Nikon D850 Review

Nikon D850 Review

By Scott Gietler


Nikon continues to innovate with their flagship dSLR cameras, and the D850 is no exception. Previously photographers had to choose between the speed and video capabilities of the D500 and the sensor size of the D810. That gap still exists although it is closer than before. Let's look at some of the key features of the Nikon D850 for underwater photography and video.

Increase in Megapixels

The D850 expands the pixels on the new backlit CMOS sensor from 36.3 to 45.7 megapixels. This corresponds to the 12% increase in the horizontal pixel width. The higher resolution is welcome, although only people who are shooting very close subjects underwater with the best lenses at the optimal apertures will notice the difference. The image dimensions change from 7360x4912 pixels on the D810, to 8256x5504. Ultimately you need to decide if you really need additional megapixels – not everyone does. In DX mode, the sensor will crop down nicely to 20 megapixels, perfect for using the Tokina 10-17mm fisheye lens, or for greater reach with long/macro lenses. Of course you can always crop in post, but some photographers may prefer to compose in camera at the final resolution.'

Addition of 4K Video, MP4 file format

The Nikon D850 is capable of 4K video using the full width of the sensor at 30p, and 1080p slow-motion video at 120fps, at a bit-rate of over 140 Mbps. This is a very high bit-rate, comparable to the GH5 and 5D Mark IV bit rates, although the 5D does have a 500 Mpbs bit rate option for its 4K video.

Using the full sensor for 4K video is significant, as most cameras implement 4K video in a crop mode, which means you don't get the full angle of view from your lenses.

Focus peaking in 1080p mode, zebra stripes, and a flat picture profile are also offered.

Increased shooting speed & buffer size

The raw file frame rate of the D850 increased from 5 to 7 fps over the Nikon D810, a significant increase due to the new EXCEED 5 processing engine. While still not as fast as the lighting speed of the D500, it is a noticeable difference and will be appreciated when shooting blink of the eye events such as animal behavior. The shooting speed increases to 9fps with the optional battery grip.

The RAW buffer size for 14-bit lossless compressed files has been almost doubled to 51, which should be sufficient for almost any shooting scenario. For 12-bit raw files, it is an astounding 127 images. You will want to use high speed XQD cards and high speed SD cards to be able to handle the large files of the camera.

Larger Viewfinder

The built-in viewfinder magnification is 7% larger than the D810, rated at 0.75 instead of 0.7, which is a welcome change, although we still recommend the external viewfinder with an underwater housing for an even larger view.

New Autofocus System

The D850 has inherited the 153 point auto-focus system of the Nikon D5, which means it has a dedicated auto-focus engine and significantly more auto-focus points than the D810. The autofocus is without question superior to the D810 and is at least on par with, if not better than, the D500. 

Boasting -4 EV range instead of -2 EV range, the camera's autofocus works far better in low light conditions than its predecessor. The central auto-focus point is rated to -4 EV (4 stops darker than a “normal” light benchmark), and the remaining auto-focus points at -3 EV. 

The 3D tracking mode is fantastic, especially for locking onto macro subjects and following them around the frame. Along with the addition of the new Dynamic Group 9 AF mode (which activates a group of 9 AF points around a central one), there is an autofocus mode for every single situation.

If you are upgrading from an older Nikon like the D90 or the D300, the new autofocus system will truly seem magicial.

Native ISO boost

The native ISO range of the D850 is now 25,600 ISO, an increase of the 12,800 ISO of the D810. The D850 uses a new back-lit sensor which offers better low-light performance. 

On the low end, ISO 64 is a welcome option for shooting in bright conditions, which is also available with the Nikon D810 but not the D800. ISO 64 is gorgeous and the detail, color, and dynamic range at that ISO allow for better image quality than any other system underwater.

Shooting 25,600 and up is ridiculous and there is really no need to do that underwater, nor should you. The image quality will not be great, as it will be on any camera. The D850 does improve on the high ISO performance from the D810, which is impressive considering the bump in resolution. While the dynamic range does suffer as it does on any system, it is still quite nice. The shot below was made shooting at ISO 2500 in near darkness and the noise isn't offensive and details were still able to be pulled from the shadows.

If you don't need the full 45 megapixels, you can still shoot at a very high ISO and get very usable images, and the Nikon D850 will resolve this better than any other camera.

NIkon D850 - Other Changes from the D810

Focus Peaking, focus stacking, LCD resolution and more

The D850 adds many additional improvements and upgrades that will be appreciated by hobbyists and professionals alike, including silient Photography Mode in live view XQD card slot instead of CF card slot, Wifi & Bluetooth support, 50% greater battery life, double the LCD resolution, focus stacking, focus peaking for both stills and video, and active D-lighting for video.

Focus peaking and the increase in LCD resolution (now 2.3 million dots) will both be appreciated by underwater macro photographers, who will be able to more easily verify focus of subjects, and check detail, sharpness and clarity in the LCD screen.

