Vello BG-N19

Updated again: it's still more complex than it first seemed

B&H sent me a Vello BG-N19 vertical grip to try with the Nikon D850 [disclosure: B&H is this site's exclusive advertiser; some of the product links in this post direct to their site].

bythom vello d850grip

I've done some preliminary testing with it, and it really seems as near a clone to Nikon's own MB-D18 Battery Pack as you're likely to find. If anything, on my samples the Vello's thumbstick press-switch has a little better feedback than the Nikon one, which is mushy. Nikon's Command dials seem a little more like the D850 camera bodies, while Vello's seem to have a less Nikon-like loose feel to them.

The Nikon grip seems to have a bit more heft to it. But visually and in feel otherwise, essentially the two grips appear identical.

What everyone wants to know is whether the dollar problem has been solved. 

What dollar problem? Nikon's full kit to provide 9 fps on the D850 costs US$950 (MB-D18, EN-EL18b, MH-26A charger, BL-5 door). With the Vello, you can buy the Vello for US$100, the door for US$25, and if you shop around, third party EN-18 batteries for US$50 or so. The difficult bit has been the charger, though there are now affordable chargers for the EN-18 batteries you need (keep reading).

So does it or doesn't it? Does the Vello hit 9 fps, that is.

Yes and no. With an official Nikon EN-EL18a battery I found no difference between performance with the Vello BG-N19 and the Nikon MB-D18: both seemed to let the camera hit 9 fps. Update: as it turns out, firmware has nothing to do with it. After a great deal of close examination and continued testing, I find this: if I press hard upwards under where the electrical connection is made on the grip, the Vello does 9 fps on all my EN-18 batteries, regardless of manufacturer. If I stop pressing upwards, I get 7 fps. Clearly, there's a deep-seating contact issue involved here. 

One reason why this was difficult to track down was the camera was originally secured on a tripod when I first tested, then tested later handheld. When handheld, there's never enough "force" on my sample to insure the proper electrical connection. When on the tripod and gravity is working, there often is, thus I was getting intermittent results. When I step in and push hard to pull the grip and body together more at that point, the connection is always made that allows 9 fps. 

No, tightening the thumb screw that goes into the tripod socket doesn't do it. I can't tighten it enough to guarantee 9 fps. This has been one of my issues with the add-on grips—including Nikon's own—for a long time: build quality and eventually rough handling can make for less than perfect connections, and then troubles brew.

If you touch the electrical connector on the grip gently, you can see that on both the Nikon MB-D18 and the Vello BG-N19, there is a little bit of "play"—that connector moves a bit on both models, probably to ensure that it goes into the camera's slot no matter how you start to align the camera and grip when putting the grip on. Left/right, forward/back movement is okay, but any up/down movement basically leads me to the not quite secure connection that precludes 9 fps. 

If you want to know what you're going to get with a grip/battery combo, there's a shortcut: set the Shooting Method indicator to CH and then press the INFO button. You'll see either 7 fps or 9 fps towards the lower left on the rear LCD. I've found that indicator to be true. 

So what's my official position at the moment? It's hybrid [affiliate links embedded]. I've found that the third party batteries from DTSE and Wasabi work okay in the Nikon MB-D18 and a properly working Vello:

The battery and charger are the easy part: Nikon uses standard cells in the EN-EL18 batteries, so it's pretty easy for third parties to stick such cells into a case and imitate the Nikon battery. The hard part is the information connector into the camera (or grip), and it seems that everyone has reverse engineered that fine.

In my D4/D5 shooting, I have about half Nikon batteries, half third party batteries in my bag. I've never encountered a glitch from any of them. Ditto with the third party chargers. The only thing I'd note is that you're not paying for build quality on those chargers. But at those prices, you can afford to have to replace the charger should it break.

The tougher part is the grip itself. 

I'll be honest, I just don't like the Nikon MB grips, Nikon made or third party. Over many years of using and encountering students and others using them, they just are too prone to cause issues over time with rough handling. I've seen far too many cases where a "jiggle" causes (or fixes!) a problem. And the Vello sample I received is just another confirmation of that. 

Moreover, with a grip "locked on" to the body as tight as I dare tighten it, I can still, with a bit of force, move the grip/body relationship slightly. Indeed, I've noticed that the grip is always a weak point if you're mounting your tripod to it for landscape shooting at some shutter speeds. (Put another way: if you're shooting with first curtain electronic shutter, mirror up, and other stability bits to try to get rock solid pixels, don't shoot with an MB connected to a tripod.)

But here's the thing: at least Nikon's MB's have been consistent over the years. I've never seen one fail out of the box, only after continued use in the field. I can't say that's true of all the third-party versions I've used over the years. I've had about half of them fail out of the box in some way. 

The Vello that B&H provided me took an ever so slight twist to get aligned to my D850 the first time. I think that's because one of the plastic spikes that go into alignment holes on the camera body is ever so slightly tilted on my sample. I use the word "think" in that last sentence because I have no tool that can measure such a small difference; I'm trusting my eyes on this one.

That said, on the camera I see nothing to differentiate between Nikon's grip and a properly working Vello. I can find no performance difference and other than the small control feel differences there's nothing else to distinguish them in use that I can see. 

So, perhaps I'd put it this way: if you're only going to use the grip for 7 fps, then definitely consider the Vello. It'll save you substantive money. If you're going to have the grip on the camera all the time or absolutely need 9 fps, I'd tend to opt for Nikon's simply because of my experience with previous third party grips. At least you'd have someone to investigate any issues that arise with your use of the grip (e.g. Nikon repair). 

Now, do you really want 9 fps? ;~)

I ask that because the buffer takes a pretty hefty hit at 9 fps. Here's what happened at 7 fps and 9 fps second by second in terms of buffer with my usual settings with my fastest XQD card:

  • 7 fps — start 27, 20, 17, 14, 11, 8, 5, 2, buffer full (51 frames total)
  • 9 fps — start 27, 18, 13, 8, 3, buffer full (38 frames total)

If you don't have a fast card, I've seen hits as big as 60-70%.

Sure, 45mp for almost five seconds is pretty remarkable. But remember that if you're in situations where you're shooting a lot of bursts in sequence, you eventually won't get those five seconds. 

For example, shooting football, I didn't have a problem with the buffer at 9 fps. Shooting soccer, I do. Why? Because there was generally 30-45 seconds between plays in football (and often more), but soccer is more continuous in action, and at times, frenzied continuous in action. The camera was still writing to the card when I tried to pick up a new action sequence in a soccer game, and thus I wasn't starting with a full 27 frames free.

This article was updated to reflect continued testing.

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