The D850 Blog

Are You Ready for Some Football?

I’m in testing mode at the moment. I’ve got four different cameras and a dozen lenses sitting in the review queue. That means I’m out and active doing a lot of different types of shooting.

This weekend I took the D850 (and a Sony A9) with me to the University of Colorado football game against University of Northern Colorado. This gave me a chance to evaluate the speed aspect of the D850.

I’m not going to go into great detail, but let’s run through just one sequence of shots on a single play and see what comments that generates from me.

bythom us co CU versus UNC football 9-17-2017 42261

This is a punt reception towards the end of the game. Not exactly the way you want to catch the ball, #21. I’m at the far opposite end of the field with a 300mm lens. But I’ve got a 45.4mp camera, so this is about a 15mp crop that would work just fine for most uses. Thing is, I’m at least 60 yards from the action, so what we really want to know is what the focus is going to do. Right here, it’s exactly where I put it and dead on.

bythom us co CU versus UNC football 9-17-2017 42262

Still need to get a good grip on the football, dude. I’m firing at 7 fps in this sequence. One thing I can say is that the “slowest card wins” thing is definitely present. For a while I was shooting NEF on the XQD and JPEG on the SD slot. But that limits the buffer to what the SD can manage, and it isn’t as good as the XQD can do. I eventually just pulled the SD card and shot XQD only.

bythom us co CU versus UNC football 9-17-2017 42263

Okay, we’ve got our hands on the ball now. Even though I’m panning across a busy background, the focus is holding right where I want it. (I’m at f/4, giving me a bit of depth of field, but I’m going by where I see the focus plane: it’s where I asked it to be.)

bythom us co CU versus UNC football 9-17-2017 42264

Is #44 ever going to get there? 

Meanwhile, let’s talk about image quality. I’m shooting at ISO 800 here, which is keeping my shutter so high that when the sun occasionally popped out I maxed out the shutter speed at 1/8000. One thing I noticed while converting these images was that I was sharpening them but pulling out Color Noise Reduction in the Adobe converter. There’s no noise reduction in these images, and there’s no real visible noise at the pixel peeping level even though those black jerseys are a good place to generate it. I’ve tried far higher ISO values, and so far I’m pleased with what I’m seeing. 

bythom us co CU versus UNC football 9-17-2017 42265

Everything still going as expected. Let’s widen my crop some for the next shot:

bythom us co CU versus UNC football 9-17-2017 42266

Focus is still right on the punt returner, I think on his left wrist. Note that the background has been getting busier and busier, giving the camera plenty of opportunity to lose tracking. I’m pretty sure my focus sensor is on dark, by the way. Dark arm or the black part of the jersey. 

bythom us co CU versus UNC football 9-17-2017 42267
bythom us co CU versus UNC football 9-17-2017 42268
bythom us co CU versus UNC football 9-17-2017 42269
bythom us co CU versus UNC football 9-17-2017 42270

And finally the answer to our question: does #44 ever get there?

bythom us co CU versus UNC football 9-17-2017 42271

Okay, so a few points:

  • Focus is basically like a D5. Very reliable, great tracking. The one thing that Nikon did that compromises that a teeny bit has to do with the joystick: you can’t push it in, get AF-On and a new autofocus area mode, and still move the cursor. On the D5 you can move the cursor while you’re holding the joystick button in, on the D850 you can’t. Fine, I can live with that, but it’s still a bit of a disappointment. I can see that compromise on the lower priced D500, but the D850?
  • Exposure seems to be very much like the D5/D500: Nikon built in a fair amount of highlight latitude on raw images. So even though -0.3EV exposure compensation was still showing some blinkies and was pushing JPEG exposures about as far as you’d want to go, I shot much of the game at +0.3EV and could still recover all the highlights in the raw files.
  • Detail is incredible. Put an incredible lens on the front of the camera and you’ll get incredible resolution. The sequence above is mostly about 15mp or so images cropped from the full frame. And very credible ones at that. I’d put these up against the 16mp D4 images any day. But with the D4 I’d have needed an 800mm+ lens to get these crops from my position. I didn’t just shoot sports this weekend, and I can say that the full frame images of landscapes and natural scenes I’ve peeked at also look excellent. Definitely a modest but still measurable step up from the D810.
  • Noise handling looks to be quite good. At base ISO we’ve got the D810’s wide dynamic range. But even as I press upwards into the ISO values I tend to use, I’m very pleased with what I see so far. I’m going to hold off judgment against other cameras at specific high ISO values until I have more data and more time to analyze images, but this looks like typical Nikon: as the megapixels went up, that didn’t break anything. Indeed, my first assessment is that the D850 goes far further than the D810 before you get that annoying magenta cast at ridiculous ISO values. If you can tolerate noise, you’re not getting that tint and contrast build-up the way you did with the 36mp sensor cameras.

mRaw and sRaw are Raw, but...

