Nikon D850 low light / high ISO

Early morning at the Granville Island Market
10000 ISO, 1/60 sec. @ f6.3, Lens 70mm
First shots w/ Nikon D850 in Low light / High ISO

Early morning at the Granville Island Market
20000 ISO, 1/60 sec. @ f8, Lens 70mm
First shots w/ Nikon D850 in Low light / High ISO

Early morning at the Granville Island Market
102400 ISO, 1/250 sec. @ f10, Lens 70mm
First shots w/ Nikon D850 in Low light / High ISO

The Nikon D850 in a low light / high ISO challenge by Craig Minielly

Having received one of the first Nikon D850 shortly after it's release, I was excited to try it out and test its capabilities in the higher ISO ranges that I typically like to work with.

But first, a disclaimer of sorts… I am a Nikon Ambassador. I am biased of course, but that bias is built on decades of experience with a brand that has never let me down, and that I rely on under a variety of challenging conditions in delivering bankable results to my clients, every time and without excuses. Whether hanging over a city at night, or crawling through blasted out caverns 1000’ feet below ground in a rainstorm of wet grime & dust, I’m alway pushing the boundaries of my gear and my personal expectations.

As a press photographer in the film days, we used to have all sorts of “secret soups” to stretch our Tri-X of 400 ISO up to 1600, 3200 and even 6400 ISO. Now with my D5, I will comfortably shoot at 6400 -10,000 without giving it to much thought, and at settings upwards of 25K and 50,000 / 100,000 ISO as occasion demands. So needless to say, I was excited to see what the D850 might be able to do with such a large megapixel rating.

I decided to make use of nearby Granville Island Market, right after the 7 AM door opening, but well before the crowds show up and completely take over the marketplace.

I wandered through the aisles, in and out of the pockets of light, as the market slowly came to life. Some early achievers had brightly lit areas, but mostly they were dim, and in some cases darkly shadowed interiors. It was the perfect opportunity to test the full range of ISO capabilities of the new camera.

In general, I like to make use of the Aperture Preferred, Auto Exposure mode, and then adjust my exposure compensation control manually to optimize my image results based on the subject matter and lighting conditions.

It's important to remember that when shooting in low light conditions, that you take care not to underexposure the image, especially in areas of preferred detail. Opening up shadows at higher ISO’s, will always result in exaggerated noise elements, whereas creating a balanced exposure that's acceptable overall and then selectively darkening down the brighter areas will result in a much more acceptable final image.

In a few instances I made use of a range of ISOs on the same subject to see the cameras response, and was pleasantly surprised to see the image quality retained and the pleasing overall image tonality, along with better than expected details in highlight and shadow areas. I also found I was able to easily extract additional highlight details in the brightest areas of the images that initially fell out of the exposure threshold, with a simple highlight adjustment in the raw conversion that brought in effective highlight details & tonality, without greying out the area completely.

As with all low light images, it's important to ensure that the light, at whatever levels, is coming into the important areas of the subject or facial zones within the photograph. The images from this feature, were all created without opening up the shadows, and are a straight rendition of the tones represented in the subject, with some post-selective burning down of the surrounding areas. This is done to highlight the desired subject, and as a press photographer in my past life, a standard practice - old darkroom habits die hard!

Noise reduction was performed with the recently released ACR plugin for Photoshop and making use of the general settings & presets I already have. I would expect specialty plugins, such as Noise Ninja and Noiseless from MacPhun, to produce even more superior results.

In short, I was quite impressed with the beautiful tonality in the range & transition of colours at higher ISOs of 10,000 and 20,000, and how effective the camera was in its detail retention at those higher ISO speed's. There was noise of course, but it was able to be mitigated to a more than acceptable level with some basic adjustments. The sample images on my Instagram showcase those results.

Attached, is a series of 10,000, 20,000 and 102,400 ISO images capturing the Baker and the oven’s flames. The use of 102K resulted in a lack of saturation overall and predictable lack of details in the highlights of the flames. This was totally expected as with most cameras in their highest ISO ranges, but I was quite surprised at the use-ability of the image at the cameras extreme ISO setting. The settings of 10-20K where very highly usable and presented a true to life representation of the environment and the subject working within it.

