DigitalCameraReview.com
Nikon D90 Review
by Jim Keenan -  10/13/2008

When the Nikon D90, the long anticipated replacement for the D80, was finally rolled out, the camera at first blush appeared to be a logical progression from the model it was designed to supplant: larger monitor, higher resolution sensor, expanded nominal ISO range and a higher continuous shooting rate. Pretty much standard stuff for a follow-on camera.

Nikon D90


But then Nikon strayed from the DSLR upgrade script and dropped in video recording capability. Compact digitals have had movie modes for years, but no one had put it in a DSLR before now. Predictably (and perhaps unfairly) the video aspect of this camera has generated an inordinate amount of buzz about an instrument that is, after all, not a video camera but a DSLR with a video component.

We'll explore the D90's video performance at length, but around that movie mode lurks a pretty decent DSLR that can stand on its own two feet with still images alone.

FEATURES OVERVIEW
FORM, FIT, AND FEEL
PERFORMANCE
IMAGE QUALITY
CONCLUSIONS
SPECIFICATIONS

FEATURES OVERVIEW
The D90 features a 12.3 megapixel APS-C (or DX format, in Nikon's nomenclature) sensor and Nikon's latest generation EXPEED processor. According to Nikon, the replacement to the popular D80 was "inspired" by Nikon's DX flagship, the D300. Coincidentally, the only other 12.3 DX sensor in the current Nikon lineup is found in the D300, so it's a pretty good bet the two are sharing hardware in this regard. Not a bad deal for an advanced consumer camera like the D90.

What they definitely share is the same 200 to 3200 nominal ISO range (with ISO 100 and 6400 options available), and an excellent 3.0 inch, 920,000 dot resolution LCD screen.

There's built-in image sensor cleaning, a continuous shooting rate of "up to" 4.5 fps, and an 11 point AF system with Face Priority. In addition to the typical DSLR manual exposure modes, there are five advanced scene modes that can help ease the transition worries of folks coming into the camera from more fully automatic compact digitals. The D90 also has automatic and selectable D-Lighting to provide a wider dynamic range, 3D Color Matrix Metering II with scene recognition exposure system, a built-in flash, and a shutter tested to more than 100,000 cycles.

The D90 uses SD/SDHC memory media and Nikon includes a rechargeable li-ion battery, quick charger, eyepiece cap, rubber eyecup, USB and A/V cables, camera strap, monitor cover, body cap, accessory shoe cover, and CD-ROM software suite with each camera.

There are seven primary shooting modes:

With regard to the close-up mode in the list of scene presets, this option adjusts camera settings and sets the AF point to the center of the image, but does not otherwise invest this camera with any particular close-up capability: it takes a lens to do that, and unfortunately the D90's 18-105mm kit lens has a close focus point of about 18 inches, which does not provide much in the way of close-focusing capabilies. Here's a shot of my Connie hat with the kit lens and another with my 105mm micro Nikkor to illustrate the difference.

Nikon D90
Close-up mode, Nikkor 18-105mm kit lens

Nikon D90
Close-up mode, Nikkor 105mm Micro

For a detailed listing of specifications and features, please refer to the specifications table found at the bottom of the review.


FORM, FIT, AND FEEL
The D90 breaks no new ground in design, following the long established general design format for DSLR cameras. It's the same overall size as the D80 it replaces, and a bit smaller than the D300 that is the current top-of-the-line DX sensor Nikon.

Styling and Build Quality
While not as physically small as the entry level D40/40X/60 models, the D90 slides into the size gap between that trio and the slightly larger D300.

Nikon D90

The camera is about as small as I'd like for a DSLR, since it just fills my right shooting hand.

Nikon D90

Nikon D90

Materials seem to be of good quality and appropriate for a camera in this price range, and build quality looks very good. The camera feels solid.

Ergonomics and Interface
Despite being relatively compact (at least by Nikon standards) and festooned with a large number of controls on the top and back of the body, the D90 leaves empty space in all the right places for the right hand shooting grip.

Nikon D90

The deep sculptured handgrip provides a firm hold while at the same time maintaining decent clearance from the lens barrel, and the thumb rest at the rear of the body cradles the thumb nicely between nearby controls. The index finger falls naturally onto the shutter button.

