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Nikon Z50 review: A great handling camera with a mediocre sensor

Steve Dent
Associate Editor
Steve Dent/Engadget

Today's camera landscape is ultra-competitive and not terribly lucrative, so it takes a lot of guts to launch a new system. Nikon has done that (again) with the 20.9-megapixel Z50, its first ever APS-C mirrorless camera. Unlike rival Canon, Nikon decided to use the same Z mount lens system for both its full-frame and APS-C mirrorless cameras, a decision that has been surprisingly controversial.

Nikon doesn't have the luxury of slowly perfecting its mirrorless lineup like Sony did five or six years ago. The market is mature now and the Z50 is going up against formidable models in its price range, including Sony's A6400, the Canon M6 Mark II and Fujifilm's X-T30.

In an early hands-on look, I was impressed by the Z50's ergonomics and its petite size. Now, let's see how it stacks up against the competition in the crucial areas of autofocus, image quality and 4K video features.

Body and handling

Canon has two separate, incompatible mirrorless mounts: The M mount APS-C system and RF mount for its full-frame EOS R and EOS RP cameras. Meanwhile, Nikon stuck with the same mount used on the full-frame Z6 and Z7 cameras. So, why has this caused some controversy?

Critics have argued that since many folks buy APS-C mirrorless cameras for their compact size, the large Z mount could reduce its potential in that area,. Another point is that unsophisticated buyers could easily purchase the wrong lenses for each system.

To me, though, what Nikon did was smart. Having the same mount for both systems likely made development easier, and the company has a lot of ground to make up. Considering that it only has two native zoom lenses for the Z50 so far (the DX 16-50mm f/3.5-6.3 and DX 50-250mm f/4.5-6.3) it also means that buyers can use full-frame Z mount lenses if they really need a prime.

On top of that, you can use Nikon's DX and FX DSLR lenses on either system with the same adapter. Finally, a wider mount has physics on its side, making it easier for Nikon to build sharper, more compact lenses -- or just crazy fast ones like the Z-Noct f/0.95.

Anyway, while the mount does look comically huge on the tiny body, the Z50 is a very compact APS-C camera. It weighs in at just 397 grams with a battery and memory card, compared to 408 grams for the M6 Mark II -- which doesn't even have a built-in electronic viewfinder (EVF). Despite its petite form factor, the Z50 doesn't feel cheap and it's weather-sealed (though not weather-proof), so you can confidently take it into mildly adverse weather.

With the tiny, pancake-like 16-50mm f/3.5-6.3 lens, the Z50 is a great camera to carry around for street, tourism and family photography. At the same time, it has better handling than any other APS-C mirrorless camera I've ever tried. With the deep, chunky grip, it truly feels like a mini DSLR, which gave me confidence shooting in any situation.

The Z50 also has lots of physical dials and buttons, including a four-way control wheel, two top control dials, two function buttons and a main function dial. Those let you change most settings including aperture, shutter-speed, ISO and exposure compensation without resorting to the menus. You can also program the two front function buttons to do whatever you want.

The one thing it lacks is a joystick, which can make it tricky to move your focus point, particularly with the EVF. And unlike with its rivals, you can't use the rear screen as a touchpad with the camera to your eye. Rather, I was forced to use the four-way control wheel, which did slow me down at times.

I like that there's a dedicated switch to select photos or video, with separate ISO, aperture and other settings for each. It keeps photos and video separate, but makes it easy to switch back and forth. (For some reason, the "S" shutter-priority setting doesn't seem to change anything in video mode. I'm not sure if that's a bug, but Nikon needs to address it either way, as that mode is vital for video shooting.)

Nikon's menu system is second only to Fujifilm's, so it's relatively easy to find the settings you need. Overall, the Z50 has the best handling of any APS-C mirrorless camera in this price range. Considering it's the company's first model, kudos to Nikon for that.

It's not all good news, though. The Z50 lacks the in-body stabilization (or "VR" vibration reduction, as Nikon calls it) available on the full-frame models. However, the first two lenses for the system do have VR with five stops of shake reduction. That should let you shoot down to about 1/15th of a second without any blur, and it will help vloggers make less shaky videos, to boot.

The EVF is similar to what you get on rival cameras, which is to say that it's clear, bright and does the job well. As for the display, the Z50 has a 3.2-inch, 1-million-dot touchscreen that can control just about everything on the camera. It tilts out and 180 degrees downward, making it handy for selfies or vlogging. However, it's arguably less useful than the upward-tilting displays on the A6400 and M6 Mark II -- more on that in a minute.

The Z50 also has a built-in pop-up flash that's useful for fill or very dark rooms, like all its rivals. As for the storage situation, unlike the M6 II and X-T30, it only supports SDXC UHS I cards. As you'll soon see, that can make for slow buffering times.

Performance

The Z50 can shoot at 11 fps with autofocus and auto-exposure. That's impressive, but unfortunately, it couldn't do that for very long. Thanks to the UHS I card, I was only able to get off about 10-15 shots in RAW/JPEG mode before the buffer would fill up entirely, and it can take up to 20 seconds or more to clear. If you don't need RAW and can shoot in JPEG only mode, however, it'll hit faster speeds for a much longer period of time.

The Z50 has a silent shooting mode, and you can use it for both single shooting and burst modes. With the M6 Mark II, by comparison, you can only use silent mode for single shots.

