Nikon D50 Review - Introduction
If photographers needed a reminder of how quickly the digital SLR market is changing, the Nikon D50 sends a powerful message. Getting to the punch line, the Nikon D50 offers a hard to beat combination of excellent image quality, fine handling, and solid construction.
It’s especially attractive for photographers moving up from digital point and shoot cameras who want the added flexibility of an SLR, but aren’t quite ready for the higher prices of Nikon’s more expensive DSLRs. In addition to aspiring new photographers, the Nikon D50 should also be desirable for more experience photographers wanting an inexpensive, fun to use DSLR. We’ll talk more about that later.
With the D50, Nikon has a comprehensive line-up of DSLRs. Their Nikon D70 is a huge market success, offering a winning combination of image quality and performance. In addition, the price was very low compared to similar DSLRs. Its success sent a shockwave through the photographic community and not only encouraged a new group of photographers to go digital, it also caused some scrambles among other manufacturers.
|This particular class of camera, the entry level DSLR, is an important one for many reasons. First, manufacturers see photographers purchasing cameras in this range as their future. Photographers rarely jump from a point and shoot to a Nikon D2X or an Nikon F6. They usually start with something less expensive, determine if they really enjoy the level of control a SLR or DSLR provides, gradually add accessories, and then sometimes migrate to the higher-end bodies. Switching from one system to another midway through the process happens, but not without pain and financial loss. Second, cultivating a large size group of new photographers helps subsidize R&D expenses for some of the higher end cameras and lenses.|
It’s important that manufacturers also provide inspirational cameras at the top end for new photographers to dream about. The Nikon D2X and Nikon D2HS certainly fill that role well, and the Nikon D50 is one of the ways Nikon will be able to continue to fund development of the next generation bodies. Given all that, it’s not surprising there is a strong focus on this segment of the market.
This review is written with two primary groups in mind. The first are those who are potential purchasers of this camera and might have limited backgrounds in DSLRs. The second are experienced digital photographers who might be asked for advice from friends or might consider purchasing an inexpensive DSLR. Nikonians are known as great sources of photographic info to many of their friends, so this article should help with questions they are likely to be asked.
First, let me talk a little about my (Rick’s) background as well as my son. I’ve been using Nikon cameras since I was fourteen, which was close to thirty years ago. I started with a Nikkormat FT2 and have migrated through a series of cameras and lenses since then (Am I Nikon’s ideal consumer?). I’m currently using a Nikon D2X for digital images, along with an F6 for film. I mainly like photographing nature and travel subjects, but also take many photographs of friends and family. You can see some of my images on my website.
Eric is sixteen years old and has been using Nikon SLRs (N8008s and N90s) since he was eight years old (he started very early!). He made a 100% shift to digital a little more than a year ago when the Nikon D70 arrived on the market. Since then, he has shot thousands of images with that camera in a wide variety of situations. More recently, he’s working as a photographic intern at our local newspaper and shooting events with that camera. Because of his knowledge of the Nikon D70, plus the fact that he’s a very fine photographer, I asked him to help with this review. The images you see in this review, with the exception of the shot of the equipment, were all made by Eric with the Nikon D50.
Also, we’d like to give special thanks to Brad Berger of Berger Brothers Camera, for providing us with the D50 for testing. Thanks, Brad!
The Nikon D50 is offered in several configurations, including body only and as a kit with one or more lenses. In the case of the Nikon D50, the kit lens is an 18-55mm f3.5-5.6 AF-S G DX lens (that’s a mouthful). We didn’t test this lens, so I can’t offer comments on its performance, but its focal length range is a good one for general purpose photography. It’s equivalent to a 27-83mm lens on a 35mm body – pretty close to the popular 28-85mm lens category. This lens should work well for family photos, travel shots, and many other types of photography. In the United States, the price for the camera and lens together is currently around $850. The price for the body alone is $700. If you’ve been following the DSLR market over the last five years, those are remarkable prices and are near the cost of an advanced point and shoot digital camera.
The D50 is a fairly compact camera, slightly smaller than the D70/D70s, but a little larger than some of its competitors from Pentax and Canon.
You can see the size difference in the D50 vs D70 photo below; it’s not huge, but it’s there. Most of the size difference is on the photographer’s left side of the camera. If you hold the camera with your left hand underneath the lens as is usually recommended, you’re not likely to miss that extra material. Personally, I find the size comfortable to use and wouldn’t want something smaller. A nice surprise for me was how solid the camera felt in my hands. I expected something toy-like at its price, but the D50 is every bit a Nikon: solid and smooth handling.
