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Nikon D50 review

Never one to do things by half Nikon recently released not one but two digital SLRs. Today we will find out what the Nikon D50 has to offer and last month we had the chance to try out the D70s - an updated version of the renowned D70. Released as an entry-level model its specifications tell us that, although it may be one of the cheapest DSLRs around, it is filled to the brim with everything the budding photographer could ask for.

Available in black or silver, sporting a 6.1 effective megapixel sensor, full automatic control, several scene modes and full manual settings, the D50 is primarily aimed at those photographers who are looking to upgrade from a compact camera. Its ease of use coupled to an extremely competitive price may well tempt serious compact users to take their first step into DSLR photography.

front of the Nikon D50 back of the Nikon D50

Using the camera

Appearances can be deceptive. At first sight the D50 looks identical to the D70s but when you pick it up you notice that the new camera is substantially lighter than its sister model. A closer look reveals that the body is in fact a bit smaller than the D70s, which would account for its lighter weight. Another weight saver is definitely the AF-S DX 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6G ED kit lens we got with the camera. Due to the elaborate use of plastics in its construction and lens mount, this lens weighs next to nothing. This does not mean that the camera appears any less durable since it would not be Nikon's style to skimp on build quality or robustness. Proof of this is also the metal tripod mount which could easily have been replaced by a plastic one to save even more weight.

The cover material on the large handgrip is a bit smoother than on the D70s but still provides a comfortable hold, with the on/off button and shutter control falling readily to hand. Controls on the back are identical to the D70s and we liked their well-organised lay-out with clearly marked buttons. In general though we found the feel of all controls - with the exception of the 4-way dial - to be a bit more vague or woolly than before. When you pressed a control on the D70s you could feel that something was happening, while with the Nikon D50 we sometimes had to check to see whether we had actually engaged the control. This could be due to a softer base plate of the controls although we have to admit we liked the positive feel of the D70s better in this respect.

sample image of the Nikon D50 sample image of the Nikon D50 sample image of the Nikon D50 sample image of the Nikon D50

The Nikon D50 has a large 130,000 pixel 2.0" LCD monitor but unlike the D70s, there is no protection cover to prevent scratches on the LCD screen, although it's good to see the large rubber DK-20 eye cup of the D70s is standard with the D50 as well. The large screen and the use of a large type face in the menu means reviewing images and using the menu is very comfortable. Intuitive help dialogues are available for on-the-spot reference to respective menu selections. The 4-way dial next to the monitor screen is used for fast function changes but also sets the focusing point. Contrary to the D70s there is no switch to lock the focusing point so care should be taken not to accidentally shift the AF point when pressing the 4-way dial.

Most differences between the D70s and D50 are minimal and the all important features such as the clear viewfinder, with all exposure info along its base plus dioptre correction are still there, together with instant start-up and fast reaction times. A new feature is an on-screen warning in the viewfinder if there is no memory card in the camera. The option to dial in help lines in the viewfinder, for keeping horizons straight or to assist in architectural photography has been discarded, just like the depth of field control.

Some of the more advanced functions, which had their own dedicated controls on the D70s, have now been transferred to the menu. This is true for selecting metering mode, exposure and white balance bracketing. Matrix metering is the standard setting and to change this you have to refer to custom function 13 in the menu, where you can opt for spot or centre-weighted metering. Contrary to the D70s the central metering area cannot be varied and is a circle with a fixed diameter in the centre of the viewfinder. Seeing that the D50 uses 3D Colour Matrix Metering II, a less advanced metering system than the D70s with a frame-wide 420-pixel sensor as opposed to 1005 pixels, results are still excellent. Colours are a bit more saturated as this is what most consumers nowadays prefer.

The bracketing function has been moved to custom function 12 in the menu, where all the parameters can be set to bracket exposures or white balance. The D50 still has all eight white balance settings of old, including automatic, flash and a customisable Pre-set, which is determined by using a grey card under available lighting. What is gone is the fine-tuning for each setting as Nikon must have felt that the user group of this camera would probably have no need for this. There is now a dedicated button for the self-timer on the top plate however, which could indicate that this camera is primarily aimed at the family photographer who likes to be included in his own pictures.