Nikon D90

Ergonomics were one reason I chose Nikon decades ago, and I've never been disappointed with any of the SLR/DSLR Nikons that have come after my first F2 back in 1975. The D90 has kept that streak intact – it's a nice feeling and handling camera no matter what the price.

Nikon D90

There are dedicated buttons on the camera back which allow the user to adjust white balance, ISO sensitivity, and image quality without resorting to internal menus, and an "Info" button that displays current shooting settings as well as offering quick access to some additional shooting settings.

Live view (using the monitor to compose/capture still images or movies) can be accessed quickly via external controls.

Display/Viewfinder
The D90 shares the 3.0 inch, 920,000 dot monitor that first appeared on the D300 and has since taken up residence in the D3 and D700 as well. The monitor offers 100 percent frame coverage and is adjustable via internal menu for seven levels of brightness.

Nikon D90

The screen is a joy to use for image review in good lighting conditions, and stepped brightness settings help when using the monitor for composition outdoors in bright conditions. Live view can be used for still image capture and must be used for movie capture, but as good as the monitor is, I'd personally use the view finder unless there was no other option than the monitor for still shots.

The viewfinder offers about 96 percent frame coverage and a diopter adjustment for individual eyesight (key to making sure you're seeing through the lens in correct focus if you're a glasses wearer who shoots without your glasses).


PERFORMANCE
The D90 slots into the middle of the current Nikon DX sensor cameras, with the D40/60 on the consumer end, the D90 as the prosumer model, and the flagship D300 on the top end. Is the D90 really good enough to be called a prosumer? Yep, and a lot of folks who were considering a D300 now have a relatively budget-priced alternative. Here are two shots: one is a D90 JPEG fine saved in Nikon Capture 2 software as an "excellent" quality JPEG; the other is a D300 NEF (raw) file saved in Capture 2 as another "excellent" JPEG.

Nikon D90
Shot 1

Nikon D90
Shot 2

Not much to choose between the two, both of which were shot with a 400mm VR lens. If the D90 shot hasn't jumped off the page at you by now, it's Shot 2.

Timings and Shutter Lag
Nikon lists a 15 millisecond start up time for the D90, and they'll get no argument from me. The camera is ready to go as soon as you hit the power button, and shutter lag is not an issue. DCR editor David Rasnake and I tag-teamed the D90 in the timing and video departments, and came up with the following figures:

The D90 doesn't quite pull the advertised continuous shooting mood numbers we were expecting based on Nikon's claims. In fairness to Nikon, they do say "up to" 4.5 fps, and with a SanDisk Extreme III SD card I got 5 JPEG basic shots in 0.9 seconds, but it then took 2.1 seconds total to reach 9 shots. So, it seems the D90 will meet or exceed the specification if you shoot a 1 second burst, but the rate is heading toward 4 fps if you shoot an extended series.

Auto Focus
The D90 uses a refined version of the Nikon Multi-CAM 1000 AF Module found in the D80. Its 11 focus points include the "rule of thirds" locations in the frame for folks who practice that form of composition. Single-point AF is suggested for static subjects, dynamic-area AF for moving subjects, auto-area AF for spontaneous shooting, and 3D-tracking (11 points) AF when changing the composition after focusing on a subject.

I found performance excellent in good light, and even in extremely dim conditions the D90 would acquire focus quite rapidly if there is some minimal contrast in the frame. And the timing numbers seen in the previous section suggest just how rapid the system is – right at the front of the pack for a non-pro camera.

I was pleased with the D90 dynamic-area AF performance on moving subjects like surfers and seabirds. It almost always would readily acquire and hold focus on fairly difficult subjects like single pelicans or gulls, and virtually never missed on the folks riding the waves.

Lens Mount
The D90 uses the traditional Nikon F bayonet lens mount, which means about 40 million Nikon lenses dating back to 1959 will mate to the camera. Individual lens features determine what functions (such as AF or exposure methods) the D90 will support, but the worst case scenario would require manual exposure and manual focus. This ability to utilize older lenses can be a valuable asset, as there are some old lenses that are excellent candidates for use in a digital world.

Case in point – my 30 year old 500mm reflex Nikkor has a fixed aperture of f/8 and is manual focus only. But the lens has something else going for it. Here are shots of my 400 and 500mm Nikon lenses on the D90: you pick out the 500.

