Canon 50D Review

 
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Canon EOS 50D Optics

Lens Compatibility

The Canon EOS 50D will work with pretty much any EF-mount lens ever made, as well as with the special EF-S lenses designed for cameras with APS-C size sensors. Designed with a smaller image circle (the area covered by the image on the film/sensor plane), EF-S lenses tend to be smaller and lighter than full-frame models with the same focal length and maximum aperture. EF-S lenses can't be used on full-frame Canon cameras, nor on their models with 1.3x crop factors, like the current EOS-1D Mark III, but small-sensor cameras like the 50D can use any full-frame lenses in Canon's arsenal.

The sub-frame sensor on the Canon 50D means that it has a smaller angle of view (by a factor of 1/1.6x) than a full-frame camera with any given lens. While most properly called a "crop factor", the 1.6x ratio is most commonly referred to as the "focal length multiplier" since that's how it works in practice: Any lens used on the Canon 50D will have the same field of view as one with a 1.6x greater focal length will when attached to a 35mm camera. For example, a 100mm lens on the Canon 50D will show the same field of view as a 160mm lens on a camera with a 35mm frame size.

The EF 28-135mm f/3.5-5.6 IS lens that ships as part of the Canon 50D kit in the US has better build quality than most kit lenses bundled with SLRs these days (such as the 18-55mm that shipped with the Canon Rebel XTi), and has a longer zoom range as well. It's not as wide as the 18-55, but it performed surprisingly well in our tests on SLRgear.com, and comes with image stabilization, a very worthwhile feature to have. It's priced at an average of $450 on its own, and reflects only about $200 difference between the kit and body-only suggested retail. To see more on this lens, visit our SLRgear.com review on the 28-135mm IS lens by clicking here. Be sure to click on the Blur Index chart for an interactive look at how the lens performs across its range of apertures and zoom settings, as well as our reports on its chromatic aberration, vignetting, and distortion characteristics.

All that said though, we found the performance of the EF 28-135mm f/3.5-5.6 IS on the Canon 50D a little disappointing, particularly when shooting wide open. Our take on this is that the very small pixels of the 50D are a challenge for this somewhat older lens design. We also question the utility of a lens/camera combo with an effective focal length of almost 45mm at its maximum wide angle setting. That really isn't very wide at all, being just shy of the traditional 50mm focal length that's traditionally been considered "normal" (meaning neither wide-angle nor telephoto.) Unless you already own a wider-angle lens (or never intend to shoot in cramped conditions), we strongly recommend buying the Canon 50D in a different kit configuration, or as body-only; adding a lens with a more suitable focal length. Possible alternative lenses for use with the Canon 50D include the Canon EF-S 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6 IS, (approximate street price $650), the Canon EF-S 17-55mm f/2.8 IS USM (approximate street price $950), or the Canon EF-S 17-85mm f/4-5.6 IS USM (approximate street price $530), or perhaps the updated 18-55mm kit lens with IS, the Canon EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS (approximate street price $175). If your budget will support it, the best package might be to get the 28-135mm kit lens and the EF-S 18-55mm IS model as well. That would give you good image quality in the 18-55mm range (the 18-55mm IS is a surprisingly good lens for the money), as well as the longer reach of the 28-135mm for more distant subjects, all with image stabilization.

Autofocus Improvements

Sensor arrangement. These diagrams shows the basic sensor layout, first in the viewfinder, then on the AF sensor itself. In the bottom diagram, each opposite pair makes one element of the cross-type AF point. The diagonal f/2.8 sensors are further apart than the f/5.6 sensors, which is essential to their greater overall focus-measuring accuracy. The two yellow sensors in the middle are special, as they're essentially reprogrammable on the fly, able to be considered as part of each of the three center AF points, or taken together as one large sensor for extremely out-of-focus subjects. As for their zig-zag arrangement, that just means that one sensor is slightly offset from the other, such that if you were to look at them magnified, one pixel would be slightly off from the other, zig-zagging back and forth like tires on an endurance course. Thus, horizontal lines that would have been missed by one sensor can be picked up by the other.

The 50D hasn't changed its autofocus sensor layout or design from the previous model, the 40D. These autofocus sensors are quite sophisticated, especially the central sensor: Not only is it cross-type for f/5.6 lenses, but it also has an f/2.8 sensor that's arrayed in a diagonal X-formation, to give it equal ability to discriminate both horizontal and vertical lines. By arranging the f/2.8 sensors in a diagonal orientation, the 50D benefits from better detection of horizontal and vertical lines and the sensors can fit on a smaller die size. Since an f/2.8 lens permits almost a 2x increase in baseline spacing, AF precision increases proportionately when using them. The f/5.6 sensor, though arrayed more traditionally, is also doubled and arranged in a zig-zag pattern for greater accuracy, according to Canon.

