Nikon D50 SLR Review

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Nikon D50

Steve's Conclusion

With the introduction of the D50, Nikon has reduced the cost of entry into its line of digital SLR's (dSLR.) Smaller, lighter and less responsive than the D70s we reviewed earlier this year, the D50 is Nikon's entry level dSLR, positioned to compete with Canon's Digital Rebel XT for consumers upgrading from consumer digicams and consumer film SLR's.

The D50 is Nikon's lightest dSLR, weighing just 1 pound 6 ounces without lens - that's 2 ounces less than the D70s. While the body is marginally smaller than the D70s, it is quite comfortable to hold, the grip is tall and deep enough even for big hands. The 'fit and finish' of its durable polycarbonate body has a professional look and feel, as do the switches, buttons and covers. The layout of its controls is similar to the D70, missing only the Focus Selector Lock and the Bracketing button. Their organization is logical and convenient, having nothing positioned in a way that could be inadvertently activated. The D50 also lacks the D70s' top LCD illuminator and the button that activates it. The D50 packs a powerful 1400 mAH EN-EL3 battery; it had plenty of remaining capacity after capturing nearly 700 test shots, including extensive use of the LCD to explore and test the menu system.

The 2-inch (diagonal) 130,000 pixel LCD monitor was a pleasure to use in all conditions. The D50 shares the D70s' new easy to read menu design. Image review options are the same as the D70s, with zoomed playback and pan, thumbnail review and several screens of camera and exposure data as well as a histogram display. The LCD was bright and resolute enough to be used in all conditions, but its use to field-check critical focus is limited by the 4.7x maximum playback magnification.

The eye-level viewfinder uses a penta-mirror rather than a more-costly pentaprism like that found in the Nikon D100; it was pleasure to use, providing a 95% view of the frame and plenty of exposure information, allowing you to keep you eye at the viewfinder while changing exposure settings. Users of consumer digicams with Electronic Viewfinders that go blank under certain conditions will especially enjoy the D50's optical thru-the-lens view; when shooting in continuous mode, the mirror return was fast enough to provide an essentially continuous viewfinder image. The top LCD control panel complements the viewfinder nicely, allowing you to set shooting parameters comfortably with the camera at waist level with your eye away from the viewfinder.

While it's an amateur dSLR, the D50 doesn't limit your creativity by imposing the use of automatically chosen settings. In the Advanced exposure modes, the D50 gives you complete control over the camera's exposure, focusing and image procesing functions. Even in its Digital Vari-Program modes, the D50 allows you to adjust its ISO sensitivity, continuous shooting mode, AF Area mode and Noise reduction settings. In addition, the D50 provides 20 Custom Settings that allow you to personalize its operation to fit your shooting style and subjects. Missing, however, is the ability to establish focus or release priority in continuous AF mode; the D50 imposes release-priority with continuous AF, meaning that it will release the shutter whether or not focus has been attained.

Understanding the Custom Settings can be a daunting task for inexperienced photographers. The D50 provides assistance in the form of a Help button that calls up an explanation of each Custom Function on the LCD monitor; think of it as a built-in camera operations guide that will help less-experienced users improve their shooting skills! But the D50 provides little help in remembering shooting parameters and Custom Settings; yes, it will recall the settings in effect before the last power-off, but it provides no memory where you can save several combinations of settings, each customized to different shooting conditions or subjects. And while the D50 allows control of some shooting parameters in its automatic Vari-Program modes, those settings are forgotten when you change modes, requiring you to reset them the next time. Portrait mode, for example, defaults to Closest subject AF-Area Mode, but allows you to set either Single area or Dynamic area via Custom Setting 3. If you exit Portrait mode and return to it later, you'll find that your previous AF-Area mode setting has been forgotten, and you'll have to reset Custom Setting 3. The ability to override default Vari-Program settings is an excellent feature, but it can be improved by providing a memory area for saving and recalling those settings.

