Bargain-hunting digital-SLR consumers will find a few features missing from the D70s's array, including a 1/8,000-second top shutter speed, a depth-of-field preview, and a second command dial; also, the kit lens has about 25 percent less telephoto reach: 27mm to 82.5mm vs. 27mm to 105mm (35mm-camera equivalent). But improved image-processing algorithms give the junior Nikon SLR better noise characteristics at ISO settings up to 1600 and offer gentler treatment of highlights. Budding shutterbugs looking for fast operation coupled with useful features such as a robust burst mode, accurate exposure metering, and iTTL electronic flash control (both internal and external) will find a lot to like about this budget digital SLR contender.
Experienced photographers seeking a backup Nikon camera body might be better off spending a few hundred dollars more for the Nikon D70s. The D50's reliance on SD/MMC media instead of CompactFlash requires an investment in two memory card formats, and multiple differences in the control layout, including the absent subcommand dial, a cursor-pad function swap during playback, and a lack of backlighting for the control panel, complicate switching back and forth. Although the bodies of the Nikon D70s and D50 tip the scales within a few ounces of each other, the D50's AF-S DX Zoom-Nikkor 18mm-to-55mm f/3.5-to-f/5.6G ED kit lens, furnished without a lens hood, is a featherweight compared with the kit optics of the 18mm-to-70mm D70. It accounts for most of the roughly 10-ounce difference (30 ounces vs. 40 ounces) when the duo are each fully loaded with lens, battery, and memory card. At 5.2 by 4 by 3 inches, the Nikon D50 is about 0.33-inch narrower and shorter than its pricier stablemate but roughly the same thickness.
The feel of the D50's molded plastic body in your hands belies its bargain price. Although it's solid and balanced enough for one-handed shooting, you'll probably hold it like a traditional SLR, supporting the left side of the camera with two fingers curled around the zoom ring while your right hand clasps the grip. With your right index finger poised over the shutter-release button, it's easy to spin the command dial with your thumb.
The control layout can be initially vexing to those who have used other Nikon SLRs. The single command dial's exposure functions change depending on the mode in use, so you'll need to practice switching gears if you're set on shooting with your eye glued to the viewfinder.
In shutter-priority and manual mode, the dial adjusts shutter speed. To set the aperture in manual mode, you must hold down an EV/aperture button next to the shutter release while spinning the dial. When you're using aperture-priority, the same dial adjusts the f-stop; in the programmed automatic exposure mode, it selects alternate shutter speed and aperture combinations that produce the same exposure. In the programmed, aperture-priority, and shutter-priority modes, the EV button transforms the dial into an exposure-compensation control (plus or minus 5EV in 1/2EV or 1/3EV steps).
Changes for the better include assigning the controls for switching between single shot, burst mode, self-timer, and infrared remote to two different buttons. Single shot and burst options can be command-dialed in by pressing a button just left of the viewfinder window (the same location as on the D70s), while self-timer and remote functions are adjusted with a button on the handgrip that replaces the matrix/center-weighted/spot-metering control found on this camera's higher-end sibling. It's no pain to use the menu system to set metering mode or bracketing options (which also get a dedicated key on the D70s), but we really missed the depth-of-field button and top-panel LCD backlight. We took to carrying a penlight along on nighttime shoots while testing the D50.
Most of the other controls have the same convenient layout as on the D70s. The top panel houses a flip-up flash unit topped with an external flash hot shoe protected by a slide-off cover; there's also a mode dial with the traditional M/A/S/P choices and seven scene modes. These include the no-brainer Auto setting plus Landscape, Sports, Night Portrait, Portrait, Close-Up, and Child, which replaces the Night Landscape mode found on the D70s.
Arrayed around the back panel's 130,000-pixel, 2.0-inch color LCD (which lacks the removable protective plastic cover found on other Nikon dSLRs) are additional dedicated buttons for common functions such as playback, menu access, ISO, white balance, and quality (resolution) settings. Most of these buttons have alternate functions in playback mode, letting you cycle through full-screen and four- or nine-thumbnail views, zoom in on a user-selectable portion of a reviewed image, or protect a shot from accidental erasure. The left and right keys on the cursor pad let you scroll through individual images; the up and down keys change the type of shooting information displayed (including a useful histogram). These functions are reversed from the D70s, which can be disconcerting if you use both cameras.
The back panel also includes a delete key and an exposure/focus-lock button to the right of a diopter-correction slider that's effectively blocked from accidental adjustment by the new, larger, and more securely attached DK-20 eyecup. Those migrating from point-and-shoot cameras will appreciate the Nikon D50's ability to make the most difficult decisions for you. In Auto or one of the Digital Vari-Program (scene) modes, the camera locks out most options and selects the most appropriate exposure, sharpness, color adjustments, and focus for the kind of picture you're taking. The path to more advanced modes is smoothed, too. For example, if you're not sure whether to use AF-S (single autofocus) for stationary subjects or AF-C (continuous autofocus) for moving subjects, the D50 is ready with the new AF-A mode, which switches between them as required. The camera defaults to choosing one of five focus zones highlighted in the viewfinder, zeroing in on the closest subject; you can also set it for manual zone selection.
