One minute the person was standing there minding their own business and minutes later they are bleeding profusely. Just like a gunshot the Nikon D850 news seems to erupt like gunfire. I woke up this morning to discover three articles (in one day) from the excitable boys at DP Review, live interview coverage of the camera from The Camera Store TV (love Chris and Jordan) as well as a long and involved overview from Tony Northrup. Did I leave out a quick overview and opinion piece from Thom Hogan? Yeah, it was there too. The headline that seemed to sum up the introduction of the D850 best was, "D850 Saves Nikon." I think I saw that headline somewhere on YouTube. 

So, every thing from every outlet dropped into the photo media simultaneously. Like a gunshot. And hundreds of people who held the camera in their hands for a short, short period of time rushed to tell everyone in earshot (and screen range) just what a terrific new camera this Nikon beauty is. Now that's pretty decent marketing. If your goal is instant recognition...

Now that I've read the specs, seen the previews (thanks Kai!) and read through the comments on the three different articles on DPReview I think I'll wade in and tell you what I think about the latest DSLR from Nikon. Why not? All the people who've touched it are under NDA not to talk about things like high ISO image quality, etc. Most couldn't even put in a memory card.

I grew up with cameras like the D850. Big, robust, effective. I'll cut right to the chase, if you want a camera that delivers near ultimate image resolution, very high dynamic range and a traditional interface/operational process, then the D850 might be the camera for you. If you want nearly the same image quality but need/want an EVF then the Sony A7Rii is still a good choice.

Choosing a Nikon DSLR like the D850 is a good, conservative choice for traditional image makers. If it's any bit as good as the D810 it will deliver wonderful raw files with amazing resolution and dynamic range that just can't be beat. While I'm not sure a single Canon or Sony user will be swayed to switch systems I do think the D850 is a sure Fuji GFX or Hasselblad X1D killer. After all, the difference in sensor size is really marginal while the Nikon just trounces the two medium format cameras when it comes to lens choice, focusing speed, frame rate and, of course, price.

I can't imagine a rational photographer choosing one of the "medium" format system cameras over the Nikon D850 while maintaining a straight face. Or a convincing business rationale.

Let's assume that the Nikon D850 is at least as good as the D810 when it comes to dynamic range. Let's also assume that the sensor in the new camera really does deliver the stated 45+ megapixels of resolution and let's take for granted that the camera hits all the other specs in actual operation. 

Who wouldn't want one?

Well, I've got to say that I would still rather shoot with a Fuji or a Sony for the kind of work I do. Why? Because I love the workflow process engendered by a really good EVF. I also like the idea that the Sony and Fuji cameras will focus with great accuracy on the exact thing on which you are aiming. And, as far as resolution is concerned, I'm already overwhelmed by the 42 megapixels of the Sony A7Rii and more than happy with the 24 megapixels of the A7ii. I'm part of the possible market for the D850 that would probably take advantage of the reduced raw files size option in the new camera almost all the time. 

I am certain that, barring recalls, dirty sensors, focus shifts, and design issues, the D850 is a camera that all of us would be standing in line to buy ..... if someone had not invented mirrorless cameras and EVF viewfinders. Even more so if Panasonic and Sony had not enabled everyday cameras with amazing 4K video, smaller profiles and reduced size and weight. The D850 checks off so many boxes for people who are mostly focused on ultimate performance, file quality and resolution. 

Being able to shoot 20+ 45+ megapixel images in 14 bit raw at 7 fps is a far cry from the Nikon D100 I owned at the dawn of digital (4 raw frames to hit the wall of the buffer). The addition on the D850 of decent (though not class leading), full frame 4K video is a huge step forward (though not anywhere near the same class as Sony and Panasonic). And no one can really argue with the battery capacity, the body integrity or the potential results...

So why is it that the Nikon D850 reminds me so much of the Chevrolet Impala that my parents owned in the early 1970's? Is it because it's so big and unwieldy? Is it because the full frame lenses of a certain quality weigh a ton? Is it because it seems so much like a tiny collection of iterations and the moving forward of a hoary design aesthetic? Or am I some sort of outlier who overly values fewer moving parts, smaller footprints and the instant feedback loop of magnificent EVFs? Maybe all of the above. 

The Chevrolet was a fun car to borrow when I was a high school kid and wanted to make a run up to Austin, Texas to see Janis Joplin or Clifton Chenier. The Impala had a big and powerful 350 cubic inch V-8 and "keep your beer cold" air conditioning but in reality it was a pig of a car. Lots of useless metal and huge bench seats that only derived value when the car was at a full stop. It sucked down gas with reckless abandon and took fast corners like a bowl of Jello. But it was the standard at the time. 

I'm sorry but there's nothing the D850 can do that a camera like the A7Rii can't do better, for me. If you prefer an OVF the D850 is probably the best camera option for a traditional high-res DSLR on the market for the foreseeable future. But if those parameters don't match your use profile then the point is moot. 

