Alaskan winter vs. the Nikon D850 (D850 arctic weather torture test report)

Alaskan winter vs. the Nikon D850 (D850 arctic weather torture test report) is by Daniel Fernandez (Facebook | Instagram):

Originally this was going to be a shorter article about just one experience with the D850 over the winter, but it’s been expanded since then. Thankfully the NikonRumors admins have been gracious about the delays. Considering I’d been waiting for the D810 refresh to upgrade from my D7200, I ordered a D850 and MB-D18 grip the moment I could afford it, with the camera ending up in hand early this past November. To say that it was a massive upgrade from my previous camera is a big understatement, with the D850 constantly surprising me with it’s performance in different situations. There was a bit of a steep learning curve to say the least though, but I am in no way a ‘professional’ photographer. So please take my thoughts with a grain of salt.

Alaska isn’t exactly the friendliest environment for photography in the winter to say the least. Naturally the Nikon would get a pretty good torture test over the winter. In temperatures from below -32f (roughly -35c for you metric folks) to around freezing, it’s been an adventure with the D850. I’d imagine the camera is around 7-10,000 shutter actuations already, with the vast majority of them being on continuous high 9fps for sports and the like. That said, it’s been used with a variety of lenses and shutter speeds. As a whole, here are my thoughts after about 5 months of use in all sorts of conditions.

Most of the ‘deep winter’ was my time to learn the camera, with the first real hard use of the camera in February. This was straight into the deep end of the proverbial pool to sink or swim for sports photography. The transition from winter to sports season up here is extremely short and sudden. In the span of two to three weeks, it goes from essentially nothing going on, to events practically every weekend.

Naturally the first hard use of the D850 was a major event, the 2018 Yukon Quest start. For this, I brought both a first generation Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 and Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6 lens. As a whole, it went rather well. There were some issues here and there, like not locking a lens in 100% by accident so the AF was odd, but as a whole it worked well. I’ll be touching on everything in the roundup though.

Since then, the D850 has been used for a ton of outdoors photography including aurora, firearms, more dog sled racing, and even Sno-X racing. Which (if my health permits) I’ll be taking more Sno-X photos this weekend. As a whole, I can’t say anything other than I’m extremely pleased with the camera. It has some quirks, but Nikon really make a phenomenal camera that handles well in every extreme condition it’s been through.

The good:

-External displays had no apparent issues with the temps, which is impressive since LCD screens usually start to lag once cold soaked.

-Battery performance of the D850 with MB-D18 and an EN-EL18b was amazing. Nearly 1000 frames of constant use in subzero temps and it consistently stayed above 60-70%, which is mind blowing really.

-No shutter issues noticed and it kept at full frame rate without issue. In extreme cold, the shutter does get noticeably louder, but still functioned perfectly. But this is an anticipated thing as lubricants get very stiff in the cold.

-All manual controls/buttons were responsive without issue, with the backlit buttons being a godsend in the dark.

-Even with heavy gloves and liners, all buttons were easily pressed to control the camera.

-It’s certainly more rugged than expected. I accidentally released the tripod foot on a lens and dropped the entire combination into hard packed snow from around three feet up. Zero issues, although I’ve seen people whack their cameras significantly harder without ill effect.

-Zero issues with any of my ‘gold ring’ lenses whatsoever. Every lens was adjusted with FoCal and gets checked again before any anticipated hard use. That said, I haven’t noticed any focal shifting with hard use.

-The new ‘natural white balance’ works amazingly well. I’ve rarely had to change balance in post from what the camera records.

-AF-C 9 and 25 work amazing. The camera is set to focus lock before release, but I can still consistently shoot 9fps when needed because the AF lock is accurate and fast.

-Like everyone has said so far, the ISO performance is just wow. No other way to put it really.

Middling results:

-Lenses need to be firmly locked into place in colder weather. AF contact connections can be a bit touchy in cooler temps. After realizing this, the problem has essentially disappeared. So just be a bit more firm when making sure lenses are locked in place. Don’t go nuts with it, just make sure things are attached properly.

-The 200-500mm f/5.6 gets significantly stiff in subzero temps. Even with hand warmers gaffer taped to the lens barrel, I reached a point that I essentially started using it as a prime instead of a zoom. Now, this could be my inexperience with the lens so I didn't want to try to force things. I’d rather have to crop in on a photo than to find out I broke something internal by forcing it. That said, even in odd lighting conditions it is a great lens optically. Once it's above 10f or so, the lens works as normal, so it's likely just tolerances and the plastic/poly contracting due to cold.

-Due to the resolution, expect to use a higher shutter speed than you’re used to. For sports, high shutters are a given, but for other stuff VR or a tripod are nice when going slower. A lot depends on personal skill and ability to hand hold, but some blur or pixel smearing can happen from a mix of movement and high resolution.

The weird and/or expected poor performance:

-The viewfinder LCD gets sluggish when cold soaked. This is a given for essentially any camera, so it is an expected issue. Gaff taping a hand warmer to the top of the camera can help though.

-One odd glitch happens when the camera cold soaks. For some reason, when you hit the menu button it’ll go straight to the ‘set picture control’ menu. Not sure why, but it is kind of annoying when trying to turn off the intervalometer or change something in a hurry.

-Thankfully Nikon fixed the error with long exposure noise reduction. My first aurora photos were full of massive blocky noise since I wasn't aware of the bug. That said, with the ISO performance I've essentially stopped using all in-camera NR.

-It's really hard to not accidentally bump your shutter speed or aperture when wearing really thick gloves btw. So the differing shutter speeds and f-stops are on me. I can't really feel my fingers on most days anyhow, so it's even harder to manage in the cold.

2018 Yukon Quest 02/03/2018 approx -15f to -10f weather:

D850 with 200-500mm f/5.6 @ 360mm f/8 ISO 800 1/2000

D850 with 200-500mm f/5.6 @ 500mm f/5.6 ISO 400 1/3200

D850 with 200-500mm f/5.6 @ 500mm f/5.6 ISO 280 1/2500

2018 North Pole Championship 03/03/2018 approx 10f to 15f weather:

D850 with 200-500mm f/5.6 @ 300mm f/9 ISO 900 1/1600

D850 with 200-500mm f/5.6 @ 300mm f/11 ISO 6400 1/1250

D850 with 200-500mm f/5.6 @ 300mm f/5.6 ISO 1600 1/1250

2018 Alaska Arctic Lions Sno-X 03/10/2018 approx 20f to 25f weather:

D850 with 70-200mm f/2.8G @ 90mm f/7.1 ISO 900 1/2000

D850 with 70-200mm f/2.8G @ 86mm f/7.1 ISO 140 1/2000

D850 with 200-500mm f/5.6 @ 300mm f/9 ISO 360 1/2000

Firearms photography:

D850 with 70-200mm f/2.8G @ 200mm f/9 ISO 5000 1/2000

D850 with 70-200mm f/2.8G @ 200mm f/10 ISO 6400 1/2500

March 25th Aurora:

D850 with 14-24mm f/2.8 @ 14mm f/2.8 ISO 2000 1.6"

D850 with 14-24mm f/2.8 @ 14mm f/2.8 ISO 2000 2.0"

Daniel Fernandez (Facebook | Instagram) is a near lifelong Alaskan with a love of photography. It started as a hobby back in high school with black and white film, but has become a great point of therapy and method to keep his sanity while dealing with his disabilities. Comments, constructive criticism, and general photography talk are always welcome.

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