Initial: 10/10/05
minor tweaks: 10/11/05
added eBook: 1/27/06
minor tweak: 7/24/06

minor updates: 1/22/07

Nikon D50 Review

Better than the D70s?


The D50 with the 55-200mm AF-S lens mounted.

When Nikon announced the D50 and D70s in April 2005, many people scratched their head. Canon had just upped the ante to 8mp in their entry level DSLR, but here was Nikon coming out with yet more 6mp cameras. Consider:

Feb 02: D100, 6mp, $2100
Dec 03: D70, 6mp, $1000
Apr 05: D50, 6mp, $750 and D70s, 6mp, $900

While the model numbers and price keep coming down, the sensor seems to remain the same. "Seems" is the operative word, though, as you'll find out.

Let's look at the differences more closely:

 
D50
D70s
D100
Price
US$749 body US$899 body US$2100 body (original)
Kit lens and Price
18-55mm (US$899) 18-70mm (US$1199) none
Shutter Speeds
30 to 1/4000 30 to 1/8000 30 to 1/4000
Flash Sync
1/500 1/500 1/180
Matrix Meter
420 pixel CCD 1005 pixel CCD 10 segment
Flash
i-TTL i-TTL, commander mode D-TTL
Focus
CAM 900, Adds AF-A CAM 900, standard Nikon AF CAM 900, standard Nikon AF
Storage
SD card CF card CF card
Transfer
USB 2.0 (High Speed) USB 1.1 (USB 2.0 Full Speed) USB 1.1 (USB 2.0 Full Speed)
ISO
200-1600 1EV steps 200-1600 0.3EV steps 200-1600 0.3EV steps
Frame Rate
2.5 fps (9 frame buffer) 3 fps (9 frame buffer) 3 fps (6 frame buffer)
Other
No DOF Preview, No Top LCD Backlight, No Mirror Prerelease, No LCD cover, No Front Command dial, No vertical grip No Mirror Prerelease, No vertical grip  
Remote
IR wireless only IR wireless, MC-DC1 wired standard threaded, 10-pin through grip
Battery
EN-EL3 (originally; now comes with EN-EL3a) EN-EL3a EN-EL3
Size
5.2 x 4 x 3" 5.5 x 4.4 x 3.1" 5.7 x 4.6 x 3.2"
Weight
1 lb 3 oz (540g) 1 lb 5 oz (600g) 1 lb 9 oz (700g)

A couple of things stand out. First, the cameras are getting smaller, lighter, and less expensive. Second, the base features are relatively stable, with the newer, lower-cost models sometimes removing a feature (e.g. mirror pre-release) or improving a feature (flash sync). I'll have more to say on this further on, but the D50 looks like a modestly de-specified D70s in most respects. The one area where it improves on the D70s is in its use of USB 2.0 High Speed--yes, the D50 can transfer pictures to the computer (or be controlled by the computer using Capture) much faster than the previous 6mp models.

But let's talk about 6 megapixels for a moment, since Nikon seems to have left their consumer DSLRs stuck on this value since 2002. For some time I've been writing "if you can't get a good looking maximum size print out of an Epson 2200 from this camera, it's not the camera that's the problem." Just to be clear, that's 13x19", and I'd say the same statement applies to the newer Epson 1800 and 2400 models. Yes, having 8mp would give you more cropping ability (about 400 pixels in the horizontal axis). Yes, having 8mp would increase resolution a bit (the theoretical maximum would be 12.5%, but in practice it works out to somewhat less than that).

Plenty of pros still use D100 bodies day-to-day. Indeed, for the target user of the D50 I'd say that 6mp is about right--more pixels than that actually poses hazards to sharpness when a camera is handled casually. And more pixels mean slower print and transfer times--my portable Sony PictBridge printer is slow enough, thank you. I am a little disappointed that Nikon chose to keep the D70s at 6mp (see my updated D70 review), but for the low-end of their DSLR lineup, 6mp is more than enough for the majority of users. As a matter of fact, in some ways it's better than the D70s, as I'll get to in the performance section.

If you've handled a D100 or D70, you can pick up a D50 and start shooting. Quite a few subtle twists show up (and I'll get to those), but Nikon didn't bother to try to fix things that weren't broken. For the most part, the differences are things that Nikon removed.

From the front and back, the only things to distinguish a D50 and D70/D70s are some minor cosmetic changes and the fact that the D50 seems to have shrunk a bit. If you look carefully, you'll see the cosmetic (and sometimes functional differences). The D50 has:

  • No DOF preview button.
  • No Front Command dial.
  • No Bracketing button.
  • No Top LCD backlight button.
  • No AF selector lock button.
  • No Color LCD protector.
  • No Metering selection button (replaced with Self timer button).
  • Night Landscape scene mode is replaced with Child scene mode.
  • The side panel has only one rubber cover hiding the connectors.
  • The AF Assist lamp is a little smaller.
  • The IR remote detector has moved to under the shutter release.
  • The prism is a little lower and the internal flash a little different in shape.

If you examine that list, virtually all of the changes can be chalked up to "lower cost." Removing buttons is more of a cost savings than just the plastic part. Since DSLRs still involve a great deal of hand assembly, hooking up additional connectors takes time and costs more. The smaller prism means a penta-mirror is resident. Does it add up to US$150 worth of changes? Maybe. What surprised me a bit is that, despite all of Nikon's comments about using parts and process standardization to lower manufacturing costs, there are still a fair number of part differences to account for. For example, the buttons to the left of the color LCD are larger and a different shape on the D50 than they are on the D70s. Indeed, all the buttons are bigger, including the exposure compensation control button. This had to be a explicit design decision, but given that none of us were really complaining about button size on the D70, it does seem odd to have to have another bin of button parts in the plant that makes the D50 and D70.