Focus Stacking

Focus stacking is an exciting new feature offered by the D850. It will automatically take up to 300 shots at different focal points, and the photos can then be combined outside of the camera into one photo where the complete subject is in focus - very useful for macro / supermacro photography.This likely wouldn't be applicable in 99% of situations underwater.

There is also the ability to downsize RAW files in-camera to 11 or 25 megapixels. IMHO this is a very useful feature that will preserve the flexibility of RAW files and decrease the space and processing needs, when they are not needed.

What's Missing?

The is no longer a pop-up flash, and no GPS. The lack of a pop-up flash takes away a safe “backup” solution for underwater shooting with strobes and fiber optic cables, in case your sync cords flood or your flash trigger stops working, both of which are common in the field problems. The serious underwater photographer will have to carefully plan for contingencies now that this backup is not available. However, by removing the flash Nikon was able to improve the weather-resistant capability of the camera. Several housing manufacturers offer built in or optional electro-optical converters to work around the lack of a flash 'issue'.

There is no log gamma option for videographers, which some filmmakers have used for better tonal reproduction. However, there is a “flat” picture profile that can be used for increased dynamic range.

Lenses for Underwater with the Nikon D850

  • Nikon 8-15mm Fisheye – this high quality lens gives you a choice between a circular fisheye view and regular fisheye view. The Sigma 15mm F2.8 and the Tokina 10-17mm fisheye lenses are also good options. Small 4-inch dome ports can be used with these lenses. Read our review of the Nikon 8-15mm Fisheye Lens
  • Nikon 16-35mm F4 wide-angle – the defacto lens for sharks, rays, dolphins and other shy “big animals” you might see in a place like Cocos or the Galapagos. An 8-inch or larger dome port should be used, which can make the setup a little bulky underwtaer, but still light and easy to manage. The older Nikon 17-35mm F2.8 can be used, but the 16-35mm F4 is a much better choice.
  • Nikon AF-S 60mm macro lens - a very versatile lens for macro, fish and marine life portraits
  • Nikon 105mm VR macro lens -the lens for fish, macro and supermacro. When using this lens underwater, the setup can be a little heavy, and a float ring around the macro port is recommended. A diopter is recommended for subjects smaller than 1 inch.


Orange tube anemone photographed with the Nikon D850 in the Nauticam housing with the Nikon 105mm VR macro lens and a ReefNet fiber optic snoot.

Nikon D850 Underwater Housings

The Nikon D850 will not work in existing D810 housings.

Underwater Housings from Nauticam, Ikelite, Aquatica and Sea & Sea are all available. 

Sample Underwater Macro Images

In early February we took the Nikon D850 out for a spin with a Nauticam housing, a Nikon 105mm VR macro lens, a Nauticam SMC diopter, and two Sea & Sea YS-D1 strobes while diving at Santa Cruz Island - California's macro paradise. Although full-frame DSLRs are notoriously difficult to take macro photos with, the D850 nevertheless shines bright. In fact, it makes taking macro photos feel easy!

The auto focus is unbelievably fast. It surpasses any mirrorless and compact camera and most DSLR's on the market. Many images could be refocused within a couple of seconds. I found that the auto focus 3D tracking mode worked very well and was my preferred AF mode when taking macro photos. Most of the images were very sharp - even when the camera moved quite a bit, the focal points were tracked nicely. It works best with a high contract background. 

At 45.7 megapixels, the resolution is more than enough for any photographer. In fact, it's unbelievable. Some of my RAW files are close to 90 megabytes! So keep in mind that extra storage is likely necessary for any serious photographer. The largest benefit of this type of resolution is for macro and super macro photographers who wish to crop their images for better composition or artistic effect. Most crops will still render a high quality photo. Check out the 100% crops below...

One thing to note - the macro set up is very heavy - floats are must in order not to get tired of holding the camera after one dive!

Tube anemone photographed with the Nikon D850


Strawberry anemone photographed with the Nikon D850 and Nikon 105mm lens with a Nauticam SMC diopter in a Nauticam housing
.....and the 100% crop showing the amazing resolution



Amazing detail in these spanish shawl rhinophores! 


A painted greenling photographed with the Nikon D850 and Nikon 105mm VR macro lens. This photo was taken f/3.8, exhibiting a shallow depth of field and beautiful bokeh!


A moray eel photographed with the Nikon D850 and Nikon 105mm VR macro lens
.....and a 100% crop. Look at the detail on those parasites!


A white christmas tree worm photographed with the Nikon D850 and Nikon 105mm VR macro lens. The fiber optic snoot helped bring out a lot of the contrast and detail to be captured by the camera's amazing sensor
.....Check out this 100% crop


....and another crop!!



