Nikon D90 SLR Review
By Mike Flacy
Nikon has built on the success of their popular D80 from 2006, and added a host of new technologies and features that are more relevant for the current amateur dSLR market. Among these new additions are the D90's 12.3-megapixel DX format image sensor, Nikon's EXPEED image processing system, Large 3.0-inch LCD with 920,000 pixels, more powerful built-in flash, Active D-lighting, Live View mode, broader ISO range, increased burst capabilities, ability to capture HD (1280x720) video with sound at 24fps, and HDMI video output. The D90 continues to use the same effective 11-point AF system, EN-EL3e Li-ion battery pack, 3D-Color Matrix II metering system, USB 2.0 (high-speed) connectivity, NEF (RAW) + JPEG (fine/normal/basic) image capture, optional MB-D80 Multi-Power Battery pack, and SD/SDHC type memory cards that were found on its predecessor.
The D90 is among several 'compact' dSLR models from Nikon, which are much smaller and lighter than the higher end D-series models like the D700. While the D90 and D80 are relatively the same dimensions, the newer model is a bit heavier at approx. 1 lb. 6 oz. without the battery, memory card, body cap or LCD monitor cover. While it's not likely that you'll notice the extra ounce or so, I feel it does allow the D90 to offer a well-built feel. While I do consider this a compact dSLR, the ergonomic design offers nice professional feel, which is also very comfortable thanks to the large right hand side grip with rubberized and textured plastic accents. I especially like the indentation on the inside where the tips of your fingers rest. The majority of controls are laid out similarly to the D80, however the OK button has been moved to the center of the 4-way controller, while the new info button takes its old place. Other changes include a new LV (Live View) mode button, and Nikon has changed focus selector lock switch type. All of the other controls are in pretty much the same exact position as on the previous model. This means those who are upgrading from the D80 will feel right at home when they pick up the D90. I was glad to see Nikon chose to keep the monochrome Data LCD on the top of the hand grip. These displays are becoming less and less popular on many dSLR models in this class, which is a shame in my opinion. Nikon also included a larger 3.0-inch LCD which offers 920,000 pixels of resolution! The increased size helps make menu text a bit more legible as well as offering a larger viewing area during image/movie playback. While I enjoyed using this new display very much, I was a little upset to find that it was still very prone to reflections, with and without the protective cover.
The onscreen menu system is also similar to the D80, however Nikon has updated the Custom functions by separating all of the possible options into six categories; Autofocus, Metering/Exposure, Timers/AE Lock, Shooting/Display, Bracketing/Flash, and Controls. This allows you to quickly find specific functions, without having to scroll through several pages. The D90 also features an updated Retouch menu, which offers several new image correction tools. Not only can you use D-Lighting, remove Red-eye from your flash portraits or add filter effects, but the D90 also allows you to straighten an image, adjust the color balance as well as process NEF (RAW) images right in the camera. This useful menu will likely appeal to those who have just made the jump into a dSLR, but don't want to spend much time post-processing images later on their PC/Mac.
The D90 also shares the same pentaprism type viewfinder as its predecessor. This eye-level unit offers approx. 96% frame coverage with a 19.5mm eyepoint and -2-+1 m-1 diopter adjustment for those with not so perfect eyesight. I found it was a pleasure to use, offering a nice clear image and plenty of exposure information along the bottom. Thanks to the soft rubber eyecup, I had no problems while holding the camera up to my eye for long periods of time while following possible subjects. Users that are accustomed to the EVFs (Electronic ViewFinders) found on consumer digicams, will appreciate the optical thru-the-lens view that does not go blank while following a subject in burst mode; when shooting in continuous mode, the mirror return was fast enough to provide an essentially continuous viewfinder image.
Don't be fooled by the amateur dSLR label, the D90 offers as much control as just about any user can or would want to handle. Parameters such as Metering, Focus mode, AF-area, and Center AF area mode, give you extensive control over the camera's auto exposure and auto focusing systems. Even the fully automatic Advanced Scene modes allow you to control focusing and ISO settings. In addition, the D90 provides 43+ Custom Settings that allow you to personalize its operation to fit your shooting style and subjects.