Regardless of the changes, the primary visible DNA still comes from the D100, which I take to be a good thing.

  Add a comment or send Thom feedback on this article.

Highly Recommended; An excellent choice for the amateur photographer, with some surprising abilities.

features
performance
build
value

Features: the D50 is targeted at the bottom of the consumer market; in many ways the missing features are really only missed by those of us who want more control.
Performance: the ISO performance is great, but the rest of the image quality is no better than the D70s. And AF performance isn't 5-star, either.
Build: No glaring problems, but it's a US$749 body, so did you expect perfect?
Value: here the DR and D70s get in the way. The price differential to the D50 isn't very high and the missing features really do account for it.

Table of Contents

Need a book on the D50?
Thom is working on the definitive eBook. Click on the cover, below:

Kit or Body Only?
Here are your choices:

  • Body only (US$749). Then buy a lens separately. The lens that makes the most sense would be the 18-70mm DX that comes with the D70s kit, but choose what you want.
  • Single lens kit (US$899). You get the 18-55mm AF-S DX lens and no lens hood. This lens is not as good as the 18-70mm, though still not bad for its price. The big drawbacks are light falloff and visible distortion at the wide end. Other drawbacks: the narrow focus ring, very little focal length range, plastic mount, rotating front element, and soft edges.
  • Double lens kit (US$1099). You get the 18-55mm just mentioned plus the 55-200mm f/4-5.6 AF-S DX. Both lenses have 52mm filter threads. While the telephoto zoom is AF-S, it still has a tendency to hunt in low light. It's a decent match to the D50 in that it's light and small, but all those drawbacks I just mentioned about the 18-55mm pretty much apply here, too.
My vote? D50 body with the 18-70mm AF-S DX lens. If you really need telephoto, you have dozens of options between Nikon and third parties, though the 55-200mm at least should get a strong look from you. In terms of a high quality, small and light kit, I'd look at the 180mm f/2.8 as the tele to go with the 18-70mm zoom.

The Basics

The D50 has a basic feature set that is a subset of the D70s, but with a few exceptions. In a few places performance has been improved, and only a few critical things were removed or crippled. I've already noted some of them, but we'll go piece by piece through the whole camera here.

The autofocus system is still fast on central subjects, and features five sensors (CAM 900) that can track rapidly moving objects, or direct autofocus to a specific area of the frame. Autofocus detection works from EV –1 to EV 19 (specified at ISO 100, though the camera doesn't shoot at that speed! Nikon should have restated this into ISO 200 values if the ISO rating makes a difference). This is exactly the same as the D70s. The one difference is that the D50 has a AF-A mode in addition to the Single Servo and Continuous Servo functions. What that means is that the camera guesses at which method it should be using. Static subjects tend to make it shoot like Single Servo, moving subjects tend to make it shoot like Continuous Servo. You can still select the individual modes, but the default is the new Automatic Servo.

The metering range still extends from EV 0 to EV 20, plenty wide for virtually any shooting you might do. Note that the spot metering range is slightly lower, from EV 3 to EV 20. Unless you make a habit of spot metering in unlit situations at night, you're not likely to encounter that limit. While the D100 meters to EV 21, the slight loss doesn't show up in practice, both because you're not likely to encounter such bright scenes very often and because the 3D metering starts devolving to a simpler method at around 17 EV anyway. Unlike the D70s, the D50 uses a trimmed down CCD in the viewfinder for metering. The D70s CCD has 1005 pixels, the one in the D50 has 420 pixels. From a theoretical standpoint, there's no real difference--the camera is still applying similar patterns to the data it gets from the meter. Practically, yes, you might see some small differences in matrix metering between the D70s and D50. Spot metering is also a bit different, using a 3.5mm circle versus the 2.3mm of the D70s. (Nikon says 3.5mm is 2.5% and 2.3mm is 1% of the frame, but testing shows that the D70s has a wider than 1% sensitivity). I don't judge this to be a big issue, but do note that 3.5mm is significantly larger than the AF sensor indicators in the viewfinder.

Shutter speeds can be controlled in 1/3 stop or 1/2 increments from 30 seconds to 1/4000. All shutter speeds up to 1/90 are handled mechanically on the D50, all faster shutter speeds are handled electronically (e.g., the shutter opens for 1/90 and the sensor turns on and off to create the shutter speed effect). This arrangement first appeared on the D1 and provides one very useful side effect: flash sync speeds are increased substantially (arbitrarily limited to 1/500 on the D50, just like the D1 and D70 series). Single shot and continuous firing at 2.5 fps is supported, though it's relatively easy to (inadvertently) turn on features that would make motor drive even more leisurely in pace; obviously you can't get 2.5 fps if the shutter speed is 1/2 second, but Single Servo AF, red-eye reduction, autofocus assist and host of other things can eat into the maximum frame rate if you're not careful.

