Nikon's relationship with mirrorless - or compact system cameras, or whatever else you might call them - has been a long and winding road. Back in 2011 the company introduced its 1 series, beginning with the J1, which went on to, well, flop and ultimately die a timely death some six years later.

Then in 2018 Nikon went all-out and introduced a brand new lens mount, the Z mount, along with new line of lenses for it's top-end mirrorless system, the Z6 and Z7. These full-frame sensor cameras represented the crème de la crème of what the company offers; that large 35mm-equivalent sensor being aimed at pros, the new lens mount capable of superb sharpness.

Just over one year later, on the 10 October 2019, Nikon announced the Z50, a Z series camera with - wait for it - a smaller sensor size, yet which still uses the Z lens mount. Huh? No, Nikon hasn't lost its marbles, it's delicately introducing a sub-category of Z for more enthusiast and entry-level shooters. And it'll accept any Z mount lenses without restriction, showing the versatility of that mount.

Design & Spec

  • Lens mount: Nikon Z mount; Z DX for crop sensor designation
  • 2.4m-dot electronic viewfinder (0.68x magnification equiv.)
  • 3.2-inch flip-angle LCD touchscreen (incl. selfie mode)
  • Body: 126.5 x 93.4 x 60mm; 395g
  • 1x SD card slot (UHS-I)

Having a single lens mount that can scale from entry to enthusiast to pro is actually a pretty clever idea. We thought it sounded like a mad one when we first heard, but as the Z mount is the same size and fitting for all these cameras, it's simply a case of looking for any lens designations to tell you which lenses are for what.

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The full-fat Z S-line lenses cover full-frame, while the Z DX lenses are designed to cover a DX (APS-C sized) sensor. Put the 'wrong' lens on another camera body and it'll auto-crop accordingly; there's no additional rear protrusion to make anything not compatible (like you'd get on a Canon EF lens when trying to put it onto an EF-S body, for example).

Anyway, we digress. Fact is: if you want access to Nikon's mirrorless line-up then the Z50 represents a cheaper way to do that. And you could even buy pricier full-frame lenses and upgrade the body in the future, as there will always be cross-compatibility. This is Nikon really showing that the Z mount is its absolute future.

As for the Z50 itself, it is, in essence, the mirrorless equivalent of the Nikon D7500. That's where the company is aiming, in terms of price and target audience. So that's what the feature set roughly stacks up to be too: it's small, easy to use, there's plenty of quick-access controls, a built-in viewfinder, and flip-down LCD touchscreen that can even be used to take selfies.

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Really the Z50 does everything right where the Nikon J1 went wrong all those years back. It doesn't try to over-simplify; it knows its a camera to offer people control over their image making, rather than just a point-and-shoot machine - an area that smartphones came to own anyway. Here that means a full mode dial, including auto settings, along with two control wheels to adjust the core settings.

Performance

  • 209 point phase-detection autofocus paired with contrast-detection areas
  • In-camera VR (vibration reduction) for image stabilisation
  • iMenu for pre-set menu controls
  • Autofocus capable to -4EV

But the Z50 is not difficult to control by any means either. The touchscreen adds a familiar way to use focus and go through playback. The iMenu allows for up to 12 settings to be user specified so your most go-to settings are always at your fingertips. It doesn't try to reinvent the wheel like the Canon EOS R did, which we think makes more sense for Nikon.

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It's a rather capable machine, too, based on our short time with the product in a dim-lit, flicker-tastic room in a London hotel basement. As you can see in our slightly over-processed and noisy product shots, there wasn't a lot of light down there, but that wasn't enough to stop the Z50 from focusing on its surroundings with ease. That's thanks to the 209-point autofocus system, which is capable of focus down to -4EV (basically moonlight dark).

Just like Nikon's other Z series products, there are a variety of focus areas to choose from, including single, area, zone and wide. But as you'll often be using this camera with the rear screen, the ability to override with touch will be great for some. Plus there's a very snazzy Eye AF option which can automatically lock onto subjects' eyes for the ultimate in sharp portrait shots - it even works for groups - which we found to be highly effective, even in a busy room of people.

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There's also sensor-based VR (vibration reduction) for image stabilisation, which works in co-operation with the lens-based systems. The Z50 launches alongside the 16-50mm f/3.5-6.3 pancake and 50-250mm f/4.5-6.3 'Z DX' lenses, both of which have their own VR systems. These lenses are a lot, lot smaller than the full-frame Z mount lenses, and far cheaper too, but there are restrictions with the available maximum aperture values through the zoom range.

Picture & Video Quality

  • 20.88-megapixel DX (APS-C) CMOS sensor
  • 4K video to 30fps (no sensor cropping)
  • ISO 100-51,200 (204,800 extended)
  • 20x Creative Picture controls
  • Expeed 6 processing engine
  • 11fps burst mode

With the Expeed 6 processor under its hood, the Z50 has access to some of the same power as the Z6. That means up to 11 frames per second burst shooting (it's 5fps as standard with AF/AE), along with what we suspect will be commendable image processing - just as we found with the superb Nikon Z6.

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That said, having only used a pre-production Z50 - and in the limiting low-light situation as described - we can't yet decide just what those images will be like in quality terms. We do think that Nikon has been rather savvy here by not going overboard with the resolution: a 20.8MP sensor is a little less than the 24MP norm (even found on smaller Micro Four Thirds sensors) and increasingly common 30MP setup. That, in simple terms, means the Z50 will have larger on-sensor 'pixels' than its near competitors, which should equate to better image quality potential.

However, lens selection is a huge part of this puzzle. The best-of-best lenses cost a small fortune from further up the Z mount line-up, while the two introductory Z DX lenses don't feel exactly special from our initial inspection. They're certainly small, though, which will be a big bonus to many users.

Elsewhere within the image quality department there are multiple modes, from Scene to Creative Picture controls, the latter of which offers 20 pre-sets with adjustment from 0-100 degrees and can be automatically applied to stills or moving images. That's spot-on for the Instagram generation, plus sharing is easy thanks to Snapbridge app sync from the built-in Bluetooth/Wi-Fi systems.

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Speaking of moving images, the Z50 caters of 4K video capture too. It does so using the full extent of the sensor size, so no cropping, meaning that in addition to 30fps Ultra-HD capture, you can also shoot still images during capture. How about that for supplementing during a shoot?

First Impressions

At first we were a little perplexed about the Z50's existence, because its announcement and use of crop-sensor (or DX / APS-C) unties the association that the Z series had with full-frame and a pro-targeted audience.

But having seen the camera it makes a lot more sense, principally because any Z mount lens will fit, whether it's one of the two new Z DX designated optics or the pricier, larger and more capable S-Line optics that, in general, are designed for the Z6 and Z7.

All that means the Z50 is a great mirrorless entry point. But far from being the failed Nikon 1 series re-imagined, this is a more enthusiast-focused product that knows it's not just a point-and-shoot camera. There's great image quality and room for growth, with full access to those Z series lenses being a key selling point.

Add small-scale build, ease of operation, a decent viewfinder, flip-angle LCD screen, and a host of other features, and it looks like Nikon is realigning its product focus with success. The Z mount certainly spells the company's future, so expanding the audience that can utilise it via the Z50 makes nothing but good sense.

The Nikon Z50 will be available from 7 November 2019, priced £849 body-only, £989 with 16-50mm lens, £1,199 with both 16-50mm and 50-250mm lenses.