I read with great interest the 12th "thought piece" about the new Nikon D850 camera on DPReview. I started looking through my files to see what I've been missing all these years...
When the Sony A7Rii came out it was a revelation and a (mostly) finished product. Along with the A7R it was the first big jump up in useable, focusable resolution in a mirrorless camera platform. The Nikon D800 and D810 were the first big, dramatically increased resolution cameras in the DSLR space and they were also worthy of praise for the sheer technological leap they pulled off. Bravo to Nikon for elevating cameras from the 24 megapixel range to the 36+ megapixel range; a real plus for all those who needed (or thought they needed) a lot more detail in their files. As a bonus both Sony and Nikon users also benefitted from a huge jump in dynamic range in both sets of cameras. The winning point for the Nikon D810 was the ability to squeeze out the last shreds of insanely good dynamic range at the lowest ISO (64). The winning points for the Sony
A7Rii were: Amazingly good 4K video in the APS-C crop mode, with full featured video features (including usable zebras, focus peaking, a range of S-Log settings and much more). The Sony also featured an even better sensor and the first full frame BSI sensor, which gave the camera faster throughput, even with bigger files, than the closest and (at the time) only competitor in the high res race. For nearly two years the A7Rii has stood on apex of the heap with a sensor that topped DXO's ratings for all 35mm sensor sized cameras. Finally, the BSI technology made the A7Rii the leader in high ISO performance as well.
Now Nikon has released (announced?) their new D850 and it's sending the writers at Digital Photo Review over the edge. To read their spirited hyperbole you would imagine that the D850 is the first high resolution camera to crest 12 megapixels. That it is the first one to have a dynamic range of more than 5 stops and also the first professional camera able to focus on.......anything. The mostly mindless gushing also revolves around the idea that buying the D850 frees one up from having to buy one of the new medium format toy 50 megapixel cameras from Fuji or Hasselblad. Of course, anyone who bothered to read DPRs own press about the Sony A7Rii from several long years ago would remember that they already brought up the idea of a cost effective medium format killer in all their press surrounding that camera. And many have done comparisons in which the A7Rii competes with MF at 50M to a draw, albeit with much better handling...
Gushy, Gushy. It's embarrassing when the writers can't remember and avoid a repetition of the same hyperbolic enthusiasm they dished out for the high res Sony. Now the writers make it sound as though the D850 is the absolute first accessible camera to go nearly toe-to-toe with the bigger sensors in the MF cameras, and the first high res camera anywhere that's capable of actually focusing. It's just sad.
It's not my intention here to denigrate the D850. I'm sure it's a good camera and a worthy successor to the D810, which was a fine camera. My point is that we're seeing a lot a churn over what is basically nothing more than a three year refresh of a niche camera. And not so much of an upgrade at that.
Yes, the BSI sensor at 45.7 megapixels will undoubtable be a half or two thirds of a stop less noisy at similar ISOs. Yes, the BSI structure will allow for faster file throughput. Yes, the camera (if it's as well built as the D810) will be mechanically and electronically sound. The AF module derived from the D5 will probably solve some of the focusing issues I experienced with two different D810s (NO, their issues were not cured by the AF micro-adjust in those cameras, not over all focusing distances...).
Nikon still has a way to go if they want to match the overall performance of the camera Sony introduced two years ago. The A7Rii is still a much better spec'd video shooting platform. The combination of CD and PD on sensor still promises more accurate focusing and easy implementation of Eye Detect AF. The sensor in the two year old camera is hardly a baby step behind the sensor in the D850 when it comes to resolution and dynamic range, and both seem to be of the same generation BSI technology.
In my mind the A7Rii earned its gush quotient from the brain trust at DPR because it set so many goal posts for future cameras to match. What disturbs me is the manipulative re-writing of camera history represented by the loose fact journalism (an untested device) surrounding the D850 introduction. It seems driven by a sense of relief that Nikon hasn't totally dropped the ball in the high end camera game and is still able to successfully iterate off a camera that was launched three plus years ago. This must mean continued ad revenue, continued clicks and something new to write about. But it's hardly the breakthrough product it's being made out to be.
Don't blame Nikon for overselling expectations. The fault lies solely with the round-the-clock hyping of the product by the industry media, with most of the blame trackable to one source.