My friend Iliah Borg sent me a message about the D850 medium and small mode raw files and how he thinks they’re created. I have to admit, I hadn’t yet gotten around to looking at anything other than full size images. After all, I’ve got my hands full trying to figure out some basic things about the D850.

My apologies to Nikon. I was wrong when I wrote on launch that they were still using the old “near JPEG” style of smaller raw images pioneered by Canon. It’s clear that Nikon is now doing something different, but it’s also clear that something isn’t quite as we expected.

Visually, the smaller raw sizes just don’t look like they have the “right” acuity. At the pixel peeping level there’s a roughness to them I wasn’t expecting. 

So here’s what seems to happen in the D850: the camera is doing a double re-sampling. And using more pixels than the large size uses! This actually may be the source of the 54.7mp number (45,749,760 is the actual calculation of the total pixels generated initially).

Normally when you shoot at NEF (RAW) Large you get 8256 x 5504 pixel images. When you shoot in NEF though, the camera actually generates 8288 x 5520 pixels. Interesting. 

Okay, so what happens with those 54.7mp pixels when you shoot smaller NEF (RAW) sizes?

A double resampling, that’s what. 8288 x 5520 appears to be resampled to get 7104 x 4728 data, then resampled again to get 6192 x 4128 pixels for NEF (RAW) Medium. For Small, 8288 x 5520 becomes 6216 x 4136 then 4128 x 2752 on the second resample. So we get a 1.15x division followed by a 1.15x division (though the rounding is different for each, so they’re not perfectly equal). This results in a 1.32 reduction in file size: 41.5MB > 30MB > 21.9MB. 

This leads me to something I hadn’t caught before: if you choose Medium and Small for raw images, you will be switched to 12-bit Lossless Compressed; you have no choice of bit depth or compression. 

Quite obviously, someone has discovered an interesting mathematical formula you can apply to data that can get you something akin to new 12-bit Bayer data at a different size. What that is I can’t yet find a patent or description for. 

The strange thing is that the data generated is back in Bayer form, not the double reduction. It’s not clear to me yet if it stayed Bayer all the time (doubtful), or that it was demosaiced into intermediary pixels, then remosaiced back to Bayer in the final pass. There’s some strange resampling routines going on in the camera I haven’t seen or heard of before.

But it also explains why the first time I looked closely at a NEF (RAW) Medium image it seemed just a bit odd to me. Edge acuity changed in some way I can’t yet describe. It just looks a bit fuzzier than I’d expect. I also haven’t yet managed to do enough testing to determine whether white balance coefficients are used at any step in the process.  

I’m sure Iliah is doing more testing. As will I. This is a very interesting discovery, and something we haven’t seem before from anyone else.

Now, the question is whether you’d rather have a 25.6mp 12-bit lossless compressed image that’s 30MB in size or a 54.4mp 12-bit compressed image that’s 34.2MB in size. First approximation: the latter, especially since your buffer just got cut in half. But I need to do much more testing...

Some First IQ Observations

As usual, I don't think Adobe's initial NEF conversion is up to snuff. Whether it will be tweaked in the future is a good question. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don't.

But looking at standard color tests in controlled lighting, I see the usual Adobe default conversion problems: there's too much of what Adobe calls Orange luminance, and the default Color Noise Reduction value is almost twice what it should be. Greens go slightly yellow, Reds and yellows go slightly orange. Orange goes flat. 

Adobe's default (ISO 6400):

D850 colorchecker

Some quick corrections:

d850 colorchecker 2

You can definitely dial in more accurate color with a little work in ACR on your NEFs. But that's been true for as long as I can remember. (Just remember, these are JPEGs and managed by an image manager to scale with screen size on the Web site, so what you see may not be exactly what I see.)

Noise at higher ISO values seems higher in the blue channel than the red, and Nikon appears to be using some sort of pre-WB adjustment to the raw data again, whose effect is to generate more luminance noise than color noise. 

But these are very first impression. I've got a lot more shooting to do, and more raw converters to test. Overall, the D850 seems to be about where I'd expect it to be if it were a D500 sensor with some slight tweaking.

The External Cheese

I went over the menu cheese moving earlier, now it's time to talk about the external side of things. You know, buttons, knobs, and dials.

This is a trickier proposition. Nikon made a number of adjustments and changes in the D5 generation, so do I describe differences from the D5/D500, or from the D810? 

Let's get the D5 generation stuff out of the way:

  • ISO button behind the shutter release instead of Mode (moves to top left cluster)
  • Red record movie button shifts to the inferior position behind the shutter release
  • Addition of an Fn2 button
  • Addition of a focus control joystick
  • Removal of the AE-L/AF-L button

The good news is that Nikon's been consistent about this on the D5, D500, and now D850. There is no additional cheese moving between models, thank goodness. Well, okay, some really slight things: the D500's front function buttons are positioned a little differently, but that's partly because Nikon is packing more into a smaller body.

