Comparing a DSLR vs mirrorless cameras might not seem fair anymore, but as one of the last big hitters of the DSLR era, the Nikon D850 was a beast of a camera and remains so today. Many who invested in this wildly popular DSLR have kept shooting with it despite the rise of Nikon’s Z series mirrorless cameras. However, another beast has arrived in the form of the Nikon Z9, and the vast improvements and potential it brings may have some D850 owners reconsidering. In this Nikon Z9 vs D850 comparison we will examine the key specifications and advantages each camera offers based on our experience using them.
Nikon Z9: Full-frame (FX 35.9 x 23.9mm) 45.7MP stacked backside illuminated (BSI) sensor
Nikon D850: Full-frame (FX 35.9 x 23.9mm) 45.7MP backside illuminated (BSI) sensor
The Nikon Z9 has the same resolution as the Nikon Z7 II, but what makes it stand out is the stacked sensor design. The stacked backside illuminated CMOS sensor is a new design by Nikon’s engineers and joins other flagship cameras like the Sony A1 and Canon EOS R3 to implement this technology.
The sensor in the Nikon D850 is also 45.7 million pixels and backside illuminated. Because the sensor is backlit and the micro lenses are gapless, the pixels have the maximum opportunity to gather light.
While they effectively have the same resolution, the Z9’s stacked sensor design allows for faster data transfer, faster shooting speeds and minimal rolling shutter effects.
Nikon Z9: Nikon Z
Nikon D850: Nikon F
Nikon developed the new Z mount when designing its first full-frame mirrorless cameras. The decision to move away from the long-standing F mount was no doubt momentous and allowed its engineers to make some remarkable adaptations.
The mount diameter jumps from 47mm with the F mount to 55mm with the Z mount. This allows for a lot more light to come into the camera. Whereas the F mount limits a maximum aperture to f/1.4 or f/1.2 at the very most, the new Z mount makes f/0.95 lenses feasible, which we’ve already seen roll out.
Although the diameter of the mount may have been increased significantly, the flange depth has shrunk to just 16mm. This – along with the lack of a mirror – is what enabled Nikon to make its Z series cameras so much smaller than its DSLRs. However, as we’ll see later on in this Nikon Z9 vs D850 comparison, Nikon’s flagship Z series camera isn’t so small!
Nikon Z9: Expeed 7
Nikon D850: Expeed 5
Along with a new sensor design, the Nikon Z9 debuted the company’s new processing engine, the Expeed 7. Given everything that the Z9 is able to achieve and that the Z7 II features dual Expeed 6 processors, it’s safe to say that the Expeed 7 delivers twice the processing power as before.
Together with the new sensor, Expeed 7 provides a native sensitivity range of ISO 64 to 25,600 in the Z9. Meanwhile, new advanced noise-reduction algorithms Nikon has implemented are able to produce better results than the Nikon D850.
If the Expeed 7 processor brings twice the power of Expeed 6, it goes without saying that it’s significantly more powerful than the Expeed 5 chip, which is now several generations old.
Nikon Z9: 8K (7680 x 4320): 30p (progressive)/25p/24p, 4K (3840 x 2160): 120p/100p/60p/50p/30p/25p/24p, Full HD (1920 x 1080): 120p/100p/60p/50p/30p/25p/24p
Nikon D850: 4K/UHD (3,840 x 2160) video at up to 30p
One of the signature features of the Nikon Z9 is its capability to record 8K video at up to 60p (this frame rate was added in April 2022 via Z9 firmware v2.0). Because Nikon designed the camera to dissipate heat effectively, it can record 8K 30p video for just over two hours at 125 minutes.
If you don’t need to shoot in 8K, the Z9 also can record 4K video at up to 120p, meaning it can produce high-quality slow-motion movies. All of those impressive AF capabilities are also available in video mode. And that April 2022 firmware update also added the option to record in Nikon’s N-Raw format at file sizes that are nearly that of ProRes raw files.
