|Nikon D90 Review
Now featuring video...
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The D90 was a bit late. Normally we expect 18 month update cycles for the consumer DSLRs and this time we had 24 months between the D80 and D90. Given that the other changes in the camera are relatively modest, one would have to guess that the big holdup was the addition of video. I'll just say it right up front: video is the least polished aspect of this camera, and it would be a shame if what we got there was what held up the update, as it wasn't worth the six months in my opinion.
Don't get me wrong, I didn't just write "the video is useless." But if your expectation is that is that the D90 just became your camcorder of choice, I'm going to have to do some attitude adjustment on you. But that'll come later in the review. For now, we need to catch up on what a D90 is compared to a D80.
First, let me say this: the D80 was, and now the D90 is, the critical model in the Nikon DSLR lineup. What brings people to Nikon's DSLRs is the serious shooting emphasis: well thought out ergonomics and controls, excellent image quality, solid feature lists that aren't littered with gimmicks, and a general no nonsense "user is in control" attitude. The heart of Nikon's long SLR/DSLR success has been serious shooters, ranging from amateurs looking to step up to pros just wanting reliable, high quality tools that don't get in the way.
The D90 is the gateway to that range.
The models under the D90 (and previously the D80 and D70), which as I write this consists of the lonely D60 and a few not-yet-sold D40s, seem more like attempts to snare cash-conscious, not-yet-sure-of-their-intentions shooters and introduce them to the Nikon design. The D90 is where that design broadens into a flexible, capable tool for serious photographers. As such, it's a very important product for Nikon's continued product line success for serious cameras.
In retrospect, I would now say that the D70 was an excellent gateway product, the D80 less so. I'm happy to report that the D90 restores my confidence in this key product position.
Since my review of the D80 still has a lot of positive elements in it, I need to do some cleanup first for those of you who might have read it first (I'll eventually get around to rewriting portions of it). First, over time, I've found myself picking up the D80 less and less than I did my D70 (or N80 back in the days of film). As I started playing with the new D90 I found myself thinking about why I'd fallen out of like with the D80. If I had to characterize the problem, it's that it just didn't quite perform up to its specifications. The matrix meter on the D80 is the least reliable of any Nikon matrix metering system I've ever used: it's just too prone to picking up on the tonality of the thing under the current autofocus sensor, so exposures in matrix metering wander all over the place. This is wierd, because if Nikon had been known for one thing since introducing matrix metering its that the Nikon approach worked more consistently than any other I know of. So in a crucial aspect, the D80 felt like a step backward into the world of center-weighted and spot metering.
But the D80 had other weaknesses, too. In long exposures there is an amp noise pollution that's significant, and every D80 I've tried has a strong tendency towards producing hot pixels at high ISO, in warm climates, or in long exposures. Curiously, the D40x and D60, which use the same sensor as the D80 just didn't have that same problem. The CAM1000 focus system also seemed to be a slight disappointment--I never quite felt like it was as responsive as the same autofocus sensing system used in the D200, though I couldn't quite pin a tangible, objective measurement that supported that.
Now that I've used a D90 for a bit it's very clear to me that in the D70 to D80 to D90 progression, the weakest of those is the D80. The metering, image quality, and focusing of the D80 all seems to sag when you map the the D70, D80, and D90 on a chart. Yes, the D80 was a step up from the D70, but not a big enough one. While the D90 isn't without a few nuisances of its own, it feels much more in line with the progression we Nikon users expect from two generations of DSLR design.
So let's delve down into the details and find out why I say that.
The D90 is pleasing in almost every way and is a very competent update of the D80. Unfortunately, it just doesn't quite push far enough in any direction to get full marks.
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At first glance the D90 seems like only a modestly updated D80. The body is, with only a modest number of button changes, literally that of the D80. Same chassis, same size, same basic layout, same viewfinder, same autofocus sensor (CAM1000), heck, even the optional vertical grip, the MB-D80, is the same. From such a casual glance, the D90 underwhelms.
Fortunately, it's the details that start to show the D90's differences. First up, we have that wonderful 3" color LCD that the D3, D300, and D700 use (though without a tempered glass cover; be sure to use the supplied or other protective measure to keep the LCD scratch-free). You really have to view a D80 and D90 image onscreen side-by-side to get the full impact: 980k dots is a dramatic improvement over 230k dots, period. Essentially, you've got a high dpi 640x480 VGA monitor running on the back of the D90. Right now, that's about as good as it gets.
