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:
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.
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:
Not a bad list, eh? The price for the GPS unit was not available when this review was written.
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.
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.
Look and Feel
In terms of design, the D90 is more-or-less the same as the D80 that came before it. The major changes can be found on the back of the D90, and include a larger LCD and slightly different button arrangement.
The D90 is a midsize digital SLR with a magnesium alloy frame and plastic outer shell. Despite being plastic on the outside, the D90 doesn't feel "cheap" like some other low-cost D-SLRs. Okay, so the plastic door over the memory card slot is a bit flimsy, but that's about it. The D90 has a good-sized grip, and is comfortable to hold in your hands. The camera does suffer a bit from button clutter, so it'll take you a while to get used to where everything else.
Now, let's see how the D90 compares to other digital SLRs in terms of size and weight:
The D90 is the same size as its predecessor, though it's a little bit heavier. It's one of the larger cameras in this group, with only the Canon EOS-40D above it.
Alright, let's start touring the D90 now, shall we?
Here's the front of the D90, with the lens removed. The D90 works with nearly all lenses that use the Nikon F-mount. Unlike the D40 and D60, you can use autofocus on nearly all of them -- there's no AF-S requirement to worry about -- since the camera has a built-in AF motor. As is the case with all DX format Nikon cameras, there's a 1.5x focal length conversion ratio to keep in mind. Thus, a 50 mm lens will have the field-of-view of a 75 mm lens. To release an attached lens, simply press the button located just to the right of the lens mount.
While the D90 and D300 both have 12.3 Megapixel CMOS sensors, they're not exactly the same. Nikon says that the D90's sensor is "inspired by" -- but not identical to -- the one on the D300.
One of the new features on the D90 is a dust reduction system. The camera sends ultrasonic waves down the low-pass filter, which removes the dust from it (in theory, at least). You can choose to have dust reduction operate when the camera is turned on and off, or you can run it manually. Since dust can be a real annoyance on a D-SLR, features like this are always welcome.
Directly above the Nikon logo is the D90's pop-up flash, which is released electronically. The flash has a guide number of 12 meters at ISO 100, which is average in this class. Only the Canon EOS-40D has a more powerful flash. Should you require more flash power and a smaller chance of redeye, attach an external flash to the camera. You can attach one to the hot shoe that you'll see in a moment, or you can cut the cord entirely and go wireless -- the D90 lets you control up to two sets of flashes using its "Commander Mode".
What else will you find on the front of the camera? Under the D90 is the camera's microphone, which is used for the much-touted movie mode that I'll tell you about later. Next to that is the receiver for the optional remote control.
Over on the grip side of things, we find the camera's front command dial, which has the AF-assist lamp to its right. Unlike the majority of D-SLRs, which use their flash for AF-assist, this is lamp is dedicated to the cause (and very bright). This lamp is also used for redeye reduction, and for serving as a sort of visual countdown for the self-timer.
Under the AF-assist lamp is the camera's Function button, which is customizable. By default, it locks the flash output, but you can have it perform a number of other tasks (described later). The button located to the lower-left of the lens mount is for depth-of-field preview.
The main thing to see on the back of the D90 is its super high resolution LCD display, which is the same one that you'll find on the D300 and D700. This screen is stunning in terms of resolution, with over 920,000 pixels. As you'd imagine, everything is tack sharp, whether it's menus or photos you're reviewing.
The screen hasn't just grown in size since the D80 -- it now supports live view. Nikon has made an effort to make live view stand out on the D90, with a dedicated button just above the four-way controller. The view on the screen is nice and bright, and you can place a composition grid on the screen, if you wish. I found outdoor live view visibility to be fairly good. The same cannot be said for shooting in low light conditions -- it's quite hard to see your subject when light levels drop.
Enlarged frame in manual focus mode
When it comes to focusing, the camera only offers contrast detect AF, just like your point-and-shoot camera. While this allows the camera to focus without having to flip the mirror down, it's very slow to lock focus -- we're talking 2 or more seconds here. You can have the camera automatically select the focus point for you (with your choice of wide or spot focusing), or you can manually pick an area in the frame using the four-way controller. If you're using manual focus, you can digitally enlarge part of the frame to verify proper focus, though the image wasn't terribly sharp.
