Nikon Z50 Review
Performance - How well does it take pictures?
Ultimately, image quality is what makes a camera worth buying. As with all interchangeable lens cameras, mirrorless image quality is greatly influenced by the lens. Noise, exposure, dynamic-range, contrast, color and white-balance are properties of the camera, while distortion, vignetting and chromatic aberrations depend on the lens. Sharpness is always determined by the weakest link, since the camera cannot capture more details than the lens lets through.
Image Noise & Sharpness
Image quality from the Nikon Z50 is easily among the best from an APS-C sensor. The BSI-CMOS sensor in this mirrorless offers slightly lower resolution than competing cameras which gives it larger pixels that result in lower image-noise. Additionally, the BSI design of this sensor maximizes the surface area that gathers light. To maximize sharpness as well, the Z50 sensor omits an Anti-Alias Filter that normally softens details to avoid moire. Certainly, this means that moire may occur, yet remains a rare occurrence.
Noise is complete absent at the base ISO 100 sensitivity and ISO 200 too. From ISO 400 to 800, images are virtually noise-free, although a very fine pattern exists that is only noticeable at high magnification. A small amount of noise appears at ISO 1600. It can only be seen at 100% magnification or on very large prints and has very little effect on detail, color, contrast or dynamic-range.
ISO 3200 still looks rather good. There is definitely noise present, yet it is a fine pattern with minimal effect on luminance and no impact on color. At this point medium-sized prints lose their smooth look but remain completely usable. This is certainly where APS-C sensors fall behind large Full-Frame ones which is completely normal.
Details start getting damaged at ISO 6400 which shows moderate luminance noise. Edges start becoming jagged and smooth areas being to look noisy. With 20 MP of resolution, mid-sized prints are noticeably affected but small ones remain looking smooth. ISO 12800 takes noise one step higher, although it remains constrained to the luminance channel. Reasonably nice-looking small prints are still possible at this ISO.
Most APS-C sensors max out at ISO 25600 or 51200 using expanded sensitivity but the Nikon Z50 manages to keep these in its standard sensitivity range. ISO 25600 in fact is quite noisy, although not terribly so. The noise grain at that point is rather coarse while still being confined to luminance. This is probably the highest sensitivity that can comfortably be used with this mirrorless. Prints come out noisy but small ones remain usable.
The last standard sensitivity of ISO 51200 is very noise with strong luminance noise and some chroma noise, pushing colors towards a greenish tint. This is typical since there are twice as many green pixels on a Bayer sensor than red or blue. Even not-so-fine details are completely gone at that point which leaves prints barely usable even in the smallest sizes. Expanded ISO 102,400 and 204,800 are a step too far and best avoided.
It is difficult to evaluate the sensor sharpness of the Nikon Z50 due to limited lens availability. There are only two DX lenses for Z-mount and both are designed for compactness above all else, using small dim optics. Sharpness can be set in quarter-steps on a scale from -3 to +9, allowing users to select 49 different levels of sharpening. This ranges from extremely soft to severely oversharpened. The default setting varies from +2 to +4, which is slightly soft to almost sharp. One gets better sharpness at +4½ but note that there are visible sharpening artifacts from +3 onward. This suggests that the softness is due to the lens and that the image processor is attempting to compensate. Images in the gallery of this review use a sharpness of +4½.
There is a separate control for mid-range sharpening. This is available on a -5 to +5 scale, also in ¼ steps. These increments are arbitrary and not in any particular unit, so consider this 41 levels with very fine differences between them. Pushing this parameter to +2 produces crisp details, while keeping the oversharpening artifacts of the general Sharpness image-parameter. Mid-range sharpening is applied in addition to general sharpening, so be sure to configure these settings accordingly.
Metering & Color
Metering accuracy of the Nikon Z50 is exceptional. Given it constantly gets a live feed from the sensor, this mirrorless gets plenty of data to evaluate the optimum exposure. The default Multi-Segment Metering pattern is quite accurate and produces well-balanced exposures under typical conditions. Highlights get clipped when near edges of the frame which is typical for segmented metering patterns.
The Highlight Weighed metering mode is extremely conservative which tends to massively underexpose in the presence of bright highlights. Spot and Average metering work exactly as expected. The EVF does a very good job in both P and M mode at previewing exposure, so generally one can anticipate when EC needs to be applied, which is not often at all.
