Nikon Z50 Mirrorless Camera with 16-50mm Lens
The Nikon Z50 is a 20.9MP mirrorless camera: the first time the company has put an (unstabilized) APS-C sensor behind its new, larger ‘Z’ lens mount. The company says the camera is designed to attract a generation of users who don’t consider themselves to be photographers.
Alongside the camera, Nikon has announced two lenses designed for this sensor size: a 16-50mm F3.5-6.3 collapsible standard zoom and a 50-250mm F4.5-6.3 telephoto zoom – both with built-in image stabilization (which Nikon calls Vibration Reduction).
The Z50 will be available for sale from November, with an MSRP of $860, body-only. Adding the 16-50mm zoom takes the price to $1000 and a two-lens kit with both DX zooms takes the list price to $1350.
The Z50 is compatible with the FTZ mount adapter, allowing it to use F-mount DSLR lenses. The adapter is not included in any of the kits announced so far.
Despite being Nikon’s first APS-C mirrorless camera, an awful lot of the elements of the camera are familiar: the user interface has been lifted directly from the full-frame Z cameras, the sensor is a variant of the one in the D500 and D7500, built into a camera that’s conceptually similar to the D5600.
The most noticeable differences compared to the D5600 are that the Z50 is smaller (especially if you factor-in the collapsible kit lens), it has two command dials and, perhaps most significantly, it has a more coherent shooting experience across viewfinder and rear screen operation, and across stills and video shooting.
New 20.9MP APS-C sensor
The Z50 is based around a 20.9MP sensor that’s closely related to the one first used in the D500. It’s an APS-C-sized sensor, which Nikon refers to as ‘DX’ format.
The version of the sensor included in the Z50 has a series of masks over the top of the sensor, meaning that some pixels only receive light from one or the other side of the lens. The data from these masked pixels allows the differences between the image entering the left and right-hand-side of the lens to be compared, which is then used to assess depth in the scene, underpinning the ‘phase-detection’ autofocus system.
Beyond this, much of the rest of the camera is familiar. What’s interesting is that, rather than using a native 3840 x 2160 region of the sensor to give the detailed, but heavily cropped, 4K video as the D500 and D7500 did, the will capture 4K video from the full width of its sensor. We’ll investigate how this affects the detail levels as soon as we get a production-spec camera.
Effects modes / Creative Picture Control
In keeping with its Instagram-friendly intent, the Z50 can shoot images with a series of significant processing effects applied. These are handled in two ways, depending on whether they just affect the color and contrast or if they manipulate the underlying image.
The first set are the Creative Picture Controls, which come in addition to the more conventional Standard, Neutral, Vivid, Monochrome, Portrait, Landscape and Flat color modes. The Creative Picture Control options can be used in any shooting mode, including video shooting.
The Creative Picture Control options can also be applied retrospectively to Raw files using the in-camera Raw conversion interface.
The filters with a more dramatic impact are accessed via the ‘Effects’ position on the mode dial, accessing options that actively manipulate the image itself, adding vignetting or blurring parts of the image.
Because they can only be accessed via the Effects position on the mode dial, you get less control over your other shooting options. Depending on the mode, flash, autofocus or Raw shooting may be unavailable, and movie shooting may result in stop-motion-style slowed playback. These effects cannot be retroactively applied to Raw files.
Body, handling and controls
The Z50 looks a lot like a slightly scaled-down Z6 or Z7, with a prominent viewfinder hump protruding from the middle of the camera and a fairly substantial handgrip extending forward from the body, without it ever looking like it’s masquerading as a DSLR.
The Z-mount, which is oversized, even for the full-frame format, means the camera isn’t much smaller than its big sensor brothers, but the lack of top-plate LCD immediately sets them apart visually. The build quality feels broadly similar, though, and Nikon describes the camera as weather-sealed (though not quite to the same degree as the Z6 and Z7, thanks in part to its pop-up flash).
Twin dials and multiple Fn buttons
Although the Z50’s name, pricing and Nikon’s briefing suggest D5600-level ambitions (or, perhaps, memories of the stripped-down but effective D50), it gives more direct control than the company usually provides at that level.
Twin control dials immediately stand out, making it much easier to control key exposure settings than on the single-dial D5x00 DSLRs. Nikon’s ‘Easy Exposure Comp.’ option means you can access exposure compensation in Shutter- or Aperture-Priority modes, without the need to press any other buttons. Magnesium alloy construction also hints at higher-end ambitions.
A small switch next to the mode dial jumps between stills and video modes. Separate exposure settings are maintained for the two modes (and other settings can be set separately, if you wish).
Like the Z6 and Z7, the Z50 has a pair of custom function buttons in fingertip reach, to the right of the lens mount. These can be set to a series of toggle, hold or hold-and-scroll functions, as can a number of other buttons on the body. The options include direct control to whichever menu option you’ve placed at the top of the camera’s ‘My Menu’ tab, which provides an excellent degree of customization for a camera like this.
The Z50 uses a 2.36M-dot OLED viewfinder. There are, of course, much higher resolution viewfinder panels now available, but this is pretty much standard for a camera of this price.
Nikon is keen to stress that the optics between the panel and your eye are designed in-house, as a way of emphasizing its optical know-how. And, sure enough, they offer a good view of the screen with little apparent distortion and a reasonable 1.02x magnification ratio (0.68x full-frame equivalent). At 20mm, the eye-point is a little short, which may make it difficult for some glasses wearers to see the extreme corners of the screen, but it’s significantly bigger than the one in the D5600, which only managed 0.82x magnification and 95% coverage.