As usual, Nikon has bowed to the "amateurs need idiot modes" mentality that the Japanese companies seem to like so much. Besides Program, Shutter Priority, Aperture Priority, and Manual exposure mode we get an "all automatic" and six additional "scene" exposure modes (portrait, landscape, close up, sports, child, and night portrait). I've written at length before about how little I like these so-called beginner's exposure modes (see my N90s review, for example), but besides the "effect isn't dialed in strong enough" complaint I usually have, I've got an even stronger negative reaction to the way Nikon is doing these modes now: loads of features are turned off and made unavailable. Want to bracket or set exposure compensation? Forget it when using the scene modes. So, not only do they lock in modestly chosen settings, they lock out other options. I can see why you should have one all-automatic exposure mode on the camera (I call it the "waiter" exposure mode, as in put the camera in Auto and hand it to the waiter to take your picture--he or she can't change anything, they can only take the picture). But I don't see why the scene modes completely cripple the user in so many ways. Moreover, the D50 is rich in manual controls. Thus, I don't see the scene exposure modes as anything valuable--they tend to detract from what makes the D50 such a good camera.

Exposure settings in Program exposure mode are easily adjusted by spinning the Rear Command dial, something Nikon calls "Flexible Program." (Note that there is no Front Command dial--apertures are set with the Rear Command dial in Aperture-priority exposure mode, with a button and the Rear Command dial in Manual exposure mode.) There's also an automatic adjustment of the program due to focal length of the lens used; thus there is no “Program High” or other special automatic modes as there were in some early consumer Nikon SLR bodies. That's more than enough automation for 95% of the potential D50 users out there, I think.

An exposure compensation button gives you a +/- 5-stop range in 1/3-stop or 1/2-stop steps. A built-in bracketing system allows two or three shots at one-third, two-thirds, or half-stop values. Unlike the D70s, the bracketing system is set via menus, not a button. Exposure (as well as autofocus) can be locked by on-camera controls (though this takes some reading of the custom functions to understand completely). ISO values from 200 to 1600 in full stop steps can be set directly. A somewhat confusing twin set of Auto ISO abilities is available (one for Scene exposure modes, one for the other exposure modes), and sets the camera in as little as 1/6 step stops.

Flash sync, as noted, works to 1/500 of second. Flash metering uses the viewfinder CCD and can be balanced, slow-synced, and synchronized with the rear shutter curtain. If you want to shoot in any TTL mode, you'll need either the internal flash, the SB-600, or SB-800. Older flash units, such as the SB-28DX, SB-50DX, or SB-80DX Speedlight will not perform TTL on the D50! If you're buying the D50 to supplement your existing D100, you'll be purchasing a new flash (fortunately, the SB-600 and SB-800 will perform D-TTL with the D100). Unlike the D70s, Commander flash mode is not supported by the D50. Flash exposure compensation is set via a Custom Setting (or button/dial). With a I-TTL type flash on the D50, the camera performs the same matrix and pre-flash adjustments as, say, an F5. However, the D50 doesn't alter any flash decision once the shutter is opened (i.e., it doesn't monitor the light reflected back during exposure to fine tune when to shut off the flash). This difference is subtle, but can show up if you have a moving object with high reflectivity in the scene (e.g., jewelry, metal surfaces). Also, rapidly changing light conditions can produce slightly wrong results. On the plus side, the new Speedlights perform pre-flash and full TTL capabilities even when the flash head is set to a bounce position (on 35mm bodies, setting the flash head to any angle other than normal or down -7 degrees cancels some of the more advanced TTL features). The internal flash also supports advanced TTL modes (as well as Manual flash at user-settable powers).

In the viewfinder, you'll see 95% of the full frame, which means you're not seeing between 50 and 75 pixels worth of information at every edge. Shutter speed, aperture, focus indicators, exposure compensation, flash ready, and frame counter are all visible in the viewfinder, even to eyeglass wearers like me. Metering system and Exposure mode are not. On the color LCD on the back of the camera, you'll see 100% of the image. Nikon allows you to optionally rotate the review of vertical images, but doing so makes the thumbnail extraordinarily small. Probably of most use on the color LCD is the ability to see a histogram of any picture you take, allowing you to tinker with exposure to get every last bit of dynamic range out of the sensor (like slide film, always expose so that the brightest highlight doesn't blow out--you can often recover shadow detail that blocks up, but blown highlights are obnoxious to the eye and not easily fixable).

One thing Coolpix users will complain about when they switch to a D50 is that the color LCD on the back doesn't display a preview of image before you take the shot (the D50's CCD is blocked by a shutter curtain and mirror, after all). Frankly, I don't find this to be a drawback at all, and a bit of a plus (the power-hungry color LCD is only on when you're reviewing pictures or making camera adjustments). The regular viewfinder is just fine for determining composition and focus, though the image is a bit smaller and darker than the N80's. The D50 takes any Nikon F mount lens (well, lenses earlier than the AI manual focus Nikkors damage the mount if you try to put them on the D50, and a few specific lenses won't work on the D50, usually because they have elements that stick into the mirror box and require mirror lock-up). Non-CPU lenses (AI and AI-S manual focus lenses) don't allow metering and must be used in Manual exposure mode.

