Canon EOS 50D Gordon Laing, October 2008
 
   
 

Canon EOS 50D verdict

The Canon EOS 50D is a feature-packed semi-pro DSLR which takes the already capable 40D, increases the pixel count by 50%, quadruples the sensitivity and packs in all the latest features – bar a movie mode. As such it’s a very impressive specification, and one which on the whole lives up to its promise.

Kicking-off with resolution, the EOS 50D packs more pixels into its cropped sensor than any model to date, so there’s obviously concerns over noise levels. But Canon’s bold claims of matching the noise levels of the earlier EOS 40D were confirmed in our High ISO tests. From 100 to 1600 ISO, the EOS 50D’s output really is very similar to that from the EOS 40D when viewed at 100% on a pixel level. At 3200 ISO, the 50D applies greater noise reduction, but tone it down a notch and again it looks similar to the 40D. Admittedly the 50D’s 6400 and 12800 ISO modes are a step too far, but it’s an impressive achievement to boost the total pixels by 50% without any perceptible compromise in noise levels over its 10 Megapixel predecessor at the same sensitivities.

It’s also important to remember these comparisons were made at 100%, viewing each pixel at 1:1 on a computer monitor. If you print images from the 40D and 50D at the same size, the 50D’s higher pixel count means any artefacts would appear smaller, so in this respect it has the advantage.



Canon EOS 50D - front view




The use of gapless micro-lenses has improved sensor efficiency and allowed it to match the noise levels of its predecessor, although looking to the future, this is a trump card that can only be played once. Now the 50D’s sensor is already maximising its real-estate, the engineers will need to look elsewhere to improve efficiencies should they want to boost resolutions again without affecting noise.

The boost in resolution also means a great deal more data is being handled by the camera, although Canon’s latest DIGIC 4 processor takes care of the challenge very effectively. The 50D feels as responsive as the earlier 40D and support for quick UDMA Compact Flash cards means the camera clears its buffers without much delay. In practice we also measured the 50D’s continuous shooting speed to be the same as the 40D – admittedly at 6fps, both were slightly below their quoted figures, but still very swift.

In terms of the new features, several represent their debut on a Canon DSLR – so the 50D becomes the first EOS to feature a VGA screen and an HDMI port. Their presence here is certainly very welcome, although in no small part a reaction to the Nikon D300 and Sony A700 which sported them a year previously.


Canon EOS 50D - rear view
 

Like these models, the 50D’s VGA screen looks fantastic in use, packing-in detail during playback and allowing very smooth-looking menu fonts; conventional 230k monitors look quite primitive in comparison. But the 50D takes the lead in Live View over both the Nikon D300 and D90, delivering a more detailed view on its screen when magnified, making it easier to confirm the exact focus; unlike these Nikon bodies, it also features a live histogram and comes supplied with free software to fully remote control the camera using a PC or Mac.

The EOS 50D also becomes the first Canon DSLR to feature in-camera correction of vignetting, while additionally inheriting the AF micro-adjustment of the professional models – both welcome additions, although we’d also like the in-camera correction of chromatic aberrations like Nikon’s latest models, especially as the new EF-S 18-200mm is no angel in this respect. You can at least do this effectively in the supplied Digital Photo Professional software though.

On paper the 9-point AF system appears to have stood still since the 40D, which makes it look even less impressive compared to the 51-points of the D300, but Canon has improved the AF algorithm on the 50D and you only have to use it in fast action environments to realise it’ll easily handle most situations. If the subject’s moving unpredictably between AF points, the D300’s system has the edge, but we have few complaints with the 50D’s AF system in practice.

So far so good, but of course the 50D isn’t without its downsides. The addition of contrast-based autofocus in Live View was inevitable, but it’s relatively slow and best-used for static subjects and a tripod-based camera. This effectively renders the new face detection mode redundant, as while subjects are recognised instantly, it’s several seconds before the camera locks focus on them – by which time they’ll inevitably have moved.

Canon EOS 50D - top view
 

We also found the Auto Lighting Optimizer had little effect on our test compositions, compared to the bigger impact of Nikon’s Active D-Lighting and Sony’s Dynamic Range Optimizer, although to be fair owners of semi-pro cameras will probably be happier applying such tonal adjustments by hand. The 50D’s higher-end target market may not see the value of the new Creative Auto (CA) mode either, although we look forward to seeing it implemented on future entry-level models.