To a D810 user, though, the big non-generational changes would be the repositioning of the i and info buttons, and the changes to which connectors are under which rubber doors on the left side of the camera. The Direction pad also gets a bit smaller and moves lower on the rear, probably because of the joystick inclusion. 

We've lost the onboard flash, so we also lose the flash release button and the Autofocus Assist lamp, which now just becomes the self timer and remote operation light.  

If you care, the microphone and speaker positions completely changed. The built-in stereo mics are now on the sides of the viewfinder, while the speaker is now up above the rear LCD instead of to the right of it. Likewise, the Card Write Indicator lamp has moved position some, too.

Overall, though, none of this results in any functional issues that I can see, other than the addition of the D5 generation stuff. That's the way I think such changes really should occur, rather than the model-by-model migration of things we've gotten a few times in Nikon's DSLR history. 

So overall I'm happy with the cheese that was moved, and the cheese that was left in place. Better still, I can move between the D5, D500, and D850 cameras without much in the way of cognitive dissonance interrupting my train of photographic thought. The one weirdly in this: the XQD and SD slots are reversed between the D500 and D850. The D500 has stacked XQD on top, the D850 has offset XQD on bottom. I can live with that, but is a bit strange that the bigger camera seemed to have more troubles fitting in two slots than the smaller one.

But—you knew there had to be a but, right?—all is not perfect in the D810 to D850 migration. The vertical grip required is completely different, and if you've got D810 tailored Arca Swiss plates, you'll need new ones. Everywhere I look on the D850 there are subtle shape differences. The D850 is a bit boxier and upright in design than the slanty shapes you find in many areas on the D810. 

More About Appropriate D850 Lenses

I've gotten a fair amount of pushback on my D850 lens list, mostly about lenses that weren't on the list, or ones that I've indicated that I'm going to examine more closely. 

My belief is this: if you're going to be buying at the front edge of the pixel wars (now basically 42mp+ for full frame), you really need to think about what you're trying to achieve and why. More sampling (more pixels) should result in more accuracy to the underlying scene. Some call this resolution, but I think it's simply better if you stay in the digital realm with the terminology: more sampling means more accuracy to the thing you sampled. 

But lenses are also part of the overall equation. 

Think of it this way: if you have retinal issues, it's not going to matter a lot what eyeglasses you put in front of your eyes. If you have a perfect retina, it does make a difference as to what eyeglasses (or cornea adjustment/replacement) you put in front of it. Well, we're getting better "retinas" in our cameras, we need a great lens in front of it. 

We're also in a realm now where we have only a narrow band between fully-achieved acuity versus aliasing caused by diffraction. If you're shooting with f/5.6 lenses or worse, you're losing some of the benefit gained at the sensor by bending some of the light before it hits it. 

A common question led me to my current thoughts on the subject: A7rII or D810 (D850)?

Handled poorly, I'd say you're better off with the A7rII. 

Oh dear, don't open up your email to fire off a response to me just yet...

If you're not into best-possible shot discipline and don't know how to get dead-on focus out of a phase detect autofocus system with tons of options and tricky bits, I'd argue that you're better off with the A7rII for two reasons (1) it has sensor-based IS to deal with the bad camera handling, no matter what lens you put on it; and (2) it follows up its initial focus guess with a contrast-based verification. In AF-S mode with mostly non-moving subjects (especially faces), most people handling the camera somewhat casually are going to get "better looking" images out of an A7rII with the 24-70mm f/4 than they would out of a D810/D850 with the 24-70mm f/2.8E. Whoa. That 24-70mm f/2.8E is a better lens. How's that happen?

It happens because the person in question here was never going to achieve all that the D8xx/24-70mm combo could provide them, while the Sony A7rII/24-70mm combo could. Even though the Sony is a lesser lens overall, the camera's achieving everything that lens can provide. 

Which gets me to why I'm being critical with lens selection in the high-pixel Nikon cameras now: I think you're buying the D850 to try to achieve everything it can produce. I sure hope so, otherwise you're spending too much money (buy the D750). 

Trying to come up with an arbitrary bar over which we get best-possible-performance and below we get okay-but-not-up-to-camera's-potential is a task fraught with hazards. I took on that task knowing the hazards. 

One area of disagreement others have with my placement of that bar has to do with center versus edge performance. 

No doubt most Nikkors perform admirably in the very central region of the frame on a D850. Nikon really doesn't make a dud FX lens in that respect, though a lot of the zooms get into the less-than-admirable level at the telephoto end of their focal range (e.g. 80-400mm, 28-300mm, etc.). Plus they're often at the start of diffraction impacts wide open in telephoto use, so stopping down doesn't really pull in more useful acuity. 

But why did you buy a 46mp in the first place? For better center-of-image? Not likely. More likely is that you want to print bigger. And that means that you're using edge pixels. 

This is where it gets real tricky and I'm willing to have the debate/discussion: if I print at 27" (D850) versus 20" (D750), are you going to look at that print at the same distance or will you step back further from the D850 print? ;~) If you pick the latter, then maybe the edge performance isn't as important as I make it out to be. If you pick the former, those edges are going to get more revealing of what my lens is up to.