The single image shooting performance of the D50 is very good. You'll notice its responsiveness as soon as you turn it on; from power-on until capture of the first image took only 1/2 second. Shutter lag, the time delay between depressing the shutter and capturing an image, measured 1/10 second when pre-focused. Autofocus shutter lag ranged between 2/10 and 6/10 second, depending on the degree of focus change required of the attached Nikkor 18-55mm f/3.5-4.5G lens. In single-shot mode without flash, I was able to capture 22 images at 1/2 second intervals, with subsequent images at 6/10 to 1 second intervals as the full buffer emptied. Rapid shooting with the internal flash captured images at intervals of between 1 and 4 seconds depending on the distance to the subject. The D50 required that you wait for the flash ready indication before depressing the shutter button for the next shot.

In continuous shooting mode, the D50 lived-up to Nikon's promise of 2.5 frames per second, capturing 20 images in 7.1 seconds; subsequent shots were taken at 4/10 to 7/10 second intervals. The D50's buffer performance was good, taking about 3.5 seconds to flush a full buffer of JPEG Large Fine images to the SD memory card. These measurements were made using an AF-S Nikkor 18-55mm lens and a fast SanDisk Ultra II 2GB SD memory card, shooting Large (3008x2000) Fine JPEG images. Nikon claims that dialing back image quality to Large/Normal allows the D50 to capture images at 2.5fps to a depth of 137 shots when using a 256MB SanDisk Ultra II SD Card; I was unable to attain that depth using a SanDisk Ultra II 2GB SD card.

Things slowed substantially shooting RAW (NEF) images. In single-shot mode, 4 NEF images could be captured at 4/10 second intervals, while subsequent shots with the full buffer came at 1.7 second intervals. In continuous drive mode, 4 NEF images were captured in 1.1 seconds, and subsequent shots could be taken at 1 to 1.5 second intervals with the buffer full. It took 6.5 seconds for the D50 to flush its entire buffer of NEF images to the SD card. RAW+JPEG mode slowed the D50 even more; it captured the first 4 images in the same 1.1 seconds, but subsequent shots came at 1.5 to 2 second intervals and the full buffer flushed in 8 seconds. RAW+JPEG produces only a Basic quality JPEG; there are no other JPEG quality selections available.

I tested the D50 with Nikon's AF-S DX Nikkor 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6G ED lens. I liked the versatile focal length range of 27-82.5mm (in 35mm-equivalence), providing a field of view wide enough for most small interior shots while offering a moderate telephoto focal length for pleasing portraits. It is lightweight without feeling cheap, focuses rapidly, and produces image sharpness that is sure to please. There is pronounced barrel distortion at its 18mm full wide angle focal length, but no noticeable pin cushioning at full telephoto. One of the few shortcomings I found was vignetting, or darkness at the corners of the image, at the 18mm end of the zoom range; it's quite noticeable at the wide-open aperture of f/3.5, but absent at apertures of f/8 and smaller. This lens complements the camera well, and is a worthy component of the D50 kit.

I also tested the D50 with Nikon's AF-S Nikkor 55-200mm f/4-5.6G ED lens. It picks up where the 18-55 ends with an 82.5mm moderate telephoto focal length, and extends to a 35mm-equivalent 300mm telephoto. Like the 18-55, it focuses quickly and produces sharp results. At 55mm (82.5mm) there is no noticeable barrel distortion, but there is pronounced pin cushioning at its 200mm (300mm) telephoto extreme. I also found vignetting with the lens wide open throughout the entire zoom range, diminishing as the lens is stopped down and absent at f/8 and smaller apertures. Aside from the wide aperture vignetting, the 55-200 also complements the D50 well, offering a combined camera/lens weight of only 2 pounds while providing a versatile 35mm-equivalent focal length of 82.5-300mm. I suspect a lot of D50 buyers will opt for this lens, especially given its less than $250 street price.

