Nikon D90 Review

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:

Camera Dimensions (W x H x D, excluding protrusions) Volume (bulk) Mass (empty)
Canon EOS-40D 5.7 x 4.2 x 2.9 in. 69.4 cu in. 740 g
Nikon D80 5.2 x 4.1 x 3.0 in. 64 c5u in. 585 g
Nikon D90 5.2 x 4.1 x 3.0 in. 64 cu in. 620 g
Olympus E-520 5.4 x 3.6 x 2.7 in. 52.5 cu in. 475 g
Panasonic Lumix DMC-L10 5.3 x 3.8 x 3.1 in. 62.4 cu in. 480 g
Pentax K20D 5.6 x 4.0 x 2.8 in. 62.7 cu in. 714 g
Sony Alpha DSLR-A350 5.1 x 3.9 x 2.9 in. 57.7 cu in. 582 g

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?

Front of the Nikon D90

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.

Back of the Nikon D90

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
  • Menu
  • 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.

Top of the Nikon D90

The first thing to see on the top of the D90 is its mode dial, which is chock full of options. Here they are:

Option Function
Auto mode Point and shoot with some menu options locked up.
Program mode Still automatic, but with access to all menu options. The Flexible Program feature lets you scroll through several shutter speed / aperture combinations by using the command dial.
Shutter priority mode You choose the shutter speed, and the camera picks the aperture. Shutter speed range is 30 - 1/4000 sec.
Aperture priority mode You choose the aperture, and camera picks the shutter speed. Range depends on lens used. For the kit lens, it's F3.5 - F36.
Full manual (M) mode Choose both the shutter speed and aperture yourself (same ranges as above). A bulb mode is also available for super-long exposures: the shutter will remain open for as long as the shutter release is pressed, up to 30 minutes.

Night portrait

These are all scene modes
Flash off Turns the flash off entirely

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:

Quality setting Low speed * High speed
RAW+JPEG 7 shots @ 3.0 fps 7 shots @ 4.6 fps
RAW 11 shots @ 3.0 fps 9 shots @ 4.4 fps
JPEG (Large/Fine) 27 shots @ 3.0 fps 18 shots @ 4.5 fps

* At default setting

Speeds tested with a 4GB Class 6 SDHC memory card

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.

Side of the Nikon D90

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)
  • USB
  • HDMI
  • 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.

Side of the Nikon D90

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.

Bottom of the Nikon D90

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.