To see those and the full image series from this early-morning test session, please feel free to visit & follow along with my main Instagram at: https://www.instagram.com/craigonassignment/

New studio samples from my first D850 sessions are also being posted to that Instagram, along with fashion & underwater styles images at my other Instagram (slightly NSFW):

 https://www.instagram.com/foxyartgallery/

About Craig Minielly

Craig is an assignment based photographer out of Vancouver, Canada, with specialties services targeting the editorial, industrial and corporate client worlds. Published for over 35 years, he’s produced images under some of the most challenging conditions, and been recognized for his achievements with multiple Class and Photographer of the Year awards from numerous associations internationally, the Yousuf Karsh Lifetime Achievement Award, and is a proud member the Nikon Canada Ambassador team.

You may see more of his work at www.AuraPhotographics.com.


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  • Duncan Dimanche

    That’s some good High ISO shots !

    • Luca Motz

      Yeah and nothing special for any modern camera 😛
      Let me assure you the D850 is NOT a low light beast. It’s about equal with the D750 a little better or worse depending on how well you can use noise reduction (so abusing the higher resolution)

      • Sandy Bartlett

        Well the D750 is a low light beast. So if it matches it…

        • Shutterbug

          If it matches it at over double the MP that is incredible.

          • Eric Duminil

            Double the MP? Yes, but here it doesn’t look like we see 100% crops.

          • Luca Motz

            Well it only matches it BECAUSE of the higher MPix count. So you trade in that resolution to get less noise

            • bobgrant

              And get a FAR more capable camera on top of excellent NR handling. This is the best all around DSLR on the market, folks.

        • Luca Motz

          While true the D750 is also an older camera. Then again we’re so close to perfect performance that it gets hard to improve on that. So more than a stop of improvement over the D750 is probably not possible anymore (and that’s about where the D5 resides I’d say)

          • akkual

            If we get sameish DR and noise on higher megapixel count, it is always significant improvement. I tested D850 and the files it produces are just amazing. Yes, a bit more noise at 1:1 than D750, but after little bit of processing, the end result is just mind blowing. The current normalized DR comparisons do not do justice for D850, as those are normalized without NR, that is RAW->normalization. But do RAW->NR->normalization, and you get significantly better results than D750 wih RAW->NR->normalization.

            • Luca Motz

              I’m sorry but this is wrong. The D750 and the D850 are about the same. at 1:1 the D850 is MUCH worse than the D750

            • akkual

              Did you even read my text? As said, the difference comes where you apply the noise reduction. D850 produces noisier images, but doing NR over more information just ends up being better than D750.

            • Luca Motz

              Yeah I read it and this is wrong. That’s what I’m saying. You end up with about the same result (give or take. Sometimes the D850 can indeed produce better results if the loss of detail is not that apparent)

            • bobgrant

              You don’t seem to understand that the D850 allows FAR more NR latitude and will best a D750 in every way possible. My D810’s are going bye-bye after trying the D850 out. I shoot jewelry and the D850 files are the best I’ve seen from any DSLR.

        • akkual

          I tested D850 recently, and I can say that D850 produces better result up to ISO6400 than D750 (didn’t test further). Both can be pushed about 2-3EVs at ISO6400 and still get decent result out of them. But the difference comes in noise reduction, D850 higher megapixels produce much better end results after it. Also, I have feeling that somehow D850 gives better color “grading” that I get more pleasant end result in color and contrast, the shots look more dynamic, eventhough the separation between blacks and whites is the same.

          Also, shooting ISO6400 at mRAW seemed to produce better straight out of camera results, so it sums up the noise away already. Some people have bashed the mRAWs and sRAWs, but I found them very usable on higher ISOs and for some cases even more reasonable choice than actual RAW.

          • Luca Motz

            See below. You’re biased because you just bought the camera. The D850 does not produce better results than the D750. I wish it did but unfortunately that’s not the case

            • akkual

              I didn’t buy it. I tested it.

            • Luca Motz

              Well then I wonder how you can have a good understanding of how the files look?
              I have in fact bought it (and also own the D750) and have been shooting both in parallel.

