Whether it's entry-level digital cameras or professional-grade DSLRs with full-frame image sensors, Canon has remained at the top of the digital camera market for some time. The Canon EOS 50D sits firmly in the middle of Canon's current DSLR lineup, offering high performance at a reasonable price for working photographers and advanced amateurs. Canon's reputation for cranking out new models on a consistent (to their critics, predictable) timetable is well earned, and the 50D replaces the popular 40D by adding some solid improvements – including live view, a newly developed 15.1 megapixel CMOS sensor, improved high ISO performance, and enhanced noise reduction options.
Sitting somewhere between the "entry-level" models like the Rebel XSi and advanced cameras like Canon's own EOS 1D series, the 50D offers greater resolution, enhanced live view functionality with contrast-detect AF, and a new menu interface offering more custom functions and control over things like noise reduction and RAW+JPEG shooting. Of course, these features and enhancements are par for the course with a market leader like Canon, and the real test of the 50D is whether it exceeds expectations rather than simply offering a minor evolution of previous cameras.
The Canon EOS 50D is Canon's latest advanced amateur/professional DSLR, moving into the company's lineup one step above the current Rebel XSi as a replacement for last year's 40D. In much the same way that the 40D was an evolution of the 30D (which was an evolution of the 20D...which evolved from the 10D), the 50D offers just enough improvements and new features to make it desirable but isn't revolutionary enough to make the previous camera model obsolete.
The 50D features a proprietary CMOS sensor with an effective 15.1 megapixels of resolution (an increase from the 40D's 10.1 megapixel sensor), a new DIGIC IV 14-bit image processor, a new menu system, and better weather sealing where the various parts of the camera body come together. The 40D's bright viewfinder with interchangeable screens and nine-point auto focus system return, with the addition of live view with enhanced contrast-detect AF. The 50D also gets a new "Clear View" 3.0 inch LCD with improved resolution and greater visibility in direct sunlight.
LCD size, resolution, and sunlight readability is particularly important for the 50D since it sports a live view system, allowing the screen to be used for shot composition. The 50D's live view implementation is a significant improvement over the first-generation live view feature on the 40D, with the addition of a contrast-detection AF mode that allows the camera to auto focus without interrupting the on-screen preview as on the 40D.
Another interesting improvement includes a fairly advanced Picture Style menu that allows shooters to fine-tune image processing (and includes space for several user-defined custom settings). The 50D supports Canon's current EF/EF-S lens mount but doesn't come packaged with a "kit lens" – a testament to the fact this camera is designed for advanced photographers who already have lenses or already know what lenses they need.
As with the previous 40D, the 50D's shooting modes are quite diverse without the point-and-shoot naming conventions used with the Canon Rebel cameras. The shooting modes include:
Like most DSLRs, playback options are fairly basic with the 50D. The camera does incorporate an orientation sensor that automatically rotates portrait-orientation images during playback. As with Canon's point-and-shoots, it's also easy to scroll through images either 10 or 100 at a time using the control dial.
For a detailed listing of specifications and features, please refer to the specifications table found at the bottom of the review.
FORM, FIT, AND FEEL
The 50D's design and ergonomics are both a blessing and a curse. Image quality is obviously more important than how a camera feels in your hands, but after years of using multiple camera systems I can tell you that, in my view at least, the best cameras are the ones with a control layout and user interface that doesn't get in the way. In my opinion, the 50D suffers from a Canon tradition of making a control layout and menu system that requires time and effort to use, taking the photographer's attention off the subject and putting it on the camera instead. While ergonomics, control layout and menu interfaces are a matter of personal preference, the 50D's massive physical size and cumbersome control layout get in the way of taking photos...and ultimately get in the way of an otherwise amazing camera.
Styling and Build Quality
I realize that I may be in the minority when I say this, but while I find the 50D's body to feel fantastic, the general control layout is horrible.
In terms of build quality, the 50D shows just how far Canon's mid-level EOS cameras have come, making some solid improvements in terms of build quality over the old EOS 20D that I used to shoot with on a regular basis. The 50D not only feels solid in your hands, but it has the weather sealing to back up that feeling.
