Review : Nikon D90 digital SLR

The most important new DSLR from Nikon proves a meaningful update.

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Product Manufacturer: Nikon

Price: $1,000 (body only)

The Good

  • Compact, totable design.
  • Image quality nearly as good as D300.
  • Effective pop-up flash.
  • ISO 6,400 limit with low noise up to ISO 1,600.
  • Video capability a nice bonus.
  • Good 18-105mm kit lens option.

The Bad

  • On the verge of being too small; battery grip helps.
  • No autofocus in video mode; "Jell-O" effect in fast pans.
  • Still uses SDHC cards in place of faster CF.
  • Awkward video start/stop controls.
  • 18-105mm lens uses a plastic mount.
When Nikon released the D90 DSLR, it promised a huge step towards the future of the mid-range digital photography with the release of a 12.3-megapixel camera that combined high image quality with options that would still appeal to beginners or simply curious creatives, such as live previews and (for the first time in a DSLR) HD video. Electronista takes a look at the D90 and its 18-105mm VR lens kit to see whether the camera succeeds on all fronts.

what's included

Opening the box finds everything needed to get up and running... with, unsurprisingly, the exception of a memory card. The D90 uses SDHC cards, which are ubiquitous but potentially unusual for those used to CompactFlash in anything above point-and-shoots.

Of course, Nikon's View NX software, and other members of the Nikon software suite are on the enclosed DVD. Also along for the ride are HDMI hookup cables, the charger for the enclosed battery, and finally the ubiquitous Nikon woven camera strap, which is one of the most useless straps available in the industry. This strap is made of a slippery non-grip material on the underside, which will easily allow the camera to slide off your shoulder at a moment when you might least expect it. A better solution would be the Domke Gripper camera strap, which has several rubber strips woven through the length of the strap to prevent such mishaps.

design, controls and the battery

In the grand scheme of things, the D90 falls strictly into the mid-sized segment of DSLR cameras, above compact models like the D40, D60 and D5000; the D300 and D700 would rank as full-sized members of the fleet, while the D3 and D3x are simply massive. It fits comfortably in mid- to large-sized hands, and has a reasonable heft to it... not too light, nor too heavy.

If you have ever experienced Nikon cameras before, you'll find controls familiar and well placed, consistent with earlier cameras. Ergonomically, the grip on the camera's right side is just a touch small for our oversized mitts, but should be fine for most users. A master control switch surrounds the shutter release button at the top of the grip, surrounded by metering, exposure compensation, drive rate and autofocus controls. As on its larger siblings, there is a command dial resting under the thumb, and a sub-command dial under the shutter release. A large-ish LCD panel at top displays shooting modes and other functions, while a mode dial sits to the left of the viewfinder pentaprism.

Controls for the three-inch color monitor at the camera's back also show the image review button, menu, zoom in and out controls and ISO button on the left side of the screen while the right side is home to the Live View, multi-selector and OK buttons, the last of which starts and stops the new HD video recording function. These buttons in turn, lead to other controls that allow for color correction on the fly as well as color effects, star filters and fisheye effects. It will all be familiar to owners of modern, entry- to mid-range Nikon DSLRs, particularly those who've already used the D80, though the video option is somewhat awkward and does add a small layer of complexity -- notably, the new D5000 simplifies access to the same feature despite arriving only a few months later.

Power is supplied to the D90 by Nikon's standard EN-EL3e lithium-ion battery and yields up to approximately 850 shots on a charge (or any combination of flash, video, or other means of imaging). That's very long and a potential advantage for all-day photo shoots. The use of the MB-D80 battery pack allows for extended usage with an additional EN-EL3e or the use of six AA batteries for higher frame rates. It also balances out the feel of the camera for use with longer lenses, and provides a vertical shutter release when using the camera in portrait orientation.

image quality and the 18-105mm lens

The D90 is optimized for the ISO range of 200 to 3,200, which can be extended to a special Lo 1 mode for ISO 100 in bright situations that merit reduced noise or a Hi 1 mode, at ISO 6,400, for very dark environments. The high range is theoretical. In reality, we're comfortable with the D90's imaging chip up to ISO 1,600; ISO 3,200 and above are more for truly dire, no-flash situations. If that's not good enough, we're more likely pull out several of Nikon's Speedlight flashes to take advantage of the wireless Nikon Creative Lighting System (CLS). Still, the range is broad enough that the D90 is a tangible upgrade in light sensitivity over most current entry DSLRs and certainly most point-and-shoot cameras.

At the front of the camera are bracketing controls and an on/off button for the built-in iTTL flash system that also acts as a commander when multiple strobes are used. The pop-up flash by itself is sufficient for party photos and such casual situations where bounce isn't needed, but remember to remove any lens hood that may be on the lens: it may cast a shadow because of the built-in flash's low angle. Add an accessory Speedlight such as the SB600 or SB900, and that problem goes away.

