Nikon D850 review (sort of)

Nikon D850 and the new guitar problem by Christian Handl

I had the chance to play with the new Nikon D850 very early (August 30th, 2017) and could also work with RAW files thanks to Raw Therapee. To make it short, the file quality is very good, nothing to complain about. On the other hand, also nothing to get too excited, as the files of my beaten D800 are more than good enough still for 99% of my work. Even the files of the D750 are perfect most of the time.

Warning, this is pixel peeping at 200%
Both pictures are made with the Nikon 50 mm f1,8 lens @f8 with a tripod and with mirror up. Left D850 with Iso 64 and electronic first curtain, right Nikon D800 with Iso 100. There is a small difference in resolution and dynamic range. With a zoom lens like the 24-120 it is less or not visible at all, with a "better" lens there might be a bigger difference (I do not own an Otus lens).

So why upgrade at all? I already skipped the D810, although I occasionally got mild G.A.S. symptoms the last years. It is an investment of at least 4000.-€ (incl. tax here in Europe) as you have to buy an XQD card and a card reader up front with this camera. I even tried to argue me off this purchase. I failed because a week ago I strolled through a town here in Lower Austria. To my astonishment, one of the photoshops had the D850 on display. And when I phoned them three days later the camera was still available, so I bought it. Seems like here in Austria not so many photographers want to spend 4000.-€, because the shops here don't get larger quantities like in the USA.

What tipped me off was not a technical feature, like the good viewfinder, better AF or more megapixel. It was realizing that the attitude of „ I do not need this, it does not matter which camera I use, any will do“, has a psychological problem. Yes, for most of my projects, 24 Mp will be more than enough and yes most of my customers won't see any difference with the pictures no matter what camera I use. If anyone out there thinks he gets more revenue, more customers with a new digital camera, think twice.

But with photography it is like music, you do not do it just for making money, you also are linked to this art or craft, because for making money even a job as a house cleaner would be better. If I would look at what I earn per hour, I would kick myself. But photography is the only thing which keeps me going, which is kicking my butt saying „get up, get out, get some pictures“.

Buying such a camera is for me a way to take my laziness out of me. It forces me to make new projects because buying such a camera and then just making a few snapshots – no way!

So here are some excuses I found so far to purchase it nevertheless:
The live view stream has a better resolution, it was 640 pixels and is now 1024 pixels to match the higher magnification of the rear screen, which helps if you do studio work and use camera control pro, or the rear screen and a magnification loupe. The split screen function is helpful, but at Nikon, nobody seems to use the Tilt/Shift lenses, because it is still not possible to look at the upper left and lower right corner in split screen mode at the same time.

For checking sharpness when you use the tilt of a lens like the 45mm TS the new focus peaking function helps. One good thing though is that now the 24mm TS lens rotates in both directions. With the D800/810, it was blocked by the bigger viewfinder/flash combo.

The less protruding viewfinder allows full rotation with the 24 mm TS lens

The screen is now tiltable, ok that´s good (I like and use the tiltable screen of the D750 often), but anyone taking vertical pictures at Nikon? Fuji is doing it right with the Xt-2.

The illuminated buttons are nice to have, but only at the left row. On the other hand, even at night photography I still need a red led lamp to see my surrounding or find pieces of equipment in my bag.

The better AF and speed is also a big improvement to my D800, I am looking forward to using that on my next trip to Africa. But for the 9 frames/sec, there is the need of further investment in grip, battery, and charger. Maybe the D500 might be the better investment for action or sport. Yes, the D850 might be the best "all-around camera" which can do anything from birds in flight to landscape or architecture. But there are situations where changing lenses (often) is not such a good thing to do and also the second body on longer trips is a wise thing to pack into your camera bag. So this D850 is not the "all in one solution" you might think. Also, only the best lenses shine on the D850, this is certainly also the case with long telephoto lenses. So paired with a 600 mm f4 you get a dream team up to the moment you take your gear on board of an aircraft. Can you manage the 8kg weight restrictions or do you buy a second seat?

