NIKON D90 Review: Field Test Report

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Similar in many respects to the 10.2 megapixel D80, the Nikon D90 is even more desirable since it benefits from technology developed for the semi-professional DSLRs. The primary improvements include a 12.3 megapixel CMOS (not CCD) sensor and upgraded processor, larger 3-inch LCD with ultra-high 920,000 point resolution and Live View with three distinct autofocus modes. Other benefits include faster 4.5fps continuous drive speed (vs. 3fps) an automatic sensor cleaner, plus some valuable new features in capture mode and in Playback mode (for image retouching.)

While the D90 targets photo enthusiasts, it's adequately fast and versatile to be a fine backup to a professional photographer's Nikon D300 or D700. During extensive testing in a wide range of circumstances, this DSLR proved to be remarkably effective in virtually all aspects and allowed me to make technically excellent images that should satisfy the most critical viewer. (ISO 400; fill flash with an SB-900 Speedlight) ( c ) 2009 Peter K. Burian

While the D90 targets photo enthusiasts, it's adequately fast and versatile to be a fine backup to a professional photographer's Nikon D300 or D700. During extensive testing in a wide range of circumstances, this DSLR proved to be remarkably effective in virtually all aspects and allowed me to make technically excellent images that should satisfy the most critical viewer. (ISO 200; fill flash with an SB-900 Speedlight) (c) 2009 Peter K. Burian

This prosumer-level camera is also unique in one aspect. The first SLR in the world to boast video capture ability when it was announced, it’s still one of the few affordable models with a function of this type. Nikon’s D-Movie mode allows for shooting High Definition movie clips with sound and provides HDMI output (with an optional cable) to wide screen HD television monitors. While D-Movie mode is certainly a “cool” amenity, the D90 proved to be an incredibly competent performer as a “stills” camera with its more conventional features.

Features and Technology

This solidly built DLSR bears a strong resemblance to the best-selling D80, with its full range of analog controls — including a mode selector dial with a full 11 options — for quick access to frequently-used features. The electronic menu lists a multitude of items; not all are intuitive but the Owner’s Manual provides a lot of useful guidance. Note too that this more versatile camera is actually more convenient to operate, thanks to the very user-friendly interface developed for the D60. It’s unusually fast as well, able to fire numerous JPEGs in a single burst when using a fast SDHC card.

The camera's automatic Chromatic Aberration and Vignetting Correction processing helps to optimize the optical performance of any lens. The relatively affordable 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 G zoom for instance, provided surprisingly high edge-to-edge quality and brightness even at wide apertures. (100mm at f/5.6.) ( c ) 2009 Peter K. Burian

The camera's automatic Chromatic Aberration and Vignetting Correction processing helps to optimize the optical performance of any lens. (f/8) (c) 2009 Peter K. Burian

Like the Nikon pro models, the D90 benefits from new high-tech functions including automatic chromatic aberration correction (to improve lens performance) and vignetting control (to lighten any dark corners). Continuous autofocus now employs 3D Focus Tracking for great reliability with action subjects. The camera also benefits from Scene Recognition that combines data from the Matrix metering and AF systems for optimal exposures, White Balance and tracking focus. Active D-Lighting is also available in JPEG capture. Designed to provide greater shadow detail, this function can be set to Auto for a modest increase in dynamic range or to higher levels for a more obvious effect.

The D90 employs new Scene Recognition technology that combines data from the Matrix metering and AF systems for superior exposures, White Balance and effective tracking focus. While the camera sometimes produced images with excessively bright highlights, that was easy to prevent with in-camera overrides. (JPEG capture at ISO 1600 with -1/3 exposure compensation.) ( c ) 2009 Peter K. Burian

The D90 employs new Scene Recognition technology that combines data from the Matrix metering and AF systems for superior exposures, White Balance and effective tracking focus. While the camera sometimes produced images with excessively bright highlights, that was easy to prevent with in-camera overrides. (JPEG capture at ISO 1600 with -1 exposure compensation) (c) 2009 Peter K. Burian

Press the new LV button and the D90 provides a real-time preview of the scene. Autofocus will now switch to using contrast-detection technology. (With other Nikon DSLRs’ Live View modes, phase-detection AF is also available.) A full-time, continuous live preview is provided, without interruption of the display (by the reflex mirror) during auto focusing. Note that AF is slower in Live View, as with most DSLRs when using contrast-detection AF. Focusing can take up to two seconds. The user can move the focusing point anywhere in the frame or select Face Detection AF; the latter optimizes both focus and exposure for faces and can track the subjects if they move.