Nikon D90
Lens 1

Nikon D90
Lens 2

Impressively, Lens 2 is actually the longer, 500mm lens! Compact and relatively light, old reflex glass like this is excellent for wildlife or other static subjects, but can also produce some nice shots of moving subjects, as seen below. If you look closely at the lobster boat shot, you'll see that one lucky lobster that was under the minimum size limit is being thrown back into the ocean. Beats being thrown into a pot of boiling water.

Nikon D90

Nikon D90

Even if you're not sure where to start with manual exposure, the D90 can display histograms of the shots that show you where the range of light falls within the image, and you can adjust camera settings to produce pleasing exposures by watching how the histograms are impacted by setting changes. Overall, the camera's flexibility in handling lenses will be one of its most appealing features for those already heavily invested in Nikon, or those looking to score a deal on used lenses.

Flash
The D90 has a built-in flash with a range of about 17 feet at ISO 200, and is equipped with a hot shoe to accept more powerful flash units should the user so desire. Color rendition was good, and flash recycle times were speedy – the flash was ready to go almost instantly in normal conditions and within 4 seconds after a full discharge. With flash enabled the D90 won't let you shoot again until the flash is fully charged.

Nikon D90

When shooting in auto mode and some scene modes the flash will enable automatically should addition lighting be needed; manual deployment of the flash is required in all other shooting modes. Nikon cautions that lens hoods should be removed when using the built in flash.

Image Stabilization
It's a Nikon, so image stabilization is built in specific lenses that carry a "VR" designation, like the 18-105mm kit lens supplied with our review D90.

Nikon D90

Nikon claims up to a 3 stop advantage for VR lenses (a few others, notably the VR18-200, have the VR II system for which Nikon claims up to a 4 stop advantage). VR may be disabled on the lens by the user, but the camera automatically enables VR lenses when set for D-Movie mode.

Battery
Nikon rates the D90's EN-EL3e lithium-ion battery for 850 shots using the CIPA standard, and in my past experience with Nikon cameras CIPA has been the more reliable measure in those situations where Nikon also expressed a Nikon standard. Battery life looks to be in the CIPA ballpark based on my experience with this camera, but it's always prudent to carry a spare battery for all day shooting treks.

The D90 accepts the MB-D80 multi power battery pack that can carry two of the standard EN-EL3e batteries or six AAs. The AA battery option can be a handy backup for those times when you forget to recharge the main batteries, exhaust the mains in the field, or embark on an extended shooting trip where recharge opportunities may be problematic. For most folks, however, the single main battery should be all you need for a single shooting session.


IMAGE QUALITY
I'm a big fan of the images produced by the D300, and with the D90 carrying what appears to be the same sensor and processor, I was hopeful I'd be happy with shots from that camera as well. The D90 didn't disappoint.

Images made at default settings with the D90 were generally pleasant and accurate with regard to color rendition and fidelity. I felt the sharpness could use a boost over the default, and the D90 gives you plenty of options for image manipulation via the Picture Control menu: sharpness, contrast, brightness, saturation, and hue can all be user modified if you disabled the auto D-Lighting feature (which is on by default). If D-Lighting is on, you lose the ability to manipulate contrast and brightness. More about D-Lighting later.

The wildfire shot that follows was made at a distance of about two miles with the 400mm lens and is not cropped. Despite the distance and unstable air caused by the fires, the D90 did a pretty good job of capturing the image.

Nikon D90 Nikon D90
Nikon D90 Nikon D90
Nikon D90 Nikon D90

Video Quality
Ok, those of you who skipped directly here, shame on you. The D90 is about much more than just video. But since you're here I won't beat around the bush – the video from the D90 is quite good. It's certainly better, in terms of color and smoothness, than video from any compact digital I've reviewed.

The D90 can capture movies at 1280x720, 640x424, or 320x216 sizes, all at a 24 fps speed that Nikon reminds us is the same as theatrical film. But let's face it, virtually everybody's gonna shoot at the HD setting if they're using this camera for movies.

The good news? A range of Nikon lenses can be used for D90 video, allowing you to customize the field of view to suit your particular taste. Zoom lenses can be zoomed while capturing video, VR lenses function, and the camera is constantly calculating exposure via matrix metering. Is there any downside to video with the D90?

