On paper the Nikon D850 seems to good to be true. This full-frame DSLR camera is no modest refresh of the already impressive Nikon D810, it's an overhaul.

It's fast in every way. Its high-resolution sensor competes with the best - even medium format cameras - given the 45-million-pixel arrangement. Its build quality and durability are second-to-none, too.

This could be the one camera for professionals of all kinds: action, landscapes and everything in-between. Although it's not a budget purchase by any means, its £3,500 asking price does make the D850 accessible to deep-pocketed photography enthusiasts too.

Surely there is a catch? Surely? Well, we'll keep looking, because the Nikon D850 might well be in for a shout as 2017's camera of the year...

  • 45.4-million-pixel CMOS sensor
  • 19.4-million-pixel DX crop mode
  • Expeed 5 processor
  • 7fps burst/ 9fps with grip

Oh, the pixels. All 45.4 million of them. Of all full-frame cameras, only the Canon EOS 5DS (and R) has a higher resolution. And that camera is, relatively speaking, a one-trick pony.

The D850, on the other hand, is also billed for action. It packs the same Expeed 5 processor as the Nikon D5, a camera used by professional action photographers.

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In many regards, the Sony Alpha 99 II has the most like-for-like features with this Nikon, while the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV is almost there - albeit with much lower resolution sensor.

With so many pixels, however, the D850's high-speed shooting is not quite to the same speed as the Nikon D5 or, indeed, the D500, but it is a respectable 7fps. You'll get the most out of the camera by attaching the optional battery pack, where 9fps is unleashed.

At 7fps, the camera will shoot up to 51 raw images in a single burst before slowing down. You'll need an XQD or UHS-II compliant SD card to get the most out of the high-speed shooting. But as the D850 is compatible with the fastest memory cards around, that's no problem.

  • Phase-detection AF
  • 153 point array (inc. 99 cross-type)
  • AF fine tuning

More importantly than high-speed shooting modes, the D850 has the same autofocus system as the Nikon D5. We rate this as just about the best autofocus system of any camera.

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The phase-detection AF module is made up of a 153-AF point array, including 99 of the more sensitive cross-type points to ensure both portrait and landscape format shooting with equal ability.

AF sensitivity functions down to -4EV in the centre AF point, which enables sharp and quick focusing at night time. It's staggeringly fast, even in near-darkness. Other AF points are sensitive down to -3EV, which is more like moonlight conditions.

We used the camera to capture a variety of action sequences. Windsurfers and kitesurfers at distance proved a good test for the camera - and a test it handled very well.

That's fast-moving subjects, covered, with consistent subject tracking. You'd struggle to find a more reliable AF system. We found the grouped AF mode particularly effective when the subject was kept within the same area of the frame.

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Select the DX crop mode - which uses a smaller portion of the sensor - and the AF array covers virtually the entire frame. The coverage is really wide. We often used the D850 in this crop mode, especially for getting closer to the action.

As for auto-focusing using the live preview display (for video), its speed and accuracy has improved but is sadly lacking compared to Canon's Dual Pixel AF and the best mirrorless cameras from Olympus and Panasonic.

Such high-resolution means an extremely narrow margin for error when it comes to sharp focusing with shallow depth of field. Add to this our experience of back-focusing issues with Nikon camera and lens combinations and it was a concern. Thankfully, the D850 offers an easy lens calibration procedure for fine-tuning lenses. If you want to ensure pin-sharp focus on the eyes (rather than the ears!) in a portrait, it can well be worth going through this procedure.

  • Wireless always-on Bluetooth connection
  • In-camera Focus Shift mode
  • 4K/8K timelapse

Focus Shift is a new shooting mode for Nikon. It is designed for macro photography where maximum possible sharpness, light intake and wide depth of field are impossible in a single-image capture.

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What the D850 does is to take up to 300 consecutive photos with incremental micro-changes in focus (a technique is know as focus stacking). These images are not merged in-camera into one image. Nope, they must be imported into software that can handle such stacking, such as Adobe Photoshop. However, the camera will put these images into a sub-folder for easier selection.

Like the other recent Nikon cameras, such as the D5600, there is a Bluetooth connection to a smart device via SnapBridge, which works very well for sharing images to social media and beyond. We had heard whispers of this being an issue with such a high-resolution camera but, frankly, whether you're using the D3400 or D850, the function is the same - because it's the 2MP resolution image download where the app really excels.

