Nikon's D50: Small Package, Big Delivery

By Frank Van Riper
Frank Van Riper on Photography
Monday, December 19, 2005; 12:45 PM

In the déjà vu all over again department I give you the remarkable little (though not too little) Nikon D50, one of the sharpest of the new generation of compact, consumer-grade digital SLRs that is sure to be a welcome addition to anyone's haul of holiday booty.

The "I've been here before" aspect of all this relates to another experience I had with Nikon a number of years ago, when the venerable Japanese camera maker unveiled the F100, the next generation of film SLR after its knock-yer-socks-off (and then top of the line) F5.

The F5 was (and in my opinion remains) a masterpiece: the finest incarnation of a pro-grade 35mm film camera ever to hit the market. [Caveat: I have yet to do a full review of the new Nikon F6, but my initial impression of both cameras is that the F5 still wears the crown. Stay tuned.]

As a practical matter, great though the F5 was, with a list price (back then) of $2800, there was no way I was going to buy one. And, truth to tell, the F5 was in some ways more camera than I needed. So when the F100 came out, seemingly just as rugged, not nearly as bulked up, and featuring a number of new bells and whistles that the F5 lacked -- and at roughly one-third the price, I (and doubtless hundreds of others) jumped at it.

For the record, Judy and I each own an F100 and, given our commercial schedule of weddings, portraits, event and location work, we have more than run these puppies through their paces over the past several years -- with nary a whimper.

Something similar seems to have happened with the D50, coming as it does on the heels of Nikon's much-ballyhooed D70.

The D70, like the new D50, is a consumer-grade digital camera. That means it is not meant for the pro market, though I am sure that there are pros out there who can get by very well with either of these cameras as a backup body. But it is important to keep in mind that neither of these cameras is meant to go head-to-head with, say, a top-of-the-line Canon or a Nikon D1x and therefore I will not hold them to that standard. [Neither the D70 nor the D50, for example, comes with a built-in PC connector for use with external flash or strobe units. A big thing to a pro; a non-starter for the average snapshooter. In fairness, each camera does have a dedicated hot shoe, which can take an auxiliary pc connector, if needed. Similarly, the D50's autofocus, though accurate, is nowhere near as fast as that on a pro-grade SLR. But it's plenty fast enough for most everyday use.]

Some history: I first got my hands on a D70 two summers ago when I was a guest observer/lecturer at the Missouri Photo Workshops, sponsored by Nikon. Carol Fisher, the veteran Nikon rep who kept students plied with loaner Nikon bodies and lenses, insisted that I use the D70 for my digital shooting that week -- even though I would have been perfectly happy to use my Fuji Finepix S2. After all, I reasoned, the Finepix, though a Fuji product, actually is built around a Nikon N80 body. But Carol gave me a look and, since Nikon was paying my way there, I strapped on the D70.

Glad I did, too, because it helped me appreciate how much of an improvement is the new D50 -- and cheaper, too. [MSRP on the D50 with an 18-55 f. 3.5-5.6 lens is $899.85, but this popular kit actually goes for much less. MSRP on the D-70, body only, is $999. Note: the D70 uses Compact Flash cards for image storage; the D50 the increasingly popular Secure Digital card.]

Simply put, I never warmed to the D70 the way I did to the Finepix, and several of the students at the workshop had the same reaction. I never got used to its finder. I found the controls less-than-user-friendly. It seemed to always be giving me blown-out skies. I still preferred my S2.

The D50 is appreciably smaller than the D70 and ever-so-slightly lighter. But here I have to echo other reviewers in saying that, despite its smaller size, the thing simply feels good in the hand -- better even than the D70. Granted, this is a most subjective measure, but I have heard and read this comment often enough -- and confirmed it with my own, literally hands-on, observation -- that I give it weight.

One feature that I grew to love when it was first unveiled on the F100 film camera was the system of finger-controlled command dials that allows you to change automatic modes, or shutter and aperture settings in manual mode, with the flick of a finger -- all while looking through the viewfinder. On the F100, for example, and on so many other cameras nowadays, a command dial on the back of the camera lets you change shutter speeds in manual mode with the flick of the thumb. To change aperture, merely flick the dial on the front of the camera with your index finger.

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