Nikon D850: All Hail the Queen

Nikon D850: All Hail the Queen

Sometimes it pays to appreciate the one you’re with.

A photographer’s relationship with their camera is something like a marriage. It can take forever to find Mr. or Mrs. Right. You always have cold feet leading up to finally saying “I do.” When you finally do take the plunge, you immediately find yourself in a honeymoon period where your new partner can do no wrong. Where everything they say has an extra bit of charm. Where everything just seems to work out right. That period is quickly followed by the discovery that your spouse is, in fact, human like everyone else. They have their quirks and shortcomings too. And a major part of a happy relationship is not expecting to change your partner into someone they are not, but instead accepting them for everything they are, good and bad, and loving them anyway.

There is a thing called the “Seven Year Itch” immortalized by the iconic image of Marilyn Monroe standing atop a New York City ventilation grate doing just enough to keep her white skirt from flying above a PG rating. Of course, for some, it’s more like seven weeks. But inevitably over the course of your relationship, your eyes may begin to wander causing your brain to follow suit. Odds are that you’ll never act on your newly invoked impulses, but still, you can’t seem to help yourself. You start to see your alternatives. You maybe begin to daydream a bit about what life would be like had you married someone else. You might even consider trading in your current spouse for a younger model.

Then one day, on a particularly mundane morning with no special signifier other than it being Flag Day in some far off land you’ve never so much as heard of, you will look across the breakfast table at your spouse and the window light from your modest kitchenette will catch them at just the right angle. They will brush the hair from their face in a way that you’ve seen so many times before than you can picture it with your eyes closed. Noticing your gaze, they will look back at you through kind eyes. The arch of their lips will soon follow and you will suddenly, unexpectedly, find your own lips rising to match their silent smile. And, it’s in that moment that you realize, no matter whatever other options for beauty may exist in the world, no one, and I mean no one could ever be as beautiful as this.

No, I didn’t set out this morning to write an article to inspire readers to renew their wedding vows. Instead, it was just the best analogy to describe the joy you feel when the camera you have is exactly the right one for you.

As an Fstoppers writer, I sometimes get the chance to play with all the shiny toys such as Sony’s excellent A7RIII. And, outside of my professional work, I often choose to shoot with the Fuji X series. The pocketable X100S has been my trusty street photography camera for years. I recently wrote an article about the X-T2 as what I feel is one of the best-designed cameras I have ever held in my hand. It brings pure joy to the photographic process.

But, when it comes time to getting down to work, to actually creating the images that put food in my belly, I have always turned to the brand that started it all for me, Nikon. The Nikon D200 took my digital virginity. That was eventually followed by the D700, then the D800. Recently I’ve upgraded to the new model, the D850, and man oh man am I happy to have her in the family.

She has all the curb appeal a man could ask for. A massive 45.7MP sensor. 4K video recording to die for. A nice large and bright touch screen LCD. And paired with my 24-70mm f/2.8 the autofocus is rapier fast.

Of course, that particular combination of lens and camera is also on the hefty side coming in at 4.37 pounds when held together. Add the battery grip and you find yourself looking forward to setting the camera down once in a while to give your arms a rest. Not that you lack the power to lift 4 pounds, but compared to most mirrorless systems, the weight is noticeable. Again, every spouse has their flaws. No one is perfect.

But like a marriage, the true value of a great camera like the D850 only grows over time. Sure, that fancy model you met at the park may be great for one night of dancing. But are they going to be there for you when times get tough? Are they going to go into battle with you, day-after-day, and deliver consistent results? The D850 will.

The other day I was doing a shoot for a large outdoor brand. The theme of the shoot was trail running. The client specifically wanted the shots to feel “lived in.” They didn’t want posed shots. They wanted shots of someone actually running that were captured “in the moment.” The brief required me to do the shoot in a somewhat remote location. For practical reasons like avoiding crowds and creating a realistic mood, I decided that the best approach would be for me to actually run several miles with the model and shoot along the way. And since this was a photoshoot, that plan required me to run those miles with my camera.

Thankfully, I like to run. So, the cardio portion of the task wasn’t a major stumbling block. And while securing the camera safely inside my pack was a great benefit to my back, my primary concern was reducing the strain on my camera and lens from the constant vibrations of my slow jog along the path. Happily, I can say that between intelligent packing and careful stepping both cameras made it home okay.

Oh, right. I forgot to mention I was carrying two cameras. You see, in addition to being a photographer, I am also a bit of a masochist. Knowing that the most likely usage for these images would be in an advertorial (printed in a magazine) versus outdoor advertising (billboard), I actually entertained the idea of shooting the series with my small mirrorless crop sensor camera instead. It would be significantly lighter for jogging purposes. And since the original plan was for the images not to be printed excessively large, the image quality produced by the mirrorless system would be plenty adequate for the job. But, of course me being me, I was also stricken with a competing thought. What if, upon seeing the series, the client decided they did want to use the images for printing super large? Usually, that is known prior to a shoot, but this particular client is a bit unique (I am intentionally not identifying the client since the series is not yet public). But, if the client did decide, after the fact, that they wanted to use the images in a billboard campaign, having the extra resolution would be a major plus in getting the work accepted (and getting me an improved paycheck for additional license fees). So which choice would I make?