  • 915g body-only, 146 x 124 x 78.5mm
  • 1840-shot single battery life
  • Redesigned body with button illuminations
  • Silent electronic shutter
  • Twin card slot: one XQD, one SD (UHS-II)
  • 3.2in, 2.36k-dot tilt-angle touchscreen LCD
  • Pentaprism viewfinder with 100% coverage and 0.75x magnification

For all its headline-grabbing features, perhaps one of the most satisfying things about the Nikon D850 is its improved build quality and handling.

It's unmistakably Nikon and there is little change from its forbearers in weight or dimensions terms. Yet, the D850 has been sculpted into something that sits in the hand all the better.

The grip is more defined - you'll get your fingers in deeper for a more comfortable hold, which is especially useful with heavier glass attached to the front.

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It's a solid construction, all metal and weather-sealed. We love that the buttons can illuminate in low-light, a feature that proves massively useful when we'd otherwise be fumbling around the camera controls at night.

We had to double check that the quoted battery life on the D850's spec sheet wasn't a typo - it's listed 1,840 single shots from a full charge. But it's not, it takes a stack of shots per charge. And then some.

Add the optional battery pack with the same EN-EL18A battery as used in the D5, and the battery life increases to 5,140 shots. That's class-leading for a mid-size DSLR. And not by a little, but by a country mile.

It'll cost you big to get the optional battery pack, EN-EL18A battery, battery chamber and battery charger - all totting up to around £600 - but that still makes for a more affordable and higher-resolution solution than buying a Nikon D5. So there's a thought.

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Shutter noise can be an issue in DSLRs, so the new silent electronic shutter in the D850 is a welcome addition indeed. Where discretion is needed - thinking of street, weddings and wildlife - silent shooting is much appreciated. However, it's only available in live preview mode only, i.e. when using the rear LCD screen, so auto-focusing isn't a patch on the best mirrorless cameras out there. However, we made use of this mode on several occasions.

The built-in flash found in the D810 has been omitted from the D850. This may or may not matter to you - we suspect most photographers using a camera like the D850 would use an external flash unit/flash triggers anyway. Plus a built-in flash unit can be a point of a physical weakness, compromising weather-sealing, which shows this DSLR's high-end ambitions.

Excluding the flash does free up valuable space that Nikon has made the most of in the shape of a new viewfinder. The pentaprism viewfinder is large and bright, with a 100 per cent coverage and 0.75x magnification - making it Nikon's largest-to-the-eye finder yet. You really get to appreciate how big the viewfinder is when switching between the D850 and a mid-range APS-C format DSLR like the D5600.

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Then there's the LCD screen, which is also at the top of Nikon's game. The vibrant 3.2in tilt-angle touchscreen LCD display features a 2.36m-dot resolution. Its touch response for menu navigation, focusing, shutter release and image playback is spot on, too.

  • 4K video at 30fps (with no sensor crop)
  • 1080p at 60fps
  • Focus peaking and digital stabilisation (at 1080p)
  • Slow-motion mode up to 120fps at 1080p
  • Microphone/headphone ports
  • 4K 4:2:2 8-bit HDMI out to external recorder

The video specification has had an overhaul too. Unlike many other Nikon DSLR cameras, the 4K video mode is available with no sensor crop. You'll get the most out of wide-angle lenses and the camera's best possible performance in low-light as a result.

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It's not the crispest 4K video we have seen, but in comparison to the D810 it's higher spec. Below 4K, the specification for 1080p capture is impressive, with up to 60fps and slow-motion up to 120fps, electronic stabilisation, microphone/headphone ports and full support for external recorders. It's all there.

Video auto-focusing will continue to be a downside until Nikon develops some new tech for its DSLR cameras in live preview mode, however, but this might not matter if you're a manual focus puller with a rig setup.

  • 45.4-million-pixel full-frame sensor
  • Nikon's first back-illuminated sensor design for DSLRs
  • No optical low-pass filter (OLPF)
  • 19.4-million-pixel DX crop mode
  • ISO 64 to 25,600 expanded to ISO 32 to 102,400
  • 180k pixel RBG metering sensor, 3D colour matrix metering III

As mentioned, the D850's 45.4MP competes with some of the best high-resolution full-frame cameras out there, like the Canon EOS 5DS and Sony Alpha 99 II.

