45.7 megapixels of full-frame glory: This is the Nikon D850

Calling it the “new benchmark in DSLR image quality,” Nikon officially announced the promised D850 after teasing it all summer. A professional camera designed to replace the capable but aging D810, it is built around a 45.7-megapixel, backside-illuminated (BSI) full-frame (FX, in Nikon terms) sensor. Despite that high pixel count, the camera achieves a continuous shooting speed of up to 7 frames per second (fps), or 9 fps when using the optional battery grip and an EN-EL18-series battery, making the D850 considerably more versatile than other cameras of similar resolution.

We had a chance to try out the D850 during a press briefing, and while we can’t yet comment on image quality, the look and feel is quite similar to the D810 — big and heavy, with lots of buttons, which are now illuminated for easy visibility at night. In fact, it’s difficult to tell the difference between the two cameras when glanced, like the new autofocus-assist light on the front, repositioned buttons, and other subtle design changes. It’s weather sealed, with a build quality equivalent to the D500, according to Nikon.

What is noticeable is a new 3.2-inch rear display that tilts and completely touch-capable, which is handy for adjusting viewing angles and settings during live-view mode. The display’s 2,359k-dot resolution is an increase over the D810’s 1,229k dots. Existing pro Nikon owners, particular the D810 (a DT Editors’ Choice camera in 2014) should find transitioning to the D850 seamless. But it’s really the changes inside the camera that matters.

Other enhancements include 4K video, a vibration free, fully electronic shutter in live view mode for silent operation and battery preservation; dual memory card support with one XQD and one SD slot (change from CompactFlash and SD); radio control speedlight support; 180,000-pixel RGB sensor for metering; 1:1 square crop mode; focus stacking; and Nikon’s widest and brightest optical viewfinder ever put into a DSLR with 0.75x magnification. Battery life is very good, with a CIPA rating of 1,840 exposures per charge (or about 70 minutes of video). Nikon has also thrown in its SnapBridge tech which uses Bluetooth Low Energy for always-on, automatic image transfers to an iOS or Android device. We’re not sure how useful that will be with such large files, but the feature is there for those who want it for, say, uploading to social media.

We will have a proper hands-on review soon, when we can discuss more on actual performance and output. In the meantime, here are a few early impressions.

Plenty of pixels and improved ISO

“It’s an evolution of a revolution,” Nikon told Digital Trends. True, you could argue that the D850 isn’t revolutionary, but there seems to be a lot to love about it, with the 45.7MP sensor a big selling point. This is the first BSI sensor for Nikon and just the second full-frame BSI sensor on the market, following the 42.5MP unit in the Sony A7R Mark II. BSI sensors place the circuitry on the back of the sensor (hence the name), improving the light-gathering capability compared to traditional sensors which run the circuitry over the front. This allows for high pixel counts without sacrificing much in the way of light sensitivity. Indeed, the D850 boasts a broad ISO range from a base of 64 all the way up to 25,600, one stop higher than the 36MP D810. Like the D810’s sensor, the D850 doesn’t employ an optical low-pass filter.

It remains to be seen if real-world image quality will accurately reflect that specification advantage, but, naturally, Nikon is confident in the D850’s performance. Nikon Ambassador Jerry Ghionis, who has been testing the camera pre-launch, even compared it to medium-format quality. “The resolution is out of this world,” he said in a statement released by Nikon. This could possibly be a shot across the bow of companies working to produce cheaper medium-format cameras, such as the 50MP Hasselblad X1D.

High resolution meets high speed

The D850 is made to do much more than simply provide ultra-high-resolution photographs. With a burst rate of up to 9 fps, it can handle the needs of most sports photographers, as well, provided they purchase the optional battery grip. Nikon says the image buffer can hold 51 frames of 14-bit lossless RAW files or a staggering 170 frames of 12-bit lossless RAWs. That’s not quite as many as the sports-oriented Nikon D5, but that camera uses just a 20MP sensor; the file size of each 45.7MP image coming out of the D850 is undoubtedly much larger. If space is a concern, the D850 offers three different RAW file sizes.