The D90's shooting performance results were just a hair slower than the D80's when shooting in single exposure mode. From power-on until capture of the first image took only 6/10 of a second. Shutter lag, the time delay between depressing the shutter and capturing an image, was less than 1/10 of a second when pre-focused, while autofocus shutter lag ranged between 2/10 and 7/10 of a second, depending on the degree of focus change required of the attached 18-105mm f/3.5-5.6G ED VR lens. In single-shot mode, I was able to capture images at 1/2 second intervals without flash, and between 9/10 and 1.3 second intervals with flash, depending on subject distance.
When it comes to burst capture, the D90 blows away the competition in this price range. There are two continuous burst mode settings, Continuous High (CH) and Continuous Low (CL). With the CL mode, you can choose the maximum frame rate that is possible via the Custom Settings menu, and the default setting is 3fps. The highest option in this mode is 4fps, and when I changed it to this setting, the camera captured 10 images in just 2.3 seconds (about 4.3fps), and I was able to capture about 50 frames at this speed before any buffer slow down. Switching the camera to CH mode allowed me to shoot 10 frames in only 2.0 seconds (5fps!), which again surpassed Nikon's claims. This was done using Program mode with the ISO set at 200. The D90 didn't stop there. When I raised the sensitivity to ISO 800, I saw speeds as fast as 5.9fps! However, the frame depth seemed to be limited to about 8 frames. This was due to the in-camera High ISO noise reduction process slowing the camera down. With High ISO NR turned off I was able to capture about 25 images at this rate with no buffer slow down, then the camera slowed to about 4.2fps. Overall, these are some of the fastest times I have seen from a camera in this category. With burst capabilities like this, you're sure to catch the action at the local football or basketball game without a problem.
When shooting NEF (RAW) images in single exposure mode, I was able to capture 25 NEF images at 6/10 of a second intervals, without any signs of a full buffer. Both of the burst mode settings produced the same speeds as above, just the frame depth changed with a max of about 11 frames in either mode. Once the buffer filled, it took about 8 seconds to completely flush the memory. When switching the camera to RAW+JPEG/Fine mode, the D90 captured 7 images in 1.3 seconds in both CL and CH modes, with subsequent shots at 1.3 second intervals and the buffer flushing in 9 seconds. All of our shooting performance tests were done using an ATP Pro Max (class 6) 4GB SDHC memory card, Program mode, ISO 200, the kit 18-105mm lens, flash off, preview on, and all other settings at the factory defaults; unless noted. Times may vary depending on lighting conditions, media used, camera settings, etc.
I tested the D90 with the available 'kit' AF-S DX Zoom-NIKKOR 18-105mm f/3.5-5.6G ED VR lens. While this lens does not offer the same telephoto capabilities as the 18-135mm unit that was paired with the D80, it adds Nikon's VR (Vibration Reduction) optical image stabilization technology. What I would call a great 'all-around' lens, the 27-157.5mm (about 5.8x) equivalent focal length range offers a good amount of versatility for composing shots in various shooting situations. The wide angle end is sufficient for indoor photography as well as capturing nice landscapes, while the telephoto capabilities are great for portrait and close-up photographs. Overall, I feel this lens complements the D90 very well, helping the camera produce sharp images through the zoom and aperture ranges.