Shutter speeds range from 30 secs to 1/4000. The D70s' top speed of 1/8000 has been discarded but we doubt this will be missed by the intended user group. ISO Settings are the same as on the larger model and range from ISO 200 to 1600. They can be varied in 1 stop steps as opposed to the D70s which allowed fine tuning in 1/3 EV steps. By default ISO settings are automatically determined by the camera in "green" Auto mode and theme programs. This is a definite advantage for snap shooters, though if you prefer full control, this automatic feature can be turned off in custom function 9.

There is a full list of exposure modes, ranging from fully automatic programs to semi-automatic scene modes. A change from the D70s is that night-scene mode has been replaced by a child setting, which sets vivid colours and higher contrast and delivers pictures which are ready to print without the need for adjustments on a computer. The family man will certainly appreciate this more than the ability to shoot in the dark. Other scene modes comprise portrait, landscape, sports, close up and night portrait. As we have come to know this system on the D70 and D70s as a very advanced system, we expect it to deliver perfect images on the D50 every time. Add to this the built-in Speedlight (GN 14 at ISO200) with i-TTL flash control as part of Nikon's Creative Lighting System, and nicely balanced flash pictures should be guaranteed. There is still the option to adjust flash intensity, but this is now done through the menu (custom function 06) or by pressing the flash button and exposure compensation control simultaneously while turning the command wheel to the desired setting. Sync speed is 1/500 sec which is better than just about every other DSLR on the market today. Please note that the built-in flash cannot be used to electronically trigger remote flashlights due to a short pre-flash which is fired to determine correct exposure and white balance for every image. This would prematurely trigger external flashes and cannot be switched off as on the D70/70s. Alternatively you could fit a small connector to the hot shoe, which employs a cable to link an external flash to the camera.

Full manual control is also available, so for more advanced photographers or for those looking to expand their hobby, the D50 still offers all they need. Continued shooting of up to 137 pictures makes action photography a reality while pictures are instantly recorded on SD memory card. A new hi-speed USB 2.0 connection supports fast transfer of images when connected to a PC. This is where D70/D70s owners will sit up and take notice as they still have to make do with a relatively slow 1.1 USB connection.

As most DSLRs today use CompactFlash as the preferred back-up medium, it may come as a bit of a surprise to see this digital camera - just like most compacts - employ SD-cards. If this is your only camera this is fine, as it is obviously the memory card of the future. However if you would like the D50 as a back-up to your other Nikon DSLR this would necessitate the need to carry SD-cards as well as CompactFlash cards. A better option then would be to buy the D70s instead, as the price difference between the two cameras is just about the same as the cost of a large SD-card.


In the box

The Nikon D50 is sold as a kit with the AF-S DX Zoom Nikkor 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6G ED lens. A comfortable wide neck strap as well as body and lens caps are included. There is no clip-on cover to protect the LCD monitor but you do get the comfortable DK-20 rubber eye-cup, which in the old days was only available as an after market extra. Apart from USB and video cables you get a 138-page printed manual which explains all the more advanced functions in great detail. A memory card is not included and as always we would advise you to buy the largest-SD card you can afford.

Power supply of the camera is taken care of by the EN-EL3 Li-ion 7.4V 1400mAh battery in combination with the MH-18A charger. According to Nikon this should be good for about 2000 pictures. We have not been able to check whether this claim is true, since during our tests we only took about 500 images with the camera. From our experiences with this battery in the D70 we can say that well over a 1000 pictures should definitely be possible before the battery runs out of power. As always with NiMh batteries the indicator in the status screen will show full power until the battery is almost empty, so as soon as the display shows it to be anything less than full, be prepared to have a spare one ready or run home for a recharge.

