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Comparative specifications and a few personal observations
Friday, 6th October 2017

Better and probably more comprehensively detailed elsewhere, but here’s my take on the key performance features of the D850 (excluding its video capabilities) that I’ve noted when specifically comparing the specs with the D810 :-


Higher resolution
The D850 incorporates a totally new, purpose-designed, back-illuminated (BSI) full-frame CMOS image sensor with 45.4Mp resolution and no optical low-pass filter. One of the main advantage of using a BSI sensor is the increased amount of light that it captures thereby improving low-light performance. When rumours about the camera first started circulating it was generally assumed that the sensor would be manufactured by Sony. That’s not the case, as we now know that Nikon designed it specifically for the D850 and has outsourced manufacture to an independent specialist company. The technology is actually a few years old now, but Nikon has taken it to new levels with the sensor officially rated as the best ever according to the latest DxOMark ratings. Their review, which coincidently was published today, concludes with the statement that "the Nikon D850’s image quality is on par with, and often better than, medium-format cameras” and “in a class of its own for image quality”.

The 45.4Mp sensor produces large full size RAW files measuring 8256 x 5504 pixels, compared with 7360 x 4912 from the 36Mp D810. That’s an increase of around 24% or, perhaps more meaningfully, 12% or so in linear measurement. The upside is that in addition to the increase in resolution, the physically larger files provide even more scope for post-process cropping, which is virtually a given requirement with bird photography. The obvious downside, if you think of it as such, is that these larger files need to be handled. If you’re already using a high-resolution camera like the D810 you’ll know what I mean, but if you’re thinking of upgrading to the D850 from a D750, for example, you will need to give a fair amount of consideration to how you will save these files both in camera and subsequently when transferred to your computer. Big files require large memory cards and fast computer systems with adequate storage. The first consideration is memory cards, so that’s the next matter I’ll address within this ‘blog’ section.


Faster frame rate
Bearing in mind that the D5’s sensor is less than half the size, it’s obvious that the D850 isn’t going to get anywhere near the flagship model’s exceptionally fast shooting rate of 12fps. Speed is relative, so with a specification that confirms a performance of 7fps output at full resolution I think it’s fair to say that the D850’s high-speed tag is valid. I believe it’s even more valid when compared with the 5fps standard output of the D810. This 2fps increase is actually a 40% improvement, which in real terms means you’ll capture 10 additional shots for every 5 second burst. The difference in getting the shot or missing the frame as is often the case with the somewhat pedestrian pace of the D810. I feel that Nikon have maintained a sensible balance between a higher output resolution and a faster frame rate, although I personally would have been more than happy if they’d left the resolution at 36Mp and squeezed performance to 8fps.

Optional MB-D18 battery grip
Optional MB-D18 battery grip
 

If you want added performance and are happy to shell out for the optional MB-D18 battery grip and EN-EL18a battery (and charger, unless you also own a D5) the output can be boosted to 9fps.


Increased buffer size
Improved speed is no use without a matching high performance buffer. In this respect I was pleased to note Nikon's confirmation of a 17x improvement with in-camera batch RAW processing speed when comparing the D850’s buffer’s performance with that of the D810. Putting aside the headline figure for full 14-bit lossless RAW capture of approximately 51 frames, the more relevant figure for me is with regard to standard 12-bit lossless compressed files. I photograph wildlife not landscapes and, therefore, I’m looking to maximise the camera’s speed and performance wherever I can. In this respect I'm totally happy with what the smaller 12-bit files produce, so I was delighted to see that with my standard quality settings the buffer will now handle up to 170 frames. If you do the maths you’ll find that figure equates to around 24 seconds of continuous shooting at 7fps, which should more than fulfil any requirements that I’m likely to encounter.