Sample Underwater Wide Angle Images

The Nikon D850 also shines when it comes to the other end of the spectrum. With class leading dynamic range, top of the line color reproduction, and 46 megapixels of detailed goodness, the D850 may well be the best camera available for wide angle shooting. We have not had the chance to get the 850 in the water in all conditions but we have had it out a few times here in Southern California, and it is hard not to be impressed with the wide angle performance. The D810 was fantastic all around camera and the 850 just moves on from it. Take advantage of the huge resolution! If you compose your images well, you can produce huge prints of the highest quality without having to crop. If you can get away shooting at ISO 64, do it. No other camera (that can be taken underwater) can match the D850 image quality at ISO 64.

​Anemone in a bed of brittle stars on the California Oil Rigs


​The Oil Rigs off California can be quite dark at depth, so shooting verticals with the crossbeams of the rigs and the bright surface produces a vast range of tones that the 850 has no problem handling.


​Male California Sheephead photographed with slow shutter and the D850 at base ISO (64)


​Even at ISO 1250, the D850 retains absolutely fantastic color and the ability to control both shadows and highlights, well. I have no qualms about shooting higher ISOs with the 850 than with most other cameras. The overhang here was quite dark and if I'd been shooting the D810, I probably would've passed on the shot as I just never trusted the high ISO on that body. The D850 however, while not on the level of the D5, has no problem increasing the ISO past where I was comfortable on the D810.


​Hard to beat ISO 64 on the D850! Shadows and highlights contain huge amounts of detail and are able to be pulled back without degrading image quality. I couldve pulled more out of the shadows on this image without a problem.


Nikon D850 Underwater Housings

Nauticam D850 Housing

Nauticam is known for producing functional, ergonomic, customizable, and durable housings. The new Nauticam D850 is no exception. All the levers, buttons, and wheels on the aluminum housing are clearly labeled so there is no guessing as to what button you are pushing or wheel you are spinning.

The NA-D850 features the patented Nauticam bayonet port lock mechanism and the electro-optical converter like the one found on the D500 and the D5 housings. This allows the use of fiber optic cables on a camera that doesn't have a pop up flash. There is also a new lever that falls under the left middle finger that makes toggling between the autofocus modes very quick and easy.

Of course, the housing also provides access to all important camera functions that one would need to use while underwater. Users of other Nauticam housings will feel right at home as the ergonomics are very much the same. The housing handles faultlessly in the water (as it should) and is built to last and perform in any conditions.


Sea & Sea D850 Housing

The Sea & Sea Nikon D850 Housing is the smallest aluminum housing, with easy to reach controls, bulkheads for sync cords, and an optional vacuum check system and internal TTL converter. It is 11% lighter than the Sea & Sea D810 housing, which was already a very light housing. One of our favorite features of the housing is that all of the controls now have a spring to prevent slip of the controls, even if they wear over time or if the camera dimensions vary slightly. Lenses can be changed without taking the camera out of the housing.


Aquatica D850 Housing

Aquatica has recently announced their housing for the new flagship camera from Nikon, the D850. They have truly taken steps in the right direction with this model. The housing itself is 12% lighter than the previous D800 and D810 models, but continues to boasts the same depth rating and ergonomic controls.

One of the highlights would be the new “self-aligning controls”, which makes the already seamless task of installing the camera into the housing seem more natural and straightforward. The new self-aligning system allows the camera to slide in and out of the housing with ease, no need for pulling levers or setting controls, so there is one less task necessary before getting in the water! As with the previous models this housing is compatible with both Aquatica or Vivid vacuum check systems. Overall the new Aquatica D850 housing is the perfect example of a rugged, durable, well built system combined with the refined controls, ergonomics and innovation necessary for any underwater photographer.


Ikelite D850 Underwater Housing

Several excellent housings are now available for the D-850, but most will cost you more than the price of the camera, even without a port. Thankfully for those on a budget, longtime U.S. housing manufacturer Ikelite now offers a very affordable alternative that still offers high quality and supports a wide range of lenses and accessories. And, it boasts their new, much improved “dry lock” port system, making it easier than ever to change ports, along with a new vacuum check system, both of which are designed to protect your delicate camera like never before


The Nikon D850 is worthy successor to the D810, and appeals to a wide-range of photographers looking for the lastest upgrade. Sport, landscape, underwater, wildlife, and macro photographers will all find something to like about the camera's new features.

The Nikon D850 won't make you a better photographer (no camera can do that) but it gives you the ability to create images of the absolute highest quality.

From Bluewater Photo's Matt Sullivan - "As seemingly more and more people are moving to the mirrorless cameras, the all too familiar "DSLR's are dead" shouts are more and more prevalent everyday. Enter the Nikon D850 - a camera that proves that DSLR's are very, very far from dead. For most underwater shooters, the D850 may well be the best DSLR ever made. In the past there has always been a compromise between speed and high resolution. No more. The D5 autofocus system + 7fps will be more than enough for just about every situation underwater. The dynamic range and ISO performance will be hugely appealing to wide angle shooters and the resolution to allow insane detail and ability to crop heavily will appeal to macro shooters."

The Nikon D850 is retailing for $3,3300 USD. Contact or call 310-633-5052 for more details.


Updated review of the Nikon D850 for underwater photography