When you mount a lens on the D50, the effective focal length is increased by about 1.5x (e.g., a 20mm lens shows roughly the same angle of view as a 30mm lens would on a 35mm body; note that the 1.5x is a rounded figure, the actual increase is slightly more). Apertures aren't affected by the angle of view change. Because only the central portion of the image circle formed by the lens is used, if you've been making any exposure adjustments at maximum aperture to account for light falloff, you should not do that on a D50 (the exception is some DX lenses, such as the one that comes with the kit, which does have significant light falloff when used wide open). The field of view change has several good points, and a couple of bad ones:

  • Smaller angle of view. Your 300mm f/4 lens now produces the horizontal angle of view of a 466mm f/4 lens! Wildlife and bird photographers love the extra "oomph" the D50 gives to their lenses, though this is a bit of a faux love affair. (Hey, wait a minute you say, how come 300mm x 1.5 = 466mm? Well, the horizontal change is almost 1.52x, actually.)
  • Better optical quality. The fact that only the central area of the image circle is used with regular 35mm lenses means that chromatic aberration is lessened, light falloff is reduced, corners are sharper, and even consumer-oriented lenses (such as the 18-35mm Nikkor) produce professional-looking results. Even the DX lenses with the smaller image circle seem to have been designed conservatively in this respect: the 12-24mm Nikkor DX, for example, has an image circle large enough to cover the full 35mm from 18-24mm. The one thing I do note about the kit lens for the D50 is that it has visible light falloff in the corners at wide angles, though.
  • Wide angle options are limited. The widest rectilinear lens made is the 12-24mm DX, which produces basically the same results as a 18-36mm lens on a full-frame (e.g. film) SLR. Beyond the 12-24mm, the only other very wide angle option are the 14mm f/2.8 and the 10.5mm DX full-frame fisheye. This is an adequate selection, but your choices are limited and there are only a few third-party options that get you true wide angle.
  • Depth of field judgment isn't quite right. The real key here is that you're likely to blow up the original image area (sensor size) by a greater magnification than you would with 35mm, so you shouldn't use the 35mm standards, despite the fact that it may appear that you should (Nikon doesn't address this issue in their documentation or marketing materials).

The CCD sensor the D50 uses is unique. No, it's not the one used in the D100 or D70 models, though it is certainly derived from the same technology. The D50 sensor consists of a 3008 x 2000 array, and it has massive (compared to consumer cameras such as the Coolpix) 7 micron pixels. That's just one reason why the D50 can produce 12-bit RGB images with rich color and low noise. Like virtually all digital cameras, a filter array is placed over the D50's CCD. This filter has four purposes:

  1. Provides the Bayer pattern. The Bayer pattern is named after the Kodak engineer who invented it. Basically, this is a set of color filters that results in an alternating pattern of RG (on odd-numbered rows) and GB (on even-numbered rows) pixels. The final image is rebuilt by interpolating the actual pixel values at each position.
  2. Filters out infrared. CCDs are sensitive to infrared light, and to keep infrared energy from affecting image quality, most (but not all) of this light is filtered out.
  3. Realigns the light. CCDs don't like light hitting them at any angle other than 90 degrees, so the filter also focuses the light rays from the lens directly into the sensors using a set of what are called microlenses.
  4. Provides a low-pass anti-aliasing filter. Digital sampling is subject to color fringing (artifacts) when high frequency detail in a scene approaches that of the sensor pitch.

On a D50, some of these things appear a bit changed from the D70 and D70s. The near IR filtration seems a bit more aggressive. Some small spectrum changes I see could mean that the Bayer dyes are a bit different, too. Overall, it appears that Nikon may have tweaked the layer that sits on top of the sensing part of the CCD. On the other hand, none of these changes are dramatic, so it could be sample variation, too.

The D50 produces two types of files: JPEG and Compressed NEF. The JPEG options work as you'd expect, but you pay a significant penalty for using that format: the files are compressed and lose a bit of detail, plus they are converted to 8-bit format, losing some of the D50's tonal range in the process. Like the D100, the D50's JPEG engine seems to soften the edges slightly from what you'd get with an unsharpened NEF file and running it through an Unsharp Mask. Even high amounts of in-camera sharpening look a bit on the anti-aliased side to me, though the "JPEG softness" is nowhere near what you get with the D100. Another point: it has to be partially noise reduction that's generating the softness. When I pull up the same shot in JPEG and NEF and look at both the edges and the noise patterns, it becomes obvious that the JPEG is rendering less noise while the NEF is producing less anti-aliasing. This is kind of a difficult thing to show on the Web, but shoot with the JPEG+NEF setting at ISO 1600 and then examine both images at 100% side by side. You'll see what I mean.

The Compressed NEF format is the only one that comes close to retaining the full data set the D50 is capable of acquiring. I say "close to retaining" because the compression scheme Nikon uses is not lossless. Basically, the camera takes the highlight data and places them into groups (essentially a rounding of many of the data points), producing the equivalent to somewhere between 9 and 10 bits of data. When this is returned to 12-bit form, there's a bit of posterization in the highlight data. The reason this works as a visually lossless scheme is that our eyes really can't resolve more than about an 8-bit value can produce (and our eyes aren't linear in response to light, either). For the most part it isn't a big thing that the compression loses data, though there may be some post-processing manipulations that will render slightly differently because of the data rounding.

