The Nikon F50

Alfred's Camera Page

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Long-winding, highly personal introduction. Feel free to skip.

Photography has been an interest of mine ever since I was seven or eight and bought my first camera, a Kodak Instamatic 100, at a car boot sale in Wales for a pound. Back then I would take some pictures of my surroundings maybe once a year or so, but photography wasn't something I did regularly, or even saw as a hobby. When I grew older I started to appreciate photography more and more, but still mainly as a thing to do at parties. The turnaround came in December 1995 when I rediscovered my mom's old unused Pentax Spotmatic F in a closet, together with a number of accessories like a tele, a 50mm (that didn't focus to infinity, which was my mom's reason of abandoning the camera in favor of a Nikon compact in the first place), and some extension rings. I started playing with the set, became intrigued, started reading photography magazines in the library, eventually asked a roll of Tmax for Christmas, and the rest is history. I joined my high school's dark room club (as the only member), and to make a long story short, after a year my photo output was so high and my disappointment with the unwieldy Spotmatic so great, that I wanted a new camera. A real one this time, with autofocus and a working light meter.

In the year that passed, I had subscribed to the monthly Dutch Focus magazine, which in 1996 was raving about Nikon's new unparallelled F5, which they claimed placed Nikon back in place as leader of the camera industry, at the cost of Canon and their EOS-1. Caught in this vortex of spin and hype, I decided that whatever way, my new camera was going to be a Nikon. That gave me four and a half options. Nikon's entire consumer line-up of cameras consisted of, in progressive order of cost, weight and features, the F50, the F70, the F90X, and the F5 (not including the Nikonos RS, which was an underwater camera, or the mechanical models, which didn't seem like an improvement to me.) There was also half an option of sorts: back then, Nikon was clearing out its Fx01 models for its Fxx series, and I could also opt for a discounted Nikon F401X. It could do lots of what the F50 could, only at a clear-out price. Drawback: yesterday's technology and design. What a choice.

I could ignore anything above the F50 right away since my budget didn't allow, but the choice between the F401X and the F50 remained. It was difficult. On one hand I was on a really tight budget and even had to extract money from my birth savings account, which made me reluctant to spend anything, but on the other, I wanted a shiny new F50, not yesterday's model. I've always adhered to the Dutch saying that "cheap is expensive": if you're going to buy something big, don't be penny wise or you'll end up with crap that you don't like, doesn't do the job, and needs replacement too soon. The F401X seemed like the inferior compromise, but as a thirteen year old scraping together funds here and there, I didn't exactly have a choice. So the F401X it was. (Good thing you know how this ends, eh!)

On a Wednesday in September 1996, my mom and I went to a camera store in a nearby town where I knew they had an F401X clear-out sale, on a mission to buy an F401X as cheaply as possible. However, when we got there, the salesperson apologized and, much to my dismay, said that the F401X was permanently out of stock, and they only had shiny new F50's. Disappointed and grudgingly I went ahead with the €40 price increase. At the end of the day, I went home with two golden boxes: one for the F50 body and one for the AF Nikkor 35-80mm f/4-5.6 D. The boxes were beautiful and heavy, and although I felt guilty for spending more than I wanted (and for making a scene in the store because they weren't selling what they advertised), I was very delighted with my new real camera.

Naturally I kept my F50 indoors and around the house for the first few weeks, because it was still mint and smelled of new. I took my time to get to know it, eventually expanded its range of use, and after some time, treated it just like that old Spotmatic F: like a normal tool, but always with care and precaution, Now it's 2004 and my F50 is more than six years old. I estimate I've shot between 80 and 100 films in it (which is a lot when you're under 20) in places as various as Austria, Holland, Death Vally, Rome, Vienna, Germany, Mallorca and Britain. It's been in freak rain and snow storms (protected by a plastic bag), in the salty and wet climates of the North Sea and the Spanish beaches, and has seen the Pacific and the Atlantic. Six years of intense but careful use later the body isn't mint any more, but it still works like a charm, and never went in for repairs.