Of course, the down side to that solid feeling and all those environmental seals is increased weight. The 50D is easily one of the heaviest cameras in its class. Compared to a Pentax K20D, the 50D is a lead brick, surpassed only by the massive weight of the Nikon D700.
The numerous high-gloss buttons have a slippery feel that not only make it easy for your finger to slip when pressing, but also are close enough together (particularly on the top panel) to make it easy to press the wrong button. On the bright side, the 50D's nice and large LCD is a welcome sight on the rear deck of the camera.
There's no denying that Canon has a solid, well-built camera here. The biggest issue I have is with the cluttered button layout – which obviously isn't too problematic for most users, if we take the many, many photographers currently using Canon gear as evidence.
Ergonomics and Interface
As with the old EOS 10D and the many cameras that followed it, the 50D has an excellent hand grip with a perfect amount of space (bite) for a solid grip with the shooting hand. Although you'll be hard-pressed to find many photographers who shoot this camera using just one hand, the grip is well balanced enough to allow for one-handed shooting.
If the 50D wasn't quite as heavy, I could easily understand using it for all-day shooting assignments where I have to hold the camera up to eye level for hours at a time without rest. As it stands, when paired with a heavy IS-equipped lens, the 50D is a little heavier than most event photographers or photojournalists might want in a perfect world.
Canon is unique among camera makers in that they have exposure controls that are primarily navigated with the front control dial, positioned just behind the shutter release button, and the rear control wheel located on the rear deck of the camera.
Whether on not this control interface is better or worse than others is a rather subjective matter. I find it difficult to simultaneously cover the control dial, the shutter release, and the back-panel wheel with my fingers and thumb – and next to impossible while shooting one-handed. If you're someone who is used to cameras that have a front control dial located below the shutter button and a rear control dial located at the top of the rear deck where the thumb naturally rests then you'll probably find the Canon control layout very frustrating.
One of the EOS 50D's main upgrades over the 40D is the inclusion of a superior live view system and a high-resolution 920,000 dot/3.0 inch LCD to complement it. When not in one of the live view modes, the 50D allows you to use the rather sizable LCD in place of a traditional top-deck status display, providing information about selected exposure parameters, battery life, and number of available shots remaining. The basic look and layout of the status display carries over almost unchanged from the Canon Rebel series – making it easy for Canon Rebel shooters to upgrade to the 50D.
The large LCD has excellent color reproduction and a fantastic refresh rate (though there is a hint of sluggishness in live view mode that I'm sure has more to do with live view than the performance of the LCD). The screen's resolution is good enough for you to see the difference between a correctly focused image and an "almost" correctly focused image sometimes without even using the magnification mode. Canon states the viewing range to be an impressively wide 160 degrees, and our tests suggest that number is indeed accurate. In short, you should be able to use the LCD to compose your shots in live view mode even with the camera held above your head even in bright sunlight. The screen also has seven adjustable brightness levels, allowing you to compensate for direct sunlight or dim the screen when you're shooting in a dark environment (like a school play).
The 50D uses the same viewfinder in the 40D, a 0.95x magnification prism with no obvious distortion or corner softness. Like the 40D, the 50D features interchangeable focusing screens so the photographer can get the view he or she desires. The 50D comes with a standard "Precision Matte" screen (EF-A) but can be replaced with either the "Precision Matte with Grid Lines" (EF-D) or the "Super Precision Matte" (EF-S) focusing screen.
The information area around the viewfinder and the heads-up display of AF confirmation points is fantastic. You get all the information you could possibly need in a viewfinder along with a nice bright viewfinder image that makes it a little easier to confirm correct focus in low light.
This is a Canon. You can pretty much skip this entire section if you'd like, since we've yet to test a Canon EOS camera – and the 50D is no exception – that didn't hold up impressively well in this category. Canon continues to refine and improve overall performance with every generation of cameras, and every year it gets harder to imagine a camera that could be even faster than the previous generation of Canon cameras. The 50D continues this great tradition and reminds you why Canon is so popular.
Timings and Shutter Lag
Canon's well-deserved reputation in the DSLR space is built on a foundation of shooting speed. As Canon's many television commercials suggest, you'll rarely miss an important shot with the kind of performance that Canon brings to the table. Canon's own entry-level Rebel series of DSLRs are already amazingly fast, so how fast could the 50D be? The answer: The 50D was so fast the first few times I used it I wasn't sure it was even engaging autofocus before it snapped the shot! When I went back to check the images everything was in focus, and I still had trouble believing how fast it was.
