The 15-megapixel Canon 50D digital SLR builds upon the strengths of the 40D with a higher pixel count, a revamped image processor and a higher resolution LCD screen. But what makes it a vast improvement over the 40D? The What Digital Camera Canon EOS 50D review investigates...
Canon EOS 50D Review
The Canon 50D is not a replacement for the Canon EOS 40D, but essentially an upgraded version of the popular semi-pro model. With said upgraded features, however, comes an increased price and whereas the Canon EOS 40D can now be bought for a touch over £600, the 50D will currently cost you around £1,199 (body only) – putting it almost directly in price-competition with the Nikon D300. So, can Canon battle back against Nikon? And what exactly does the Canon 50D provide for an extra £500 that a Canon EOS 40D doesn’t already provide? The What Digital Camera Canon 50D review investigates…
Canon EOS 50D review – Features
Canon 50D review – 50D in Context
Canon’s 40D has been a popular camera since its introduction just over a year ago. The model proved to be a more affordable alternative to the Canon 5D, and boasted what was, at the time, about as good an enthusiast DSLR specification on the market. However, Nikon soon released its bevy of new models, and as a result pushed the Canon 40D out of the spotlight – and thus the Canon 50D was born as an upgrade to the Canon 40D.
Canon 50D review – Cramped Sensor?
Close inspection of the new Canon 50D reveals that the upgrades from the Canon 40D, while many and varied, are on the whole relatively minor. One of the headline upgrades is the resolution of the sensor – where the 40D accommodates 10.5MP, outputting 10.1MP, on its 22.2 x 14.8mm CMOS sensor, the Canon 50D manages to cram 15.5MP, outputting 15.1MP effective respectively, on to a CMOS sensor just a fraction larger at 22.3 x 14.9mm. The question this raises is whether the sensor is large enough to accommodate the extra megapixels. After all, there is a growing trend in the compact camera market to abandon the ‘megapixel race’ in favour of looking at improving the size of the sensor. The issue is slightly different if you’re looking at an enthusiast DSLR, however – the level of photographer likely to buy the Canon 50D is, after all, more likely to actually find a use for the extra megapixels, and as such the possible blights of fitting another 50% as many megapixels onto only a marginally larger sensor could prove problematic. This issue has been addressed with another area of upgrade, with Canon introducing its new DIGIC IV processor, to replace the DIGIC III, bringing with it the usual claims of faster image processing, improved noise reduction at high-ISOs and improved handling of Raw files.
Canon 50D review – Hi-Res LCD
In keeping with the increase in resolution, the rear of the camera also sees a ‘major’ upgrade. One of the big draws of the current breed of enthusiast or even pro-level DSLRs is the improvements seen in LCD screen technology. Where previously, as seen with the 40D, a resolution of 230,000 dots had been the norm, the current crop boast around 922,000 dots, around four times that of the 40D. This is something of which Canon is clearly aware, and the Canon 50D joins the club with its 920k-dot, 3in TFT LCD. The improvement not only means that images will be clearer on the screen, and as such easier to review, but the Canon 50D now has an improved viewing angle of 160° – as opposed to the 140° viewing angle of the Canon 40D’s LCD. It’s also worth noting that the Canon 50D now offers HDMI output, meaning you can bore your relatives with all your lovely holiday snaps by wiring them straight to your HDTV.
Canon 50D review – Live View
While on the subject of the LCD screen, it seems fitting to mention improvements made to the live view system. Canon seems to be following the moves made across the industry towards improving and integrating its live view systems, rather than just have them as an aside, and as such the Canon 50D features the same system as the Canon 40D, but now with live contrast autofocus and face detection included. Having said this, the autofocus isn’t quite that of several other DSLRs on the market – it involves pressing a separate ‘AF’ button to initiate the focusing system, which in turn involves either mirror lock-up or contrast detection ‘trial and error’ focusing, adding extra time to the process. The overall effect is that it doesn’t quite feel as integrated as it could be and not entirely suited to use ‘on the fly’, but more for still-life and tripod work.