If I was a Nikon photographer there's no doubt in my mind that I'd have two of the D850s on order. Not because I would expect them to set new records for innovation or have astonishingly better image files but because my D810s would have been putting in good service for three long years and are ready for retirement. A shutter is only built for so much action....
If business was good I'd certainly want to take advantage of any sort of improvements that have been made. A bigger raw file is always welcome; especially if I have the option to shoot at smaller ones. The upgrading of video from decent 1080p to decent 4K would be welcome, if I chose only to carry around one type of camera body.
I'd relish the bigger battery as well and I would always harbor the thought, true or not, that Nikon spent those three years fixing just about any fault that could be found on the D810.
But....if I were contemplating diving into my first camera system the D810 might not be on my short list. If I shot with Canon cameras I'd have to do a lot of justifying to make a switch --- and in the back of my mind would be the constant thought that Canon will introduce a killer sensor in a killer camera body about a week to ten days after I've made my financially disastrous switch to Nikon. A couple weeks before the web in its wisdom finds the latest Nikon camera body flaw and the recalls start in earnest.
I am happy, I guess, that Nikon might survive the industry downturn that's been ongoing since 2013. I think their latest camera will have value for traditional photographers who do traditional work. But I will conjecture that the world moves on and the pursuit of highest resolution is no longer as important to hobbyists and professionals that it was when all resolutions were hovering in the 16 megapixel and below range. A lot has changed and the consumer is a moving target. I assume that if this camera does everything the enervated boys at DPR have catalogued that the real danger to Nikon is that it will steal many sales from the D5. But I guess, in the long run, the real game is to sell more lenses. The camera body is just the platform.
For my money the A7Rii (and to some extent the D810) taught me several good lessons. A huge number of megapixels sounds like such a great idea when you've evolved, over time, from 5 megapixels (Olympus EM-1) to 10 megapixels (Nikon D200) to 12 megapixels (Nikon D300, D2xs D700) to 16 megapixels (Canon 1Dmk2, Panasonic GH3&4, Olympus EM-5x) to 24 megapixels (Sony A900, Sony A850, Nikon D750) to 36 megapixels (Nikon D810) to, finally, 42 megapixels (Sony A7Rii).
Up until we hit 16 megapixels there were always some (few) situations for advertising photographers where more sheer resolution was needed. Once we hit the 24 megapixel mark we could have stopped cold and only 1% of the jobs we handled would have been perceptively impacted. Not made un-doable; just somewhat impacted. When we exceeded that threshold we came face-to-face with mostly diminishing returns. Yes, the BSI sensor in the A7Rii has great image quality but what if Sony had concentrated on bigger but fewer photo sites? Would the files have been even better?
But really, the impact on our work flow has been that bigger files, which added nothing to the overall quality of a project, cost more to shoot, took more time to process and cost more to archive. We ended up taking more time and doing more work without any increase in overall quality (or profit) within our prevailing use targets. Our envelope for clients didn't go from a #10 to an A4. Just an increase in the hassle of handling much bigger 14 bit Godzilla sized files.
In the end the D850 will make Nikon pros happy. They'll keep shooting with an OVF instead of savoring the benefits of EVFs. They'll do fine with an average video implementation because almost every deliverable in video (for clients) is still 1080. The sensor will yield great results. They'll still need to watch out for subject and camera movement to take advantage of the increased resolution. But they, for the most part, will be satisfied.
When I look through twenty years of shooting digital it's not like everything pre-A7Rii or pre-D810 is worthless garbage. In fact, the exercise revealed to me (once again) that subject matter trumps almost everything, if your basic technique is good. A well focused 12 megapixel camera trumps a poorly focused 24 megapixel camera any day of the week. A photograph of a captivating subject taken with a camera that's mediocre at high ISOs still beats another noise free image of a coffee cup in a coffee shot every time. Waiting for the perfect camera is a fool's errand.
I'm happy we have all these really cool tools but at some point the hyperbole becomes unbearable. At this rate the D850 will have more coverage on DPReview than did all the cameras reviewed in the first ten years of the site's existence --- combined. And really, half the articles about the d850 are generic fluff.
Put the cameras into the hands of real professionals, stir, let rise and then come back to us and give us real facts. Or continue on this gushy trajectory and skip down the path toward irrelevance.