The sensor has been bumped from the old 10.2mp Sony to a modified 12.3mp Sony similar to (but not the same as) the D300's. It's actually not the extra 2mp that you'll notice, as that's not really enough pixel boost to make any tangible resolution improvement. No, instead it's the high ISO capability that shines here. Just as the D300 was perhaps a stop better than the D200, we find the same kind of progression in the D90 over the D80. I'll speak to this more in the performance section, but ISO 1600 is very usable on the D90, and ISO 3200 in a pinch, which is almost exactly stop better than where I'd put those marks on a D80 (and perhaps worse for long exposures where hot pixels were a problem on the D80). The downside of this is that the base ISO is now 200 instead of 100 (you can still set an ISO 100 equivalent using Lo 1.0, but as with the D300 you'll have to watch your highlights very carefully if you do).
Besides the extra pixels and better high ISO performance, the sensor on the D90 also gets Nikon's version of shake-off-the-dust cleaning. I haven't said much about this in previous reviews, partly because it really takes a long term perspective to understand whether such systems are functional or just a marketing gimmick. Given my experience with the D300, I'd say that we can say that Nikon's shake cleaning system is decently functional. There are still times I need to use another cleaning method, but that occurs far less often than it did with Nikon DSLRs without this system. So I welcome the addition: it'll move your more elaborate cleaning needs from a time measured in days (sometimes hours) to weeks (sometimes months).
Moving away from the sensor we get all of Nikon's EXPEED additions: Picture Controls instead of Image Optimization, Active D-Lighting, and Chromatic Aberration correction (for JPEGs). You don't see it mentioned much in reviews, but Nikon didn't skimp here. You get basically all the functions that the big boy Nikons have, including the ability to customize and load/save Picture Controls. You also surprisingly get the ability to save multiple white balance presets (and name them), including the ability to customize any white balance with amber/blue, green/magenta shifting. Multiple exposure and the full Automatic ISO configuration is also there, too. The main things missing from the SHOOTING menu side from the pro Nikons are multiple setting banks and interval shooting. By comparison, the D80's Image Optimization and processing options seems a little amateur and scattered. The D90 is a welcome step up here.
The D90 will run at 4.5 fps compared to the 3 fps of the D80. Buffer size, however, remains basically the same (though the D90 seems to write faster with state-of-the-art cards, so a full buffer does clear faster).
One not-so-obvious change from the D80, at least until you use the D90, is the exposure and focusing systems. Nikon has used essentially the same parts as the D80, but the D90 uses the pro camera Scene Recognition System to tie them together better. Matrix metering still isn't perfect in Single Point AF (still too much emphasis on the focus sensor), but it's better and more reliable than the D80 was. Better still, the CAM1000 seems to have gotten a juicing from this integration. This wasn't obvious to me at first, but after using the camera for a while, I'm now finding repeatable situations where the D90 simply focuses faster and more reliably than the D80, especially in the all-auto focusing mode. Since these were two things I never liked on the D80, I find these changes very welcome. The D90 feels much more like a lower build quality D300 than the D80 felt like a lower build quality D200. Yet no one moved the cheese: if you've used a D80 you'll move to a D90 without even cracking the manual (you should crack that manual, though, as there are lots of little changes that are important to learn: for instance, Single Point AF on the D90 is not the same as Single Area AF on the D80).
So what took so long to get the D90 to market? Probably the two other big changes: Live View and Video. The Live View system in the D90 is a slightly cut down version of those on the pro cameras: you get a slightly more direct contrast-based autofocus type of Live View. The controls for this system seem a bit more refined and thought out than Nikon's initial Live View choices, but the options are fewer. These changes are absolutely appropriate for the target market for this camera.
Live View is also the stepping off point for video. Press the Live View button, do your adjustments, if any, then press the OK button to start recording video. Yep, that simple. I'll have more to say in the handling section. For now, though, I need only point out a few technical things: video on the D90 is recorded as Motion JPEG in an AVI file container. That means big file sizes, but easy editing (almost any computer-based movie editor can understand the format, including iMovie on the Mac). The highest quality available is 1280x720P at 24 frames per second, a basic HD variant. While not 1080, I'd rather have 720P than 1080i, as more temporal information (the P is progressive scan compared to the i for interlaced). But note that 24 fps. Television systems here in the US run at 30 fps (yes, I know that's a rounded number; I see no reason to get to four digit precision here), so if you're thinking about converting to a common television format (for distribution on DVD, etc.), you'll get that film-like pull-down effect that jitters motion a bit. For direct playback, though, the 24 fps produces a more film-like than TV visual impact. If you're a serious movie maker or videographer, I've said all I need to say about that; you already know more than I can put into a simple product review. If you're a casual videographer, the difference probably doesn't make any difference to you.