Pick of lenses

I don't know if this is true globally, but in Holland the standard companion to the F50 was the AF Nikkor 35-80mm f/4-5.6 D. If I remember correctly, it was possible to either buy the F50 in a discount set with that lens, or buy only the body. Given the target group of mainly amateurs, I believe most of the F50's were sold in sets. Also, because most amateurs never take enough pictures to warrant exotic focals, the standard zoom is probably the only lens they ever used. I used it myself for two years, but when I found myself always using the 35mm position and keeping a Spotmatic-mounted 29mm Pentacon lens on the side for extra wideness, I figured it became time to buy a real wide.

A year after I bought the camera, it was my birthday again, and I could make my pick. After consulting lots of photo books on the usefulness of various wideangles, I decided I wanted a 24mm. It was described in one of the books as an excellent allround wideangle, not too wide but not too restricted either, treading a fine path between extremity and usefulness. Given my adage that "cheap is expensive", I set my eye on none less than the AF Nikkor 24mm f/2.8 D. Unfortunately though, it was too expensive for my fourteen-year-old self. Second choice was the Tokina 17mm, which was cheap and virtually distortionless, but also a bit too extreme and unfortunately manual (the F50 doesn't perform well with manual lenses, more on that later). Torn apart, I decided on the spot that if I couldn't have the wideangle I wanted, I might as well go for an extreme telezoom instead, build my set out in that direction, and get a wideangle next year. So I got a Sigma APO 70-300mm f/4-5.6 D. However, the marriage didn't last, I became bored with tele and haven't used it for the past three years. Oh well.

A year later of again only using the 35mm setting on the standard zoom, I decided I really had to get a wideangle for this birthday. Fortunately I was now fifteen years old and had finished my first summer job, so augmenting that salary with my birthday allowance, I had enough cash to buy the long desired AF Nikkor 24mm f/2.8 D. I did so on a late and prosaic afternoon, and finally found my ultimate lens. To this day the 24mm is my favourite focal, and the one and only lens I use on my F50. Maybe that in the future I'll buy a 50mm f/1.8 because it's small, cheap, occasionally useful and, not to forget, of excellent quality, but then I really have all the focals I need.

What's so interesting about the particular history of my F50 and its lenses? Well, first of all this is a personal website so I can write all the crap I want, but secondly, I think my 24mm proves a point about this camera. Namely, that the F50 is a really really nice camera, but that to best appreciate it, you need to use it with a small, fast, quality lens. I'm thinking the affordable Nikon wides like the AF Nikkor 35mm f/2 D, the AF Nikkor 28mm f/2.8 D, and of course the AF Nikkor 24mm f/2.8 D. Also, the AF Nikkor 50mm f/1.4 D and the AF Nikkor 85mm f/1.8 D make great combinations with the F50. Why? Because all these lenses are light enough for the F50's autofocus to handle well, both in terms of speed and of light intensity. They are also well balanced by the F50 body, and the total set is small, good looking, unobtrusive, fast, ergonomic, cheap, high quality, and durable. The same lens on the F5 won't make a better picture, unless the F50 screws up the light metering, which it usually doesn't. Wisdom has it that it's the lens that makes the photo, not the camera. Other wisdom has it that it's not even the lens that makes the difference, but the photographer. In either case the light-tight box comes last. Remember what Cartier-Bresson did with just a 50mm f/3.5 and a Leica-II? Don't pride yourself on your F100 when all you do is use it with a cheap zoom. Get a small and light F50 instead, and spend your savings on something that will actually improve your pictures – a good lens, or a photography course.

I'm not saying the F50 is the best camera for everybody, but that for me, for my kind of photography, the F50 with 24mm is ideal. I do street photography, fast and easy, and I'd like to see any camera beat my F50 in that area. When asked for my dream camera set, I always answer with the Nikon FM2n Black with an AI-S Nikkor 24mm f/2.0, which is basically just the F50 with lens taken to an all-manual, more durable realm. So yeah, I'm happy.

Let the real review begin!

Unfortunately you can't please everyone all the time. While I'm very happy with the job Nikon did on this camera, there's lots of people who have an adverse opinion. Being somewhat of an F50 apologist, I'll try to rebuke their greatest criticisms, as formulated on this user forum.

