Nikon D850 Performance
While you can’t leave the D850 completely to its own devices in Matrix metering mode, it’s fairly predictable and an experienced photographer can anticipate when some exposure compensation might be required. If you want print or share-ready images direct from the camera you’re likely to have to dial in some extra exposure if there’s a bright section of sky in the frame – but not always.
When I was photographing kite surfers and my dog on a wet beach, for example, I had to apply +1.3EV exposure compensation to ensure the subject was nice and bright. When I was shooting sunlit dunes, which are also quite pale and bright, however, I found the camera took it all in its stride and no compensation was required.
As the D850 has good dynamic range its images can withstand significant brightening (in excess of 3EV with raw files), so there’s little harm in underexposing to protect every last drop of detail in the highlights.
The D850 has four Auto White Balance options, Keep White (Auto0), Normal (Auto1) and Keep warm lighting color (Auto2), plus Natural Light auto. I used the natural Light auto, Normal and Keep warm for the majority of my images and I was happy with their appearance. Similarly, the Daylight setting also produced good results in outdoor conditions.
I found the default Standard Picture Control is a good all-round option that delivers attractive images in many situations. The D850 is likely to be used by a range of photographers and while many will want to work on raw files, some will need jpegs that are good to go straight from the camera.
The Nikon D850 uses Nikon’s EN-EL15a 7V 1900mAH battery. This provides enough charge for a claimed life of 1840 shots and I saw no reason to doubt it with a prolonged shoot of 550 images, including a few 30sec exposures and lots of reviewing, only decreasing the power level to 3/5ths.
Nikon D850 Autofocus
As it has the D5’s autofocus (AF) system it’s not really a surprise to find that when you’re shooting using the viewfinder the D850 can focus quickly even in low light conditions. It’s very effective. However, it’s worth noting that in common with other full-frame DSLRs, the AF points are somewhat clustered around the centre of the frame and don’t extend close to the edges. This is an inevitable impact of the SLR design as increasing the size of the AF sensor would have significant repercussions for the size and shape of the camera.
When I set the D850’s AF system to use all 153 AF points while I was photographing some kite surfers with the Nikon 80-400mm AF-S Nikkor f/4.5-5.6G ED VR, I found the camera did a good job of tracking the large, colourful kites. When the kite was out of the frame, however, it was less certain and rather than tracking the surfer, it often latched onto the surf in front of or behind the intended target.
I switched to use 25 points so I could specify the general location of the surfer and then try to keep the large active area over the subject. The D850 seemed to get them sharp effortlessly.
Moving up the beach, I (inevitably) turned the camera towards my dog. This time I used 25-point and 9-point continuous focusing and provided I kept the active area over him, he was rendered sharp. It performed just as well when photographing running along a densely wooded track with low light levels.
Nikon has stuck with contrast detection for the D850’s Live View and video modes. While it seems good for a Nikon DSLR (I suspect this is largely due to the high-end processor and good noise control of the imaging sensor), it lags behind that of Canon’s Dual Pixel CMOS AF system which enables faster and more decisive phase detection focusing.
Nikon D850 Image Quality
After shooting with the D850 in a wide range of conditions it’s clear that it’s capable of resolving a lot of detail and noise is kept in good check within the native sensitivity range.
A slight texture of luminance noise is visible in even-toned areas of images shot at ISO 800 if you look for it at 100% on-screen but images shot at lower values are clean and there’s bags of sharp detail.
Images taken at the uppermost native sensitivity setting (ISO 25,600) look good but there’s inevitably some loss of detail. At 100% on-screen some strands of hair in a jpeg of a head and shoulder portrait look nice and clear while others are lost. When these images are sized to around 30x40cm (12×17 inches) they look fine.
Comparing high sensitivity raw files with simultaneously captured jpegs reveals that, as usual, the raw files have a tad more detail visible at 100% although there’s a fine texture of luminance noise. This makes the weave of fabric look a little more natural and crisp in raw files than it does in jpegs. There’s not much difference at normal viewing a printing sizes but if you had two large prints next to each other you’d probably prefer the raw file.
The images taken in the upper expanded range also look pretty decent. That’s not to say I’d use them routinely, I wouldn’t. There’s 100% there’s a crosshatch pattern visible in ISO 102,400 images and the subject looks a bit soft (smudgy even in some places) at normal viewing sizes, but it’s usable for reporting purposes.