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Nikon D50

By: Dave Etchells and Shawn Barnett

Nikon develops an "entry-level" SLR loaded with features for less than $750. (Body only)

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Page 17:Test Results & Conclusion

Review First Posted: 05/20/2005, Updated: 08/10/2005

Test Results

In keeping with my standard test policy, the comments given here summarize only my key findings. For full details on each of the test images, see the D50's "pictures" page.

For a look at some more pictorial photos from this camera, check out our Nikon D50 Photo Gallery.

For the real nitty-gritty image-analysis details, read my D50 Imatest Results page.

Not sure which camera to buy? Let your eyes be the ultimate judge! Visit our Comparometer(tm) to compare images from the Nikon D50 with those from other cameras you may be considering. The proof is in the pictures, so let your own eyes decide which you like best!

  • Color: Good color, very bright, to suit consumer tastes. Mode I sRGB and Adobe RGB more restrained though. Slight color casts, but within the range of what's acceptable. Auto white balance has a hard time with household incandescent, but manual white balance handles a very wide range of lighting. Aimed as it is at consumers looking for their first d-SLR, the Nikon D50's default color rendition is very bright and saturated looking. (The chart at right shows the color error map from Imatest for the D50's default Mode III color space. See the Imatest Results Page for further details.) Some purists may find the resulting images a little overdone, but the lower-saturation "Mode I" sRGB color space is much more subdued. The Mode II Adobe RGB color handling strikes a good balance between saturation and technical accuracy. The D50's white balance system produced slight color casts in many of my test shots, but the casts were indeed slight, to the extent that most users probably won't notice them. Like a great many digital cameras, the D50's automatic white balance system had a hard time handling household incandescent lighting, producing a strong yellow cast. Its Incandescent white balance option appears to be balanced to professional tungsten studio lighting, and so also produced warm casts with household incandescents. The good news though, is that the D50's Manual white balance option handled a very broad range of lighting with ease. Overall, the Nikon D50's color should prove pleasing to most consumers, and its alternate color space settings should please advanced users as well.

  • Exposure: Generally accurate exposure, with pretty good contrast. The Nikon D50 handled my test lighting quite well, and managed to produced bright midtones without blowing the highlights under the deliberately harsh lighting of the "Sunlit" Portrait. Dynamic range was generally quite good, particularly when using its low contrast setting, with good preservation of highlight detail, and low noise in the shadows preserving detail very well there also. Indoors, the camera required less than average positive exposure compensation, and the flash did a better than average job at exposing our test subjects as well. The D50 had no trouble distinguishing the subtle pastel tones on the Q60 target of the Davebox. Overall, very good results.

  • Dynamic Range: Excellent dynamic range at "high" image quality level (0.1 f-stop noise level). I've begun using Imatest to look at dynamic range of d-SLRs. While the results are a little equivocal, the bottom line is that the Nikon D50 does very well in this area. Using a cutoff for shadow detail as the point at which image noise rises to 0.1 f-stop of the luminance value, the D50 places second only to the FujiFilm S3 Pro in total dynamic range. As noted on the Imatest page, these numbers need to be taken with a large grain of salt, but the bottom line is that the D50 has much better than average dynamic range, thanks in large part to its low noise levels in the shadow regions. Also, while the results in the table below don't show it, the D50's contrast adjustment control really helps with highlight detail as well. Very impressive.

    Dynamic Range (in f-stops) vs Image Quality
    (At camera's minimum ISO)
    Model 1.0
    (Low)
    0.5
    (Medium)
    0.25
    (Med-High)
    0.1
    (High)
    Fujifilm S3 Pro -- 10.3 9.02 7.9
    Nikon D50 10.7 9.93 8.70 7.36
    Canon EOS 20D 10.3 9.66 8.85 7.29
    Canon Digital Rebel XT 10.3 9.51 8.61 7.11
    Olympus EVOLT 10.8 9.26 8.48 7.07
    Canon Digital Rebel 10.1 9.11 8.47 6.97
    Pentax *istDs 10.2 10 8.87 6.9
    Nikon D2x -- 8.93 7.75 6.43
    Nikon D70S 9.84 8.69 7.46 5.85
    Nikon D70 9.81 8.76 7.58 5.84