The AF is noisy and slow

Ziff, ziff. Yes, the AF is undeniably noisy (to tackle that aspect first). So noisy even that I took my F50 back to the store to ask if this was normal. Apparently it is, so I have to agree. However, you can always turn the AF off and focus by hand, which adds the benefit of being able to take pictures even when the F50 doesn't detect sharpness. (Normally you can only take pictures when the focus dot in the viewfinder lights up.) As for the speed of the AF, it's true that it's not as fast as on newer, more expensive Nikons, but I think you can gain a lot if you use small, light wideangle lenses exclusively. Not only are their focusing trajectories shorter, but there's also much less glass to shift. I know from experience that focusing long tele lenses with the F50 is arduous and often imprecise, but that the F50 can hold its ground with any short lens. It focuses my 24 very quickly and accurately.

The transport is one frame per second

This is a definite paper drawback, and undoubtedly a frequently used argument to direct amateurs to a more expensive model, but I think how you take this depends on what you use your F50 for. For me, one frame a second is enough, but if I was a sports photographer, I might think differently. Then again, I'd be stupid for buying an F50 in the first place. I can't blame Nikon for not including a motor drive into its cheapest autofocus camera, but if you really need it, take some steps up the ladder and get an F90X or so.

The F50 can only take a limited range of lenses

To be precise, the F50 only fully uses AF Nikkors, with the exception of those made for the F3AF. If you're using an AF-IS or AI-P lens, you'll need to focus manually, but you can still use the F50's full light metering functionality. If you're using other manual lenses, you can use the F50 in full manual mode, but you lose all light meter functionality. I sometimes use an old Nikon bellows, and I have to measure the light with a Bessa-L body and L39-to-Nikon adapter and then transfer the data to my F50, just because the F50's exposure meter doesn't work – which is very annoying. There are restrictions on the manual Nikkors you can mount, too. These are all okay to use:

  • AF lenses
  • AI-P;
  • AF-IS;
  • AI-type (AI, AI-S, AI converted) with the exception of the Fisheye 6mm f/5.6 and the Fisheye OP 10mm f/5.6, the 180-600mm f/8 (#174180 or less), the 200-600mm f/9.5 (#301922 or less), the 360-1200mm f/11 (#174127 or less);
  • Nikon E lenses;
  • Reflex lenses 500mm f/8, 1000mm f/11 (#143001 or larger), 2000mm f/11 (#200310 or larger);
  • Medical-Nikkor 120mm f/4;
  • Teleconverters (with the exception of the TC16 or TC16A).

It is said that the F50 can't handle AF-S (silent wave) and VR lenses.

Remember, you can mount and use manual lenses, but the F50 becomes strictly a light-tight box with a shutter. All functionality vaporizes. Again, it depends on the composition of your lens pool if you consider this a drawback or not. I don't think it's such a ridiculous idea to have a camera that only works with AF lenses, in this AF day and age. Though it can sometimes be annoying to see all these nice cheap manual lenses and not be able to use them.

The metering is not as good as on other Nikons

I don't have a really good answer to this one, because I've never used any other analog Nikon SLRs. According to the specs, the F50 has 6-segment matrix metering in automatic and shutter and aperture preselect modes, and center-weighted in full manual mode; probably Nikon's own 60–40 system. If you couple a D lens, the F50 switches to 3D matrix metering, which means it includes subject distance in its calculations. That's fairly advanced.

Speaking from personal experience, the F50 isn't always spot-on in difficult situations (though you can confuse every camera if you want to), whereas all the run-of-the-mill shots are usually excellent, even on slide film. Of course, since God helps those who help themselves, it works if you know a bit about photography: my trick for difficult situations is to aim the camera at a patch of an evenly lit subject, keep A(uto)E(xposure) lock pressed, pan out to the frame I want, and take the shot. Metering the grass or a 65–35 mixture of pavement and sky also usually does it.

The batteries are hard to find

Depends on your location, I guess. I've never had a problem locating those 2CR5's or DL245's, but on holidays I always take a spare. Just common sense. The 2CR5's are a bit expensive though, and Nikon would have made me quite happy with an AA accu pack annex bottom grip.

There's no DOF preview

I don't know why the target audience should want DOF, but if you must have it, there's a kludgy workaround. Unlock your lens from the f/22 (or f/32 or f/16) setting and set it to the aperture you want to DOF at. Uncouple the lens, unscrew it, and you'll see the aperture open up to the preset value. Press the lens firmly to the body, and hey presto, poor man's DOF preview.

No 3D multi balanced flash

True. The flash is either matrix balanced in automatic mode or center-weighted in manual mode. I don't understand why Nikon didn't include 3D multi balanced flash on a camera that already knows the object distance from the D coupling, but I reckon it's just feature cut to provide a reason of being to the up-market models.

