The Nikon D90 - the world's first DSLR with HD video functionality - offers technology borrowed from its more expensive D300 and D3 siblings at a price that will appeal to serious enthusiasts, as well as those looking to experiment with video at an affordable pricepoint. The What Digital Camera Nikon D90 Review...
The Nikon D90 is the world’s first DSLR to introduce 720p high definition video to the market, whilst successfully upgrading the popular mid-range Nikon D80 model. And yet already, with the D90 barely on the shelves, internet forums have been steadily filling up with arguments from both sides of the ‘video/photo’ fence. Some argue the Nikon D90′s dive into HD video makes both economical and practical sense, allowing effortless transition between the use of both mediums. Predictably, the opposing argument has been just as vocal, with people stating that they don’t need DSLR video capture. Like it or not, it looks like DSLR video is here to stay – but as the Nikon D90 is the first model of its kind, exactly how high should we be setting our expectations? The What Digital Camera Nikon D90 review… (Dec 2008: In a matter of months the Canons 5D mkII DSLR offered Full HD video)
Nikon D90 Review – More Than Just a Nikon D80 With Video
It would be easy to assume that the main attraction of the Nikon D90 lies within its video capabilities, but there have been a number of changes to the core photographic side of things worthy of attention. Predictably, many of these trickle down from the Nikon D90′s professionally orientated siblings – the D300 and D3 – helping to bolster the Nikon D90′s overall value as a mid range DSLR.
Nikon D90 Review – 12.3-Megapixel CMOS Sensor
The Nikon D90 matches the more expensive D300 for resolution, in offering a newly designed 12.3MP DX-format sensor. Unlike the Nikon D80, the Nikon D90 uses the CMOS sensor technology that has been implemented in all three of Nikon’s current professional DSLRs, signalling that CCD chips may soon be confined to entry-level DSLR models, if they are used at all. The D90′s sensor has been fitted with a self-cleaning unit to minimise the effects of dust incursion on images, while the Nikon’s EXPEED processing concept handles image processing and operation.
Nikon D90 Review - ISO Range and Active D-Lighting
The Nikon D90′s sensitivity ranges from ISO 200-3200, and may be extended a stop each way to ISO 100 and 6400. Working with this is Nikon’s Active D-Lighting function, which essentially optimises dynamic range for enhancing otherwise-lost detail. This may be either left to an auto setting or configured manually, and – for the first time in the Nikon D90 – the function sees an ‘Extra High’ option, for those oc
casions when you want it to have an even greater effect
Nikon D90 Review – Kit Lens
As with all other
Nikon DX-format DSLRs, the Nikon D90 applies a 1.5x conversion factor to any mounted optic. Given that the model comes as an option with the new 18-105mm f/3.5-5.6 G ED VR kit lens, this gives it an impressive focal range equivalent to 26-155mm. Although the D80 did have a longer reaching 18-135mm lens as a kit option, the new lens boxed up with the Nikon D90 is still an eminently useful focal range for a kit lens. What’s more, the inclusion of Nikon’s Vibration Reduction technology makes it arguably more useful for low-light photography, and whenever the telephoto end is necessary.
Nikon D90 R
eview – Picture Styles and Scene Recognition
The Nikon D90 allows for images to be captured in one of six Picture Styles, ranging from Standard and Neutral to the new Portrait and Landscape modes, or alternatively in a customised style of your choosing. In either case, the D90′s Scene Recognition system optimises exposure, white balance and focus, and also works in tandem with face recognition technology. All of this is aided by the camera’s 420pixel RGB metering sensor, which offers a standard evaluative matrix pattern in addition to centre-weighted and spot options.
Nikon D90 R
eview – Viewfinder
The Nikon D90 has the same pentaprism viewfinder as found with the D80, albeit with a slight increase in its coverage. But perhaps a more immediate improvement is the 920,000dot, 3in LCD screen – a wonderfully crisp and high resolution for viewing video on your DSLR. This is identical to the ones used on Nikon’s professional DSLRs, and its inclusion here qualifies the D90 as the cheapest DSLR to have ever been released with such a high-resolution LCD screen; only the Sony A700 is currently able to match it at this price point. As well as images and the graphic user interface, the LCD displays the live view feed which allows for autofocusing, but only via contrast detection. We imagine the c
onfidence Nikon has in its performance has ruled out phase detection as a live-view option for the Nikon D90, and once other manufacturers deem their own contrast detection sufficient it’s likely
they will do the same.
