Newly acquired D850 - initial impressions...
nikon d850 d610
Now, the D610 is a very good camera, probably one of the most under-rated cameras out there. Hey, six years after they were announced, Nikon still make them and they still list at £1349! There are only two points upon which the D610 and I have issues. The first is the sensitivity of the AF system. Once the light goes, so does any hope of acquiring focus - even with an f/1.4 lens on the front. The sensor will produce an image but it ain’t going to be in focus. The second issue is also AF related and that is the speed of it. Not the speed it acquires focus, that’s fine but the speed with which it can track a subject in AF-C (Continuous Auto-Focus). My dog and her fellow racers, can approach my camera at speeds exceeding 40mph (65kph) and whereas at a distance of 100-200 metres the camera will keep them in in focus, once 5hey get closer than that, although I can keep the AF point on their heads, I end up with pics with only their back legs in focus. That or the camera simply never locks on.
I decided, a while back, that I was probably being a little unfair in asking this of what is, after all, Nikon’s entry level FX DSLR and what I really needed was a D5. (Spoiler alert: I probably still need an D5 but at over £6k it ain’t going to happen!).
Fortunately for me and, I suspect, more than a few others, Nikon have (allegedly) seen fit to put the same focus and metering modules as can be found in the D5 in a couple of other cameras - to whit the D850 and the D500, albeit without the D5’s computing power and ultimate speed.
I agonised about the D500, really I did. It’s a cracking little camera and if I could have two cameras, one of them would probably be a D500. Except, of course, that if I could afford two cameras, I’d spend all the money on one camera and you can guess what that would be! In the end, because of the other kinds of photography I like, I really didn’t want to go back to a cropped sensor. That left the D850...
In truth, although I’ve had the occasional moment of doubt since, I’ve known I wanted a D850 for about fifteen months. I have pondered the options long and hard and I wasn’t biased either because I could t afford any of them, so it didn’t matter upon which side of the proverbial fence I fell off. The D850, on paper at least, is hands down the best DSLR ever made. Very possibly the very best that will ever be made and that alone might be sufficient reason to own one. It has that sensor - 46 megapixels of state of the art, back side illuminated magnificence. I have a sneaking feeling that that sensor is one of those bits of engineering that turned out better than anyone expected. In all honesty, 24mp was enough for me, nice files, didn’t eat too much memory, etc. But I’m very much a budget photographer and I like, okay I have to keep my outfit down to two or three lenses. I regularly buy lenses on eBay to fulfil a particular purpose and then sell them afterwards. 46mp effectively doubles the range of my 300mm zoom!
So, about a month ago I set to sorting out some stuff I liked but didn’t really need, stuff you gather over the years - Montblanc pens, night-vision devices, stuff like that. With all of that and my existing D610 and a couple of lenses I reckoned I could afford a used D850 on eBay. To cut a long story short, one appeared last week - under 800 clicks and equipped with a genuine Nikon MB-D18 battery grip. No 10.8v battery and charger, unfortunately, but I had a spare EN-EL15 left over from the D610, so that would do for now. The auction was scheduled to finish at 02.11, yes eleven minutes last two in the morning. I figured that if I was keen enough I’d wake up in time to bid and I did too. It arrived on Friday evening and it is like new. Really like new.
So, first impressions. It’s lighter than I expected. Apparently it weighs 1005g as opposed to the D610’s 850g, who knew? I can’t say I’d have noticed. It’s a few millimetres higher and wider too, but not as deep. I wouldn’t have noticed that either. The D5 by comparison is almost twice the weight of a D610. In my mind the D850 is about the same size as a D610 and the same ‘density’. Mind you, mine has the battery grip on it so it won’t fit in my Billingham Hadley Pro the way the D610 (just) did. If I’m honest, that was a bit disappointing, I was expecting something with a bit more heft but hey, it’s heft I don’t have to carry. It may be better built than the lesser cameras in the range but it doesn’t feel like it, it’s not like picking up one of Nikon’s single-digit DSLRs.