            • bobgrant

              I didn’t buy it, but I did get to test it against the D750, D810 and the Df. Sorry, but you’re wrong…REALLY wrong. I wouldn’t bother ordering it if it was the same as a D750. In skilled PP hands the D850 is a superior camera at higher ISO.

            • Luca Motz

              What can I say? I’m happy the D850 does all those things for you! Try not to confuse other people with your parallel universe though 🙂
              Don’t get me wrong the D850 is a great camera (I mean I did buy it didn’t I?) but there are certain limitations to what it can do and every photographer would be well advised to know those limits

            • DafOwen

              Shame – but good to know – I might wait to see if there’s a 750 replacement.
              (Currently on 800 – would like better focusing and better low ligh/high iso)

            • Luca Motz

              Well don’t be mistaken here the D850 is way better then the D800 and only gets bested by the D5 in the Nikon ecosystem. I was just saying that it’s on par with the D750 for high ISO. (see the tests I posted)
              If you want something better then the D850 you will have to either buy the D5 or its successor because any replacement coming for other cameras will not improve on the D850 or D750 a lot. And that’s simply because we’re damn near optimal for full frame sensors

            • No – I got you, thanks.
              I shoot music concerts (semi-pro) – so high ISO is my current main priority.

              I have borrowed a 750 for a festival and although ISO performance was great – I wasn’t a fan of shooting on SD and would prefer a more pro body. My D800 has taken a bit of a beating.
              Plus I’m a cheap so+so / don’t earn much from it – so not going tor the 850 straight away/waiting for 750 update / D5 out of budget.

            • Luca Motz

              Well keep in mind that the D750 line will never have the professional body layout and will most likely always go for SD cards. More consumer friendly is the idea behind that body.
              So I’d say for your needs you’re best advised to simply start saving for one of the higher end models or accept the compromises of the D750 style body. And if you decide to accept the compromises you’re probably best off going with the D750 because that checks all the boxes for you (except the body style and the cards obviously but that won’t change with the successor) and is rather cheap right now. Then again it’s never a bad idea to keep waiting for a while to see what one can get 😛

            • Nikkor300f4VR

              The D850 is (also) the D750 replacement, not just for the D810.

            • Initially I thought – no way..
              But then thought – hmm but the D850 is pretty fast..
              But then realised – It would be very unlikely for Nikon to have their first rung on the FF ladder at ~ £3,500. So no – I don’t think 850 is a replacement for the 750. They will almost certainly have a cheaper FF model below the 850.

      • D700s

        How many MP is the D750? Hmmm…. Didn’t think before you typed, did you…

        • Aditya Gupta

          So….1.91666 times the resolution…happy?

        • Luca Motz

          Good god..So let’s get you off of your high horse shall we?
          How do you compare cameras with different resolutions?
          Exactly! You look at the time output size!
          What does that mean? The D850 obviously has (way) more noise at the pixel level. But because you have more pixels to play with you get about the same noise performance as the D750.
          And keep in mind that in those situations where you crank your ISO up the increased MP won’t help you if you planned on printing the D850 files larger because obviously the image would be to noisy.
          So next time you go all crazy on someone try shooting with both cameras extensively in different situations and THEN make a comment.

        • Sashimi

          which brings up the question : why use such high pixel count in this kind of situation ?
          the 2 usual justifications (cropping like hell, printing building size billboards) just don’t apply to the vast majority of situations where ultra high ISO is used.
          just wondering…

          • akkual

            I found out that D850 produces better end result than D750 when you go “RAW -> noise reduction -> reduction in size”.

            • Luca Motz

              Wrong please do not spread misinformation. Enjoy your camera for a couple of weeks and then go back and test both the D750 and the D850. You will see the results are about the same

            • akkual

              Lol. Google oversampling theorem.

            • Luca Motz

              I’m not going to give an explanation to every of your comments now but suffice to say I probably know a little better than you since I actually own both cameras and have used them both at the same time during the last week. And no you do not need to remind me how oversampling or noise reduction works I think I know the process quite well

            • akkual

              Then go ahead and test them. Take a ISO6400 shot, do noise reduction for both for RAW, and find the best NR settings for both for that. What I found, you can push luminance NR in camera raw up to about 70 for D850, where as D750 I found staying below 50 better until they start to eat out fine detail. Then export them for example at 4K resolution and throw on them 50″ 4K TV (if you happen to have one) and see if you can see the difference.