This isn't the only hazard in my defining a bar above and below which lenses do and don't work so great on the D850, but it's indicative of the kind of thinking I went through in trying to establish my own standards here. I'm comfortable that the lenses on my list perform as I expect with the added sampling. Lenses not on the list, I'm not so comfortable with.

I will say this: the 200-500mm f/5.6 is one lens I got a lot of pushback on. After all, I reviewed it positively. I should re-evaluate both those things, and will. But note that in my review I found 500mm doing that thing the other non-f/2.8 zooms tend to do: get soft and lose edge acuity. In thinking about this some more and looking back at some of my D810 shots with the lens, I think that it's right below my bar. It might get just above the bar if I only shot in DX crop on the FX bodies. So how you're using this lens plays a part in how you'd evaluate it.

Look, no list from anyone using any criteria is perfect. That includes mine. But I can tell you this, my list is indicative of the lenses I'll be using on my D850. You're not going to see me wandering around the canals of Venice with a 28-300mm sitting on the front of my D850 and me proclaiming this is the perfect travel combo. Not my style, and not the level of quality I want to produce. Your mileage may vary. But make sure you know how and why it varies.

Menu Cheese Mostly Unmoved

I'm sure you're all waiting for the cheese-moving comments. 

Okay, so let's walk through the D850 menu system a bit and see what we find that's worth commenting on. The current "standard" for Nikon cheese is the D5 and D500, and to a lesser degree the D7500. 

PLAYBACK menu: no changes. Yes.

PHOTO SHOOTING menu: the masking selection for crop display has been moved into the Image Area section of this menu, a better choice than the older and odd bolted-onto-an-obscure-Custom-Setting way it was done in the past. Yes. The Flash Control option still only works with SB-300, SB-400, SB-500, or SB-5000 Speedlights. No. We've got some new White Balance and Picture Control options, but those just are additions into the usual menu choices. The big change that's long overdue is actually a potential workflow saver: you can designate things like Interval Timing or Focus Shift Shooting [sic] to place their images in a new and distinct folder. Yes, sort of. The problem here is whether or not your image ingesting system/process recognizes and preserves these additional folders, or just grabs everything from all folders when you ingest. We need programs like Lightroom to stack/group the images from these special folders, and Photo Mechanic to preserve the folders.

MOVIE SHOOTING menu: much the same as PHOTO SHOOTING in terms of the few changes.

CUSTOM SETTINGS menu: we get new options to change peaking color and the highlight (zebra) level, virtual VR switch necessary for AF-P lenses is present (wrong spot, Nikon), and there are some minor additions/changes to some of the settings. Fn2 and the video Fn button assignments still have very limited choices, showing that Nikon hasn't really heard their users here.

SETUP menu: say what? IPTC data has been removed. No. Bad Nikon. The networking options (SnapBridge and WT-7) are still a warren of messy and confusing menu items. 

RETOUCH menu: Edit Movie is now Trim Movie. We get a new Side-by-Side Comparison option.

Overall, the menus are relatively unscathed and not re-ordered, so cheese-moving is minimal.

I get the impression though that Nikon is struggling with firmware size. It seems that if anything gets added to menus these days, something else tends to disappear. I have to wonder whether or not Nikon is trying to fit firmware into a particular size constraint rather than letting it grow organically. This has implications on what they can do in firmware fixes in the future, obviously, and may explain why we don't get a lot of them, particularly additions. 

In passing I'll note that the manuals have a lot of the usual missing, incorrect, or poor wording that you tend to find in rushed-to-market products. 

One thing I did note in the manual that I didn't expect and now have to test is this: the power source you use impacts your buffer size. Surprisingly, the EN-EL18b 9 fps buffer sizes are considerably lower than the EN-EL15a 7 fps buffer sizes, more so than the difference of 2 fps would suggest.

For instance, the way you'd typically shoot speed (12-bit Lossless Compressed*) you get 170 shots at 7 fps and 54 shots at 9 fps. So twenty-four seconds of shooting at 7 fps versus six seconds of shooting at 9 fps. That 4:1 differential doesn't seem right. The implication is that the amount of data being generated at 9 fps is over the optimal handling limit of EXPEED and thus results in a more restrictive buffer. (For DX shooters it's 200 and 91, or 28 seconds and 10 seconds, which shouldn't be limiting.)

Of course six seconds at 9 fps is still more than enough for most shooters. Still, if you're shooting series of bursts in rapid sequence, as you might with some sports shooting, there's a chance you're going to slowly move towards buffer limitations during that sequence. This is obviously something I'll have to test in practice. Indeed, I'll be doing that next weekend at a college football game.

