review: Nikon D850 high ISO test
This article is an adjunct to the main review of the Nikon D850, and here we only look at how the Nikon D850 (B&H / Amazon) stacks up against other full-frame Nikon DSLRs in terms of high-ISO noise. How the camera performs at higher ISO settings might be of less interest to Nature photographers, but for event and wedding photographers, it is one of the essential factors in considering a camera. In this test, we’re going to look how the Nikon D850 compares specifically to the Nikon D5, D810 and D750. To make things interesting for everyone, there are RAW files you can download, at the different ISO settings, starting from 800 ISO onwards.
Of course, we are up against a challenge here in that all four these cameras have different resolutions, so we need to equalize for that.
- 45 mpx; 25mpx … Nikon D850 (B&H / Amazon)
- 20mpx … Nikon D5 (B&H / Amazon)
- 24 mpx … Nikon D750 (B&H / Amazon)
- 36 mpx … Nikon D810 (B&H / Amazon)
If you are curious how some of these cameras compare at higher ISO setting with previous Nikon models, check out these links. There are downloadable RAW files there as well.
- review: High-ISO test – Nikon D4S / D4 / D3s / D610 / D700
- review: High-ISO test – Nikon D750 / D4S / D4 / D810 / D610
To keep this review fairly concise, we’re only going to look at 3200 ISO in the comparison photos shown here. For me, that’s about the most regularly used high ISO setting before we start working with the crazy-high ISO settings. We should be able to get a good idea of how the cameras compare when we look at that one specific value. Again, if you are interested in the other settings, and want to test for yourself, there are RAW files you can download. The file names should be obvious as to which camera and ISO setting (and resolution) they are.
Summary of the high-ISO comparisons
In short, the Nikon D5 (B&H / Amazon), shines in terms of the look of the high-ISO noise in the images – the grain is even, and not as distinct as in any of the equivalent ISO settings of the other cameras. That said, the Nikon D5 has an anti-aliasing filter, so the images are less crisp than those of the Nikon D810 or full-resolution Nikon D850. Still, the D5 falls well into the “plenty sharp” category for my professional and personal use.
The Nikon D850 (B&H / Amazon), might be marginally ahead of the Nikon D810 in terms of high-ISO noise. Or, said in another way, the D810 holds up surprisingly well, and will be a camera with fantastic capabilities for many years to come, compared to other cameras.
The Nikon D750 (B&H / Amazon), holds up remarkably well for high-ISO noise, as well as sharpness. So if you’ve been using a Nikon D750, I don’t think there is much motive to upgrade yet, unless you need specific features of the D850.
Now this is where disappointment set in for me with the Nikon D850 medium RAW files – while they have reasonably controlled noise (compared to the D750 for example), the mRAW files of the Nikon D850 are soft. This article on the PhotographyLife website explains the technology behind the D850 sensor and the different sizes of RAW files.
This softness of the medium RAW files are also discussed in the more full review: Nikon D850 camera. I investigated this again later on: Nikon D850 medium RAW files soft? While every other aspect of the D850 is mouth-watering state-of-the-art image-making machine, the lack of a decently sharp medium RAW file is disappointing. Since the vast majority of my work doesn’t require more than the 20-24 megapixel range, that’s where I would use the D850 most of the time.
Again, please download the RAW files for yourself to test if you need to. Remember to resize the images for comparison. Don’t just compare a D5 file at 100% with a D850 file at 100% … they will look different. You have to equalize them in some way to give yourself a sense of how they might print or appear on a screen.
Here is an example where you can clearly see the 25 megapixel medium RAW file of the D850 is softer than the down-sized 45 megapixel file. The camera was on a tripod and set to manual focus.
The Nikon D750 holds its own!
The Nikon D5 file at 1600 ISO compared to the full-resolution D850 file, sized down to 20 megapixels. Once you resize the D850 files appropriately, they look remarkably good in terms of the high-ISO noise.
The Nikon D5 image has smoother high ISO than the D850 full-resolution file scaled down to 20 megapixels, but due to the anti-aliasing filter of the D5, the D5 image is less crisply sharp. The D850 noise at this size looks pretty good for 6400 ISO though, even if the D5 beats it.
The lighting setup for this test sequence
I had to figure out a work-around for the very high ISO settings, since this would push the shutter speeds really high if I start at 800 ISO. I set up these two Litepanels Astra EP Bi-Color LED Panels (B&H / Amazon), to bounce against two white V-flats to give as soft light as I could. Fortunately, it doesn’t seem like there were any (or much?) flicker present at these high shutter speeds. The Astras are meant to be flicker-free, but I am not sure the manufacturer meant that they would be used at very high shutter speeds. Still, the images looked consistent to me. Hopefully consistent enough for a valid test.
All images were shot at f/8 except for a few images at very high ISO settings, where I had to go to f/11 when the shutter speeds maxed out.
I hope these tests have value for you, and give you a better idea of how these cameras might perform in low light and high ISO settings. Let us know in the comments what you think.
- review: Nikon D850 camera
- Nikon D850 medium RAW files soft?
- review: High-ISO performance – Nikon 750 / D4S / D4 / D810 / D610
- review: High-ISO performance – Nikon D4S / D4 / D3s / D610 / D700
- Nikon D5 high ISO noise performance
- Nikon D750 – high-ISO noise performance
- Why use a high-resolution camera?
- More reviews of Nikon gear