Live View works well with Face Detect AF when instantaneous autofocus is not necessary, and the ultra-high resolution LCD screen provides a very smooth, crisp and finely detailed preview display. While this is a "nicety" and not an essential amenity, most D90 owners will occasionally appreciate the ability to compose a photo using the large monitor instead of the optical viewfinder. (ISO 400; flash; +1 for sharpness and +2/3 exposure compensation.) ( c ) 2009 Peter K. Burian

Live View works well with Face Detect AF when instantaneous autofocus is not necessary, and the ultra-high resolution LCD screen provides a very smooth, crisp and finely detailed preview display. While this is a "nicety" and not an essential amenity, most D90 owners will occasionally appreciate the ability to compose a photo using the large monitor instead of the optical viewfinder. (ISO 400; flash; +1 for sharpness and +2/3 exposure compensation.) ( c ) 2009 Peter K. Burian

While reviewing JPEGs in Playback mode, you can apply in-camera retouching as required to solve a specific problem or create a special effect. The most useful “fix” functions are for correcting red eye, linear distortion, a dark image or poor colour balance. You can even combine two JPEGs into a single image or convert a RAW photo to JPEG. Most of the “post processing” options are quite intuitive. While some are gimmicky, others can be very useful for correcting specific technical problems.

The many Picture Control options make it easy and quick to achieve the desired effect that's most suitable for any subject type. For wedding photography, I often used the Portrait style but also Monochrome to satisfy the couple's request for black & white glossies. Other types of subjects would benefit from one of the other options. Each sets a different level of contrast, colour rendition and sharpness, although every one of those parameters can also be modified as desired. (JPEG; ISO 400; flash; +1 exposure compensation and in-camera sharpening.) ( c ) 2009 Peter K. Burian

The many Picture Control options make it easy and quick to achieve the desired effect that's most suitable for any subject type. For wedding photography, I often used the Portrait style but also Monochrome to satisfy the couple's request for black & white glossies. Other types of subjects would benefit from one of the other options. Each sets a different level of contrast, colour rendition and sharpness, although every one of those parameters can also be modified as desired. (JPEG; ISO 400; flash; +1 exposure compensation) (c) 2009 Peter K. Burian

Evaluation: Because contrast-detection AF is relatively slow, Live View is primarily intended for landscapes, portraits, most travel and nature photos, etc. To activate the very fast phase-detection AF system, simply switch to using the large/bright) optical viewfinder instead. Particularly with one of the AF-S lenses (with Silent Wave ultrasonic motor), autofocus will aggressively track high speed action subjects. The 3D Matrix meter often produces pleasing exposures but highlights may be too bright under harsh lighting. In such conditions, better results are possible; try setting -0.3 EV exposure compensation but also activate D-Lighting at a high level to prevent loss of shadow detail.

High Def Movie Mode

Most digital cameras with a built-in lens provide a Motion JPEG mode but only at low resolution. By contrast, the D90 can shoot true 720p HD video in Live View — using a much larger sensor with huge pixels — at up to 720×1280 pixel resolution. Operation in D-Movie mode is fully automatic. The camera sets the aperture, shutter speed and ISO. Exposure changes whenever scene brightness changes even slightly; that can be annoying. It’s preferable to disable that feature by metering in advance and using the AE Lock button. Auto White Balance is not available; a desired WB option must be set in advance.