If you want to make the best of this AF you have a steep learning curve up front. I can recommend „Secrets of the Nikon AF System“ from Steve Perry. This pdf has 467 pages! So much about digital makes photography easier.

He has also a good video about the new AF fine tune feature. Which gets things into perspective fast, because he shows that you should do 12 readings to get a good average number. And you must center in Live View the AF point, otherwise, a cryptic Text shows up. It took me more than half hour to find that I accidentally switched the AF point in live view a little bit. The fine tune numbers where sometimes quite consistent, with other lenses like the Tokina Makro the readings were more erratic, but at least it did not refuse to take a third party lens. AF fine tune with one click? Sadly no!

Now checking the fine tune with a real furry animal, a teddy bear. What I found I did not like because the numbers for my 300 mm f2,8 lens were simply said garbage. With the 1,4 Tc I had -17, but testing it with different numbers the best one was 0, or AF fine tune set to "off". Seems like the AF fine tune feature is very prone to (user) error.

Silent shooting mode sounded great for me, but it is only available in live view mode. So that means shooting with a 3,800 € camera similar to a smartphone (or as someone stated, you hold the camera away from you like a smelly diaper). While you can adapt the viewfinder (diopter adjustment) to your (poor) eyesight, not so for the rear screen, which means you might need your glasses on and I am still not sure if live view AF is usable in a dark church? But the screen with the better resolution is really a big step forward and the touch screen feature is great! Now all the menus are touch sensitive, which is a good thing and speeds navigating in the menu. Certainly scrolling through pictures is also much faster.

I was also very interested in the so-called „Best optical Viewfinder ever“ of the D850.

It is bright and certainly better than the one in the D750, but as numbers suggest: magnification of D810 is 0,70 with eyepoint 17 mm, the D850 has increased that to 0,75 with also 17 mm eyepoint. Hey, great, an increase of 0,05! Did Nikon really want to make the best optical viewfinder or did they reduce cost by skipping the flash? I used the built-in flash quite often for remote control of macro flash. With the D850 I will need a commander module or dedicated flashes=extra weight to carry.

I am beyond 50 and get more and more problems with my eyesight, certainly, a big bright viewfinder helps. But also the size of the letters in the viewfinder and the menu is interesting. Here nothing has changed, but it was quite useable before.

Automated stacked shots for macro looks good on paper, but with the app "helicon remote“ or even more versatile "DSLR-dashboard“ this was possible with every Nikon Camera which had open Wifi. See the problem, the snap bridge Bluetooth/Wifi of the new Nikon cameras is not allowing 3rd party apps to function like before, its a more closed system with very poor functionality.

Also to my big disappointment this feature does not work with the Nikon 200 mm f4 Macro lens or my Tokina 100 mm f2,8 Macro, only AF-S or AF-P lenses are supported. When I tried it manually I encountered a problem with snap bridge (surprise?), in LiveView, there is no focus peaking on the smartphone, live view on camera and releasing the shutter on the snap bridge app does also not work. So back to the good old cable release! Silent shutter does work, but without flash, it won't fire.

I tried a stacked shot with 30 frames. I use a mac book pro retina with 16 GB Ram and 2,8 GHz quad processor. Such a task takes this computer to his limits, but he managed to do it. So I do not think that this camera will force me to buy a new computer, but it slows some tasks down like panoramas or stacked shots.

64 ISO, F8, 1/40 sec
A stack of 30 frames, manual mode with an Oben macro slider and the 100 mm f2,8 macro from Tokina. Silent shutter "1" shutter release via snap bridge app. Working very accurate would be good, as the processing on the computer took about 30 minutes. Every mistake means back to the start. Here I missed the opportunity to use the 4:5 Raw file option, which would have reduced file size. No need to record more of the black area.

The time-lapse features I have not checked so far. But the same here like with stacked shots. Good if you are satisfied with the onboard tools, bad if you want to do your own thing because snap bridge again limits this. The electronic shutter is certainly a good idea because with heavy use of time-lapse you can get beyond the limit of the mechanical shutter.