*Okay, I knew you were going to ask. 14-bit on the D850 looks like it is only useful at the lowest ISO values. Beyond about ISO 200 you don't get any real benefit in the data from the extra bits. Given that 14-bit Lossless Compressed is a 51 shot buffer instead of 170, yeah, you're not going to use 14-bit for speed work (e.g. sports and wildlife). You're better off saving the file space and gaining the buffer space. 

D850 Pre-Orders

Updated (below) 

It appears that the usual "two per dealer" initial shipment of cameras is now "one per dealer" with the D850. 

About a week ago I got messages from Nikon NPS to verify my Priority Purchase of a D850, as did a lot of other NPS folk. Apparently NikonUSA was caught off guard with how many NPS PP requests they received, and wanted to verify their count. 

Well, it's been verified. The net result is that every Pro Authorized dealer will get only one camera in the initial shipment (plus whatever some number of the NPS PP units that were ordered through them). Usually, they get two. Thus, from day one the D850 is going to be pretty much a sell-out in the US. It's unclear if other countries have the same problem, but it's certainly possible.

A second batch of Nikon D850's will arrive in the US mid-month, and dealers will get an additional allocation then. 

But what has happened looks like it will be a repeat of the D800 experience: a lot of folk in pre-order lists won't get a camera initially. If NikonUSA also repeats the small allocations they gave the big dealers back at the D800 launch, that means that Adorama, Amazon, and B&H are going to take a long while to get everyone off the list. 

Update: I'm getting reports of dealers who got what must have been NPS units but with no documentation from Nikon as to who they should go to. This is going to cause chaos if widespread. 

The 2 fps Tax

If you want 9 fps on the D850, then you'll need a few extra items from Nikon:

  • MB-B18 vertical grip US$399
  • EN-EL18 battery US$135
  • MH-26a charger US$370
  • BL-5 battery chamber cover US$25

Those are current B&H prices. And that adds up to US$929, or basically US$465 a frame per second. 

But wait, this is Nikon, so there's more...

From the UK: "I've been in contact with Nikon UK today and they tell me that both the BL-5 and MH-26a are 'discontinued' and suggested I might like to try the second hand market(!)." Sure enough, Nikon UK doesn't list the battery and charger as a D850 accessory on their site, and a quick browse of a few Nikon UK dealers isn't showing those mentioned items for sale at the moment, either. Really? Am I totally missing something? I sure hope so. 

Meanwhile, that US$929 2 fps tax is just insane. 

Here in the US you can get a DSTE EN-EL18A clone (with charger) for US$39 from Amazon [affiliate link], which reduces the tax to US$363. But we don't know if that combo works yet (it does with the D500 and its grip, so we're keeping our fingers crossed). 

Still, this seems wrong. Nikon accessories have always seemed wrong. They're overpriced for what they do, and they often are out of stock when you need them, plus sometimes don't even work all that well. 

I've written this before, but it really seems true: the camera design group at Nikon doesn't seem to talk to the lens group or the accessories group and plan things together. It really seems like three random groups that have no clear, connected view of the customer and what they'll tolerate. 

So let's see, you need the grip kit (US$1000), the WR-R10/T10 radio kit (US$200), an SB-5000 (US$600), and maybe you have a whole camera that delivers everything it promises. Oh, and don't forget some XQD cards. 

I sure hope this isn't what Nikon thought I meant by "modular"... 

Update: earlier version of this article said 3 fps change. Doh! Was thinking of the wrong spec, it's a change from 7 fps to 9 fps using the grip, which is 2 fps.

The Best Lenses for the Nikon D850


When Nikon introduced the D800, they saw fit to also create a Technical Guide that addressed some of the challenges of using a high resolution camera. In that guide, they also provided a list of lenses they felt were up to the challenge of the 36mp sensor.

Here we are with the increased resolution of the D850 and Nikon hasn't provided the same type of list yet. 

That's not totally unexpected. The increase in linear resolution from the D800/D810 to the D850 is minimal (12%). Lenses that do well with the older D8xx models should be fine with the D850. But it probably is a good idea to revisit this issue for those of you who are considering moving up from a camera that's less than 36mp.

First, we have some hints from Nikon. In their brochure, marketing materials, and early sample images there's a base set of lenses that keep getting used:

  • 8-15mm f/3-5-4.5E
  • 14-24mm f/2.8G
  • 19mm f/4E PC
  • 20mm f/1.8G
  • 24-70mm f/2.8E
  • 28mm f/1.4E
  • 70-200mm f/2.8E
  • 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6G
  • 105mm f/1.4E
  • 200mm f/2G
  • 400mm f/2.8E

The only lens in that list that I find slightly suspect is the 80-400mm f/4-5.6. It's weak optically at 400mm on the D810, even in the central area. More on that in a bit.

