This past week I was on an assignment in Verbovets’, a small village in western Ukraine, working with Open Doors Foundation and Global Health Outreach.
Working with a medical team based in an old Gym hall, a dental surgery setup over multiple local classrooms, and a mobile team of doctors driving around the region and visiting patients in homes, I knew that I would encounter some challenging conditions for photography, but needed to come away with beautiful images for the clients.
This would be the most challenging assignment for my new Nikon D850 since I purchased it about 5 months ago. Up until now, I have been super impressed with this camera and was excited to give it a thorough work out, testing its limits, and seeing if and how its features could impact my photography. My primary camera previously was the Nikon D800e. I loved this camera, it traveled with me far and wide and together we logged well over 150,000 images.
While I loved using my old D800e, it had a few shortcomings that did alter the way I would shoot and the types of situations that I knew I could successfully capture acceptable images. With a burst rate of 4 fps and a buffer that would rapidly fill while shooting any burst sequence of images, I did have to be very careful when rapidly shooting off frames of a prolonged event – else run the risk of missing a future moment due to the full buffer. The other biggest limitation for me with the D800e was the ISO capabilities. Typically, I don’t mind a little noise in my images and am not one to earnestly chase after absolute noise-free images. Often, I feel a little noise can enhance the feel of my images, especially with the style of photography that I am often shooting. While the settings on the D800e take the maximum native ISO up to 6400, in reality, I would never feel comfortable shooting much over 1600 and even then would accept that I would most likely need to add some amount of noise reduction in post-production.
Now on to the Nikon D850. I am really quite amazed that Nikon has been able to up the resolution of this camera to 46mp while also upping the burst rate to 7fps (And even higher with the optional battery grip) and a buffer, that in my experience, can easily handle upwards of 50 consecutive RAW images and in real world shooting, I have never come close to filling. I can now quite happily shoot away without any concern of filling the buffer and knowing that at any moment I can quite happily pull the trigger on a few seconds of 7fps bursts and the camera will just keep up. This is a huge thing for me, and one less technical, non-creative, non-subject related distraction to worry about.
Here in this tiny village, I was forced to push the capabilities, especially the ISO, of the Nikon D850 to its fullest.
My first morning I found myself in a small dark home, 4 patients waiting, a doctor, a nurse, and a translator waiting in a tiny living room/bedroom with very little natural light. The Nikon D850 just worked. I had the camera set on auto ISO, and I came away with images shot at 20,000 ISO that surpassed what I would get at 2000 ISO on my D800e.
I found with my Auto ISO sensitivity settings set to faster shutter speeds, I never had an issue with blurred images due to camera shake, and exposure was spot on every time. Never in the past have I been able to shoot in an environment like this and come away with such a high percentage of usable images. Despite the low light, the autofocus system in the Nikon D850 is just a joy to use. Fast and accurate every time with very little, if any, hunting for focus, the resulting images, even at such high ISO’s, sharp and beautiful.
I come away from an assignment like this with not only great images but an appreciation of the way I can fully concentrate on the creative process of image making, and spend less time problem solving and working out ways to get around the shortcomings of my equipment.
There are parts of the Nikon D850 that I am learning to love even though I never knew I wanted them. Take the articulating screen for example. I’ve never really wished for one on any of my previous camera’s, but I now find myself flipping to live view and pulling out the screen to easily get either ultra low down, or high above my head vantage points, that previously would be either not possible to capture reliably, or involve me getting very dirty trying to squeeze my eye against the viewfinder while on my stomach on the ground. What I thought would be a gimmick, turns out to be a great creative tool, which free’s me up to think more abstractly and capture images that in the past would often get overlooked. Another feature I am finding myself using more and more is the touchscreen. Being able to quickly pinch to zoom in and check focus and swipe from one image to the next is really intuitive, and much nicer than the button pushing process of before. Even the dreaded task of finding an obscure setting in the deep menu is quicker and much more pleasant with the addition of the touchscreen controls.
My purpose as a photographer is to tell stories of the people, places and things happening around me and to be as invisible in that scenario as possible. Authenticity is key for most things I photograph, and that realness comes from me becoming part of the scene. I don’t want people to notice me, and if I can come and go without people realizing I am there, then I always find my images to show a genuineness that disappears as soon as the subject starts thinking about me and my camera and what they will look like in the picture.
While not a small camera, I find the Nikon D850 really compliments the way I work. The battery life is great, and rarely will a single battery not see me through more than a full day of shooting. It’s rugged and water-resistant, and I am comfortable taking it with me pretty much anywhere, confident that it will be ready to go as soon as I need it. I try to take good care of my equipment, but am pretty certain that my Nikon D850 will take most anything I throw at it and just keep producing great images. To be able to use my camera as a tool, and not baby it, once again leaves me able to concentrate fully on the image and subject, thinking creatively instead of thinking about equipment.
I have found myself switching to live view more then I thought I would, to be able to use the silent shooting option, an option that I have jealously admired in mirrorless camera systems for years. I wish it was possible to shoot silently while using the viewfinder and not just with live view on the screen, but it is definitely better than the ridiculous “Quiet” mode I had on my D800e, and while still lacking compared to a mirrorless system, I do love having the option when I need it. On a related note, the shutter on the Nikon D850 is not quiet and seems noticeably louder than the shutter on my old camera. In most situations for me, this isn’t a problem, but in quiet places, I do find myself wishing it was a little less noisy.
Before I purchased the Nikon D850, I had been considering switching to the Sony system. The Sony a9 was very tempting to me at the time, and I know colleagues that love the a7 series of cameras. A few things kept me from making the switch, the extras – lenses, flashes etc that I already have invested in the Nikon system was part of it. I’m sure I would have been happy had I decided to go with a mirrorless system, but I definitely don’t regret my decision to purchase the Nikon D850. Nikon has created an amazing image capturing machine, and I hope that with it, I can spend the next few years in stunning places, with amazing people, and a beautiful collection of images to show from it.