And speaking of jitters, the D90 uses what's called a "rolling shutter" for video. What that means is that each entire 1280x720 frame is not grabbed simulatenously, but in pieces, from top to bottom. This leads to a range of visual artifacts that can be troublesome if you don't work around them, including the deadly jello effect (try panning a D90 back and forth on a tall stationary object in video mode and see what you get). There's been a lot of talk about D90's replacing big time pro video cameras for HD productions. No way. There are too many design compromises in the D90's video, including the forementioned rolling shutter but also including resolution artifacts due to non-adjacent sampling, that 24 fps limit, and more. Don't get me wrong, you can produce some very nice looking videos with the D90 if you know what you're doing and are willing to work around these issues, but the notion that a D90 is some sort of professional video camera is incorrect, in my opinion.
As I noted, the ways in which the D80 and D90 are similar are large. First, there's size and weight. There's almost no difference. The primary differences come on the back of the camera, where the larger LCD and extra couple of buttons change the layout a bit and push the raised bezel out a bit across more of the camera. The card door and slot are the same. The connectors on the left side (from rear) of the camera have some slight twists, with the addition of a mini-HDMI connector for HD video output and the change of the remote control connector so that the new GP-1 GPS unit is supported. Unfortunately, this last change necessitates getting a new wired remote if you're a D70s or D80 user (the wireless remote remains the same). Worse still, as I write this, the new wired remote isn't yet available. Personally, I'm getting tired of cameras shipping without advertised options being available at the same time, and this is a pattern Nikon repeats over and over. Is it really that difficult to ship a new cable at the same time as the camera?
Then there's the viewfinder, which is exactly the same as the D80's, with a very slight change in mask size (96% instead of 95%). The lens capabilities are the same, too: older AI and AI-S manual focus lenses will mount, but won't meter. Pre AI lenses cannot be mounted on the camera without potentially damaging the camera.
For those deciding between a D90 and D300, the image quality is close enough to be called the same, so here are some things to note:
Put simply: the D300 leans pro, the D90 leans consumer.
There's not a lot to say that I haven't already said about Nikon bodies in other reviews. All the of the things that are good remain good in handling, all the things that are bad tend to live on in the Nikon designs. I'm all for consistency, so the fact that Nikon has held consistent on most things is a good thing.
I've already noted that the D90 is pretty much the D80 body with some new features inside. In terms of handling, that means all the buttons are pretty much right where we left them on the D80, though we've got two new key ones: INFO and LV. Other than the OK button moving to the middle of the Direction pad (a wise choice), the external handling attributes of the D90 boil down to learning what those two new buttons control.
The INFO button is the big giveaway: Nikon has consolidated the menu interactions on the D90 to conform much more like those of its big brothers. The INFO button gives quick access to some key settings, ala the D700, which I like. But the consolidation goes much further than this. Rather than the Smple/Full dichotomy on the D80's menus, Nikon has simply used the pro camera's groupings, right down to the Custom Settings (now grouped a to f, like the D300, D3, and D700). We also get both MyMenu and Recent Settings for shortcuts. In practice, this makes the D90's menus feel more akin to the pro cameras than the D80 did to the pro cameras of its time. The downside is that this makes all the menus into scrolling menus, as there are a lot of options to explore. And Nikon's prioritization of which things come first on menus and little lapses such as not allowing Format memory card to be on MyMenu are all still present. Still, the D90 doesn't have as many options as the pro cameras, so none of these things rise above the level of minor nuisance.
Overall, the D90 handles fine, and D80 users aren't going to be upset by any major changes in that regard. I'll reserve my major comments in this section for the big new feature, video.
Here's the way to think about video on the D90: you can record Live View. That should immediately raise your eyebrows, because Live View isn't exactly a polished system in and of itself. But here's the kicker: not all of the things Live View can do can be done when recording a movie! In other words, not only is video based upon Live View, but it's a subset.
