The 50D enters the DSLR market pitched into the same sector as Nikon’s recent D300 and as such it has stiff competition. The new camera’s apparent similarity to the 40D masks a very different and much improved model in the 50D; almost every aspect of the previous model has been enhanced, improved or worked on.
The headline change must be the all-new 15-megapixel CMOS sensor that features redesigned photosites, micro lenses and electrical jiggery pokery. And joined as it is to Canon’s most up-to-date DIGIC image engine, DIGIC 4 means it is capable of low noise high ISO imaging at high frame rates, up to 6.3fps and 14-bit analogue to digital conversion.
This makes the new EOS a very response model with almost instant start up and although it is a bit of lump, just like its forbear, it’s actually 10g lighter, at 730g body only. However, it’s magnesium alloy chassis and reassuringly rigid body construction makes it equally reassuring to hold and use.
Like all EOS models, the camera’s controls are well laid out with a top plate benefiting from a large backlit data LCD that’s accompanied by a set of buttons for key combined features such as AF and drive modes; ISO and bracketing settings; white balance and metering controls.
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A press of the relevant button activates both settings, one controlled by the main control dial just forward of the shutter release and/or the quick control wheel on the back.
The large quick control wheel is used in conjunction with a small joystick device or "multi controller" as Canon calls it; this is rather counter intuitive to use at first (the same problem as with other EOS models fitted with the same control layout), but once you’ve mastered them both, moving around menus and images and settings is very fast and of course, its raison d’etre.
While these controls may seem a bit of a handful at first, one thing that is not is a new 3-inch, 920k-dot, screen which is a cracker to use, has dual anti reflective coatings built-in to help using it in brighter conditions, particularly as the other feature of the 50D is its Live View capability.
The AF set up provides nine AF zones for "normal" use and Live View gets a couple of extra tweaks with Face Detection Live View and a Quick AF setup that may be faster than some but is not particularly accurate as I found on some lower light work I shot at the wide end of the kit lens.
This lens is actually a rather good 17-85mm F/4 to F/5.6 Image Stabilised optic that provides the equivalent focal range of 27.2mm to 136mm thanks to the new APS-C sensor’s 1.6x field of view crop. The apertures mean depth of field control can be a bit of a challenge but the image stabilisation provides an excellent two or three stops of handholdablity.
With DIGIC 4’s responsiveness it is easy to forget that the camera is pumping 15-megapixel images across to the card (incidentally Canon claim even better performance with UDMA cards in place) so fleet of foot it is.
Other new bits of kit of note include the sensor’s new, gapless micro lenses. This increases the efficiency of each photosite and so helps reduce further, possible noise issues. The (now pretty much standard across the range) EOS Integrated Cleaning System (to keep dust off of the sensor between lens changes for example) boasts a new fluorine coating on the low pass filter helping to stop dust adhering in the first place and that, combined with other features such as the now indispensable Live View, which has a dedicated button for fast activation on the back plate.
However, the hit and miss performance of the AF in Live View and the fact the Face Detection did not always get it right when the lens was used at the widest focal length disappointed somewhat.
Other improvements include the Quick Control screen, which borrows a leaf from Olympus’ E-series book and utilises the large display to help you control and interact with the camera’s settings.
One of the features I loved is the Creative Auto mode activated from the large top plate mode dial, which is crammed with settings including all the main manual shooting options, six subject programs and two custom modes to name the main items on hand.
Creative Auto is activated here too, when selected, you can quickly adjust the Picture Style in use (these include additional modes for Portrait, Faithful and Monochrome modes, to name three, and that can be user-customised adding almost limitless "looks" to each setting) with simple-to-use sliders to adjust background blur and exposure for example.
The camera is also equipped with four levels of noise reduction for high ISO noise, though on this test, noise is not actually much of a problem until you get up to and over ISO 2000. Above here noise becomes more noticeable but it is not until you get to ISO 3200 and beyond (H1 is equal to an ISO 6400 equivalent an H2 is equivalent to ISO 12,800) that noise becomes anything nasty. However I did note that detail starts to get stripped as early as ISO 1000 which is a shame as it introduces a reduction in sharpness that needs to be factored in and adjusted for in the camera’s custom settings.
However, the user interface for all this kit is nicely enhanced from the EOS 40D (the new look interface is part of the new DIGIC 4 processing package) with neat colour coded, tabbed menu items.
The 50D also sports the ability to shoot RAW and JPEGs together but you also get the ability to downsize the image dimensions of the RAW files (or sRAW files), helping you to maximise the storage or adjust the quality to suit the final image needs. RAWs can be captured at full 15.1-megapixels, 7.1-megapixels or 3.8-megapixels according to your needs. Throw in HDMI support, so that you can output images on the camera directly to a compatible HD TV and you have a superb piece of camera kit that’s sure to make waves in the market.
And I can say this with confidence since the image quality is superb. Not just lack of noise but colour and detail, metering and white balance, all perform very well (with bags of customisation built-in if you need to tweak things further too). One reservation I did have on the image quality side of things was to do with the shadow detail, which seemed to clog up much more quickly in shadows than I’d have liked, a problem I’ve encountered before with Canon EOS models.
True, there’s headroom in the RAWs that allow you tease out further detail but this an extra step on PC back at base, so it’s not ideal but overall, the camera performs very well indeed.
At £1200, the EOS 50D looks pricey (though even a cursory glance online revealed prices over £300 less than this already) but it’s well made and very very fast to use. Image quality is as good as I was expecting (caveats around the lack of shadow detail notwithstanding) and so the EOS 50D easily provides resolution enough customisability enough and the required high ISO noise control abilities, for almost any photography task.