So let's back up and reconsider my D800-worthy list (these are lenses that I have tested and can personally recommend on the 36mp cameras that fully exploit all the sharpness, contrast, and acuity potential of the high megapixel count full frame Nikon sensors from center to at least near or at the borders [e.g. not necessarily extreme corners]):

  • 8-15mm f/3.5-4.5E**
  • 14-24mm f/2.8G
  • 16-35mm f/4G
  • 19mm f/4 PC-E**
  • 20mm f/1.8G
  • 24mm f/1.4G
  • 24mm f/1.8G
  • 24mm f/3.5 PC-E
  • 24-70mm f/2.8G*
  • 24-70mm f/2.8E**
  • 24-120mm f/4G*
  • 28mm f/1.8G
  • 35mm f/1.4G
  • 35mm f/1.8G
  • 45mm f/2.8 PC-E
  • 58mm f/1.4G
  • 60mm f/2.8G
  • 70-200mm f/2.8GII*
  • 70-200mm f/2.8E
  • 70-200mm f/4G*
  • 80-400mm f/4-5.6*
  • 85mm f/1.4G
  • 85mm f/1.8G
  • 105mm f/1.4E**
  • 105mm f/2.8G
  • 200mm f/2G
  • 200-400mm f/4G*
  • 300mm f/2.8G
  • 300mm f/4E
  • 400mm f/2.8G or E
  • 500mm f/4G or E
  • 600mm f/4G or E
  • 800mm f/5.6E**

The lenses marked with ** are recent additions to my list. You may have seen previous versions of the list without them (e.g., in my D800/D800E book). (I haven't yet evaluated the new 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6E yet, but it might make the list.) This list also forms a pretty good suggestion of what should work well on a D850. I don't expect any to fall off the list given the modest linear resolution increase from the D800/D810 to the D850. 

The lenses marked with * are lenses I'm considering dropping from the list. I was even considering that with the D810, but I'll be looking now more closely with my D850. So before I go on, I need to address why I'm considering dropping those lenses from the list. 

Some people have interpreted "considering dropping from the list" as meaning I've dropped them from my recommended list. Not true. These are lenses I'll be taking another closer look at with the D810/D850 to try to ascertain if they're actually in a class below my most recommended ones or not. I haven't formed that opinion yet, only decided I needed to make another look.

Likewise, there are lenses that I don't have or haven't tested. Obviously they can't make a recommended list. Well, they can, but not on this site ;~). 

First, I'm hypercritical. I believe that if you're going to buy a very high resolution camera, you shouldn't be putting lenses that compromise image quality in any meaningful way on the front of it. When you put a great lens on the test stand and run MTF tests on it with a 24mp camera, you're going to get resolution numbers in the 3500+ lw/ph range, which is what I tend to call excellent sharpness (to superb, depending upon how much +). A lens that tested at that level is likely going to have no substantive optical issues on the D800, D810, or D850 just because of the additional sensor resolution. 

On the other hand, I see many Nikkors that are down in the 2400-3000 range at 24mp, which I typically call "good" sharpness. When I put those lenses on a D8xx model, they just seem a bit devoid of edge acuity and fine detail. It's as if you're getting diffraction-limited sharpness, even at apertures not impacted by diffraction. 

(I'm using 24mp MTF numbers here for a reason: many of you are moving up from 24mp cameras, plus many of the lens tests you'll see on the Internet that report MTF numbers use 24mp cameras.)

So, here's the thing:

  • 24-70mm f/2.8G: yes, it can hold up well on the D8xx bodies in the central region, but anything outside the center drops down into that range where the edge acuity and detail begins to disappear. The new 24-70mm f/2.8E doesn't have that same problem, though it still isn't perfect in the edges. 
  • 24-120mm f/4G: I've always had reservations about putting this lens on the list. In particular, near 70mm the central sharpness is no longer excellent, while wide open the edge sharpness is never ever very good, and often poor. This lens is likely to fall very quickly off my list with the D850: you're clearly compromising what the sensor can do by putting this lens on the camera.
  • 70-200mm f/2.8G II: first off, the new third-generation E version just trounces it. At almost anything. But the second generation f/2.8 has some minor issues, particularly wide open and in the corners, where it only is "good" on a D810. I'll be looking at this lens closely to see if it really is a compromise now on a D850. 
  • 80-400mm f/4-5.6: At the shorter focal lengths, it's fine on a D810 body. But at 400mm I can't really recommend it any more on the high pixel density bodies.
  • 200-400mm f/4G: Another tough call, like the 70-200mm f/2.8GII, and one I'll be looking at more closely. This is a lens with a reputation for greatness at close-in distances, and it is indeed still doing that on a D810. But you probably didn't buy it for close-in distances. As a wildlife lens on the D810, I wouldn't recommend it, for instance. 

I'll be also looking at a few Sigma and Tamron lenses in the upcoming review cycle with an eye as to whether they belong on the D850 recommended list or not. Both companies have recently upped their game both optically and in terms of quality control, so it's time to take another look. 

So, the short-term conclusion based upon external data, some hypothesis, and very little actual use yet is this: the lenses in the list above that have no asterisk or two asterisks should be just fine on a D850. 

This isn't to say you'd never put a lens that isn't on that list onto a D850 body, only that in doing so you need to be aware that you might be underachieving what the sensor is capable of. 

