DCRP

Nikon D90 Review

by Jeff Keller, DCRP Founder/Editor

Originally Posted: September 17, 2008

Last Updated: June 26, 2009

The Nikon D90 ($999, body only) is the long-awaited replacement to the popular D80 digital SLR. The D90 sits between the D60 and D300 in Nikon's D-SLR lineup, though many of its features come from its more expensive sibling.

While it may look a lot like its predecessor, the D90 is essentially an all-new camera on the inside. The D90's most talked-about feature isn't its sensor, continuous shooting performance, or anything like that. Rather, it's the fact that it's the first D-SLR with a movie mode -- and in HD, no less.

Some of the other highlights on the D90 include:

  • A 12.3 Megapixel CMOS sensor
  • Continuous shooting at 4.5 frames/second
  • Live view on an ultra-sharp 3-inch LCD display
  • Active D-Lighting for improved dynamic range
  • Numerous in-camera photo retouching tools
  • HDMI output
  • Optional GPS for geotagging

On paper, the D90 sounds like a very impressive digital SLR. How does it perform in our tests? Find out now in our review!

What's in the Box?

The D90 will be available in two kits. You can buy it in a body-only configuration ($999), or along with the new 18 - 105 mm VR lens ($1299). Here's what you'll find in the box for both of those kits:

Here's what you'll find in the box for each of these:

  • The 12.3 effective Megapixel Nikon D90 camera body
  • F3.5 - 5.6, 18 - 105 mm DX Nikkor VR AF-S lens [lens kit only]
  • EN-EL3e lithium-ion rechargeable battery
  • Battery charger
  • Body cap
  • LCD cover
  • Eyepiece cap
  • Shoulder strap
  • USB cable
  • A/V cable
  • CD-ROMs featuring Nikon Software Suite
  • 278 page camera manual (printed)

If you buy the D90 with the 18-105 kit lens, then you're ready to start shooting right away. This lens features Vibration Reduction, which is Nikon-speak for image stabilization. With the body-only kit, you'll have to supply the lens, and you can choose from almost the entire collection of Nikon F-mount lenses. Unlike the D40 and D60, the lens doesn't have to be AF-S in order to use autofocus, as there's a focus motor built into the camera. Being that camera has an APS-C sensor, there will be a 1.5x focal length conversion ratio with whatever lens you use.

Like all D-SLRs, there's no memory card in the D90's box, so you'll need to pick one up (if you don't have one already). The camera supports both SD and SDHC memory cards, and I'd recommend starting out with a 2GB card. It's definitely worth spending a little more for a high speed card when you're using a digital SLR.

The D90 uses the same EN-EL3e lithium-ion battery as the D80 that came before it. This battery packs 11.1 Wh of energy, which is on the higher end of the spectrum. Here's how that translates into battery life:

Camera Battery life, live view off
(CIPA standard)
Battery used
Canon EOS-40D 800 shots BP-511A
Nikon D90 850 shots EL-EL3e
Olympus E-520 650 shots BLM-1
Panasonic Lumix DMC-L10 450 shots DMW-BLA13
Pentax K20D 530 shots D-LI50
Sony Alpha DSLR-A350 730 shots NP-FM500H

Battery life numbers are provided by the manufacturer

Ladies and gentlemen, the D90 has the best battery life in its class! Since Nikon wasn't using CIPA numbers way back when the D80 was announced, I can't tell you if the D90's numbers are higher or lower than its predecessor.

I should point out two things about the proprietary batteries used by the D90 and all the other cameras in the table above. For one, they're expensive -- an extra EN-EL3e will set you back at least $30. Second, unless you're using the optional battery grip (described below), you can't use an off-the-shelf battery to get you through the day when your rechargeable dies.

Nikon D90 with the MB-D80 battery grip

Speaking of the battery grip, here it is. It just so happens that the MB-D80 grip (priced from $120) is the same one that was available for the D80. The grip can hold two EN-ELe3 batteries, giving you double the battery life. It also comes with a tray that can hold six AA batteries, a feature I'm a big fan of. The grip has extra buttons and dials that come in handy when you're shooting in the portrait orientation.

When it's time to charge the EN-EL3e battery, just pop it into the included charger. It takes around 2 1/4 hours for the battery to fully charge. This isn't one of those handy charges that plugs right into the wall -- you must use a power cable.