Needless to say, this is a camera that caters very well for landscape photographers. Of course, with such high resolution, the spotlight is on lens quality and the photographer's technique. Lens distortions can appear more intensely. Camera shake can be more obvious. When shooting handheld, you may find the need to give yourself an faster shutter speed than normal in order to ensure image detail is sharp.

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In order to avoid filling up a memory card so quickly when the maximum resolution is unnecessary, the D850 does have a medium-size 25.5MP image capture option (6192 x 4128 pixels) and small size at 11.3MP (4128 x 2752 pixels). Makes sense, given the 45.4MP output (8256 x 5504 pixels - which is around A1 without any interpolation/digital enlargement) will be more than many need.

Other features include both 5:4 and 1:1 aspect ratios (there you go Instagrammers). In our opinion, the benefit to these modes mainly is visualisation for composition more than anything else. We would rarely use the aspect modes, rather crop full-resolution images post capture to our taste, in order to avoid potential missed detail.

However, the DX crop mode has proven to be useful, for expanding focal length equivalent in particular. The resolution is 19.4MP (5408 x 3600), which indicates the D850 has a very similar pixel density to Nikon's flagship APS-C DLSR camera, the D500. A similar density means these two cameras should have similar image quality when it comes to low contrast light. Yet, the D850 features Nikon's first back illuminated sensor - a design that maximises light intake and improves low-light performance.

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So many pixels, yet the D850 actually has quite a broad ISO sensitivity range. A base ISO 64 that can be expanded down to ISO 32 caters well for any photographer who wants to minimise light intake and maximise dynamic range. We think it's this low ISO range that will interest many. Think landscape photographers with a penchant for long-exposures, portrait photographers who use flash or wide apertures in bright light.

That's the detail, so what do images actually look like?

We ran a quick comparison test of identical images between the D850 and the D800 - the latter which is now five years old. We compared full-resolution images, where the D850 images are bigger, but then also downsized the D850 to 36.3MP to make a true comparison. In this test the D850 is better on all counts - with greater dynamic range, resolution and colour, despite having more pixels. Downsample the full-resolution images to the same 36.3MP of the D800 and the images look better still.

There is an incredible range of tones at ISO 64. Where shine on skin and sunlight on white feathers appears washed out, there's more detail remaining in the D850. It is possible to brighten and darken images up to ±5EV and still see detail in those highlight and shadow areas.

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Images to ISO 1600 look clean. As for low-light performance, we start to see luminance noise more prominently at ISO 3200 and this increases steadily up the ISO range.

Display images at 100 per cent and low-light performance will not match with the D5. But that's a given, as the D850 images are twice the size.

Metering is excellent, too. We rarely had to dial in exposure compensation - you can go full-auto with the D850. The metering sensor is sensitive down to -3EV, so it will work well with Nikon's impressive AF system even in low-light or when using ND filters.

Colour wise, we took a grey card into various scenarios as a reference point against the camera's default AWB. For portraits in the shade, AWB was often identical to the grey card reading. In sunlight the AWB is usually a fraction cool.

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We've said it before, colours in Nikon JPEGs are not our favourite around, but are natural enough. It's the reds and magentas that can be a little over-saturated, even when using the Neutral picture setting. All in all, though, it's a matter of taste rather than a genuine gripe.

Verdict

The Nikon D850 impresses on paper. But after sustained use it's blown us away. This is one mean 45.4-million-pixel picture-making machine.

In the right hands and with good quality glass, the D850 is capable of crisp and highly detailed images. The camera's dynamic range is almost unreal, too. How many pixels are necessary is another matter, but the high-resolution opens up the D850 in other ways too, with its 19.4MP DX crop mode being massively useful.

Little changes to the D850 body transform the user experience. Illuminated buttons, silent shutter mode, deeper grip and class-leading battery life all add up to something quite special that sets it apart from previous 800-series cameras.

The Achilles' heel of Nikon DSLR cameras is their sluggish and less reliable auto-focusing in live preview mode. If Nikon was to create something similar to Canon's Dual-Pixel AF for improved video AF, then its DSLRs would be inherently more useful for video recording. But this is about the only area it's behind.

As for the price, it's a lot of cash but, actually, we think it's reasonable for all the camera it is. Realistically the body price is only a small part of the real outlay - as you'll need high-quality lenses and XQD/UHS-II cards. The optional battery grip and extra battery/charger would be nice-to-haves, too.

Right now, it's hard to think of a better camera than the Nikon D850. It's a photographers' camera. And a clear contender for camera of the year.

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