Nikon Introduces Its Smallest, Lightest Mirrorless Camera Yet

Nikon just took the wraps off its first* consumer-grade mirrorless digital camera, the Z50, and it looks like it might be a compelling buy for DX owners looking to upgrade.

ASIDE: Most readers can skip this, but a quick word if you're just dropping in to see what's new, and aren't big into cameras. All the major names sell two basic lines. The various pro series (which Nikon calls "FX" for "full frame") feature a sensor chip the same size as a frame of 35mm film from the old days. The consumer/prosumer lines use a smaller, less expensive sensor (which Nikon calls "DX"). They all make great pictures, but the smaller sensors generally do less well in low light, because their size means they collect less of it. Also, the pixels are crowded closer together, which leaves them fighting, as it were, over the same photons. So now you know.

The Big Picture

This new Z50 has some impressive specs, which is par in this Golden Age of photography. The 21 megapixel DX sensor -- the film, so to speak -- is borrowed from the beloved D500, generally considered to be Nikon's best-ever DX-format camera. There's a flip-down-and-around touchscreen display for taking seriously self-indulgent selfies, you can record 4K video at 30 frames per second, and a 120fps slo-mo mode in 1080p. More serious shooters will be impressed with the 209-point phase-detect autofocus system, and the ability to focus at -4 EV, which is really dim light. You can shoot at the ridiculously high ISO of 51,200 -- or use a push mode that'll take the ISO up to 102,400 or even 204,800 -- but don't. Seriously, just don't shoot like that. All of today's cameramakers advertise these digitally "enhanced" high ISOs, and they all take awful pictures when pushed that high. If you need to shoot in really low light, do yourself a favor and get a Google Pixel 3 phone or an iPhone 11. The "computational photography" made possible by smartphone silicon produces better results than any DSLR or mirrorless camera in those conditions.

You know in the last act of 2001: A Space Odyssey, when David Bowman approaches the big black monolith and suddenly that solid slab somehow inverts itself to open a stargate, and a dazzled Bowman says, "My God, it's full of stars!" Something similar happened to me when I saw the Z50 in the hands of a normal-sized person: "My God, it's so tiny!" I don't know how Nikon (or Canon or Sony) did it, but they put this toy-sized camera around a full-sized mirrorless mount. I've always liked Nikon's ergonomics, but I might hesitate recommending this particular model to anyone with really large hands.

What It Comes With

Nikon sells the Z50 body for $869, which is right in line with the competition. For $999 you get a kit with the nifty little midrange lens, the Nikkor Z DX 16-50mm. That'll shoot the equivalent of a full-size 24-75mm lens, which is more or less standard for a midrange zoom. The one downside is the maximum aperture closes down to f/6.3 from f/3.5 pretty quickly as you zoom in, in order to make the lens lighter, smaller, and less expensive. But since you can shoot at ISO 6,400 these days and still get good shots, most consumers should be happy with the tradeoff. If you're willing to spend $1,350, Nikon will sell you the two-lens kit with the 16-50mm, plus a 50-250mm (75mm-375mm equivalent) f4.5-6.3 superzoom. Most consumer-level shooters will never need a third lens, making the two-lens kit more or less complete.

Both lenses feature vibration reduction good for up to four or five stops, and have all the modern niceties -- like a programable control ring -- that users have come to expect in the mirrorless world.

If you'd rather stick with your current non-Z Nikon glass, Nikon is happy to sell you an adapter for (gulp!) $250. But they've been known to have sales where they'll throw one in for free with the FX-size Z6 and Z7 bodies. So if you're not in a hurry, you might want to wait and see if they make a similar offer with the Z50 closer to Christmas.

ASIDE: A quick word on the competition, namely the Canon EOS M50 and Sony A6400. The SLR market is shrinking, particularly in the consumer space. Top-end (and even some midrange-price) smartphone cameras feature so much digital sorcery, that they rival some bigger, bulkier SLRs in picture quality. As a result, people are buying fewer SLRs. A lot fewer. But for people like me who are wedded to their SLRs, even if we spend less time with them, the increased competition is a real boon. Because in this shrinking market, excellence is the minimum quality level. One particular camera or brand might do this or that thing a bit better, and some other camera or brand might do this or that other thing a bit better, but overall you can't go wrong buying from any of the big names. So what I'm trying to say is: No flame wars, please.

A Few More Odds and Ends.

The Z50 has a flip-up flash that'll work in a pinch as well as anyone else's flip-up flash, but honestly you're better off sticking a full-size flash on top, leaving it there, and angling it to bounce off ceilings. Nobody, not even supermodels, looks good with a tiny flash aimed straight at their faces.

The Z50 doesn't have in-body image stabilization, but neither does the competition in sub-$1,000 price range.

The box includes the usual battery, charger, and Nikon-branded neck strap. Buy an extra battery and keep it charged, and get a non-branded (but padded!) strap. Maybe it's just me, but a giant "NIKON" or "CANON" on a strap looks cheesy.

You can also charge the battery without removing it, via USB cable.

The Z50 features crop modes for shooting in traditional 35mm proportions, square, or TV-friendly 16:9. You can shoot JPEG or RAW at up to 14 bits, and in the sRGB or Adobe RGB color spaces. There's a mic jack and a built-in stereo mic for shooting video, but curiously no headphone jack.

Nikon's metering is typically awesome, and I'd expect nothing less from the Z50. I'm very curious to try out this focus-almost-in-the-dark stuff, because flashes (like the ever-present one on top of my D750) don't help you focus in low light before you make the shot.

You can shoot at up to 11fps, which is faster than almost anyone needs, even for shooting high school sports.

Built-in WiFi and Nikon's mobile SnapBridge app for Android and iOS allow for easy syncing with your online photo library.

So Who Is the Z50 For?

The body-only box is for Nikon DX shooters who are perfectly happy with their current set of lenses, although they'll probably have to shell out an extra $250 for the adapter. Alternately, there are cheap knockoff adapters on Amazon for much, much less. The body-only is also a good choice if you prefer the size/price of the Z50 over the Z6 or Z7, but plan on using the full-size Z-lenses.

The single-lens kit is a great introduction for new shooters serious enough to spend a grand, or for existing Nikon owners looking for a relatively inexpensive way to make the move from DSLR to mirrorless.

The two-lens kit is for anyone wanting to make that move in a bigger way.

I don't expect Nikon to make any conquest sales with the Z50. Canon owners will stick with Canon, Sony shooters with Sony, etc.

If I were still shooting DX, I'd probably have pre-ordered the two-lens kit before I even sat down to write this preview. But as a full-frame FX shooter perfectly happy with what he has, I'll wait until Nikon releases its second generation FX Z-mount bodies -- and then wait a little longer for prices to come down.

But if you're the owner of a Nikon D7000-series, or maybe even a D500, and you have the itch to upgrade to mirrorless... the Z50 looks like an awfully good way to scratch it.

---

*Nikon moved half-heartedly into the consumer mirrorless space previously with the unloved (even by them) Nikon 1 series. This is the company's first serious attempt, and it looks like they've nailed it, if belatedly.