All other AF points are cross-type in the more traditional sense, more or less. The diagram top right shows some odd arrangements that don't seem to agree with the diagram below, which has neat little plus symbols over each point. If the diagram at right is correct, they're more like T shapes that interlock. That double zig-zag center sensor array, the one that runs from top to bottom down the center (marked in yellow at right), serves the top, center, and bottom AF points. It's an unusual-looking arrangement, but then most sensor layouts are odd, caused partly by the prism/lens system that splits up the image for them.

SLR autofocus accuracy is governed in part by how far apart you can space the sensor elements for a single AF point. The wider this "baseline," the more accurately the AF point can determine focus. What limits the AF baseline spacing in a camera system is the lens aperture. You can build sensors with wider baselines, but that also restricts the range of lenses they can be used with. Camera manufacturers generally have set f/5.6 as the minimum aperture their AF systems will work with, and most lenses comply by gathering at least that much light at telephoto (where relative apertures are smallest). Lenses with wide-open apertures smaller than f/5.6 will have much greater difficulty focusing, if at all.

 

The AF points on the Canon 50D cover about 60% of the frame width, and about 50% of the frame height. The illustration above shows the relative spacing between the various AF points, with the distances between them marked in millimeters, at the focal plane. (Illustrations courtesy Canon USA.)

 

AF-Assist Illuminator

The Canon 50D uses the built-in flash head as its AF-assist illuminator, rather than a bright light built into the camera's body. In practice, this works well: the flash is quite bright, and probably has a longer range than an on-body illuminator bulb. You can disable the 50D's internal flash (or external Speedlite) by going into the Flash Control menu, which still lets the AF-assist pulses to fire; but then you lose your flash capability until you turn it back on. If you attach a 550EX, 580EX or 580EX II external flash unit to the Canon 50D, its internal infrared AF-assist illuminator is used instead of the flash head itself, providing a useful working range of about 50 feet with a less obtrusive light source. For non-flash photography, Canon's ST-E2 wireless sync transmitter can apparently also be used for AF assist. The ST-E2's AF-assist light has a useful range of about 25 feet.

 

Dust Reduction Technology

First introduced on the Canon Rebel XTi, Canon's system-wide approach to reducing the impact of dust on the image sensor is also included on the Canon 50D. From the beginning, every DSLR has offered a sensor-cleaning mode, in which the mirror is locked up and the shutter opened to permit the sensor to be cleaned with compressed air, a solvent-carrying swab or other means. As the market has matured and more DSLRs have found their way into the hands of novice users, it has become clear that some automated way of dealing with sensor cleaning is needed.

A key feature of Digital SLRs is the ability for the user to easily swap lenses. This expands creative options enormously, but every time the lens is removed, dust from the environment is free to enter the camera body. From there, it's only a matter of time before some of it makes its way to the surface of the sensor where it casts shadows that appear as dark blobs in your images. In truth, it's the anti-aliasing filter that collects dust, rather than the sensor itself, but common parlance refers to "sensor cleaning." For the sake of familiarity, we'll generally refer to sensor cleaning here, but will make mention of the anti-alias or low-pass filter as seems appropriate.

The principal approach other manufacturers have used to deal with dust has been to make the system self-cleaning, by rapidly vibrating either the anti-aliasing filter itself or a protective cover glass lying above it, to shake loose adhering dust particles. Once dislodged, a strip of sticky material at the bottom of the sensor cavity or mirror box catches and holds them. This approach was pioneered by Olympus, but has since been adopted by Canon, Nikon, Pentax, and Sony.

In typical fashion, Canon's camera engineers took a comprehensive look at the issue of sensor contamination, and came up with a multifaceted, system-wide approach to reducing the impact of dust on users' photographs.

Canon's approach uses a vibratory cleaning method as a primary part of the overall strategy, but they've introduced several refinements as well. Here's what they've done:

Shooting Priority: Shutter Button Overrides Cleaning Cycle

It's critical for a digital camera to power up and be able to capture the first shot quickly, to avoid missing the action when first starting up. Some cameras with integrated cleaning systems can take a second or two for the cleaning cycle to complete before they're ready to capture an image. To avoid this problem, the Canon 50D aborts its normal power-on cleaning cycle as soon as the user touches the shutter button. This insures that you won't miss a critical shot.