Shutter Lag (press-to-capture, pre-focused)
|Canon EOS 50D
|Sony Alpha DSLR-A350
AF Acquisition (press-to-capture, no pre-focus)
|Canon EOS 50D
|Sony Alpha DSLR-A350
As always for our DSLR reviews, the numbers stated represent a five-shot average time for each camera using its kit lens. Given how quick the 50D feels, it's no surprise to see it at or near the top of the list in both measures. While the practical difference between 0.2 seconds and 0.3 seconds is almost nonexistent, the speed by which the 50D acquires correct focus is truly impressive.
|Canon EOS 50D
|Nikon D90||∞||4.0 fps|
|Sony Alpha DSLR-A350||∞||2.1 fps|
Note: Continuous shooting framerates are based on the camera's fastest full-resolution JPEG continuous shooting mode, using the fastest media type available (300x CF, SDHC, etc.), as tested in our studio. "Frames" notes the number of captures recorded per burst before the camera stops/slows to clear the buffer.
The 50D inherited its nine-point auto focus system from the 40D, but the system continues to be refined with every generation – meaning faster auto focus and better low-light auto focus every year. The 50D's AF system proved to be amazingly fast and mostly reliable, but not always consistent even with a stationary camera and stationary subject. Using two different lenses during out test period we noticed times when the 50D would select a slightly different AF lock even when the subject and the camera remained perfectly still. This would at times result in a photo that lacks critical focus for enlargements, but is still reasonably focused enough for smaller prints. It's hard to say this "focus creep" is the result of the lenses being used or the ultra-fast autofocus system, but it can be a major frustration when you think a photo is in focus and it turns out to be slightly out of focus under enlargement.
The AF point is manually selectable from among any of the 50D's nine areas. The system for manual point selection, however, requires an additional button press before using the d-pad to select your point.
With the 50D, the engineers at Canon provide the traditional single-shot and continuous ("AI Servo" in Canonese) focus drive options, but also include the hybrid AI Focus mode in which the camera automatically switches between single and continuous AF drive (and does a pretty good job of making intelligent decisions, as best I could tell). Similarly, if you're using automatic multi-point AF, Canon's proprietary A-DEP exposure mode will automatically calculate an aperture-priority exposure that ensures enough depth of field to bring all of the selected AF points for a particular shot into sharp focus.
The system disables AF in live view altogether by default, but custom function settings allow the 50D to use either traditional focus-sensor AF (in which the mirror must be moved out of the way for the camera to focus, thereby interrupting the on-screen preview for around a second in most cases), or use a slower contrast-detection focusing system like those found on compact cameras (which allows the camera to auto focus without interrupting the on-screen preview, but often takes three to four seconds to lock). In either case, AF in live view must be initiated by pressing and holding the AE-Lock button until the camera beeps to confirm focus lock: a half-press of the shutter button won't do it.
Using the d-pad on the back of the camera allows you to move the focus point, but despite the improvement over the 40D's live view mode, the new live view feature is still far more clunky than what most consumers are accustomed to on compact digital cameras. Since the AF system doesn't reconfirm focus when the shutter fires, if your subject has moved significantly between the time you acquire AF lock and the time you press the shutter button (which then takes roughly a half a second to initiate the up-and-down mirror motion and fire the shutter), your shot will be out of focus. Contrast-detection auto focus helps you keep track of the subject while focusing, but this AF mode simply isn't as fast as the traditional phase-detect AF used through the camera's viewfinder.
Of course, you can always manually focus in live view, and Canon has conveniently provided 5x and 10x area magnification options to aid in getting everything sharply locked. This is also extremely helpful when using old manual focus lenses or third-party lenses via a lens mount adapter.
Speaking of the lens mount, the 50D features an EF-S lens mount capable of handling all current Canon glass – including full-frame EF-mount lenses. The body receiver mount is metal and exceptionally solid.
