Nikon D850 vs. D500 vs. 600mm f/4E vs. (NATO) fighter jets: Arrivals

As I mentioned in my previous article, I started off shooting with the D500 as I assumed it would get me ‘closer’ to the jets. However a major drawback is that you can only get the composition you’re looking for in a fraction of a second as these jets fly pretty fast (like most of them do). Before you know it they are already too close end you up with only a nose, tail, piece of wing or in most cases, empty sky.

So I found myself looking for more for ’empty space’ around the jets during shooting to crop/recompose later on, given sufficient pixels off course… which is just what the D850 has!

Swiss F/A-18 (Tiger) Hornet landing
Nikon 600mm f/4E FL on Nikon D850, f/5.6, 1/3200 s., ISO 220, AF Area Mode: 3D-tracking, hand-held

The D850 is perfect for the job, except for one, or perhaps 2 features it’s missing, compared to the D500:

  • Frame rate: you get 9 frames/sec. with the D850 (battery pack attached, off course) vs. 10 frames/sec. with the D500. 1 frame may not seem that big of a deal, but in reality it does make a difference. However, this is still quite ‘manageable’ compared to the D500.
  • Image buffer: this one IS a big deal. You get a 51 image buffer with the D850 (RAW, lossless compressed, 14-bit) compared to 200 images with the D500. An image buffer fills up very, very quickly. When there is only one jet flying by you may be OK, but when there are 3 or 4  flying towards you and you want to capture them all… your D850 is still busy emptying the buffer to your XQD card while the action is passing by. And forget about the SD card, it’s totally useless in this context. During one morning I actually managed to fill my XQD card completely after which my D850 switched to the SD card… That works nicely when you are shooting tulips (just had to give a typical Dutch example) but forget about any fast action for 20-30 seconds or more.

Swiss F/A-18 Hornet (Tiger) pilot
Nikon 600mm f/4E FL on Nikon D850, f/5.6, 1/3200 s., ISO 140, AF Area Mode: 3D-tracking, hand-held

So while I was learning these new lessons from the ‘fighter jet field’ (literally), I was wondering why I was having this challenge in the first place. It would be so easy for Nikon to simply add more memory to the D850’s buffer and voilá, you have a high-resolution, high-DR, fast-action camera. Wouldn’t it be amazing to have a D850 with a 200 image buffer?

French fluffy mascotte… don’t leave home without it!
Nikon 600mm f/4E FL on Nikon D850, f/5.6, 1/3200 s., ISO 220, AF Area Mode: 3D-tracking, hand-held

But then I was thinking… why would Nikon want to do this? Or perhaps, why would Nikon NOT want to do this? The logical answer seemed to me: they would kill their own pro-level DSLR market. Nikon’s flagship D5 does have a 200 image buffer size, with a 20 MP full frame sensor. If Nikon would release a 46 MP full frame DSLR with a much better DR compared to the D5 (which is what the D850 has) and similar buffer size, many professional photographers would not consider the D5 anymore for sure. As such, image buffer size is, in a sense, a ‘photography currency’, next to other ones like DR, frame rate, sensor size/FX/DX etc.

US F-16 pilot landing
Nikon 600mm f/4E FL on Nikon D500, f/4, 1/4000 s., ISO 250, AF Area Mode: 3D-tracking, hand-held

However, even with that limited buffer size the images on my D850 just looked better compared to my D500. The excellent DR and those 46 megapixels give you so much freedom to capture and edit the images you’re after. I also learned quite quickly to stop pressing the shutter regularly to give the buffer enough time to empty – or at least empty enough to accept another 20-30 shots for a couple of seconds.

Another US F-16 pilot landing
Nikon 600mm f/4E FL on Nikon D850, f/5.6, 1/3200 s., ISO 250, AF Area Mode: 3D-tracking, hand-held

And last but not least, there is Nikon’s amazing continuous-autofocus mode: 3D-tracking. I started off shooting with my D500 in ‘single’ continuous autofocus as this is the setting I almost always use in nature photography. However when I noticed soon that my keeper rate was pretty poor, I remembered my positive experiences with shooting snowy owls with 3D tracking. This is the perfect setting for in-flight fighter jets as well: both my D500 and D850 got >90% of the shots in focus (composition wasn’t always great but at least in focus!).

In fact, the main reason why I still prefer Nikon over any of the other brands in the market is a combination of their excellent sensors, built-like-a-tank pro-level bodies, and excellent autofocus system in their pro series. Which is also the main reason why I’m holding back on the new Nikon mirrorless models (Z7/Z6): these do not have the same autofocus performance as on the D5/D500/D850. If/when Nikon releases a ‘Z9’ with similar 3D-tracking performance, I’ll be one of the first to take it to the test. …Hope this will happen still in this life time :)

I’ll post another couple of articles soon… so stay tuned!

And for any queries or comments, simply drop me a note at:

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