Special Shutter Coating/Construction

It turns out that only some of the dust that appears in DSLR images comes from outside the camera: As they age, normal wear and tear can make shutter curtains shed microscopic particles that eventually end up on the sensor. In the Canon 50D, Canon has introduced a special shutter-curtain coating designed to greatly reduce the shedding of particles.

Along with the specially treated shutter, Canon has also begun using a different plastic in their DSLR body caps, one less prone to creating shavings that can drop into the mirror box.

Split Anti-Aliasing Filter

Rather than introducing a separate cover glass into the optical chain, Canon has split the Canon 50D'S anti-aliasing filter into two parts. One element sits right above the sensor, while the other is positioned further away. It's this outer element that's vibrated during the cleaning cycle.

In describing the technology, Canon notes that the outer anti-aliasing element is positioned further from the sensor surface (a millimeter or so) than is normally the case. This greater distance reduces the effect of any dust that does adhere, by making the shadow cast by each dust particle larger and softer-edged.

Anti-Static Coating

Previous models in this line of Canon cameras used an anti-static coating on the anti-alias filter to make it harder for dust to gain a foothold in the first place. Canon has developed a new fluorine-based coating for the 50D, which purportedly improves this dust resistance property. Dust particles frequently carry static charges, so the anti-static coating avoids one of the key mechanisms by which dust particles adhere.

Dust Delete Image Processing

No matter how good an automatic cleaning system, there are going to be some stubborn dust particles that it can't dislodge. To deal with these, the Canon 50D has the ability to shoot a dust reference photo, and then transfer that information to Canon's Digital Photo Professional software, which can use it to eliminate the shadows cast by dust particles on the images.

This sort of image processing to eliminate dust isn't an entirely new development, it's been a feature of Nikon's Capture software for some time. Canon's implementation has some additional wrinkles that make it somewhat more useful, though. Primary among these is that Canon's "Dust Delete" processing works for both JPEG and RAW format files. (Nikon's works only with RAW images.) This really expands the utility of the anti-dust processing, and makes it more accessible to amateur users who shoot exclusively or primarily in JPEG format.

Canon's anti-dust approach is also different in that the dust map ("Dust Delete data") that the software uses to perform its magic is stored in the headers of the JPEG or RAW files created by the camera. There's thus no need to keep track of a separate dust image file, the information is always available in the file headers, assuming you've actually performed the dust-mapping process. You can update the Dust Delete data any time you think the camera might have been exposed to dust, or after you've manually cleaned the sensor. The latest dust map is automatically incorporated into the EXIF headers of all JPEG images, or the headers of any RAW files. While we don't have any technical details on how the dust map is stored, Canon claims that the encoding scheme used for it is very efficient, so the dust map information adds very little to the file size.

The screenshots above show the steps in capturing a Dust Delete reference image. Starting in the upper left from Shooting Menu Screen 2, selecting Dust Delete Data produces a screen that shows when the last Dust Delete reference image was captured. Selecting OK on this screen initiates a cleaning cycle, after which the camera prompts you to take a picture of a blank white surface. (The camera automatically defocuses the lens and sets the aperture appropriately, to produce the best possible dust image.) The camera then processes this data, and reports whether it was successful or not. If the surface you used to capture the image wasn't sufficiently uniform, you'll get an error message, but if the image was good, you'll see the confirmation screen as shown above in step 6. The Dust Delete Data just generated will now be included in the headers of any JPEG or RAW images captured, until you decided to capture a new dust reference image.

We don't have any quantitative way of evaluating dust-removal systems, but based on Canon's description of it, their anti-dust technology does appear to go a step or two beyond anything else currently on the market, providing a more comprehensive solution to the problem of dust in DSLR images than we've seen to date.

Don't count on the anti-dust system to do everything, though.

Despite the many advances in Canon's anti-dust technology, though, we feel compelled to point out that we've thus far seen no anti-dust system that completely eliminates the need for sensor cleaning. Sooner or later, you're going to need to clean your sensor, so we strongly recommend purchasing a good-quality sensor cleaning kit right along with your DSLR. Automated anti-dust systems like Canon's will certainly help with some of the dust, typically the dust that the nylon brush-based cleaning systems can also handle. Inevitably, though, you'll encounter dust that sticks to the sensor's cover glass tenaciously; dust that only a wet/dry cleaning approach can remove. We ourselves use and recommend products from Copper Hill, which we've found to be both highly effective and among the most reasonably priced on the market. Check out their Basic Kit or Basic Kit w/SensorKlear for complete, cost-effective solutions.