My latest project is to keep a running tally of just how many "preview", "hands-on preview", "first impressions preview", "pre-review preview", and full reviews of the camera Digital Photo Review will complete and publish in the next few weeks. How many brief "introductory videos" and real "field reviews" will grace the pages of their news column. Based on the Sony A9 introduction I'm going to say that we're probably in for a real treat and should expect between 15 and 20 articles and videos in the next 30 days. None of which will be as illuminating or valuable as heading to a retailer to handle the camera and take some test files. 

Ah, the poetry of overkill. 


  1. Kirk,

    I think you mean 15-30 articles/videos a day or hour :) I love how the Nikon "suggested phrasing manual for previewers" seems to have featured the word "beast", since I see it so much.

    And, BTW, you are spot on yet again!


  2. Wait, did I see Fuji mentioned in this article in the same breath as Sony! Must be a typo!

  3. The size and lack of evf might keep you away but I thought you'd be interested in the Full Frame 4K and the masking aspect ratios of 1:1 and 4:5 in the viewfinder. I'm interested in those and the bigger viewfinder.

    I was responsible and maxed out my Roth IRA contributions just a few days ago so of course it looks more enticing.

  4. The key phrase here is " ... for the kind of work I do."

    Continuing the car analogy, I want a car that starts every morning and takes me where I want to go. But if where I frequently go is Home Depot for lumber then a car that looks like a pickup or SUV might be appropriate. Or, on the few occasions that I need to bring home a pile of two by fours and a sheet of plywood, owning a Honda Civic and renting the Home Depot pickup for an hour or two would be the better choice.

  5. "I would still rather shoot with a Fuji or a Sony for the kind of work I do"

    Would that be a Fuji X-Pro2, since you have said previously that you would have one as a 'digital M Leica'?

  6. Oh, it's so true what you wrote. Relic re-born.

  7. Keen insight pointing out how the limited in hand first look -Bloggers get it for two hours and no cards in the slots- and the blogosphere is awash with Nikon d850 hype. A marketing Coup!

  8. This is about the best perspective I've read on the new camera. Oh, hang on a minute; it's the only actual perspective I've seen. There was a whinging, and a gnashing of teeth, over at the Sony section of DPReview, but I think that's because everyone knows Sony and friends likely monitors these forums. People with money to burn have super high expectations of Sony's next A7r model. Can't say I blame them.

    That said, the big surprise with the D850 is the shooting performance (the AF system not so, as they're just copying what Canon did). I'm not sure what to make of that. The user of this camera has to store, evaluate and process the output. That's potentially a lot of throughout and and a lot of oomph required at the PC/Mac end of the workflow.

  9. I rather feel that Nikon have brought out the D850 so that I can afford to buy a secondhand D810 at a reasonable price, Kirk!!! I'm only half joking.

  10. As a landscape photographer I would certainly love a D850. Or at least love the idea of it. Every time I have bought a camera I was super excited about, disappointment followed (Sony A65, Sony A6000, Pentax K-5). However as a hiker/biker/paddler and poor person, I will be sticking with my Canon Rebel T5i. It is just so compact and easy to use, and the quality is good enough for me. I am actually looking for a second one on Craigslist. I also previously owned a Rebel XS and Rebel SL1, plus a Rebel 2000 film camera. I just love the Rebels so much!

  11. Interesting thoughts Kirk,
    I have been using an EVF camera since the original EM5, which I bought very close to release times and in all honesty I have never looked back.

    A few years ago, for nostalgia, I bought and E-3. While I did take some nice pictures and still like the colour rendition of the camera, while shooting a local political candidate I sorely missed the EVF, mostly for the instant review you get to see after the shot. It is incredible how much you glean from that half second (are their eyes fully open etc.) the resulting chimping every now and again made the experience feel far less smooth than my experience using an EVF.

    But if course these mirrorless cameras have had other useful features like flip and touch screens which I have found useful for product work, not having do double over to focus and check focus etc. As you mention, the video feature integration and the ability to use almost all lenses on the market. I have been reading and looking at how lenses represent themselves in video, that Je ne sais quois while testing out some of my older MF lenses.

    All in all, the D850 does really represent the modern MF camera to me. 50mp of resolution on a headshot is a cruel amount of detail, combined with modern lenses and their sharpness... it is almost unpleasant to look at faces in so much detail. However for landscape use, product and commercial photography, it would work pretty well... It is just I am so spoiled by the size, reliability and technology of current mirrorless cameras, the idea of spending close to 4K (Here in Canada) on one body seems absurd. SO I rent when I need them.

