A DSLR For Everyone
The Nikon D50 arrived on the increasingly crowded 'budget' DSLR scene at a price point undercutting all the competition from Canon and Olympus, with Nikon pitching the camera as a DSLR for the family. It did provoke some controversy and confusion with Nikon users, as its features were so close to the D70, yet was priced lower, with some attributing the price difference to less sturdy construction and lack of features. Nonetheless, amateurs who had a taste of advanced digital cameras were hooked, myself included.
Six months and nearly 15,000 shutter clicks later, I am still perfectly happy with my D50 as a quality photographic tool, and I am sure many others are as well.
I will not attempt here to compare the D50 with other DSLRs except the Nikon D70 and the Canon 350D, which I have handled only on occasion. Also, much has already been said in concise technical reviews of this camera and its excellent image quality, so I will concentrate on the user experience.
The D50 is made of high strength plastic so it is light for a DSLR but feels solidly built. It is heavier than most non-SLR digital cameras, but not by much. What lens you use on it of course adds to the weight of the entire camera and it becomes easily twice as heavy in the hand as your average prosumer camera (like the Sony V3).
After months of regular shooting, a couple of weaknesses in the build on the D50 have appeared. For one, the SD card door becomes easier to accidentally open as it becomes looser after many card changes. It helps little that it rubs directly under your palm as you grip the camera and has no lock like on the D70. For another, the rubber material at the back of the D50 (that provides grip for the palm and thumb in resting position) starts to 'creep' over the plastic as you will tend to put pressure and push it outwards. Given a year or two it may eventually peel off and need repair.
However these two issues are easily minor ones, and I have had far worse problems with other cameras. The D50 has survived a few careless bumps and the casing has been resistant to scratches thus far.
In the hand the grip feels just right, not as big as the D70 grip which feels even more stable but chunkier, and a lot more comfortable than the 350D grip, which is tiny and cramped for my hands, especially when working with heavier lenses.
All the important buttons fall into place around the grip. The shutter button is positioned perfectly. You can wrap your trigger finger around it to squeeze the button rather than press it, helping to keep the camera steady and minimize camera shake when shooting in this style. The exposure compensation button is easily reached on the right and behind the shutter button. The 4-way pad and command wheel falls right into place, easily reached with your thumb, and likewise the very useful AE-L/AF-L lock button.
On the left side, other functions like ISO Speed, White Balance, Image Review and Quality are given nice, large buttons that are recessed so they are not easily pressed accidentally. The mode dial has all the important advanced modes: Aperture priority, Shutter priority and Manual. Honestly I pay little attention to the other auto modes (Program, Scene modes) but they are there if you are not yet confident of your own skills.
Now, for the gripes.
The dial is a little too close to the left edge and easy to spin, and when I am not careful I sometimes end up brushing it with my left hand and putting it in the wrong mode. A locking mechanism would have been nice to have, but the problem is not that serious.
I also wish that the the metering mode button on the D70 was not changed to a timer/remote release mode button on the D50. For my needs I would rather have had a more useful function, as I have not had a situation where I needed to make a timed or remote-triggered shot "on-the-fly". It would have been even better if the button were a programmable one that you could set for any function you needed from the menu (small hint to Nikon there for a firmware upgrade).
The lack of a sub-command dial discourages the use of Manual mode, because you need to press the exposure comp/aperture button while spinning the command dial. When shooting events, I often use Aperture priority anyway so it is not a big issue, and when I want to shoot manual for posed or set up shots I usually have all the time in the world to fiddle with the aperture setting.
Lastly, the D50 does not have a DOF preview button, but its usefulness is something that one might only miss if you had been fully dependent on it before on a film SLR. DOF preview is helpful prior to exposing film when you want a certain out of focus look in your photos through a large aperture or a long focal length. Slightly less conveniently, you could instead simply review the photo after shooting to check out the effect of your settings on the out of focus areas.
The 2.0" LCD is large enough even in these days when most pocket cameras have a big 2.5" screen, but unreliable at times for inspecting exposure and focus on photos. It does not allow you to zoom far enough to check critical focus, but this is no worse than what most cameras offer. As with most LCDs it is also not a good idea to rely solely on judging by eye if a photo was properly exposed. For example, I made the mistake early on of upping the brightness setting on the LCD to its maximum, and for a time thought that the D50 by default was always underexposing my shots because they appeared brighter on the LCD! Luckily the D50 gives you a Highlights mode that flashes the overexposed areas of a photo and a Histogram mode showing luminosity to give you an idea if you are even slightly underexposed or overexposed. Bottom line, check your photo in Histogram or Highlights mode rather than inspect it by eye only on the LCD.
The control panel LCD on top and behind the handgrip is identical to that which is on the D70 and has all the important information. Unfortunately it has no backlight, so you are really shooting in the dark when doing night photography. Most of the information can be seen displayed in the viewfinder, of course, except, crucially, the ISO setting. If you change this a lot as I do, you are forced to carry a flashlight or view the setting on the main LCD. This is a small disappointment, but nothing that you could not adjust to.
