Nikon D90 Review
Performance - How well does it take pictures?
Ultimately, it is the image quality that makes a camera worth buying. For an SLR, image quality greatly depends on the lens used. While color, noise, exposure and contrast are properties of the camera, distortion, vignetting and chromatic aberrations are properties of the lens. Sharpness depends on the weakest link. That is, the camera cannot capture more details than the lens lets through. Conversely, it is possible for a lens to transmit more details than the sensor can capture.
Exposure is generally excellent with the D90 with a conservative tendency. This means that highlights are rarely overexposed but images occasionally appear darker than expected. Based on matrix metering using a 420-pixel RGB sensor, the D90 meters extremely consistently. This reduces worry about exposure accuracy as small changes in viewpoint are unlikely to cause drastic changes in exposure. Since this is not optimal for printing unmodified images, more positive exposure-compensation than usual is required for scenes with bright highlights.
The Nikon D90 has relatively natural, although slightly warm, colors by default. Luckily, the D90 caters to other photographers too by offering several modes: Standard, Neutral, Vivid, Monochrome, Portrait and Landscape. Each Picture Control mode is adjustable in terms of sharpening, contrast, brightness, saturation and hue. The adjustments are always relative to the mode but are quite fine grained. The white-balance system is very accurate when preset or manually set. Automatic white-balance often leaves a noticeably color cast, though. This problem unfortunately occurs with most digital SLR cameras and the D90 is not worst than most.
The Nikon D90 produces images with exceptionally low noise for a cropped-sensor DSLR. Noise just becomes visible at ISO 800 but is note enough to prevent making a large print. At ISO 1600, noise is clearly visible viewed at 100% magnification but mid-sized prints are possible under most conditions. As ISO is increased, this DSLR fights back using noise-reduction which is controllable in 4 levels. Regardless of the noise-reduction level, images do become softer as ISO is increased. Noise-reduction applied by the D90 is very good at keeping color noise low. While color-noise is noticeable at ISO 1600, it only becomes problematic at ISO 3200 where mid-size prints only appear slightly grainy. ISO 6400, the top sensitivity of the D90 when the expanded ISO range is enabled, is very good compared to most cameras. On 4"x6" prints, even ISO 6400 noise is barely visible. At such a small size, loss of details due to noise-reduction is not even visible.
Image sharpness is controllable in 10 steps. The default setting produces very slightly soft images. Increasing it by one or two steps proves quite effective. Further increases show significant sharpening artifacts that are better avoided. Remember that final image sharpness depends on the lens, focal-length and aperture used too, not just sharpness settings.
In operation, the Nikon D90 is extremely responsive. Most operations are nearly instant, including power-on and the all-important shutter-lag. The focusing system is fast but not the fastest we have ever seen, this honor goes to the Sony Alpha A700
Sony Alpha A700. Since Nikon uses two different types of focus drive, one driven by a motor in the camera and one driven by a motor in the lens, focusing speeds can vary greatly between lenses. Image playback and zoom is nearly instant as well. The D90's continuous drive mode is fast and clears the buffer quickly.
Battery-life is very good in still mode, among the best in its class. Live-view and movie-mode are rather power hungry though, so frequent users of those features may need to purchase an extra battery. Otherwise, the quoted 850 shots-per-charge (CIPA standard) should be enough for a day of shooting for most people. While we are on the subject of live-view, focusing is horribly slow in that mode.
Performance - How well does it shoot video?
It could be said that the Nikon D90 records video better than any DSLR we have ever seen. Indeed it would be true, because we have not seen any other. The obvious reason is that there are only two such DSLR, the D90 and the full-frame Canon EOS 5D Mark II. The price difference is about a factor of 3, plus each lens is more expensive. Unless you can afford the Canon 5D Mark II, you have no choice about which movie-capable DSLR to buy.
A more sensible comparison is between the D90 and another type of camera, to determine whether there is a need for having both, assuming this DSLR is being chosen for its image quality. In the D90's favor, it uses Nikon lenses with all that it implies: versatility, bright prime lenses, tilt-shift lenses, fish-eye and more. It also uses a relatively large sensor with good low-light sensitivity. Against it, this DSLR mainly lacks autofocus in its movie-mode. There are other limitations, like no manual exposure and a 5-minute limit, but these are common in fixed-lens cameras too. Again, the main and most important feature is the lack of autofocus.
Compared to a digital camcorder, the situation is very different. Although individual images are most likely of higher quality in the Nikon D90, a camcorder is much more capable and ergonomic for steady recording. The D90, while being a nice camera to use, is not made for long-term steadiness which makes hand-shot videos quite wobbly. Electronically-controlled zoom lenses of camcorders also offer smoother zooming and change of focus. Add to that superior audio quality with external microphone options, wind-filters and stereo sound.
Even forgetting about the D90's nearly exclusive movie-recording ability, this is an exceptional DSLR. Image quality is great, with a 12 megapixels sensor capable of large prints up to ISO 1600 and even small prints at ISO 6400. The Nikon D90 always remains responsive with a very short shutter lag, perfect for candid and street photography. This digital SLR gives access to all important functions using physical buttons and a pair of easy to use control-wheels.
Movie-mode adds interesting possibilities, including the ability to record HD video using all sorts of Nikon lenses. The main limitations of the D90's movie-mode means it cannot replace an HD camcorder, but it can add value to this already good DSLR.
Without any specialized photographic need, the Nikon D90 is as about as good as it gets. For fast action and sports photography, there are faster cameras like the Nikon D300 which can shoot at 8 FPS vs the D90's 4.5 FPS. In rough environments, a weather-sealed model like the Pentax K20D should be considered. Finally, the only way to get better results for low-light photography is to go the full-frame route with something like the Nikon D3.
Nikon D90 Highlights
Sensor-Size: 24 x 16mm
Actual size when viewed at 100 DPI
|12 Megapixels DSLR||ISO 100-6400|
|Nikon F Mount|
|Full manual controls, including Manual Focus|
|Built-in Dust Reduction||Custom white-balance with 2 axis fine-tuning|
|4.5 FPS Drive, 100 Images||Spot-Metering|
|1280x720 @ 24 FPS Video Recording||Hot-Shoe|
|3" LCD 920K Pixels||Lithium-Ion Battery|
|Secure Digital High Capacity|
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