But while the F50 may not implement 3d multi balanced flash, perhaps it actually communicates the object distance to external flashes? My high school used to have an F50 and an SB-26 flash, and that combination gave us perfect pictures every time, creamy soft and a joy to print. I wouldn't be surprised if that was the result of the F50 relaying the D information.

Bad ergonomics

This point isn't very specified. I personally find the F50 to be very ergonomical, with a good slip-free grip, but I can understand that some people have difficulty with the small knobs and switches. The interface involves a lot of button pressing and turning/sliding of minute controls, which is completely different from the robust knobs of the mechanical SLR. The F50 is a pain to use with gloves, I'll tell you that.

The LCD is unlit

This is a very true drawback of using the F50 in program mode. You can't see the program shifts in the lit viewfinder display, so you have to rely on the large unlit LCD. Also, other operations that are hidden by a chain of commands, like the plus/minus corrections, which are especially handy when you do time exposures, are impossible to find in total darkness. However, in practice it's fairly easy to cope with, because any subject that you want to photograph by definition reflects light, and often enough to read the LCD by; or otherwise you can take a maglite along, which shouldn't be too much of an impediment if you're already hauling a tripod. Okay, maybe that's a bit contrived. I know that when using the F50 in aperture or shutter speed preselect mode, everything you do (shifting the aperture or aperture values) can be followed in the well-lit viewfinder, so just use that option instead.

All the functions are hidden and setting parameters is very slow

For a novice, yes. For an experienced user, no. I think I qualify as an experienced user, and I can find my way around the F50's menu just fine. It takes some time to figure out its structure, but once you know how it's arranged, it's not that complex. It's true that some parameters are very slow to set. In particular, rotating through the available shutter speeds takes several seconds of button-bashing. It's obvious the F50 wasn't designed for fine-tuning. The average user will just put it in neutral and let it figure out what to do – which works really well, since it only takes two buttons to switch from one program to the other.

The yellow-black viewfinder display is annoying at night

The display actually has two levels of intensity, which of course was done with this situation in mind, but it's true: in pitch black, the yellow info beam under the viewfinder image sometimes tends to eclipse the faint viewfinder image. The only option is to wait a few seconds till it dies again. It comes back to life when you press the shutter button.

You can't choose the metering mode, and there's no spot metering

If you don't use a D lens, the F50 switches from 3D matrix metering to normal matrix metering. If you use full manual mode, the F50 assumes you're not mounting an AF lens, and picks center-weighted metering. Basically, the F50 chooses the best possible metering system for the lens you mount. Or would you ever select center-weighted metering over 3D matrix metering? The lack of spot metering is a pity, but very understandable in an amateur camera like this. It would only make the camera more expensive, while adding nothing in functionality for 99 per cent of the users. A method to emulate spot metering is to approach your subject and measure part of it, then draw back and take the picture. Otherwise, get an F70.

The F50 is bulky

In what way? It's solid and easy to grip, which I think is an asset. Slightly bulky, yes, but never annoying and perfectly in proportion. I wouldn't trade for one of those super light plastic Minoltas.

No cable release option

Agreed, I miss one too. You can use the self-timer for photographing static objects, but some sort of cable release would have been nice. On the other hand, it would have added a point of vulnerability to the camera while not contributing much for the majority of users, so I understand the trade-off.

Aborting the self-timer requires turning off the camera

Yes, that's stupid. Though it would have been worse if it was impossible to abort.

No multiple exposure option

Right, but who ever needs it anyway? I assume that double exposure functonality is hard to incorporate into fully electronic cameras, because those cameras have one big motor that both cocks the shutter and winds the film. If you split those functions, like you'd have to for multiple exposures where the film isn't transported, you'd need two separate motors: one for the wind and one for the shutter. That means two more delicate components, more noise, higher part and assembly cost, and more battery usage. The fairly trivial double exposure function doesn't weigh up to those costs.

Also, I think that a double exposure option would require a separate button on the F50, because the function (like the self-timer) is program-independent. An extra button would violate the F50's design philosophy of doing as much as possible through the menu, with as few as possible dedicated buttons. Again, this doesn't weigh up to the very occasional benefit of being able to make double exposures. In short: if you're into that kind of stuff, don't go for the F50.