Other notes:

  • Where are the AI lenses? I don't own any other than the 58mm f/1.2 NOCT any more, so haven't been testing them on the D8xx bodies. I didn't put the NOCT on the above list because I want to see how it performs with a BSI sensor before adding it to my recommendations. On a D800/D810, it's insanely great into the corners, particularly once stopped down a bit.
  • What about the 85mm f/2.8 PC-E and 200mm f/4 Micro-Nikkor? Haven't tested them on the D810 or D850 because I don't own them. I'll have to borrow them one of these days to see if they should be added.
  • Why no 200-500mm f/5.6? Because of the 400-500mm range, particular as you move from the central area. This lens holds up well with DX at these pixel densities, but not FX. But wait a second, you say, can't I just crop my D850 to DX and then the lens should be recommended? Well, true. But if you're buying a 45.4mp camera for 45.4mp my exclusion stands. You might as well save your money and buy a D500 if long telephoto is your focus. So let's be clear: my lens recommendations above are for the full FX frame, the full 45.4mp. 
  • How about the variable aperture zooms (18-35mm, 24-85mm, etc.)? Don't have them handy to test at the moment, so they'll have to wait until I do. But my recollection from early D800 testing was that they were right at my margins, usually because of wide open edge performance. 
  • How about the new 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6E? Don't know yet, still testing it.
  • Sample variation: Because of the workshops I do, I often get chances to look at many samples of some popular lenses. I'm obviously very sure of my recommendations with those lenses. I'll have to somehow figure out how to call out lenses with which I have lots of experience. For the time being, here's a short list: 14-24mm, 24-70mm (all versions), 70-200mm (all versions), 70-300mm (all versions), 80-400mm (all versions), 85mm (all versions), 105mm f/1.4 and f/2.8 Micro-Nikkor, 200mm f/2, 300mm f/2.8, 400mm f/2.8 (all versions), and 500mm f/4 (all versions). I'm highly confident that my recommendations regarding these lenses is accurate across the population.
  • One pushback I've been getting from some is that "24mp DX cameras have more pixel density than the D850, so if a lens is fine on a D7200 it should be on a D850, too." Well, not exactly. If you're using FX lenses on a DX camera, you're using the central region of the lens only. For most of the telephoto lenses that's generally meant that you're using the very best aspects of the lens on DX. There are some exceptions to that. For instance, the original 70-200mm f/2.8 VR is better than the 70-200mm f/2.8 VRII on DX bodies, so obviously Nikon changed something about the way the center-to-edge performance was working in those designs. I've tried to call out those exceptions when they occur. Meanwhile, one thing that a lot of people don't fully understand is that the smaller the sensor, the higher the lens quality has to be for a dedicated small mount lens. Yes, the 16-80mm f/2.8-4E is a better lens optically than the 24-120mm f/4. That was by design and necessity. Olympus' Pro lenses have had to ratchet up lens quality quite a bit to maintain parity, so I'd also say that the Olympus 12-40mm f/2.8 Pro is a better lens optically than the Nikkor 16-80mm f/2.8-4E. You can really see when a maker doesn't up their optical game with smaller sensors. For instance, the Sony RX100 models have long featured lenses that aren't fully up to the smaller sensor size. I wrote in my reviews that they tended to resolve more like 14mp cameras than 20mp ones, and the lens quality is the primary reason.
  • Finally, there's the issue of stopping down versus diffraction. I'll likely set my aperture limit to f/5.6 most of the time on the D850, f/8 in a pinch. Any further reduction in aperture size is going to antialias edges and detail via diffraction. So, some folks have been writing me saying "but if I stop my Nikkor X Lens down to f/5.6 it's really fine." I actually considered that in putting together my list. It's why most of the modern primes are all there, even the ones that have issues wide open. I went back and forth on the 50mm primes, though. At f/5.6 they're pretty much at my boundary conditions though a significant portion of the frame. But consider this: if you have to stop down to f/5.6 to get really solid edge acuity and sharpness across the frame, you're pretty much right at the boundary where you can't stop down further without taking some of that gain away. This makes lenses where you have to stop down to f/5.6 to get into my excellent range pretty one dimensional: you'll be using them pretty much at one aperture. That's part of the issue with the 200-500mm f/5.6, for example. At 500mm f/8, it pulls in some of the issues I see side open in FX. But now we're pushing into an area where we have to consider what diffraction might be doing. Since a lot of folk interested in that lens are using it for birds and wildlife, we have the acuity of feathers/fur to consider: it's going away at f/8 and certainly any further than that. 

The D500/D850 Conundrum

The D500 shoots 20mp DX at 10 fps.

The D850 shoots 19.4mp DX at 9 fps (with grip, 7 fps without).

Both cameras have basically the same focus system, metering, and most other features. So here's what most people seem to be thinking: you can buy a D850 and use it for landscape, studio, portrait, architectural, and other shooting that might benefit from high pixel counts, and then set it to DX crop and get the benefits the D500 gave sports and wildlife shooters on a budget. 