Also of benefit to sports shooters, the D850 uses the same, 153-point autofocus system found in both the D5 and the and D500, of which 99 are cross-type. The central point has a -4 EV sensitivity (the rest are -3), while 15 points can focus to as slow as f/8, which is why Nikon tells us the D850 is ideal for wildlife photography.

We’re glad to see Nikon expanding on the use of XQD cards, which offer superior read and write performance  over Compact Flash and SD. While the advantages of XQD are obvious to sports and action shooters, any photographer working with such large files will appreciate the faster transfer speeds when it comes time to offload the data to their computer. Unfortunately, Lexar, one of two XQD card makers (the other being Sony), is shutting down. The future of this format may look uncertain, but Sony is using it in its cinema products, so we doubt XQD will be going away anytime soon.

4K video and 8K time-lapse

The addition of 4K video is expected, but Nikon has stepped up its video game with the D850. Unlike its other 4K-capable DSLRs (the D5, D500, and D7500), the D850 records 4K from the full width of the sensor without cropping. This allows filmmakers to retain the full field of view of their lenses and, potentially, the same noise characteristics of a full-frame sensor. Nikon did not say whether it employed line skipping, pixel binning, or oversampling to achieve the full-width readout, but as 45.7 million pixels is many times more than what’s required for 4K, how those pixels are processed will play a big role in the final quality of the video.

4K resolution is limited to 24 or 30 fps, but drop down to 1080p and the D850 can shoot up to 120 fps for slow-motion playback. With a built-in intervalometer, it also features in-camera assembly of 4K time-lapse sequences — but there’s plenty of resolution to create 8K time-lapse videos in post (the camera will not do 8K time-lapse internally).

Like other pro-level Nikons, the D850 also features clean HDMI output for uncompressed 8-bit 4:2:2 recording to an external device, such as an Atomos Shogun Inferno. Additionally, headphone and microphone jacks come standard.

Price and availability

The Nikon D850 will be available in September and retail for $3,300 (about $300 more than the current price of the D810, which is getting a price drop). The MB-D18 battery pack will go for $400, but users after the 9-fps burst rate will need to drop another $150 for an EN-EL18b battery. Another optional accessory that’s interesting for film shooters is a adapter that lets you digitize photo negatives and slides.

Nikon is hosting a live-stream on August 29 ahead of the release to provide more detailed information on the new camera. You can tune in at 6 p.m. (ET) to learn more. Again, we will have more thoughts on performance and output, so stay tuned.

Update August 29, 2017: Nikon explained more details of the D850 today in the live-stream, including the much talked about Focus Shift and Negative Digitizer modes, two features that appeal to relatively small subsets of users but are critically important for them. Focus Shift provides automated focus adjustments for macro photography, leading to a series of photos taken at different focus distances that can be combined in post to increase depth of field. The features allows photographers to take up 300 exposures and can control the level of focus adjustment between frames on a scale from 1 to 10.

With the ES-2 film holder and a macro lens, Negative Digitizer mode effectively “scans” film negatives and turns them into positives in-camera. This is a great alternative to expensive scanning services or slow flatbed scanners for photgoraphers who still have a large collection of negatives lying around.

Nikon also clarified how the new electronic shutter not only allows for completely silent operation in live view mode, but also reduces wear and tear on the mechanical shutter for intervalometer (time-lapse) shooting. A time-lapse sequence often encompasses hundreds, even thousands, of individual frames, so using the electronic shutter could significantly prolong the life of the camera for users who commonly shoot time-lapse video.

While we still haven’t seen RAW files, Nikon Senior Project Manager Lindsey Silverman did offer some idea of one metric of image quality, saying that the D850 has “the same dynamic range as the D810” despite the higher pixel density.