Canon EOS 50D review: Canon EOS 50D

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The Good Excellent performance and photo quality; solid, comfortable shooting design.

The Bad Relatively basic feature set for its class.

The Bottom Line A very good midrange dSLR, the Canon EOS 50D is a compelling--but not necessarily a must-have--choice for Canon upgraders.

7.8 Overall
  • Design 8
  • Features 7
  • Performance 8
  • Image quality 8

With entry-level dSLRs getting pretty cheap and close to commoditized, competition for the attention of experienced amateur photographers is heating up the $1,000-$1,500 price range of the market. Former occupants of that segment, like the Canon EOS 40D, have dropped to entry level, posing their own competitive threat to newer, more expensive models. The meat-and-potatoes updates the EOS 50D offers over the 40D--higher resolution, one usable extra stop of sensitivity, modest single-shot performance improvements, and multiple compressed raw options--provide a compelling alternative. But it's missing the vegetables, like an improved AF system, smaller spot meter, better viewfinder coverage, and customizable boundaries for shutter speed and aperture, which might have pushed it from compelling to must have.

Canon offers three configurations of the 50D. One kit includes the veteran f/3.5-5.6, 28-135mm IS USM lens, with an angle of view equivalent to that of a 44.8-216mm lens on a 35mm camera, and a second kit comes with the new EF-S 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6 IS lens, equivalent to 28.8-320mm. Of course, there's a body-only version as well. Though the 28-135mm lens doesn't provide the coverage or all-in-one convenience of the 18-200mm lens, I think it's a better lens, and would recommend that kit over the other and perhaps supplementing with the Canon EF-S 55-250mm f4.0-5.6 IS lens; that dual-lens configuration can be cheaper as well.

For better or worse, there aren't a lot of significant design or feature changes from the 40D. At 1.9 pounds, the body has gained a little weight--about an ounce--but retains the same dimensions: 4.2 inches by 5.7 inches by 2.9 inches. It retains the same comfortable grip and sturdy, partly dust- and weather-sealed, body, as well as compatibility with the old battery and vertical grip. I have the same likes and dislikes about the control design and layout as with the 40D. The series of three buttons above the status LCD--metering/white balance, AF/Drive mode, and ISO/flash compensation--are easy to use, but they feel identical. The status display delivers complete information and duplicates it on the rear LCD. Following the lead of competitors, Canon added the capability to change settings from that back information display, using a combination of the joystick and the big Quick Control dial on the back. Overall, it remains a good shooting design that upgraders will have no trouble adapting to and newcomers to the line should pick up pretty easily.

Canon squeezed an extra programmable function button below the LCD. You can assign it to directly access LCD brightness, image quality, exposure compensation, image jump during playback, or Live View settings. Additionally, the PictBridge button now does double duty; it also lets you toggle between regular and Live View shooting.

There are a handful of new features, though no movie capture. Aside from the bump to 15 megapixels from the 40D's 10 megapixels, the most apparent addition is Creative Auto, a new semimanual mode with capabilities you can view as an advanced Auto mode or dumbed-down Program mode, depending upon your viewpoint. All functions in CA are automated, with a few exceptions. Notably, it replaces shutter and aperture adjustment options with two sliding scales--Exposure (brighter/darker) and Background (blurred/sharp)--that implicitly adjust shutter speed and aperture. While it's an interesting idea, it seems too much of a newbie feature to put on the 50D. The Rebel series seems far more appropriate. In CA mode you can also can select single, continuous, or self-timer shooting; Picture Style; photo size and quality; and flash mode (auto, on or off).

As you can see from its new silver mode dial, Canon sacrificed a custom setting slot to make room for its new Creative Auto mode. I use the custom settings a lot and really miss that extra slot.

The Digic 4 chip enables some other new capabilities, including face detection in Live View mode (up to 35 faces), additional settings for the Auto Lighting Optimizer and high-ISO noise reduction (low, medium, and strong), and user-requested variable raw sizes of 7 and 3.8 megapixels. There are also some tweaks to the autofocus system, for example compensation for pulsed versus constant illumination, and support for in-camera lens databases that enable it to perform vignette correction and ensure undegraded illumination across the entire frame. Finally, Canon has improved the dust prevention, with a fluorine coating in front of the low-pass filter to deal with sticky dust.

Other features remain pretty much unchanged from the 40D and earlier. These include three nine-point autofocus modes: Single-shot, AI Servo tracking autofocus, and AI Focus, which switches between Single and AI Servo if it detects that the subject has moved. Unfortunately, the AI Focus can't tell the difference between subject movement and the photographer doing a focus-and-recompose, so you're usually better off picking Single or Servo and sticking with it. Four metering modes--evaluative, partial metering (approximately 9 percent of the viewfinder), a large 3.8 percent spot (here's why that's bad, from my 40D review), and center-weighted average metering--provide reasonable flexibility. It's got a full slate of white-balance settings, including bracketing and custom corrections along the blue, amber, magenta, and green axes; color temperature; and manual. A few scene program modes--portrait, landscape, macro, sports, and night portrait--augment the semimanual program, aperture- and shutter-priority, automatic depth-of-field AE, and manual exposure modes. Relevant maximums include a top shutter speed of 1/8,000 second and top flash sync speed of 1/250 second. Its same viewfinder system supports user-interchangeable focusing screens.

As the 40D was over the 30D, the 50D is roughly 30 percent faster overall than its predecessor thanks to upgrade to a Digic 4 processor, and finally overtakes Nikon's D200 and D300. From a cold start to first shot takes only 0.2 second, and with optimal conditions it can focus and shoot in only 0.4 second. Canon seems to have improved the low-light focusing capability of the AF system, as its 0.9-second shot lag in dim light now brings it into parity with the rest of its competitors. However, Olympus' E-3 still leads this class in most of the important performance metrics.