Nikon D850 review part 1: first impressions from the Great Bear Rain Forest

Another magic place on earth: the Great Bear Rainforest in British Columbia, Canada: a huge (32000 km2) protected park, about an hours flight north of Vancouver (reachable by boat and car as well – the road trip is not for the fainthearted). The home base of our trip was a lodge about 45 mins. drive from Bella Coola (population app. 2000), in the middle of pretty much nowhere. Nowhere being thousands of acres of rainforest and a massive network of rivers; rivers that are completely filled with spawning salmon. So much salmon in fact, that the bears have the luxury to stay in their own territories and do not have to visit each other and compete for juicy fish. They simply relax in their personal piece of the forest (with their little bears) and every now and then, when they develop an appetite, take a stroll along the river and get a little snack or two, after which they go back and relax some more. What a life…

Nikon 600mm f/4E FL on Nikon D850, f/4, 1/1250 s., ISO 720, -0.7 exp. comp.

Just before I left for this trip, Nikon released the D850 DSLR. “Released” is perhaps a little too much said: first it was announced, then in a first batch in very small amounts delivered to a small number of retailers around the globe, after it became immediately and completely sold out. All of this because of a couple of very interesting, and market-disrupting specs (next to a nicely carried out marketing campaign with all sorts of ‘leaks’ getting out, slowly building up the excitement and off course demand…): a whopping 46 MP (45.7 to be precise), ISO and dynamic range equal or better than the D810 (the de-facto high-quality 35mm DSLR standard at the time), and whole bunch of new features but most importantly: a crazy 9 frames per second (with additional battery pack MB-D18; 7 fps without). 46 MP with 9 fps…now that’s a market disruptor!

So I decided to kindly ask, beg, bug and whatever have you, my local camera retailer for this D850 as I was going on this trip to the Great Bear Rainforest. What an opportunity that would be for some first impressions in a real ‘Life/Nature’ situation! Next to that, I was quite keen to break my Nikon D800(e) and D810 curse of the dreaded focus (or rather out of focus) points. However, unlike my friends and colleagues in North America, for some reason Nikon Europe does not prioritise any NPS members and they will just have to stand in line like everyone else to get their hands on this new gadget. Whether it was luck or something else (my bugging/begging), my retailer was so kind to let me provide them a couple of thousand Euros again, and off I went with a brand new Nikon D850, incl. battery back.

The very first thing that strikes you is the professional ‘feel’ of the camera. It just feels rock solid, similar to my D4S and D500. Then, when you put your favourite wildlife lens on it (in my case the 600mm f/4E FL), it focuses as fast as my D4S and D500. So that’s all good as well. But when you take your first couple of test shots, behold this crazy resolution: 46MP! What does that look like? So here’s the non-cropped test image, taken with my 600mm lens, which compared to looking at this with my naked eye already gives quite some modification:

Nikon 600mm f/4E FL on Nikon D850, f/4, 1/160 s., ISO 900, -0.7 exp. comp. (no crop)

Now we crop to 100%; something I would almost never do, but I may crop to something around 50% if it turns out my object was too far and my 600mm wasn’t long enough:

Nikon 600mm f/4E FL on Nikon D850, f/4, 1/160 s., ISO 900, -0.7 exp. comp. (100% crop)

So that’s what 46 MP looks like on a D850 with a 600mm super telephoto lens… A tree your eyes can hardly distinguish turns into individual leaves and twigs, from more that 100 meters away. Incredible. I’m sure in 10 years from now all this is old school, but for now it’s incredible.

The other thing that becomes clear is the way the D850 handles dynamic range: in the Great Bear Rainforest it actually doesn’t rain all the time (why do they call it that way then…?) and in fact, it was quite warm and sunny during our visit. The camera will then have to deal with relatively harsh late morning light in combination with dark shadows from the trees, which you’d like to bring all back in post. For those who are a big fan of the D5 better skip this section now…

When you’re retrieving your shadows you obviously want to leave the noise where it is. And this does happen in situations with a lot of light where you shoot with low ISO, like the image below. The Nikon D4/D4S does a great job at this, and the D810 even better. However the D5 does not which is why I kept my D4S (I got some critique for not liking the D5, but I can’t change the facts…). The D850 has a similar dynamic range profile as the D810 (at level or slightly above) which is remarkable for those additional 10 MP on the same sensor size, and editing of the images in for example PhotoShop is a relatively easy task.

Nikon 600mm f/4E FL on Nikon D850, f/5.6, 1/1250 s., ISO 280, 0 exp. comp.

On the other hand, images that are shot at low ISO and do not have strong blacks or highlights that need maintenance, demonstrate the relatively high dynamic range of the D850.

Nikon 600mm f/4E FL on Nikon D850, f/4, 1/1600 s., ISO 110, -0.3 exp. comp.

So what we have is a pro-level DSLR with an amazing 9 fps (battery pack attached), a crazy 46MP resolution, and similar or better dynamic range as the D810. I did bring my D4S on this trip but I felt no need to actually use it: the additional 30 MP from the D850 did not outweigh the additional 2 fps from the D4S. The D4S is a sweet professional camera which I really like and has served me well, but Nikon has now produced an interesting alternative to their pro-level DSLRs (D4S/D5).

What’s not to like about this camera? There are two things…

  1. Is your current computer/laptop slow? Then think again when you buy the D850. Editing images is going to be sloooow… I now have to upgrade my laptop to be able to handle the 46MP files in just seconds vs minutes it’s now taking me. And the fact that Apple was not able to succeed in architecting their MacBooks with more than 16GB (in the year 2017 AD!!) is not helping either (but that’s a different story).
  2. Images shot with my D4S were almost always sharp. So were they on my D3S, and my D750. But when you start playing with 36+ MP you get into the situation where you find that your images may look sharp at first glance, but cropped at 100% they seem just ‘almost sharp’. I find I have to raise my shutter speed between 1 and 2 stops to get to an acceptable sharpness level. This was already a known fact with the D810 and this finding is relevant to the D850 as well. It’s now up to our camera manufacturers to start improving the VR on lenses as well as in-camera (not present yet in Nikon…) so we can enjoy the full quality of these sensors.

Nikon 600mm f/4E FL on Nikon D850, f/4, 1/1250 s., ISO 720, +0.3 exp. comp.

In my next article I’ll continue my review with more images (from this planet and beyond) and a bit less ‘impressions’… stay tuned!

Please note that these images are protected by copyright and are not allowed to be used in any commercial way. If you’re interested in personal use only (like using as personal desktop/tablet/mobile background) then that’s fine; however any other use is prohibited by law.

And as usual, for any questions, comments or feedback, simple add comments below (preferred) or otherwise drop me a note at: enquiry@fliek.com

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