Nikon D90 Review

Using the Nikon D90

Record Mode

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:

Resolution Quality Approx. file size # images on 2GB SD card (optional)
4288 x 2848
RAW + Fine JPEG 16.9 MB 89
RAW + Normal JPEG 13.9 MB 106
RAW + Basic JPEG 12.3 MB 118
RAW 10.8 MB 133
Fine 6.0 MB 271
Normal 3.0 MB 539
Basic 1.5 MB 1000
3216 x 2136
Fine 3.4 MB 480
Normal 1.7 MB 931
Basic 900 KB 1800
2144 x 1424
Fine 1.6 MB 1000
Normal 800 KB 2000
Basic 400 KB 3800

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:

Playback menu
  • Delete (Selected, select date, all)
  • Playback folder (Current, all)
  • Hide image (Select/set, select date, deselect all)
  • Display mode (Highlights, RGB histogram, data) - which of these are displayed during playback
  • Image review (on/off) - post-shot review
  • PictMotion - fancy slideshow feature
    • Start
    • Select pictures (All, selected date, selected)
    • Background music (High-speed, emotional, natural, up-tempo, relaxed)
    • Effects (Zoom bounce, zoom in/out, blend, wipe, zoom out fade)
  • Rotate tall (on/off) - automatically rotate images taken in the portrait orientation
  • Slideshow - standard slideshow feature
    • Start
    • Frame interval (2, 3, 5, 10 secs)
  • Print set (Select/deselect, deselect all) - for DPOF print marking
Shooting menu
  • Set Picture Control (Standard, neutral, vivid, monochrome, portrait, landscape) - see below
  • Manage Picture Control (Save/edit, rename, delete, load/save) - see below
  • Image quality (see above chart)
  • Image size (see above chart)
  • White balance (Auto, incandescent, fluorescent, direct sunlight, flash, cloudy, shade, color temperature, preset manual) - see below
  • ISO sensitivity settings
    • ISO sensitivity (Auto, Lo 1/100 - Hi 1/6400)
    • ISO sensitivity auto control (on/off)
    • Maximum sensitivity (400, 800, 1600, 3200, Hi 1)
    • Minimum shutter speed (1 - 1/2000 sec) - minimum shutter speed you'll allow
  • Active D-Lighting (Auto, off, low, normal, high extra high) - see below
  • Color space (sRGB, Adobe RGB)
  • Long exposure noise reduction (on/off) - for exposures longer than 8 secs
  • High ISO noise reduction (Off, low, normal, high) - for ISO 800 and above; even if turned off, some NR will be applied at the "Hi" sensitivities
  • Active folder (Select, new, rename, delete)
  • Multiple exposure - combine two or three shots into one
    • Number of shots (2, 3)
    • Auto gain (on/off)
  • Movie settings - much more on this later
    • Quality (1280 x 720, 640 x 424, 320 x 216)
    • Sound (on/off)