  • Resolution/Sharpness: High resolution, 1,200-1,400 lines of "strong detail." The D50's resolution was a little hard to call on the ISO-12233 resolution test target in our studio. "Strong detail" was visible to about 1,400 lines/picture height in both horizontal and vertical directions, but there were quite a few artifacts in the range of 1,200 - 1,300 lines. (For whatever reason, the D70S doesn't show nearly the level of artifacts that the D50 does.) A resolution of 1,300 - 1,400 lines is about typical for a 6-megapixel d-SLR, but I'd have preferred not to see the level of artifacts at lower resolution levels. "Extinction" of the target patterns didn't occur until about 1,800 lines.

    With "natural" subjects, the D50's images have a slightly soft look right out of the camera, but it appears that this is more the effect of a cautious application of in-camera sharpening than any fundamental limitation of the camera. When subjected to strong/tight unsharp masking in Photoshop(tm), excellent fine detail pops out. The D50 does provide an adjustment to control the amount of in-camera sharpening applied, but in my experience, it tended to coarsen fine details in the subject somewhat. - For the best results on your most critical work, sharpen in Photoshop or other imaging application. There's plenty of detail there that just a little image processing will bring out.


  • Image Noise: Very low image noise, even at the higher ISO settings. This was perhaps the biggest surprise for me with the Nikon D50. Being a "value priced" d-SLR, I was expecting to find compromises having been made in the imager. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that it actually had noticeably less image noise than its big brother the D70S. Images shot at ISO 1600 make perfectly acceptable-looking 8x10 prints, and lower ISOs only get better. (I even made a 13x19 inch print from one of the D50's ISO 1600 shots, and while the noise was definitely visible at that size, the resulting print would have been very acceptable for wall display.) For all but the most exacting work, the Nikon D50 can be used with impunity at its maximum 1600 ISO. A very nice performance, even when compared to other d-SLRs. (An important note about the graph above: The Konica Minolta Maxxum 7D posts very low noise numbers, but its high-ISO images are very soft as a result. By contrast, the D50's images maintain very low noise levels up to ISO 800, yet with much less loss of fine detail in regions of subtle contrast.)

  • Closeups: A small macro area with the kit lens with pretty good detail, and good flash performance. Since it's a digital SLR, the Nikon D50's macro performance will obviously be entirely a function of the lens that's attached to it. That said, many users will start out with the 18-55mm "kit" lens, so we tested the macro performance of that lens. With the kit lens attached, the D50 captured an average-sized macro area, measuring 2.59 x 1.72 inches (66 x 44 millimeters). Resolution is high, though corner softness is high. The D50's flash did a surprisingly good job of throttling down for the macro area, as well, making it a good choice for close-in macro work, even with out supplemental lighting.

  • Night Shots: Very good low-light performance, with very low image noise. Autofocus system works to a bit darker than 1/16 foot-candle, even with the AF-assist light disabled, an excellent performance. The Nikon D50 is a really excellent low-light performer, with very low image noise levels, and an AF system that worked in our studio down to brightness levels of 1/16 foot-candle and darker. (1/16 foot-candle is the darkest we can measure with our Sekonic light meter, corresponding to a light level about four stops below that of typical city street lighting at night.) A very impressive performance for a value-priced d-SLR.

  • Viewfinder Accuracy: An accurate digital SLR viewfinder. The D50's digital SLR viewfinder was about 97 percent accurate at both wide angle and telephoto lens settings. (The LCD monitor in this case is reserved for image playback and menu viewing.) This is better than average accuracy for its class, with most "prosumer" d-SLRs offering only 95% viewfinder coverage.

  • Optical Distortion: High barrel distortion, moderate chromatic aberration at wide angle with the kit lens. Good corner sharpness at wide angle, moderate softening at medium to telephoto focal lengths. Geometric distortion on the D50 will obviously depend on the lens in use. Shooting with the 18-55mm kit lens though, I measured approximately 0.9% barrel distortion at the wide angle end. The telephoto end fared quite a bit better, as I measured approximately 0.04% pincushion distortion. Chromatic aberration was moderate at wide angle, showing about 4-5 pixels of noticeable coloration, but low at telephoto. (This distortion is visible as a slight colored fringe around the objects at the edges of the field of view on the resolution target.) While the kit lens images were sharp in the corners at wide angle focal lengths, they softened noticeably at medium to telephoto focal lengths. (The lower performance of the D50's "kit" lens is one of its most noticeable shortcomings relative to the D70S. The 18-70mm lens shipped in D70S bundles is a very nice optic, and clearly a significant improvement over the 18-55mm model that's included with the D50.)