Auto bracketing not included

I never understand the rationale behind auto-bracketing anyway; it's a highly specific command and I don't see how it could be useful to anyone but studio/portrait photographers who cannot afford to take technical risks in split-second situations. You can mimic auto bracketing by using the correction functions and taking the pictures yourself; expecting a function like this to be included in an amateur camera is silly.

No film speed correction

True. The F50 reads the DX code and doesn't ask any further questions. However, if you tape out this code with some tape, the F50 protests and demands you set the film speed manually – which solves your problem. You could also intervene more flexibly by using the plus and minus correction options.

Ending the TIME setting requires touching the shutter button

There are clumsy and smart ways to do this, and simply pressing the shutter button is the clumsy way. What you should do to prevent camera shake, is cover the lens with a thick velvet cloth or something, then press the shutter button.

Flash only to 35mm frame, and no built-in red eye reduction

Yes, the flash only lights out 35mm, not 28mm like the F55 and the F65. I think it depends if you see this as a drawback though. If I'm not mistaken, neither the F50 or the F55 and F65 "zoom in" with larger focals like Nikon system flashes do, which means that the F50 at 35mm will have a more concentrated flash than the F55 and F65 at 28mm – question of dilution. Maybe this is why the F50 has a higher guide number (13) than the two others (12), while it may well have the same battery life and use exact the same hardware, only with a different reflector. The cost is in coverage, but since Nikon sold the F50 in kits with a 35-80 zoom, they were correct to assume that the average consumer would rather have more power than unneeded extra coverage.

What I don't understand is why Nikon didn't incorporate red eye reduction in this camera. That's such a basic demand in the amateur market that the trade-off had to be gigantic.

The back is slippery

Yes, the back does get a bit greasy from contact with your forehead. Nothing extreme though, the grip is always excellent due to the rubberized grip, and ultimately you have only your personal hygiene to blame.

You can only use one flash at a time

People! It's an amateur camera! Use slave units, for God's sake.

The AF is "bad" in low light

The AF module is the AM200, which was Nikon's standard module for a lot of their F-decimal series (the F4 and the F90X, if I remember correctly). The detection range is from EV-1 to EV19 (at ISO 100), which is the same as on the F90X, and is amazingly large. Otherwise there's always manual focusing.

The interface is inconsistent with the N6006/N8008/F90/later models

The F50 is very nonconformant, but it was never meant as a system camera. I think the Nikon engineers did a good job at analyzing the wants of the average amateur and translating those into an optimized interface.

Slow flash sync

What's so slow about 1/125s? In fact, why is this a weak point? The F50's successors, the F55 and F65, only sync up to 1/90s, and you have to go all the way to the F80 to find a contemporary Nikon that will sync at 1/125s. The F50 is actually above par in this respect.

No mirror lock up

Why would anyone need mirror lock-up? Are there actually F50 owners who would like to use their early non-retrofocal Nikkor 21mm f/4 or their 6mm f/5.6 on this camera? This function is only useful if you're doing extremely critical work, like very long tele shots, reproduction, or bellows work. I think Nikon assumed correctly that anyone interested in that sort of thing wouldn't bother with a camera that refuses to measure the light in M mode in the first place.

Jerry's final thought

The obvious pattern in these criticisms is that we want it all. We want our cameras to contain all the upmarket features, but for the lowest possible price. This is just normal capitalism and I won't fight the universe on it, but in the real world we photographers have to pick priorities. Do we go for a low price or do we go for options? The two are almost inversely proportional: the more expensive a camera gets, the more it can do (with the exception of Leica), and the cheaper it gets, the less it does. To decide which camera you need, you have to figure out what's important for you and your photography. Do you really need mirror lock-up or back compatibility? Would you ever use a double exposure facility? Ask yourself these questions and be realistic in your answers. In my case, all I ever wanted was a well built camera with autofocus, light meter and interchangeable lens. I bought the F50, and I've been content with it ever since. However, if I did a different kind of photography like, say, macro or studio flash photography, then this camera wouldn't have sufficed.

Cameras are just tools, and there are so many of them that it isn't that hard to pick the one that best suits your style of photography. Only everything's a trade-off, and there's no such thing as the perfect camera for the perfect price. (Take care of yourself, and of each other.)

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