Custom settings menu

  • Reset - back to defaults
  • a1: AF-area mode (Single-point, dynamic area, auto area, 3D-tracking) - see below
  • a2: Center focus point (Normal zone, wide zone)
  • a3: AF-assist illuminator (on/off)
  • a4: AF point illumination (Auto, on, off) - in the viewfinder
  • a5: Focus point wrap-around (Wrap, no wrap)
  • a6: AE-F/AF-L for MB-D80 (AE/AF lock, AE lock, AF lock, AE lock hold, AF-on, FV lock, focus point selection) - for use with the battery grip
  • a7: Live view autofocus (Wide area, normal area, face priority)
  • b1: EV steps for exposure control (1/3, 1/2 step)
  • b2: Easy exposure compensation (on/off) - whether the +/- button is needed to adjust exposure compensation
  • b3: Center-weighted area (6, 8, 10 mm)
  • b4: Fine tune optimal exposure - this lets you tweak the exposure from -1 to +1 in 1/6EV increments for each of the metering options
  • c1: Shutter-release button AE-L (on/off) - whether exposure locks when the shutter release is halfway-pressed
  • c2: Auto meter-off delay (4, 6, 8, 16, 30 secs, 1, 5, 10, 30 mins)
  • c3: Self-timer
    • Delay (2, 5, 10, 20 secs)
    • Number of shots (1-9)
  • c4: Monitor off delay (4, 10, 20 secs, 1, 5, 10 mins)
  • c5: Remote on duration (1, 5, 10, 15 mins) - how long the camera waits for a signal from the remote control
  • d1: Beep (on/off)
  • d2: Viewfinder grid display (on/off) - whether a composition grid is shown in the viewfinder
  • d3: ISO display and adjustment (Show frame count, show ISO/easy ISO, show ISO) - whether the ISO is shown on the info displays; easy ISO lets you use the command dial to adjust the sensitivity
  • d4: Viewfinder warning display (on/off) - whether certain warnings are displayed in the viewfinder
  • d5: Screen tips (on/off) - whether hints are shown when adjusting settings on the shooting info screen
  • d6: CL mode shooting speed (1-4 fps) - set the frame rate for continuous low mode
  • d7: File number sequence (On, off, reset)
  • d8: Shooting info display (Auto, dark on light, light on dark) - customize the colors of the info display on the LCD
  • d9: LCD illumination (on/off) - whether the info display on the top of the camera illuminates when the exposure meter is active, or just when you press the backlight button
  • d10: Exposure delay mode (on/off) - delays shutter release for a second after the mirror is flipped up
  • d11: Flash warning (on/off) - whether the camera warns you to use the flash
  • d12: MB-D80 battery type (AA alkaline, AA NiMH, AA lithium, AA NiMn) - what you're using in the battery grip
  • e1: Flash shutter speed (30 - 1/60 sec) - slowest shutter speeds used in slow sync flash mode
  • e2: Flash control for built-in flash (TTL, manual, repeating, commander) - manual lets you select the flash output between full and 1/128; repeating option creates a strobe effect; commander is for wireless flashes
  • e3: Modeling flash (on/off) - fires the flash when doing a depth-of-field preview
  • e4: Auto bracketing set (AE & flash, AE only, WB bracketing, ADL bracketing) - see below
  • e5: Auto FP (on/off) - allows for high speed flash sync with compatible Nikon Speedlights
  • e6: Bracketing order (MTR>under>over, under>MTR>over)
  • f1: Backlight switch (LCD backlight, backlight + info display on main LCD)
  • f2: OK button (Select center focus point, highlight active focus point, not used)
  • fe: Assign Function button (Framing grid, AF-area mode, center focus point, FV lock, flash off, matrix metering, center-weighted metering, spot metering, top item in My Menu, +NEF/RAW) - define what this button does
  • f4: Assign AE/AF-lock button (AE/AF lock, AE lock, AF lock, AE lock hold, AF-on, FV lock)
  • f5: Customize command dials
    • Reverse rotation (on/off)
    • Change main/sub (on/off) - switches the function of the front and rear command dials
    • Menus and playback (On, on w/o image review, off) - whether the dials can be used in menus and playback mode
  • f6: No memory card (Enable release, release locked)
  • f7: Reverse indicators (+0-, -0+) - how the exposure meters are represented

Setup menu
  • Format memory card
  • LCD brightness (-3 to +3)
  • Clean image sensor
    • Clean now
    • Clean at startup/shutdown (Startup, shutdown, both, off)
  • Lock up mirror for cleaning
  • Video mode (NTSC, PAL)
  • HDMI (Auto, 480p, 576p, 720p, 1080i)
  • World time
    • Time zone
    • Date and time
    • Date format (Y/M/D, M/D/Y, D/M/Y)
    • Daylight savings time (on/off)
  • Language
  • Image comment - attach text comments to your photos
  • Auto image rotation (on/off)
  • Dust off reference photo - for the dust removal feature in Nikon Capture NX
  • Battery info - shows battery life, shots taken since battery was charged
  • GPS
    • Auto meter off (on/off) - whether the exposure meter shuts off when the GPS is attached
    • Position - shows current position
  • Eye-Fi upload (on/off) - whether images are uploaded when using an Eye-Fi wireless SD card
  • Firmware version
Retouch menu (I'll discuss all of these in the playback section)
  • D-Lighting (Low, normal, high)
  • Redeye correction
  • Trim
  • Monochrome (Black & white, sepia, cyanotype)
  • Filter effects (Skylight, warm filter, red/green/blue intensifier, cross screen)
  • Color balance
  • Small picture (640 x 480, 320 x 240, 160 x 120)
  • Image overlay - combine two RAW images into one
  • NEF (RAW) processing
  • Quick retouch
  • Straighten
  • Distortion control
  • Fisheye

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:

Auto (default)
View Full Size Image
View Full Size Image
View Full Size Image
View Full Size Image
View Full Size Image
Extra High
View Full Size Image

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 200

ISO 400

ISO 800

ISO 1600

ISO 3200

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 200

ISO 400

ISO 800

ISO 1600

ISO 3200

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.

Movie Mode

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.

Click to play movie (1280 x 720, 24 frames/sec, AVI format)

Click to play movie (1280 x 720, 24 frames/sec, AVI format)

Playback Mode

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
  • Straighten
  • 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.