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Nikon D850 vs. Sony A7R III: Speedy full-frame titans compared

By Marcus Wong - 30 Jan 2018

Imaging Performance compared

Imaging Performance compared

Given how closely both cameras follow the overall layout of past models, professional users should be able to pick them up and get to work straight away. We do think that users of the A7R II will be pleased by the new layout of buttons on the A7R III though, and of course with the improved response of the camera. D810 users, on the other hand, will be pleasantly surprised by the inclusion of touch with the D850 as it makes going through the menus that much easier. It extends to the image reviews as well, so you can really use the camera like you would on a smartphone.

Given the recent weather, our testing days turned out to be grey overcast days with showers of rain sprinkled in between – great for testing the weather sealing and autofocus performance, but not so much for testing colors captured. As such, we shifted indoors to start, grabbing images of the displays in Changi Airport. Here, the slight differences in color temperature quickly became evident, as the images from the D850 were noticeably colder than those captured from the A7R III.

50mm at f/8.0, 1/50s, ISO 900 (Nikon D850)49mm at f/8.0, 1/50s, ISO 1600 (A7R III)

Exposure differences also became fairly obvious, as the D850 tended to underexpose slightly compared to the A7R III, which would expose the scene closer to how the eyes saw it even at the risk of blowing out highlights. Generally, this would mean the D850 would give you a faster shutter speed or a lower ISO setting depending on the situation. Call it a case of each manufacturer’s preference in terms of handling noise versus shutter speeds perhaps. Nikon prefers to maintain details in highlights at the expense of underexposure, while Sony prefers to give you the image as you see it.   

Speaking of shutter speeds, we think Sony’s claims about the improved in-body stabilization system have merit as the A7R III consistently turned in slightly sharper images when shooting handheld at slower shutter speeds. That’s especially important considering how the high resolution counts of these cameras mean that even the slightest bit of camera shake is captured. For example, in the images below the A7R III stays at ISO 200 by going down to 1/60s while the D850 goes up to ISO 2000 to get a faster shutter speed of 1/500s. 

58mm at f/4.0, 1/500s, ISO 2000 (D850)

100% crop (D850)

55mm at f/4.0, 1/60s, ISO 200 (A7R III)

100% crop (A7R III)

In terms of autofocus performance though, we found ourselves split between cameras. The A7R III obviously offered a wider coverage across the screen, so if we did have to pick focus manually it was easier to get a point on the exact spot. The improved Eye detect AF was also made it a cinch to get focus when we were shooting people, but when we were tracking moving objects, the D850’s lock on just seemed to be more secure. Even with landscapes, we noticed that at times the A7R III would readjust focus even without changes in ambient lighting conditions (i.e. when the sun moved behind clouds), so that’s something to watch out for when using the Wide Focus mode.

That said, we have to say both cameras are really neck-to-neck in terms of imaging performance. We'd recommend staying at ISO 12,800 with both cameras as beyond that detail loss really starts to show. As you’ll see in the images in the next section, the slight numbers edge the D850 has in terms of resolution doesn’t translate to a huge improvement in image clarity over the A7R III, because the A7R III seems to be less aggressive on noise reduction at the higher ISOs and has less distracting color noise in its shots too. Likewise, the higher frame rate of the A7R III doesn’t quite necessarily translate into more keepers from continuous shooting either; given the depth of options for configuring the D850’s 3D Tracking system.