Improved low-light performance
I’m not sure about this one at the moment, but on paper and from a few early reports I’ve read, there should be a small improvement. I doubt it will be much, but any improvement is obviously welcome. Nikon quote a full stop increase at the high end of the native ISO range; now 64-25,600 compared with the D810’s range of 64-12,800. I’ve always found that a lot of factors come into play when shooting at higher ISO’s. For example I’ve taken images with the D810 between ISO-1600 to ISO-3200 that have been perfectly acceptable, but on other occasions I’ve looked at shots at ISO-800 that I haven’t been at all happy with. Obviously the effect of ‘noise’ and whether it’s acceptable or not is subjective, and of course there’s always the argument of whether you’d prefer to capture a less than perfect ‘noisy’ image or no image at all. I agree at the true higher ISO sensitivity levels above say ISO-6400, but with today’s cameras you tend to ‘expect’ a normal usable range of around ISO-200 to ISO-3200 - again this is subjective and dependent on what you actually photograph. Personally I’m keen to see what the shots look like at the higher end of this range particularly as I have a couple of trips in the pipeline where higher than normal ISO settings will be required. Whilst I fully appreciate that the D850 can’t possibly match the D5’s low-light performance, I just hope that I see some noticeable improvement over the D810.


Better autofocusing
As expected, the D850 comes with the 153-point, Multi-cam 20K AF system as used in the D5. It has a slightly wider spread than the 51-point system used in the D810. The sensors are very closely spaced and, therefore, only 55 are manually selectable, whereas you could select all of them in the D810. This means that the general feel in physically moving around the points should be much the same. If you want to navigate through them quicker, and are happy to have them wider spaced, there is an option under custom setting a6 to have just 11 selectable points - the same option that you had in the D810. The following diagram shows the layout of all the AF points, from which you'll see that 99 are cross sensors, 15 of which are sensitive to f/8. The D810 had 15 cross sensors in total with only the centre point capable of f/8. Equally impressive is that the centre point now focuses down to an incredible -4EV, which will really help when trying to shoot in very low-light situations.

153-point AF system
 

Whilst I’ve listed autofocus here in fifth place it’s probably the most important upgrade for me based on the most common problems I was experiencing with the D810. The new AF system should also include a couple of additional features that will be extremely useful, but I shall leave commenting on those until I’ve actually got the camera in my hands and have seen how they work. I’m being slightly cautious here, because I’ve read conflicting reports about one of these features.


More powerful in-camera processing
To deal with all of the above improvements, the D850 includes the latest EXPEED 5 image-processing engine, coupled with a separate dedicated AF engine. The processor also provides greater power efficiency leading to a much improved battery life of around 1840 shots with the new EN-EL15a battery, which is a 50% increase over the 1200 shots that the older EN-EL15 battery of the D810 was quoted to achieve. Talking of battery life, I’ve read that if you use the optional grip noted above with the large EN-EL18a battery you could expect to get in excess of 5100 shots. That’s around 7000 shots in total with both batteries fitted and would, perhaps, for many trips negate the need for taking the heavier charger. I’d dismissed the grip on the basis of cost and weight, but this important feature may make me rethink.

EXPEED 5 image-processor
EXPEED 5 image-processor
Dedicated autofocus engine
Dedicated autofocus engine

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Other important differences when compared with the D810
Whilst the above comments and observations cover the D850’s headline performance features (excluding video), there are many other improvements and changes that should be noted. Some of these are far more significant than others and, like so many features, will inevitably be of different value to different people. On which point, I’m obliged to again note that this is exactly why I took the conscious decision to completely ignore the video capabilities of the camera as I cannot write about something that I don’t use. For me it would be a totally futile and worthless exercise. So, the following are purely the additional features that I think are worth mentioning. I’ll almost certainly comment further on a couple of these in future ‘blog’ posts, but for now I’ll simply present them in the form of a bullet-point list :-
  • improved ergonomics and handling with a redesigned deeper and more comfortable grip,
  • stronger construction with better weather-proofing, partly due to the omission of the built-in flash,
  • bigger and brighter viewfinder with 17mm dia eye point, 100% coverage and 0.75x magnification (Nikon’s highest),
  • inclusion of a tilting TFT touch-sensitive 2.4M-dot resolution LCD, which will be particularly useful for low-level work,
  • sensibly repositioned ISO button, which effectively replaces the mode button which has now been moved to the dial,
  • inclusion of a sub-selector joystick for quicker navigation and control of certain functions such as focus point selection,
  • removal of the dedicated AE/AF-L lock button, presumably to make way for the sub-selector joystick,
  • rear button illumination for low light situations and to assist shooting at night,
  • XQD memory card support, with XQD primary slot and UHS-II SD backup/overflow slot, in lieu of CF and SD in the D810,
  • option for 25.6Mp medium (mRAW) files, for which there are mixed reports - not to be confused with the DX crop mode,
  • improved metering via the 181k-pixel RGB sensor inherited from the D5 - the D810’s is the 91k version from the D4/D800,
  • the newer RGB sensor should also improve focus accuracy and subject tracking as it feeds information to the AF system,
  • inclusion of the new in-built 'auto AF fine tune' adjustment facility, albeit with mixed reviews regarding its accuracy,
  • full-frame silent shooting facility in Live View (a feature that I need to fully understand as I’ve always ignored Live View),
  • pin-point AF control and focus peaking in Live View (as above),
  • incorporation of a focus stacking aid for detailed macro photography where additional depth of field is required,
  • built-in wireless radio flash control for the SB-5000 Speedlight,
  • built-in Bluetooth and WiFi.