The NEF format contains the compressed data that came from the CCD, with no interpolation or camera processing. Unfortunately, you need an extra software program to fully use this format (typically Capture 4.3). At least the Photoshop import filter supplied with the camera allows you to do some of the post exposure adjustments users like to do with their NEF files (exposure, white balance, and rotation, in this case). To get the most from NEF files, you need a converter program such as Nikon Capture, though. For those of you using Photoshop CS2 as your converter, yes, Adobe is working on updating their converter to accommodate the D50. I understand that it will be available shortly. However, like the D2x, the D50 encrypts the white balance information, which has forced converter developers to use Nikon's mini-SDK to decipher and delayed software products. (Since someone will ask: I don't see white balance encryption on the D50 as being the same problem as it was with the D2x prior to the release of the mini-SDK. The D50 is targeted at amateurs, and people using it aren't likely to be batching up large numbers of NEF files for conversion. It's much more likely that a D50 user will be converting a single NEF at a time using Photoshop Elements, and even if that requires overriding a converter's white balance setting, it's not likely to cause any consternation or panic. For the record, I still am against white balance encryption.)

In the US, the D50 comes with the required EN-EL3 lithium rechargeable battery pack and the MH-18 quick charger (same battery and charger as the D100; the D70s comes with the EN-EL3a and MH-18a, though these are interchangeable with the originals). You'll probably want one extra EN-EL3. Battery life is quite dependent upon a number of factors, and can range from several hundred shots to more than a thousand. Battery life is impressive by any standard of measurement, though. I can often shoot for several days without worrying about changing batteries; only the D70s and D2x can match that in my Nikon DSLR arsenal.

The D50 uses Secure Digital (SD) cards, not CompactFlash (CF). These very small cards are part of the reason why the camera is smaller, but high capacity SD cards are pricier than CF cards. Indeed, finding >1GB SD cards is still difficult as I write this initial review.

The camera weighs in at 19 ounces, and that's without a lens or the battery, so it's a lot lighter than the D1, and a few ounces lighter than the D100. It's even lighter than the D70s by a couple of ounces. In terms of size, just looking at it you won't think it's smaller than the D70s, but it is by a few millimeters in most directions.

Handling

The D1 was like a Mack truck compared to consumer digital cameras. I rated the D100 at the heavy duty Dodge RAM pickup level. The D70 fits into that same category. So where's the D50? Hmm, I guess maybe a Dodge Dakota pickup? In other words, similar looks, similar lineage, not quite as big or as tough. For the most part, the D50 is rugged enough and it's proven reliable in the back country and being treated roughly. It's got pretty much the same build as the D70s in terms of materials and construction, so ought to stand up to abuse about the same. There's no cover over the color LCD, which leaves it vulnerable to scratching, but that's about the only apparent weakness.

Most of the controls fall naturally under my fingers and can be easily found by touch. There's fewer buttons and dials, so you're not hunting as much for controls, anyway. The right-hand grip is a bit bigger than it probably ought to be; while small hands get around just fine on the D50, the reach around that front grip could be a stretch for some. Moreover, I've noticed a distinct tendency to pop open the SD card door due to grip position. If you slide your right hand around a lot while gripping and re-gripping the camera, you're going to pop the door open occasionally.

Many camera controls with multiple settings (flash options, exposure compensation, self timer, etc.) are set by holding down the appropriate button and rotating the knurled Rear Command dial. Unlike the D100, ISO, image quality and white balance don't use the Mode dial--you either set them by menu, or, if nothing is displayed on the LCD, you can manipulate them directly with one of the "dual nature" buttons and the Rear Command dial. While this dual purposing of buttons--the button does one thing if you're doing X, another if you're doing Y--is convenient, it will catch some loyal Nikon users by surprise. Nikon generally doesn't use much "button overload" in their interface design, but the D50 has it in many places. Flash options and flash activation (popping the internal flash up for use) use the same button, for example. You'll have to get used to context controlling what a button does. Fortunately, the choices Nikon made in this regard are pretty sensible. For example, if the menu system is already active, setting white balance with the menu system is the more direct route. If you're reviewing an image on the LCD you're not likely wanting to change ISO simultaneously. I suspect that the dual nature of some buttons will become second nature to you after a few hours of heavy use.

Some subtle changes have been made to the menu system--ones that I haven't seen written about anywhere. For example, if you have a lens that has a Manual Focus/Autofocus switch, when you set the switch to Manual, the autofocus options in the menu system are grayed out! A lot of Japanese manufacturers (including Nikon) have considered menu systems as just a big scrolling list of toggle buttons in the past; I'm glad to see that they're finally starting to understand that context needs to be taken into account, too. On the other hand, this can confuse, too. The dual Auto ISO functions will almost certainly do that for some: you can't set the one that isn't active, and one is always inactive.

A lot has been written about the issue of CCD cleaning. Unlike a film camera, where the photosensitive surface is replaced every image, the CCD just sits there, shot after shot. In dusty and dirty environments, you'll end up with some of that ending up on your CCD (heck, the sealed F5 prism eventually gets dust and grime in it). The question is, what can you do about it? Nikon's manual warns against using anything except a manual blower (the turkey baster type, with the rubber bulb): "under no circumstances should you touch or wipe the filter." Curiously, Nikon's authorized repair centers use pretty much the same cleaning methods I do, which require you to touch the CCD. A case of "do as my lawyer's say, not as I do." Heck, Nikon even sells a CCD cleaning kit in Japan! I'm pretty sure that some of the dust you get on the CCD will not be easily dislodged using the low-power bulb Nikon suggests. Check out my article on CCD cleaning for the best advice to date. Fortunately, Nikon has improved the access to the CCD chamber; it's less tight than the D1 and many earlier DSLRs.

