Nikon D90 Review

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by Tony Gomez

Published Spring ’09

A Big Improvement Over The D80

hen Nikon announced the D90 DX-format (non full frame) D-SLR a few months back, they trumpeted the fact that it was the first D-SLR capable of recording High Definition video (720P). Since then many other D-SLR manufacturers have also added this HD recording feature to their equipment (see my Digital Insider column for more information). But HD recording isn’t the only big improvement in the D90 from its predecessor, the D80, to make it a standout camera.

Improvements Over The D80

The D90 has a larger, 12-megapixel CMOS sensor (4288×2848), which is an improvement over the D80’s 10MP CCD sensor. And more resolution means better captured detail, especially when making large sized prints. You can also capture stills at two lower resolutions—7MP (3216×2136) and 3MP (2144×1424) if you are short on memory. The D90 also has a larger and brighter 3-inch LCD screen, up from 2.5-inches in the D80, as well as a faster Auto Focus system, a faster continuous shooting mode, Automatic Sensor cleaning, and the previously mentioned HD Video Capture—720P at 24 frames per second.

Live View Monitoring

As if these big improvements weren’t enough to excite you, the larger LCD screen also incorporates the latest Live View monitor technology, which has been one of the most discussed features in D-SLRs for the past two years. This is the technology that lets you preview your scene before you actually shoot it. Pioneered by Olympus a few years ago, it’s all but commonplace in most of the leading D-SLRs today. Many professional photographers scoff at it, preferring to use their viewfinders instead, but if you are coming from a point-and-shoot camera, Live View is what you’ve been used to all the time. So Live View monitoring should make you feel right at home with the new D90.

Ergonomics

The D90’s all black body exudes an air of professionalism. The body only weighs in at about 1lb 6oz., but when you include the optional 18-105mm zoom that I tested it with, it’s about 2.5 lbs overall. That combined weight, while much lighter than the more professional Nikon D-SLRs, should be tolerable for the hand-held shooter, although, the D90 is definitely a two-handed camera. The optional 18mm – 105mm VR (Vibration Reduction) zoom lens provides a very good degree of image stabilization when the D90 is hand held. However, some enthusiasts might want to use a monopod or tripod.

The menu controls and mechanical buttons on the D90 are laid out very logically. The Menu button opens up a variety of sub menus, displayed in large letters on the large LCD screen, including ISO, Image Quality and Size, Movie Quality and many more. All menu adjustments are made with the easy to use 4-way controller. The Live View button is conveniently located just to the right of the LCD screen. The Info button shows the various conditions the camera uses for image or video capture, and it also displays a convenient cross-hatch pattern to help you keep horizons or objects straight. A manual exposure compensation button allows images to be under or over exposed depending on user needs. These compensation effects are visually displayed on the Live View monitor.

Great Features

A nice included feature is Dynamic Lighting. This can be setup as an active mode while shooting, or an “after-the-fact” in-camera process using the Retouch Menu. Dynamic Lighting lets you compensate for problem lighting in certain subjects, such as back lighting, which is one of the most common issues. Backlit subjects are generally underexposed because many cameras are fooled into underexposure by the background light. D-Lighting or Dynamic Lighting compensates for that by holding the exposure in the bright areas, while increasing detail in the darker or shadow areas. I shot some gosling Canadian Geese that were just a few weeks old and looked beautiful in the late afternoon sun. But because of the sun’s backlighting, the details in the goslings were underexposed. The D-Lighting Retouch feature let me make adjustments after the fact, and save the new improved image to the memory card.

The D90 is faster than the D80, capable of capturing up to 4.5 JPEGs/second, which is great for those of you who might want to capture high speed sports activity. The D90 has four focusing modes, including three for auto focusing: Instant Single Servo, Continuous Servo, Predictive, as well as a Manual Mode. And the focusing speed is faster than the previous D80 model. Exposure metering offers the world-renowned Matrix 3D method, Center-weighted, and Spot.

As for shooting modes, there’s Programmed Auto, Shutter Priority, Aperture Priority, and Manual. For improved ease of use, there are special creative modes based on selected shooting conditions: Portrait, Landscape, Close-up, Sports, and Night Portrait. These creative modes set up specific ISO/shutter speed/aperture combinations help you take better pictures under those shooting conditions.