The D50's built-in flash, although limited in range to about 15 feet at ISO 200, performed well. It produced pleasing skin tones both when used as fill flash and as the primary light source. The flash coverage is wide enough to cover the field of view of the kit lens at 18mm (27mm) without loss of illumination at the corners; vignetting will occur with the lens wide open at 18mm, but this is a lens issue, not a flash coverage issue. If you need more flash power, the D50's built-in hot shoe can attach Nikon's external SB-600 and SB-800 Speedlights.

The D50's image quality was excellent. Its exposure and autofocus system complemented each other, producing sharp, well-exposed images. The 5-point AF system is fast and accurate, and its predictive focus tracking is able to keep up with moving subjects. Image noise was not an issue with the D50. At ISO 200 and 400 noise was essentially absent. Shadow noise is detectable in images captured at ISO 800, and noticeable at ISO 1600, but highlight noise is remarkably low even at ISO 1600. The quality of the D50's images at high sensitivity settings will be a compelling benefit to photographers upgrading from consumer digicams.

I did notice a slight amount of moiré, a visible pattern that occurs when one or more halftone screens are misregistered in a color image, in images of a seersucker fabric. Nikon Capture 4 has a Color Moiré Reduction tool that is fairly effective at reducing, but not eliminating, moiré; it can only be used on NEF images, however. I can also recommend Fred Miranda's Moiré Reducer Photoshop Action; it costs only $12 and works on JPEG images.

As with any digital camera, there are some "gotchas:"

  • Unlike the D100, Nikon does not offer an optional vertical grip / battery pack for the D50. If you do a lot of shooting with the camera in portrait orientation, consider the D70s with the VG-D70 grip from Harbortronics.

  • Users of fixed-lens digicams will eventually discover another problem, keeping the imager clean. It's a problem with all interchangeable lens digital SLR cameras, and not specific to the D50. No matter how careful you are when changing lenses there's always the chance of dirt or other contaminants getting onto the imager's low-pass filter. You know you have this problem when you start seeing little dark spots in your photos, most noticeably in the large areas of blue sky in outdoor scenics shot at small apertures. Nikon Capture 4 software ($99 optional purchase), has a feature that removes the effects of dust on the Image Sensor from NEF (RAW) images by comparing them with a previously captured reference image. But sooner or later the camera will require a trip to a Nikon service center for a thorough cleaning.

The amateur dSLR market is hot, and Nikon addressed it well with the D50. Users upgrading from consumer digicams will find that it can be operated as simply as a point-n-shoot in its Automatic and Scene modes, while more experienced shooters can satisfy their creative urges with the D50's Advanced exposure modes. The D50's excellent image quality is complemented by Nikon's inexpensive 18-55mm and 55-200mm DX lenses; a D50 kit including the 18-55mm lens plus the 55-200 can be had for less than $1,200, a very good value considering the outfit's quality, performance and versatile 27-300mm zoom range.

While the D50 is an attractive upgrade from consumer digicams, it also competes with high end prosumer models like the Nikon Coolpix 8800. If it's digicam features you crave, a family-friendly prosumer like the 8800 may be your answer; you'll not find a dSLR with its smooth VGA-sized 30fps movies, built-in macro capability, Best Shot Selector, or flexible vari-angle LCD viewfinder. On the other hand, if you need the versatility of interchangeable lenses, shooting performance, optical TTL viewfinder and superior image quality (especially at higher ISOs), then you'll want a dSLR like the D50.

The D50 is a worthy competitor in the dSLR market. It is more responsive and flexible than the Canon Digital Rebel, but its performance lags the Nikon D70 and Canon's Digital Rebel XT, and it falls 2-megapixels short of the XT's 8-megapixel resolution. They say a picture is worth a thousand words, so please have a look at our sample images, including a side-by-side shootout of the D50 vs Digital Rebel XT under identical conditions.

Go to our
D50 Sample Photos

Want a second opinion?

DC Resource's D50 review

DC Views's D50 review

Imaging-Resource's D50 review

DP Reviews's D50 review

LetsGoDigital's D50 review

Digital Outback Photo's D50 Experience

PhotographyBLOG's D50 review

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