Nikon’s D850 ultra-high resolution DSLR is here and right now everyone is very excited. They should be. The new camera boasts a seriously seductive spec, mixing not only amazingly detailed images, but fast shooting speeds and formidable AF. And it comes in black: the best colour (though not actually a colour).
Here’s the thing, though. A large portion of the D850’s audience are going to be D810 owners, or those previously looking at that camera as their ideal DSLR. So, if you’re a D810 owner already, is the D850 worth the upgrade? And if you don’t own a D810, but always wanted to, is it still a viable option now that prices are bound to tumble in the wake of the new camera. Here’s how the two bodies stack up.
Design and build
The design of the D810 and D850 is overwhelmingly similar. It’s no surprise; they share the same DNA, and any serious change in format (such as the mooted use of a hybrid viewfinder) would have rocked the boat where no rocking was necessary. The new camera is a little heavier, but only by 915g to 880g; less than the weight of a Snickers bar. And there’s only a few fag papers’, width between them in dimensions, too (146x123x81.5mm for the D810 and 146x124x78.5mm for the D850). No significant improvement in portability then, but nothing to put you off either.
Both cameras are weather sealed, so you should be fine using them in rain or dusty conditions, and both have mostly magnesium-alloy bodies for extra durability. Unlike the D810, though, the D850 has no pop-up flash. This makes the body a bit more solid in theory, but if you’re accustomed to using fill-in flash or triggering Nikon’s optical Creative Lighting System from a pop-up it could feel like a loss.
The LCD screen is 3.2in on both models, but the D850 gets a decent increase in resolution from 1,229k to 2,359k dots and touch sensitivity for menus, playback, and live-view AF. But the big change is it’s a tilting design that’s handy for low or high angle shooting. This brings the D850 in step with most other leading DSLRs and CSCs, but use the D810’s screen in isolation and there’s nothing wrong with it.
Another physical difference is the choice of storage media; while the D810 used an SD and a CF card, like the D800 before it, the new D850 keeps the SD slot, but swaps CF cards for XQD format. However, although the D850 borrows a lot from Nikon’s flagship D5, you don’t get the chance to pick a dual XQD version here.
Ergonomically the D850 and D810 are almost identical. Both have a large sculpted handgrip, though the D850’s is slightly refined and a touch more comfortable. And both have an uncluttered layout, with a cluster of controls on the left of the top plate, more buttons down the left of the screen and twin control dials for input. There are some minor changes to button positions, but nothing drastic; for instance, the Mode button swaps places with ISO, which is now just behind the shutter release; this brings the D850 in line with the D5, D500 and D7500.
Other notable changes on the D850 include the addition of a small joystick to control AF position, and the loss of the AE-L/AF-L button on the rear. On the left of the LCD there are six buttons rather than five, with an Fn2 button placed at the bottom.
The D810’s viewfinder was impressively large, bright and clear, but the D850 takes it up a notch; both have a 100% view, but the D850’s magnification is higher, at 0.75x versus 0.70x. It’s impressive, but it won’t change your life.
Shooting speed was one of the few drawbacks of the D810. Its five frames per second (fps) rate was solid, but not quite enough for action or wildlife photographers. In the D850, this gets a decent boost to 7fps, but if you add the MB-D18 grip and EN-EL18b battery, it leaps to 9fps, which is more than enough for most situations. This rate it can keep up for 51 full-quality Raw files, which is up from 28 on the D810. In both cases it’s a decent uplift.
There’s a big improvement in the D850’s autofocus system, too. The D810 used pretty much the same Multi-CAM 3500FX module as in the D800, with up to 51 phase-detect AF points, and a detection range of -2 to 19EV. The D850 borrows the flagship D5’s Multi-CAM 20K sensor module with 153 points, of which 55 are selectable. The detection range has also been expanded to -4 to +20EV, meaning you can expect to lock on in both darker and brighter situations.
Also borrowed from the D5 is the AF Fine Tune mode, which helps you to calibrate lenses using contrast detect AF in Live View for better phase-detect performance when shooting normally.
Both cameras list huge resolution as a marquee feature. The D850 ups its game to 45.7Mp from the D810’s 36.3Mp, and while that’s a decent increase, it doesn’t immediately render the D810 obsolete. Both cameras are capable of producing huge, highly detailed prints, as neither has an optical low-pass filter. Of course the D850 wins here, though.
In terms of ISO range, there’s a modest one-stop advantage for the D850 (64-25,600 versus the D810’s 64-12,800). In both cases this can be extended to 32 at the low end. At the top end, the D810 tops out at an expanded 51,200, but like the D850’s stop-extra 102,400, it’s a pretty hypothetical difference as no-one who wants decent picture quality would ever go near it. The D850’s new back-side illuminated sensor design should ensure better performance at equivalent ISO settings, as the chip has more light-gathering potential despite being the same size with more pixels. There’s also a change in expsosure sensor with the D850 boasting almost twice as many pixels as the D810 (180K versus 91K).
Video is another area where the D850 gets a decent boost in performance; there’s now 4K 3840×2160 recording at 30/25/24p, as opposed to the D810’s full HD (at up to 60fps). The D850 ups its Full HD performance too, including a range of slow-motion settings. Obviously whether this is important to you will depend on how much you combine movies with stills; a bit like the increase in resolution, the D810’s 1920×1080 files aren’t suddenly going to look like a pirate video from the 1980s just because the D850 is flexing bigger muscles.
There’s other good stuff in the D850 that gives it a genuine edge over the D810, besides, including a new Focus Stacking feature, that alters the focus point in up to 300 iterations to create a fuller depth-of-field. Batch Raw conversion is also welcome.
There’s no doubting that the D850 is the more accomplished camera. It wins. It should, too, having had three years to get itself into fighting shape. The D850 has amazing resolution, sure, but in many ways it’s the other improvements that make it such a compelling camera; the AF improvements, and shooting speed mostly. The addition of 4K video and the tilting screen will also be very welcome for many.
On the downside, you’re looking at a serious investment to upgrade, and to get the full burst mode, you’ll need the new MB-D18 grip and a D5 battery to go in it, too. Neither are cheap. The D850’s lack of a built-in flash makes sense from a pro perspective, but again you’ll need to factor in extra outlay for an accessory speedlight, like the SB-5000 if you’re planning to rely on on-camera lighting or optical triggering. You’ll need a new XQD card, too. See a pattern here? It’s a pattern that looks like a big wallet opening.
Looking back at its predecessor, let’s be honest: The D810 was launched in June 2014; not last century, so as much as the D850 is throwing some serious shade on it, if you can pick one up at a reasonable price, it’s still a wonderful camera to use. A huge number of pros are still making their living with it, and will continue to do so.