At the basic level, the video handling is pretty simple: press the LV button to get to Live View, press the OK button to record video. That's it. Simple and direct, just as a key feature should be. The problem is that Live View imposes a bunch of restrictions on the camera, and the D-Movie function adds more. Live View, for example, won't automatically use apertures smaller than f/8 (and you need to set the aperture prior to entering Live View if you want to use a larger one). Live View doesn't respect shutter speeds. Instead, it uses ISO adjustment to move exposure, and it does so in third-stop increments that can look "jumpy" on the LCD (and in movies). Finally, Live View doesn't use all the 12mp of the sensor. Instead, Nikon uses a special skip sequence to use only certain photosites for the Live View (and thus D-Movie) mode. This has the impact of turning the camera into a 1mp camera, with all the attendent issues of stairstepping and lack of sampling frequency this entails. Put another way, just off horizontal and vertical lines and detail are compromised. One positive benefit: the sampling points are so far spaced that diffraction won't ever be an issue.
Were those the only problems. Unfortunately, when you move from Live View to recording movies, others appear. The worst? Autofocus no longer works. You can get focus first in Live View before pressing the OK button to start recording a movie, but once the video recording starts, the camera won't do any more focusing on its own.
The reason why videographers all were so interested in the D90 (and later the 5DII when it was announced) is that the large sensors of these DSLRs are so much bigger than the small sensors of almost all affordable HD video cameras (even in the pro ranks), that this would allow things that you can't do with those small sensor cameras. Specifically: get Hollywood feature film style depth of field isolation. f/1.4 on a DSLR produces an extremely shallow DOF that you just can't achieve on most HD camcorders (well, not without very expensive add-ons). The 24 fps choice on the D90 also plays into that "Hollywood" look, as that's the frame rate of the film cameras (video cameras use a 30 fps rate that looks different).
Those of you reading carefully may have already guessed where I'm headed: the problem is that you have to set that fast aperture outside of Live View and then "protect it." Say what?
Remember, Live View doesn't really allow you to change apertures, shutter speeds, or ISO. It wants to use the last two of those to do its exposure setting, and it wants to restrict the aperture to a specific point, too. You have to set apertures outside of Live View if you want to use something specific. The problem is that, once you've picked an aperture and held it, the D90 may start playing with ISO and shutter speed on you. There's no easy way to force the D90 to record a movie at the lowest possible ISO with the fastest possible aperture. True, the video community has developed a bunch of workarounds for this and several other D90 video issues. But those workarounds are convoluted (use a non-CPU lens set to minimum aperture, point at a gray/white source that will establish the base ISO for the exposure, press the AE-L button [set to AE-L hold] to hold that exposure, start Live View, now point the camera at your scene and manually adjust the aperture ring on the lens until you've got the proper exposure for the scene). Yikes.
You can set Picture Controls for your movies (hint: cancel all sharpening). And white balance. But the manual focus, jump-through-hoops-to-hold-ISO-and-exposure aspects are annoying. If you don't jump through hoops, your video will have choppy exposure jumps if anything in the scene changes and may have grain that comes and goes between scenes (due to the use of higher ISOs for low-light scenes).
In essence, the D90 only works for video for two groups: (1) the just-let-the-camera-do-it group who isn't terribly concerned about video quality and that doesn't mind manually focusing; and (2) the high-end videographer who wants to do everything manually and is taking lots of time setting up each shot anyway. Group #1 doesn't exist (they want the camera to focus, too). Group #2 will like the Canon 5DII better, if for no other reason than the extra detail. This leaves the video handling on the D90 appealing to, well, no one.
I could go on, as there are many more little things that are annoying about video, but the point stands: you either are going to be satisfied with what the camera does on its own and you'll just live with the manual focusing, or you'll have to do everything manually to get around the handling problems. Ironically, I think the Coolpix video implementations do a better job.
But start playing with Live View or movies, and you'd better bring plenty of batteries. I'm not quite sure why, but I've gotten somewhat erratic results with movies. Sometimes I do no better than about 30 minutes of video shooting before exhausting the battery, sometimes I can do considerably better. This also points out a detail that was overlooked by Nikon: the Battery info menu item only gives a "picture count" for battery life in addition to the percentage. It would be nice if they had included a Live View/Movie time counter, too.