The D850 is capable of recording 4K/UHD (3,840 x 2160) video at 30, 25 or 24p with no cropping. Alternatively, Full HD (1920 x 1080) video can be recorded at 60, 50, 30, 25 or 24p. There’s also a 4x / 5x slow-motion Full HD movie option.
As well as recording video to a card in the camera, it’s possible to simultaneously record uncompressed 4:2:2 8-bit 4K files onto an external drive via an HDMI connection.
The D850 was a bit ahead of its time in offering 4K video and is still relevant today. But it obviously cannot compete with the Z9’s video capabilities. And anyone buying a hybrid camera these days will likely want a camera that can shoot 4K video at 60fps.
Nikon Z9: 493-point Hybrid AF with phase and contrast detection
Nikon D850: 153-point Reflex AF system, with 99 cross-type points
While the Nikon D850 made a splash at the time for its AF capabilities, the Z9 introduces Nikon’s most advanced AF system to date. It boasts 493 AF points and 405 Auto-area AF points. These accompany 10 AF area modes and give photographers more freedom to fine tune the camera’s autofocus for the subjects and scene they’re shooting.
What’s more, the Nikon Z9 employs deep-learning AI to automatically detect the eyes, faces, heads and upper bodies of people, the heads and whole bodies of animals, eyes of cats, dogs and birds, and vehicles. You can also customise the subject tracking to better suit your subject: for instance, it could be set to track a motorcycle as it goes around a track, then switch to track his eye as he comes closer into the frame.
As impressive as the Z9 AF system is, the D850 is no slouch in this department. Inheriting the same AF system as the then-flagship Nikon D5, the D850 boasts 153 AF points, with the centre point being sensitive down to -4EV. The rest are sensitive down to -3EV. Some 99 of the 153 points are cross-type, which makes the D850 excellent at shooting sport and action in low light.
Of the 153 points, up to 55 are available for individual selection but if you find that too many it can be reduced to 15 via the menu. In continuous autofocus mode it’s also possible to set the D850 to use a single AF point or a group of 9, 25, 72 or 153 points. There’s also Nikon’s Group-area AF and 3D-tracking options with the latter using colour information to follow the subject.
The Nikon D850 AF system is better than many current cameras offer today, but comparing the AF performance of the Nikon Z9 vs D850, you can see that there isn’t much comparison. This is really a statement on how good the Z9 is.
Nikon Z9: 20fps
Nikon D850: 7fps
If its AF performance isn’t enough to wow you, the Z9 can also shoot full-resolution raw images at up to 20fps with a burst depth of more than 1000 images. This burst rate can be pushed to 30fps when shooting full-resolution JPEGs. Alternatively, the Z9 can shoot 11Mp normal-quality Jpeg images with full AF and exposure metering capability at 120fps.
As well as these fast shooting rates, the Nikon Z9 can reach shutter speeds at up to 1/3200sec. Interestingly, it achieves this with the electronic shutter because the camera does not have a mechanical shutter. Nikon claims that the Z9’s sensor offers the world’s fastest scan rate and all but eliminates rolling shutter distortion.
Speed was never the USP of the Nikon D850. Photographers who needed a fast burst rate would look to the Nikon D5. Nevertheless, the D850 can shoot at up to 7fps as standard, and this rate can be pushed to 9fps with a battery pack. These frame rates can be maintained for up to 51 14-bit lossless compressed raw files (the D810 can only manage 28 at 5fps) or 170 12-bit lossless compressed raw files.
The D850 does, however, have an electronic shutter, and when shooting in its Silent Live View mode you can capture full-frame images at 6fps or DX format (APS-C) images at 30fps. What’s more, it can record 12-bit lossless compressed raw files at full resolution, medium (25.5MP) and small (11.3MP).