My primary handling complaints on the D50 are these:

  1. Advanced users suffer. Shoot in Manual exposure mode? Like to bracket exposures or change metering systems often? In the first case, get used to having only one Command dial--you'll have to hold down a button and turn the dial to set an aperture. In the case of the others, you'll get slowed down by having to drop into the menu system. Nikon clearly compromised advanced shooting handling on this camera, probably because their target is someone who doesn't use those features much, if at all.
  2. Menu shift. I feel like I'm repeating myself over and over: commands drift in position on menus from camera to camera, custom setting numbers change, and sometimes new names are used for the same function. This wouldn't be anywhere as annoying if you could download new software for an older camera to make it's menus "look and feel" like those of your new camera, but unfortunately Nikon rarely seems to look back...Yes, the D50 and D70s (and D70 Firmware 2.0) menus are now relatively aligned, but Nikon isn't paying attention to details--small capitalization errors and other naming changes have crept in. Moreover, now that we've got a camera that relies more on the menus, setting something like Beep as CSM#1 seems silly. I change many of the other CSM values more often, but now have to scroll through many that I only set once to get to the ones that I set multiple times during a shooting session. So, Nikon's getting neither case right: they're not keeping the menus exactly worded and ordered the same, but they're also not ordering them so that the most often used items are first. Middle of the road doesn't work for driving, and it doesn't work for menu systems, either.
  3. A few miscues. The Optimize Image menu is highly confusing to the target user of this camera. Not having a mechanical remote release is frustrating (I don't want to have to hold the IR remote in front of the camera to remote release the camera). No LCD cover is a problem long-term. The SD card door opens due to handling sometimes. I miss the exposure mode in the viewfinder.
  4. No DOF Preview. If there's one thing I miss the most, it's the DOF Preview button. Given that we've got some folk coming over from film who might think that DOF is the same, it'll be hard to get them thinking "correctly" without a DOF Preview button.
  5. Door opens. The door covering the SD card is easily opened accidentally when you move your right hand. It really needs an interlock.

Not really anything significant, actually. Indeed, when considering the audience for this camera, nothing is particularly unacceptable in the handling department. It's only those of us who were thinking of the D50 as a backup camera that will find problems that encumber us in ways we're not used to (and having a back-up camera that uses SD cards when your regular one uses CF is a big problem that'll probably keep you from doing that).


Exposure

A common complaint from new D100 users was that they believe that their camera underexposes. What they were seeing was not underexposure, per se, but both a metering preference to not blow out highlights and an exposure linearity that was weighted towards preserving highlights. The D50 is different in both respects. The metering seems a little hot to me, with a tendency towards blowing the highlights out by a half stop or so compared to my D70s (which was much like the D100). Moreover, the standard contrast curves seem to have more mid-range oomph, which heightens perceived contrast and thus gets round the "dullness" of the D100 exposures everyone complained about. The standard exposure the D50 obtains has pop that the D100 doesn't, but be very careful to make sure that you're not losing highlight information you might later want.

Like all Nikon DSLR models before it, the D50 tends to "bunch up" values at the dark end of the spectrum. This is a common problem of CCDs, and has to do both with the linearity curve that's applied against the data coming off the ADC and the fact that fewer bits are recording the shadows so differentiation is more difficult.

The default Optimize Image settings Nikon provides produce better looking JPEGs out of the camera than the D100 did. More color, more saturation, better contrast, and better sharpness. Still, if you shoot with a D100 or D70, you can pretty much work with the D50 exactly the same way that you've been doing, perhaps only adjusting exposure downward a bit.

Where there is a difference is in the noise and artifact tendencies. The D100 produces the cleanest looking JPEGs I've ever seen from a digital camera, at the cost of some loss of acuity. The D70 series produces sharper JPEGs, but with occasional color moire patterns in fine detail. The D50 is somewhere in between. The acuity is close to, but not equal to, the D70 JPEG, while the D50's artifacts and noise are closer to the D100. Overall, if I were trying to pick between the three as a JPEG camera, I'd pick the D50. More on that in a bit when we get to the test results.

 

Autofocus

Using the central autofocus sensor only, the D50 is as fast at autofocus as any Nikon body. AF-S lenses "snap" to focus using the central sensor. The only times you'll see a difference between the D50 and the D1 series or D2 series is in low light and off center subjects. Unfortunately, that's a big difference when you compare an off-center subject shot with a D2 series and a D50. I only mention that because I've seen a lot of posts and heard a lot of comments about how the D70 is the "poor man's" sports camera, and the D50 has pretty much the same capabilities. Yes, the card write speed means that you can shoot with abandon right to the limits of the 2.5 fps the shutter can handle, but you're going to find an incredible difference in autofocus ability. Even with the center sensor active the D2 series runs rings round the D50 and D70 in continuous action. That's because the finder blackout time (and the time the AF sensors aren't getting information) is so much lower with the D2 series than it is with the D50 and D70.

Still, autofocus is not a weak point of the D50, it simply is in the consumer rather than the big league.