Talking of the competition, Sony's A6400 is the gold standard for autofocus on APS-C cameras, so how does the Z50 measure up? It should do well in theory, with a 209-point phase-detect system that's similar to the one on the Z6.

It fared pretty well in my tests, delivering a good percentage of in-focus shots on fast-moving subjects. For most regular autofocus chores on static subjects, it worked great, but was occasionally stymied in low-light conditions.

However, Nikon lacks Sony's software and electronic chops, so the face- and eye-detection system is not nearly as good. The main problem I saw was that it tended to lag behind the subject, unlike the real-time performance on Sony's camera. As a result, it can miss focus if your subject moves or turns around.

If you're doing family photography, parties and the like, the Z50's AF is just fine. However, for the same price, the A6400, and even Canon's M6 Mark II, have superior systems.

Since the Z50 lacks vibration reduction, you'll need to depend on the lenses for that. As mentioned, both the new zooms have that feature, which works well for shooting both video and photos. However, if you need a prime lens, none of the full-frame Z mount lenses are stabilized.

As for battery life, Nikon is using an all-new 1,120mAh EN-EL25 battery, promising a middling 320 shots per charge according to the strict CIPA standards. As usual, I found I could at least double that number in real-world shooting.

Image quality

The Z50's 20.9-megapixel sensor is based on the one used in the D7500 with the addition of the phase-detect autofocus pixels. That's less resolution than all its rivals, most noticeably the 32-megapixel Canon M6 Mark II.

As a result, the Z50 gave me fewer cropping options and slightly softer images than all its rivals. Otherwise, however, it delivered photos with accurate colors and lifelike skin tones, thanks to Nikon's well-established color science. It also captures RAW files with 14-bits of color accuracy, giving you lots of options in Lightroom.

With less resolution you do have larger pixels, so the Z50 has good low-light capability. I was able to take usable photos at up to about ISO 12,800 without much loss in saturation or detail. I found noise levels to be better than all rivals, particularly the M6 Mark II. However, if you reduce the M6 II's images to the same 20.9-megapixel size of the Z 50 in Photoshop, noise levels are comparable.

Those high ISO settings will be important, because the two native lenses available for this camera are very slow, with only f/6.3 available at the longest zoom ranges. Nikon needs to build a cheap, "nifty fifty" f/1.8 prime lens for this camera, but there's nothing like that on its lens roadmap so far.

Nikon Z50 sample image shot at ISO 6400

Steve Dent/Engadget

On top of the regular picture control settings, including "standard," "neutral," "vivid," "monochrome" and "flat," the Z 50 has numerous fun options like "toy camera," "melancholic" and "night vision." That's a nod to the camera's potential Instagram market, though I'd argue that you might as well use a phone with filters like that.

Video

The Z50 is a much better camera than the M6 Mark II for video. That's because it reads the entire sensor width and supersamples it down to a 4K size, just like Sony and Fujifilm do with the A6400 and X-T30 models. The M6 II, meanwhile, uses line-skipping with the entire sensor, which results in a very soft 4K image.

Color accuracy is also a strong point, but the Z50 only shoots 4:2:0 8-bit video, and there's no log-type profile to maximize dynamic range. As such, you'll need to nail your exposure, as there isn't a lot of room to fix it in post. Fujifilm's X-T30 lets you output 4:2:2 10-bit video to an external recorder via the HDMI port, making it more useful for serious video types.

Video autofocus is a strong point, thanks to the phase-detect system. As long as your subject doesn't move around too quickly, it'll keep them sharp. It also does smooth transitions during focus changes without any of the hunting I sometimes see on contrast-detect AF systems from Panasonic and others.

The display on the Z50 does tilt down, and with the sharp full-sensor 4K video and good autofocus, it makes a very decent vlogging camera. However, you'll have to hold the camera in your hand, as a gimbal or tripod will block the screen (unless you get a fancy bracket or cage). On the plus side, you can mount an external microphone without obstructing the display, unlike with Sony's A6400 or the Canon M6 II.

The solution to this is to use a fully-articulating screen that flips around to the side (like Panasonic and Canon have done) and I can't understand why Nikon and Sony don't do this. Is it a patent or cost issue? Honestly, I'm genuinely curious.

Finally, that there's a microphone port but no headphone jack. The same applies to its rivals, but you can use the X-T30's USB-C port as a headphone jack with a relatively cheap USB-C to 3.5mm adapter.

Wrap-up

Nikon Z50 aps-c mirrorless camera

Steve Dent/Engadget

The Z50 is a good, but not exceptional, debut for Nikon's Z mount APS-C mirrorless system. It has great handling, good shooting speeds and autofocus, nice image quality and solid video performance for its intended market.

If this camera had come out even a year ago, it would have been near the top of my list. However, even though I love the Z50's handling and form factor, it's in second place or lower in every other category. The A6400 has better autofocus, the X-T30 better video performance, and the M6 Mark II better image quality and shooting speeds.

That leaves the Z50 near the bottom of the pack, but that doesn't mean it's not worth your consideration. There are no serious flaws and if you already have some Nikon lenses, whether Z mount or DSLR, the Z50 would be wise choice, particularly if you like a camera that's easy to handle. If not, I'd recommend Fujifilm's X-T30 instead -- it handles nearly as well and is a better all-around camera.

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