It used to be that if you wanted a digital SLR for less than a grand you chose either the Canon EOS-300D or the Nikon D70, both well-performing cameras now superseded by the 350D and D70s respectively. Nikon’s new D50 may be the baby of its digital SLR range – with a price that won’t rock the cradle (£550 body only) – but its features, many shared with the D70 and D70s (some £150 dearer), place it very much among the grown ups.
For a start there’s that 6.1 effective megapixel sensor, which seems to be standard resolution for non-professional SLRs these days. Like its bigger brothers, light sensitivity ranges from ISO 200 to ISO 1600, in theory allowing you to shoot in the dim, and you still get a 1.5x multiplication factor for the Nikon-compatible lens in use. Users can also shoot top-quality RAW files, go for the faster and more manageable option of bog-standard JPEGs, or shoot both simultaneously (one for maximum detail the other for quick reference). For action photographers – or just chasing the kids around the garden – continuous shooting speeds of 2.5fps, up to a maximum of 137 shots, are offered. While that’s nothing to trouble the 8fps offered by pro models, it’s adequate.
Since this is an entry-level D-SLR, there is a degree of hand holding built in; namely the familiar mode wheel that sits top right if the D50 is viewed from the back. This includes selections for shooting fully auto (with five area auto focus), program, aperture priority, shutter priority, manual, plus familiar subject matter such as portrait, landscape, sports, close up (macro), night portrait and – a new one to us – ‘child’. The latter purports to allow you shots of the little tykes with ‘healthier colouring’ (read: vivid colour) and contrast straight from the camera, imbuing the D50 with obvious dad appeal. And you know those times when you take a picture of a scene and the foreground looks dark while the background, usually the sky, is burnt out? Nikon aims to get around this and provide even, accurate exposure with the inclusion of 3D Colour Matrix Metering II, a device that compares the scene in question against an onboard database of 30,000 scenes. Impressive stuff, given the D50 is a starter model. In addition, you get centre-weighted and spot metering for more creative shots, while there’s an AF illuminator light to help the camera achieve focus in low light.
Gripping the D50 in your palm the first thing your notice is the build is reassuringly robust despite the entry level tag, especially with the 18-55mm zoom lens attached that formed part of our review kit. At trim dimensions of 133-x-102-x-76mm it’s officially no lard-arse. Its lightness of touch is reflected in the fact that it takes barely a second to power up – the official quote is 0.2 secs – the on/off switch handily encircling the shutter button itself so you’re primed to shoot immediately. As with any SLR, images are composed via the D50’s optical eyepiece, which offers a 95 per cent field of view, and there’s the chance to review photos via the 2-inch LCD directly below. Also built in is a useful pop-up flash/Speedlight, and this can be augmented for more professional-looking results via the hotshoe that sits directly behind.
Aiding the overall compactness of build, image storage is onto the postage stamp-sized Secure Digital card rather than the traditionally favoured and physically larger CompactFlash. The slender card compartment falls neatly under the thumb while your forefinger hovers over the shutter release. Unfortunately as is more the rule than the exception these days, no card is provided in the box, so budget extra for a 256MB card that will store around 70 fine-quality JPEGs. The camera’s internal processing is no slouch and the committal of images to memory can only be described as rapid. Power comes courtesy of a rechargeable lithium-ion pack (mains adaptor supplied), which slots into the base of the body. The blurb claims you’ll be able to capture 2,000 images from a single charge; so no complaints in that department.
For those who don’t own a workable version of Photoshop, captured images can be sharpened or have their colours tweaked in camera. Also as a nod to the family user, a Small Picture function allows images to be sized to conveniently tiny dimensions – down to 160-x-120 pixels for example – for email.
One thing the camera doesn’t have is a secondary shutter button and additional command dial located near the base – as found on higher-end SLRs – which enable you to turn the camera on its side for portrait shots. Given its family-oriented target market and the compact and relatively ergonomic design of the body anyway, this doesn’t present a problem. The only command dial sits behind the LCD panel atop the camera, its purpose being to let you change common settings manually without having to tab though the on-screen menus on the LCD.
So to the appearance of images themselves; while the D50’s six million pixels will in theory allow photo-quality reproductions to A3+ in size, a lot also depends on the lens resolving all those pixels. The new AF-S DX zoom bundled with our review kit delivered the expected sharp results, even shooting mainly on the auto setting its target market will fall back on. I was more interested in how a consumer-level SLR would cope with those low-light sensitivity settings. Viewed close up in Photoshop on a G4 iBook, shots taken without flash at ISO 1600 introduce visible noise (film grain-like speckles) compared alongside those at ISO 800 – which show very little – though this is only to be expected and isn’t to a degree that can’t be lived with. Generally colours are rendered naturalistic left to the fully-auto default, though to my eye reds and greens verge on the over saturated. As already mentioned, this can easily be altered to suit personal taste.
With digital SLRs experiencing some of the biggest growth in the photography market, thanks to increased value for money, the Nikon D50 should prompt yet more happy snappers to upgrade from pocket compacts to a more serious photographic tool. For the rest of us it’ll be a toss up between this and Canon’s EOS-350D, although for me this camera has the slight edge where ease of use and responsiveness is concerned. Though the D50 is also available in silver, the only pity for Mac users is it doesn’t come in white. To sum up, this is an amateur camera with a degree of intelligence usually reserved for the professionals, and at mass-market price.