              As I said, Photons to photo tests for example do not take into account that you can make the noise reduction over more information. That is the thing that makes the difference in practice. I agree that if you just shoot both at RAW and export them as is to 4K there won’t be any visible difference. But the fact that you can do the processing over more information is the thing that matters.

              It is not a revolutionary difference, but it is there and the D850 is producing better detail, contrast and color. If you cannot produce the same that I did to see the difference, it is not my fault, nor makes them non-existing.

            • Luca Motz

              It’s okay that you see a difference where there is none (or little anyways). I’m just telling you I did test it and I have been using both for over a week now and no there is no improvement is noise 😀
              Gosh you people are so funny going all crazy making up some weird advantage where there is none. Yes the D850 is a great camera but NO it is not a D5 lol

            • akkual

              There is NO IMPROVEMENT IN NOISE but there IS IMPROVEMENT ON WHAT YOU CAN ACHIEVE IN POST PROCESSING due to the amount of megapixels you get. How hard is it to understand?

            • Luca Motz

              Okay I’ll leave you to it buddy don’t worry about it hahaha 😀

            • akkual

              OK. But yeah, I agree that high ISO D850 files look like shit at 1:1, until you go and push that luminance noise reduction slider to 70. Have you done that? For D750 pushing it that aggressive starts to smooth out skins etc. too much and make them plastic. But on D850, “surprisingly” from all that noise appears fine detail that D750 does not really have on its files and those details even improve from there on when I reduce the size.

            • A 1:1 high res image is going to look more noisy then a lower res image as we are closer into the image.
              At print res no one is going to notice some noise, unless you stand 1m away from a bill board that no one does. For me personally noise isn’t the issue it’s colours and skin tone dying as the iso gets ramped up. I don’t really mind noise, unless it’s totally turning the image to mush, but colour casts and image quality usually suffer way before that point.
              So seems to be a pretty heated argument over a fairly trivial thing. No clients are ever going to spot a little more or less noise in their prints, they will notice horrible skin tones though.

          • Luca Motz

            For low light applications there’s no point in using high MPix bodies. Then again the D850 is a nice “do it all” because of that. When in good light you get to enjoy all the MPix and once you hit the darkness you simply use the oversampling to still get good results.

            • boulderghost

              Astrophotography.

            • boulderghost

              Weddings without lighting.

            • boulderghost

              Cropping wildlife.

            • boulderghost

              Macro work at f22.

      • fanboy fagz

        id shoot it at no more then is0 6400. still a good compromise.

        technique was meh in the images. youre shooting 6.3/8 with 1/60 shutter. itd look better if the shutter was faster and you opened the lens a stop.

        • silmasan

          Or maybe the photographer wanted to convey the subject’s fast-moving hands.

          • fanboy fagz

            then the technique for blur would be to use flash and rear curtain sync. otherwise everything looks blurry.

        • Luca Motz

          You realise I’m not the guy that wrote the article right? 😛

      • Haters aside, the D850 works very well in low light. And the focusing in low light is absolutely incredible. Seriously, I know everyone was talking about the focusing capabilities being great, but it’s not hype.

        You can check out some of my recent D850 shots on instagram at http://www.instagram.com/littlebraindrops

        • Luca Motz

          It sure is! Just not as good as people want it to be I guess 😀
          And yeah check out some of my photos printed on high quality miniature stamps! You can really see the quality and analyse how good a camera or lens is once you print it in miniature stamp size!
          Oh wait..

          • Don’t quit your day job.

            • Luca Motz

              Oh no worries I won’t. Being able to buy anything I want is definitely not something I’m prepared to give up anytime soon. It’s nice that you’re trying to look out for me but I’m not sure how this contributes to the discussion though

            • That’s a phrase that means you aren’t funny despite your best efforts. But, oh you’re rich? That’s really really really impressive to you. Can you tell all of us more about how rich you are and how impressed you are with yourself? We would all love to hear about that.