Writing to Card
This write speed--at least if you're using the correct card--changes the way I think about the D90 buffer. On the D80 I was always concerned about filling the buffer, and thus shot to avoid that circumstance. On the D90, the write speed is fast enough that even when I've filled the buffer with NEFs, I can still get considerably faster that 1 fps out of the camera; call it 1.5 fps. That means if you're a shutter release masher doing a long action sequence, you'll get 4.5 fps until the buffer fills but continue to get better than 1 fps for as long as you hold the shutter release down (up to 100 images; the Nikons always shut down after 100 or so continuous images to keep heat build-up down).
That said, there was a bit of snap to the D90 focusing that wasn't present in the D80. If your subject has enough contrast and is in the sensor area, the D90 does a credible job, and it does a better job of handling moving subjects than the D80 did (but not in Single Point AF, which doesn't track subjects).
Bottom line is that you're more likely to be confused by the three-part focus setting controls (AF/M, AF-S/AF-C/AF-A, Single/Dynamic/Auto/3D) than you'll be disappointed by the performance once you've figured those controls out. Put another way: if you're not getting the focus performance you expected, I strongly suggest that you spend some time examining the controls--you might not be setting the system optimally for what you're trying to do.
White balance is decent to good, especially in mixed lighting. The direct Kelvin settings once again didn't match my Minolta Color Meter and my Imatest measurements, but they're closer than the D300 was (at least before its latest firmware change). The range over which Auto WB works well is more limited than Nikon suggests, though from about 4000K to 6500K it can probably be trusted. I should point out that the Korean camera clubs have been harping about Auto WB (with the D90, D3, D300, and D700), and there's some truth to their comments. Basically, they find that with JPEGs and Auto WB, these cameras are using a desaturation technique on colors that are near neutral in order to "force" a more neutral coloration (see my D700 review for an example).
Everyone expects my basketball shot by now, so I won't let you down:
So, for the main types of noise and high ISO values, the D90 is essentially a mimic of the D300. For critical work I'd want to be at no higher than ISO 800, though ISO 1600 is quite usable for most situations. It's only when we press on to ISO 3200 do we start getting the drabness and noise buildup that starts to make images tough to deal with. Go read what I wrote in my D300 review about noise handling; the D90 is nearly identical.
I don't know of any way to reliably make a perfect calculation of when the airy diffraction disc begins to seriously rob acuity from edges. But I can usually visually see the break point where each smaller stop has a full diffracting impact. On my D80 it seems to be around f/13. On the D90 it is clearly f/11. Beyond f/11 and you'll likely start saying to yourself that the results don't look like you're getting the full impact of more DOF. And at certain settings, the diffraction, noise reduction, and sharpening all start to make hard edges look soft. So stick to f/11 or wider if you can.
Resolution is low in the D90's HD video: small objects that get close to the pixel pitch tend to produce artifacts of many types, including colored moire, which was surprising to me given the skipped photosite sampling. You can't really use sharpening in your Picture Controls with the D90 movies, as this produces visible ghosting and black edge effects on in-focus moving objects, thus an "optimal" D90 movie tends to be a little fuzzy. Indeed, this plays into that "Hollywood look" that some are looking for. Comparing my D90 HD to those from a few consumer camcorders I have available, I'd say that the camcorders tend to do a better, more reliable job in most respects. True, you can't get that depth of field isolation or use a 10.5mm lens on them, but if your goal is sharp, in focus, low artifact movies, the D90 isn't your choice, a camcorder is.
That said, I've seen many very nice videos taken with the D90. However, close examination of them shows you that the videographer was well aware of the issues with the D90 and worked hard to avoid them.
Should You Get a D90?
Bottom line: the D90 a great consumer camera. It doesn't really have the cojones to be a professional's working camera, though it equals the D300's image quality. The build quality, autofocus system, and flexibility of the D300 make it a better choice for the pro; but the price versus performance and well-chosen compromises without compromising image quality make the D90 a better choice for the amateur.
Yes, you can add a grip and get better frame rates and/or battery performance and more size/weight on some of the lower models. Personally, that doesn't make a lot of sense to me (you'll need new batteries and charger, so the cost starts pushing you up to the next level), but it may to you. You gain only modestly in image quality climbing this ladder, and mostly at high ISO levels. My advice is to mentally climb the ladder and get off where the added cost doesn't equal the added benefits in your mind.