Software supplied with the camera consists of Picture Project 1.5 for Windows and Macintosh. This program allows simple and seamless transition and organisation of JPEG and NEF (RAW) images on your PC. Its new, intuitive user interface lets you browse image files and perform some basic editing tasks, such as sharpening or adjusting colour balance. It also supports plug-in files for added functions. For more enthusiastic users a trial version of Nikon Capture 4.2 is included. This professional program allows for much more advanced solutions to convert and edit your images. It fully supports NEF (RAW), TIFF and JPEG data. It offers functions like automatic dodge and burn control, removal of image dust and particle shades, plus the option to control your camera via the USB connection. For most users of the camera Nikon Capture will probably be a bit too advanced as it contains many functions the average user would never need, but it is nice to see Nikon have included a trial version just the same.

Image quality

The Nikon D50 kit comes with the AF-S DX Zoom-Nikkor 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6G IF ED (27-83mm eq.). A light weight lens with aspherical glass elements and Silent Wave Motor especially built for Nikon's digital SLRs. Apparently it won't work on film cameras though. Personally we would have preferred to see the 18-70mm lens included in the package because this gives you just a little more reach at the tele end. Nikon must have realised this as there is the option to buy the D50 as a kit with two lenses. You then get the 18-55mm together with the all new 55-200mm lens. Now that would seem to be the perfect combination for almost every imaginable photo situation.

The 18-55mm lens offers excellent results, and we consider it to be a good lens for its price. Image detail is excellent with nice saturated colours and excellent sharpness across the range. It would appear that images taken with the D50 appear to be a bit more saturated in colour and contrast than what we saw on the D70s of last month. As it appears that most consumers nowadays prefer punchier colours, these characteristics would eliminate the need for adjustments on the PC and make them ideal for direct home-printing on compatible PictBridge printers. Professional photographers usually prefer more subdued colour characteristics as they like to keep full control over what the results will look like.

At 18mm at full opening there is hardly any vignetting in the corners although there is some barrel distortion at wide angle, which slowly shifts to some very slight pincushioning at 55mm. These are perfectly good values for this type of lens and especially at 18mm we get the idea that distortion is somewhat less than on the 18-70mm lens we tested on the D70s last month.

Thanks to Nikon's 6.1 megapixel DX Format sensor and advanced System LSI processor, images taken with the Nikon D50 show a wide dynamic range with excellent detail in highlight and shadow areas. Even at higher ISO settings, pictures have plenty of detail, low noise and good tonal balance. Exposure was spot on all the time and during our tests white balance worked faultlessly under all lighting conditions.

normal colours vivid colours soft
direct print portrait landscape

Conclusion

Compact users who are looking to make the step to DSLR photography could do worse than buy the Nikon D50. The camera is a pleasure to work with, with excellent handling and with all controls in exactly the right place. It is an outstanding performer thanks to its many versatile custom settings, high speed USB 2.0 interface and direct print options. Images show plenty of detail with good sharpness across the range and nice punchy colours.

The fact that the camera uses SD-cards will be an advantage to compact users who are upgrading, as they probably already have plenty of those lying around from their compact days. If you would need the D50 as a back-up to another Nikon DSLR though, we would advise you to go for the D70s, or the old D70 which - though out of production - can now be had for rock bottom prices as long as stocks last. The price difference between the D50 and D70/D70s will be no more than the price of a few SD-cards, which would eliminate the need to carry two sorts of back-up memory.

If you are serious about expanding your hobby though but are in doubt about which one to go for, take a good look at which functions you would really need, as the differences between the D50 and D70s are fairly minimal. The D50 may be lighter and more compact but some more advanced functions are less accessible. The D70s is definitely more bulky but feels more professional, while offering instant access to functions like metering or bracketing. It has white balance and ISO fine-tuning, a top shutter speed of 1/8000, DOF preview and the option for wireless flash control. If you feel that you would never use these functions anyway, go for the D50 and you will live happily ever after.

no flash fill-in flash minus 1 EV fill-in flash minus 1 stop

Additional information: Nikon D50 product details and other reviews
July 3, 2005

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