Yeah, there is. HD videos are limited to 5 minutes in length and there's a maximum video size of 2GB no matter what quality image you're capturing. On lengthy videos the camera can become overheated, impacting video quality and in extreme cases causing the camera to shut down before suffering thermal damage. The camera won't auto focus while actually shooting video – you establish point of focus via AF for the opening shot. If your subject stays in the same place or moves but remains at the same distance from you and/or depending on the depth of field generated by the lens you're using, your original focal distance may remain good for the whole video clip. If not, you can manually focus.

Did I mention that video has to be done via Live View mode (using the monitor)? That may or may not be a good thing depending on your past experience. Folks who've shot compact digitals using those monitors may feel right at home (at least until they have to go to manual focus). Personally, I'd kill for this camera to have a video capability via the viewfinder: as good as the D90 monitor is, it can be a chore to try and manually focus using the monitor in bright outdoor conditions.

Finally, perhaps the biggest fly in the video ointment is a product of the D90's CMOS sensor – not just this particular sensor, any CMOS sensor, which show the effects of what's known as rolling shutter when capturing video. This little gremlin goes by the catchy name of rolling shutter effect, and essentially can cause vertical objects to take on a distorted tilt when a camera is panned across a field of view, such as tracking a running subject against a stationary background.

As I mentioned earlier, DCR.com editor David Rasnake and I have both worked on the video portion of this review, and David shot a soccer game that set up quite well as an illustration of how rolling shutter effect could impact a video. Here's David's own words on the subject:

"For the sort of sports work where faster panning is required (plus the fact that there were lots of buildings with strong vertical lines in the background at this particular location), it was pretty distracting. A couple of sequences looked like something out of a cartoon, where everything sort of screeches to a halt with the buildings leaning in the background. Did it "ruin" the video? I don't think so. Was it clearly, even distractingly noticeable? Yep.

"I bring this example up only because I can see this being an advanced 'soccer mom' camera, meaning its video function may well get used for shooting these kinds of quick panning action sequences. (I might also note, though, that the effect is probably intensified in this case, as I was shooting off a monopod – thus controlling any masking vertical motion. I didn't find the impact as extreme when working hand-held, at the expense of lots of overall image stability of course.)

"Otherwise, I found the video to be rich and vibrant in terms of color, with excellent exposure all around and good sharpness to boot if you know what you're doing on the lens side. Setting a narrow, more forgiving aperture and shooting at higher ISOs seems to be the ticket to dealing with lack of AF during video (which is a bit irritating, but nothing unusual for a still camera shooting movies – many compacts don't auto focus during video either, and though Canon's EOS 5D Mark II does, you're comparing apples and oranges in terms of price, features, and target market at that point). I think the general characterization – that this camera captures nice video, but that people need to be sensible about panning use and about what they intend to do with their still cameras for shooting video generally – is accurate and fair."

Here's one of David's soccer clips (showing the effects of rolling shutter at their most pronounced) and a couple of mine from the beach – panning a 400mm to follow a surfer when he's largely filling the frame is not fun, and the fairly shallow depth of field produced by the long telephoto doesn't give much room for error when manual focus comes into play.

Note: The video clips in the player above are lower-resolution versions of the original files. The unaltered original files can be downloaded here:

Final verdict? I'd commented to David that the D90 could produce some outrageously goofy effects if the user deliberately sought to exploit the effects of the rolling shutter, but that most folks in the real world wouldn't be doing that. His soccer video is a good illustration of how the effect can impact a video, although in truth I didn't find the effect distracting until I deliberately concentrated on the background and ignored the players as the camera panned.

The D90 can produce a high quality video, particularly if the subject matter avoids situations that give rise to the rolling shutter effect. If video is your primary passion, buy a video camera. If you want a still camera with a video capability, the D90 is the only way to go at this price point – at least for now.

Exposure, Processing, and Color
The D90 is the least expensive Nikon to offer the 3D Color Matrix Metering II with Scene Recognition System that was formerly found exclusively on the higher end D3, D300, and D700 models: "420-pixel RGB 3D Color Matrix Metering II, teamed with the exclusive Scene Recognition System that evaluates images, referencing an on-board database of over 30,000 photographic scenes, for unmatched exposure accuracy." This system is similar in some respects to that in the top shelf Nikons, which use a 1005 pixel variant.

