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Camera Review: Nikon D50
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Camera Review: Nikon D50

Can the lowest-priced DSLR deliver big-ticket images?

A higher-end camera than expected.






NIKON D50

Best suited for:
  • Sports photography
  • Photojournalism
  • Travel/vacation photography
  • Scenics (limited image size)
  • Wedding/event photography
  • Family snapshots
  • Macro photography (Macro lens necessary)
User profile:
  • First-time DSLR buyers
  • Nikon film SLR owners who want to add a DSLR
  • Pro or hobbyists who need a backup Nikon DSLR body.
When it was introduced last year, the 6.1MP Nikon D50 was touted as offering customers "the thrill of Nikon digital SLR performance" for a very un-Nikon-like price of $899.95, including the 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6G ED kit lens. Half a year later, it's now selling for $669.95 with the kit lens ($569.95 without it), making the D50 one of the least expensive digital SLRs currently on the market (see chart).

At a price that's not much more than an EVF camera, does the D50 give a true SLR performance? Let's find out.

Price comparison of entry-level DSLR bodies (as of Jan. 12, 2006)
Nikon D50 6.1MP $569.95
Konica-Minolta Maxxum 5D 6.1MP $599.95
Olympus EVOLT-300 8MP $619.95
Olympus EVOLT 8MP $619.95
Pentax *ist-DL Super 6.1MP $629.95
Canon Digital Rebel XT 8MP $789.95
A look at the camera

The first thing I noticed when I unpacked the D50 was that the camera seemed sturdier in build than I'd expected for a "low-end" DSLR. The crackle-finish black body has a generous-sized rubberized grip in front and a slightly raised thumb rest in back, making it very comfortable to hold.

With a polycarbonate body and metal frame, the camera feels quite solid. At 1 pound 3 ounces and measuring 5.2x4x3 inches, the D50 is a tad heavier and slightly larger than most other cameras in its class, as befits a camera with a metal chassis. It's fairly streamlined, and most controls are logically placed; some of the controls found on the D70 have been moved into menus.

Nikon D50: Positives and Negatives

Positives
  • Low price
  • Extensive features
  • Fast, responsive shutter
  • Takes most Nikon lenses, flashes
  • Powerful built-in flash
  • On-screen tutorials
  • One of the smallest, lightest DSLRs
  • 1.5x lens magnification factor
Negatives
  • Hesitant AF in low light
  • 6.1MP lower than most SLRs
  • Bulkier than a compact camera
  • 1.5 lens magnification factor
  • Some Nikon functions stripped out

The 6.1MP CCD sensor is not the highest-resolution in its class (that honor is shared by the Canon EOS Rebel XT and Olympus EVOLT 300 and 500) and that may explain its lower price point. The D50's resolution may also be a deal-breaker if you like to make big blow-ups or tend to crop your images. But if you rarely venture beyond 11x14-inch prints, you will have plenty of resolution.

There are four JPEG settings, plus NEF RAW and an option to capture NEF plus basic-quality JPEG images simultaneously. Three image size settings are Large (3008x2000 pixels), Medium (2256x1496) and Small (1504x1000). ISO settings range from 200 to 800.

The kit lens is an 18-55mm f/3.5-5.5 G lens, introduced at the same time as the camera. I found it to be well constructed, with a nice wide zoom collar. One bothersome detail: There is an autofocus/manual focus switch both on the lens and on the camera body. So, if you happened to change either switch to the manual focus setting, the camera defaults to manual focus. I found myself doing a double take several times when the focus wouldn't function. Suggestion: choose to always use either the lens or camera focus switch to avoid confusion.

Autofocus in low light is assisted by a rather bright AF-assist light, which seems to shine almost as much light as the pop-up flash. The D50 sports a built-in flash that only works when it is manually popped up. The flash has typical modes, including slow sync and rear-curtain flash, which are controlled only when the flash is in the up position.

The 2-inch, non-adjustable LCD monitor, while not as generous as the 2.5-inch monitors on the Pentax *ist DL or the Minolta Maxxum 5, is larger than the pricier Canon Rebel XT's 1.8-inch monitor and is roughly the same size as a frame of 35mm film camera.

How's the D50 Different from the D70/D70s?

As one would expect, to lower costs several features found in the D70 or D70s have been dropped or modified in the D50. There are several differences between the D50 and the D70 and D70s worth noting. First, unlike the more advanced D70 and D70s, both of which use CompactFlash memory cards, the D50 uses the smaller SD memory card. The D50 lacks the i-TTL balanced fill flash feature, and the focusing screen does not display on-demand grid lines. Where the D70s offer a choice of 6, 8, 10, or 13mm centerweighted metering, the D50 offers a single 8mm diameter. Spot metering covers a wider area--3.5mm vs. 2.3mm.

The D50 offers three-frame autoexposure bracketing (the D70 offers two- or three-frame), 2.5fps rapid shooting (instead of 3fps), 1/4000 sec top shutter speed instead of 1/8000; and several scene-type modes for the built-in flash that the D70 models lack. The D50 does not have a depth-of-field preview button or a standard flash sync cord outlet, nor does it have a built-in SB commander mode to control remote flash.

Features and buried treasures

Dig deep enough into the D50's menu and you'll find some interesting features. Yes, it does have a mirror lock-up mode--something nature photographers can't live without. Go to the set-up mode (a wrench icon) and scroll down. It's the second to last item.

A mode dial on the upper left side of the camera's top plate offers the standard Auto, P, S, A and M modes, as well as portrait, scenic, child, sports, macro, and night portrait modes. Turn the dial to S and use the thumbwheel to adjust shutter speed, and A to control aperture. In Manual, the thumbwheel adjusts both shutter speed and aperture. Getting to aperture control is a bit tricky, though: you'll need to press the exposure control button, which is just under the shutter release, while simultaneously moving the thumbwheel, a somewhat awkward affair that had my right hand feeling a bit cramped.