The D90 can also use face detection while in live view mode. The camera can detect up to five faces in the frame, making sure they're properly exposed. Using my standard test scene, the best I could get out of the camera was two faces at a time.
Live view also also the place you'll record movies -- just press the "ok" button to start, and again to stop. I'll have much more on this feature later.
|This screen can be shown on the LCD||Pressing the Info button allows you to change these settings|
When the LCD isn't being used for live view, it can be turned into a secondary info display (in addition to the one on the top of the camera). From this screen you can also change a few camera settings (by pressing Info again), including noise reduction, Active D-Lighting, Picture Controls, and the Function and AE/AF-lock button assignments.
Directly above the LCD is the D90's optical viewfinder. This is a large viewfinder for an APS-C camera, with a magnification of 0.94x (equivalent to 0.64x on a 35mm camera). The viewfinder shows 96% of the frame. Under the field-of-view is a line of green text showing things like aperture, shutter speed, exposure compensation, shots remaining, and ISO sensitivity. You can adjust the focus of the viewfinder by turning the diopter correction knob located on its upper-right corner.
To the left of the viewfinder is the Delete Photo button. Jumping to the opposite side, we find the AE/AF-lock button (which is also customizable), plus the rear command dial.
Moving downward, we first see the dedicated live view button that I mentioned earlier. On other Nikon SLRs with this feature, live view is more like a drive mode -- not here. Under that button is the four-way controller. You'll use this for menu navigation, reviewing photos, and selecting a focus point (unlimited points in live view, eleven when shooting with the viewfinder). You can lock out the controller with the switch underneath it. The button under that switch toggles the information displayed on the LCD.
Jumping to the left side of the LCD now, we find these five buttons:
- Playback mode
- White balance + Help + Protect Image
- ISO + Playback zoom out
- Image quality + Playback zoom in
I'll talk about those items in more detail later in the review. For now, let's continue onto the top of the camera.
The first thing to see on the top of the D90 is its mode dial, which is chock full of options. Here they are:
The D90 offers scene modes for beginners, plus full manual controls for more advanced users. So, you can start off just pointing and shooting, and move up to adjusting shutter speed and aperture when you're ready.
To the right of the mode dial is the camera's hot shoe. The camera will work best with Nikon's recent flashes, which I listed back in the accessories section. These flashes will sync with the camera's metering system, and can use any of the shutter speeds on the camera. The D90 has built-in wireless flash support, so you can forget about the hot shoe entirely, if you want. If you're using a non-Nikon flash, you may have to set the exposure manually, and you'll be limited to a maximum shutter speed of 1/200 second.
Continuing to the right, we find the D90's LCD info display. The screen shows virtually every important camera setting, from shutter speed to focus point to shots remaining. You can turn on a backlight via the power switch located above the display.
Just to the right of the info display are two buttons:
- Drive (Single-shot, continuous low, continuous high, self-timer, delayed remote, quick remote)
- Autofocus mode (Auto select, single-servo, continuous-servo)
Time to talk about those items before we continue the tour. There are two continuous shooting modes to choose from on the D90: low and high speed. The low speed option is customizable -- you can select a frame rate between 1 and 4 fps in the custom settings menu, Here's what kind of speeds I was able to get out of the D90:
Not too shabby, eh? If you lower the JPEG quality down to Large/Normal, you can take even more shots in a row before the camera has to slow down. If you're in live view mode, the screen will shut off after the first shot in the burst is taken.
There are three autofocus modes to choose from on the D90. Single-servo locks the focus when you halfway-press the shutter release. Continuous-servo keeps focusing, even with the shutter release pressed. That makes it a good choice for moving subjects. Automatic AF will choose between the two, depending on what's going on in the frame. Do note that these modes are for shooting with the viewfinder only.