The D90 seemed a bit more prone to lose or at least push the envelope on losing highlights in difficult, high contrast situations than the others – perhaps the 1005 pixel system has an edge over the 420 in this regard. There are center-weighted and spot metering options in addition to the 3D Matrix.

The D90 features automatic D-Lighting as a default value, but the user can also select from low, normal, high, or extra high settings, as well as disable the feature altogether. D-Lighting seeks to optimize detail in areas of shadow and highlight, and anyone who has read my Nikon reviews know I'm a fan of D-Lighting, both active or post-processed. The D90 offers both. Here are four shots of a "Super Scooper" fire tanker making a drop about two miles away – the original and three others post processed in the camera at the low, normal, and high D-Lighting settings.

 

Nikon D90
Original
Nikon D90
Low D-Lighting
Nikon D90
Normal D-Lighting
Nikon D90
High D-Lighting

Apart from any settings the user may establish in the camera, the D90 offers a number of useful tools in the camera's Retouch Menu, including D-Lighting, red-eye correction, trim, monochrome, filter effects, color balance, small picture, image overlay, quick retouch, straighten, distortion control, fisheye, and NEF (Nikon Electronic Format) processing – Nikon's raw file format. This final tool is particularly valuable as NEF files are still largely proprietary and most non-Nikon software has trouble dealing with them. NEF processing allows the user to make a JPEG copy of these files in camera while retaining the original NEF files and the wealth of image data they contain.

Color reproduction is good in the D90, and the user has many color adjustment options via the Picture Control menu. Following are examples of standard, neutral, vivid, and monochrome color options; each has more modifications available via sub menu.

Nikon D90
Standard
Nikon D90
Neutral
Nikon D90
Vivid
Nikon D90
Monochrome

White Balance
Auto WB worked well under a variety of lighting conditions with the exception of incandescent, which shot quite warm.

Nikon D90
Auto White Balance, 3200K incandescent light

The D90 offers six dedicated WB settings along with auto, plus the ability to set WB according to color temperatures in a range from 2500 to 10000 degrees Kelvin or a custom WB established by the user.

Sensitivity and Noise
Looking at the studio shots of the D90 reminded me of the D300 – noise performance is good through ISO 800, with some deterioration starting to appear at 1600 and increasing a bit at 3200, yet still looking pretty good in the studio – particularly if the image remains small. ISO 6400 would certainly be the sensitivity of last resort, but definitely usable in a pinch.

Nikon D90
ISO 100
Nikon D90
ISO 100, 100% crop
Nikon D90
ISO 200
Nikon D90
ISO 200, 100% crop
Nikon D90
ISO 400
Nikon D90
ISO 400, 100% crop
Nikon D90
ISO 800
Nikon D90
ISO 800, 100% crop
Nikon D90
ISO 1600
Nikon D90
ISO 1600, 100% crop
Nikon D90
ISO 3200
Nikon D90
ISO 3200, 100% crop
Nikon D90
ISO 6400
Nikon D90
ISO 6400, 100% crop

Standing alone, the D90 looks pretty good, but I was anxious to shoot the D90 and D300 side by side to see how the results compared. Is the D90 just a bargain priced D300 with regard to ISO performance, or did Nikon engineer some differences to help keep the two models distinct?

I shot each camera with the 18-105mm kit lens at ISO settings from 200 to 6400. Camera settings were as identical as I could make them. Both cameras had high ISO noise reduction at normal and I shot a simultaneous NEF/Fine quality JPEG image at each ISO setting. Here are the JPEGs:

Nikon D90
Nikon D90, ISO 200
Nikon D90
Nikon D300, ISO 200
Nikon D90
Nikon D90, ISO 400
Nikon D300
Nikon D300, ISO 400
Nikon D90
Nikon D90, ISO 800
Nikon D300
Nikon D300, ISO 800
Nikon D90
Nikon D90, ISO 1600
Nikon D300
Nikon D300, ISO 1600
Nikon D90
Nikon D90, ISO 3200
Nikon D300
Nikon D300, ISO 3200
Nikon D90
Nikon D90, ISO 6400
Nikon D300
Nikon D300, ISO 6400

The D90 shots seem a bit more color saturated, which could be the result of a slight exposure difference, more consumer focused processing choices, or perhaps just a normal variation between two different instruments. Both cameras seem pretty close in noise performance through ISO 800, and then the D300 seems to be a bit better at 1600 and up. I think the difference is enough to suggest that the D90 is not sharing everything the D300 has. Nikon's EXPEED processing concept, for example, has appeared in DSLRs and compacts, so the specific EXPEED implementation in the D300 may not be exactly the same EXPEED as in the D90.