  • Shutter Lag and Cycle Times: Very good performance, particularly for an "entry level" digital camera. Even though the Nikon D50 is intended to be an "entry level" SLR, it's no slouch in the performance department. It's slightly slower in continuous mode than the D70 or D70S (2.5 frames/second, vs 3.0), but its buffer depth is very good, and its autofocus speed is excellent. - Shutter lag in full-autofocus mode with the 18-55mm "Kit" lens is a very good 0.265 second, noticeably faster than the 0.342-0.486 second we measured for the original D70 and its 18-70mm kit lens. Shutter lag is perhaps one of the biggest issues that will lead amateur photographers to step up from all-in-one "prosumer" digital cameras to SLR models, and the Nikon D50 does very well in this respect. - This should be an extremely enticing camera for people with young families and lots of fast-paced action to capture. (Or for amateurs looking for a camera to shoot sports photos with, etc, etc.)

  • Battery Life: No way for us to test power consumption directly, but excellent battery life by any measure. Because I didn't have access to an AC adapter when testing the Nikon D50, I couldn't make the direct measurements of power consumption that I normally base my battery life projections on, but it's clear that the D50 can run a long time on a single charge. We routinely shot hundreds of test images, only to find that the battery gauge had barely budged from its "full" reading. Battery life will be highly variable depending on the lens you're using (and therefore the type of focus motor employed) and on how much you use the flash and/or LCD screen. Depending on such factors, Nikon rates the D50's battery at up to 2000 shots with the kit lens and no flash usage, or at 400 shots with the kit lens and the onboard flash fired at full power (and AF-assist light used) on every other shot.

  • Print Quality: Excellent prints to 11x14 inches, quite usable at 13x19. Exceptionally good high ISO performance, excellent-looking 8x10 inch prints at ISO 1600, even 13x19 inches is feasible at that ISO. Testing hundreds of digital cameras, we've found that you can only tell just so much about a camera's image quality by viewing its images on-screen. Ultimately, there's no substitute for printing a lot of images and examining them closely. For this reason, we now routinely print sample images from the cameras we test on our Canon i9900 studio printer, and on the Canon iP5000 here in the office. (See our Canon i9900 review for details on that model.) Prints from the Nikon D50 looked really great at 11x14 inches. They began to be a little soft-looking at 13x19 inches, but would be entirely usable for wall display at that size. Shooting with the in-camera sharpening turned off or set to a very low level and applying strong/tight unsharp masking in Photoshop(tm) makes for much crisper-looking results, with excellent fine detail. The Nikon D50 really shines at high ISOs though: I was very surprised by how good its ISO 1600 images looked when printed at 8x10 inches, and even 13x19 prints from ISO 1600 shots would be quite acceptable for display on a wall. (That is, at 13x19, noise is clearly visible when you examine the prints from a close distance, but if you're looking at them at arm's length (as is commonly the case with prints that size), the noise is slight or even invisible, depending on how sharp your eyes are.) Very impressive, particularly for a "value priced" d-SLR.

