By Michael Frank
Beware: some of what follows may be a bit 101-level for more advanced photographers. It’s a comparison of two of Nikon’s newest cameras, but we’re doing a bit of tech overview here as well, so if you long ago gave up shooting with a real camera in favor of phone-only photography, you may need the refresher. Yes, we’ve seen impressive shots on iOS and Google Pixel phones, but if you shot the recent eclipse on your phone, or have ever tried to photograph a far away landscape, or super-fast action, you likely eyeballed the result with dismay. Your brain can process the depth of what you see in the distance, and edit out to put you closer virtually, but only a physical zoom on a real camera can actually bring the subject nearer. Likewise, while phones can shoot at astonishingly high frame rates now, they simply cannot capture enough information on their tiny sensors to make an action shot acceptable for viewing on a screen larger than a cellphone.
What you need to do justice to your travels, action shots, portraits is a camera that gathers far more light, and can shoot many frames per second, with a large enough sensor to take in and absorb photons from distant stars, as well as nearer subjects lit only by the embers of a smoldering campfire.
Now, oddly, Nikon is arguing that what you need is a somewhat old concept: a single-lens reflex, which as an invention is about the same age as the first Porsche 911 and the Beatles first vinyl pressings. SLRs (and now DSLRs) have a mirror to bounce light to your eye through a physical viewfinder. This is different than newer mirrorless models, which use a tiny LCD viewfinder (or just the viewfinder on the back of the body) to allow you to frame the shot. The latter have the advantage vs these Nikons of not needing as much physical hardware inside, so they can be smaller and lighter, but the disadvantage is that LCDs use power, so you’ll likely get fewer shots per battery charge. Then again, at the higher end, cameras like Sony’s $4,500 Alpha A9 mirrorless is capable of an astonishing 20 frames per second, which is nearly the same rate as video.
Nikon’s two newest DSLRs cannot do that, but 8fps for the D7500 and 9fps for the D850 is exceptional for DSLRs, and more critical than speed is balancing the focal points within every image, so that the entire shot (not just the center of the image) remains in focus. Both of these Nikons excel at this, beyond the capability of much of their competition.
These recently debuted cameras are very different creatures. The D7500 takes some of the best traits of the flagship, $6,000 Nikon D5 that’s oriented at pros, and brings them to a far more wallet friendly $1,250 package. And the D850, while $3,300, has massive capability and a feature set that, arguably, puts nearly all of the tools of the D5 at hand for passionate photographers who aren’t photojournalists working in the harshest extremes.
The Basics: Bigger Camera vs Smaller Camera
These are two genuinely different Nikons. First, they have two different sensor sizes. The D850’s is a full-frame, 46 megapixels. Full-frame means it’s capturing the same image size as 35mm film exposure. The D7500 has a smaller sensor, producing 21 MP shots. You might think more is better, and in general, that’s true but it isn’t the entire story. Because Nikon’s smaller “cropped” DX sensor, while offering less “density” and depth to the image, allows Nikon to shrink the entire body of the D7500, so it’s both smaller and considerably lighter, at 1.59 pounds (body, no lens) vs the 2.22-pound D850. Also, DX-format lenses are more compact and lighter and the effect of that crop gives a zoomed aspect to shots you capture, effectively 1.5 times closer. All of that’s something worth considering, especially when thinking about portability. Yes, the D850 is a superior tool overall, but it’s a relatively large beast, and the lenses you’ll use with it are larger, too.
Getting the Shot
On the flip-side, a larger sensor gives you a literally larger file, and that means when you do crop you won’t have as much noise in the image; cropping by half is still a massive image, easily printable, sharable, etc. And the D850 has 153 “focus points” vs only 51 for the D7500. Is the D7500 a slouch as a result? Hardly. It was certainly able to freeze a fastball at a recent Mets game. But a shot of the Milky Way shows a fair bit of pixel noise. The shot’s still pretty nifty, but it would have been yet more impressive from the D850.
The D850 really comes into its own when you’re both trying to freeze action and showing motion blur. That larger pixel count gives a non-pro—like yours truly—some leeway when panning, and for shooting at a higher shutter speed, to capture this airborne karate kick of the rider. Note that the other advantage in these examples is, again, the massive 46MP RAW file. Both of these examples are significantly cropped in Lightroom, but the resolution doesn’t fall apart at smaller, JPG size. While the D7500 is reasonably versatile, the smaller focus pixel count and DX crop is going to limit your capabilities. If want to shoot action, you’ll want the D850, period.
Stills and Portraits
Where the D7500 holds its own is shooting stills and scenics. The DX 1.5x crop gets you closer, so everything from the sailboat caught in the fog off coastal Maine, to sheep and chickens snapped in rural Washington State all show off the camera’s strong color clarity and sharpness.
The D850 picks up where the D7500 leaves off with even more extraordinary depth to the images. The crop of this model, below, gives you a good idea of the camera’s incredible clarity and lifelike toning. The D850 also gives you the option of shooting at a 1:1 ratio, a la medium-format cameras. While you could just crop to 1:1, for portrait work shooting in 1:1 forces you to think about composition more carefully. And even with that smaller ratio, we were then able to cut this image down to just 25% of the original while still preserving detail with zero artifacts or noise.
Now you might wonder which camera is the right one. There’s one more trick the D850 can do to make that decision yet harder. It’s called focus stacking and, no, Nikon didn’t create it. As you can see from the sample below, it’s multiple images piled on top of one another. At first glance it looks a timed exposure, with ghosts of people walking through the frame. But what’s different is that focus stacking allows unlimited depth of field, with sharpness from the grit right in front of the lens to the brownstone 150 yards away. That building looks softer in fact than it otherwise would because in the time it took for the camera to fire off 20 images the clouds overhead moved enough to alter the light. You can get even stranger effects if you use focus stacking over a still body of water with a rushing sky overhead.
Both of these Nikons should convince you to shoot with a real camera, and really the D850 is capable at just about anything you could throw at it. The question is, “How much camera do you need?” That said, it’d be remiss not to mention that the reason we’re comparing Nikon with Nikon comes down to usability. Both feature exceedingly intuitive menu systems with superb custom modes so you can decide how the physical buttons work. That’s key: it allows you to shoot reflexively, so you get the shot rather than miss the moment because you’re too busy resetting the camera mode. And that’s really the most important takeaway; the tool is only great if you can learn to master it and it helps you become a better photographer, which is precisely what we found while shooting with both the D7500 and the D850.
Images by Michael Frank