In terms of features, the D50 offers a very comprehensive set, but as you would guess, a few features are missing compared with its more expensive siblings.
On the other hand, there are a few areas where the Nikon D50 actually has enhanced features.
Because many photographers will want to know how this body compares with the Nikon D70 and D70s, I’ve focused the comparison on those bodies.
Here are the key differences:
- The Nikon D50 uses Secure Digital (SD) cards vs. the Compact Flash (CF) cards used by the rest of Nikon’s DSLR series. SD cards are slightly less expensive and physically smaller than Compact Flash cards. More importantly, SD cards are used in many recent point and shoots. Nikon is clearly appealing to owners of those photographers by offering a camera that doesn’t require the purchase of new cards. The smaller size of SD cards helps save internal space in the camera, and this has helped Nikon reduce the size of the camera. On the other hand, this difference in storage media could be an issue for owners of other Nikon DSLRs. The combined cost of the camera and new storage cards moves is in the D70 realm, reducing the attractiveness of the camera to those photographers.
- No depth of field preview capability. This is a common deletion in the lower priced camera bracket and most buyers won’t miss it. Compared with a film camera, its absence is less of an issue as results can be checked on the LCD display. This isn’t quite as handy as a real depth of preview capability, but it’s not unworkable.
- The Nikon D50 has a slightly slower top shutter speed, 1/4000 second vs. 1/8000 second on the D70/D70s. Most owners won’t miss this.
- No sub-command dial for changing the aperture. Recent Nikon bodies have two dials for changing shutter speed and aperture: a command dial on the back of the camera that’s operated with the photographer’s thumb and a sub-command dial on the front of the camera that’s operated with the middle finger. Normally, the command dial adjusts the shutter speed and the sub-command dial adjusts the aperture. The D50 diverges from this practice and has only one dial. In aperture priority or shutter speed priority, the single dial changes the aperture or shutter speed respectively. In manual exposure mode, the dial changes shutter speed, and aperture is altered by pressing a button on top of the camera and then turning the dial. It’s not difficult to do, but it’s not quite as quick or convenient as having two dials.
- Lower maximum frames per second (2.5 frames per second vs. 3 frames per second on the D70/D70s). This isn’t a big enough difference to worry about.
- Fewer metering segments (420 vs. 1005). I don’t view this is a big deal. It’s still a huge number of segments compared with past cameras and metering performance in the field was excellent.
- No automatic bracketing. Frankly, I don’t use this feature a lot anyway, so its deletion wasn’t a concern for me.
- Uncompressed NEF vs. compressed NEF file formats. Like Nikon’s other “consumer” DSLRs, the Nikon D70 and D70s, the Nikon D50 only offers the option of saving RAW files with compression turned on (Nikon’s version of RAW is called a NEF). There are pros and cons with compression. Nikon uses a lossy compression scheme that looks visually lossless; with more expensive digital bodies, you can choose between compressed or uncompressed NEFs. The good thing about compression is that it saves storage space: compressed RAW files are about 40% smaller on average than uncompressed ones. The downside to compression is that you theoretically lose a little detail in areas of the image, primarily highlights. Most photographers find compression is a positive thing or at least prefer the option of turning it on or off.
On the other hand, the Nikon D50 has a few new features that aren’t present in other cameras:
- New AF-A mode. In addition to the standard AF-S (single servo) mode for stationary subjects and AF-C (continuous) mode for moving subjects, the D50 also has a mode that automatically detects motion and switches to continuous operation. I can see many owners keeping the D50 permanently on this setting.
- USB 2.0 vs. 1.1 Interface. If you download your images by plugging the camera into the computer rather than using a card reader, downloads will happen much quicker than with the Nikon D70/D70s.
- Slightly different defaults (Mode IIIa vs. Mode Ia). The Nikon D70 and D70s default to the Mode Ia color space, which is a lower contrast setting that’s best for portraits. The Nikon D50 defaults to mode IIIa, which is a higher saturation setting that produces images with greater punch. Think of this as the difference between a low contrast portrait film and Velvia. Most photographers will probably like Mode IIIa better, but it’s easy to change this setting if you want less saturation. From a marketing perspective, the default mode IIIa will result in more people seeing “pleasing” results without having to change settings; especially if they are trying out the camera at their local electronics warehouse.
The Nikon D50
Now for what really matters: how the Nikon D50 worked in the field. After a small amount of initial familiarization, Eric and I took the Nikon D50 on several photo excursions, along with our other equipment. We went to several favorite areas around Colorado Springs, Colorado, which is where we live. We first ran it through its paces at the Greenland Ranch area north of town, a large, undeveloped expanse of grassland and buttes with view of Pikes Peak. We also went to Red Rock Canyon Park, a newly opened city park similar to the famous Garden of the Gods. Finally, we used the camera on a variety of other subjects that included pets, people and moving subjects.