Getting back to the tour, now. Above the LCD info display we find buttons for metering (matrix, center-weighted, spot), exposure compensation (-5EV to +5EV), and shutter release. The power switch is wrapped around the shutter release button, and this is also what you'll use to turn on the backlight for the LCD info display.
Before I tell you what can be found on this side of the D90, I want to mention those two switches on the 18 - 105 mm kit lens. The top one switches between auto and manual focus, while the button one turns Vibration Reduction (image stabilization) on and off.
On the camera body itself we find buttons for popping up and adjusting the flash, and activating exposure bracketing. The available flash modes include auto, auto with redeye reduction, slow sync, and rear curtain slow sync. You can also use this button to adjust the flash exposure compensation, with a range from -3EV to +1EV. By default, the bracketing button activates auto exposure bracketing. The camera will take 2 or 3 shots in a row, each with a different exposure value. You can also bracket for white balance and Active D-Lighting -- but more on those later.
Under the bracketing button is the release for the lens. Under that is the switch for auto/manual focus.
You'll find the camera's I/O ports on the far right of the above photo. The ports are protected by rubber covers, and include:
- DC-in (for optional AC adapter)
- A/V out
- GPS + Remote Control
The D90 sports a mini-HDMI port, for connecting the camera to a high definition TV. Since a cable isn't included, you'll need to pick one up yourself. As you'd expect from a digital SLR, the D90 supports the USB 2.0 High Speed standard, for fast data transfer to your Mac or PC.
On the other side of the D90 you'll find its memory card slot and speaker. The door covering the memory card slot is on the flimsy side.
On the bottom of the D90 you'll find a metal tripod mount and the battery compartment. The door covering the battery compartment is of average quality.
The included EN-EL3e battery can be seen at right.
Using the Nikon D90
Flip the power switch and the D90 is ready to go right away. And yes, that's with dust reduction turned on.
If you're using the viewfinder, you'll find autofocus speeds to be very responsive. In the best case scenarios, the camera locked focus in 0.1 - 0.3 seconds. In more challenging situations (telephoto or close-ups), focus times were around 0.5 - 0.8 seconds. Low light focusing was accurate and fairly responsive, with focus times hanging around at about one second.
Contrast detect AF (in live view only) is another story. You should expect waits of at least two seconds before focus is locked, even in what I'd consider "easy" focusing situations. In low light situations, you might as well forget about using contrast detect AF. The camera struggled to lock focus, and that's assuming that you could actually see your subject on the LCD.
As you'd expect, shutter lag wasn't an issue on this digital SLR. Shot-to-shot delays were minimal, even with Active D-Lighting turned on (unlike with the D60 that I recently reviewed). You can shoot as fast as you can compose the next shot.
After you take a photo, you can hit the delete button to review and/or delete the shot you just took.
Now, let's take a look at the image size and quality choices on the D90:
Way back in the software section of the review, I told you that the D90 can take images in the RAW (NEF) format. You can take them alone, or with a JPEG at the size and quality of your choosing. Do note that I only listed the RAW+JPEG image for the large image size -- you can do it with smaller JPEGs as well (RAW's are always full resolution).
Images are named using the following convention: DSC_####.JPG, where #### is 0001 - 9999. File numbering is maintained ever if you switch or erase memory cards.
Don't know what Active D-Lighting does? Just press the Help button!
Moving onto menus, now. The D90 has the same menu system as Nikon's other recent D-SLRs. Getting around the menu is easy, and if you're confused about any of the options, just press the Help (zoom out) button for an explanation. The menu is divided up into six sections, containing playback, shooting, custom, setup, retouching, and recent options.