            • I mean, besides being a dick to people on the internet, and having money, what do you have going for yourself?

            • Luca Motz

              I don’t know. Looking like my men’s physique competitor might be something. Besides that I’d say my ability to judge a camera objectively and still be happy with the purchase I guess.
              If you have any more questions I’d be happy to answer of course.
              Oh and before I forget being a photographer I can of course prove my claims.

      • bobgrant

        Hilarious…46MP and on par with low res sensors. How is that NOT a low light beast. It can go toe-to-toe with the Nikon Df and it’s got FAR more detail. This is a stunning bit of sensor engineering, unless your head is full of cotton. We’re seeing a lot of camera envy here.

  • Yu

    Ultra-high ISO, meaninglessly small aperture and not fast enough shutter speed to freeze the action, hmmmmm…..

    • Chris Phillips

      Yu all cameras need light to work, this kind of iso values have a place where the subject and content is more important than composition and quality. So there is real value in that respect in the D850 for photojournalistic or forensics etc,etc. It’s good to know where the limits are too so I think it is a useful offering by Craig.

      • Yu

        Yes I certainly agree this is a low light situation where high ISO is necessary. I just don’t see why the photographer used a very narrow aperture when he could shoot wide open with much greater quality.

        • Mmm because the photographer needed to reduce light so as not to over expose the shot?!! The aperture changes between shots, if wide open probably wouldn’t have been a high iso test which was the point.

    • luan

      Maybe he didn’t want to freeze the action…

      • Lladnar

        THIS

    • Bill Ferris

      Actually, the author’s shooting conditions and setting choices are not at all unlike those a wildlife photographer might make in twilight: use the slowest shutter speed that will freeze the head (and eyes), the widest aperture that will still deliver an acceptable depth of field and let ISO be what is needed.

      • Yu

        The problem is I don’t think this is the widest aperture selected. In such a narrow space I think there’s enough DOF even wide open which helps a lot to lower the ISO or better freeze the action.

        • Bill Ferris

          Clearly, the author has his own aesthetic when it comes to what is and is not acceptable depth of field, what blurred motion adds to an image and what level of noise is acceptable. And since he wrote the article, he gets to apply his aesthetic.

          • Yu

            And by publishing it he must mean it’s open to comments 🙂

            • Bill Ferris

              Being a Nikon ambassador, my guess is he’s very comfortable in his chosen aesthetic. Basically, your critique is that he didn’t make the same creative choices you’d make. Rather than tearing him down for that, you might consider the article an opportunity for you to learn and expand your photographic horizons a bit.

            • Mike

              Rational thought like this isn’t allowed on the Internet. 🙂

            • Yu

              I tried to learn and failed, sorry. You are just playing with words. I have voiced my opinion and I decide to keep them 🙂

  • Shots look nice for this ISO range. I agree looking similar to D750 but almost twice the resolution. Colors look quite good.

    Too bad Nikon corporate did such a terrible job on manufacturing forecasting as shipments for the D850 are terrible.

    Still amazes me with as much headroom that Nikon was given. Seems almost intentional which is strange to me.

    Looking to be a great camera however. I do wish Nikon had had some more headlights on this camera beyond NPS and ambassadors. It’s next to impossible to get into NPS now.

    P

    • I doubt they did *that* terrible of a job forecasting the demand for the D850. I bet they told the factory, “let ‘er rip!” and hoped to god that they could keep up with demand. When a camera this “hot” comes out, there’s no avoiding the initial scarcity after the 1st shipment. Many of Nikon’s most popular cameras had supply & demand issues up to a whole year after they were first shipped.

      I bet that with this in mind, Nikon will have zero supply issues by the 2nd or 3rd shipment.

  • Craig Minielly

    Thanks for sharing this NR, appreciated. I figured there might be some comments on some of the exp combo used, as some can seem a bit odd at first.

    The reason for it though, is that the lighting was all over the place in brightness as the market was just waking up… one moment I’m shooting 5/6 at 1/60th in the dark, and then the next area was fully lit… so the settings would jump as I was still using 10K or 20K ISO… also, some of the locations I did multiple ISO variations for comparisons, so when one shot is used on its own, the settings may seem a bit strange as they’re out of context to the multi image series.

