While point-and-shoot digicams muddle along without any super breakthroughs—14 megapixels? Big deal!—watching the brawl between D-SLR manufacturers is much more enjoyable. Recently, Canon, Nikon and Sony have all introduced or announced digital single-lens reflex models that are leaping ahead of last year’s cameras. For example: Sony’s new $3,000 A900 is the first full-frame 24.6MP model. Recently-resurgent Nikon unveiled the first D-SLR that records HD video—the $999 12.3MP D90. And, just a short time later, Canon announced the $2,699 EOS 5D Mark II, which has a 21.1-megapixel full-frame imager that also takes high-def videos.
This clash of the titans is great news for photo enthusiasts who now have a wide range of D-SLRs to fit practically any desire. And, as we’ve said, it’s also fun to watch. But frankly, it’s even more enjoyable testing the devices. Case in point: We just reviewed the D90, and as a camera, it really shined. Yet when the EOS 50D came our way, we couldn’t resist trying out a new 15.1-megapixel D-SLR that’s a huge on-paper leap above the still-available 10MP EOS 40D. Although the 50D costs $300 more, the good news is that there’s a lot extra on offer here beyond the camera’s new higher-resolution sensor. So is it the D-SLR of your dreams? Hit the jump to find out…
Features and Design
Our findings in a nutshell: The Canon EOS 50D is an impressive piece of kit. It weighs a ton—even without a lens—and has that cool, sophisticated vibe that just says “I am a serious camera.” Twist on the new $699 18-200mm Image Stabilized lens, and you have what looks and feels like a potent performer. And, as hands-on testing reveals, it certainly is, since the unit captures full-resolution 15.1MP images at a blazing 6.3 frames per second (fps) when using high-speed UDMA-compliant CompactFlash cards.
This faster frame rate really separates the men from the boys and the women from the girls in the D-SLR field. To put things in perspective: Your typical entry-level models such as the Nikon D60 or Canon EOS XS manage about 3 fps. Want to capture an in-focus leaping athlete? You’re going to need to step your game up and pay the price for a beefier mechanism, such as this model.
The EOS 50D is all black with a nice, textured surface. The grip is beefy and the camera is large enough so there’s room to plant your right thumb firmly on the back to help steady the camera. It measures 5.7 x 4.2 x 2.9 (WHD, in inches) and, thanks to a magnesium alloy frame, weighs 29.2oz with just the battery, and 50.2oz with the new 18-200mm IS lens Canon supplied for the test. Mind you, that’s 3-plus pounds, friends – a true photographic commitment for taking snapshots, let alone the $1,600 this kit will set you back with an 18-135 IS lens. Canon D-SLRs have a 1.6x digital crop factor, so multiply that number to get the true 35mm equivalent focal length (28.8-216mm for the kit lens).
The front is dominated by the lens mount, and it accepts all Canon EF and EF-S lenses. There’s not much else other than an AF Assist lamp, a lens release button and two more inputs nearby to pop open the flash and for depth-of-field preview. At the base of the grip is a DC coupler cord hole for a tidy fit if you buy an accessory to run the camera off an outlet. There’s also a Canon logo and EOS 50D nomenclature, but it’s all low-key, with nothing screaming 15.1 megapixels.
The top has an LCD readout with a row of controls above of it. This display is another feature—like a faster frame rate—that separates inexpensive D-SLRs from more enthusiast-oriented models, since it lets you quickly check your settings. Controls here include access to metering modes, white balance, burst mode and ISO. (The native sensitivity range is 100-3200, but you can hit 12,800 ISO using custom HI settings, a major leap over the 40D.) A handy button illuminates the LCD.
On the grip are the shutter button and a jog wheel for menu adjustments. Moving to the left, you’ll find the hot shoe atop the auto pop-up flash, a diopter control and a mode dial. You’ll also find the typical settings—full auto, five scene modes and flash off. The more adventurous side of the dial has aperture/shutter priority, full manual, program AE, auto depth-of-field and Creative Auto. With this one, you can set a variety of parameters via the use of very helpful on-screen descriptions. C1 and C2 let you set a much wider range of favorite settings, and it’s where you’ll access the 6400 and 12,800 ISO options.
The camera’s rear has a wide expanse of real estate, so the 3-inch 921K pixel screen barely makes a dent. It would be nice if Canon supplied a plastic cover to keep scratches and fingerprints at bay like the Nikon D90, though. Below the LCD are basic control settings such as playback, delete, info, Picture Styles and Function. (Styles adjust the overall feel of the image: Standard, monochrome, neutral for shooting RAW files, and so on…) Near the on/off switch is a large control dial with center set button. Other rear controls include an 8-way joystick, AF-On, AE/FE Lock, AF Point Selector, Menu and Live View.
The left side has compartments for USB, video and mini HDMI out, a PC jack and another for an optional remote control. The right has the CompactFlash slot and, since it’s UDMA compliant, it can quickly save images to a UDMA card (up to 45 Mbps). This type of card lets you save 90 large/fine JPEGs at a clip compared to 60 with a typical card. RAW shooting specs remain the same at 16 shots before the camera stops to take a breather.