Canon 50D review – Embedded Copyright Protection
One nice feature that has been seen on the more high-end DSLRs is the capacity to write copyright information directly to the EXIF data of the photo. In a time of proliferate photo sharing, it’s safe to say that more images than ever are being used without consent, and though writing your copyright information directly to the images is by no means a
fail-safe against such infringement, it could go some way to defending your case.
Canon 50D review – Sensitivity
An extended ISO range features, which now runs from ISO 100 through to ISO 3200 in standard mode, as opposed to ISO 100-1600 with the Canon 40D. The Canon 50D now also features two extended ISO (‘H’) settings, as opposed to just the one on the Canon 40D. The new ‘H’ settings provide extended ISOs of 6400 at ‘H1′, and 12800 at ‘H2′, an extended range that is class leading in the ‘enthusiast’ market.
Canon 50D review – Buffer Upgrade
Another of the Canon 50D’s minor upgrades appears in the area of the camera’s buffer. Where the Canon 40D manages to shoot JPEGs continuously up to around 75 images before the buffer becomes full, the Canon 50D features an increased buffer capacity, meaning that around 90 JPEGs can be captured continuously at a constant speed before the buffer begins to slow. However, it’s not all increases with regards to continuous shooting – where the Canon 40D managed 6.4fps, the Canon 50D can only capture at a fractionally slower 6.3fps.
Canon 50D review – Battery Life
It’s also worthy of note that all of these ‘upgrades’ come at a cost, and that cost (aside from financially) manifests in reduced battery life. Where Canon claimed that the Canon 40D would muster 800 images at optimal shooting conditions on a full charge, it claims the Canon 50D will only manage 80% of that, at around 640 shots per charge. This is, to an extent, to be expected. After all, the Canon 50D is essentially the same camera as the Canon 40D, but with more hardware in place to add extra drain to the battery.
Canon 50D review – Dust, Dimensions and In-Camera Flash
Other than one more minor upgrade – the Canon 50D’s integrated cleaning system now features a fluorine coating on its low-pass filter to prevent static, and as a result means that less dust will be attracted to the sensor – much remains the same. The Canon 50D features the same dimensions as the Canon 40D, and is only 10g lighter in its body-only form. The Canon 50D also features the same on-camera flash as the Canon 40D, complete with a guide number of 13 @ ISO 100, and the same shutter, focusing and metering systems.
Design & Performance
Canon EOS 50D review – Design
Canon 50D review – 40D vs 50D
Where there were minor upgrades to distinguish between the Canon 40D and the Canon 50D with regards to specification and features, the difference between the pair cosmetically and aesthetically is barely apparent at all. As mentioned earlier, the two models are exactly the same with regards to external dimensions, meaning that they’ll be impossible to distinguish in the hand.
The angular feel of its stablemate remains, and the solid rubberised handgrip, which continues right to the top-plate LCD monitor, certainly ensures the feel of an enthusiast DSLR. There are several nice touches to the camera that also feature on the Canon 40D. For example, the Canon 50D features a motorised pop-up flash mechanism which, while slightly noisy, adds a feel of build quality.
The only real major difference with regards to design between the Canon 40D and Canon 50D features on the model’s top-plate. Where the 40D featured a mode dial with a stainless steel trim, the top of the mode dial of the Canon 50D is now completely stainless steel with black icons. As the only stainless steel feature on the camera (besides the hotshoe and tripod bush, of course), it feels somewhat out of sync with the design and styling of the rest of the body. You can’t help but feel that such a token gesture is merely aimed at distinguishing the 50D from the 40D beyond just the badge, and to give Canon 50D owners the feeling that they are getting a different camera, beyond just the internal workings.