    It’s an impressive beast though, skin tones are spectacular on the recent fashion / portrait sessions I’ve had, and the XQD card is definitely the way to go for speed of transfers afterwards, I only use the SD for onboard backup.

    Anyone waiting for a camera will be thrilled when they get it, and its totally worth the wait 🙂

  • Yanny Nao

    Did you guys checked my D850 shots taken mostly above ISO 20,000
    https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.1264959846965517.1073741939.309209772540534&type=3

  • (Combs through article, sees a “to see more…” link)

    (Notices that links are to an Instagram account)

    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/e7262b72951c87eb55ce1bb5b30229573ed9e1a8d4fbc08a9c37b9d33e3d093e.jpg

  • James Michael

    Where are all the stories about the D850 at base ISO? I care more about ISO 64 crispiness. There are many people that rarely shoot over ISO 800.

    • Rick Ram

      I agree 100% i would like to see shots that are taken at iso 64 that are better than those that come from my d810

    • Bill Ferris

      This may already have been shared by the Admin but, just in case: https://www.focus-numerique.com/news/nikon-d850-la-montee-iso-20795.html

      You’ll find RAWs made with the D850, D810, 5DsR and A7R II across a wide range of ISOs, including base.

  • mas921

    But won’t downsampling to instagram sizes filter out noise too? Were these images posted on Flickr or any other higher res website? Not to criticize rather am curious.

    • MB

      Not necessary, better way is to use noise reduction first and then downsample to reduce softness caused by noise reduction, actually that is what the author did here …

      • mas921

        am aware of that, that’s why i asked in the 1st place. in other words, is the noise performance “looking better” due to it being so much downsampled into the quite low instagram res?

  • Elbert Jan Achterberg

    We can all rest assured the Image quality of the d850 is excellent, both at low and high iso. I have used it for about a week now and to me it is really the child of the d800 and d500. D800 for resolution, dynamic range and noise, d500 for af capability and speed, with the added bonus of a bigger viewfinder. I

  • Steve

    F8, f10? Ironically these are not taken in such bad light… I think people want to see iso 8000. 1/50 and f 1.4. I’ll do it myself!

  • Michiel953

    Not such low light then, which messes up the results. I took a shot in my study at dusk the other night, 6400 ISO (the upper limit I set on auto ISO), 35/1.4G, f1.4, 1/8 sec, out of hand, mainly to test the AF.
    The AF was uncannily quick and good, using centre point on the black frame of a framed photograph with a white passepartout, so adequate contrast but in very low light.
    Still working in Jpeg (fine) only, all settings including NR off, no adjustments in LR6.

    Oh, and for 1/8 sec out of hand it’s acceptably sharp as well.

    But again, I can’t seem to upload it from my harddrive, 4000K, 2000K, doesn’t work.

  • Abiatha Swelter

    Now I’m hungry.

  • Al Eisen

    Not all that impressive, IMO.

    • Shutterbug

      Can you link us to the 46MP or more cameras that are impressive? I’m curious to see.

      • VM Straka

        D750 has better IQ and it’s older and cheaper. No point in having 46MP if they look like crap.

  • Al Eisen

    And I don’t think this beats the D750, which is well known to be a low-light beast. From what I’m seeing, the D850 barely beats the D810 in ISO performance. The 850 may be comparable to the 750 IF you downsize the image, but then you no longer have a 45 MP image, which is the main reason for buying a 45 MP camera.

    This camera has about the same ISO performance as the D500, which is good, but not amazing by any means.

    • BayouBill

      I would love to have a camera that combined the low-light performance of my D750 with the sports-shooting features of my D500, in the same price range. (I would also like to have a Lear Jet and several million dollars in my bank account.)

      • Al Eisen

        I thought maybe the D850 would be that camera, but not so sure anymore.

    • Surely not many people output a full res image as their final output? Unless you are doing bill boards. I always down rez to something more suitable for printing which would improve the noise floor.

  • SpecialMan

    Is this the normal 1-stop improvement over the previous camera? Looks like it to me, but what do I know…

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