Almost exactly a year after Canon's genre-busting 40D was unleashed onto the world, the 50D has entered the fray. It's a step up — not a replacement — to the much admired work-horse. But the 50D is certainly no show pony given that, at least from the outside, it looks almost identical to the 40D.
The model we received to test included the new EF-S 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6 IS lens, sold as the EOS 50D Premium kit. It's an ideal model for the mid-range to advanced DSLR user — but it's also a very forgiving camera to better your craft on. But when push comes to shove, is it good enough to fend off competitors like the Nikon D90?
If you're familiar with the layout and design of the 40D, as well as the rest of Canon's EOS family, the 50D will come as no surprise. Put the two models side by side and the superficial differences are hardly noticeable — the label badge on the front, and the new chrome coated dial on the top will be your only real giveaways.
Even though it may not look it, the 50D's entire body has been redesigned around the new 15.1-megapixel CMOS (APS-C) sensor and the Digic 4 processor. It's also marginally lighter. Like an annoying younger sibling that insists on mimicking everything that its older brother does, it's still a hefty unit, weighing in at 730 grams without lens or battery. As a result the unit feels sturdy, and with the kit lens it bumps up the weight even more.
The camera fits comfortably in your hand thanks to the streamlined grip on the right-hand side, and all buttons and switches are within easy reach. It's good to see that the Direct Print button that was once the bane of the 40D's existence now has a more useful second function — doubling as the toggle for Canon's Live View function.
Menu interfaces and visuals have also been overhauled and they generally look better than those in the 40D, thanks to the new LCD screen. There's now also a mini-HDMI output on the right side of the camera, as well as the standard USB connectors, covered with two tough plastic flaps.
One of the most significant changes you'll notice from the 40D, at least on first inspection, is the LCD screen. It's a vast improvement on its predecessor, upped from 230,000 to 920,000 pixels. It renders colours accurately and with far greater detail than before, making even the dullest picture look vibrant — in fact, pictures often look better on-camera than they do on a computer screen. Complete with a brand new anti-reflection coating, expect to finally be able to see images in brightly lit environments. However, it's not foolproof, and on very sunny days it was still a struggle to see the images without shadowing the screen with a hand.
Creative Auto mode is a new addition to the 50D, and essentially acts as a slightly more advanced automatic mode. Choose between a blurred or sharp background and the ability to adjust the brightness, but that's all the control you get. It's a curious inclusion given that someone new to DSLRs will most likely go for a more entry-level model in Canon's line-up such as the 1000D or 450D rather than the mid-range, semi-professional 50D.
Live View in the 50D is also a significant improvement from its predecessor on the 40D. Automatic focusing is now much easier to use, and face detection is another notable inclusion, working effectively even in low light conditions.
Curiously, Live View is now only available in manual exposure modes, not in automatic or any of the preset function modes (portrait, macro etc) — something which seems odd given that it's a feature that will appeal to those upgrading from a point and shoot, expecting a similar configuration in automatic modes on a new DSLR.
There's now the added option to capture RAW images at lower resolutions, in sRAW1 and sRAW2 mode. We can see advantages and disadvantages on both sides here — it's nice to have the option of shooting at a lower resolution for RAW, but unless you have limited space on your memory card and need to shoot smaller images, it's just as easy to reduce the resolution in post-processing.
If you are expecting the latest and greatest in DSLR features on the 50D, there's one whiz-bang option that is notably absent — video recording. Though it's not a considerable disadvantage to exclude this feature, it is still an interesting move on Canon's part given the recent announcement of the Nikon D90's video mode (even if there are several quibbles with its operation and performance). The next camera in Canon's line-up that will feature high-definition video recording is the 5D Mark II, a professional model with a price tag to match. While it's likely to be a mainstay of the (presumably named) 60D, as well as other newer models in the mid-range/semi-professional DSLR category, the 50D will unfortunately have to do without.
It won't be a problem for photography purists who believe that a camera should only take pictures, but for anyone else tossing up between features in name alone, it may be the deciding factor that pushes them toward a Nikon.
Performance and Image Quality
There are no real surprises here when it comes to performance — especially when compared to the 40D — but a couple of features still caught our attention. The Digic 4 processor definitely produces cleaner images than the Digic 3, and the 15.1-megapixel sensor is a considerable boost in resolution from the 40D's 10.1 version.
Start up time is blisteringly fast — in fact, removing the rather fiddly lens cap on the 18-200mm takes longer than it does for the 50D to power on. Continuous shooting speed is down to 6.3 frames per second, from the 40D's 6.5, but given the considerable jump in resolution to achieve a comparable rate is pretty impressive. Up to 60 shots can be taken in one go, though only shooting in JPEG, not RAW. Writing to standard, rather than faster-rated Compact Flash cards, is also quick enough for standard users. However, wildlife and sports photographers should consider investing in a faster card for maximum performance.
As usual with Canon, and just as in the 40D, colours are rendered beautifully — if a little oversaturated at times.
EF-S 18-200mm IS lens
For new Canon converts and existing devotees, if you fork out an extra AU$900 on top of the 50D's AU$1,899 asking price, you'll get the premium kit, which includes the 50D body and the new EF-S 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6 lens.
As kit lenses go, the 18-200mm is an impressive unit, but it's far from the holy grail as it does have a couple of annoying features. Depending on your shooting situation, the in-built flash often has trouble reaching over the lens and illuminating the entire frame — shadowing is sometimes a problem when the flash bounces off surrounding surfaces. It's not a big problem for most photographers who opt for an external speed light unit in these situations though.
It's also sturdy; so much so that, like William Howard Taft, its weight often gets the better of it. Try shooting something with the lens pointing down and partially extended, and feel the "magic" of autonomous zoom — the rest of the lens will extend all on its own. Of course, it's a problem that can be overcome by holding the lens securely when taking these sorts of shots, but it's still somewhat disconcerting to feel it have a life of its own.
At the maximum telephoto reach of 200mm, there is a slight amount of distortion of parallel lines, though nothing so extreme that wouldn't also be noticeable on other lenses in its class. The in-built image stabilisation, which is one of the key selling points of the lens, isn't always effective — shoot in low light situations without flash, even at an ISO of 1600 and above, and there will be a small amount of blurriness when you view images at full magnification.
Speaking of ISO, there is a remarkable amount of detail in shots captured at ISO 1600, with little discernible noise. Levels can even be bumped up to as high as ISO 12800 in the customisable settings — although with the amount of noise at this level, it seems as if this setting is here only for absolute last-ditch emergency attempts at taking a shot. Autofocus is similarly accurate, and an improvement on the 40D with the inclusion of trickle-down features from the professional 1D Mark III model we saw last year.
Though the 50D isn't the successor to the 40D, it offers numerous improvements that may be worth the upgrade — or the outright new purchase — depending on your priorities. After having experienced the quality and depth of colour in the new LCD screen it will be very difficult to go back to the 40D and to other comparable models in its class. If you do a lot of on-camera reviewing and value an improved screen, consider the 50D. For most other uses though, it performs (and looks) remarkably similar to the 40D, making the choice as much about price as it is about features.