Image quality:

Raw image processed with Adobe Camera Raw: shadows lifted, sky and left wall darkened
Nikkor Z DX 16-55mm F3.5-6.3 VR | ISO 100 | 1/160 sec | F6.3
Photo: Richard Butler

Key takeaways:

  • Image quality is generally excellent with good Raw performance and attractive JPEGs
  • 20MP sensor means less detail capture than some rivals
  • Lens availability will be off-putting for some users

Studio scene

Our test scene is designed to simulate a variety of textures, colors and detail types you'll encounter in the real world. It also has two illumination modes to see the effect of different lighting conditions.

The Z50's overall image quality is very good, pushing out extremely sharp results at the cost of some false color artifacts. However, its degree of detail capture is lower than its rivals, as you'd expect from the lower pixel count. But don't assume that those fewer megapixels come with a noise benefit: if you print or view them at the same size, there's not a lot of separation between contemporary APS-C cameras.

JPEG sharpening is large-radius, so it isn't showing the maximum fine detail the sensor is capable of, though images may look 'crisper' on smaller screens, such as smartphones. Crank the ISO up, and you may find some areas of low contrast fine detail to look almost smudgy, while other higher contrast regions actually look pretty good. Noise is well-controlled, with a bit of luminance grain left behind that we don't mind much. Color response looks great to our eyes, with deep yellows and warm greens that are a Nikon standard. Reds aren't quite a match for our perennial favorite: Canon. The deepest blues are just a bit more resistant to slight magenta shifts than the competitors here, particularly the Sony a6400, which will show up in sunny blue-sky photos.

Dynamic Range

The Z50's sensor looks very good in terms of dynamic range. If you compare two shots taken at the same exposure but different ISO settings, there's very little difference. This suggests the camera is adding very little noise to the images and hence there's not a huge benefit to applying additional amplification. This opens up the option for Raw shooters to shoot low-light scenes with a low ISO settings and brighten the image later, but with more highlight detail retained (e.g,. neon signs in a cityscape). The sensor has two gain modes, so there is a noise improvement to be had shooting at ISO 400.

The Z50's Raw files are lossily compressed, but Nikon's clever compression means there's no visual impact

Compared to its peers, you can see that, if you reduce exposure to protect highlights, the Nikon, like Sony, captures a very clean signal, meaning you can reach a little further down into the deep shadows than its immediate rivals. This advantage is likely to be lost if you switch to 12-bit Raw mode, but it's these deep, pushed shadows that are most likely to show any difference between the two modes.

Both the Z50's 12 and 14-bit Raw files are (lossily) compressed but Nikon's compression ensures that most of the information being discarded is imperceptible noise in brighter tones, meaning there's no visual impact.

Shutter modes:

The Z50's default shutter mode is 'Auto,' which uses electronic first curtain shutter (EFCS) for shutter speeds slower than 1/320s, where there's potential risk of a mechanical shutter inducing shake. At higher shutter speeds, where EFCS can cut-off the bokeh rendering in blurred backgrounds, it reverts to using the mechanical shutter to both start and end the exposure.

You can specify whether to use just the electronic first curtain or fully mechanical shutter in Custom Settings Menu | d4: Shutter type, but you shouldn't need to. Separately (Photo Shooting Menu | Silent Photography) there's way to engage a fully electronic shutter mode. This silent photography mode also disables the camera's flash, for shooting in environments where you need to avoid causing disruptions.

The electronic shutter has a shutter rate of 1/22 seconds, which is reasonable but nothing like as quick as the mechanical shutter (which must be faster than the flash sync speed: 1/200 sec), so there will be a risk of banding under artificial light, and of distorted verticals for moving subjects.

Lens System

An important consideration when looking at camera bodies is the lens system that supports them. Notably, the total number of lenses available doesn't matter, just whether the lenses you want or need are available at prices you're comfortable with.

The Z50 presents quite a complex story. In terms of designed-for-APS-C native lenses, there are only two, rather run-of-the-mill zooms with limited maximum apertures that don't exactly make full use of the sensor's full capability for shallow depth-of-field or low light capabilities. There's also little on Nikon's lens roadmap to indicate that this will change in the near-term. Beyond this, there is an increasing array of optically excellent full-frame Z-mount lenses but many of these are comparatively large and expensive, meaning they're not necessarily a great match for this body.

It's also worth noting that both Nikon's full-frame bodies include in-body stabilization, reducing the need for stabilized lenses in the Z lineup, whereas the Z50 does not offer any mechanical stabilization of its own.

The Nikkor Z 24mm F1.8 S (left) is a nice lens on full frame, but we found it to be a little uncomfortable to use on the Z50 for extended periods. We'd love to see something more akin to Canon's 22mm F2 (right).

There is the promise of lens cross-compatibility with full-frame bodies, of course, but especially with the prime lenses, it usually imposes a compromise either before or after a switch to a different format that you may never make.

There's also the option to use F-Mount DSLR lenses with Nikon's F-to-Z adapter. However, it's worth noting that adapted lenses (even small ones) quickly begin to feel large and poorly balanced on the Z50's small body. Performance with relatively modern AF-S and AF-P lenses tends to be pretty good, but we'd generally recommend using lenses you already have, but not buying new lenses that then need to be adapted to your camera.

Ultimately it all comes down to a question of what lenses you have and which lenses you need, but the lack of native, APS-C-friendly lenses at this early stage in the APS-C Z-mount's existence is likely to be limiting to some people.