Greenland ranch. Taken with a Nikon D50. Click for larger image
As mentioned earlier, this is a compact, lightweight camera that has a surprisingly solid feel. All controls operate smoothly and precisely. If you’ve used a Nikon D70, you know what it feels like. The viewfinder is similar to the D70 as well, which means it’s smaller than what you would find in a 35mm camera, and it also has a bit of the “tunnel vision” feel common with many DSLRs. You get used to this over time, but a larger magnification image would be nice. The LCD display on the back is slightly larger than the original D70 (2.0 inches vs. 1.8 inches), and the same size as the newer D70s. It’s plenty large enough to check composition and sharpness via the zoom feature. It offers the typical histogram view for gauging exposure accuracy as well as the blinking highlights to indicate areas that have been burned out through overexposure.
The autofocus system worked well for the subjects we photographed. We weren’t able to photograph any really high speed subjects, but in normal usage the autofocus system was quick and precise. Nikon states they’ve altered the autofocus algorithms for improved performance, and we found no reason to doubt this. The new AF-A mode worked well. Like the D70/D70s, the Nikon D50 has five autofocus sensors distributed around the frame, so it handles off-center subjects with ease.
One thing that enhanced its aura as a quality camera was its noise level. The Nikon D50 is perceptibly quieter than other Nikon DSLRs. When you press the shutter release, it sounds like a well damped mechanism and that makes using it a pleasure. Nikon is putting more of an emphasis on sound and vibration attributes lately – the F6 is another good example of this.
Images from the Nikon D50 looked great. They were very Nikon D70-like, but with slightly lower noise levels at higher ISOs. In the default Mode IIIa color setting, D50 photos had a pleasing amount of color saturation and crispness. Unlike the very flat looking images produced by earlier DSLRs that required a bit of levels/curves adjustment in Photoshop to bring out their best, images from the D50 looked remarkably good right out of the camera. That’s an important thing because many new DSLR owners don’t want to fool around with a computer or learn Photoshop. They just want good quality prints that look like film. Nikon clearly heard the message from this group of photographers.
There’s a lot of emphasis placed on megapixels these days. Are more pixels better? They are to an extent, although not as much as many people believe. Most photographers don’t make prints larger than 11x17 inches, and the D50 will produce great images in that size or beyond with its 6.1 megapixels. The benefit to not having 12 or more megapixels is storage space and processing speed. Anyone who has processed D2X files will tell you that RAW file processing is definitely slower, although it improved recently with Capture 4.3.1. If you don’t need the extra image size, you don’t want the larger file size.
Like many of Nikon’s preceding lower end camera bodies, the D50 has a variety of automatic modes that match common shooting situations.
Here are some of the available settings:
A set of parameters are altered for each of these program modes. The shutter speed and aperture combinations are a little different, sharpening settings are altered, ISO’s are changed and color modes are modified from higher saturation to lower saturation. While these modes aren’t usually of interest to more experienced photographers, they can be a great help for new photographers who just want to get good photos.
For experienced photographers, the normal program, aperture priority, shutter speed priority and manual exposure modes are all available, as well as an “automatic” setting that automates about everything imaginable. We played with these settings a bit, but primarily used aperture priority and manual exposure modes.
WHO SHOULD BUY THE NIKON D50?
I envision several categories of people who will purchase the Nikon D50:
- Those moving up from a point and shoot and wanting the advantages of interchangeable lenses, but not wanting the expense of a higher end DSLR. The high quality images that look good right out of the camera will appeal to this group.
- Film users who are not planning to purchase an expensive DSLR, but who want compatibility with their Nikon lenses. Photographers in this group might want something small, light, and inexpensive, but don’t plan to use digital for more serious subjects. Not that the Nikon D50 isn’t capable of serious photography – it is. It’s just an issue of storage media compatibility. A Nikon D70s is a better choice if a photographer might eventually move up to a D2 series camera in the future since cards are compatible between the cameras.
Should you as a Nikonian feel comfortable recommending this camera to others? Absolutely! This is a great little camera and a fine choice for a new photographer. It has a very agreeable personality that makes photography a pleasure. More advanced photographers might want to step up to the Nikon D70s for some of the additional features and greater media compatibility that camera offers, but many might be satisfied with the Nikon D50. The money saved could pay for accessories or a number of prints to hang on the wall. When we had to send this camera back to Berger Bros., we were sorry to see it go.
Congratulations on another great DSLR camera, Nikon!
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