Nikon D850 – at work in Antarctica

With just a couple of days to spare (early December 2017) the good people at Lens and Shutter came through and my new Nikon D850 arrived in perfect time to accompany me on my upcoming trip to Antarctica. To say I’m excited at the prospect of working with this new, cutting edge tool for a solid month in the icy continent is an understatement! Video and time-lapse are two media I’ve used extensively in the past and the capabilities of the D850 are a significant step above any other Nikon DSLR in these areas, to say nothing of the whopping 47MP still images!

Immediately after unboxing I put the battery on charge, grabbed another, fully charged battery and set up with FoCal to fine tune the autofocus for my most frequently used lenses, including the ones I’ll be taking down to the Antarctic. I’m glad I had the time and opportunity to do that because there were some notably significant AF Fine-tune adjustments needed. My 14mm f2.8 needs -17 on the D850 and while my Nikkor 200-500mm f5.6 was just one increment off at +1, with the TC14lll teleconverter mounted that jumped to -13. I don’t often use the TC on an FX body as it makes more sense to simply mount the lens on a DX camera like the D500 to gain the extra reach. Having said that given that a TC brings an inherent deficit on image quality it also makes sense to fine tune the combination to get the most out if it when it is being used, to say nothing of the fact that the D850’s DX crop is almost identical to the D500’s resolution so habits may change.

I haven’t been a diligent AF fine tune practitioner on the past, I’ve dabbled doing it ‘manually’ but never been completely confident of my own assessment of the variations in sharpness to commit to the settings. But finally realizing I was short-changing myself by not taking this important step I acquired Reikan FoCal which I found to be easy to use.

The app is a bit buggy and I have to force-quit it a bit more than I’d like, which can waste time if it hangs toward the end of a particular calibration set. But the interface includes a before and after image of the focus target and for the lenses requiring anything more than a 3 to 4 increment adjustment, the improvement is clearly noticeable. Anyway this seems like material for a whole other blog post, suffice to say I’m glad I had the time to get the D850 optimized.

So where am I going with this post? Well I’ve read and watched as many online reviews of the Nikon D850 as I could find to affirm my decision to buy one, and assuage any buyer’s remorse as I waited almost a month for the back order to work through and the camera arrive (thanks again Lens and Shutter!). There’s little that could be added to the various, comprehensive, reviews in terms of showcasing the features and describing the pros and cons – we all know by now that it’s an incredible camera with a tonne of horsepower, cool features and yes well… the video autofocus still sucks! But there can’t be many D850s that have made it to the Antarctic yet and fewer still that will have spent a full month shooting 14-16 hours a day. So I’m thinking of writing a bit of a ‘shooter’s diary’ as I learn about and work with the D850, as time allows, and see where that takes things. Stay tuned…

Detail from church interior, Belinghausen Station, King George Island. 1/20 sec. f8 ISO 500. Nikkor 16-35mm f4

Ten Days – Three Thousand Frames

Our ship is anchored off King George Island just off the Chilean Antarctic Station – Eduardo Frei. Today we have a change of passengers with a little downtime so I’m going to see if I can make good on my plan to put down some words on my experience with the D850 in Antarctica so far.

We left Ushuaia nine days ago aboard MV Hebridean Sky with Antarctica XXl and crossed the infamous Drake Passage with our first group of guests. The crossing was fairly calm with a low two to three metre swell. As usual there were plenty of sea birds mainly albatross and various petrels following the ship which make for some interesting and challenging photography. True to my typical habits I tended to pickup the DX D500 with the Nikkor 200-500mm f5.6 for shooting these birds and leaning on the FX D850 for onboard scenes and, as we neared the South Shetland Islands, landscapes, icebergs and the like. But I did make a point of trying the D850 on the fast flying seabirds a few times.

Giant Petrel, Drake Passage. 1/2000 sec. f11 ISO 400. Nikkor 200-500mm f5.6

Our first day of landings in the South Shetlands were pretty stormy. Not ideal weather for photography but it’s key to my job to record all our experiences and despite the high winds the Chinstrap Penguins at Half Moon Island and the Gentoo Penguins at Yankee Harbour are an irresistible subject along with the occasional seal

The weather sorted itself out and over the next six days our cruise south along the west side of the Antarctic Peninsula and back to the South Shetlands was everything an Antarctic adventure should be. The D850 now feels familiar although I know it’s very early days in experiencing everything this camera has to offer.