Here's the full list of menu options for you:
Custom settings menu
|Retouch menu (I'll discuss all of these in the playback section)
My Menu / Recent Settings
You can either have your own custom menu, or a list of recently accessed menu options in this space
Holy moley, that was a huge list of menu options! The My Menu feature is handy, especially for getting at custom settings that normally require a lot of button mashing to access.
|Adjusting a Picture Control||This "grid" shows you how the Picture Controls compare|
I want to mention some of those options before we move on to photo tests, and I'll start with Picture Controls. The camera has six preset Controls (standard, neutral, vivid, monochrome, portrait, landscape), and you can customize them to your heart's content. The following properties can be adjusted in a Picture Control:
- Sharpening (Auto, 0 to 9)
- Contrast (Auto, -3 to +3)
- Brightness (-1 to +1)
- Saturation (-3 to +3)
- Hue (-3 to +3)
- Filter effects (Off, yellow, orange, red, green) - only for monochrome controls
- Toning (Black & white, sepia, cyanotype, red, yellow, green, blue green, blue, purple blue, red purple) - only for monochrome
The camera can store up to nine custom Picture Controls. You can also create Picture Controls on your Mac or PC, and transfer those to the camera.
|Fine-tuning white balance||Selecting WB by color temperature|
As you'd expect on a D-SLR, there are plenty of white balance controls available. First off, you have the usual presets, like incandescent and cloudy. Each of those can be fine-tuned, as you can see in the screenshot above. You can also use a white or gray card as reference with the "preset manual" mode, and the result of that can be tweaked as well. If that's still not enough for you, you can manually select the color temperature.
Nikon cameras have had D-Lighting for a long time. This feature (in playback mode) allowed you to brighten dark areas of a photo with the push of a button. In 2008, Active D-Lighting arrived, which allows for improved contrast when you take a shot, instead of after-the-fact. By default, Active D-Lighting is set to automatic on the D90. You can also select from low, normal, high, extra high, or just turn it off. What are the effects of the various ADL settings? Have a look:
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The difference between having Active D-Lighting on or off is fairly obvious. All you have to do is look at the trees to see that. The benefit of using the higher levels of ADL can be harder to see. If you view the full size images, you'll see that the ground just in front of the statue gets more detailed as the ADL goes up. It's subtle, but it's there. I found the Auto setting to be more than adequate for everyday shooting.
I want to quickly mention the AF area modes on the D90 (for shooting with the viewfinder). Auto area picks one of the 11 available focus points for you. Single point lets you pick one of them yourself. Dynamic area works in the same way as single point, but it will follow a subject to the surrounding focus points if need be. There's also a 3D subject tracking mode, which will follow your subject as they move around the frame.
The last thing I want to mention is something I touched on earlier: bracketing. The camera can bracket for exposure, white balance, and Active D-Lighting. For white balance, you can take three shots in a row, with an interval of 5, 10, or 15 mired between each shot. Active D-Lighting bracketing takes two shots, one with ADL off, and the other with ADL at the current setting.
That's enough about menus for now. I'll cover the playback and retouching options a little bit later in the review.
Now, let's do our photo tests. With the exception of the night test shot (which was taken with the F4.5-5.6, 70 - 300 mm VR lens), all of the photos below were taken with the kit lens.
The D90 did a very nice job with our macro test subject. The colors are nice and saturated, though not over-the-top like Nikon's cheaper D-SLRs. The figurine has the smooth look that you'd expect from a digital SLR, though plenty of detail is still captured. If you're looking for noise, keep looking -- there isn't any.
The minimum focus distance will depend on the lens you can use. The kit lens can get as close to your subject as 45 cm. If you want to get closer you'll want a dedicated macro lens, and Nikon has four to choose from.
[Note: This test was reshot and rewritten on 9/22/08]
I had quite a battle with the D90 when it came time to shoot the night scene. It's been windy lately (not to mention foggy), and I was getting some pretty blurry photos, even when using a sandbag with my tripod. On my third trip out to "the spot", the wind was low enough to give me the sharp photos I was looking for. I took this sequence with the Nikon F4.5-5.6, 70 - 300 mm VR lens.
The camera took in plenty of light, as you'd expect from a camera with manual exposure controls. The buildings are sharp, from one side of the frame to the other. If you look hard enough you can spot a little bit of noise, but it's really quite minor. Purple fringing was well controlled.
Now, let's use that same scene to see how the camera performs at higher sensitivities. I'll start with the "low" ISO 100 setting and work my way up to the "high" ISO 6400 option. The shot above was taken at ISO 200, which is the default sensitivity.