The D50 uses the same CAM900 five-area AF sensor system found in the Nikon D70 and some film bodies. What this means practically is you get one really good AF area in the center that you can use to focus reliably even in low light. There are four other sensors, on the top and bottom, and then left and right, of the center area which are not so reliable in low light or when shooting at smaller and smaller apertures.
When shooting in low light situations I try to use only the center AF area in AF-S and Single Area AF mode, otherwise it is easy to miss focus on a shot using the other focus areas. It becomes a challenge when shooting moving subjects off-center, but switching to AF-C and Dynamic Area mode helps (though you are basically at the mercy of the automatic focus tracking.
Unique to the D50 is the AF-A mode, which switches between AF-S and AF-C. For the most part it works well, though in some situations it switches to AF-C all too easily for my liking. For example, trying to hold focus on a static subject and then recomposing so that it is off center will sometimes cause AF-C to kick in when you recompose too quickly, and you end up with a photo focused on the wrong subject. This is when I start wishing that the D50 had a hard button to switch from AF-S to AF-C, but that so far is a feature you can only get with the higher end Nikons like the D100 or D200.
The D50 has Matrix, Center-weighted and Spot metering modes. Matrix metering is very good on this camera, and on average I get only occassionally underexposed or overexposed shots in difficult lighting situations. In such cases as shooting against a light source or shooting to expose the sky properly, Matrix metering cannot work miracles, so it is still best to use spot metering mode rather than let the camera guess what you want to be exposed correctly.
The spot metering circle is said to be bigger than on the D70, but is a true spot meter unlike on the 350D. So far I have had no big issues using the bigger spot metering circle in real shooting situations.
The D50 metering modes are said to be on the 'hot' side compared to the D70, and comparing them side by side I have found this to be true. It does tend to blow highlights (overexpose bright areas so the detail is lost), but this is to me an acceptable compromise for most shooting situations that gets you a photo closer to what you would want as a final image.
Some people, of course, would rather deliberately underexpose and then correct underexposure carefully in postprocessing. Even for these people, if the D50 is too 'hot' for a shooting situation, they can always use exposure compensation to deliberately underexpose.
White balance in Auto mode is generally good and tending to yield warm tones, except when shooting in fluorescent lighting which in most cases will get you a greenish or bluish color cast. Unfortunately even the WB preset gets it wrong, and worse, there is no way to fine tune white balance as on the Nikon D70, or to freely choose the color temperature from a Kelvin scale like on the Olympus E-500 or Konica Minolta Dynax 5D. This is the one situation where there is no choice but to correct color cast in postprocessing.
To me this is the one big 'miss' that Nikon made on the D50, which could easily be fixed if they would add White Balance fine tuning (another hint for a firmware update).
The pop-up Speedlight flash on top of the camera is occasionally useful for fill-in flash. As with any built-in flash, the light is direct and can be harsh, so if you plan to shoot with flash a lot, an external flash is the way to go. In a pinch, the Speedlight provides reasonable coverage for nearby subjects.
It is another small disappointment that, unlike on the D70, the flash cannot go to Wireless Commander mode to control dedicated Speedlight flashes remotely. This is probably the single most convincing reason to choose the D70 or D70s over the D50. However, should you need to trigger an external flash off camera, you have options. The most cost effective option would be to get a remote flash cable (Nikon SC-28). The more expensive and truly wireless option is to get the SU-800 Wireless Speedlight Commander, or an SB-800 Speedlight which also has Commander mode built in, though in both cases one needs another external flash to trigger.
I have confirmed in regular use the things that have already been said of the quality of output from the D50. Metered properly, photos out of the camera and in default settings are already close to one might desire as final output for printing: brightly exposed, contrasty, saturated, low-noise even at the higher ISOs, though just a little soft in detail. You could achieve the same results out of a D70 in default settings only through additional postprocessing and a deliberate +0.3EV bias in exposure. In some respects, the D50 is more tuned for a Point-Shoot-Print workflow, and the D70, more for the photographer who considers postprocesing a given.
This is the behavior of the D50 in the default settings, but it is easy to suit the camera to your own taste. Even the color curve can be altered and custom tone curves loaded, just as with the Nikon D70.
For anyone getting a serious case of the shutter bug, the barrier to entering the DSLR world has been lowered with the Nikon D50. The D50 may be an entry-level DSLR, but it is easily more than enough to get one started in serious photography. Compromises were made to get to the price point at which it needed to be, but for the most part the compromises were made in the right places. The D50 retains all the right DNA from its Nikon siblings to be more than worth its budget price and a perfectly reasonable choice in its bracket.
Check out other, more thorough technical reviews here:
DPReview rates the Nikon D50
Thom Hogan reviews the Nikon D50
[ Product photos were taken with a Sony V3. ]
A DSLR For Everyone