Nikon D90 Review

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!

Photo Gallery

See how the photos turned out in our gallery!

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If you have a question about this review, please send them to Jeff. Due to my limited resources, please do not e-mail me asking for a personal recommendation.