And now to the "new guitar problem“:

Take a side step and imagine you are a musician, a guitar player. You have a decent model of an electric guitar. Now you have an offer for a guitar used and played by Eric Clapton, or a new model with fantastic new whatever advertised. Guess what? Is there a guitar player out there who thinks he will be a better player just with a new guitar? Yes, there will be a lot of them, although they know that practicing is way more important. Some even stated that talent is overrated because someone who is practicing like hell will beat the talented any time.

This post was originally published hereIf you have an interesting idea for a guest post, you can contact me here.

Check D850 availability: B&H | Adorama | Amazon | BuyDig | Cameta | Focus Camera | eBay | WEX | Jessops

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  • Spy Black

    Snapbridge. Will Nikon ever get over this?

    • Eric Calabros

      The correct term is “can’t work with AF-D” which was expected, considering the limitations of that mechanical mechanism.

      • peter w

        the ‘D’ in AF-D was intended to indicated that the lens would share distance information.

        • Piooof

          Sharing distance information is only part of the problem. Accurately setting the lens AF to a series of specific distances is what is needed, and may be difficult to do reliably with an AF-D lens. On a pro body I doubt that marketing people have the upper hand on engineers. This has likely nothing to do with built-in obsolescence.

        • I think it need a motor in lens to work. Does that tokina has a motor? If yes then we can start scolding nikon to our heart’s content.
          Or maybe they have reserved that enhancement for D860. Something should be there to tempt people to upgrade.

    • JXVo

      You can see why it would be an obvious choice for a user to want to transfer images while the camera is proceeding through the focus-stack sequence. Efficient. Especially for product shots or macro sequences done in a studio setting.

      • Spy Black

        I highly doubt you’re gonna be schlepping 45 meg raw files via SnapBridge, ESPECIALLY when your doing an image stack.

        • JXVo

          That’s my point. Give us an option to uncouple the wifi transmitter from Snapbridge so that we can transfer whatever we like and use other tethering software. A lossless compressed D850 raw should take around 10 to 12 sec with the wireless ‘g’ connection protocol.

          • KnightPhoto

            Have you tried this guidance from AirNef for activating the SnapBridge WiFi? Someone else posted the link, I’m going to give it a try…

  • Aldo

    I sense a bit of ‘borrowed vs own’ bias in this review…. I was waiting for the “whatever the d850 does I can do with my d100… no need to upgrade” moment. And I’m not even a huge fan of the d850

  • JXVo

    Snapbridge more hindrance than help? For those who want to be limited to uploads for social media only?

    I do think a firmware update with an option to run normal wifi connection would be great. Yes it will eat the battery and the wifi protocols on D850 are still too slow for 46MP images but at least give us the choice.

    • Yes. It would be worth it if we can transfer even one final selected large file easily out of so many.

    • nikon marketing wisdom gives us the option for normal wifi connectivity through specific wifi connection accessory (can’t recall the name)

      • JXVo

        Yes WT-7 or some such. Huge brick of a thing including additional battery. Very expensive.

  • peter w

    Thank you for reminding me to study, the cello in my case. I have a big beautiful solo in January, and no way I will buy a new instrument before that. No need for a snap-bridge.

  • JPaul Johnson

    It appears that you’ve found enough issues with the 850 and your photography that maybe you should reconsider your purchase. If you were happier with your previous gear and it met your needs without all the heartache, then switching to the new system and staying with it despite it’s shortcomings might cause one to wonder if you’ve got a good grip on your faculties. If, however, this tongue-in-cheek charade is intended to dissuade me of the logic in my decision to purchase the 850, you haven’t got an ice cubes chance in hell. Glad I don’t have your problems. I’m keeping mine.

    • Christian Handl

      I will (sadly) always find issues with any camera. The reason might be that I try to make a living with photography. Which means one day shooting food for a book, then architecture or sports the next week. Landscapes for fun in between. It is just natural that as good as these cameras are, that they are not perfect. And I am not more happy with my other gear, just got my D750 back from Nikon repair, because of the shutter recall. But the D850 will hopefully be my workhorse camera for the next 5 years, as my D800 has been it for the last 5 years. But thanks for your critic, it is useful for me and therefore welcomed.