  12. I think you miss the main reason why a photographer would choose this camera or an equivalent camera from Canon over a new Sony or Fuj. You are right about the virtues of a good evf but a camera purchase is often a decision based on multiple factors including the sunk cost of the equipment that's already owned. I have been enjoying the cropped sensor cameras from Sony for the last few years but when it comes to my professional work, I still return to my Canons because of their array of shift lenses. As an architectural photographer, there really isn't another option in the DSLR price range. I like the Sonys but using adapters can be fiddly and I haven't found Sony's offerings to be as reliable over the long haul (just my personal experience with a a6000 and 6300). When Canon comes out with a full frame evf camera, I will probably switch but until then I will stick to what I have and what works for me.

  13. Anonymous --- the sunk cost and the shift lenses are both very powerful and cogent considerations. If I were an architectural photographer I would not stray from the Canon family. If I shot sports and had a bunch of long, fast lenses for either Nikon or Canon that would stop me from switching as well. My perspective is general photography and portraiture. As I mentioned in the article, the D850 has merit for many photographers hellbent on ignoring video, size and weight, etc. and just focusing on image quality.

  14. 1) I did note that Thom Hogan remarked that choosing between the D850 and the A7Rii would be difficult because they each have a lot of similar qualities as well as specific features that are important to specific groups of users. I definitely understand why you prefer the A7Rii to a camera like the D850. But for those who shoot sports, action, or wildlife (and I think there are more of those than you think) the DSLR is still the type of camera to go to for best stills shooting performance. They are still more responsive overall than mirrorless cameras, even the Olympus E-M1 ii (according to Hogan).

    2) Even though I am an unrepentant Nikon DSLR and mirrorless camera user, it is highly unlikely that I will buy a D850, mostly due to cost. A few features that showed up in the D850 have piqued my interest - including different aspect ratios (Square!), focus peaking and zebra stripes in live view/video (Finally!), and full sensor video capture. These features should eventually drift over to future Nikon consumer/enthusiast DSLRs and mirrorless cameras that I likely will buy.

  15. Sorry for wearing my cynics hat.
    A tiltable display, now thats a mayor development and breakthrough. ;)
    So if you coat a cow pad with molten cheese, would you call it a pizza?

  16. I think the camera store live coverage was great. They start out acting like the D850 is the best do everything camera, then after a beer. The truth comes out and you see they are disappointed with the video, audio in video, no Af adjustment on back screen and other issues.
    I think the beer was critical for their review.
    For me the same time anoucement of the Hasselblad x1d getting electronic shutter was more interesting. Yes the camera is on order of magnitude too expensive for me. But at a fraction of the weight an size of the D850, is very interesting.

  17. Well written, I agree most of these points (former nikon shooter), the af inconsistency was pita in their higher MP models, I think canon's 5Ds(R) suffers from same issues, where people will praise 5D4 AF to be much better than the former's. I much rather put faith on panasonic to better their AF/tracking algorithms, than on some phase system that can have more play/variance (in the mechanical/optical parts at least), even canon/nikon might have better AF "software" (in some cameras, not all).

    Size is also big factor. I lust for the D8xx dynamic range, but I don't want to carry big lenses/big bag of lenses. Maybe in time the sensor technology will improve enough for smaller sensors (that I use) to have same DR as D8xx does today. That's wishful thinking, and it's given that FF will also see benefit, but I think for most uses the DR of current Dxxx is more than "good enough". DR is really one of only features I wish my smaller sensor had.

  18. Wow!!! Seven D850 articles on DPR in about 24 hours. One every three and three quarter hours. Might as well just put their heads down and focus on writing a review...

    And guess what? The samples from the manufacturer were...."Amazing."

  19. We are now up to nine Nikon D850 articles in a two day period just on DPReview. Nothing else is happening anywhere in the entire photo universe. Amazing.

  20. Rats. Just the other day I was musing fondly about my 1968 Impala. It came between the '59 MGA (best driving car ever; fit like a glove) and the '70 MGB. How could an MG fan have fond memories of an Impala? City driving, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia traffic. And the deadly dull Pennsylvania Turnpike linking the rwo at either end of the state. Yes, it was like driving a sofa. A very comfortable sofa. The right tool for the job at hand. Plus, it got 15 - 16 miles per gallon on the highway at 1968 gas prices. Hmmm.

  21. At least give DPReview some credit for posting a small article about the LED attachment for the Godox AD200 on Aug. 23. I see the link to it in the right sidebar of the site's homepage.

  22. Is your critics valid also to Canon?

  23. One more comment on Sony vs Nikon that is somewhat relevant to this discussion. One small design flaw on A7 cameras speaks volumes about Nikon's long camera history versus Sony's recent camera history. Several times I have nearly lost a lens from my A7rii because the lens mount button is on the right hand grip side. My large figures grab the grip and hit the button and off pops the lens. Today I had the larger 28-135mm zoom and it nearly hit the floor before I could reach to press it against my leg before it hit the floor. On my Nikon D610 the lens mount release is correctly on the other side away from the hand grip.


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