Imatest Results and Interpretation

Using Norman Koren's Imatest program with controlled lighting (LowelEgos at 5500K) and my usual test lens (70-180mm Micro-Nikkor), here's what I found with JPEG images and how it compares to what I've seen in shooting:

  • Color saturation is higher than the other Nikon DSLRs (107%), especially at ISO 1600, where the color saturation number remained at 104%, a very high value. This shows up in images--even high ISO shots on the D50 have saturated colors that can pop, where most DSLRs tend to lose contrast and the colors begin to "dull up." Usually high ISO values not only give you noise, but kill your color, too. The D50 and D2x show that Nikon is working hard to process images at all ISO values consistently. I shot a number of images in Yellowstone at ISO 1600 on the D50, and I was quite pleased with the color. Usually I find the color drab in high ISO shots I've made with Nikon DSLRs; not so with the D50.
  • White balance was slightly to the plus side (between +3 and +100K high) through most of the gray ramp, but tends to go minus in blacks (-300 to -400K low). This is similar to what other Nikon DSLRs do, though slightly more pronounced. In photos it's not likely to show up unless you try to bring the shadow areas considerably up in value, at which point you'll find that they have a slight cast to them that the rest of the image doesn't. Overall, in shooting the D50's Auto white balance performs well until you take it indoors, at which point you'll find that the lack of additional incandescent settings starts to force you to use Preset white balance. Otherwise you'll find that you get too much "warmth" indoors.
  • Blues tend a bit towards cyan (curiously a Fujifilm trait), greens and yellows towards green (also a Fujifilm trait), while reds tend towards amber. There's no real tendency for any color to drift towards the magenta corner of the two-dimensional color CIE representation. Given this "twist" to the MacBeth color patches, I actually had to go back and make sure that I hadn't accidentally set sRGB Type III on the camera (I hadn't; this is the AdobeRGB output, which is how I test all DSLRs, since that's the way my system is set up and produces the most natural color the cameras are capable of). The overall color errors, however, are relatively small (and actually smaller at ISO 1600 than at ISO 200). In photos, the D50 images have a slight Fujifilm-like "punch" to them that, say, the D100 doesn't have. (By "punch" I mean think Provia, not Velvia.) For the outdoor work I do, I can live with all these minor changes, though I worry a bit about a cyanish tendency in polarized skies (the darker blues are more pronounced in their drift). For portrait work, the changes to Nikon's usual slightly cool look are pleasing. My god-daughter's skin tone is a bit difficult to get right, but my shots of her in shade, sun, and indoor lighting all are pleasing, if not perfectly on color. Overall, sRGB Type III has more exaggeration of colors than the other two Color Space settings, but still is more accurate than some previous Nikon DSLRs have been. The difference between Type I and Type III is clear, but not overwhelmingly pronounced.
  • Like the D2x, the D50 doesn't render the white-to-black tone ramp perfectly flat. Instead, it has a Canon-like mid-range "hump" to the tonal ramp. In pictures this tends to make for a more pleasing contrast, but it also means that the dynamic range is sometimes recorded a bit less than it could be (remember, this is a JPEG we're talking about). Black is a little too black for accurate tonal ramps. For most folk, sending sRGB JPEGs directly from the camera to a PictBridge printer will make for excellent looking prints. Personally, I'd prefer a little less pronounced hump.
  • Noise is stunningly low in dark grays to white. At ISO 200, all the channels are relatively similar and very low in noise until you get to that too-black black, which has a relatively high noise value for ISO 200 (2.3 not gamma corrected; it ought to be between 1 and 2). At ISO 1600 things get very interesting: up through about middle gray, the noise isn't much different than it was at ISO 200! From middle gray to black, there is definitely an increasing noise curve, though by the time we get to black, it isn't that much worse than ISO 200 (green at around 2.5, red and blue just above 3; these are very good scores considering I've measured some DSLRs that are close to 10 in some channels at this ISO, and none that stay quite as "collected" as the D50 does). In images, noise handling is good enough at any ISO value that I have no real problems with the D50, as long as the exposure is spot on. Underexposure of a JPEG that requires correction in post processing will absolutely bring up objectionable noise. That's the good news. The bad news is this: the D50, like the D2x, is doing something with JPEGs that doesn't get done with NEFs. NEFs from a D50, while still a better than my D70s at high ISO values, have more noise in them than JPEGs. Detail in JPEGs is a little lower than in NEFs, so perhaps we've got some very good noise reduction in play with the JPEG rendering engine.

Overall, the D50 posted very good results with Imatest (both on JPEGs and converted-through-Capture NEFs) with one caveat: black. Underexposure with the D50 can be fatal to your image. First, black is being rendered a bit lower in value than it should be, so those shadow details you're looking for may require more alteration to get into "visibility." But when you make big changes in bringing up black, you'll get a color drift that's opposite of the rest of the tonal ramp and significant noise. Bad things lurk in the D50's invisible shadows, so don't underexpose.

Indeed, I found that I wanted to press the exposure very high on the D50 when I shot NEFs, then process them with my Velvia Action (which takes shadows very quickly to absolute black). When I did that I really liked the look the D50 produces--as you might have noticed with the few images I've put on the site from my D50, they are absolutely Velvia-like in saturation and contrast when I get it right. But when I missed on an exposure and left head-room at the highlight end--which forces me to "pull-up" the exposure in Capture, I didn't like the lower end of the visible tonal ramp at all.


Here's a typical JPEG image from the D50 that illustrates all the good and bad points pretty much simultaneously. On the good side: sharpness, contrast, color saturation, low noise. On the bad side: slight tilt from viewfinder alignment, what blue sky is poking through is headed cyan, and the exposure (despite -0.3EV exposure compensation) is still a bit hot:

Other Performance Issues

A few other performance factors need to be addressed. Some folk are going to be downright surprised by the D50's performance.