Canon 50D review – Menu Navigation
Menu navigation is provided, again in the same vein as the Canon 40D, either via the joystick-esque control located on the rear of the camera, or through a combination of both ‘joystick’ and quick control dial. One issue that we have with this arrangement is that while the joystick allows the user to jump between both menus and sub-menus, the same is not true with the quick control dial, itself being restricted to merely scrolling through sub-menus. Now while this is no major issue, one can foresee constant jumping between buttons and frequent usage of the joystick, which itself is angular and not the most comfortable on the hand, so it could prove agitating.
On the subject of menus, and something that has been mentioned before in Canon tests, the Canon menu system is not particularly intuitive. Despite the fact that you can pick and choose the features from the various menus that take your fancy, the default menu layout seems a touch limited. The menu consists of three sections (shooting, playback and setup) and the ‘My Menu’ area, yet each tab within a menu is limited to no more than seven items, with a seemingly random amount per tab, and the allocation of the items thereof seems a touch scattered – ie. LCD brightness and auto-rotate listed in setup rather than playback. Though this is a relatively minor gripe, it’s one that frequently occurs and as such one that you would hope Canon would look to address in the near future.
Canon EOS 50D review – Performance
While the 50D is presented with an increase in megapixels on the 40D, the introduction of the DIGIC IV processor means that image-processing times are swift to say the least. There is little-to-no delay between shots, even when shooting Raw + JPEG.
Another obvious benefit from the new DIGIC IV processor can be seen with the 50D’s focusing system. The model’s nine cross-type AF points are the same as with the 40D, and combined with the new processor deliver almost instant autofocus. On test, we found that even shifting from foreground to background subjects quickly, the 50D ‘locked on’ instantly. However, one point of note is that the focusing system was slowed slightly in more difficult lighting conditions. It is also worth pointing out that the nine cross-type AF points are by no means market leading – Nikon’s D300 has no less than 51 focus points, for example.
Canon 50D review – Continuous Shooting
One area that hasn’t been improved upon with the new DIGIC IV processor, however, is the continuous shooting speed. The 40D, in fact, boasts a fractionally faster continuous shooting speed. Having said this, the 6.3fps rate of the 50D is more than enough for most enthusiast photographers, and during our test the 50D met the claim sufficiently up to the stated buffer capacity of 90 JPEGs. While the buffer may be limiting for some, only stretching to some 15 seconds worth of capture, it’s quick to clear so no need to hang around waiting.
Canon 50D review – Metering System
In addition to experiencing AF issues, the metering system of the 50D also suffered in low light. We found that on overcast days when the sun did manage to break through the grey abyss, the 50D had no trouble nailing the correct exposure. However, with flat lighting it really struggled to get things right. Quite often the metering system would throw up either under or overexposed images. What’s more is that because of the irregularity and inconsistency of the under or overexposure, exposure compensation wasn’t much use in solving the issue.
Canon 50D review – 920K-dot LCD
The 50D’s 3in TFT LCD screen has no doubt benefited from an upgrade from the 40D’s 230k-dot resolution. The new 920k-dot resolution is now up to pace with the rest of the enthusiast market and, as with its competitors, really stands out on the rear of the camera, making accurate review of images possible and benefiting the overall capture experience. Not only that, but the increase in the viewing angle of the LCD screen will complement the extension of integration of the live view.
Image Quality & Value For Money
Canon 50D review – Image Quality
Canon 50D review – Exposure and Tone
The noticeable thing about the 50D is that in good lighting conditions, it produces good results. Exposures are reliable and tone is really nicely preserved throughout the frame. However, it becomes a different story in difficult light and overcast days. Exposures are varied, with over and underexposure common, though not reliable either way so as to make compensation an option, and as a result tone is often lost.
Canon 50D review – White Balance and Colour
Again, issues with the 50D’s performance in difficult lighting conditions persist with regards to white balance. In optimum/good lighting conditions the white balance is more often than not spot on, and colour perfectly rendered to the more natural side of the palette. Shoot in overcast conditions, though, and more often than not images will appear colder than they should be.
