I was very excited when I first read about the new Nikon D850 and I knew that this camera would be exactly what I had been waiting for. The larger file size is welcomed from a fine art perspective and in combination with a highly improved focus system, fast processors and better ISO capabilities, I could easily see myself using this camera also for wildlife.
Unfortunately, Nikon has not been able to ship as many cameras as expected in the first batch and I was not able to get my hands on one before departing on a WildPhoto Travel photo tour to Alaska. That is when my local pro store, Stavanger Foto, stepped up and asked me if I would like to take their one and only demo camera with me to test in the field.
They didn’t have to ask twice.
Arrangements were made so they would have it back in Norway as soon as I returned from Alaska, as I was traveling on to another assignment in Mexico and they needed the camera in the store.
The Alaskan wilderness is a rewarding place for a wildlife photographer but an unforgiving environment for fine technology, so this would be a perfect place to test the new camera. I prefer to try my cameras and lenses in the environment where I actually do most of my work rather than testing it in a lab or at a random location.
For this field test, I stayed 7 nights in a tented camp with only a portable solar panel for charging. For the first three solid days, it was raining constantly before the weather cleared on the fourth day. During those rainy days, I used the Nikon D850 mainly as my short lens alternative, shooting with a 24-70mm/2,8E ED VR.
Among the features that I very quickly recognized and enjoyed, one was the possible diagonal tilting of the LCD screen. This feature is very handy when shooting low to the ground, composing my images without the use of an angle viewfinder. I also noticed that the built-in flash was removed, which I completely understand as it was a weak point in the previous models.
During my 7 years as a Nikon ambassador (which I am not anymore), I had been asking for the possibility to set the fn2 button to change between the different shooting bank menus without having to go into the menu system. Previously the response has been that the D800 and the D810 were not pro bodies and should not have the same features as the D4/D5. It seems Nikon has finally acknowledged that the D800 series is the only professional option after the D3X was discontinued.
During my test, I did shoot with ISO way above what I would normally shoot with the D810, and closer to what I use on my D5, and the converted DNG files look amazing. The lack of noise and also the color dynamics at high ISO is several levels above the previous models, and can easily be compared with the D5 if corrected for the larger file size.
I also enjoyed the new focus system, also found in the D5. I am especially impressed with the Group focus, which I use a lot while tracking fast moving subjects, but recently I have also learned to love the Auto AF mode. It is super fast and very intelligent. The frame rate is also impressive, considering the size of the sensor, with 7 fps, and a possible increase to 9 fps with the added MB-D18 battery grip.
As my preferred editing tool Adobe Lightroom has still not released an update for viewing and editing the D850 files I have not been able to review them properly, but from what I see so far the converted DNG files seem to have amazing dynamic range.
One feature I was really looking forward to testing was how well this camera performs during night photography. The first night we had a clear sky I set up the camera on my tripod at the high water mark and fitted it with the new Nikon 8-15mm lens. Being so far from civilization, the entire Milky Way was visible and this night there was no moon so it was perfect for a test.
I made use of the interval shooting option in the menu and found my frame to the west where the Milky Way would be most visible. I set my camera to take a picture every 15 minutes for five and a half hours starting at 23:00. My settings were 25 sec, f/4,5 at ISO3200. When all was ready, I went to bed.
The next morning, I came down to find wet grass on my camera and thought a bear had come by to taste it. We did have bears around our tent regularly. The battery seemed to be empty, which was a surprise, but when I opened the chamber to change it, reality hit me like a fist in the guts. During the night we had a record high 13.7-foot tide and the entire camera setup had drowned! I just killed one of the very few Nikon D850 that had been delivered in Norway and possibly the only one found in Alaska…
There were so many more features that I was looking forward to testing, but now it seems I will not get the opportunity. Based on what I did see, and also the few files that I have converted to DNG using Adobes converter, I am extremely impressed with this camera and I am sure I need one in my bag!
P.S. Just to make it clear the Nikon D850 does come with a fully weather-sealed construction, but it is not a waterproof underwater camera…
P.P.S. I want to give a shout out to the best photography store in the world. The service found at my local pro store Stavanger Foto cannot be matched by anyone, and the knowledgeable people working there will always make you feel like their most important client. Check out their website and give them a try, they deserve it!
About the author: Roy Mangersnes is a professional wildlife photographer based in Sandnes, southwestern Norway. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. He has published several books and won a number of top awards, including BBC Wildlife Photographer of the Year (2010, 2011) and European Wildlife Photographer of the Year (2010, 2009). You can find more of his work on his website, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. This article was also published here.