Well, going back to my previous claim of masochism, or stupidity depending on how you look at it, I decided to bring both. I knew I would primarily shoot the series on my Nikon. But I wanted to shoot a few frames with the other camera as well to get a sense of how the two would stack up one-on-one.

Well, from the title of the article, I’m guessing you already know who won. Of course the Nikon won. It’s full frame versus crop sensor. It’s 46MP versus 24MP. It’s not exactly an apples versus apples comparison. And these two cameras serve very different purposes and both perform their specific tasks very well. This essay is not meant to be a knock on any camera model or a pixel peeping declaration of quality. That's not the moral of the story.

But sitting in front of Capture One, going over the images from the shoot, I was suddenly reminded just how well the Nikon D850 does its job. Suddenly, I was sitting at that breakfast table again, being reminded in a flash just how much I love my wife. Pulling out shadow detail in post from a supremely contrasty day without adding significant noise to the image. Cropping in to adjust my chronic tendency towards uneven horizon lines. Preparing multiple cropped orientations from the 46MP files to give my client options for their various layouts. Pushing in to wide shots of my subject running towards the camera in the distance, checking focus with the loupe tool, and seeing eyes as tack sharp as if shot close up in a controlled studio.

Image after image, I was simply blown away by the quality. It was as if the D850 knew I had brought a competitor into its arena, and stepped up its game to not only beat but crush the opponent and to remove any doubt. I thought back to reading Laura Hillenbrand’s book “Seabiscuit: An American Legend” where she describes the legendary race horse’s tendency to simply trot during its solo training sessions, much to the annoyance of its trainers. But the second you put a second horse on the track, no matter it’s physical attributes, Seabiscuit would take his pace to another level and outrun his opponent for sheer pride alone. In the face of competition is where the horse’s true greatness would shine. Going through my files, I felt as though the D850 had noticed the presence of the second camera in the bag and decided to throw down the gauntlet. It wanted to remind me who was boss. It succeeded.

As our relationships grow with time, it is part of human nature that we begin to undervalue the people in our lives that are “always there.” We tend to go looking for the next best thing, gleefully deluding ourselves into thinking that the grass is always greener on the other side. But sometimes moments come along to remind us just how good we already have it. We take a fresh look at the parts of our life that have become “routine,” and suddenly remember that they are anything but.

I’ve been shooting Nikon professionally for thirteen years now and the D850 has only taken my appreciation to the next level. Looking forward to seeing our relationship develop for years to come.

Christopher Malcolm's picture

Christopher Malcolm is a Los Angeles-based lifestyle, fitness, and advertising photographer, director, and cinematographer shooting for clients such as Nike, lululemon, ASICS, and Verizon.

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"Of course, that particular combination of lens and camera is also on the hefty side coming in at 4.37 pounds when held together." Love handles! :-)

i've never used nikon, and yet, it seems clear, this is the best camera in the market at the moment !

Whether it's true or not, it's refreshing to hear someone say that about a camera from a brand other than their own.
BTW, I love your photos! :-)

thanks mate, appreciate the feedback! i'm faithful to my fuji gear as it brings me a lot of joy using it and don't feel i need to change, but hat's off to nikon for producing such a balanced and strong camera! It would be stupid to not recognize what they have done with the D850 !! It's a hell of a camera!

We just used it for the first time for a major shooting and it was indeed spectacular to work with. Ease of use and the RAW files are the best I have seen so far in the 35mm full format arena.

I think this was a good analogy and very relate-able! Thanks for the essay Chirstopher

I love my gear!

D850 for me is a big step up specially in focusing! I do upgrade my cameras in 2 years cycle and since last year D850 is my low light king beating D4s in focusing speed and accuracy hands down. Files are big but nice to work with, D810 has great files up to ISO 800 this beast is easy workable to 2500 ISO for me in low light... amazing!!! For weddings and corporate events this was a great step up, for sports D4s or D5 are still in its own league in many cases for me! Happy shooting everyone.

"beating D4s in focusing speed and accuracy hands down"
Interesting to read that, because I'm considering buying a D3s for low-light shooting. While it's beyond my budget, how much better is the D850?