ISO 100 (L1.0)
ISO 6400 (H1.0)
The "low" ISO 100 shot has less noise than the one taken at ISO 200, and it's a bit softer, as well. At ISO 400 and 800, noise becomes more obvious, though a midsize or perhaps even large print is still very much a possibility. Noise and noise reduction artifacting are more prevalent at ISO 1600, though small to midsize prints can still be produced, especially if you shoot RAW. While it wouldn't be of the greatest quality, I think the ISO 3200 is still usable for small prints or web-sized images. I do think that ISO 6400 is best left alone in low light, as there's a lot of blotchy noise and detail loss in the resulting photos.
We'll see how the D90 performs at high sensitivities in better lighting in a bit.
There's pretty strong barrel distortion at the wide end of the 18 - 105 mm kit lens. You can see what this does to photos in the real world in this example. The kit lens was sharp from corner to corner, and I didn't find vignetting (dark corners) to be a problem, either.
I wouldn't expect to see any redeye on a digital SLR, and there wasn't any on the D90. Should you encounter this annoyance (which isn't likely), you can use a tool in playback mode to remove it.
Now it's time for our studio ISO test. Since the lighting is consistent in this test, it's comparable between all the cameras I've reviewed over the years. While the crops below give you a quick idea as to the noise levels at each ISO setting, viewing the full size images is always a good idea. Here we go, again starting with the "low" ISO 100 setting:
ISO 100 (L1.0)
ISO 6400 (H1.0)
Everything is buttery smooth through ISO 1600. Yes, I said ISO 1600. That photo was so clean that I had to inspect the EXIF headers to make sure I didn't screw something up (I didn't). Even at ISO 3200, there's very little noise and great retention of detail. Same goes for ISO 6400 -- it's totally usable. I don't know what Nikon did to pull over such great high ISO performance, but my hat's off to them.
Overall, I was very happy with the quality of the photos produced by the Nikon D90. They were well-exposed (though they could have a tad more contrast), with accurate color. I was especially pleased to see that the D90 didn't share the over-the-top color saturation of the D60. Image sharpness is typical of a digital SLR: slightly soft, but they sharpen up well in your favorite image editor. If you want to adjust sharpness (or contrast, for that matter), you can use the Picture Controls feature I told you about earlier. As the previous tests illustrated, noise is exceptionally well controlled, even in low light. While purple fringing will vary depending on your lens, I didn't find it to be a problem with the lenses I used.
Now, I invite you to have a look at our photo gallery. View the full size images, maybe print a few if you can, and then decide if the D90's photo quality meets your expectations.
The feature on the D90 that got it the most attention isn't related to still photography. The D90 is the first digital SLR on the planet with the ability to record movies, and it can do it in high definition, no less. You can record video at 1280 x 720 (that's 720p), with sound, until you hit the 2GB file size limit. That takes around 5 minutes. Do note that the frame rate is 24 fps, which is a little lower than what most point-and-shoot cameras offer.
For longer movies, you can drop the resolution to either 640 x 424 or 320 x 216 (the frame rate remains the same). You can record up to 20 minutes of continuous video at both of these settings.
So here's how you record a movie on the D90. First, you must have live view turned on. Compose your shot, then press the "OK" button to start recording. Now comes the hard part. If you want to zoom in or out, or if you subject is moving, you will need to focus the lens -- manually. This takes a lot of getting used to, especially if you're coming from a point-and-shoot camera that does it automatically. You can take a still image while you're recording by pressing the shutter release button, though this will end the movie clip.
Movies are saved in AVI format, using the Motion-JPEG codec.
I have two sample movies for you, both taken at the 720p setting. The first one is the same old train movie that you're all used to be now. The second contains some good sports action, though there's a fair amount of wind noise.
