My Year with the Nikon D850
Part 1 of 3 Camera Reviews
In this three-part series, I’m going to review all three of the cameras I work with. Each one — the Nikon D850, Leica M-P (Typ 240) and Fujifilm X-H1 — serves a very distinct, professional purpose for me and I use them all regularly. To my mind, this is a much better way to understand the differences between camera types than clinical comparisons of features, or even out-of-the-box reviews, in controlled settings. In the real world, cameras must integrate into your workflow, go through problems, get resolved, take a few hits, make mistakes and work some magic in multiple settings before they really earn a review.
I’ll be going over all three cameras, one at a time — a full-frame DSLR, a full-frame rangefinder and a cropped sensor mirrorless — in a completely non-academic fashion. I simply want to show you the various shoots I’ve done with them throughout the year with a few notes about what the camera offered me with each.
First up — the Nikon D850.
I upgraded from the Nikon D800 to the D850 back in March and even from the very first shot, I knew the new sensor and larger files were impressive. I’ve shot Nikon since 1980 and have upgraded with nearly every major advancement — from the D100 to the D300 to the incredible D750 and on through to this one. With that, it was an easy integration with some substantial upgrades. Let’s take a look:
March: A Friend’s Ferrari
One of the more typical situations for a photographer — a friend is selling his car and needs a few nice photos for the post. Always happy to oblige a nice car shoot, so I had him bring it over to Beverly Hills and we found a few nice spots where some reflective light from buildings helped me showcase the shape and sheet metal.
I’m no car photographer, and I don’t travel with the right lights to do it justice, but I know generally how to get myself into a nice three-quarter position to shoot one. The big files and excellent dynamic range really help when shooting cars, which usually need quite a bit of adjustments to look great. And while a lot of work would need to be done on a shot like this to get it magazine-ready, it’s got just about everything a car shot needs before getting the royal treatment, including detail in places where any admirer of fine classic cars could find themselves getting lost in for as long as they like.
April: To Tell a Story
Getting to shoot a beautiful and talented actress in an editorial style is pretty much my happy place. This was not only a chance to test out the D850 for an ideal gig, it was also a good opportunity to pare it with a strobe — in this case, a Profoto B1 with a warm gel. This shot is nearly exactly how it came out of the camera and is among my favorites of the year.
Few cameras can create this quality of an image indoors, in an almost entirely dark setting. It requires a lot of things working right, both in-camera with the lens and with the strobe. As you recede in space in this image, you’re still cognizant of environmental features, like the oak barrel and background booth, which truly help this be more than a simple portrait and veer into editorial storytelling. This is hugely important to me and because of my style of shooting, which is very physical (I’m basically on the table here), I don’t like to use a tripod. This means I need a fast shutter speed to deal with all my moving. This is shot at 1/320th of a second. But in order to deal with me, the camera needed to be wide open at f/1.4 (35mm). And I wanted the lowest possible ISO for clarity (I’m already losing a lot by being at f/1.4). I was able to shoot this at a phenomenally low ISO 400. And, of course, keep in mind I’m also controlling a strobe at the same time. That’s an incredible amount of flexibility that the D850 affords.
May: Inside Job
Every once in a while, something comes your way that changes the course of your entire life. April/May was like that for me. Around this time, I saw a major upheaval in life — bad for my anxiety, but great for my photography as it lead directly to meeting what would be one of the most creative clients to work with.
This shoot was our first go and this shot one of my first taken. Indoors, no flash, but I got to work with one of the very best continuous Arri lights available, coming in from outside, as well as a fog machine. I again set it up with a 35mm prime wide open to give me the most flexibility indoors and was absolutely stunned by the camera’s ability to capture the subtleties of the atmosphere we created. Separation from the room’s atmosphere and the coffee’s steam helped this scene come together, as well as the range in the shadows that offered a natural look for the subject’s face and enough detail in his glasses to give it real depth.
For a simple kind of shot, there’s amazing details here all along the spectrum. Indoor shoots are hard to make look extremely dynamic and sharp, but the D850 performed magnificently.
June: And a Glass of Wine
Of all the things I shot in June, this stood out to me, even though it was not a professional shoot. My wife’s friend came over to visit for a bit and the light happened to be coming in beautifully through our living room window. I have a few cans of aerosol mist and decided I’d just have some fun and see what came out. I used a Zeiss 85mm f/1.4 here and it was dark enough that I bumped the ISO to 1250 and shot a slow (for me) 1/200th of a second.
But despite the great low light performance of the camera, what really stands out to me here is the color grading I was able to do with the shot. Most color adjustments on image files are relegated to white balance shifts and the more you really try to change the mood of the image, the more you just make it look bad or fake. But with this kind of depth in the image, I was able to do much better tweaks in color grading to really create a distinct look that is indistinguishable from what I might have produced using gels and special lights. This is a hugely valuable asset for post-production explorations that is relatively unique to the D850 image size and rendering.
August: Studio Portrait
In July, I had the pleasure of driving across the country on a photojournalism assignment and primarily used my Leica for that. But I was back on the scene in August and happy to get into the studio with a single light and softbox for a portrait session with friend and rising star, Romell.
