As if DXO needed any more attention than what they’ve received for their revamped mobile review approach, they’ve gotten it with their release of the Nikon D850 results. Perhaps the most anticipated camera of the year, the D850 was blessed by the good people at DXO Mark with a score of 100. That’s the first non-medium format ILC to do so, and in doing has many stirred, shook, woke, riled, and all manner of other emotive verbs.
For some, it was if the heavens had parted and rainbows sprung, the rating adopted as validation of their feelings about Nikon, and for others it has been met with disdain. But what does that score really tell us? How should we interpret it, and what does this mean for DXO scores moving forward?
Firstly, anyone who has used the D850 for any length can tell you that its IQ is high, and there’s no doubting that. Without looking at the score you just know its high; it’s visually perceptible. That Nikon’s 100th anniversary camera (which it is) and the successor to the D810 would’ve bested anything else in its class on the market should probably not have come as a major surprise. Nikon needed this. In fact, one could argue they needed more.
When you look at the D850 sat next to its current contemporaries you can’t help but thinking we really have reached a peak, that high-end full-frame cameras today are approaching a state of engineering perfection, and a score of 100 really suggests that. So what happens when you top out a scoreboard? You start over and make a new one.
Which is perhaps what DXO will have to do from this point on (even though DXO grades from 0-infinity), and that’s sort of where one can see that maybe Nikon needed to do more, because of all the flagships in its class the D850 is the last to arrive –or the first– and we can only assume that from now on, other flagships will be ranking about as highly. From Sony or Pentax anyway, and future Nikons.
The Nikon D850 bests the A7Rii’s DXO sensor score, for example, by 2 points, and the a7RII has been around for over 2 years. A 2 year period where Nikon was able to come up with something that bests it by two points. By the calendar we can probably expect the a7RII to molt its skin to reveal a ‘iii’ within the coming 6 months, and it’s not hard to imagine it will re-write the books again, particularly if we consider the how DXO grades.
There’s some empirical evidence to suggest that sensors with a higher megapixel count seem to have a lower noise floor, and thus handle dynamic range better. The Sony is only 3MP short of what the D850 is now, and again it’s not a stretch to think the next will have 60, or 50 on the low end, giving it much the same advantage. But furthermore, we also can tell that DXO tends to put a lot of emphasis and weight on performance at base ISO, and the D850 has a base native ISO of 64 versus the a7RII’s 100. This is, perhaps, fine, but also leads you to wonder how the a7RII would do if Sony sent out a firmware update to allow the a7RII or its successor to be shot at 64, or 50.
Considering the weight DXO Mark places on base ISO performance it is something we should consider. It’s not flawed, necessarily, to do that, but more often than not you are going to be a shooter who cares less about shooting at ISO 64 than you are about shooting at ISO 1600 or 3200. If you’re shooting medium format then it’ll probably matter more, but really, not that many people will find themselves shooting at 64, so on the practical side it’s less broadly relevant.
Interesting to note too that even DXO shows that above ISO 1150 the A7Rii outperforms the D850. It’s not a huge difference from that point on but still about the same difference as between the two when below that. Then of course consider why that may matter. It matters for low light shooting, which is where you trade ISO for shutter speed – because you’ll be able to shoot at faster shutter speeds with better retrievable data, which actually matters more to D850 users because unlike the a7RII it doesn’t have IBIS to grant some leeway. Thus, you actually kind of want it to do better at those levels.
Strangely the a7RII does better than the Nikon again with color sensitivity across the range (granted you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who can tell by looking at the images), and then there’s the fact the D850 ranked lower than the a7RII again for sports. That’s particularly interesting considering Nikon marketed the D850 as being able to handle sports. Perhaps that score is reflective of the high ISO capability…
So again, the score of 100 is a big odd, and you sort of get the feeling that if the D850 didn’t have that lower ISO option the curve would’ve been different. That’s not a slight against the Nikon D850, but with the amount of interest in the camera it’s probably good to consider these things so you can make the best decision on whether or not this is the camera for your specific needs and situation. You may find the findings of Bill Claff of Photos For Photos interesting, as they do somewhat differ from DXO.
Oh, also, comparing it to medium format, as is being done, should probably be looked at contextually also, given they’re not comparing it to current generation MF units.