The D90 has one of the most elaborate playback modes that you'll find on a digital SLR. The boring features include slideshows (basic or with music and transitions), DPOF print marking, image protection, thumbnail view, and zoom & scroll. This last feature lets you enlarge an image by as much as 27 times, and then move around. This comes in handy for checking focus, or looking for closed eyes. You can move from one image to another while maintaining the current zoom setting by using the rear command dial.
|Calendar view||Mega thumbnail view|
There's a very useful calendar view available if you keep pressing the zoom out button. Pick a date on the calendar and you can then scroll through the thumbnails of photos taken that day on the right side of the screen. There's also an option to show something like 72 thumbnails on the screen at once. It's hard to make out what's what, though.
Most of the hardcore playback features can be found in the Retouch menu. The options here include:
- D-Lighting - brightens dark areas of a photo
- Redeye correction
- Trim (crop)
- Monochrome - changes a color photo to black and white, sepia, or cyanotype
- Filter effects - use virtual skylight, warm, red/green/blue, and cross screen filters
- Color balance - adjust the color of a photo
- Small picture - downsize an image
- Image overlay - combines two RAW images into one
- NEF (RAW) processing - edit RAW images
- Quick retouch - uses D-Lighting and also boosts contrast and saturation
- Distortion control
- Fisheye - a digital effect
Previewing the effect of D-Lighting
The D-Lighting feature found here is different from the Active D-Lighting option in record mode. It brightens dark areas of a photo effectively, though don't expect it to improve overall contrast levels like Active D-Lighting does. You can select low, medium, or high levels of D-Lighting, and keep in mind that this feature may bring out some noise in your images.
Quick retouch works in much the same way as D-Lighting, except that color saturation is boosted as well.
RAW processing in playback mode
The D90 is one of a very small group of cameras that actually lets you edit a RAW image right on the camera. You can change the image size and quality, white balance, exposure compensation, and Picture Control settings. The resulting image is saved as a JPEG.
|Straighten tool||Manual distortion correction tool|
Take a look of crooked photos? I know I do. Nikon added a straighten tool that helps you take care of that right on the camera. There's also a distortion correction tool, which lets you fix barrel or pincushion distortion.
Another handy feature in playback mode is the ability to delete photos in a group, instead of one at a time (or all at once). You can also remove all photos taken on a certain date.
By default, the camera doesn't show you much information about your photos, but if you press up or down on the four-way controller you can get a lot more, as you can see above. Do note that you may need to turn on some of these screens in the playback menu (display mode option).
The D90 moves from photo to photo in a fraction of a second.
How Does it Compare?
The last Nikon digital SLR I reviewed was the D60, and to be honest, it didn't do much for me. My impression of the D90 is the total opposite: it blew me away. In terms of photo quality, manual controls, performance, customizability, and yes, its movie mode, the D90 is a home run. There are a few annoyances, such as slow focusing in live view mode and horrible bundled RAW editing software, but the positives far outweigh the negatives. The D90 is a digital SLR that I can highly recommend, without hesitation.
The D90 is a midsize digital SLR, with a magnesium alloy frame and a plastic outer shell. The camera is well put together in almost all respects, with only the plastic memory card door causing me to raise an eyebrow. The camera has a large, comfortable right hand grip, so it's easy to hold onto. The D90 does suffer a bit from button clutter, so it's not for the faint-hearted. The camera supports all Nikon F-mount lenses, with a 1.5x focal length conversion ratio. Unlike its cheaper siblings, there's no need to worry about which lenses will support autofocus. If it's a "CPU" lens, odds are that it'll autofocus just fine. Nikon offers a new 18 - 105 mm kit lens with the D90, and it has good edge-to-edge sharpness and minimal purple fringing. Dust can be a big problem on digital SLRs, and Nikon uses a silent, ultrasonic cleaning system to keep it away from the sensor.
On the back of the camera is a large 3-inch LCD with a stunning resolution of over 920,000 pixels. You'll use the LCD for menus, playing back photos you've taken, and yes, live view. The D90's live view system isn't the best implementation of this feature that I've seen. While viewing images in normal and outdoor lighting is fine, it's nearly impossible to see anything in low light. The camera relies on contrast detect autofocus in live view (which offers such things as face detection), but it's very slow. I found myself using live view to compose a shot, then I'd shut it off and let the camera focus the old-fashioned way (with its AF sensor). If you're manually focusing with live view, you can digitally enlarge the image, though the result never seemed sharp enough to really be useful (the Pentax K20D was the same way). If you want to shoot with the viewfinder, you'll find a large one on the D90, with a magnification of 0.94x and 96% coverage.