The D850 works seamlessly with off-camera flash and the 70–200mm, just as the D800 did. In this kind of controlled setting, most cameras will produce solid results, so not a big surprise here. The difference with these shots, and why this shoot stood out to me as particularly exemplary of the D850’s strengths, is that I did not start with a particularly heavy flash fire on these. In fact, the strobe was set fairly low and diffused for a more even lighting, so this bright look was achieved primarily in post.
It’s not easy to bring an image up in this way, and a lesser file would not respond this well to the full stop increase in overall exposure and even more increase in highlights and shadows needed to make this image look bright and airy, but not blown out.
September: Calling Irving Penn
This studio shoot for Ford, featuring outdoor enthusiast employees, was a full-production shoot, with crew, hair/makeup, styling, art department, digital tech and, of course, catering! With six portraits to get done in two days and a lot of on-set creativity, there is zero room for failure with the camera. This is where you really need your camera to perform and have a lot of opportunity to really test out some of its professional capabilities.
Tethering was seamless as we saved files straight to the computer and each image was checked immediately with the digital tech. We had a back-focus issue during the shoot and made micro-adjustments in-camera. With a retouching-heavy job like this, the large files really helped, too.
In all, a big studio production is the Nikon D850’s sweet spot.
October: Night Out
I do night photography workshops in Los Angeles on occasion, and this particular night in October seemed like a good one to put the D850 to test in a long exposure setting. I had no reason to think it wouldn’t perform well, as its predecessor had never steered me wrong here, either. But in truth, I prefer smaller cameras for long exposure simply because they are lighter, don’t have a mirror slap and drift less on a tripod. However, since I hadn’t used it yet, I was interested to see how the better low light and backlit sensor of the D850 did at night.
Not surprisingly, the details of the big sensor really help on an image like this. Every light of those buildings is discernible, the letters of the street signs are pin-sharp and the colors of the sky pulled out of near darkness are remarkably true. With an 8-second shot from a weird angle, you get to use a lot of this camera’s special functionality, like live view, the articulated screen, long exposure noise reduction, silent shooting (no mirror slap) and Nikon’s Snap Bridge remote control app.
And yes, it’s remarkable how little a car travels in eight seconds, in L.A.
November: Heating Up
This two-day lifestyle shoot in November really put the camera through its paces. It was like doing four weddings in two days. Sunrise to sundown, six different locations, 10 different models. With the new EN-EL 18A Lithium-Ion battery in the grip, I not only didn’t have to recharge the battery during the day, I didn’t have to charge it at all. It took two full days of shooting to run it down. I’ve never experienced anything like it.
As you can see from the images, we shot in nearly every type of lighting imaginable. I was changing white balance constantly. Moving from indoors to outdoors. Using strobes, reflectors, continuous light and daylight. And shooting at dawn, midday and past dusk. The ask was to create a consistent look to a shoot that was completely all over the place, so it took some ingenuity to establish a look, and try to nail it in every different kind of setting we had, including in a subway! The flexibility and range of the D850 helped in numerous ways.
December: The Big Day
I shot a lot last month (December), too. Holiday card photos, portraits, behind-the-scenes stuff, I even traveled with a rock star on a teeny plane. But the shoot that caused me to work the hardest was a private birthday party at a club in Los Angeles. Event shooters do not get nearly the credit they deserve, as it’s incredibly difficult shooting in near-impossible lighting situations.
For this event, I put on an on-camera flash and in many situations had to get very creative, especially as the group headed into the dance room that was so packed with people, I could barely find my subject. If you’ve ever shot with a flash, you know that nearly every shot you take looks different as you move around a venue. You’re not just trying to create light, you’re trying to create attractive light. Control is everything and a constant fine-tuning throughout the night has to occur simultaneously with trying to capture key moments. I was extremely impressed with the D850’s performance and image quality throughout the night.
December: The Big Game
While writing this, I got an assignment to go shoot a street soccer tournament that my buddies, Dillon and Tim, put on down at the famous Venice Beach courts area. This is fast-paced, four-on-four soccer (one goal and you sit). Moments happen extraordinarily fast and getting great shots necessitates great equipment.
There were a number of times I was very glad to be shooting with the Nikon D850 and the glass that goes with it. Most notably for the shot above, with a tournament winning shot from world champion, Allie Long. Not just for the 9 FPS that came in handy for a crystal clear set of shots at this moment, but even more for the fact that I had situated myself right behind a very active net and on the way to getting this shot. My camera had gotten pegged no less than three times by fast-paced shots into the back of the net. These were hard shots that rocked me backward and carved a good chunk of skin out of my palm. The beast of a camera in the Nikon D850 was affected not at all by the drubbing, where a not-as-toughly-constructed mirrorless would simply have disintegrated.
Aside from the made-for-sports construction, the D850 also allowed me to get very creative with my shooting, when I wanted to — both at the event and in post. Slow shutter panning shots are a high-degree-of-difficulty technique in fast-paced sports. You certainly can do it with any camera, but to do it and also get magazine-quality imagery out of it requires nearly everything that a camera system offers. And, for my tastes, this shot gets top marks for capturing the essence of the sport with that technique and probably goes down as one of my favorite (and hardest-to-achieve) images of the year, at high-enough resolution to fit on the side of a building. Hey Nike?
Originally published at phlearn.com.