D810 - all of the rear controls were nicely placed
D810 - all of the rear controls were nicely placed
D850 - a well thought-out redesign with little compromise
D850 - a well thought-out redesign with little compromise

D810 - my camera has the red 'video button' set for ISO
D810 - my camera has the red 'video button' set for ISO
D850 - the mode and ISO buttons have switched positions
D850 - the mode and ISO buttons have switched positions

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As you can see the two cameras are almost identical in size and with very little difference regarding the layout of the main controls. Switching from the D810 to the D850 should be very easy. In my view Nikon have done a good job redesigning the back of the camera to incorporate the tilt screen, sub-selector joystick and the the new Fn2 button. There is very little compromise unless you're going to miss the AE/AF-L button or specifically liked having the exposure mode selector button close to the shutter release rather than on top of the 'release mode dial' with the quality, white balance and metering buttons. Personally I would far prefer to have the ISO button where it has now been placed. In fact, this is almost exactly where I have it on my D810's as I've programmed the red 'video button' for ISO. If you really want to keep the exposure mode selector grouped together with the exposure compensation (EV) button and the newly placed ISO button, you could always assign it to the 'video button'.

There are many options under the custom control assignment menu and, of course, it's well worth spending time thinking about the various possibilities and deciding which ones would be of benefit to you and your shooting style and camera control preferences. The permutations can become confusing given that there are around twenty 'press' to activate options that can be assigned to the Fn1 and Pv buttons, plus the centre of the new sub-selector joystick. And, that's assuming the AF-ON is used as designed. You then have the new Fn2 button to consider albeit the options there are limited to accessing 'my menu' or star rating images. But, that's not all, because some functions require selection so they must be set separately as 'press + command dial'. That gives you another ten or so options and brings two more buttons into play - bracket and video record. All of those options are under custom menu f1. We can then programme the multi-selector button under f2 and refine the way associated dials and controls work under f3-f9. It's not surprising that many users miss out by not getting their camera set up properly. I had no intention of doing a general 'how I set up my camera' article as there are too many of those on the internet already but, with regard to my previous comment, I will in time (once I've got my camera and are happy with the way it's been set up) publish my customised control settings.


And finally, a couple of omissions and/or talking points
Technology continues to move forward and when it does it may leave changes in its wake that are not always well received. Manufacturing companies have to keep abreast of new technology to survive. But, if you’re a leader within your market segment you have to design and invent in order to keep your product in front of the competition. Without doubt Nikon have achieved that aim with the D850. Obviously there will be comparisons with other cameras, particularly the D5, but also with Canon’s high-megapixel 5DS and the Sony A9 mirrorless. Any such direct comparisons are unfair and somewhat meaningless. The D850 is unique in many ways and should be judged on its own specifications and how it performs. All of my comparisons are with the D810 - the camera I currently use, and the camera that the D850 effectively replaces, albeit Nikon are keen to point out that the D850 is the next generation of DSLR rather than a D810 upgrade. Perhaps it should been called the D900 as I suggested! The comments I’ve made so far regarding the D5 are more to do with technologies that are currently being used in that camera and that are now being incorporated in the D850. Obviously Nikon has to be careful that the D5, D850 and to a lesser extent the D750 (upgrade due) and the D500 (crop-frame) models all maintain a defined position within the range, so a line has to be drawn somewhere.