On the bottom is a metal tripod mount, battery compartment and the extension system terminal for connecting accessories such as an additional battery pack/grip.
What’s In the Box
If you just buy the body, you’ll get that; an eyecup; strap; USB/video cables; battery with charger; several how-to booklets; a nice pocket-sized 228-page manual; a smaller pocket guide; and two CD-ROMs. One has the software instruction manual, while the other is the EOS Digital Solution disk (ver. 19.0) with PC and Mac software for handling files. Naturally, if you opt for 28-135mm IS kit lens, that will be in the box as well. Canon and Nikon include image stabilized lenses with their D-SLR kits in order to compete against other camera makers who use a sensor shift stabilization system that stabilizes any lens attached to it. (Sony, Olympus and Pentax just to name a few…)
Once the battery is charged, a 4GB SanDisk Ducati CF card inserted, and the 18-200mm IS lens attached, it’s time to start taking some photographs.
Image Courtesy of Canon
Performance and Use
The EOS 50D is the first 15.1-megapixel D-SLR on the market. This means you’re grabbing 4752×3168 pixel stills, so gallery-size prints are no problem whatsoever. We started at maximum JPEG Super Fine resolution in full auto, moved to scene modes and into manual using the RAW+JPEG setting.
Suffice it to say that the EOS 50D is really lightning-quick. Power it up, and you’re good to go with barely any hesitation. Since it was late Fall during testing, we used the season’s fading foliage as test subjects along with the pounding ocean and a mix of indoor still lifes including sleeping cats and muted flower arrangements in available light.
This camera does not take video like the D90 or 5D Mark II, but it does have an advanced form of Live View where you can frame your subject on the LCD screen. Alas, we’re not enamored with any type of D-SLR Live View other than the type found in the Sony A300/A350. Sony dedicates a specific sensor for the task so you can use Live View on moving subjects and simply hold it in your hands. All others—Canon, Nikon, Olympus, Panasonic—are really for still life shooting and the Canon manual specifically states this.
We further had to laugh at one aspect of Canon’s Live View: Face Detection. Unless the subject remains very still, this feature is useless. (Perhaps it’s good for snapping statues at the Louvre?) Despite our decidedly negative bias toward Live View, we did use it for some still life subjects, however.
Grudgingly, we have to admit Canon’s Live View does work quickly and grid lines make it simple to ensure that horizons are level. We shot some handheld images and then broke out the trusty monopod to steady the hefty camera and lens. It did the trick and changed our view somewhat to the good. Unless you’re shooting still life subjects though, the viewfinder is what you should be using all of the time. It’s nice and bright with 95% coverage.
Canon breaks out the mode dial between basic settings (such as auto and scene modes) and more creative options such as manual, aperture/shutter priority and so on. The new CA (Creative Auto) is something in-between.
When you’re in this mode, you get helpful advice for changing the aperture—instead of f/stops, a slider bar asks whether you want a blurry or sharp background. Not sure what exposure compensation is? Another slider asks if you want a darker or lighter exposure. This is a very helpful mode and should ease newcomers into the many more tweaks and adjustments available on the camera. What’s more, this camera has more adjustments than can possibly be detailed here (that’s why the owner’s manual is 228 pages).
Before getting into the results of our tests, however, some general observations worth bearing in mind…
The EOS 50D is a blazingly-fast D-SLR and its 6.3 fps capability is a blast, helped along by a new DIGIC 4 processor. If you’re into action photography, put this camera high on your list. The unit has 9 cross-type focus points for quick and accurate focus. To deal with the potential for dust gathering on the sensor when switching lenses, it even features a new cleaning system that works every time your power down.
Picture Inspection and ISO Options
Once shots were taken and downloaded to the PC, it was time to make some 8.5×11 full bleed prints and closely examine the results. Images of Fall foliage were excellent, with colors that were right on the mark. Yellows, golds and oranges were very lifelike. Evergreens had a nice lushness that really made them pop as well. We played with the monochrome setting for shrubs too, and it was a nice effect seeing the detail it provided in black-and-white, with outdoor digital noise barely existent. We also used the Live View and found it very simple to operate—just remember to use a monopod for best results. However, we had success just holding the camera by hand as well; the built-in OIS definitely helped.
Going a step further, we also extensively tested the wide range of ISO options. We took some shots of a resting cat indoors at 12,800, and although noise was evident on the 8.5×11 print, it was still very usable. Canon engineers should be commended for taming the digital noise monster.
If the EOS 50D were less expensive, it would be a shoe-in for our Editor’s Choice designation. But at close to $1,399 for the body alone, that’s a lot of jack to cough up, especially when the 12.3 MP Nikon D90 is available for only $999. (Note that all prices are list).
Money is the only thing holding us back, however. If you can find a good deal on a kit with a stabilized lens, by all means go for it. You’ll really enjoy getting into this sophisticated D-SLR and its multiple layers of tweaks and options, and your photos will be top-notch, a win-win situation for all in our book.
• High-quality images
• Hardly any digital noise
• Rugged, solid construction
• Excellent 3-inch screen
• Live View better than expected
• Live View is still overrated
• Fairly steep learning curve for newbies
• No protective cover for LCD