Canon 50D review – Noise
ISO performance is good, with noise being kept under control through the sensitivity range. When shooting at higher settings, however, fine detail is lost thanks to in-camera noise reduction, with the 50D choosing to smudge detail rather than exhibit noise. Shooting in Raw sees more noise, but more fine detail.
Canon 50D review – Detail and Sharpness
One of the benefits of the increase in the resolution of the sensor is that more detail can be captured, and as such either enlargements or extensive cropping of the images is not a problem. Sharpness is constant right to the edges of the frame, while detail is excellently rendered at the correct exposure.
Canon 50D review – Raw and JPEG
The comparison between Raw and JPEG is an interesting one. The camera does a very good job of processing JPEGs, so while they may appear a touch softer compared to Raw files, it is not necessarily to the detriment of the overall image. Fine detail is marginally better preserved in Raw files, while colours seem a touch more vibrant, which is probably down to the tendency of the 50D to present more natural JPEGs.
Canon 50D Review – Value For Money
Canon 50D review – More Resolution
Value is an interesting and relatively subjective proposition with regards to the 50D. On one hand, and compared to the model which it upgrades, the extra cash gets you a fair bit more camera. For instance, a 50% increase of resolution is bound to be a hit with those who like to have the option to extensively crop their images, or professionals who need all those megapixels for large-scale printing.
Canon 50D review – Less Battery Life
There is also the improvement to the LCD screen, which is a feature that’s really noticeable and brings the model up to scratch with the competition. However, it’s fair to say that while the changes are relatively large, the camera is essentially incredibly similar to the 40D. The 50D is exactly the same size, featuring a sensor that, despite cramming in another 5MP, is only a millimetre-squared larger than the 40D, and as a result of the upgraded features battery life has been affected negatively.
Canon 50D review – Market Rivals
You also have to consider the market into which Canon has launched the 50D. It has, no doubt, filled the gap between the 40D and the 5D, but has placed itself against the award-winning Nikon D300 – a camera that boasts 51 AF points, compared to the 50D’s nine, and a slightly larger sensor with fewer megapixels, which may be the reason its high-ISO performance is one of the best of the market.
Canon 50D review – Wanting for More
Either way, it seems that with the 50D Canon has provided a camera it felt it needed to produce, rather than wanted to produce. There is nothing groundbreaking about the model, and, while it will no doubt sell in bucketfuls and possess exactly the changes many Canonites were looking for, you can’t help feeling left wanting for more.
What to make of the Canon EOS 50D. On the one hand, there are several ‘upgrades’ to the 40D that will appeal to a range of photographers. If you’re someone who needs to either enlarge your prints or values the ability to crop your images without losing too much detail, then the extra 5MP in resolution will no doubt meet your satisfaction. The ‘upgrade’ to the LCD screen will have more widespread appeal, with it benefiting both the viewing angle of the screen and, ultimately, the ability to accurately view and review images taken on the camera.
However, these improvements come at a cost – both financially and with regards to performance. The battery life of the 50D has taken a hit to the tune of about 20% by means of trying to facilitate all the new technologies, for example. And despite all the innovations, no improvements have been made to the continuous shooting speed.
You also have to bear in mind the financial cost of the ‘upgrade’. If you reverse the sales pitch and consider that in purchasing the 40D, for example, you?ll be getting an awful lot of the 50D, but at a fraction of the cost, the decision seems quite a bit more complicated than previously.
And all this is without considering its peer group. When Nikon’s D300 was released it widely impressed with its stunning noise control, build quality and general feel, where the 50D just doesn’t have the same ‘wow’ factor in either image quality or handling.
The 50D seems a bit like a ‘quick fix’ for Canon, looking to plug an area of the market without actually breaking any real new ground. Yes, it produces excellent images in good lighting conditions, but is that really enough to merit the price tag when competitors have released excellent models in the same field?