Why no dual XQD facility?
Notwithstanding those previous comments, I’m still trying to fully understand Nikon’s thinking regarding memory card formats. I will discuss this matter further when I look at the XQD/SD card issue in more detail. But for now I would just question why the D850 incorporates both of these formats rather than having a dual XQD facility as the D5? I’m sure it’s not to do with the cost of having two XQD slots, so it must be in recognition of how expensive XQD cards are currently, and that many users will opt for the cheaper alternative of using fast SD cards. But, if fast SD cards are perfectly acceptable, as they must be because otherwise you wouldn’t be able to use them, then why not have two matched SD slots? I’d also speculate that there are probably more valid reasons for using the much faster XQD format in the D850 rather than in the D5, so even more baffling. XQD has been adopted by Nikon as the new technology to replace CF (Compact Flash). But, CF effectively replaced SD in the higher range models some time ago, so if CF is now dead or certainly dying, then surely SD will follow. This is purely a personal observation and potential talking point.


Removal of the pop-up flash
Another possible talking point is the omission of the built-in flash. Whilst I’m sure that most users will understand why Nikon have removed it, there are bound to be some that found it useful and will miss it popping up. I guess there will also be a few who don’t use flash at all who will be neutral about the decision. Arguably it didn’t offer much as a flash, but it was still a useful feature to have in certain situations. And it doubled as an off-camera flash commander which, I suspect, will be its biggest loss. But, as I noted earlier, cameras have to keep evolving and, in respect of flash, built-in wireless control is the way forward. The hot shoe remains, obviously, for Speedlights or the SU-800 wireless commander, so nothing is lost apart from the convenience of having a small flash built into the camera. An associated point to note is that the FEC (flash exposure compensation) button that was positioned near the pop-up release button on the front righthand side of the camera body has now been moved to the back left and incorporated with the playback zoom out button. If you set your FEC on the camera rather than on the Speedlight you will still be restricted to the same -3 to +1EV range. Set up and operation of a flash is another matter, so I won’t say anymore here as I just wanted to note that the FEC button has been relocated. Anyway, let’s get back to the fact that the built-in flash has been removed and what benefits Nikon saw in making the decision. I believe there were two main advantages. The first was that the pop-up flash weakened the body to some degree. Its omission makes the body stronger, easier to form and more waterproof. The other benefit is that the space it took up provides more room to incorporate the new viewfinder that I noted above. Personally I believe that it was a very sensible decision.


Still no built-in GPS
With all the technological advancements that are currently being made I am still baffled why wireless flash control, Bluetooth and Wi-Fi can be built into new Nikon cameras, but GPS continues to be omitted. The camera supports GPS via an expensive and less than user-friendly module that attaches to the hot shoe, so surely the technology is in place to have an in-built facility the same way that Canon have managed to do it with the 1DX, 5D etc. Nikon must have a good reason, which I can only think is to do with the way GPS can drain the battery.

Di-GPS EcoPro M
Di-GPS EcoPro M
That’s certainly the case when I attach my di-GPS receiver to the D810 via the front 10-pin terminal. I like adding reasonably accurate location data to my photos and the easiest way of doing this, particularly when in remote areas of foreign countries where you have little knowledge of exactly where you are, is via geo-tagging. If I haven’t got a facility for adding geographical coordinates directly to the EXIF data I have to rely on making notes at the end of the day, which means I either have to ask our guide or try to find where we’ve been from a map. It’s just not the same. But, whilst the di-GPS unit is both small and generally reliable it still has to be attached and, if you’re not careful, it can be prone to damage. And, as I’ve said, it will have an impact on your battery life if it’s left on. Consequently, I tend to use to fix a location on one image and then remove it if I’m staying in that general area. I will then have to remount it and obtain another signal if we move to a new location. It works, and I trust it will still work with the D850, but it’s obviously not as convenient as having GPS built-in.


Menu banks
I was rather excited to have the option of saving different camera settings into menu banks when I purchased my D300 back in 2008. It sounded like a great feature. However, I quickly found out that they were nowhere near as useful as I thought they’d be. I spent a lot of time thinking through the different options that could be saved and how I’d use them. There were four ‘shooting banks’ and four ‘custom setting banks’. And, you could mix and match those to cater for many different situations. Well, that was the theory, but in practice I found them as good as useless. Despite my feelings I continued to set them up when I purchased the D700 and again when I upgraded to the D800. I now ignore them completely, such that both my D810’s are set up identically just using the primary A banks. The others are unused. Initially I thought that I must be missing a trick as the facility had to be useful, but when I Googled the subject a few years back I found that many photographers felt the same. The biggest problem is that, apart from the fact that you have to go into the main menu to access each bank in order to make your selections which is too time consuming, the banks don’t actually save the settings. Well, they do when first set, but they don’t memorise them, so if you tweak something in use you have to remember to reset it.