In Dynamic area mode, five focus points allow you to move the focus target in order to focus on off-center subjects without moving the camera. You can also choose Single Area, which only activates the center area of the image for AF. Closest subject activates all focus points and will automatically focus on the focus zone with the nearest object.

White balance modes include sun, clouds, incandescent, fluorescent, flash and auto. Standard flash modes include second-curtain slow flash sync, a nice touch. There are several image modes, including a long exposure noise reduction mode.

There's an Image Comment mode that lets you attach a short text note to an image, although it seems time consuming and may not be used much. A Select Folder setting allows you to organize images in folders before downloading them. You can set up a slide show, changing the image change intervals, based on selected shots or selected folders, which you can then play back while tethered to a computer or TV.

 


Finally, there's the custom functions, indicated by a pencil icon in the menus, which allow users to modify 20 different functions, from AF area parameters to ISO settings, self-timer, TTL or manual flash, autoexposure and autofocus lock, EV setting steps (1/3 or ?? stop), flash output level, and more.

Lost? Press the "?" button and a description pops up on the screen which describes the purpose of the mode you have selected.


In The Field

I found the D50 to be generally fast and responsive, with instant start-up, on par with many more expensive cameras. However, its autofocus did occasionally wander, mostly when lighting was low or subjects had little contrast. In the rare instances when it couldn't find focus, the D50 locked the shutter release, which was frustrating in fast-changing photo situations. In these cases, I would focus manually. However, when the AF did find focus (which was quick under normal light and contrast), the D50's click-to-capture time was just about instantaneous.

The controls are logically placed (with the one exception concerning changing aperture in manual exposure mode, as noted above) and easy to use. Buttons are sufficient in size for most users. The menus are extensive and will take several hours (at least) to become familiar with in depth, and for some users this in-depth knowledge will come in useful. I was able to view the LCD screen in bright sunlight with a minimum of eye strain, although darker details were hard to read. The easy-to-navigate menus have simple type that's big and easy to read. The LCD screen displays hot spots and histograms, both helpful tools when determining exposure on the fly.

The pop-up flash is apparently far enough from the lens, because there was no evidence of red-eye when I photographed my usually red-eye-prone, blue-eyed model. Flash coverage was even, with very minor fall-off at the corners at the kit lens's 18mm setting which was gone by 24mm. Flash reach at ISO 200 was at least 25 feet (albeit at wide-open apertures), and it looked like the claimed 33-foot reach was realistic.

One nice playback feature: if you're reviewing images and stop somewhere in the middle of your take and either turn the camera off or resume shooting, the next time you press the review button you will see the last image you looked at before changing modes or shutting off. This is an improvement over some cameras (including the Canon 20D) that automatically revert to the first image on the card every time you turn the camera off. It comes in very useful when you're scrolling through hundreds of images on a memory card.

Looking through the viewfinder you will find the optical view, which suffers from insufficient magnification. The result? It seems like the image is at the end of a tunnel (this is a typical problem for lower-end SLRs in general, both film and digital, but is especially pronounced in digital cameras!). The image was fairly bright, and the bottom of the screen displayed extensive exposure and focus target information.

Overall, with the exception of focus hesitation under certain circumstances, the D50's field performance was excellent.

Image Quality

Image quality overall was excellent for a 6.1MP camera, with no evidence of color fringing and flare well controlled when using the kit lens. The camera handled backlit subjects well, providing very usable images and accurate exposure even in situations where backlighting should have misled the meter.



A work in progress: At ISO 200, the D50 showed excellent detail with accurate color in broad daylight. Would an 8MP SLR give even better resolution? Of course it would, but you wouldn't notice the difference until you make a big enlargement (full-frame shot above; detail of 100-percent image, right).






Classic Chanukah scene: At ISO 1600, the D50 captured acceptably sharp low-light images, in this case, lit by 40--count 'em, 40--candles! However, there is noticeable grain in the details. Grain was acceptable until ISO 800, average at 800 and below average at 1600--OK for an SLR, better than almost all compacts and ZLRs. (Full-frame shot above; detail of 100-percent image, right)




From ISO 200 to 400, I saw virtually no noise, although there was digital "grain" by ISO 800 and pronounced grain by ISO 1600. However, the ISO 1600 grain was not as bad as the grain I've seen from cameras with smaller sensors, and prints shot at ISO 1600 will still hold up.

Auto white balance was generally accurate except under incandescent light, where I found color could shift to yellow under certain circumstances. The manual white balance modes all seemed to work well.

Impressions and buying advice

The bottom line for this camera? It does indeed deliver real DSLR performance as advertised.

If you're a snapshooter looking to move up into more serious photography, I wholeheartedly recommend the Nikon D50 as an excellent starting point. If you can't decide between a low-end DSLR and an EVF camera, let me make it really easy for you: buy the DSLR--you'll have much more flexibility in the long run, with the ability to add a wide range of lenses and flashes. In other words, a DSLR like the D50 gives beginners room to grow. And, since DSLRs have larger image sensors than most EVFs, you'll get better image quality in general, even if the pixel count is smaller.

If you're a pro or enthusiast, this camera is not meant to hold up to the rigors of heavy use, and lacks some high-end features, like true spot metering and off-camera flash control--but it will work in a pinch. So if you're looking for a back-up body, remember this camera has a metal chassis--and a metal lens mount, as well as most of the Nikon features you've come to know and love.

Of course, all of this can change next month at the annual PMA photo trade show in Orlando, Florida. But at least for now, the Nikon D50 offers more than enough bang for the buck.

 

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