  • Davidvictormeldrew Idontbeliev

    Although shooting at speed and multiple images using a XQD card and the battery grip + D5 batteries is the optimum path – you probably don’t need it upfront and could do with some fast SDXC Uhs I/ II in the meantime until you save up for these cards and same with updating lens. This should be viewed as a long term invest along with updating Lenses, accessories and computer / laptop & storage.

  • Helge Drange

    Thanks – many fine points here – the “all singing, all dancing” machine does not exist, yet, although the D850 is possibly as close as one can get, at present.

    And certainly, thumbus up for Steve Perry’s „Secrets of the Nikon AF System“ for those of us not 100 percent fluid in the myriad of AF settings and options out there…

  • SeeTheN

    Slightly off topic: Does anyone know where that bigger lock knob (as shown on the image) for the 24mm PC-E comes from?

    Would be a great help!

    • tomskyphoto

      That’s not the lock knobs, the fat thing to the left is the tilt and the smaller one on the right the shift adjustment. This is the arrangement on a PC-E 24 that has been modified for tilt and shift operating in parallel orientation rather than the odd perpendicular original arrangement.

      The shift adjustment knob isn’t the original though; actually it isn’t much bigger if at all but with its beveled top it stays clear of a D800/D810’s protruding prism housing. Looks like Christian has got himself a custom made replacement knob for that purpose.

      • SeeTheN

        Yes, I see it now. Makes sense.

        I read this somewhere:
        ‘Often criticised: the very small lock screw for the shift movement. The Nikon service can replace it with a bigger one.’

        Thought this knob that I’ve never seen before was it, but I guess Nikon Service would just replace the small lock knob on the 24 PC-E with the bigger knob from the 45 and 85 PC-E.

        Would make sense as with the D850 the bigger knob is not hitting the flash housing anymore.

        • tomskyphoto

          Funny, looking at my PC-E 24 I noticed the super short stubby shift lock knob for the first time. It has never really bothered me; but then I have relatively small hands and fingers and I’m used to work with miniature parts from my day job and other hobbies. Nevertheless, I can understand that it bothers some.

          The best thing however would be if the lens makers could just get rid of these stupidly delicate and failure prone shift and tilt mechanisms that require these clamp type locks. They already had close to perfect self-impeding worm gears on a lot of their film era shift lenses. A feature only just recently reintroduced by Nikon on the PC-E 19’s shift adjustment.

      • Christian Handl

        That is correct. I have altered the original knob, removed a bit with a sand grinder. Certainly the knob was not on the lens when I did this.

        • tomskyphoto

          Looks very good for a home made version with a grinder, compliments. I took mine off briefly, looked at it and thought: “Nah, ain’t worth it – the lens works absolutely the same with the shift adjustment pointing down in landscape orientation”.

          But I’m still surprised that Nikon never offered a replacement like yours for D800/810 and PC-E 24 users. Would have been a quite easy fix.

    • Christian Handl

      To clarify that, it is actually not the lock knob, because I have altered my 24 mm Shift so that the plane of tilt and shift are the same. So you see the knob for the movement here (which I have altered a bit). But a Nikon repair center might help you with this as the knobs are removeable.

  • Michael Erlewine

    To me, this is a prejudiced (negative) view of the D850 and not representative of the other reviews I have read of this camera.

    • ZoetMB

      Negative reviews aren’t necessarily prejudiced. It just might be the reality and even if it isn’t, it’s the reality for this particular photographer.

      • tomskyphoto

        IMO this isn’t a totally negative review at all. Reading between the lines Christian seems to be pretty content with the camera overall and doesn’t regret his purchase as the successor of his “beaten” D800 he’s been using for five years now.

        But it’s funny how a lot of proud new 850 owners immediately jumped to the conclusion that his well substantiated criticisms were simply “hate” or “negative bias”.

    • I just try to cover different views here, not everyone will agree with everything I post.