While Canon's backwards compatibility is not as good as what some rivals provide (Canon FD glass anyone?), the popularity of Canon AF lenses makes it easy to find almost any lens, and many third-party lens manufacturers regularly release new lenses for the Canon lens mount. In addition, because of the registration distance for the Canon lens mount, many lenses designed for other camera systems can be used (as manual focus lenses) with a lens mount adapter.
The 50D's flash appears to be the exact same unit that graced the 40D, 30D, and 20D, with a guide number of 13 meters. Flash output can be compensated up or down up to 2 EV, with coverage out to around 17mm. The 50D was able to recycle a full-power flash discharge in under 3 seconds with a fully charged battery.
Mode options include forced on, forced off, and 1st curtain (front) or 2nd curtain (rear) sync flash modes.
On-board flash performance was, as before, perfectly acceptable, with spot-on exposure across a range of situations. Red-eye reduction also worked as anticipated, with a pre-flash effectively controlling unusual reflectivity.
With a sync speed of 1/250, the built-in flash was generally useable for daylight fill when working at lower ISOs and/or narrower apertures.
On nice feature I love about Canon's DSLRs is the ability to "cheat" the flash sync. It is possible to manually fire a flash mounted in the camera's hot shoe or fire a studio strobe at any shutter speed, and depending on the flash or strobe, you may be able to create a properly exposed image at a shutter speed faster than 1/250. For example, using a cheap $20 auto flash in the 50D's hot shoe I was able to create properly exposed flash shots up to 1/320. Of course, a faster sync speed (like Nikon's 1/500 on its entry-level models) would have been even better.
Of course, the 50D is also able to control Canon's EX Speedlites using the same E-TTL II metering protocol employed for the pop-up flash.
Although Canon doesn't offer the convenient in-body image stabilization found in many competitors' cameras, Canon does offer the most comprehensive line of image stabilized lenses on the market. We tested two IS lenses during the review period: the well-respected Canon EF-S 17-85mm f/4.0-5.6 IS USM lens, and the budget-priced Canon EF-S 55-250mm f/4.0-5.6 IS lens.
Testing suggests that Canon's stabilization system works well on both lenses, allowing shutter speeds as slow as around 1/15 with the 17-85mm lens, and as low as 1/30 with the 55-250mm lens at full telephoto.
Canon claims that the 50D is capable of taking 800 shots on a single charge of its 1390mAh lithium-ion battery without using the built-in flash (640 shots with 50 percent flash use). In shooting this review, I took more than 500 images over several weeks but did recharge the battery once when it indicated a less-than-full charge (two of three bars). I used both flash and live view quite sparingly, but the 50D appears to offer the same excellent battery life of its predecessors.
Like the 40D, the 50D supports not one, but three battery grips: the old BG-E2 (used with the 20D and 30D), the BG-E2N (weather-sealed version of the BG-E2), and the WFT-E3/E3A wireless battery grip give you three options for extended battery life.
Everyone, from soccer moms to high fashion photographers, expects Canon cameras to deliver exceptional image quality, and the new 15.1 megapixel image sensor and DIGIC IV image processor do their part to meet or exceed those expectations.
As you can see in the studio still life test image below, the Canon's default settings produce a well-balanced image with plenty of latitude for post processing: good sharpness, excellent color reproduction, and the smooth look that has become distinctively Canon.
If anything, the extreme resolution of the new image sensor makes the lenses a potential weak link in terms of overall image quality. For the sake of consistency during testing, we used only two lenses with the 50D during the test period: a Canon EF-S 17-85mm f/4-5.6 IS USM, and a Canon EF-S 55-250mm f/4-5.6 IS. With an image sensor capable of resolving extremely fine details, the optics placed in front of the lens will be pushed to their limits in terms of resolving power. Even stopped down, many budget lens may produce soft images lacks punch and crisp details, making it all the more important to pay attention to the glass you're using.
Bottom line, there's not much to criticize about the image sensor in terms of image quality, so the right glass will make the biggest difference.
Exposure, Processing, and Color
Default exposure using the 50D's multi-area evaluative metering was consistent without any noted trouble spots. Slight overexposure with blue sky in the background was sometimes common, but this is hardly unusual and easily correctible with exposure compensation.