As is the case with all digital SLRs, the D90 has a plethora of optional accessories available. I've compiled some of them into this table:

Accessory Model # Price * Description
Lenses Varies Varies The D90 supports nearly all Nikon F-mount lenses
External flash

SB-400
SB-600
SB-800
SB-900

From $104
From $179
From $300
From $429
Get more flash power and less chance of redeye with these Speedlights. The SB-800 and SB-900 can be used to control wireless flashes.
Wireless Speedlight Commander SU-800 From $240 While not a flash itself, this can be used to control other flashes wirelessly
Wired remote control MC-DC2 $30 A shutter release button on a 1 meter cable
Wireless remote control ML-L3 From $16 Take a photo without touching the camera
Battery grip MB-D80 From $120 Double your D90's battery life
AC adapter EH-5a From $70 Power your camera without draining the battery
GPS unit GP-1 N/A Attaches via the tripod mount and saves location data with each photo
Sync Terminal Adapter AS-15 From $19 Attaches to the hot shoe, providing a port for a flash sync cable
Magnifying eyepiece DK-21M From $23 Increases viewfinder magnification to 1.1x
Angle finder DR-6 From $185 Lets you look into the viewfinder from a 90 degree angle
* Prices were accurate at time of publication

Not a bad list, eh? The price for the GPS unit was not available when this review was written.


Nikon Transfer

Nikon includes a pair of software programs along with the D90. The first is Nikon Transfer, which you'll use to transfer photos from the camera to your Mac or PC. You select which photos are to be transferred, where they're going, and you're done. You can also select a backup location for your photos, just in case.


Nikon ViewNX

Once that's done, you'll find yourself in Nikon ViewNX, which you can use for organizing and sharing photos. Here you can the usual thumbnail view, and you can assign photos to various categories, or give them "star" ratings. ViewNX lets you see the focus point used on a photo, listen to voice memos, and convert RAW images to JPEGs.

The RAW editing features in ViewNX are pretty lousy. You can adjust the exposure compensation and white balance, or select a Picture Control (more on that later), and that's it. Plus, you can only adjust these items while looking at the thumbnails which, while not the end of the world, seems a bit silly to me.

Nikon's solution for RAW editing is known as Capture NX2 (priced from $148). This software lets you edit many common RAW properties, and it's unique "U Point" controls take a different approach toward image retouching than what you might be used to. You can select a spot in the image that you want to retouch, select the radius of the area that will be affected, and then adjust things like brightness, contrast, and saturation for that area. You can do the same for things like D-Lighting, noise reduction, and unsharp mask. You can learn more about this software from Nikon's website.

When this review was written, Capture NX2 did not support the D90's RAW image format, but I expect that to change fairly soon. Another option for RAW editing is Adobe Photoshop, though its Camera Raw plug-in has not yet been updated for the D90.

So what is RAW, anyway? The RAW image format (Nikon calls it NEF) stores unprocessed data from the camera's sensor. Thanks to this, you can adjust all kinds of image properties without degrading the quality of the image. So, if you botched the white balance, you can change it in your RAW editor, with no ill effects. It's almost like getting a second chance to take a photo. Since the bundled software hardly lets you do anything, you'll want to pick up a better RAW editor to really take advantage of the format.

The downsides of the RAW format are that 1) the file sizes are significantly larger than JPEGs, 2) camera performance is slower, and 3) you must post-process each image on your computer in order to convert it to a standard image format. Okay, that last one isn't entirely true -- the D90 does let you perform basic RAW edits on the camera itself.


Camera Control Pro 2 (from the D60)


Live view in Camera Control Pro 2 (from the D700)

Another option software product for the D90 is Nikon Camera Control Pro 2, which costs a whopping $148 (it comes bundled with Canon cameras at no charge). As its name implies, Camera Control Pro lets you control the D90 from your Mac or PC over the USB connection. When you take a photo, it goes straight to your computer. You can adjust most of the camera's settings, and live view is available, as well. As of press time, the software wasn't yet compatible with the D90, so the screenshots you see above were taken using other Nikon cameras.

Nikon bundles a thick, detailed manual with the D90. It starts out with a "Q&A" section that helps you quickly find out answers to common questions, such as "how do I record a movie?". The manual does have its share of "notes" (fine print), but it should still answer any question you might have about the D90. You'll find the documentation for the bundled software installed on your computer.

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