Nikon D90 Review – AF System
The Nikon D
90 utilises the same Multi-CAM 1000 focusing module as found in the D80, with the only apparent addition being with the 3D Tracking function. Auto, single-point and dynamic options are also available, with a dedicated focus-locking switch on the rear to stop the focus point from being changed unintentionally. The D90 also sees an increase to its burst rate over and beyond the D80, increasing f
rom 3fps to 4.5fps.
Nikon D90 Review – HD Video from a DSLR?
Nikon D90′s crowning glory: 720p HD video from a DSLR. Video files may be captured at a rate of 24fps in a 1280 x 720p resolution. The HD video function also allows sound to be recorded alongside (though only in mono) and clips are limited to either five minutes at its optimum setting or 20 minutes at a reduced resolution. A further caveat is that autofocusing isn’t possible, though with a healthy range of lenses to choose from you do benefit from being able to zoom optically during recording (something still not possible on the majority of compacts) and also the ability to explore a range of perspectives. Tilt and shift movies, anyone?
Nikon D90 Review – In-Camera Editing
The Nikon D90 also contains a range of in-camera editing options, ranging from the necessary to the novelty. T
hese include ‘non-active’ D-lighting and black & white image conversion, as well as control over distortion and a fisheye effect. Sitting alongside this is the welcome addition of Raw processing, which encompasses options for adjusting exposure, sharpening, and white balance options among other fact
ors, with all effects saved as a separate file allowing you to keep the original, unadjusted image.
Nikon D90 Review – Wireless Transfer
Finally, in a
ddition to SD and SDHC media, the Nikon D90 accepts Eye Fi memory cards which allow for wireless transfer of images to a computer or website. Most SD-supporting cameras now accept the cards, but, as with its D60 model, Nikon has worked with Eye Fi to enable the camera to control the card’s properties, directly from its menu system.
Nikon D90 design
Nikon D90 vs Nikon D80: similarities
The D90′s form very much resembles that of the model it replaces, befitting its mid-range DSLR status. The somewhat traditional combination of a metal frame – though the Nikon D90 sports aluminium alloy – and a plastic chassis provide a sturdiness to the body, while still keeping it relatively lightweight at 620g. Controls and buttons also follow the arrangement of its predecessor, though the D90′s buttons are slightly smaller and more circular, among them now sitting a dedicated live view button.
As with the D300, the Nikon D90 has an Info button that lives to the lower right of the LCD screen & accesses key shooting settings, while the OK button that sat in its place on the D80 has now moved into the middle of the menu control pad. Other than this, the rubber thumb rest has been extended further across the height of the body, and the focus point locking switch is differently styled.
The Nikon D90′s top plate is also all but identical to that of the D80, though sporting a slightly longer built-in flash unit, while a HDMI output has been shoehorned inbetween the other connective ports. The remote socket positioned below these on the D80 has now also been coupled with GPS input, which makes the the new hotshoe-mounted GP-1 device compatible with the D90. The only other notable change is the inclusion of a microphone on the front and a speaker underneath the memory card door, for the respective benefits of recording and playing back audio in movies.
Nikon D90 Review – Solid Handling
All of this constitutes good handling and comfortable operation. With the Nikon D90 kit lens loaded up the camera feels perfectly weighted, while the grip and thumb rest are adequately sized. My only reservations are with the AF and drive mode buttons to the right of the top plate LCD; their position makes for a slightly awkward operation if trying to hold either one down and use the command dial – as is necessary – to navigate their options. Other than that the Nikon D90 has little to fault.
Nikon D90 performance
Nikon D90 Review – Recording HD Video
Accessing the Nikon D90′s HD video facility is acheived via the live view button on the rear, which aside from the obvious benefit of saving on extra buttons also allows you to view the scene on the LCD screen prior to recording. Not only that, but as you start in live view mode you don’t need to manually focus on the initial scene, as you can pre-focus using the shutter release button (as if you were live-view focusing). However, as focusing in the D90′s video mode is acheived solely via the lens ring it can often be a two-step process – in that you may need to focus, reposition your hand and then continue focusing if you haven’t quite reached the desired point. This requires little effort in itself, though in the context of video capture it can mean a less-than-smooth transition when focusing from a defocused area, or vice-versa.