Some early adopters have also reported a higher than average occurrence of Error-99 lens communication issues with the 50D. We tested our 50D with a variety of lenses and only experienced the Error-99 with a well-worn press sample of the EF-S 17-85mm IS, and then only at certain focal lengths. When we switched to a newer private sample of this lens, we had no issues. This is something we will monitor though and report back with any updates.

Perhaps the biggest issue facing the EOS 50D though is its high resolution. Canon’s use of gapless micro-lenses may have kept noise levels under control, but the high pixel density places greater demands on optics than ever before. We found the new EF-S 18-200mm IS lens, while highly flexible in terms of composition, just wasn’t able to exploit the maximum resolution from the EOS 50D. If you want to make the most of the 50D’s resolving power, you’ll really need to couple it with decent lenses – in terms of a general purpose option, the EF 24-105mm f4.0L would be more appropriate.

Finally, it should also be mentioned the EOS 50D does not have a movie mode. This won’t bother most traditional photographers, but now that it’s available on the Nikon D90 and Canon’s EOS 5D Mark II, some will see it as a missed opportunity on the 50D. Indeed since the 50D and 5D Mark II share the same DIGIC 4 processor it also begs the question what exactly does the latter have which allows it to film video? Live View provides the video feed and we understand DIGIC 4 has the processing muscle to encode it in real-time. Perhaps there’s an additional technical component missing on the 50D, but we can’t help but feel the lack of movie mode on this model was more a marketing decision. We wouldn’t hold your breath for a firmware update though.

So before our final wrap-up, how does the new EOS 50D compare against its predecessor and closest rivals?


Compared to Canon EOS 40D

 
Canon EOS 40D
 
 

We’ll kick-off with the EOS 40D with which the new 50D shares a number of key respects. Both cameras share essentially the same body design, viewfinder and 9-point AF specification; they also share the same external accessories including the BG-E2N battery grip and WFT-E3(A) wireless transmitter. Continuous shooting is also similar at 6.5fps on the 40D to 6.3fps on the 50D, although in practice they're essentially the same speed, and when equipped with a UDMA CF card, the 50D can shoot larger bursts of JPEGs.

Beyond these specifications though, the new EOS 50D boasts a number of enhancements. Most obviously the pixel count is around 50% greater at 15.1 Megapixels to the 40D’s 10.1, and by using gapless microlenses, the 50D manages to match the noise levels of the previous model. Further, the maximum sensitivity has also been boosted from 3200 ISO to 12,800 ISO, although in practice this is arguably a step too far.

The EOS 50D additionally sports the latest DIGIC 4 image processor, which supports in-camera correction of lens vignetting and sports a refined user interface. There’s also micro AF adjustment of lenses - a feature inherited from the 1D Mark III.

Both bodies may use 3in screens, but the 50D’s boasts a VGA model with double the resolution in each axis, giving it 640x480 pixels to the 40D’s 320x240. This allows for much more detailed views in playback and Live View, not to mention smoother menu fonts. The 50D also sports HDMI output for connection to High Definition displays which works for playback and Live View. Speaking of Live View, the 50D now supports contrast-based AF and a new Face Detection option.

So the EOS 50D essentially takes the 40D body and adds 5 extra Megapixels, a VGA screen, HDMI output, four times the sensitivity and a number of processing and interface enhancements. If you value these improvements, then it’s worth spending the extra or for existing owners to upgrade, but remember the body, viewfinder and AF are the same, so if you want a tough and quick semi-pro DSLR at a bargain price, the 40D remains a superb choice. See our Canon EOS 40D review for more details.



Compared to Nikon D90

 
Nikon D90
 
 
Nikon’s D90 was announced just one day after the 50D, and while both are aimed at different price points and markets, there will inevitably be comparisons. There’s some similarities too with both bodies featuring VGA screens and HDMI outputs. Beyond this though, the 50D is clearly a better-featured camera overall. It boasts 3 Megapixels over the D90, double the maximum sensitivity, 14-bit images, greater weatherproofing and quicker continuous shooting at 6.3fps to the D90's 4.5fps.

But of course the 50D is a much more expensive camera, with its initial retail price coming in comfortably higher than the D90. It’s not a one-sided battle either: the D90 becomes the first DSLR to feature video recording capabilities (at HD too, although sadly there’s no AF), and its new GPS accessory is much more affordable than Canon’s WFT-E3(A) plus a separate handset. The D90 also has an 11-point AF system, on-demand grid lines in its viewfinder, and the body is smaller and lighter than the 50D.

