Nikon D850 Buffer Capacity Reality Testing
Updated: Aug 8
Competitor #1: Sony XQD
I tried to look up the D850 camera shot buffer numbers on the internet. All over the map. Either terrible or stunning, depending on who you ask. Nikon claims it should have a 51 shot buffer with the settings I shoot with.
I felt compelled to conduct some testing of my own, using a couple of different memory card types, since I’m a natural born skeptic. The manufacturers of those memory cards seem to completely fabricate their numbers. Going by “the specs” is a fool’s errand.
So here’s my testing scenario. I set my D850 to ISO 64 (least noise and therefore smallest picture memory) with large-14-bit-lossless-compressed RAW format. I used continuous-high shooting speed, which the “specifications” rate at 7 frames per second. I only populated the camera with a single memory card at a time. I shot landscape pictures in the sunshine with “typical complexity”. Noisy, complex pictures take up more memory and will therefore decrease the buffer numbers. I use a battery grip, but I just use the standard “EN/EL 15-a” battery in it, so no 9 frames per second for me.
The first card I tested is the “Sony G-series 400MB/s write speed“ 32GB XQD card. I have read that in actual reality it writes at very roughly “113.84 MB/s”, according to this site when tested in the Nikon D850 camera. This sounds like a case of “the large Sony print giveth and the small reviewer’s print taketh away”.
The second card I tested is the “Lexar Professional 1000X 64GB 150MB/s” card, which the fine print states as being capable of writing at 75MB/s. Competitor #2 fits in the SD card slot.
For both cards, I formatted them just prior to testing, so that storage fragmenting wouldn’t be an issue with the timing.
So here’s what I got. The Sony XQD card managed 37 shots before it hiccupped and slowed down. The Lexar card (Laxar?) got me 24 shots before slowing down. Yikes.
Pretty underwhelming. If I were shooting on an NFL sideline or an Olympic track, this camera setting probably wouldn’t be my first choice. For most other stuff, I probably couldn’t care less.
I have to give credit where credit is due, however: I got a little faster than 7 frames per second. Actually, I got 37 complete (XQD) frames in 5.06 seconds, or 7.31 frames per second. I used the sound track timing from a video to “visualize” each shutter/mirror slap. Nikon wasn’t lying there; they were actually a bit conservative.
Next, I set the D850 to 12-bit lossless compressed raw, and voila, the XQD got 200 shots at full speed! The ‘Laxar’, however, only got me 34 shots with this 12-bit setting. I could change the scene 'complexity' and brightness and get fewer shots; typically about 193 shots in 27.5 seconds (7.02 fps). For a really complex scene, I once got only 101 shots in 13.2 seconds (7.65 fps). Now you can see why people argue about the real buffer size.
Addendum 9-21-2019: I got more interested in 'scene complexity' and did a lot more testing. There were times where I got an average of 43 shots in 6.1 seconds (7.05 fps) using the lossless compressed 14-bit. Still not Nikon's 51 shots, but maybe there's a super-fast XQD card out there that can squeeze out the extra 8 shots. The more I test, the murkier the results...
Since the D850 is all about quality, why on earth would I ever be willing go down to 12-bit shooting? I read an article here by ‘Verm’ Sherman that changed my mind about 12 bits. He tried and tried to demonstrate how inferior the 12-bit files are, compared to 14-bit, but was unable to do so. The shots just kept looking spectacular and equal in his tests. I did some tests myself, and I have to agree; I can’t tell the difference. But I did notice the difference of about 15MB smaller file sizes, which really adds up over time.
On my own camera, I have a “Sports” photo shooting bank that uses the 12-bit lossless compressed setting, to 'guarantee' that I get the 200-shot buffer. I have a separate “Landscape” photo shooting bank that is set to 14-bit lossless compressed mode, but it’s mostly for “insurance” just in case in the future there may be displays that can possibly show a difference. Spending an extra 15MB per shot does seem like a painful insurance premium, however.
I have to admit that I feel a lot less guilty about having my “Sports” mode on 12-bit, though. The quality to my eye is stunning, and there is still a ton of elbow room in the dynamic range.
I can’t resist mentioning that my Nikon D500, using the exact same “Sony G-series 400MB/s write speed“ 32GB XQD card, has a 200-shot buffer, and it shoots 10 frames per second to boot using 14-bit lossless compressed (or any other setting except uncompressed 14-bit). Smokin. And verified. And no excuses.
There are just so many variables when it comes to shot buffer capacity that I have to recommend that you verify yours before you try shooting that once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. You never know when the Loch Ness monster and Bigfoot might happen to show up in that forest clearing at the same instant, and you’re the only witness.