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Nikon D50
Superb images, great price

Though the new 6MP Nikon D50 is more compact and less expensive than the D70s, it will deliver images every bit as good and is simpler to use, making it an ideal entry dSLR. In fact, it may be the only dSLR you'll ever need.

The camera is handsomely finished in black and has an almost-perfect grip size that most hands will find comfortable. You can hold it up to your left eye without your right thumb getting in the way and it is particularly stable when shooting vertical pictures. Clearly, Nikon has got the ergonomics down pat.

The camera is available as a body only, as a kit with an 18-55mm (35mm equivalent 27-82.5mm), f/3.5-5.6 lens, or a two-lens kit that adds a 55-200mm (82.5-300mm) f/4-5.6 telephoto with a lens shade. These lenses are lightweight and are designed for the camera's smaller-than-35mm sensor size.

As the old saying goes, you don't have to be a rocket scientist to use the D50. The front of the camera is very clean with only the lens release button and red-eye reduction/focus-assist lamp facing forward. The right side of the camera (with the Nikon logo facing you) has a button to select auto or manual focus when using lenses that don't have that function built-in. The two kit lenses have auto and manual switches on their lens barrels so you can just leave the camera's switch on autofocus and forget it.

Further up, at the right side of the flash, depressing a small button in conjunction with spinning the camera's command dial allows various flash modes to be set. When the exposure compensation button near the shutter release is pressed at the same time, you can adjust the intensity of the flash from three stops under to one stop over in increments of 1/3 or 1/2 f-stops. Though you might think you'd usually want more flash power, most pictures of people taken at normal distances are ruined by blowing them out with too much light. This also frequently happens when shooting close-ups in macro mode so being able to cut the light incrementally by up to three stops is a well-thought-out feature.

On the right side of the camera, a big flap can be popped open to allow access to a high speed USB 2.0 port (for transferring images to your computer), a video-out port for viewing them on a TV screen or with a projector, and a DC-in socket for an optional external power supply. Rather than using the D50's USB port to get images into your computer, invest in an inexpensive SanDisk ImageMate 12-in-1 card reader so you won't have to use the camera's battery power or drag out its cable.

Looking down on the camera's top deck with the back of the D50 facing you, there's a mode dial on the left that can be set to fully automatic or to these scenes: Landscape, Sports, Night Portrait, Portrait, Child, and Close-up. I suppose you're as curious as I was about the Child mode. According to Nikon's description, "Clothing and background details are vividly rendered while skin tones remain soft and natural." Do we really need this? But here's something we do need and it's there: Program, Shutter-priority, Aperture-priority, and Manual, all of which are the essential muscles of a serious dSLR camera body.

In the center of the top deck there's a flash hot-shoe for an external flash or wireless transmitter and to its right, the status LCD, which, unfortunately, cannot be illuminated. At the top forward tip of the grip is the on-off switch which circles the shutter release button and, just behind it to the left, a button to either kick-start the self timer or set the camera to be triggered by an optional remote control. A adjacent button to the right does triple duty depending on other buttons that are pressed at the same time. It can handle exposure compensation, change the flash intensity, or set apertures when the camera is in manual exposure mode (the command dial normally sets shutter speeds but when this button is pressed, it will select apertures).

The D50 has what Nikon calls Flexible Program (known as Program Shift on other cameras). It's a very rapid way of changing apertures or shutter speeds when in Program mode without having to use aperture or shutter priority. By simply turning the command dial, different aperture and shutter speed combinations can be set, all of which will give accurate exposures. For example, let's say you're watching a sporting event with the camera set to Program mode. You can select a high shutter speed for the action on the field just by spinning the dial. Then, if you want to shoot some reaction shots of nearby fans which might require a smaller aperture for better depth of field, you simply dial your f-stop choice; the correct shutter speed will follow along.

Running down the back of the camera, on the left hand side, are buttons that select single or multiple-frame shooting modes, playback, menu, ISO, white balance, and resolution. Moving right, there's the viewfinder with diopter correction for eyesight, the 2-inch LCD monitor, an auto focus/exposure lock button, a four-way, multi-selector navigation switch, and an erase button. The command dial is situated on the upper right of the camera's back, easy to access with your thumb. A door in the camera's right side opens to reveal a slot for an SD memory card and, at the bottom of the D50, a battery compartment houses a LiIon 7.4v, 1400 mAh battery that Nikon says will crank out about 400 images if you use flash for every other shot.

Now that we've finished with the nitty-gritty, it's time to report on the "feel" of the camera and get into the rants and raves. Nikon does not supply a lens shade with the D50's 18-55mm lens and that's a big mistake because picture quality can suffer without one and it then gets blamed on the camera. Without a lens shade it's easy to pick up flare and lose contrast, even when shooting inside. My advice: spring for the 52mm accessory lens shade at $12.50 and use it all the time. It also protects the front element of the lens from taking a direct hit if you bump into something.

Zooming in to closely examine pictures you've shot is anything but intuitive. Every other camera in the D50's class (Canon, Minolta, Pentax, and Olympus) has a quick and easy system to do this. You either press a set of buttons to zoom in and out, or turn the command dial. On the D50, here's the drill: you first have to press the Enter button and then hold down the ISO button at which time a red outline appears on the image. Then you must use the command dial and the four-way multi-selector to maneuver it into position over the area of the image you want to magnify. Once that's done, you can then release the ISO button and the selected part of the image jumps up full-screen. Whew! It's a bit like rubbing your tummy and patting your head at the same time.

On the other hand, the D50 really delivers where it counts. As you can see from the pictures I shot for this review, their quality is excellent and noise, even at the camera's highest ISO of 1600, is minimal which makes this camera great for indoor sporting events. Color is right-on (and adjustable to suit your taste), and the camera performs in every way like a top-of-the-line SLR (film or digital). I did find that focusing with the 55-200mm lens was a bit sluggish at times but I really stressed it out with quick changes from near to far--not the kind of thing you'll usually be doing.

I deliberately severely cropped some images, ending up with using about half the frame- the equivalent of turning the D50 into a 3MP camera. Blowing them up on an Epson 2200, I was able to get crisp 11 x 14 photos without any problems. If you're going to do extreme cropping like this, though, make sure to shoot your pictures at a reasonably high shutter speed so that both subject motion and camera shake are minimized or picture sharpness may suffer.

All in all, the D50 is a fine dSLR capable of turning out professional results and carries a great price tag. It has a solid, comfortable feel, its image quality is superb, and it's loaded with the right features. All you have to do is learn to use them--which is where the fun begins. - Arthur Bleich



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