Nikon's 18-105mm VR (vibration reduction) kit lens is a good walk-about lens that provides enough mojo for a beginner, and possibly even a semi-professional. Not having the extended range of the 18-200mm, it is also a lens that calls for a little extra care in composing the shot; those used to ultra-zoom lenses on high-end 'prosumer' cameras may be surprised. Unlike the higher-end lenses, the 18-105 has a polycarbonate lens mount instead of the stainless steel version found on this lens' big brother, so it won't be as rugged as more expensive glass.

general use, live view and burst shooting

In shooting modes, the D90 shines on several levels. As a still camera, it features the same chipset as that found in the D300. Known for its low noise and high quality, it is already legendary and worth the price of admission alone; images are clean and compensated for by features like Active D-Lighting, which partly brings out otherwise missing detail in shadows or in over-bright highlights. Add to this the at times undervalued ability of the chip to compensate for chromatic aberration, and you have a camera that will make nearly every lens look better than it already is.

As we stated before, if you have previously shot with a Nikon, picking up the D90 will feel like returning to an old, familiar home simply by virtue of its conservative design changes. That said, live view is a welcome addition here. Already present on compact cameras, itt allows you to place the camera on the ground for low angle photography or above your head in a crowd, enabling the user to preview the shot on the LCD screen rather than scrunching one's face up to the optical viewfinder, especially in tight spaces. However, it's not a complete substitute for using the eyepiece. In this mode, the camera continues to autofocus but won't give as much control over the scene.

Drive capabilities enable the D90 to shoot up to a top speed of 4.5 frames per second (fps) when using a sufficiently fast SDHC card. For reference's sake, the first Nikon pro film SLR, the Nikon F with motordrive, had a top speed of 2.5 fps, or 3 fps with the mirror locked up. The D90 has the ability to shoot in several sizes of JPEG, as well as NEF RAW, at which point the buffer can accept up to 9 continuous images; it's not a full sports or photojournalist camera as a result of either its top speed or its photo buffer, but it's not meant to be.

HD video

To shoot HD video, it's first necessary to engage the live view mode; there's no optical-only here. Once the electronic viewfinder is working, the OK button in the center of the multi-controller becomes the shoot/pause button. The video feature invokes image stabilization function that helps to smooth out jitters from the user, but doesn't bring autofocus and therefore requires a near-constant attention to the lens if subjects change their distance. Push the main shutter button, and a still photo will be made at the last instance of recording. Transferring the video to your computer will yield an AVI, which can be edited in most commercially available video editing software.

If the D90 has any sort of major shortcoming, it would be on the video side of the equation. The camera is desperately in need of an audio input jack so that an external microphone can be used when making a video. We think the small mic built into the camera is sometimes too far away from the subject and picks up too much ambient noise to lay down a good audio track outside of very quiet environments. Also, since it scans the picture vertically instead of horizontally -- not unlike a cathode-ray tube TV in some regards -- it causes a "tower of Jell-O" imaging effect in quick panning. Vertical objects appear to lean backwards until the chip has refreshed the image during its 24 frames-per-second cycle, until the frames are able to "catch up" on the next scan. During casual video capture of guitarist Scott Gailor, though, the effect didn't appear even with some substantial movement, suggesting that some users may not actually notice the quirk at all.

Be sure to watch in HD for near-full image quality.

When combined, though, the limitations are enough to give one pause before buying it with video as a major focus. For now, Nikon's video mode is most useful for very controlled scenes rather than on-the-move videography. It's also a potential deal-breaker for some users. While it's currently not the wisest course to buy a DSLR solely for video, Canon's admittedly more expensive EOS-5D Mark II can shoot video with autofocusing, and both it as well as the Rebel T1i don't produce the "tower of Jell-O" effect. If casual or experimental video is an important consideration, Nikon does lose its edge.

wrapping up

We were very surprised by the D90's quality, both in build and image output. It is a camera that, while tailored for the amateur market, in a professional's hands could continue to bring home a genuine income, day in and out. The camera's video capabilities are a plus and are definitely the wave of the future, even if it's still in a rough state. We have to remind ourselves that this is only the first generation: it's a nice bonus to have now, but in a few years, it would make this camera look just as dated as the original, 2.74-megapixel Nikon D1.

And as might be expected, the cautious, evolutionary approach to design and accessories ultimately works in Nikon's favor. The availability of over 50 Nikkor lenses (plus more third-party lenses), Speedlights and other accessories makes for a complete system that can handle almost any photographic situation. We'd be inclined to suggest that virtually any non-professional photographers, and even a few serious pros, can consider the D90 their definitive camera.