 

The Canon EOS 50D is sold in the US as body only, or in a kit bundled with the Canon EF 28-135mm f/3.5-5.6 IS USM lens. The images below were shot with the 28-135mm lens.

 

Kit Lens Test Results

Zoom
Fair performance with the 28-135mm IS (Image Stabilized) kit lens.

28mm @ f/3.5 135mm @ f/5.6
28mm @ f/8.0 135mm @ f/8.0

The Canon 50D is offered with an 28-135mm IS kit lens, with a fairly generous optical zoom range of ~4.8x, but an odd focal range for a sub-frame camera. The 35mm equivalent range is about 45-216mm, which isn't wide at all at the wide-angle end. Details are fairly soft across the frame at 28mm, especially wide open at f/3.5. Sharpness improves when stopping down to f/8.0, but detail is still somewhat soft. Corners are slightly softer, and some chromatic aberration is noticeable. Results at full telephoto are similar with softness across the frame and again, moderate levels of chromatic aberration. We liked this lens when we tested it for SLRgear a while back (see our Canon 28-135mm IS review for those details), but it may be that it's just not up to the challenge of a 15MP sensor. All in all, the EF 28-135mm IS has about average performance for a kit lens, but we really think the average user will want something that starts a little wider. (Some resellers are offering a 50D kit that includes the new Canon 18-200mm IS lens, a surprisingly good optic for such a long zoom ratio. If your budget can handle the difference, we think this lens is much better suited to a sub-frame camera like the Canon 50D.)

Macro
An average area (for an SLR kit lens), with very good detail. Flash throttles down well.

Standard Macro with
28-135mm IS Kit Lens
Macro with Flash

As with zoom performance, the Canon 50D's macro performance will depend entirely on the lens in use. However, with the 28-135mm IS kit lens set to 135mm, the 50D captured an average size minimum area measuring 3.78 x 2.52 inches (96 x 64 millimeters). Resolution and detail were high, though with moderate softening in the corners from the lens. (Most lenses have some softening in the corners at macro distances.) The Canon 50D's flash throttled down for the macro area pretty well, and there was no detectable shadow from the lens barrel, resulting in a good exposure with the flash.

Distortion
Moderately low geometric distortion with the 28-135mm IS kit lens.

Barrel distortion at 28mm is 0.6 percent
Pincushion at 135mm is 0.2 percent

The Canon 50D's 28-135mm IS kit lens produced about 0.6 percent barrel distortion at wide-angle, which is slightly below average among the cameras we've tested, but still noticeable in some of its images. At the telephoto end, the 0.2 percent pincushion distortion is quite low and not as noticeable. This is the tendency for the lens to bend straight lines outward (like a barrel -- usually at wide-angle) or inward (like a pincushion -- usually at telephoto).

Chromatic aberration
Moderate and bright at both wide-angle and telephoto with the 28-135mm IS kit lens.

Wide: Moderate but bright,
top left @ 200 percent
Wide: Moderate but bright,
top right @ 200 percent
Tele: Moderate but bright,
top left @200 percent
Tele: Moderate but bright,
top right @200 percent

Chromatic aberration in the corners with the Canon 50D's 28-135mm kit lens is pretty evident (we'd call it on the high side of "moderate," or "noticeable") at the 28mm setting. It's less distinguished by its width (6-9 pixels) and more by its brightness. At 135mm telephoto, this distortion is just as noticeable. (This distortion is visible as a slight colored fringe around the objects at the edges of the field of view on the resolution target.)

Corner Sharpness
Moderate blurring in the corners of the frame at both zoom settings with the kit lens.

Wide: Soft in the
corners (lower left).
Wide: Sharper at center.
Tele: Soft in the
corners (lower right).
Tele: Sharper at center.

The Canon 50D's 28-135mm IS kit lens produced soft corners in a few shots. At wide angle, corners on our test targets were moderately soft compared to the center. At telephoto, corners showed about the same amount of softness. An average performance here, especially considering this is a full-frame lens where much of the captured image should be in the sweet-spot of the image circle.

 

The images above were taken from our standardized test shots. For a collection of more pictorial photos, see our Canon EOS 50D Photo Gallery.

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Note: For details, test results, and analysis of the many tests done with this camera, please click on the tabs at the beginning of the review or below.

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