Conclusion

Pro: Con:
  • Good resolution, plenty of detail captured
  • Very bright, saturated color should appeal to many consumers
  • Three color spaces provide good options for consumers, advanced amateurs and professionals
  • Good color balance
  • Nikon matrix metering delivers very consistent exposure behavior, metering seems more accurate than D70S (doesn't tend to underexpose as much)
  • Very low image noise levels, while still preserving subtle subject detail
  • Good color balance
  • High ISO performance is excellent, ISO 1600 shots are usable at surprisingly large print sizes
  • Virtually no artifacts with the in-camera sharpening set at its default level
  • Improved AF algorithms over those of the D70
  • Very fast startup time
  • Good shutter response, cycle times
  • A true "shooting priority" camera, pressing the shutter button while in any mode snaps a picture within a fraction of a second
  • Very fast memory writing speed, make sure you get a fast card to take advantage of it
  • Nikon 3D matrix metered fill flash makes it trivial to use fill-flash in situations that would be impossible with other cameras
  • Supports Nikon wireless TTL flash control via external hot shoe
  • Orientation sensor auto-rotates vertical format images on camera's LCD screen
  • Big, bright LCD
  • Good range on viewfinder diopter adjustment, high eyepoint helps eyeglass wearers
  • Lots of control and customization options available via the Custom Settings Menu, unusual for an entry-level d-SLR
  • Custom curves capability (via host software) lets advanced users customize tonal response
  • Extensive help system for custom settings menus helps avoid constant reference to the manual
  • Very logical control layout, very clear menu system
  • Great balance and grip design, very comfortable in the hand (strikes a better than average compromise between small size and comfortable grip)
  • Large viewfinder eyecup blocks more ambient light
  • Excellent battery life
  • Bottom line: Excellent value!
  • Images are a bit soft right out of the camera, less crisp than those of the D70S. (But they take unsharp masking in Photoshop(tm) very well.)
  • Default color may be oversaturated for advanced users and purists. (Mode I color is considerably toned down though.)
  • "Kit" lens shows more chromatic aberration and corner softness than does the 18-70mm that ships with the D70S.
  • Boosting in-camera sharpening above the default setting leads to coarsening of fine detail
  • More tendency to produce artifacts with closely-spaced parallel lens than on the D70S
  • Contrast adjustment has limited range in low-contrast direction
  • Auto and incandescent white balance settings still have trouble with household incandescent lighting
  • No Kelvin white balance option
  • Onboard flash can't control remote flash units wirelessly (See the Nikon D70S for that feature)
  • No optional grid lines in the viewfinder for subject alignment
  • Zoomed playback doesn't use full LCD screen area (particularly a problem for vertical-format images)
  • Proprietary/encrypted RAW file format hides as-shot white balance information from third-party software. (Bibble can decipher it though.)
  • RAW+JPEG mode is still limited to "basic" JPEG quality only. (Why?)
  • Slight vignetting with the "kit" lens at 18mm
  • No option for mirror lockup to reduce vibration on long exposures
  • No ISO display in viewfinder when changing the setting, you have to look at top-panel readout to set it
  • No backlight on the top-panel status LCD display
  • File downloading is fast, but not quite up to full USB v2.0 speeds
  • Single command dial makes user interface slightly less convenient, particularly in Manual exposure mode
  • No Nikon-branded vertical grip option available

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Nikon and Canon have been fierce rivals in the photo business for decades now, and the advent of the digital era has only intensified the competition. Of course, this is nothing but good news for the consumer, as the battle between these two rivals (not to mention the rest of the growing pack of manufacturers), has resulted in a continuing stream of innovation and cost-cutting. The latest result of this process is the new Nikon D50 digital SLR, delivering most of the features that made the D70 such an exceptional product, but at a lower price point and with the camera's size and user interface retooled somewhat to better match the needs of the "family photographer." - Or anyone else who wants a feature-rich, easy-to-use, compact (but not too much so) digital SLR for a bargain price. What was most surprising to me about the D50 though, was that its image sensor and some aspects of its image quality (notably noise levels) are actually superior to those of the higher-priced D70S. (Although it must be said that the D70S is no slouch at all in the noise department.) You do definitely give up some features relative to the D70S (see the list in the pro/con box above, and the comparison matrix at the top of the review), and the D50's 18-55 mm "kit" lens clearly isn't the equal of the very nice 18-70mm unit that ships with the D70. As I said back when I first laid eyes on the prototype sample of the D50, there's just an awful lot to like here, from the just-right grip size that will feel comfortable across a wide range of hand sizes, to its excellent ease of use in "green zone," to its a complete feature bound to appeal to more advanced users. Bottom line, the Nikon D50 is just an excellent match for the aforementioned "family photographer," or for anyone wanting exceptional value in an entry-level digital SLR. This is a camera that will get you started in the world of d-SLRs at an affordable price, but one that will also give you plenty of room to grow over the years, as your skills mature. Very highly recommended, a dead shoe-in as a Dave's Pick.

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