Canon EOS 50DCanon's new mid-level DSLR is a solid upgrade, but might have been even better with less resolution.
Dec 2, 2008
By Dan Havlik
Anyone who has read my camera reviews probably knows I'm not a big proponent of the so-called megapixel wars (a.k.a. the Resolution Revolution). So, why all the pixel-dropping in the previous paragraph, you may ask? It's partially to explain the genesis of this category of cameras and partially to emphasize what Canon sees as its big next step: more megapixels!
Yes, the biggest thing that jumps off the page when looking at specs on the Canon 50D is its 15.1 megapixels of resolution. Do we need it? Probably not, but when you're stacking this camera against the slightly more pricey D300 and considerably less expensive D90, you've got to consider the headline.
And that's a shame, because along with the big bump in megapixels, the 50D is the first model in Canon's mid-tier line since the 20D to try to take another significant stab at lowering noise. And by using a combination of larger microlenses over each pixel in order to funnel in extra light and the more powerful (and faster) Digic 4 processor, Canon largely succeeds in tamping down noise from ISO 800 to 3200.
PRO OR AMATEUR?
What would have been a real breakthrough with this camera would be lower noise levels in the upper ISO ranges—the two "High" settings of ISO 6400 and 12800. Though I was very pleased by the clean results I got at ISO 3200 with the 50D, ISO 6400 was only passable, while ISO12600 produced so many ugly colored flecks of noise, my night shots of roller dancers in Central Park resembled a bad acid trip.
Is this asking too much? I don't think so. If Nikon and Canon are going to offer these settings—which at first appeared to be novelties when ISO 12800 and 25600 turned up on the Nikon D3—shouldn't we except professional results?
The rub with the 50D is that it is somewhat like a professional camera, but doesn't entirely fit the bill. On the one hand, image quality (if you exclude those tricked-out high ISOs) was excellent overall. And had Canon kept the 50D's resolution to just 12 megapixels so that it could build in bigger pixels, low-light shooting might have been even better.
On the other hand, the 50D offers some new features that are aimed squarely at amateurs, including a new Creative Full Auto setting that lets you "blur the background" or "lighten or darken the image." Even this setting—which may irritate pros so much that they will want to wipe it off the mode dial—I found to be just confusing enough that I'm not sure even amateurs will take to it.
Other schizophrenic tweaks include keeping the Direct Print button on back of the camera (who uses that, really?) but it now performs double duty as the Live View button. At the same time, I wonder what amateurs and prosumers who are just getting used to shooting in RAW will think of the two small RAW formats on the 50D which I could see wedding photographers using this feature to shoot a reception, but not Uncle Bob, who may be just learning how to "blur the background."
A built-in Noise Reduction feature might be helpful to both pros and amateurs—especially at those High ISO settings—but why bury it away in the Custom Function II section of the menu? As a camera designed to appeal to both amateurs and professionals, the 50D certainly suffers from a serious case of "in-betweeness."
STRONG IN THE IMPORTANT AREAS
Many of the irritations can be forgiven thanks to the 50D's excellent image quality, solidly built body, and good overall speed. Since these attributes are what should really matter to any serious photographer, I have placed the 50D in my recommendation column.
To test the 50D's range, I took the camera to Central Park just before and just after sunset and shot images up and down the DSLR's light sensitivity range from ISO 100 to 12600. Though I didn't feel the 50D offered any significant improvements in noise over the 40D, just the fact that it kept pace with that camera while adding 5 million more pixels of resolution was impressive. Images I shot of flowers and wildlife in the park at ISO 100 and 200 were beautiful, with bold but not oversaturated color.
Some of my favorite shots were of the exterior of Frank Lloyd Wright's Guggenheim Museum just minutes before sundown, with the 50D able to pick up the subtle variations in color: the off-white of the building; the pinkish light of the setting sun; and the delicate blue of the sky.
I used the built-in Noise Reduction feature in standard mode to test it out and only experienced minimal smoothing of pixels at ISO 1250. Sharpness, thanks in part to the higher resolution and a good 24-70mm f/2.8 Canon lens, was slightly better than the 40D, while dynamic range seemed vastly improved. (The 50D actually uses the same 14-bit Analog-to-Digital conversion process as the 40D.)
I remember really struggling with blown out highlights and lost shadow detail with the 40D in late afternoon park shots, whereas the 50D performed brilliantly. The 50D's autofocus system, which uses the same nine cross-type sensors as the 40D, had little to no trouble achieving focus in low light, even while photographing a seasonal haunted house covered in scary masks and skulls as well as the evening roller skating and dance circle in Central Park.
With a tough, weather-resistant build around its ports, battery compartment and Compact Flash door, the 50D's body felt durable yet ergonomic, and I appreciate that Canon has not sold out pros and gone for a flimsier construction. Though the 6.3-frames-per-second shooting speed is slightly slower than the 40D, it's perfectly adequate for basic sports shooting and runway work. The 50D's 920,000 dot (307,200-pixel), 3-inch LCD is a vast improvement over the 40D's soft, lower-resolution screen, while its improved menu system is logical and easy to navigate.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Instead of offering fancy bells and whistles such as a high-definition movie mode (all the rage in digital SLRs these days, it seems), Canon has chosen to go the high-resolution route with the 50D. Fortunately, a greater number of pixels on the 50D does not mean more noise than on the previous model—but it doesn't mean less noise, either. Though I generally liked shooting with the 15-megapixel 50D and was astounded at how much detail I could pull out of shots taken at ISO 3200 in difficult lighting conditions, I really think Canon would have better served the photography community by easing off on the pixels at bit. Had it kept the 50D to just 12 megapixels, Canon could have made a very good camera great.
Canon EOS 50D
Pros: Improved dynamic range; no additional noise at up to ISO 3200 despite increase in resolution from previous model; good speed overall; higher resolution 3-inch LCD from previous model; easy-to-navigate new menu system.
Cons: Images at ISO 12600 are practically unusable; confusing mix of amateur and professional features.
Price: $1,399 (body only)
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