The extent to which this is a problem will depend on the particular lens you’re using, how much of your hand you can fit around the focusing ring and so on, but it was something we noticed when mounting the 18-105mm kit lens to the D90 body. A tripod may also be necessary in certain situations when shooting video with the Nikon D90, as the physical movement of the focusing ring and the fact that you’re holding it with less stability may introduce unwanted movement in the feed, and on a couple of occasions we also managed to get a stray finger into the shot.
Considering that the Nikon D90 is the world’s first DSLR to introduce an HD video facility, and that up to 20 minutes (at reduced quality) may be recorded at a time, the system in itself is perfectly usable – so long as you keep in mind what its limitations are. For anyone shooting indoors in a controlled environment, where perhaps a shot may be retaken and refocused, I can’t envisage too many problems, but for on-the-fly capture it just may take some getting used to, as compared to a video camera.
Nikon D90 Review – Live View Focus
Live view focusing with the Nikon D90 is pretty much on a par with the competition, with the camera working quickly and efficiently as it goes through each ‘step’ to find focus. The more standard focusing system is largely unchanged from the D80, and while it’s not terrible it’s also not quite up to the standard of recent models from other manufacturers.Particularly in low light the D90′s Auto Area AF setting took longer than we anticipated to firstly work out where to focus, and secondly to then confirm it.
As we found with the D700, the Nikon D90 can also occasionally apply different white balance settings to two images taken in quick succession. The cause seemed to be the same, whereby the Auto Area AF setting would choose a single AF point for one image and multiple points for another, and between the auto white balance, metering system and Scene Recognition the D90 clearly thought it knew better. Thankfully, we only encountered a couple of instances where this happened.
Nikon D90 Review – Viewfinder
The Nikon D90 has possibly the best viewfinder we’ve used on an APS-C based DSLR. It’s just about the right size to see both the scene and exposure information, and with Nikon opting for a pentaprism rather than a pentamirror construction it’s also both bright and clear, too. What’s more, it serves as a perfect match to clarity of the LCD screen, whose performance has already been well commented upon with Nikon’s D300, D700 and D3 models. This partnership, together with the clear but concise menu system, makes the Nikon D90 one of the best in its class from a usability point of view. Furthermore, it’s very encouraging that these features are now not simply the preserve of the enthusiasts and professional markets and that they can now be expected on models further down the line.
Nikon D90 Review – Custom Functions
What we can also now expect on a DSLR such as the Nikon D90 is an extensive Custom Functions list. While the D80 was impressive, the D90′s list contains more options than the average photographer will probably ever need to call upon. Many of these – such as reversing the direction of the + and – indicators and assigning a function to the Func button – concern customising the camera rather than offering any additional features, though within all these Nikon seems to have an answer for everything. It’s perhaps a little strange that one custom function – though admitedly the first one you come to – relates to changing between the dynamic, single-point and auto AF modes. Odd because the same function is accessed via a dedicated dial on its three higher-end models. Fortunately, not only can you assign this to the My Menu tab, but also to the Func button around the front of the camera.
Nikon D90 Review – Kit Lens
As for the new 18-105mm kit lens, Nikon claims that it offers three steps of usable shutter speed lower than would be otherwise possible, thanks to its Vibration Reduction technology. At the telephoto end, this equates to a shutter speed of around 1/20sec, when the focal length magnification factor is taken into account. We managed to shoot the odd image at around 1/25sec with good sharpness, though we did find a higher success rate at around 1/30-1/40sec. The lens also performed well in other areas, too, though barrelling is quite noticeable at the 18mm end, particularly if shooting close-up. Overall sharpness is good, as is control over fringing, with the latter only presenting a sliver of itself in high-contrast situations.
