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/1.4E
  • 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. 

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