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A 720×1280 video clip can be as long as 5 minutes; longer clips (up to 20 minutes) are possible at lower resolution. Sound (if desired) is captured by a built-in mono mic. Depth of field (the range of acceptable sharpness) is always very shallow in D-Movie mode; pre-focus carefully on the primary subject. While shooting a video, only manual focus can be and that’s not very convenient in Live View, when the camera is held away from your body. The clip is saved in the familiar AVI format, compatible with Windows Media Player, Quicktime and many other computer programs. Or simply connect the D90 to an HD TV with an optional HDMI cable to display your movie to friends or family.

Evaluation: The D-Movie mode is fun and I found it useful for shooting clips during family events using a VR lens (with image stabilizer) to correct for camera shake. As long as I did not pan too quickly, video quality was very good; the sound was acceptable particularly when a person was close to the camera. Frankly, the D90 was not intended to compete with a true HD camcorder with full-time autofocus, an articulating LCD monitor, a great deal of user control, and compatibility with an external stereo mic. But it’s a great addition to a still camera that’s packed with the more familiar photographic capabilities.

Image Quality Assessment
As usual, I started testing at the default settings: Standard picture style, Auto WB and no exposure compensation or Active D-Lighting. The resulting JPEGs were somewhat soft; colours were quite punchy; contrast seemed very high on sunny days. For a better effect, I simply set in-camera Sharpening to +1, reduced contrast in harsh lighting by -1 and activated D-Lighting as required. For a flattering effect when shooting a wedding, or for more vibrant travel photos, I simply switched to a more appropriate picture style mode. Because the camera was able to optimize lens performance, even affordable zooms produced surprisingly high image quality.

At its default settings in Standard picture style, the D90 produces slightly soft images, moderately high colour saturation and high contrast, but Nikon provides all of the overrides necessary to achieve any other effect. For this JPEG capture, I intentionally allowed the camera to underexpose slightly to retain highlight detail and set Active D-Lighting to High to maintain shadow detail. I also decided to boost Sharpening and Saturation by +1. While some tweaking is still required in Photoshop or other software, this image would be easy to optimize for making a beautiful print. (c) 2009 Peter K. Burian

At its default settings in Standard picture style, the D90 produces slightly soft images, moderately high colour saturation and high contrast, but Nikon provides all of the overrides necessary to achieve any other effect. While some photographers prefer to make all modifications in Photoshop -- or RAW converter software -- others will take advantage of in-camera features such as Active D-Lighting and control of Sharpness, Saturation and Contrast. (+1 level for Sharpness.) (c) 2009 Peter K. Burian

My JPEGs made at ISO 100 and 400 are silky smooth and very clean; after a bit of sharpening, they made beautiful 13×19-inch inkjet prints. Digital noise is well controlled; ISO 800 produces images that are suitable for excellent letter-size prints. Even at ISO 1600, the default level for NR works well, providing adequate noise reduction without an excessive smearing of fine detail. As with other cameras, very high ISO levels are strictly for problem-solving in dark locations. Noise Reduction can be set to higher levels for smoother images but the blurring effect also produces an obvious loss of definition. I recommend sticking with the default setting for NR.

At low ISO levels, the D90 produced gorgeous images suitable for making 13x19-inch prints. This is aspect -- plus high speed, great reliability, numerous advanced capabilities and many accessories -- make the camera ideal for the most serious photo enthusiast. (ISO 200.) ( c ) 2009 Peter K. Burian

At low ISO levels, the D90 produced gorgeous images suitable for making 13x19-inch prints. This is aspect -- plus high speed, great reliability, numerous advanced capabilities and many accessories -- make the camera ideal for the most serious photo enthusiast. (ISO 200.) ( c ) 2009 Peter K. Burian

While the D90 provides the best image quality at lower sensitivities, ISO 1600 can be useful in low light photography when fast shutter speeds are required. For the best results, avoid underexposure, use the camera's default level for Noise Reduction and optimize the images for printing. Your technically best ISO 1600 photos should make for good letter size prints. ( c ) 2009 Peter K. Burian

While the D90 provides the best image quality at lower sensitivities, ISO 1600 can be useful in low light photography when fast shutter speeds are required. For the best results, avoid underexposure, use the camera's default level for Noise Reduction and optimize the images for printing. Your technically best ISO 1600 photos should make for good letter size prints. ( c ) 2009 Peter K. Burian