Nikon D90 Review – Memory Buffer
We were also impressed with the D90′s 4.5pfs burst rate, which with a SanDisk Extreme III SDHC card showed no slowdown to 100 frames, when capturing large JPEGs at their fine compression setting. By contrast, we only managed 16 frames with a Class 2 SD card, though both cards captured seven simultaneous Raw and JPEG images before any slowdown occurred. While shooting 100 JPEGs in a continuous burst is surplus to most requirements, but if nothing else is a testament to high-speed memory card performance. For action shooters in particular, this difference is certainly something to bear in mind – in part for the right choice of card, but also the knowledge that the Nikon D90 is more than up for the job!
Nikon D90 image quality & value
JPEGs are more than usable straight out from the Nikon D90, and are of high quality compared with the camera’s Raw files. The standard sharpness settings in-camera allow for a little boost before artefacts appear.
Nikon D90 Review – Exposure
Exposures are generally consistent and balanced, and we were impressed by how well images with a wide dynamic range appeared, such as the traditionally challenging scenario of dark foreground detail and bright skies, where other cameras may have underexposed the Nikon D90 flourished.
Nikon D90 Review – Image Noise
Noise is very well controlled, rising steadily through the range. At lower sensitivity settings, Nikon D90 image files are clean and respond well to sharpening. At around ISO 3200 we begin to see chroma noise intruding on shadow and midtone areas, though it’s fairly non-destructive, with a slight texture rather than a coloured mush. The Nikon D90′s noise reduction option for high-ISO images comprises three options, and while all reduce noise the highest setting should be avoided as it compromises far too much detail.
Nikon D90 Review – Sharpness And Detail
Images straight out of the Nikon D90 display a good level of sharpness. With the Nikon kit lens fringing was only really noticeable in particularly high-contrast images, and even then it wasn’t particularly bad, though autofocus perhaps feels a little slow.
Nikon D90 Review – Value For Money
The Nikon D90 is well placed, in that it is both a viable upgrade to the entry-level D40 and also a worthy alternative to the more expensive D300. Furthermore, we’ve been impressed by the quality of the kit lens, but the £849 list price may, for the moment at least, serve to alienate two of Nikon’s target groups – namely students and families looking to use both the camera’s still and video capabilties. Once its kit price drops below £800 however, the Nikon D90 would be worth a serious look, even more so if you already own a few Nikkor lenses and you are only after the body.
Even if we ignore the camera’s movie function, Nikon has done a mighty fine job in delivering such a camera as the D90. The D80 proved to be a successful model for Nikon, and inheriting the finer points of its more advanced models has allowed Nikon to expand and improve the camera’s feature set. Following such successful models does, however, mean that our expectations of it are slightly higher, but it’s good to see that rather than changing a winning formula Nikon has simply made it a more refined one.
In truth there is very little ‘wrong’ with the camera, with only the limitations posed by its movie function being slightly at odds. Time and advances in technology will see to this, and given the movie mode’s infancy it would be unreasonable to expect it to be fully formed and of video-camera-killing capabilities. If it is used in the same manner as current video modes on compacts are, then Nikon should be lauded for killing two birds with one stone, but whether this technology will surpass that of the more traditional video camera is something we’ll only find out in due course.
Perhaps best of all, the model provides an arguably more appealing alternative to the D300, a camera many people still have their eye on. Being cheaper, smaller, lighter, and with such an all-encompassing spec list, it’s easy to see why Nikon is targeting it towards such a broad consumer base, and I’d be genuinely surprised if the model doesn’t prove to be another success for Nikon.
Nikon D90 manual
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Nikon D90 manual – pdf
The Nikon D90 is available to download from the Nikon website
Buy a printed copy of the Nikon D90 manual
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Auto, six presets, manual
200-3200 (ext to 100-6400)
-5 – + 5EV in 1/3 or ½ EV increments
View product shots of the Nikon D90
View sample photos of the Nikon D90
Yes, GN 12 @ ISO 100
Electronically controlled, vertical-travel, focal plane shutter
4288 x 2848 pixels
3in TFT, 920,000 dots
DX Format, 23.6 x 15.8mm CMOS type, 12.9MP total, 12.3MP effective
3D Colour Matrix II, matrix, centre-weighted, spot
Auto, PASM, 6 scene
620g (without battery, card, acc)
Raw, JPEG, Raw + JPEG
132 x 103 x 77mm
1/4000 – 30sec, bulb
Single, predictive, continuous
Single, continuous low, continuous high, self timer, delayed remote, quick response remote
Adobe RGB, sRGB