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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