Camera Test: Canon EOS 50D

A new DSLR for the advanced amateur.

Canon 50D test main
Canon 50D test main
Canon 50D test main

Pity the Canon EOS 50D. Between the hoopla about the latest full-frame juggernauts from Nikon, Sony, and Canon itself, and the buzz on the debut of the Micro Four Thirds system, it's easy for an impressive new advanced-amateur DSLR to get overlooked.

But for those of us who are serious about our photography and aren't ready to step into a full-frame system, there's a lot to recommend this new 15.1MP DSLR ($1,400, street, body only; $1,600 with 28-135mm f/3.5-5.6 EF IS lens; $2,100 with 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6 EF-S IS lens).
As our tests in the Pop Photo Lab prove, this isn't just an EOS 40D with a megapixel boost.

Granted, the 50D and 40D share the same body and many features; both have APS-C-sized CMOS sensors (1.6X lens factor); and they even use the same BG-E2N battery grip ($190, street). But as if to underscore the differences, the 10.1MP 40D stays in the Canon line ($950, street, body only).
So what's the big change? Aside from more megapixels, it's the DIGIC 4 processor, with ISOs up to 12,800, in-camera vignetting correction, and three sizes of RAW files.
To give you an idea of the processor's power, even though the 50D packs 5MP more than the 40D, its burst rate is 6.3 frames per second, close to the 40D's 6.5 fps. And the 50D shoots at full tilt for up to 90 large Fine-quality JPEGs or 16 RAW files when you use a UDMA CompactFlash card, according to our tests. With an old-fashioned CF card, expect up to 60 JPEGs.

The DIGIC 4 also gives you Canon's Auto Lighting Optimizer and Peripheral Illumination Correction. The first adjusts brightness and contrast for images that might not be perfectly exposed when you shoot them. The second lets you load the camera with technical data for as many as 40 EF lenses and then minimizes any vignetting that a particular lens might have.

The new processor also detects up to 35 faces in a shot when shooting in live view. But it doesn't do anything for autofocus in live view. With slow contrast-detection AF, this remains a clunky experience.

Familiar Feel

If you liked the design of the 40D, or for that matter, the 30D, you'll love the 50D. The well-proven approach puts a mode dial on the top left, with six scene modes for less experienced shooters and two custom modes for advanced types. On the right, there's the status LCD, along with three buttons for metering, white balance, AF, drive mode, ISO, and exposure compensation. Three buttons controlling six functions? Yes, because the 50D has two scroll wheels: one next to the shutter button, and a larger one on the camera back.

Despite 10 buttons, two wheels, an on/off switch, and a tiny joystick, the 50D isn't cluttered. There's even room to comfortably place your thumb. And the camera is contoured for a solid grip while you twist it in whatever direction you need.

Advanced shooters might complain about the single CF slot instead of the dual slots found on Nikon's D300 ($1,560, body only). But no one will gripe about the 50D's hot-shoe. With a nifty plastic ridge that mates with Canon's latest flash units, this shoe forms a tighter seal and battles dust and moisture better than older models.

While the 50D's LCD measures a familiar 3 inches, it steps up to 920,000 dots from the 40D's 230,000. Gorgeous! The viewfinder remains at 95-percent accuracy and 0.96X magnification, both Excellent scores by our measure.

Tale Of The Tests

In our lab, the 50D scored well, with an Excellent rating in overall image quality right up through ISO 1600 that dropped only to Extremely High at ISO 3200 and 6400. We saw a marked improvement in color accuracy over the 40D. Both scored Excellent, but the 50D served up an average Delta E of 6.6, versus the 40D's 7.7.

Resolution? Also Excellent, with a score of 2420 lines at ISO 100. At ISO 3200 it stood strong with 2232 lines. By ISO 12,800, resolution dropped off noticeably, sinking to 1997 lines.

Early adopters have complained about the 50D's noise levels. While they have a point, let's not overstate the issue. The 50D performed well overall in our noise tests and handily beat its predecessor at higher ISOs. For example, at ISO 1600, the 50D scored 1.7 for a Low rating, while the 40D produced slightly more noise (2.0) and earned a Moderately Low rating. At ISO 3200, the 50D rated Moderately Low at 2.2, while the 40D scored 2.9 for a Moderate rating.

That said, there are some nuances. First, the new camera underperformed the 40D at the lower ISOs. At ISO 100, with a score of 1.1, it barely made it into the Extremely Low category, compared with 0.8 (also Extremely Low) for the 40D, which maintained its Extremely Low rating through ISO 200. The pattern continued until the two reached parity at ISO 800 (1.5, Very Low).

The way noise manifests itself at higher ISOs is another issue. At the top two settings, we saw bands of noise stretching across the image-not something photographers usually see from a Canon. At least the 50D still gives you a full stop more usable sensitivity than the 40D, which topped out at ISO 3200 and was noisier at that point than the 50D is at ISO 6400.

Finally, the "extended" ISO of 12,800 may have raised expectations too high. The 50D is so noisy at that setting that it may be more of a tease than a useful feature. In our test, noise hit 4.13, an Unacceptable rating. Canon perhaps would've been wise to limit ISO to 6400. Since Nikon has been so successful at extending the ISO range in the D700 and D3, though, Canon probably felt the need to extend to ISO 12,800. But it wasn't necessary; both the Nikon D300 and D90 top out at ISO 6400, where in our noise test the EOS 50D beat them both.

Imaging: 15.1MP effective, APS-C sized CMOS sensor (1.6X lens factor) captures images at 4752x3168 pixels with 14 bits/color in RAW mode.

Storage: Single CompactFlash Type I/II including UDMA; Microdrives. Stores JPEG, RAW, RAW + JPEG files.

Burst rate: Full-sized JPEGs (Fine mode): Up to 90 shots at 6.3 fps. RAW: Up to 16 shots at 6.3 fps. (Both tested using UDMA CF card.)

AF system: TTL phase detection with 9 illuminated focus points (all cross-type). Single-shot and continuous AF with Predictive AI Servo focus tracking. Tested sensitivity down to EV -2 (at ISO 100, f/1.4).

Live view: TTL phase detection and contrast detection modes.

Shutter speeds: 1/8000 to 30 sec plus B (1/3-, 1/2-, or 1-EV increments). 100,000-cycle rating.

Metering: 35-zone TTL metering, Evaluative, Centerweighted, Partial (approx. 9% of viewfinder), and spot (approx. 3.8% of viewfinder). EV 1-20 (at ISO 100).

ISO range: Normal, ISO 100-3200 (in 1/3 EV increments); expanded, ISO 6400 and 12,800 (in 1-EV increments).

Flash: Built-in pop-up unit, GN 43 (in feet at ISO 100), covers angle of view of 17mm lens. X-sync at 1/250 sec.

Viewfinder: Fixed eyelevel pentaprism. LCD: 3-in. TFT with 920,000-dot resolution, 160-degree viewing angle.

Output: Hi-Speed USB 2.0, HDMI (mini-type) video, GPS.

Battery: Rechargeable BP-511A Li-ion; CIPA rating: 640 shots.

Size/weight: 5.7x4.2x2.9 in., 1.72 lb with card and battery.

Street price: $1,400, street, body only; $1,600 with EF 28-135mm f/3.5-5.6 IS USM lens; $2,100 with EF-S 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6 IS lens.

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