      • br0xibear

        Talking about different views, here’s another perspective on the D850…

        • David Gottlieb

          Just finished reading that review. He makes one mistake and that is that he trusts his results with Lightroom. I tested the D850, which I have had for about one week and found the medium RAW tack sharp, not that I have a need for it. The difference is that I use Capture One Pro, which has different algorithms than Lightroom. I gave up on LR years ago. I believe the soft image this reviewer is seeing in the medium RAW files is due to a software bug…. Admittedly, i need to test more…. But I will always shoot in Full RAW mode at 45+ mp.

    • preston

      There is no prejudice apparent in this review. Every negative thing he said about the camera was due to personal tests and experience. Prejudice means judging before testing.

  • Lukas Dvorak

    Hi i have D850 for 3 weeks and i must say its huge step forward in compare of D810. Everybody is comparing pixels aso. But the main thing about D850 is color production, which is many times better then D810. Especialy for the skin tones and whole image render. Better display give you finaly a great review of your pics. Finally a complex camera, i have sold my medium format camera!

    • Color reproduction is only as good as the camera, and equally important, the color profiles and processing used to develop the RAW file.

  • Great mini review. I prefer a discriminating review veiw-point much more than a U Rah Rah feature regurgitation. I hope Thom’s future review will follow that same modus operandi…

    • David Gottlieb

      I hope Thom’s future review will be in the style of Thom, not in the style or “modus operandi” of someone else…. Peace!!!!!

  • David Gottlieb

    Your review of a great camera seems very subjective and personal. As a professional photographer, I have to disagree with you on many of your complaints…. The AF system in the D850 is spectacular. But you complain about having to buy a cheap battery grip for your new camera to increase fps. I have no problem with that.

    The images are spectacular, at least from all the tests I have done. Nikon has packed 46mp into the D850 with no image degradation and still you complain.

    As far as you complaints about focus stacking being difficult. Focus stacking has never been easy. Mistakes are often made and starting from square one (or shot one) is often unavoidable with any camera system. That’s the nature of focus stacking. Oh well….

    The D850 is a huge step in color reproduction and tone. I have taken clean portraits of it at 3200 ISO. I was shocked to see how beautiful my test shots were. I will be taking this out in the field to photograph wildlife and will be especially excited to see the results. I usually keep my 500 prime on my D4 (with or without the new TC1.4iiiE, but this might be a game changer and I may start using the 500 on my D850. The 70-200 can go on the D4 (which is usually on my D800 or D700 backup) when I shoot wildlife.

    The D850 is not perfect. (What camera is?) But I believe it is the best digital full frame 35mm camera Nikon (or any other company) has produced to this date.

    By the way, I am a guitarist (no,, I don’t try to make a living from music) and your comparison between photography and music is completely out of left field. It’s worse than comparing apples and oranges. It makes no sense. I would buy the guitar that sounded best and felt best. And there are many different types of guitars. Many more than just new and used. And I might purchase both guitars or neither one.

    One question: If you hate this camera so much and see more negatives than positives, why in the world did you purchase it?

    • Rick Jansen

      Thank you. You just wrote down my thoughts.

      • David Gottlieb

        Your welcome. I must be a mind reader!!!!! 😉

    • fstevens

      I have a D850 on order, and currently use a D810 and D5. I cannot fathom not thinking that the D850 is a HUGE step forward from the D800. I guess it depends on the type of photography you do, but I previously owned a D800 and a D800E, and I felt the focusing systems on both of those cameras were terrible, and pretty much made the cameras unfit for professional use. I would try “calibrating” the focus system for days, and nothing worked, I simply could not count on the focus being accurate, which made using all those expensive fast lenses worthless. I’m not even sure how Nikon was able to sell those cameras or why more people didn’t complain. My D810 was a great improvement over the D800 in terms of focusing accuracy. The focusing system on the D5, on the other hand, is spectacular, and if I do things correctly on my end, the camera performs exactly as I expect it to. You can actually take shallow depth of field portraits and have a very high degree of confidence that they will turn out great (and even with the subject running toward you.) I very much look forward to owning a high resolution camera with the same focusing system as the D5. But maybe that’s just me.