Nikon Z9: 3.2-inch 2,100,000-dot 4-way-tilting touch-screen
Nikon D850: Tilting, touch-sensitive 3.2-inch TFT LCD with 2,359,000 dots
The Nikon Z9 boasts a bright 3.2-inch, 2,100,000-dot tilting touchscreen that can be moved in four directions. Its dual-tilting mechanism means you can move the screen to give a clearer view no matter how you have the camera set up, whereas with a vari-angle screen you have to swing the screen out to the side, which might knock cables. There are some other nice touches to the Z9 screen, as well, such as the information screen rotating when you’re in portrait format.
The D850’s 3.2-inch 2,359,000-dot rear screen is actually brighter than the Z9’s and provides a very nice, clear view of your scene. Images look crisp and vibrant, and it’s very responsive to your finger. While it sits on a tilting bracket, it doesn’t have the 4-way tilting functionality that the Z9 provides. Many users would probably prefer the dual-tilting mechanism to a little extra brightness.
Nikon Z9: 0.5-inch 3.69-million-dot, 3,000-nit OLED viewfinder
Nikon D850: Optical with pentaprism 100% coverage and 0.75 magnification
At 3000-nits, the Nikon Z9’s EVF is the brightest viewfinder of any full-frame mirrorless camera on the market. What’s more, it employs dual-stream technology to transfer data from the sensor to the viewfinder for a constant real-time view of your scene.
The D850, of course, is a DSLR so has an optical viewfinder. Some people really prefer an optical viewfinder, but EVF technology has also come a long way since the D850 was launched. This really comes down to user preference, but probably won’t be a deal-breaker in your decision.
Nikon Z9: 5-axis sensor shift giving 6EV shutter speed compensation
Nikon D850: N/A
The Nikon Z9 features a sensor-shifting 5-axis in-body image stabilisation (IBIS) system that offers up to 6EV shutter speed compensation. For anyone shooting sport or photojournalism, this is a huge benefit that allows you to be in the moment and shoot most scenes without having to worry about camera shake.
The Nikon D850 doesn’t offer IBIS, but users can help reduce camera shake by using the camera with Nikon’s lenses that feature Vibration Reduction (VR) technology.
Body & Weight
Nikon Z9: 149 x 149.5 x 90.5mm, 1340g
Nikon D850: 146×124×78.5mm, 915g
The Nikon Z9 is big for a mirrorless camera, but it’s still lighter than Nikon’s flagship DSLRs. More importantly, though, it’s designed to withstand anything. Its heat-dissipating design keeps it cool when recording video. Its weather sealing means you can safely shoot in adverse weather, even at temperatures down to -10C. It’s built to last, even down to its sensor shield that is designed to protect the sensor when you’ve removed a lens or the body cap.
While you wouldn’t describe the D850 as a small camera, it’s a single-grip type and nowhere near as big as Nikon’s other DSLRs. It’s also built to withstand adverse conditions. Nikon made the D850’s top, rear and bottom covers, along with the internal body structure, from magnesium alloy and applied weather- and dust-sealing to all the joints.
Should I sell my Nikon D850?
The Nikon Z9 offers just about everything professional and enthusiast photographers might want from a camera. It’s big and heavy for a mirrorless camera, but it’s also twin-gripped, weather-sealed and a bit lighter than the Nikon D6. On the other hand, it’s not lighter than the Nikon D850. But does that matter?
By all accounts, the Nikon Z9 is one of the most complete cameras we’ve ever seen launched. It reaps all the benefits of mirrorless technology and has huge processing power to deliver a camera that’s designed to get fast-paced action sharp as well as capturing fine-details. And with stunning video capabilities, the Z9 really can do it all. To make it even more enticing, Nikon has also priced the Z9 very competitively in comparison with the Sony A1 and Canon EOS R3.
But should you upgrade from the Nikon D850? The D850 is a very capable camera still to this day. If you’re a hobbyist, you might not utilise all the benefits of the Z9 by upgrading, but if you are a jobbing photographer or have ambitions to become a professional, the Z9 really is worth the investment. It will be a relevant camera for some time. And you should get a good return on your D850 when you trade it in, reducing the price tag even further.
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