The Nikon D90 has a nice mix of feature for both beginners and enthusiasts. And did I mention the movie mode yet? If you're just starting out, the D90 offers an automatic mode, plus several scene modes. Confused about an option? Help screens for every camera option are just a button-press away. The playback mode is filled with handy retouching options, including D-Lighting, redeye removal, image straightening, and various special effects. If you like manual controls, then the D90 should satisfy you. The basics are all covered, like manual exposure and white balance (with fine-tuning). Other niceties include Active D-Lighting (contrast enhancement), in-camera RAW editing, customizable buttons and menus, and Picture Controls, which let you store sets of your favorite shooting parameters. The camera can be controlled remotely from a PC, but you'll have to pony up $150 for the required software. Speaking of software, the bundled ViewNX software is absolutely terrible for RAW editing, so you'll need to come up with something better if you're serious about RAW shooting.
The most talked-about feature on the D90 has to be its movie mode. The camera can record up to 5 minutes of continuous high definition (720p) video with sound, and longer if you use a lower resolution. Recording movies on an SLR isn't as easy as you may think, as you have to manually focus if your subject is moving around. Still, it's a fun feature, and one that I figure most SLRs will be getting in the next couple of years.
Camera performance was excellent in all areas but one. Despite having a dust reduction system, the D90 starts up as soon as you flip the power switch. Focusing speeds are good if you're using the viewfinder, but very slow in live view mode. And by slow, I mean 2 or 3 seconds to lock focus. Shot-to-shot delays were non-existent, whether you're shooting RAW or JPEG. The D90 has a nice continuous shooting mode that can take 9 RAW or 18 JPEGS in a row at 4.5 frames/second. The camera's battery life is best-in-class, and you can double it by purchasing the battery grip (which can use AA batteries, too).
Photo quality was excellent. The D90 took well-exposed photos with pleasing, accurate colors. Images have the smooth look that is a D-SLR trademark, though plenty of detail is still captured. The D90 really impressed me at high ISOs. In low light, you can comfortably raise the ISO to 800 (and perhaps higher) without worrying about noise. In good light, ISO 3200 is shockingly clean, with even the "high" ISO 6400 being very usable. I didn't find purple fringing to be a problem with the lenses I tested, and redeye was not an issue either.
I came into this review expecting to like the Nikon D90, and I ended up loving it. It offers many of the same features as the D300, but at a more comfortable price ($999 body only). If you're someone who wants a robust live view mode, then I might take a look at the competition, but for a great all-around digital SLR, the D90 is one that should not be missed.
What I liked:
- Excellent photo quality; superb high ISO performance
- Well built, easy to hold
- Dust reduction system
- Large, super high resolution 3-inch LCD display
- Full manual controls, and then some
- Snappy performance (though see exception below)
- Dedicated AF-assist lamp
- Native support for wireless flashes
- High def movie mode
- Redeye not a problem
- Lots of useful playback mode features: D-Lighting, redeye removal, RAW editing, image straightening
- In-camera help system
- Best-in-class battery life
- Optional battery grip
- Good quality kit lens available
What I didn't care for:
- Poor RAW image editing software included; remote control software costs another $150
- Very slow focusing in live view mode; manual focus enlargement not sharp; poor visibility in low light
- Flimsy door over memory card slot
- Focusing in movie mode takes work
Some other D-SLRs worth a look include the Canon EOS-40D, Olympus E-520, Panasonic Lumix DMC-L10, Pentax K20D, and the Sony Alpha DSLR-A350. If you want to spend a little more money, then I'd add the Canon EOS-50D, Nikon D300, and Sony Alpha DSLR-A700 to that list.
As always, I recommend heading to your local camera or electronics store to try out the D90 and its competitors before you buy!
See how the photos turned out in our gallery!