First, let's re-examine the so-called shortcomings of the D70:

  • Moire. When the digital sampling frequency is close to, but not exactly, the frequency of detail in a scene, digital cameras tend to produce moire. While I can make the D50 produce moire, especially with NEF images, it doesn't seem as prone to this as the D70s. JPEG images tend to mask moire almost completely, probably because of whatever they're doing to get that low noise production.
  • Color Shift. The original D70 seemed to have some problems with producing side to side color shifts at high shutter speeds. First, the D50 doesn't go as high as the D70 did, but second, I don't see shifts any more (even on the D70s).
  • Blooms. If you overwhelm the CCD with light, as you might by shooting directly into the sun, you'll see vertical extensions that are essentially blown highlight extending into adjacent data. I haven't been able to make the D50 produce the same terrible bloom tendencies as my original D70 (unexplained green blobs and very nasty spillover blooms). Indeed, I've shot with the sun in the shot under quite a few different occasions and haven't seen the same tendency to blow-out beyond additional areas, as long as you don't overexpose too much when you go beyond 1/500.

Next, let's look at some startling differences between the D50 and D70s:

  • Noise. I've already mentioned this, but the D50 has simply incredible noise tendencies compared to the D70s. At ISO 1600 in JPEG, noise is lurking, but not particularly visible. At ISO 1600 in NEF, noise is visible, but not particularly objectionable (the chroma aspect of the noise is the primary culprit, but this is more subdued than what I see out of my D70s). JPEG shooters shouldn't be afraid to shoot at any ISO value. NEF shooters should be ready to pull out noise reduction software at ISO 1600.
  • Color. The D50 produces a much more pleasant color rendering than my D70s. Auto white balance seems to work a bit better, which is a start. But some tough colors, like purple flowers, actually come out the right shade of purple on the D50 compared to my D70s (let alone my D100, which had tough times with some flower colors). Beyond that, there's the saturation issue. Out of camera saturation is excellent at even the default settings (and even at ISO 1600), clearly better than the D70s produces.
  • Contrast. The D50 seems to have a different tonal linearity than the D70s. Mid-range looks a bit more pronounced and both the whites and blacks are slightly down from where they should be. If anything, the D50 looks a bit more like the Canon DSLRs than it does previous Nikon DSLRs in this respect.
  • Amp noise. It takes 15 minutes before any visible amp noise shows up on the D50, and even then it's much less pronounced than on the D70s. Astronomical users will find this the best of the Nikon amateur bodies to date.

One final performance note: the viewfinder mask on my D50 is 0.6 degrees off from what it should be. Line something up with the bottom of the viewfinder frame and you'll be running Rotate Arbitrary in Photoshop a lot. I've yet to see a Nikon viewfinder that's perfect (curiously, they all seem to give you images that run downhill right), but my D50's is the worst of the bunch to date.

Overall, the D50 produces better out-of-camera JPEGs than the D70s in most situations I've tried it in. There simply aren't any specific image quality faults that are omnipresent or overbearing, even at ISO 1600, as long as you don't underexpose. This makes the D50 a great print-from-camera DSLR, which I think is partially what Nikon intended. But it also makes it a pretty good all-around backup body for JPEG shooters, like wedding and other event photographers.

Finally, we come to battery performance: in a word, excellent. I've gone two days of regular shooting with a single battery, and the new EN-EL3a (available as an option for existing D50 users) extends that significantly. People like exact measurements, such as X number of images on one charge, but so many factors enter into the equation to make such statements even more unreliable than EPA estimates for cars. Suffice it to say that you should measuring your battery life in the high hundreds of images, even thousands. I regularly shoot hundreds of images a day demonstrating things at workshops and use the color LCD extensively when doing so. I've yet to exhaust a D50 battery in doing so. Indeed, if I'm correct in my memory, the fewest number of exposures I've ever gotten from a single charge is a little over 500 (and remember, I use the color LCD a lot). Most of the time I'm getting over a thousand images to a charge.

 

Drawbacks

  • More missing features. No mirror pre-release. No mechanical remote release. No Rear Command dial. No flash Commander mode. No DOF Preview button. No top LCD backlight.
  • No extended grip. While I don't miss having the vertical release, the MB-D100 provided a 10-pin connection, which I do miss. And with two batteries in the grip, you could probably shoot forever with your D50. Alas, we'll never have the chance to find out.
  • Manual lenses. AI and AI-S lenses and accessories can only be used in Manual exposure mode, and the meter is inoperative.
  • SD cards. The only Nikon DSLR not to use CompactFlash, which makes it tougher to use the D50 as a backup body.

Positives

The drawbacks are all minor compared to the pluses. The D50 takes beautiful photos when used well, and can give almost any low-cost digital SLR on the market a run for the money in image quality. In short, expect to produce darn good results out of this camera.

  • Great out-of-camera images at a Best Buy price. Even at high ISO values the D50 can blast out great-looking JPEG images without getting deep into trying to figure out the optimal quality settings.
  • Light, small, comfortable. The D50 is small and light enough to carry all day in casual situations. The D50 kit (with 18-55mm lens and 55-200mm lens) may be the perfect vacation DSLR combo: long battery life, compact size, capable of good images, no sticker shock.
  • The plastic takes a beating. Say what you will, but I've already seen plenty of evidence that the D50 can shrug off bumps, drops, and scrapes. Everything except that unprotected color LCD.



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