Nikon D90 Hands-on Review
Soon after receiving a Nikon D90 to play around with I slipped off to shoot images along the Delaware River. Nearby was a family of kayakers who had stopped for a breather and a bite of lunch. It wasn't long before 'Dad' moseyed up along side me for a closer look at what I was doing.
"I own a D300 and I thought that's what you are using… but that camera looks smaller and you're shooting video with that thing and my D300 doesn't do video… at least I don't think it does. Is that the new one I keep hearing about? If it is… I want one". I told him it was, and that he should, and he told me he was going to order one from B&H, which – don't ya' know - happens to be where he gets all of his camera gear. And yes… this really happened.
Available as a 'body only' or with an 18 to 105mm Nikkor AF-S VR II zoom lens, the D90 is a dead-ringer for the D80, but a closer look reveals a 12.3-megapixel DX-format CMOS sensor hiding behind the mirror (up from the D80's 10.2-megapixel sensor), which is driven by a Nikon EXPEED image processor. Shutter-response times are wickedly fast (0.15-second start-up time) and shutter-delay times at 65-milliseconds, are all-but-zip. From this day forward if you miss the picture you have only yourself to blame.
Another feature lifted from Nikon's pricier D3 and D700 is a 3" tempered glass TFT LCD that packs 920,000 dots worth of detail. This near tripling of resolving power over the last generation of LCD screens enables truly critical focus checking. For critical lighting corrections the new screen also displays a wider range of tonality from highlight trough shadows.
Like the D3 and D700, the D90 sports Live View, which is quite useful for checking fine-focus. It's also a comforting feature for those who've grown accustomed to composing pictures while squinting at an LCD screen from arms length. Truth is, why anybody – under normal circumstances - would want to compose images while squinting at an LCD screen - even a good one - when using a camera with a bright optical finder is beyond me, but it's there if you want it.
And speaking of optical finders, the finder on the D90 displays about 96% of the total image, and there's a 16-frame grid display that can be called up electronically as needed for precise image composition and subject placement.
For capturing fast action, the D90 can record images at burst-rates up to 4.5 frames-per-second in the form of NEF (RAW) files, three levels of JPEG compression, or a combination of the two. Shutter speeds range from 30-seconds to 1/4000th, and as with f/stops, can be set in a choice of full, half, or third-stop intervals. Top sync speed with flash on the D90 is 1/200th.
The big pooh-bah with the D90 is that it's the first DSLR with the ability to capture HD (1280 x 720p) 24-f/p/s video with sound. While somewhat squirrelly to use as compared to a true video camcorder, it non-the-less captures impressively sharp video in clips up to five minutes in length. D-Movie video can be captured at three levels of resolution: 320x x 216 pixels, 640 x 424 pixels, and HD720p (1280 x 720 pixels).
A key technical – and creative - benefit of shooting video with the Nikon D90 is that the camera's DX-format CMOS sensor is far larger than the sensors found in most consumer camcorders. As a result, the image quality of video captured with the Nikon D90 is noticeably sharper and contains fuller detail and tonality in the mid-tones as well as in highlights and shadow areas. And because you can make full use of the full lineup of Nikon-mount lenses from fisheye through super telephoto - not to mention fast, wide-aperture lenses for incorporating selective focus into your video - your creative options regarding lens choices are as good as it gets. That's the good news.
One aspect of the story is that you lose some creature comforts when you switch from still to video mode, e.g., autofocus and viewing the action through the camera's viewfinder, is replaced with viewing, composing and auto focusing on the 3" display and AF locks at the moment the record button is pressed in D-Movie mode. You can still manually focus the lens as well as zoom while recording using the live image that appears on the LCD as your guide, but this can be somewhat challenging when shooting under bright sunny skies.
If you're shooting with a zoom lens, it's a good idea to pre-focus on your subject with the lens zoomed in tight and pull back to the desired focal length before hitting the shutter button. And don't forget to pack along your reading glasses.
Unlike traditional camcorders that utilize global shutters and record the video data onto CCD sensors, the D90 relies on a rolling shutter and a CMOS sensor, which because it records a 24p (progressive) f/p/s frame rate in a piecemeal fashion from top to bottom across the sensor, can occasionally display image 'wobble' when recording certain types of movements. But do keep in mind this is a small price to pay for having the ability to call up such a cool feature at the hit of a switch.
At the end of the day, the folks at Nikon can still win the gold cup for producing the first crossover DSLR/Camcorder option for serious amateurs and curious pros alike… for under a grand no less (body only). The D90's 12-plus megapixel APSC-format CMOS sensor takes sharp, full-toned still images that open up to about 35Mb as well as HD-quality video snippets up to five minutes in length.
The D90 contains many image enhancing features including Nikon's Active D-Lighting, which helps maintain shadow and highlight details. It can be set to work automatically at the time of the initial exposure, or as a post-exposure option.
Other image enhancers include Nikon Picture Control, which allows you to choose from a choice of six settings, which include Standard, Vivid, Neutral, Monochrome, Portrait, and Landscape. A Quick Adjust function allows you to further tweak the image settings as well as save them as Custom Picture Controls that an be applied to other images.
Other nifty features found on the D90 include Image Straightening for correcting off-tilt horizon lines +/- 5°, fisheye effects, D-Lighting, Red-Eye Reduction, Trim, Monochrome, Filter Effects, Color Balance, Small Picture, Image Overlay, Quick Touch, and Nikon's integrated Scene Recognition and Face Detection System.
ISO, Noise, and Dust
Noise reduction is one issue the D90 seems to have a good handle on. Images taken of a GretagMacbeth ColorChecker Gray Scale Card under studio lighting as well as images taken outdoors under both bright and low light conditions proved to be quite impressive from the camera's base ISO of 200 through ISO 1600-2000. But even at ISO 3200 and 6400, the D90 produced image files that would easily pass muster for most any application. Equally annoying as noise are errant dust particles, which are kept to a minimum thanks to Nikon's Integrated Dust Reduction System.
Real World Performance
The D90's 11-point AF system performed admirably under most every lighting situation I encountered. Similar kudos for the D90's 3D Color Matrix Metering II, 420-pixel exposure system. To further ensure dead-on exposures and AF, the D90 features the same Scene Recognition System with Face Detection found in Nikon's upper-tier D3 and D700 cameras.
The handy pop-up flash is fine for party and/or grab shots, and takes in the field of view of an 18mm lens. The camera's flash can also be used as a wireless commander for triggering up to two groupings of Nikon SB-series Speedlights, which can also be mounted on the D90's hot-shoe or off-camera via TTL cord.
Location, Location, Location
The D90 can also be rigged to record each image's latitude, longitude, and altitude by attaching the optional Nikon GP-1 GPS attachment, which is designed to mount on the camera's hot-shoe.
Menus & Functionality
The menus on the D90 are to the point and easy to decipher, relying on text rather than icons to communicate the information. On the whole the D90 is comfy in the hand and should feel especially familiar to those already in the Nikon camp.
By attaching a Nikon Multi-Power Battery Pack MB-D80 onto your D90, you gain a second shutter release and control wheel for easier vertical shooting and the ability to pack dual EN-EL3e lithium-ion (or 6 AA batteries) for boosting your playtime up to 1700 exposures before needing to recharge your batteries.
NEF (RAW) files can be processed using Nikon's proprietary Capture NX2 imaging software, which is available optionally. For a hands-on review of Nikon Capture NX2 software, click here.
If you are a Photoshop fan, there should be an update of image file compatibility for the D90 (along with other cameras currently being introduced) in the not-to-distant future (CS4 perhaps?). Watch Adobe's website for all updates.