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For those who prefer to make corrections with imaging software, the RAW capture mode is ideal. A NEF format photo can be extensively modified (including Noise Reduction) while maintaining optical quality; it can also retain more highlight/shadow detail. Even the newest version of the Nikon View software is not very versatile so I strongly recommend the optional Nikon Capture NX 2 (approximately $150) or an Adobe program for RAW photo enhancement and conversion. Capture NX 2 is the best bet in terms of versatility and this program provides a bonus: the level of Active D-Lighting can be modified so it’s just right for any specific image.

The latest version of the basic RAW converter program Nikon ViewNX provides the essential features but it's still of greatest interest to those who do not often shoot in RAW capture mode. However, the optional Capture NX2 program (shown here) is remarkably versatile, providing a wealth of pro calibre functions, including D-Lighting options not available with other brands of software. ( c ) 2009 Peter K. Burian

The latest version of the basic RAW converter program Nikon ViewNX provides the essential features but it's still of greatest interest to those who do not often shoot in RAW capture mode. However, the optional Capture NX2 program (shown here) is remarkably versatile, providing a wealth of pro calibre functions, including D-Lighting options not available with other brands of software. ( c ) 2009 Peter K. BurianNote: Recently, Nikon upgraded the View NX software, providing additional tools for modification of RAW image files, prior to conversion.

Note: Recently, Nikon upgraded the View NX software, providing additional tools for modification of RAW image files, prior to conversion. See Nikon ViewNX 1.3.0 for Mac or Nikon ViewNX 1.3.0 for Windows. The new v.1.3 is preferable to the original program, although the optional Capture NX 2 is still preferable in terms of speed and versatility.

The Bottom Line

While it's not the cheapest 12 megapixel DSLRs by any means, the Nikon D90 offers excellent value because of its speed, remarkable versatility and superb image quality. (ISO 200; 100mm focal length; Dynamic/Tracking AF; Vivid mode; Active D-Lighting; 1/500 sec.)

While it's not the cheapest 12 megapixel DSLRs by any means, the Nikon D90 offers excellent value because of its speed, remarkable versatility and superb image quality. (ISO 200; 100mm focal length; Dynamic/Tracking AF; Vivid mode; Active D-Lighting; 1/500 sec.)

During extensive nature, action, travel and portrait photography, the D90 proved to be unusually fast, reliable and versatile. In terms of image quality, it was competitive with more expensive cameras. Aside from its numerous capabilities, this 12.3 megapixel model is also compatible with a vast range of accessories: most of the same types of optional extras available for professional cameras. All of that combines to make this a “best value” DSLR in my book. While HD video capture will not be of interest to everyone, the Nikon D90 is a very desirable camera in more conventional aspects, making it a perfect choice for photography enthusiasts.

Get information and user reviews for this camera from Amazon: Nikon D90 12.3MP Digital SLR Camera (Body Only)