Nikon continue to use these menu banks on the higher specification (so-called professional and prosumer level) cameras as they’re obviously considered more appropriate and flexible for ‘advanced photographers’ than the simple ‘user settings’ option available on less expensive models such as the D750 and D610. I know which I’d prefer. On my wife’s D750 she has a U1 and U2 option on the PASM dial, so surely Nikon could have a similar facility programmed in and selectable via the release mode dial or through the MODE button and command dial. Although I’ve never had a camera with these ‘user settings’ I understand that they can be set to memorise virtually all of your required settings including exposure and AF-area modes that can’t be pre-set in menu banks. If I could design my perfect camera I would prefer a facility like this that can be fully programmed and that can be activated quickly and easily.


Easier AF-area mode selection
Focus mode selector switch and button
Focus mode selector switch and button

Following on from the above, I thought I’d just throw this one in as well as it’s something else that I would like to see changed. Personally I’ve found the small focus mode selector button on the front righthand side of the camera very fiddly to operate and too low to comfortably press whilst keeping the camera to your eye. It’s okay if you’re using a shorter lens, but if you’re handholding with a longer heavier lens you obviously need your left hand to support the lens. You have to use the button to switch between AF-S (single) and AF-C (continuous) servo mode as well as for selecting your required AF-area mode. If you use ‘back button focus’ via the AF-ON button as I do then you’ll only have to worry about using the focus mode button when you want a different focusing area.

Although I’ve only had a brief look, I was rather impressed with the Canon dedicated focus control menu that I saw on the 1DX where all AF related functions are easily accessible. It even has its own superb 47-page guidebook to ensure you understand all the available functions and possible uses. Nikon has some sports focusing tips for the D5 but, as far as I’ve seen, nothing to compare with what Canon provides. As yet Nikon haven’t published anything specific for the D850 apart from the menu guide that accompanies the manual.

Anyway, the D850 doesn’t have a dedicated AF menu and, therefore, you have to find the best way of setting up the camera to be able to change the AF-area mode in the quickest way possible. Fortunately, there are a couple of things you can do to speed up selection. The first is to limit your choices so that you only cycle through the actual area modes you use. That means you can cut eight options down to possibly three or four. Additionally, you can also set the camera so that you only use AF-C which prevents you inadvertently switching to AF-S. In fairness this one is probably only useful for 'back-button focus’ users as previously noted. That was about it with the D810, but the D850 comes with the D5/D500 AF system and that means that you now have the very useful option of setting up an alternative AF-area mode on the front Pv or Fn1 buttons. And, bearing in mind that I haven’t actually been able to try this out yet, a further alternative for AF-area mode + AF-ON, which can be programmed to the small sub-selector joystick, which is perfectly positioned below the normal AF-ON button. I really hope that this new option is as good as it’s cracked up to be, because it could be exceptionally useful.


Final words
I’ve learnt a lot about the D850 from carefully going through the specifications and manual, reading various reviews and from writing this article, but all of this is theory as I continue to wait for my camera to be delivered. Rightly or wrongly I decided not to be first in the queue. I thought I’d wait until after the first shipments were made just in case there were any issues. Nikon have had such problems before. That doesn’t seem to have happened this time despite some reviewers almost trying to find something to criticise. I’ve recently read that the States have now had their third shipment and that some retailers even have stock as all pre-orders have been satisfied. As far as I’m aware, at the time of writing, the UK is still waiting for its second shipment. My camera went on pre-order about a month ago and, despite it coming from the country’s largest photographic retailer, I still can’t get any indication of when I’ll receive it. They won’t even tell me how many orders sit in front of mine. It’s rather frustrating, particularly as I wanted to take it on a trip next month. That’s probably not going to happen now, which is a real bummer. I’ll just carry on waiting, and in the meantime continue to read any new reviews and share any further thoughts that I have.



Tony - 'tickspics'
Friday, 6th October 2017

Related links and selected articles :
> Return to the D850 diary section home page
> If you haven't already done so, please read 'what I'm trying to achieve' with this D850 diary come 'blog' section
> Read the next article, entitled 'memory cards and related issues'



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