Ergonomics – control layout

For the past few years I’ve paired a D600, then D750 with both a D7100 and D7200. I like having both a FX and a DX body on hand for their various strengths and those combinations have shared control layouts which while not critical, certainly makes shooting in a scramble less prone to operator error and generally feels more intuitive than having to consciously switch motor skill modes.

Having shot my D750 alongside the D500 all this past year I did notice the difference between the control layouts. Interestingly one of the more frequent hiccups that caused, was that I caught myself forgetting to use the sub-selector joystick for focus point selection on the D500, reaching for the multi-selector out of habit. Now with the D850 and D500 sharing almost identical interfaces, including the joystick, it feels very natural, seamless really, switching between the two bodies. In fact the D500 and 850 are so similar I had to make a point of noting the subtle differences in profile to be able to distinguish them. The grips are ever so slightly different too with the D850 having a more pronounced ‘edge’ where the finger curl round the grip.

In use, the only difference between the D850 and D500 that seems noticeable enough to be conscious of, is the position of the Preview and Fn1 buttons. On the D850, Preview is located lower, in line with the horizontal centre line of the lens mount and the Fn1 is located slightly higher, in like with the base of the lens mount. This puts the two buttons closer together and they are also recessed into the mount flange collar. I find the recess a little deep, making good contact with the button tricky and finger nails can catch the lip of the recess. Overall the change in position is better but the recesses need to have a wider radius and be semi-spherically sloped to fit the curve of the finger tip. It is far easier, for my hand size, to engage both buttons on the D850 which is an improvement for me as I usually have autofocus modes assigned to these buttons and often switch between the two in the same shooting sequence. On the D500 trying to reach both buttons together pinches my ring finger against the lens barrel reaching for Fn1. The Preview button on the D500 has less of a recess and I find is the easiest of the buttons between the two cameras to engage.

This might seem like a minor point but I find that I am increasingly relying on these controls. Shooting the D500 and D850 (and I assume the D5) can now take four digits in the right hand. With such complex operation even subtle shortcomings to the ergonomics are going to compromise the ability to quickly switch features. For wildlife, sports and other moving subjects efficiency with time can make the difference between nailing or flubbing the shot.


Mindful of the massive file sizes from the D850 I have been judicious with shooting it. It’s made me think a little more before firing the shutter, trying to get framing and composition optimized first shot instead of lazily rattling off several frames. Looking back at the shot count so far the D850 has been called on for 3,200 frames to 2,800 for the D500.

So, what about the results? Well, I’m extremely happy with them. On first glance, scrolling through on-screen previews, there’s no radical, apparent difference in image quality compared to any of the excellent mid-range Nikon DSLRs I’ve owned recently but as the range of subjects, lighting conditions and colour combinations I shoot increases I’m steadily noticing subtle and pleasing qualities to the D850’s image output.

On board Hebridean Sky in the Bransfield Strait. 1/60 sec. f8 ISO 125. 24-120mm f4

The new auto white balance options are among the more prominent improvements, giving a very clean colour cast. The out of camera jpegs continue Nikon’s excellence in straight-out-of-the-camera IQ. I like to use a custom Picture Control with boosted Clarity and find this adds to the apparent sharpness which on the D850, when the stars align, is like a razor.

On that note, before receiving my D850 I’d read and watched plenty of online reviews and chatter some of which pointed out the need for good camera technique and high quality glass to get the best results. While this is nothing new, I think we’ve heard similar things each time there was a step up in sensor resolution, from the D200 to D300, from the D700 to D800 and so on, this is the first time I believe that I’m seeing that factor at play in my own images. One series of close-crop images I shot of Gentoo Penguins at Mikkelsen Harbour with the D850 and 200-500mm f5.6 showed unexpected softness in the detail which I put down to the slower shutter speed (1/160th), a speed that I think would have given better results on the 24MP D750. I’ve been making a concerted effort to stabilize the camera better and aim for higher shutter speeds. I know I wasn’t doing myself any favours by leaning on the ISO 64 but I, perhaps irrationally, was seduced by this new option.