Specifications – Nikon D90

Sensor: 23.6 x 15.8mm CMOS 12.3 megapixel (4,288 x 2,848)
Processor: EXPEED with 12-bit A/D conversion; Chromatic Aberration and Vignetting Correction, Active D-Lighting and Bracketing, Scene Recognition System
Lens Mount: F-mount for all AF lenses and with limitations, manual focus AI-P lenses; 1.5x focal length magnification factor
Shutter: Electronic; speeds from 30 sec. to 1/4000 sec. selectable; also, Bulb
Viewfinder: Pentaprism with 96% field of view; 0.94x magnification; 19.5mm eye point; diopter correction dial and eyepiece cap
Capture Formats: Numerous JPEG options, Compressed RAW, RAW, RAW + JPEG
Movie Mode: AVI Motion JPEG, with mono sound, 640×424 to 128×0720 pixels, 24fps; AE Lock available
White Balance: Auto and 12 manual modes with fine-tuning; colour temperature (Kelvin), Custom, color temperature (Kelvin), WB Bracketing
Focusing: Manual focus and TTL phase-detection AF; contrast-detection in Live View, with Face Detection option; 11 point AF sensor, 1 cross-type; Single Shot, Continuous with 3D Focus Tracking; dynamic area AF, automatic or manual point selection; EV -1 to +19 detection range; focus-assist lamp
Sensitivity: ISO 100 to ISO 6400
Exposure Control: Adjustable Center Weighted, 420-pixel 3D Colour Matrix II and Spot metering; 0 to 20 EV range; many exposure overrides; histogram and highlight detail warning in Playback
Operating Modes: AUTO, six Scene modes plus P (shiftable program), A, S and M
Image Adjustments: Standard, Neutral, Vivid, Landscape, Portrait and Monochrome picture styles each with parameter adjustment options (filter effects in Monochrome); user selectable high ISO NR levels; Adobe RGB or sRGB color space
Retouching Functions: D-Lighting, Red-Eye Correction, Trimming, Monochrome effects, Color Balance, Small Picture, Quick Retouch, Filter Effects, Straighten, Distortion Control, Fisheye Effect, Image Overlay, RAW conversion to JPEG
Drive Modes: Single shot, Continuous framing to 4.5 fps, self-timer
Flash: Built-in i-TTL flash; several flash metering and mode options; flash exposure compensation; flash sync to 1/200 sec.; supports Speedlights’ high-tech functions
Other: Automatic sensor dust removal system; fixed 3″ wide-view LCD monitor (920,000 points); numerous Custom settings; depth of field preview; histogram, highlight warning, auto rotation and Slide Show option in Playback; DPOF compliant
Storage: SD or SDHC card
Connectivity: USB 2.0 Hi-Speed, video and HDMI (HDTV) output; terminals for remote control and GPS accessories
Power: Rechargeable Lithium-Ion EN-EL3e Li-Ion battery; optional AC adapter and Multi-Power Battery Pack (grip) MB-D80
Dimensions/Weight: 5.2×4.1×3 inches; 22 oz.
Average Street Price: $899.

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Comments

  1. and… which lens was used? same lens all the time, multiple lenses? That would sure help to know.

  2. Indeed, a fantastic DSLR at this price point. It’s low light performance is best of class and doesn’t really get trumped until you get into the full frame bodies. An important, often missed point when measuring high ISO performance is not just retention of detail, but color saturation. Often at high ISO the colors get heavily washed out. Nikon’s new generation of sensors have really raised the bar in this respect.

  3. Great thorough review, I love the D90 but I’m curious how much better pictures I (not a pro) would be able to take with 1. A high – end Nikon Lens (have kit lens) and 2. A pro Camera (Nikon D3)?

  4. Well I have to say. I own a Sony DSCH3 8megpixel point and shoot and I mad the jump to D90 last December and I am still unlocking all of the situations that it can handle. This is the best Pro-Am bang for buck out there. The movie mode I wish was smoother and take some getting use to and a tripod is a must. However, the CLS is fantastic yet the SB900 is cost half as much as a back up body which does not make me happy. I started out with D90 and two SB600.. One of which is fried and being sent to Nikon to see I can get an Xmas gift of repair. But I had since brought the WORK HORSE 2 Vivitar 285HV and some Ebay triggers and for my style of shooting this thing rocks and recyle time at a 1/16 is fantastic. … So if you are thinking about getting the D90 and not in a rush to upgrade upgrade upgrade. This Nikon system bang for buck is the way to go to get start. Now midrange price. Nikon kills me as they can get a bit pricey in the 1700-2000 range.. Now this is why I am waiting on the D700s or D800 or whatever i know know they are gonna release. My hopes is that Nikon will listen and have the full 1080i HD Dmovie mode and make is so that you can attach the external mic for stereo. Cannon is killing them right now with this Unique multi-function. I know many old school will say shoot video with a video camera but the idea is that you can just get a few quick moments. Even though there are some shooting whole short movies with it. ….

    So Just get the D90 and the 50mm or 85mm and the 70-200mm 2.8, 12-24mm 2.8 and you are good for a while.

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