Monday, September 23, 2013

Test of Time Review: Nikon D50

Rewind to 2005 and you'll find that Canon and Nikon were locked in a pretty heated war over the entry level segment of the DSLR market. While Canon tried reaching for the bottom first with their $900 feature-crippled 300D in 2003 to compete with the Nikon D70 and their own 10D, they later backpedalled and launched the higher-spec'd 350D in 2005. At that point, Nikon was left with only their higher-end D70/D70s, and lacked anything that could compete on price. Enter the D50 that same year, a body that could best be considered a 'D70 lite', giving users most of the important features, while reducing the price to a more mass-market level. Nikon would continue this strategy over the next few years, offering the D40 as the D50's replacement.


But when the D40 came out, it omitted an important feature that had been present on all other preceeding Nikon DSLRs - the built in AF drive screw. Without it, any lenses that didn't feature 'AF-S' in their name would be manual-focus only, including Nikon's range of D lenses, and virtually all of their primes. Since then, no entry-level Nikon body has had a screw-drive motor, but at least they started rapidly updating they lenses to the newer G type, so the lack of an in-body drive isn't too much of a problem. Nevertheless, there's a huge selection of good quality D lenses on the used market that can be had for cheap. One can get a D50  and a 50mm f/1.8D for about the same price as the G version of the 50/1.8. Plus, many of Nikon's older macro and telephoto lenses can be had for significantly cheaper than their updated counterparts. Current users of the D3XXX and D5XXX series will likely find it cheaper to a D50 as a second body than upgrading to a D7XXX if they want to dabble in D lenses.

These days, that budget-conscious market for the D50 hasn't changed since they can often be found for around $100 used. But with low resolution and dated tech, does it still perform well in 2013? Read on.

As an entry level body, it's naturally made of plastic and not metal. Fortunately the plastic used here is thick, solid, and textured - a noticeable improvement over what some entry-level cameras use (I'm looking at you, Rebel series). And despite the D50's smaller form-factor, the grip still feels comfortable and large. It's nicely rounded, unlike the D300's slightly pointy-shaped grip, and as an added plus it's still larger than the D5100's grip. Good thing, too, since the D50 doesn't have a first-party battery grip available. The large built-in grip allows the use of the large-capacity EN-EL3 battery (same as the D70) giving it battery life that's 2-3x longer than some of its competitors.
Its aesthetic and build quality unbecoming of its class 
Once of the first things you'll notice when picking up a D50 is just how many external controls are available. Dials, switches, buttons, and even a joypad are found on the front, back, and top of the body. It's great to see so many controls on a camera of this class, which typically forego physical controls in order to keep costs down, and rely on menus instead. Almost every important function has its own dedicated button, so making changes on the fly is easy and straightforward. Another nice touch is the inclusion of a top status LCD, just like the ones found in higher-end bodies to this day. Despite all these controls, zooming in on playback images is a pain, requiring a button press followed by holding a button down while turning the rear control dial. The D3 and D300 had much faster and simpler systems for doing this.

Image review can prove problematic due to the D50's 2" LCD. Although its size and resolution were above average in 2005 (when 1.8", 118K dot was the norm), the colours appear washed out even with brightness turned down, the viewing angle is limited, and there's a huge air gap between the plastic screen and the LCD itself. It reminds me a lot of the screen on Canon's original 1D. In practice I was dependent on the histogram to have any idea of how well exposed the image was, since I just couldn't tell from looking at the display. While using the histogram is prudent to use regardless of screen quality, I can normally at least ballpark it with most other cameras I've used. Not so with the D50.

External controls are in no short supply.
If the inclusion of all the nice controls and body features got your hopes for a decent viewfinder up, those are about to be crushed. Featuring a pentaprism finder at 0.75x, it's fairly small and dark, though about the same size and brightness as its competitors from the era. Even the viewfinders in the D3100 and D5100 aren't that much bigger, so at least you aren't losing out on a whole lot. But if you're used to the viewfinders on entry-level DSLRs you'll find the one on the D50 perfectly adequate.

Although the 6MP resolution might seem low (your phone probably has more) the image quality from the D50 is still great. There's isn't a lot of leg room for cropping, but prints up to 8x10 look just fine. Possibly beyond that, too - I just haven't tried to go bigger.

As with all of Nikon's early sensors, the D50 isn't capable of ISO 100, neither natively nor by an expansion setting. This can prove annoying when using fast lenses in well-lit situation. Get those neutral-density filters ready if fall into that camp. On par with its generation is the D50's maximum ISO sensitivity of 1600. Thankfully, results are usable up to its maximum in good light, though things get significantly worse in low-light situations. At ISO 800 and 1600, the D50 lags slightly behind the quality that the Canon 350D and 20D offered. I'd say the difference is less than a stop, though the CCD of the D50 gives noise a different pattern than CMOS sensors of the time. If you expose to the right, you should be getting decent results at high ISO. The images below were deliberately underexposed by two stops. Note that the ISO 200 image was bungled due to movement.

Quality degrades rapidly between ISO 800 and 1600

Where the D50 really falls behind the current offerings is in the performance category. As one might expect, this is no speed demon. It features a dated 5-point AF system that doesn't cover much of the frame. The AF is 'good enough' for most applications, and continuous AF doesn't have much trouble following action. In low-light AF will slow down significantly, but at least it won't hunt. As was the case with cameras from the era, write times for images were slow. Using a fast SD card won't make a difference since the read/write speed of the camera itself forms a bottleneck in this case. The D50's burst rate of 2.5fps is tied for the lowest ever seen in a sub-$1500 DSLR, and in use it certainly feels like it, especially since low-end bodies these days typically offer at least 4fps. Viewfinder blackout also feels a bit long, though not more so than other bodies in the class. If you're shooting sports or fast wildlife with this, you're going to have to pay close attention to your timing, since a lot can be missed in between those shots in a burst. The buffer is lacklustre as well, allowing only 4 raw images before filling up.

However, two important aspects of operation - startup time and shutter lag - are quick. Powering on in 0.2s and feeling responsive on the shutter release, the D50 is ready to shoot in no time flat. Aside from the snappy operation, the D50 shares a key feature of the D70 that hasn't been seen since on a Nikon body, and that's the max flash sync speed of 1/500sec. The ability to fire off a fully-powered flash at speed that high is going to welcomed by anyone trying to capture motion indoors or at night with it, provided you can live with the limitations mentioned in the previous paragraph.
The ultra-fast X-sync makes it a great companion for external flashes

What's still good
  • Built-in focus drive for non AF-S lenses
  • Excellent build quality and battery life for its class
  • Uses SD memory - compliments current bodies well
  • Resolution and low-ISO image quality still hold up
  • Dedicated AF-assist lamp
  • Fast 1/500 flash sync
  • ±5 Exposure compensation range
  • Quiet shutter
What isn't
  • Horrible rear LCD
  • Small optical viewfinder
  • low framerate
  • Limited raw+jpeg options
  • Sub par AF system
  • Max memory capacity support of 2gb
For those seeking a body solely for the use of the in-body focus motor, I'd recommend the D50 over the D70 since it uses SD cards (of 2gb or less), allowing memory to be shared with Nikon's current line of entry-level DSLR's. Consider the D80 as well, which brings a wealth of new features and upgrades, but runs about twice the price on the used market.

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