The DX format has a 1.5X focal length magnification factor, so the optional 18mm – 105mm zoom lens I tested actually has an effective focal length of 27mm to 157mm. The 27mm effective wide angle is very good, although personally I would have preferred a bit wider effective wide angle. The 157mm effective maximum telephoto is very good for what is termed the “medium telephoto range”. If you need a wider angle or a longer reach telephoto, I would consider getting a separate DX format Nikkor lens. Just remember the 1.5X magnification factor rule.

Shooting Video With The D90

Probably the most exciting feature of the D90 that I wanted to test was the 720P HD capability. The video resolution is actually set up in the Menu structure and can be either the 720P HD at 24fps, Standard Def video at 24fps, or Lower resolution video at 24fps. Why 24fps, and not 30fps (the video standard), you might ask? Professional videographers like the look and feel of video shot at 24fps because of its “film-like” characteristic. It mimics the professional 24fps frame rate of film. 30fps video has more of a real-time TV-like look. So Nikon has opted to provide a “film-like” video to its HD and Standard Def video capture.

However, there are some “gotchas” about shooting video with the D90, the most of which is the LCD screen. You must use it to shoot video, unlike many camcorders that also have a viewfinder. Even though the D90 LCD is large and bright, it’s firmly attached to the body. Whereas other D-SLRs offer an LCD screen that can be swiveled around or up and down, the D90’s screen is firmly in place. So you must be looking directly at it from behind to shoot any video. You can’t be creative and shoot video “off angle”.

The other “gotcha” when shooting video with the D90 is the need for manual focusing without any auto focusing enabling. Furthermore, all zooming is manual, so if you’re used to making wonderfully smooth automatic zooms on a true camcorder, and having everything in focus, you’ll have to practice up on your manual zoom and focus techniques. And finally, due to heat considerations, video can only be recorded in 5 minute maximum clips on the SD/SDHC card. So if you’ve got some very long video sequences to record, be prepared to have lots of 5 minute clips. A 5 minute 720P HD video clip takes up about 750MB of memory, so an 8GB SDHC memory card should hold up to about 50 minutes of HD video. The HD video is recorded in .AVI Windows Media format, so your computer playback software or video editing software needs to be compatible with that. But you can also playback the video directly from the D90 with an optional mini-HDMI cable.

Bottom Line

Nikon has really upped the ante as it were in their DX-format D-SLR category. The D90 has an excellent combination of features and capabilities that should satisfy all digital photographers, even ifv they are first time entrants into D-SLR photography. The icing on the cake is the ability to shoot HD 720P video, within the limitations listed above. The D90 is listed at $1,000 MSRP, body only, or $1,300 MSRP with the 18-105mm VR zoom lens included. For more information, go to www.nikonusa.com.

Nikon D90

MSRP: $1000 (body only)
  • Size/Weight:
  • 5.2”W x 4.1”H x 3”D; 1lb 6oz, body only, no battery
  • Image Sensor:
  • 12.3-megapixel CMOS
  • Maximum Resolution:
  • 4,288×2848 pixels
  • Display:
  • 3-inch 920KPixel Live View LCD
  • Still Recording Format:
  • JPEG or RAW (NEF)
  • Video Recording Mode:
  • 720P (1280×720 @24fps) HD video in .AVI Motion JPEG format, 640×424 Standard Def video @ 24fps, or 320×216 @24fps low res video.
  • Shutter Speed:
  • 1/4000th sec- 30 sec, bulb.
  • Memory:
  • SD/SDHC memory cards
  • Focusing Modes:
  • Instant Single Servo AF, Continuous Servo AF, Predictive Focus, Manual
  • Exposure Modes:
  • Programmed Auto, Shutter Priority, Aperture Priority, Manual, Portrait, Landscape, Close-up, Sports, Night Portrait, Flash off.
  • Exposure Metering:
  • Matrix 3D, Center-Weighted, Spot
  • White Balance:
  • Auto, 12 Manual modes with fine-tuning, color temperature adjustment, white balance bracketing.
  • Burst mode shooting speed:
  • Up to 4.5 JPEGs/sec.
  • ISO:
  • 200 – 3200
  • Other Features:
  • Live View LCD monitoring, Active D-Lighting exposure compensation, 720P HD video @24fps, Dust Reduction sensor cleaning, Video output, HDMI output.
  • Lens compatibility:
  • All DX AF Nikkor lenses; kit lens is AF-S Nikkor 18-105mm VR (vibration reduction)
  • Effective Focal Length Magnification Factor:
  • 1.5X (Nikon DX format)
  • Flash Guide Number:
  • ISO 200- 56 ft.
  • Contact Information:
  • www.nikonusa.com
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3 Responses to “Nikon D90 Review”

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