Like almost every new DSLR these days, the 50D includes a general dynamic range function, though control is buried in the list of custom functions. The basic d-range function, Canon's Auto Lighting Optimizer, performs straightforward highlight/shadow balancing and is on by default in all shooting modes.
The 50D also includes a d-range adjustment option ("Highlight Tone Priority") that specifically targets highlights, providing expanded dynamic range from 18 percent gray on up to prevent highlight clipping. I found the function, which is likewise buried in a complicated menu, useful when trying to prevent overexposed highlights in JPEGs, but it still provides less exposure latitude than shooting in RAW mode.
Though there's still some highlight clipping in the image above, more highlight detail is retained in the sky than in a JPEG shot in the standard dynamic range setting. In general, when exposed correctly, the 50D produces impressive dynamic range with good transitions between shadows, midtones, and highlights.
The 50D also has a sophisticated range of JPEG processing controls . Quick access via the Picture Style function button on the d-pad, the 50D's presets provide a nice range of color and sharpness options.
In addition to contrast, sharpness, and saturation fine-tuning options for the processing presets, three user-defined styles also allow more flexibility. Sharpness, contrast, saturation, and color tone (hue) can all be adjusted on scales range from 0 to 7 for sharpness (3 is default), and -4 to +4 for all other parameters (0 is default).
In real world shooting, the changes in processing across presets range from minor to fairly aggressive, with the Landscape setting, for instance, providing significantly more contrast and punch than the 50D exhibits by default. In fact, I suspect most advanced amateurs (and even some working pros) who don't like editing every single image will want to leave the 50D set in Landscape mode to get that extra contrast and punchy color without spending extra time in Photoshop.
Similarly, the Portrait mode shifts colors and hues to a warm appearance that works well for portraits with healthy skin tones.
Overall, Canon's default processing is soft and flat, giving you a wonderful amount of latitude for post-processing, but creating images that simply don't "pop" directly from the camera. Although the Canon's standard processing is likely too flat for people who don't enjoy post-processing, the available adjustments make it easy to get the look you want straight out of the camera. Just be prepared to tweak the settings until you find what works best for you...or shoot RAW and post-process.
After shooting several weeks with the 50D's RAW+JPEG mode, I found that there was little difference in terms of sharpness and detail between RAW and JPEG files coming out of the camera. RAW clearly offered more exposure latitude to prevent highlight clipping and made it easier to adjust white balance in post processing, but the added file size, processing time and frustration involved with editing giant RAW files means that careful JPEG shooters won't loose much (if anything) by not shooting RAW.
Back when I used to cover weddings and events with a Canon 20D, one of my biggest frustrations was Canon's inability to deliver consistently accurate automatic white balance under incandescent light. Despite three generations of improvements, the 50D's automatic white balance setting continues to struggled under incandescent light, though it does seem to be a little better than what I remember from the 20D. Mixed lighting, particularly flash and incandescent combined) caused some very random automatic white balance behavior that required individually adjusting white balance during post processing for many shots, making me use a pre-set option more often than I normally do with other DSLRs.
Auto White Balance, 3200K incandescent light
As with other Canon DSLRs we've tested, the AWB setting doesn't like cool late evening tones either, making blues appear more green than expected. Again, preset white balance or manual white balance largely resolves this issue...but it would be nice to have a friendly AWB setting for those times when you're moving between different lighting environments.
Sensitivity and Noise
Much of the early excitement around the 50D focused on the increased high-sensitivity performance (taking the maximum ISO from 3200 on the 40D to an amazing ISO 12,800 in "HI 2" expansion mode) and the camera's new noise reduction algorithm.
ISO 100, 100% crop
ISO 200, 100% crop
ISO 400, 100% crop
ISO 800, 100% crop
ISO 1600, 100% crop
ISO 3200, 100% crop
ISO 6400, 100% crop
ISO 12800, 100% crop
The 50D continues Canon's trend of producing clean high ISOs, with one of the cleanest ISO 1600 settings we've seen in a camera in this class. ISO 100 and 200 have such little noise that you'd swear the images came from a medium-format camera with a digital back. The look from ISO 400 is what we've come to associate with Canon's CMOS sensors: slightly grainy, but finely textured and generally more film-like than the blotchy chroma noise seen from many CCD sensors, and while the expanded settings show significant noise, even ISO 12,800 would be usable for small prints.