D3s is a great camera, I just sold it couple months back and I had it for almost 6 years !!! working hard with over 370K images on the shutter. It paid back for what it was doing hundreds of times within those 6 years. The reason it has been sold is simple, the 6 year progress in AF was very noticeable, specially in low light. D3s had only one cross AF in the middle, well D850 has handful of them and they are sensitive at least 2 extra EV stops of light darker environments like D3s was. I most of the time use centre focus point in AF S only, and for focusing I use back button focus 90% time and pressing shutter release the rest of the time when needed. D850 grabs focus so fast it is ridiculous to watch :). My most used lenses with it are 70-200 AFS VR II and 24-70 AFS... not the latest versions of lenses in this focal length but they are sharp, fast and consistent so unless I broke one of them / which I do :) / then I will keep shooting with them and then switch to new version... I would not buy D3s if I were you, the technology has passed it now and if you compare prices of D5 and D850 definitely for budget aware shooter go with D850... I still have D810 for portraits which do not require fast AF as another body when I work with ISO-64-400 shoots but then once I cross those it is D4s and D850 combo I use, noise on those is so smooth and easy to control in C1 or LR... Happy shooting :) David

I use the same combination of camera and lens and very happy with results. Upgraded from D-810 which was already good but D-850 files are even better. And I like the skin tones for portraits better too.

My D810 is still beyond my own capabilities as a photographer, so I have no need to upgrade - but I did get to give the D850 a spin a couple weeks ago and man, it is a great camera. The tilt screen, improved low-light AF, BSI sensor, better EFCS implementation, and expanded video capabilities are the most desirable upgrade features for me. If I ever need to replace my D810 or get a second body, this would definitely be it.

The 850 is a great camera. The A7RIII is also great. The horse running behind here is Canon. I left that ride and I am not looking back.

Great analogy on how we should stick to our marriage vows. I don't think my wife would like to be compared to a camera though.I love most of my cameras. A bit of a polygamist when it comes to cameras.good article. Makes me think one day one of these cameras may be a good addition to add to my "harem".

I like your analogy too :-). My own "harem" is at four at the moment and it's always fun deciding which to use when.

The first few paragraphs made me wanna puke, but my wife left me. I still have my camera so it's all good.


Ordered a D850 from Amazon about 10 days ago, but they still can't even predict when they'll have one to ship. :(

Darn, you are 3 days ahead of me.

I had the same problem. Nikon is always backordered. But the camera is definitely worth the wait.

I don't really mind waiting... it's just that they can't even tell me how long I'll be waiting. It's like being a kid and being told that Christmas will come someday - you just can't count it down specifically.

Gave up and canceled my order - the details on Nikon's new mirrorless models will be available soon, and it makes sense (for me) to evaluate that option before putting $3500 into a newer DSLR body.

I'm a Nikonian and yes, I totally agree with each and every sentence of this article. I do not own it, I rented it and my oh my was I blown away by the results. In my case, I paired it with the Nikon 70-200 VRII 2.8. Priceless.

I found the D850 to be too large and heavy. I like the Sony A7riii and D750.

I would think, even the A7RIII and D750 would be too big for a little duck. ;-)

Kindred spirit. I shoot a D810 (my 850 is on order) and a Fuji X100F on the street. I use only prime lenses, the weight of the zooms is a bit much for a guy approaching 70 to handle.

Been shooting Nikon for 50 years now, won't have it any other way -- even after all of my other pro friends jumped ship for Canon many moons ago.

My daughter gets all my hand-me-downs, so this is a family affair now...

I used the D850 the other day with just a fast 50mm prime and loved the balance of that setup. The 24-70mm zoom definitely gets heavy. But I love the images I get out of it.

Mine arrives Tuesday. Looking forward to getting acquainted...

I'm ready to upgrade from the d7200, but the combination of the 14-24 not taking standard filters and the 24-70 VR just sucking with regard to sharpness probably means I'm going to abandon Nikon and the D850 and go to Sony. Waiting to see what the Nikon/Canon mirrorless market holds.


Really? I have the 24-70 E and it's plenty sharp. Maybe I'm not zooming in far enough to see it. ;-)

I pixel peep like mad. It's pathological.

If someone stole all my canon gear, I’d totally move over to this beauty with the insurance money.

Just leave it on a bench in park and watch to have it stolen :) and get the D850 then :) Cheers

Paid advert I asume.

Why do you think that?

I use other cameras for travel. But when I work I use the D850 and am reminded why I am thankful to have it. Stunning quality.

Oh, yeah. Travel is all Fuji for me. Either the XT2 or X100S. Can't beat the weight. My Nikon gets the call on "game day" :-)

For anyone still following this thread - just placed an order for a D850 from Allen's Camera ( in Levittown, PA. Brandon replied very promptly to my inquiry, they do have some in stock. They are an authorized dealer (found them from Nikon's site).

For a year old repost post. This is interesting as the D850 is very dated by today's standards.
Canon R5 makes it look positively primitive with the D850 primitive AF in video lack of FF 8K lack of 20 fps etc.
Plus the primitive last legs F mount and flippy mirror.

Z50 is now better.