      • David Gottlieb

        Did you ever take your D800 and D800E to Nikon to have its focusing issues evaluated and fixed. I had an early version which, lucky for me, did not have the infamous focusing issues so many others suffered, but recently i noticed that suddenly it is back focusing a lot. Perhaps I knocked it on one of my shoots. I take my cameras in rough situations and sometimes, even with the utmost care, they can get knocked around. The Kenyan roads in the bush aren’t very gentle. I will have it looked at and fixed before I sell it. Don’t want to give anyone a headache that I already have.

        You will find the focusing accuracy in the D850 the same as the D5. I did not upgrade to the D5 from the D4 as I saw little reason to except for the extra 8 mp and the focusing. But the D4 focusing is pretty good. But hell, the D850 (and obviously the D5) auto focus in incredible.

        And no, you are not alone in wanting “a high resolution camera with the same focusing system as the D5.” That’s one of the reasons the D850 is hard to get….

      • i just got back from south africa and was shooting cheetah runs with my D800 and sigma 120300 with about 60% keeps…

        the rest i blame on my own incompetence in keeping up with the cheetahs…

        though i do wish for a faster AF module, but the D800 is good enough.

      • i just got back from south africa and was shooting cheetah runs with my D800 and sigma 120300 with about 60% keeps…

        the rest i blame on my own incompetence in keeping up with the cheetahs…

        though i do wish for a faster AF module, but the D800 is good enough.

        the attached is a 100% crop from last year’s Singapore F1 GP.

        ISO1600, nikon 200-500, f/5.6 1/400. not the sharpest tool, but still pretty sharp enough to see all the details.

        • fstevens

          If you were able to take pictures of a cheetah running towards you, with a D800, and have over half of them be in perfect focus, well…I can’t argue with your success, as I’m glad it works out for you. I just know that I would try to take portraits of a person standing still, from about seven feet or so away, with the cursor right on the subject’s eye, and I still couldn’t count on them being in focus. I suppose there is the “you just didn’t get a good copy” argument, which is something I really hate in camera discussions, as that shouldn’t be a factor, i.e. Nikon’s quality control should be better than that, especially when selling cameras that cost upwards of $3000. No one buys, for example, a BMW and worries about “getting a bad copy.” (sorry for the mini-rant.)

          • fstevens

            In any case, I think the argument can be made that Nikon recognized (at least to themselves) that their focusing systems had much room for improvement, as the D810 was much better than the D800, and now with the D5 and D850, it’s outstanding, so all is good…

    • Michael

      The only D850 flaw is its availability. Still backordered from the announcement date. D750 needs to be retired already with all rubber grips falling off.

      • David Gottlieb

        Rubber grips and housing on Nikon cameras tend to expand in heat, especially here in Kenya. I have had issues with my D4 and D800. The D700 hasn’t lost any rubber. Again, I do use my cameras in extreme conditions at times.

  • GMck

    Very personal view. Do you get more customers by improving year after year, which includes keeping your gear current? Damn right you do. The new guitar problem is total nonsense.

  • Worst review ever.

  • Christian Handl

    I have added a few lines to my post: about time lapse and that I see better corner sharpness with my 14-24 on the D850 compared to the D800. I have no explanation for this, but I am certainly happy with the quality of the files.

  • Steph Ouelle

    “Some even stated that talent is overrated because someone who is practicing like hell will beat the talented any time”

    It’s personal, and I respect everyone’s opinion if it differ then mine!
    Probably he will become technically better, but he might not be able to write a single song or play with any feeling… Same for photographers, many are incredible technically because they practice like hell, but many of them don’t have the artistic sense and sensibility to make anything worth seeing.

    Who would you take in your band of original material, Buckethead or Keith Richards? Personally, I would take Keith any time over Buckethead if I wanna write good songs.

  • Photoman

    Every guitar has it’s own sound that fits the musician’s taste. My understanding is musicians will play Les Pauls from the 50s or 60s because of a certain sound.

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