While the improvements are subtle in normal prints, comparing ISO 3200 crops from the 50D (again, with NR engaged) with the other contenders in the mid-level space shows usually slight but clear advantages in terms of detail rendering and dark-area noise, especially.
Canon EOS 50D, ISO 3200
Nikon D90, ISO 3200
Pentax K20D, ISO 3200
Sony Alpha DSLR-A350
Again, at normal print sizes it was hard to see much difference between the 50D and any of its competitors, and it took close analysis of pretty sizable enlargements to really pull out the distinctions. Still, in terms of overall noise reduction/smoothing, the 50D is clearly a step ahead of many competitors in this area. Canon's noise reduction produces excellent smoothness, retains good detail, and doesn't flatten color at high ISOs. Extreme ISOs (above ISO 1600) do start to show some "color splotching" in shadow areas and some detail smoothing, but I wouldn't hesitate to use ISO 1600 and below even for big prints (11x14).
Additional Sample Images
My personal expectations for the 50D were a mixture of highs and lows; experience has taught me that Canon's updates to their mid-range DSLRs usually tend to be evolutionary, but I honestly expected to see some significant improvements over the old Canon 20D that I used several years ago. As it turns out, I was both pleasantly surprised and a little disappointed by what I experienced with the 50D.
The 50D continues to prove that Canon has one of the fastest (if not the fastest) AF systems, extremely high-resolution CMOS sensors with very impressive high ISO performance, and now offers (for some users, at least) a functional live view system. Where the 50D disappoints is in the areas of default image processing (bland), menu bloat (way too difficult to figure out basic controls), and auto white balance performance that hasn't really improved much (if at all) in several generations of cameras. Of course, it's easy to overlook these frustrations when you consider that amazing lens selection, flash options, and available accessories for Canon DSLRs, making the Canon EOS system one of the most versatile advanced camera systems on the planet.
For advanced amateur photographers, issues like flat default image processing, heavy camera weight, and overly complicated menus may indeed make the 50D a less-than-ideal choice. Professional photographers might find those issues frustrating, but working pros will probably find auto white balance quirks and inconsistent AF with various lenses in terms of critical focus more frustrating. Still, the rugged built quality, overall range of features, and solid performance of the 50D make it a powerful photographic tool. Combine that with Canon's very complete and very versatile system of lenses, accessories, and other camera bodies, and it makes perfect sense to buy into the Canon EOS system with this very solid camera.
As with previous Canon releases, the 50D is a fairly conservative upgrade, but this camera still sits at or near the top in its category.
|Sensor||15.1 megapixel (effective), 22.3x14.9mm CMOS|
|Lens/Zoom||Canon EF/EF-S mount
|LCD/Viewfinder||3.0", 920K-dot TFT LCD with live view; pentaprism optical viewfinder with diopter adjustment, 95 percent coverage
|Shooting Modes||Program, Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, Depth of Field Priority (A-DEP), Manual, Auto, Creative Auto, Scene
|Scene Presets||Portrait, Landscape, Macro, Sports, Night Portrait, Flash Off
|White Balance Settings||Auto, Daylight, Shade, Cloudy, Tungsten, Fluorescent, Flash, Custom, Kelvin
|Metering Modes||Evaluative, Partial, Center-Weighted, Spot
|Focus Modes||AI Focus, AI Servo, One Shot, Manual
|Drive Modes||Single, Continuous, Self Timer
|Flash Modes||Auto, Forced On, Forced Off, Red-Eye Reduction|
|Self Timer Settings
||10 seconds, 2 seconds, Off
|Memory Formats||CF Type I or II, UDMA compatible
|File Formats||JPEG, RAW
|Max. Image Size||4752 x 3168
|Max. Video Size
|Zoom During Video||N/A|
|Battery||Rechargeable 1390 mAh lithium-ion, 640 shots
|Connections||USB 2.0, AV output, HDMI mini out, remote terminal
|Additional Features||Live View, DIGIC IV Processor, Auto Lighting Optimizer, 9-Point AF System, 6.3 fps continuous shooting, EOS integrated cleaning system|