Of course the D850 is last the threshold of Nikon’s ‘professional’ control layout. Gone is the convenient rotary mode dial and hello bizarre and limited four-button thingy on top of the drive dial. No more U1 and U2, which I had set for low light and fast action respectively. Now I have access to Mode, Metering, White balance and Quality. I’m sorry, mode and metering are fine but no-one, NO-ONE, needs fast access to white balance and quality FFS! I mean, do we run from bright sunlight to fluorescent strip lights, shooting as we go? No. Whereas we DO whilst shooting static landscapes, occasionally see a bit of fast moving wildlife we’d like to shoot... photographically, of course. I sure Nikon’s excuse for this will be that the camera is aimed at professionals who will set it up appropriately for the job in hand. However I would argue that that’s fine for the D5 (and just maybe) the D500 but the D850 is principally, like all the D8** series, an advanced enthusiasts camera and we advanced enthusiasts shoot all kinds of stuff all the time and often all at the same time. We want a camera that is not only versatile but reacts quickly.
Saturday morning, batteries charged AF-P 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6E ED VR attached, and off for our dog walk. Missing those ‘U’ settings already! What do I set it to? Normally, ie in D610 times, I’d set Aperture priority, Matrix metering, ISO100, AF-S and with the lens VR switch to Normal and I’d be ready to knock off the VR and select ‘U2’ if the dogs did something interesting or ‘U1’ if we went to explore one of the abandoned buildings or if we’d just gone out early. I’d been spoilt, none of that familiar comfort this weekend, oh no. I settled for selecting Aperture priority, Matrix metering, and some AF-S mode or other - there are a lot of AF modes on this camera! Off I went, hoping that nothing too interesting would happen for me to miss a picture of!
I took a couple of tentative snaps. First impressions - it’s a comfortable camera to hold and the shutter is quieter than the D610. The mirror is better damped too. The AF-P zoom was always quick to focus but now it seems a hair quicker, hopefully that will prove to be the case. Liking the ability to quickly move the AF point with the little joystick, I don’t think I ever moved the D610’s focus point except for product shots on a tripod. A little further on and I start to prepare myself for the unexpected. What is the minimum I’d have to do to get from its current state into one which could get a decent shot of fast-moving dogs? Okay, I’d need a faster shutter speed, lens being f/5.6 at the long end and it being a cloudy day, that means a higher ISO setting. I’d also need continuous AF (but which one?!). So, shutter, ISO, AF... I didn’t know where any of those things were and my eyesight being what it is, I would have to don my reading glasses to find them! I have to confess, at this point I thought I’d made a mistake, maybe I really should have waited for the D760. I also realised that I’d spent a lot of time with the D610 and thatI really need to give myself and the D850 some time to get our act together. I decided to leave it as it was and go into it a bit more deeply when I got home.
Two days later and I have at least a provisional plan to get me going. Auto-ISO is set to give me a minimum 1/1600 second shutter speed and I can flick between that and a fixed ISO setting reasonably easily without looking at the camera. AutoFocus is set to AF-C 3D tracking which gives me some latitude to focus on an object and then reframe. If I have time, I can select AF-S with on,y one button push and one dial click. That’s still two button pushes and two dials to nearly achieve what would have taken one button push and one dial on the D610. However you look at it and however good you get at it, this is not a step forward and a camera design four years newer should be. I am, at least, confident that I am going to get on with the D850 - which is a bit of a relief, to say the least.
I know there is the option of using the ‘Settings Banks’ both ‘Photo’ and ‘Custom’ but everything I’ve (tried to) read on the subject simply tells me that no one in the entire world can make them work in any useful capacity whatsoever. I’ll try, but later, when I have time.
Why bother? You might be tempted to ask. Don’t start, Z7 people, I know that Z cameras have three ‘U’ settings! I also almost took the risk that future firmware developments might get the Z cameras’ C-AF to a point where it would work for me, but I don’t think it will. The reason I will stick with the D850 is that I will get used to it’s handling quirks and it’ll be worth it because of the files it produces. They are simply incredible and once I’ve sorted the handling sufficiently to capture the images I want, then the results will be more than worth the learning curve.
So there you have it. First impressions. Not love at first sight but I feel optimistic.
It still doesn’t fit in my bag.
If you activate back button focus, there is no need to switch to AF-S. IME, it is best to leave VR activation and exposure lock on shutter button half-press.
The WB button makes life much easier when shooting events in venues with varied lighting, like a church. It makes it much faster to switch between white balance presets. As wedding photographers are one of the main targets for the D8x0 bodies, having the button where it is makes sense.
If you put the settings banks as the first item in the user menu and assign the menu to one of the function buttons, they get much more usable.
The pro and prosumer bodies have an UI that seems arbitrarily quirky when you start using them, but they will make sense once you get used to the new camera.