Image parameters are plentiful and adjustable in very fine steps. There are seven Picture Styles offering various degrees of realism. While the most natural colors come with the Neutral style, it renders colors and tones excessively dull. Standard is has vibrant colors shifted slightly towards red. For pleasant realistic output, it is best to use the Standard style with Hue shifted to +¾, Saturation toned down to -½ and Contrast to -1. The Clarity setting helps maintain clear details with a setting of +2½ delivering crisp output that looks natural.
Automatic White-Balance from this mirrorless is fairly good. There are 4 types of Automatic White-Balance on the Z50. Auto 0 produces mostly neutral colors yet has trouble nailing artificial lighting, often leaving a yellow or amber cast. Auto 1 keeps some warm tones and Auto 2 keeps them all. Auto Natural Light setting balances natural light while leaving artificial lights to their own color cast. This is quite useful in mixed lighting situations.
Dynamic-Range from the Nikon Z50 matches modern high-end APS-C sensors. Among Full-Frame offerings, it was often noted that the addition of Phase-Detection pixels limited dynamic-range but the Z50 seems to have compensated for this issue with its BSI and new Dual-Gain circuitry. This lets this mirrorless capture close to 14 EVs of dynamic-range and maintain this level until ISO 400. Dynamic-range shrinks very slowly from there, allowing the Z50 to hold on to over 12 EVs until ISO 1600 even.
Speed & Autofocus
The Nikon Z50 can capture full-resolution frames at 11 FPS, up to 71 JPEG images or 30 RAW files in a single burst. This takes from 3 to 6 seconds, just enough to grab a decisive frame, although it is insufficient to follow action for long. Even at maximum speed, the Z50 attempts to keep up with autofocus and exposure. The manual notes that these might become unreliable at 11 FPS and it certainly seems that AF just cannot keep up. Lowering speed to 5.5 FPS improves autofocus and metering without making AF 100% reliable.
This mirrorless is always very responsive. Every dial turn and button press gets an instance response with changes to exposure being reflected with very little lag. The shutter-release has been tweaked compared to the one on the Z7 and Z6 twins and gives better feedback, even when EFCS is enabled. The Eye-Start Sensor switches instantly between the EVF and LCD.
The performance of the Nikon Z50 is characterized by the following numbers:
- Power On: 1s. Good.
- Autofocus: ¼s in good to moderate light. Very good. Slows down considerably, to over ¾s, in dark scenes.
- Shutter-Lag: Virtually instant. Great.
- Shot-to-shot speed: About 2/3s. Below average.
- Instant Review: 1s. Definitely slow.
- Playback: Around ¼s to enter or exit. Great.
- Power Off: ½s. Very good.
- Video: Instant to start and stop but a 1s lag to remove the REC signal!
This mirrorless is generally quite speedy but it misses on a few fronts. Shot-to-shot speed are definitely on the slow-side but the most sluggish numbers is the time it takes to show the Instant Review after taking a photo. There is almost a full second delay between an exposure and results appearing on the EVF and LCD. This gets confusing when following moving subjects as one sees a little of what happens after an exposure before it gets shown! Video capture actually happens without lag, although the Z50 misleadingly shows that it is recording for an entire second after it stopped.
The 20 MP APS-C BSI-CMOS sensor in the Nikon Z50 uses 209 Phase-Detection pixels to perform autofocus which is assisted by Contrast-Detection. The resulting autofocus system can focus incredibly quickly but also extremely slow slowly. In typical conditions, from bright to moderate light, AF locks in about ¼s. Unfortunately, it slows down considerably in low-light, taken easily ¾s, even longer at times.
Continuous AF works for targets that move relatively slowly and predictably. With fast subjects, the camera has trouble keeping up and often lags behind. Despite a fast 11 FPS maximum burst rate, the Nikon Z50 is less than ideal for action photography.
Battery-life is surprisingly long. Even though Nikon quotes just 280 shots-per-charge, the Z50 lasted much longer during testing, surpassing the Z7 and Z6 which had higher battery-life numbers. The main difference comes from a subtlety in the CIPA standard for measuring battery-life. In the published procedure, the standard requires 50% flash use. The Z50 has a built-in flash, so its 280 shots-per-charge are 140 photos without flash and 140 with. The actual number of frames greatly increased when fewer than 50% of photos are taken with the built-in flash. The Z6 and Z7 do not have a built-in flash, so the 50% flash rule does not apply. Even if it did, flashes on the Z6 and Z7 would have their own power-source.