Nikon dSLRs are known for their amazing image quality, and the D90 is no exception. This camera has the ability to capture beautiful images in a variety of conditions. The exposure and white balance systems complement each other well, producing accurate exposures and true colors. The 11-point autofocus system worked well in various lighting conditions. When shooting in a dim room, the system is aided by an AF assist lamp that offers an effective range of approx. 1.64 - 9.8 ft. (0.5 - 3 m). One of the most impressive aspects of the D90's image quality was high ISO performance. You can see for yourself by looking at our M&M man photos on the Samples page. While there are some slight traces of noise in shadow areas even at ISO 200, as you increase the sensitivity, imager noise changes only slightly. After reviewing our samples, I feel that the D90's highest standard setting of ISO 3200 has the ability to create very usable 8.5x11-inch prints without a problem. Even the extended ISO range settings look good when you compare them to images from other dSLR models that offer equivalent settings. As a whole, the Nikon D90 offers some of the best High ISO performance I have ever seen from a camera in this class. Couple this with its amazingly fast burst speeds, and you have got yourself one great sports camera that is not only fast, but lightweight too.
Like I've mentioned in other dSLR reviews, Live View seems to be a feature that is here to stay on these cameras. While almost everyone is offering this feature, not all models are created equal when it comes to performance and ease of use. The Nikon D90's Live View function worked rather well. To activate this feature, you simply press the LV button located on the back. The camera quickly turns the LCD into a live viewfinder with 100% frame coverage. The mirror only moves a total of two times, once when you enter this mode, and again when you fully press the shutter release to capture an image. Unlike many of Canon's models that move the mirror 3 - 4 times for a single frame. The AF system in Live View is a bit slower than I was expecting, however I don't see too many people using Live View to shoot any moving subjects. That's when the D90's video capture capabilities come into play.
You can record movies at 24fps with sound at three different resolution settings; 1280x720, 640x424 or 320x216. I mostly used the HD (720p) setting, and was pleased with its performance and quality. Even though these modes feature a slower than average frame rate, I found video playback was nice and smooth both in-camera and on my PC. The exposure system had a bit of trouble with the bright sun relecting off of the snow, however I feel just about any camera would have had the same problem in those harsh conditions. The microphone is placed in an Ok position, but it is very sensitive and did pick up some wind noise while testing the feature on a day with a slight breeze. The only other issue I had with the movie function was AF. In order for the camera to capture a sharp movie, you have to first half-press the shutter release to aquire focus (focus box turns green), then you have to press the OK button to start recording. I didn't notice this was a problem until after I retuned home to view some videos on my PC, as the out of focus movies we shot looked ok on the LCD at first. As I stated in our Canon EOS 5D Mark II review, at first I was not too sure about dSLRs that offer movie mode. I felt that this feature was something that belonged on consumer digicams, not amateur to professional dSLRS. In comparison to the 5DMK2, after using the D90's HD video feature, I have come to enjoy this option. The body of these cameras are much easier to keep steady compared to tiny digicams, therefore, increasing your chances of capturing nice steady hand-held video. Not to mention the quality is also much better. With this said, I feel the D90's movie mode function is a welcomed addition, and is sure to be the wave of the future in the dSLR world.
Software is very important with any dSLR, allowing you to quickly edit your photos, especially when using NEF (RAW) mode. The included Nikon Software Suite offers plenty of editing options, even for NEF files. For even more control, you can download Nikon's Capture NX2 software. This very useful tool offers a wealth of adjustment options for NEF files as well as JPEG and TIFF formats. I was very pleased to see that Nikon has doubled the trial life of this software, from 30 to 60 days. This allows you ample time to get comfortable with the software and see if it will fit your needs.
Bottom line - If you are an amateur sports photographer looking for a light and easy to use dSLR, look no further! Following in the footsteps of the D80, the Nikon D90 is an amazing model. Not only will this camera confidently represent Nikon's mid-level dSLR offerings, but it's sure to set the tone for this category with excellent image quality, underrated burst performance, and plenty of Custom Settings. While this camera offers superb photographic abilities which professional and advanced photographers will appreciate, the simplest of users can pick this camera up and start taking great photos. With a street price of US$899 or less for the body only or US$1200 or less when combined with the kit lens, I feel the Nikon D90 dSLR offers an outstanding value for such a capable camera. With this said, I have no problem giving this little beauty our highest recommendation.
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