In better light and faster shutter speeds this issue seemed to resolve itself.

Gentoo Penguin at Mikkelsen Harbour

Gentoo Penguin at Mikkelsen Harbour 200-500mm f5.6 at 1/400 sec. f11 ISO 64

Derelict Building, Whalers’ Bay, Deception Island. 1/640 sec. f11 ISO 64. Nikkor 70-200mm f4

Golden light in the Gerlache Strait

Golden light in the Gerlache Strait 1/100 sec. f8 with Nikkor 24-120mm f4 at 65mm

In producing my deliverables from each trip of 6 days, time is of the essence. Typically each slideshow has ~180 images and the goal is ~12 to 14 minutes which leaves little room for much video. Time-lapse sequences are the natural solution to cover as much ground as possible in an efficient timeframe. They can bring humour and other insights to people, penguins’ and the ship’s movement too. With any past camera body I’ve owned I’ve always been mindful of the wear and tear several hundred, even thousands of, mirror and shutter activations cause just for a few seconds of time-lapse video. Enter the Silent Mode on the D850. With this feature time-lapse videos are recorded with only one mirror activation and a silent electronic shutter. It is amazing! and reassuring to know negligible wear is happening. A funny side-effect though was convincing people that the camera is actually doing anything as it sits on a tripod silently working.

Speaking of time-lapse, I think shooting them exposed the main weakness in my camera kit on this trip… not enough cameras! Each time I set one up it might tie up a body for anywhere between half an hour and more than an hour. Invariably it was the D850 I’d use for time-lapse leaving me with the D500 for all other duty. I found I was either waiting around longer than I should, for the time-lapse to complete, or pressing on to other photo-ops without the benefit of the wider FX field of view. The obvious solution for next season is to pack a third camera body specifically for time-lapse. Did I really say that?

Being mainly a wildlife and landscape shooter my needs and use of flash is minimal to say the least. I’d be the poster child for Nikon’s rationale for ditching the built-in pop-up flash from the D850 (and D500). But of course there are situations where flash is indispensable. For the rare times I need a light boost I have a compact Nikon SB400. I don’t know what’s changed but whereas in the past I’ve found fill flash results a bit hit and miss, with the D850 I got good results with minimal fuss.

Grave marker at Deception Island

Grave marker at Deception Island 1/250 sec. f18 with Nikkor 14mm f2.8

So, after a month and just under 10,000 images with the D850 I feel I’ve bonded with this camera and am more than happy with the investment. It’s hard to say if I was able to capture any one image with the D850 that I couldn’t have with my D750, or even the D600 I took to Antarctica in my first season. Some of the results are leaving me wondering if the high resolution of the D850 is exposing weaknesses of the mid-range lenses in my collection and now with more time, than I had before I left for the Antarctic, I’ll be revisiting the AF fine tune and digging a bit deeper with the results I can get from the few premium lenses I do have, like the 85mm f1.4G. I’d love to see what could be done with the new Nikkor 180-400mm f4 1.4TC with the D850. If there’s a patron out there looking for a worthy cause…

What I can say is that I just loved shooting with the D850. It is a robust camera that feels solid in the hand and the controls are very intuitive, especially with prior experience with other recent Nikon DSLRs, and doubly so when paired with a D500 with which it is an ideal match. It is simply a delight to shoot with. The straight out of camera jpegs are fantastic and while we all know the benefit of RAW files, for this type of work they often have to play second fiddle simply due to the time constraints. It’s still early days for me with the D850 but I’m sure it’s going to improve my photography in yet to be seen ways.

I can’t thank Lens and Shutter enough for getting this camera to me in the nick of time so I could take it to Antarctica. I’m confident the D850 will be with me for some seasons to come and I’m excited to shoot with it through the coming year at home and up the coast in British Columbia.

Chinstrap Penguins at Orne Harbour

Chinstrap Penguins at Orne Harbour 1/250 f14 ISO100 Nikkor 16-35mm f4