Ultimately while some features may draw you to one camera over the other, the 50D is a semi-pro model while the D90 is a mid-range DSLR and as such they’re targeted at different markets and price points. Both have compelling feature-sets though and are likely to become best-sellers. See our Nikon D90 review for more details.



Compared to Nikon D300

 
Nikon D300
 
 
Nikon’s D300 may have been announced a year before the EOS 50D, but arguably remains Canon’s biggest rival at this price-point, and undoubtedly a driving-force for many of the 50D’s new features – not to mention its release only one year after the 40D.

Both cameras feature 3in VGA screens, HDMI output, while continuous shooting speeds are similar: 6.3fps on the 50D to 6fps on the D300 (boostable to 8fps with the optional battery grip). By sharing a number of core specs with the 40D though, the 50D remains behind certain key aspects of the D300. Nikon’s body boasts a viewfinder with 100% coverage to the 50D’s 95% and an AF system with a whopping 51-points to the 50D’s nine; Canon also continues to look old fashioned by forcing you to buy and fit an optional focusing screen to see a grid in the viewfinder, while Nikon offers on-demand LCD markings which can simply be switched on and off. The D300 additionally offers more professional features like 9-frame bracketing, a built-in intervalometer and a shutter block rated for 50% more shots (150k compared to 100k on the 50D).

But again it’s not a totally one-sided argument. The 50D of course features three extra Megapixels and double the maximum sensitivity. Its Live View operates at 30fps to the D300’s 15fps, there’s a live histogram (unforgivably absent on the Nikon), more detailed magnified manual focus assistance in Live View, supplied remote control software for PCs and Macs (including Live View on your computer’s monitor), and in-camera Vignetting correction (although the D300 offers in-camera chromatic aberration correction). Those are key benefits, and the 50D’s prices are already a little less than the D300 which has been on sale for a year.

When the prices are this close though, it’s crucial to carefully compare the specifications and which will honestly make the most difference to your photographic requirements. Some will prefer the higher resolution, sensitivity and Live View enhancements of the 50D, while others will side to the D300 for its arguably more professional-targeted features like the 100% viewfinder and 51-point AF system.

If you don’t already have an existing investment in lenses, it’s also important to check out the ranges from each manufacturer, and of course pick up both bodies in person to see which looks and feels best in your hands. One thing’s for certain though: despite being a year older than the 50D, Nikon’s D300 remains one of the most powerful and fully-featured semi-pro DSLRs on the market, and a key rival for the new Canon. See our Nikon D300 review for more details or the updated version in our Nikon D300s review.

Also consider:

If you're after a tough high resolution DSLR, you should also consider the Pentax K20D which packs 14.6 Megapixels and anti-shake facilities into a weather-resistant body. See our Pentax K20D review for more details.

Canon EOS 50D final verdict

The Canon EOS 50D is a worthy update to the already excellent EOS 40D, equipping it not just with the latest features, but also a significant boost in resolution without compromising noise levels. The presence of certain specifications, and the fact it’s arrived six months earlier than Canon’s normal schedule, proves just how seriously the company views Nikon’s D300 as a rival. And it’s testament to Nikon’s engineers that a body one year older than the 50D still stands-up very strongly against Canon’s latest.

As detailed above, there’s pros and cons to each model and the choice between them lies with which feature-set and system best suits your requirements – along with personal handling preferences of course. But there’s no doubt the new EOS 50D is a very powerful and feature-packed semi-pro DSLR which succeeds in its goals.

Many new DSLRs simply update the previous model with the latest gadgetry, and while there’s no movie mode on the 50D, it does sport a VGA screen and HDMI port. There’s also normally a boost in resolution, but rather than mess around with two or three Megapixels, Canon’s made a more significant leap with the 50D, crucially without compromising noise.

This coupled with the 50D’s other features all adds up to a very capable DSLR that handles confidently, delivers great results and is a joy to use. As such it easily earns our Highly Recommended award, although remember to exploit that high resolution you’ll need to couple it with a decent quality lens.





Good points

High resolution which matches 40D’s noise.
Quick handling and continuous shooting.
VGA screen with Live View & HDMI.
AF micro-adjust and vignette correction.

Bad points
Needs decent optics to exploit resolution.
Face detection impractical due to slow AF.
Auto Lighting Optimizer unremarkable.
Lacking movie mode.




Scores

(compared to 2008 semi-pro DSLRs)

Build quality:
Image quality:
Handling:
Specification:
Value:

Overall:

19 / 20
18 / 20
18 / 20
18 / 20
17 / 20

90%



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