This is basically true. 

My teaching partner, Tony Medici, has been using D810's for wildlife shooting at our workshops, dropping down to 1.2x or DX crop when he didn't have enough lens. That gives him about 15mp images that are as good as the old D7000 produced, maybe a bit better. On the same trips, I've been using dual D500's. Tony has more flexibility, I have a lower cost and somewhat smaller kit that shoots at higher frame rates. 

The D850 shot at DX would bring Tony up to parity with my D500's in terms of image quality and pixel count. He'd still be a bit behind on frame rate, particularly if he doesn't use the optional grip. Plus the D850 is 5.1 ounces (145g) heavier, even without the grip. 

I think you're starting to see where this is going. 

First, there's price. And I think this is probably the most important thing to consider. The D500 list price is US$1300 lower than the D850. At recent discount prices on the D500, you can get pretty close to the point where you can pick up a D500 and a 300mm f/4E lens for the price of a D850. 

I mention that combo for a reason: size/weight. At the moment, probably the most hand-holdable APS-C/full frame camera combo for sports/wildlife is that pair: D500 and 300mm f/4. Get a TC-14EIII and you've also got a 630mm (equivalent) f/5.6 that performs quite well and can be shot without a monopod or tripod with good results.

The nice thing about the D850 is that you can put that same lens on it and have a 300mm f/4 that produces 45.4mp (FX crop) or a 450mm f/4 that produces 19.4mp (DX crop). With the TC you'd have a 420mm f/5.6 at 45.4mp or that 630mm f/5.6 at 19.4mp. It's still hand-holdable, though a few ounces heavier and a few fps short of the D500. 

So yes, the D850 really ups the ante in the "best all around DSLR" competition. Besides the high megapixel uses, we also have quite a bit of speed in the camera, putting it well into the sports/wildlife realm. And the DX crop pixel equivalence now brings the D8xx model into line with the top DX camera.

I'll probably go back to the D850 for wildlife shooting now.

Some cynics—including myself—might believe that Nikon has been careful not to build up the DX lens lineup because they knew that products like the D850 were what they really wanted you to buy. 

Why's that?

Wide-angle, basically. The 16-80mm f/2.8-4E is basically it in terms of real quality in the DX wide-angle range. Sure, some of the f/1.8 primes might help if you're into 28mm or 35mm (equivalent) focal lengths, but we really just don't have a solid pro DX lens set (buzz, buzz [TM, now 18 years in the making ;~]). 

So here's where I stand on the D500/D850 thing.

If you're on a budget, consider buying the D500 and the 16-80mm f/2.8-4 (US$3000). For basic sports/wildlife, look at the Sigma 50-100mm f/1.8, the Nikkor 70-200mm's, and the Nikkor 300mm f/4. Get a TC-14EIII. An all-in kit with just the f/4 lenses is US$6800. 


Yes, that's a solid set that takes you from 24mm equivalent to 630mm equivalent with a lot of performance, and it's on the budget side of things as far as sports and wildlife go. The smaller sensor Olympus E-M1 Mark II and the two pro lenses that get you to 300mm equivalent is US$4300, which is about as budget as you can get for a solid shooting experience in everything, including sports/wildlife. Add in the lens that gets you to 600mm equivalent, and we're actually at the same price as the D500 (US$6800). 

If you were to do that "all FX" with the D850, the price jumps. With the 24-70mm f/2.8, 70-200mm f/4, and 300mm f/4 we're at US$8700. You could sub in one of the third party 24-70mm lenses and drop that to US$7700 (I would not sub in the 24-120mm f/4). But frankly, if you're trying to max out that 45.4mp sensor, you're going to want better than the 70-200mm f/4, so you're going to start bumping up your costs pretty fast, I think. 

And this gets us to a partial answer: what are you trying to maximize? If it's image quality at every job, then the D850 is the answer, but you're going to want some expensive lenses to get there (I'll deal with D850-capable lenses in my next post). Your total investment is going to be very significant, I think. 

If you're just looking for a great camera that shoots just about anything and prints that up to desktop inkjet printer size with ease, the D500 is a great choice that keeps the system a bit smaller and lighter at the expense of only generating 20mp images. 

Let's assume you don't have either camera yet and are still using an older camera, such as a D300 or even a D3. What do you do? 

I'd wait until Nikon next puts the D500 on sale and buy it. The jump from 12mp to 20mp is going to be significant for you, as is the improvement in dynamic range. You'll be astounded at how good the focus system and metering got. Your telephoto lenses will all probably be just fine, but you're going to want to look at your wide-angle and mid-range zoom lenses carefully. The 16-85mm makes the cut, but most of the 18-xx zooms don't, IMHO. 

If you were on a 24mp camera looking for a new one, then the answer is likely the D850. But be careful with your lens set. Which will be my next post.

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