The Nikon Z50 surprised everyone when it launched. Although based on the same wide-diameter mount introduced for Nikon Full-Frame Mirrorless Cameras, this is effectively their third mirrorless system, squeezing itself between the now-discontinued 1" Nikon 1 system and the brand new Full-Frame Nikon Z system. While the Z50 is compatible with all Z-mount lenses, its APS-C supports more compact lenses which are essentially the point of launching a new mirrorless digital camera with a smaller sensor.
Nikon gave the Z50 a very capable 20 megapixels APS-C BSI-CMOS sensor with a newly implemented 209-Point Phase-Detect AF system. This sensor delivers quite well on image-quality, with low noise until ISO 1600 and a gradual increased towards higher sensitivities. Exceptionally, this 20 MP sensor holds on to a wide dynamic-range. Its dual-gain design gives it a lead in dynamic-range at mid-level ISO levels. Color rendition is very good and white-balance manages generally well, save for occasional issues under artificial lighting. The Nikon Z50 implements an exceptionally reliable metering system.
Autofocus is mixed with this mirrorless. For bright to moderately lit scenes, the 209-Point Phase-Detect AF system is very fast and accurate. As light diminishes, autofocus slows down and eventually the camera switches to Contrast-Detect AF that is much slower and disruptive due to the back-and-forth focusing required to determine when contrast is maximized. AF also struggles to track subjects, so this can deliver very good low-light images but has difficulty to do so with moving subjects.
Generally speaking, the Z50 is a fast and responsive camera. It responds instantly with virtually no shutter-lag and blackout. Most performance numbers of this mirrorless are good. The only limiting speed is shot-to-shot speeds, although the camera can shoot at 11 FPS for 3-6s, depending on the type of files recorded. Battery-life is very good for a modern mirrorless.
Ergonomics are almost great on the Nikon Z50. Its compact body is comfortable to hold with a deep hand-grip and easy to reach dual control-dials. There are many well-placed buttons around the body, although the EC button is somewhat uncomfortable and the lower Fn2 button is definitely hard to reach. The insurmountable usability issue though are its touch-sensitive controls for magnification and display modes that have no physical equivalent. This makes these controls unusable while wearing gloves. In fact, photography in cold weather is let down by another issue which is frequent fogging up of the EVF.
The EVF itself is typical for this class of camera with a sharp 2.4 MP of resolution, mid-size 0.68X magnification and 100% coverage, plus an Eye-Start Sensor. This is a very good EVF, even though similar ones are common nowadays. Nikon greatly improved the view on this EVF and, although not fully Exposure-Priority, it shows a highly accurate preview. The tilting touchscreen LCD is also fine and typical of this level of mirrorless.
There are plenty of features in this mirrorless. In additional to full manual-controls, choice of metering, sophisticated white-balance options and incredibly fine image-parameters, the Z50 offers extensive bracketing, built-in HDR, an Interval Timer, Time Lapse Video and Multiple-Exposure. What is unexpected is that this camera lacks a sensor-cleaning mechanism and any form of stabilization. This is certainly not the only unstabilized mirrorless but such cameras are becoming increasingly rare.
The Nikon Z50 is an interesting camera aimed at those ready to experiment and willing to take a chance. It is very much limited right now from realizing its full potential since there are only two Z-mount DX lenses in existence. It can use Z-mount Full-Frame lenses but those negate the size advantage of an APS-C sensor and rarely offer stabilization, since those were introduced to a system with exclusively stabilized cameras. While this camera clearly produces beautiful images and is pleasant to use when it is not so cold outside, its success is not assured yet.
Nikon Z50 Highlights
Sensor-Size: 24 x 16mm
Actual size when viewed at 100 DPI
|20 Megapixels Mirrorless||ISO 100-204800|
|Nikon Z Mount|
|0.39" Built-in EVF 2.4 Megapixels (0.68X)||Full manual controls, including Manual Focus|
|Automatic Eye-Start sensor||Custom white-balance with 2 axis fine-tuning|
|1 Axis Digital Level||Spot-Metering|
|11 FPS Drive, 71 Images||Hot-Shoe|
|3840x2160 @ 30 FPS Video Recording||Stereo audio input|
|3.2" LCD 1 Megapixels||Lithium-Ion Battery|
|Secure Digital Extended Capacity|
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