While the sensors are probably very similar, if not identical, there can be other factors to account for what appears to me to be a very slight noise edge to the D300 above ISO 800 – with the D90's slightly more aggressive consumer-focused image processing potentially explaining at least part of the increase in noise.

The D90 shots by themselves look pretty good. Next to the D300 they still look pretty good. In this case, pretty good is not bad at all.

Additional Sample Images

Nikon D90 Nikon D90
Nikon D90 Nikon D90


CONCLUSIONS
Folks who've been paying attention to Nikon DSLRs for the past several years have noticed a trend: a high performance Nikon comes out, followed some months later by a lower priced camera that offers a chunk of the performance at a fraction of the price. When the D2X was introduced it was the undisputed Nikon pro camera. Ten months or so later, the D200 shows up, and while it provided a 10 megapixel sensor to the D2X's 12.4, it matched the 5 fps continuous shooting rate and produced better high ISO images to boot.

The D300 came out and immediately eclipsed the D2X/Xs, becoming the new Nikon DX sensor flagship – again at a fraction of the price. The full-frame D3 is introduced, followed by the D700 which packs a lot of the punch for about 60 percent of the cost. And now the D90 arrives shooting D300-quality stills and packing a decent movie mode for about two-thirds the cost of the movieless D300. If you really dissect the D90 shots they might be a tiny bit noisier at higher ISOs than the D300, or it might just be my eyes are tired. The D90 continuous shooting rate won't match the D300, but in reality, this is not a shootout between the D90 and the D300.


Comparisons are tempting since both cameras probably share the same sensor, might share the same processing pipeline, and do share identical ISO sensitivity ranges, but the D90 is targeting folks looking for something just a bit above an entry-level body, not the high end of the performance spectrum. In this regard the D90 offers sparkling performance at a bargain price, and movies if you want ‘em.

Pros:

Cons:


SPECIFICATIONS

Sensor 12.3 megapixel DX format (23.6x15.8mm) CMOS
Lens/Zoom Nikon F mount
LCD/Viewfinder 3.0", 920K-dot TFT LCD with live view; pentaprism optical viewfinder with diopter adjustment (96 percent field of view)
Sensitivity ISO 200-3200 (boosted: ISO 100-6400)
Shutter Speed 30-1/4000 seconds
Shooting Modes Auto, Advanced Scene, Program, Shutter Priority, Aperture Priority, Manual, D-Movie
Scene Presets Portrait, Landscape, Sports, Close-up, Night Portrait
White Balance Settings Auto (TTL white-balance with main image sensor and 420-pixel RGB sensor); 12 manual modes with fine-tuning; color temperature setting; preset manual white balance
Metering Modes 3D Color Matrix Metering II, Center-Weighted, Spot
Focus Modes Single-Servo AF, Continuous-Servo AF, Auto-Servo AF, Manual (Predictive focus tracking automatically activated according to subject status in Single- and Continuous-Servo)
Drive Modes Single, Continuous Low, Continuous High, Self-Timer, Delayed Remote, Quick-Response
Flash Modes Normal, Red-Eye Reduction, Red-Eye Reduction with Slow Sync, Slow Sync, Rear-Curtain Sync
Self Timer Settings
2, 5, 10, or 20 seconds; Off
Memory Formats SD, SDHC
Internal Memory
None
File Formats JPEG, NEF (RAW), AVI
Max. Image Size 4288x2848
Max. Video Size
1280x720, 24 fps
Zoom During Video N/A
Battery Rechargeable lithium-ion, 850 shots
Connections USB 2.0, HDMI, A/V out
Additional Features EXPEED image processing, 3D Color Matrix Metering II, 11-point AF system, Picture Control Style, D-Movie video recording, sensor cleaning system, live view with face detection, Scene Recognition System