Comparing Nikon D850 to Nikon Z7II

by Douglas Hoffman on October 18, 2021

I am a landscape and underwater photographer, and have used the Nikon D850, since it came on the market. The camera immediately set itself apart with its large files, fast processor, high dynamic range, two card slots, and sturdy build. Images I created with the D850 have been displayed in art galleries and published in books.

Sperm Whale

This camera has been my most trusted tool and I hesitate to say goodbye. After all, if ain’t broke, why fix it. But, here we are with mirrorless technology. There is no doubt that this is the future of photography. So many camera companies have already shifted their production and marketing, that in reality the future is already here.

Over the last two years many of my workshop clients have switched. Of course, I had a bit of camera envy, but wanted to wait for the second generation of Nikons Z line. I figured Nikon would have some advancements and that it would be worth the wait


I have has the Z7II, for several months now, and it much smaller and lighter than the D850. From an ergonomic point of view, the body naturally fits my hand. The camera body is weather sealed, which is great when working in harsh elements like near the ocean. For landscape and night sky imaging, I like it more than the D850.

As the Z7II, is new, I had to wait for underwater housing manufacturers to make a housing. I ordered the Sea and Sea MDX housing, and arrived about a month ago. So far I have done about a dozen dives with it. Surprisingly, the housing is pretty straight forward in terms of set up. It will take some time to build up muscle memory in terms of where my fingers need to go to adjust different settings on the camera.

I waited to compare the D850 to the Z7II, until I gained experience with the camera on land and underwater. Right out of the box the Z7II, was easy and intuitive to use on land. However, there was a noticeable learning curve using the Z7II underwater. I am referring to camera settings and how the mirrorless camera operates.

The electronic view finder and monitor on the back, works different than the D850. This has to do with live view. With the D850, I used the view finder to compose and shoot, and the monitor on the back to review. With the Z7II, I have the choice of using the electronic viewfinder or the monitor in the back to compose, shoot, and review. But since the camera is in a housing and I cant touch the screen to fine tune focus or fire the camera. The housing allows me to press on all the controls on the back so if needed I can toggle through options, menus, and move focus points.

Using live view on land you can see how the exposure brightens and darkens as settings are changed. But let’s say I’m underwater and set an exposure of F-22 at 1/250th. ASs a result the light meter in the camera is pegged. On the D850 no problem seeing through the view finder with those settings. However with the Z7II, seeing through the camera using live view does not work. The remedy is to simply turn off live view when underwater.

To the left of the viewfinder on the Nikon Z7II is a button. Pressing it allows you to select the electronic view finder or back monitor. This took me hours to figure out as I thought controlling the monitor would be in one of the menus. My bad. It’s actually really easy to switch. Here, is a big shout out to my friend Mark Strickland, who told me to look for the button. Now, I can set the camera up to shoot and review in the electronic view finder. I find that this allows me to keep my head in position and not need to move to review images. So, if I need to change a setting other than strobe power, I can make the change and keep shooting. The less I move the better, as sometimes the subjects can be skittish and move. When I feel the need to see an image bigger I can press the monitor button and and see it on the back.

Biggest con. The Nikon Z7II has a short but short but noticeable lag time when camera wakes up. The D850 responds immediately upon pressing shutter halfway down. The reason this is important is that as an underwater photographer I am swimming in a foreign world and from out of the blue, a whale or shark can appear. The Nikon Z7II it takes a second to respond. With the D850, there is no pause. That could be the difference between getting the shot or not. That being said, this kind of reactionary picture does not happen frequently and is not a deal breaker.

Biggest advantage. With one menu setting it is possible to set the Nikon Z7II shutter to as long as 15 minutes. Now, I can easily shoot slow shutter landscapes and not have to use bulb setting or cable release. This is wonderful as I create a lot of seascapes and use motion as part of my composition. Now, I can use filters and set the camera to whatever slow shutter speed I want. This lets me exercise my creativity while doing landscape by the, the night sky, and even light painting. Looking at the settings on the back you can see a 6 second shutter has been selected for the sake of this example. You can’t do that on the D850.

Subtle differences

I cant tell you why, but for me the D850 creates a softer feeling, and the Z7II creates a crisper feeling. I realize this is an emotional not technical observation. Perhaps this is because of the incredible focus that happens when using live view, & when touching the back monitor on the Z7II, to focus and fire. I really don’t know. In a way the difference between the two for me is reminiscent of the film days as it reminds me of the slight differences between slide films.

Below is a macro portrait of a Leaf Fish, Beautiful sunrise image of the north shore, and wide angle image of a school of fish. Can you tell the which camera was used? Can you see a difference.

If you guessed the middle image was created with the D850 and the other two with the Nikon Z7II you would be correct! Both cameras produce incredible images yet each works differently. So which is right for you?

I am glad I made the switch to mirrorless, but having second thoughts about selling the D850. After all, if it ain’t broke why fix it. So, it seems for a while I will use both!