The Z50 has a touch-sensitive rear screen that folds out and up by 90 degrees, extending outwards so that a downwards view to it isn’t obscured by the viewfinder’s rearward projection.
The screen also tilts downwards, again extending outwards a fraction from the body in order to let it flip down a full 180 degrees, to point forward, below the camera. This opens up some possibility of selfies and vlogging.
The touchscreen is used for a number of things: the first is to move the AF point or initiate tap-to-track autofocus. It can also be used to select options in the ‘i’ function menu, and to navigate playback mode. What it can’t be used for, disappointingly, is touchpad operation: moving the AF point while the camera is being held up to your eye.
To keep the body size down, three functions (DISP, Mag + and Mag –) are operated by tapping the edge of the touchscreen, rather than by physical buttons. These options are printed on, rather than being part of the LCD display, and hence can’t be reconfigured. They take a bit of getting used-to, but are responsive and work pretty well.
Ports and connectivity
In terms of ports, the Z50 has a micro HDMI port, a microphone terminal and a USB socket. The USB port is a v2.0 micro-B connector, which the camera can use to charge its battery.
There’s no accessory port for attaching a remote release, but this function can be achieved using the camera’s Bluetooth connection to the SnapBridge smartphone app.
The Z50 becomes the first Z-mount camera to feature a built-in flash. Nikon says that the pop-up mechanism is the main reason that the Z50 isn’t considered as well weather-sealed as its full-frame siblings.
Like previous low-end and mid-range Nikon models, the built-in flash can’t act as a commander for the company’s infra-red-based ‘Creative Lighting System’ flash control protocol, so you’ll need to add a higher-end flash to gain full access to that.
Interestingly, the lack of accessory port also means the Z50 can’t be used with Nikon’s newer ‘WR-10’ radio frequency flash system, either.
The Z50’s user interface is essentially the same as that of the existing Z models, which is to say: essentially the same as those of Nikon’s DSLRs. This means a menu system beginning to creak under the weight of its many, many options, but with one of the best-arranged Custom Settings menus in the business. It’s a system with clearly marked sub-sections and consistent color-coding, which makes it easy to navigate and doesn’t demand that you memorize it.
As you’d expect of a modern camera, there’s a customizable ‘My Menu’ tab. This can be manually configured or set to simply show the menu options you used last. If you do decide to choose the options yourself, you can then assign the top-most option to one of the camera’s custom buttons, for access while shooting.
‘i ‘ menu (customizable)
Most of the time you don’t need to use the main menu, though. The Z50 has a function menu, accessed by pressing the ‘i’ button on the back of the camera. This brings up an array of 12 functions, which can be selected via the touchscreen.
Unlike some other cameras, you need to double-tap or press the ‘OK’ button to confirm any selection you make in the i menu. Tapping to make a selection will be ignored if you then half-press the shutter to get back to shooting.
The i menu can be configured separately for video mode, if you prefer.
The Z50’s autofocus system works essentially like that of the other Z models. You can move your AF point using the four-way controller on the back of the camera or by tapping on the touchscreen (you have a choice of whether or not this also fires the shutter).
In the ‘Auto Area AF’ mode, the camera will choose a subject, based on how close and central in the frame it is. But you can override this either by tapping on the screen to specify a subject, or by pressing ‘OK’ to manually enter subject tracking mode. Pressing ‘OK’ again resets the AF point to the center, or you can tap to specify a different subject. You need to press the ‘zoom out’ button to cancel and return to Auto Area AF.
This setup is somewhat slower than the 3D Tracking system on the D5600, especially when you’re shooting with the camera to your eye. This is not just because it requires you to press ‘OK’ to enter tracking mode, but also because tracking always resets to the center: you can’t re-position your starting AF point in anticipation of your subject arriving from the left of the screen, for example.
Auto ISO behavior
The Z50’s Auto ISO behavior is pretty sophisticated: you can define the highest ISO the camera will use, along with the slowest shutter speed the camera will allow before bumping up the ISO. This threshold can be a specific shutter speed or set to ‘Auto,’ which relates the threshold to the current focal length. The Auto setting can be fine-tuned to use shutter speeds that are faster or slower than 1/focal length.
Auto ISO can be used in manual exposure mode and combined with exposure compensation, so you can specify the aperture and shutter speed value you wish to use, and the target brightness you want the camera to maintain.
As on previous Nikons, trying to set the ISO when in Auto ISO mode changes the minimum ISO available, essentially limiting the maximum quality you can get. Auto ISO mode can be toggled by holding the ‘ISO’ button and turning the front dial, or via the ‘i’ menu, but not by the list you get by tapping on the ‘ISO’ setting on the touchscreen.
In movie mode Auto ISO is used in all exposure modes except ‘M,’ where it’s optional. You cannot set the shutter speed threshold, but Exposure Comp is available, even in M mode.
The Z50 uses a new EN-EL25 battery. It’s a small 8.5Wh unit but one that can be charged over the camera’s USB connector.
The battery is rated at 320 shots per charge when using the rear screen and 280 through the viewfinder, according to CIPA standard tests. As always with these figures, it’s quite normal to get many more shots than this, depending on your shooting style. We regularly find ourselves getting around double the rated figure.
However, the numbers are broadly comparable between cameras, and we find a rating of 300 shots per charge is ok for a weekend of occasional snapping, but only enough for one period of photography-focused shooting. Using the flash or making extensive use of the Wi-Fi will, of course, dent this figure significantly.