Although the D50's 420-segment 3D Color Matrix Metering II system is coarser than the 1,005-point exposure system in the D70s, it provides accurate exposure with shutter speeds from 1/4,000 second to 30 seconds. There's also a Bulb setting for manually timed longer exposures. The 20 user-selectable custom functions include center-weighted and spot-metering options. You can't change the 8mm-diameter center-weighted area, as you can on other Nikon digital SLRs. At 3.5mm, the center-spot-meter area is a little larger (about 2.5 percent of the sensor area) than the 2.3mm (1 percent of the sensor) in the D70s.
This simplification extends to other settings. ISO, for example, can be set only in whole increments (ISO 200, 400, 800, or 1600) rather than 1/3-step increments. Similarly, white balance lacks fine-tuning capabilities and must be set to one of six standard illumination types or preset from a user measurement or an existing photo on the memory card.
The D50 shares the electronic-flash strengths of its upscale sibling, including an ambient-light-taming 1/500-second sync speed provided by a combined mechanical and CCD shutter; an ISO 200 guide number of 15 (manually adjustable down to 1/16 power); full iTTL flash exposure that works with external flash units such as the Nikon SB-600 and SB-800; and flash-exposure compensation of -3EV to +1EV in 1/3EV or 1/2EV steps. Sadly, the camera lacks a Commander mode for wirelessly triggering external flash, but its synchronization modes include slow sync, both with and without red-eye control; front- and rear-curtain sync; and conventional red-eye reduction.
The D50 lacks the wired-remote option of the D70s; it uses the same ML-L3 infrared trigger, but the sensor resides on the opposite side, on the front of the handgrip. Nikon's Capture software, which includes useful features such as tethered time-lapse photography, "de-fishing" of fish-eye photos, and advanced raw-file manipulations with batch capabilities, costs an extra $99. Advanced photographers should put it on their shopping list, since it's far superior to the supplied Picture Project tool. The Nikon D50 delivers all the digital-SLR performance you'd expect, from its 0.6-second wake-up time to first shot to its picture-a-second single-shot mode, which snaps off images as fast as you can press the shutter release, slowing to just 1.2 seconds between shots with flash. In burst mode, the camera snapped off four full-resolution JPEG Fine shots in 1.4 seconds--a hair better than its rated 2.5fps speed--and when ratcheted down to the lowest 1,504x1,000-pixel resolution and maximum JPEG compression, it recorded pictures continuously until our finger tired two minutes and 200 photos later. As on the D70s, a counter in the viewfinder tracks the number of shots that can be recorded in the remaining buffer space, providing continual updates as photos are written to the SD/MMC card.
Shutter lag was minimal at 0.35 second under high-contrast lighting conditions, and the white autofocus-assist lamp kicked in under more challenging low-contrast lighting to keep autofocus delay manageable at 0.9 second.
The pentamirror view through the reflex viewfinder isn't as big and bright as some competitors', such as the ones in the Pentax *ist lineup, but it provides 95 percent frame coverage. Like other Nikon consumer digital SLRs, the D50 uses a viewfinder that lags the competition by providing only 0.75X magnification with a 50mm lens mounted; 0.8X or more is typical. The viewfinder also has a relatively short 18mm eye point--the maximum distance from the viewfinder at which you can see a clear image. If you wear glasses, that might be a consideration. The D50 viewfinder also lacks the optional alignment grid available with the D70s, but it adds Low Battery and No Card overlays to the picture area, where they're not easily overlooked. Although the Nikon D50's chief competitors are 6-megapixel digital SLR cameras from Minolta, Pentax, and Canon, its image quality competes with that of 8-megapixel rivals such as the Olympus Evolt E-300 and the Canon Digital Rebel XT. Indeed, this camera's reduced visual noise, improved highlight detail, and vivid colors--thanks to its default sRGB color space--outshine the image quality of the D70s in some respects.
We were surprised at the generally good quality provided by the budget 18mm-to-55mm kit lens, which despite its light weight and plastic external components--including a polymer lens mount--features ED (low-dispersion) optical elements and smooth Silent Wave Motor focus. It delivered sharp images with moderate chromatic aberration (chiefly some cyan fringing around the edges of backlit subjects) and little distortion at the edges. The D50 performed even better when we attached the 18mm-to-70mm f/3.5-to-f/4.5G ED-IF AF-S DX Zoom Nikkor lens most often purchased in a kit with the D70s, and it excelled with the very expensive and highly touted 17mm-to-55mm f/2.8G ED-IF AF-S DX Zoom-Nikkor.
Our images had good exposure and dynamic range. Compared to the D70s, the Nikon D50 tended to produce brighter images with improved highlights, although blown-out bright areas still plagued it. Colors were accurate and neutral, but the warm tones produced under incandescent illumination had us wishing for some of the color-temperature-tweaking tools that other Nikon digital SLRs provide. Flash pictures looked especially good, with even illumination, as the D50's flash coverage has been widened to encompass the field of view of an 18mm lens. We saw excellent red-eye reduction and none of the magenta cast that sometimes afflicts flesh tones in flash pictures.