Nikon D90 Review

by Enche Tjin on September 8, 2009

I have used Nikon D90 as backup camera for several months. My impression is this is the ideal mid range DSLR camera. It is has most of the features you need, has great ergonomic and handling. But the most important of all is the excellent image quality especially in ISO 800 and above.

Body and Handling

Nikon_d90_frontUnlike its main competitor Canon 40D, Nikon D90 is not built from magnesium alloy, but it is still very solid and sturdy. There is no rubber grip like Nikon D300 or Canon 40D either. But texturized plastic is not bad either.

I feel the size of the camera is ideal for DSLR, it is not big, but not small. It fits in my hand like glove (I have average male hand). It is not heavy but substantial enough and well-balanced when you shoot low shutter speed without tripod or when you mount it with a heavy/long lens.

Nikon D90 has two dials, one to set aperture, the other to set shutter speed or any other setting. Unlike Canon or other cameras handling, Nikon camera requires you to press and hold the button and at the same time dial the setting that you like. This might be annoying if you are not used to it. It is made so to avoid user changing setting accidentally.

It also has four way controllers which function to change auto focus points or choosing options in the menu. D90 also has dedicated live view button to activated live view for either still photography or for movie recording. There is a dedicated info button to activate various important setting for the camera. By pressing the info button twice, you can view and change setting of some useful setting such as picture control, noise reduction setting,  active d-lighting, assign function and AE-L/AF-L buttons.

The function button can be assigned to many useful setting such as particular metering mode, ISO speed, central focus point, RAW+JPG and some others. The AE-L/AF-L buttons can be assigned to be AF-ON, AE lock only, AF lock only, and some others.

D90’s viewfinder is not the best because (95% coverage). But it is big enough for me to manual focus accurately in many situations.

Least but not all, It has very good top LCD screen that shows a great deal of information: ISO, aperture, shutter speed, metering, picture quality, auto focus mode, battery, continuous shooting, white balance and also the current auto focus point position.

The only complaint about handling and control is there is no dedicated button for ISO. The position of ISO button is too low in the bottom of the camera, thus making changing ISO is painful and slow.

ISO and Auto ISO

nikon-d90-backImage quality in high ISO is very good, but it is best to shoot at ISO 800 and below. The great image quality in high ISO is due to Nikon sensor and software that control the chroma/color noise out of the image. The noise in Nikon looks more natural compared to camera of other brand.

What I like most is the Auto ISO limiter. You can effectively limit the ISO and minimum shutter speed. The Auto ISO works very well and accurate most of the time. My favorite way to use this is to set the camera to Auto ISO, and then use Aperture mode and let the camera adjust the rest for me.

LCD Screen

It is 3″ LCD Screen with 920k res which is standard for mid range camera in the late 2008 and 2009 camera. It is very detailed and relatively good in bright light condition.

Menu
Like other Nikon cameras, I feel Nikon menu is pretty confusing because they throw all over items regardless if the item is popular item or not. Therefore, it might take you some time to find some of your favorite menu items. To be fair, Nikon has my menu tab, where you can choose and put the menu item in this tab. Overall, I feel menu could be improved. Canon cameras menu for example, is easier, more logical and simple to navigate.

Auto Focus system & Continuous shooting speed

Nikon D90 has 11 AF points. Not the best compared to older brother D300, 51 AF points, but it has 3D tracking that is pretty accurate. The AF speed also depends on what kind of Nikon lens you use. Old Nikon lenses usually slower in AF, same as customer grade AF-S lens like 35mm AF-S f/1.8G lens.

D90 has continuous shooting speed above the entry level camera (4.5 fps) but it is still not very ideal for sports photography or bird photography (6 fps or better).

Creative Lighting System & Lens Compatibility

Unlike lower class Nikon cameras such as Nikon D3000 and Nikon D5000 or older models, Nikon D90 have built-in wireless commander/trigger for Nikon flash units. The CLS system is not perfect because it won’t work in certain position and situation, for example in bright daylight, in a great distance, or if the line of sight to the flashes are blocked. But, CLS is fun to use and save you money. Nikon D90 also has built-in AF motor so it is compatible with older Nikon AF-D lenses which we often found in fixed focal length lenses / primes.

Video Mode

Nikon D90 is the first DSLR that has video mode. It record 720p quality video. Although it is not as practical as camcorder, because you need to manual focus and it is hard to stabilized the camera, It is great in low light situation and you can create truly creative video with very shallow depth of view with this camera (using appropiate lenses).

Competitors

In 2009, the competitors of Nikon D90 includes Canon 40D. Their price is almost similar, but the function is a bit different. 40D has tougher magnesium alloy body and faster continuous shooting speed, so 40D is best for sports. But in other aspects, Nikon D90 beats Canon 40D. Read: Nikon D90 vs Canon 40D.

The new Sony A550 also threaten the Nikon D90 position. Sony A550 claims to improve their image quality in high ISO and have up to 5-7 fps continuous speed (AE/AF lock situation).

Conclusion

Sold slightly below $900 body only now, the Nikon D90 is the best digital SLR camera in mid-range category. Like Nikon D70 and D80, I bet this camera will remain very popular for the next few years.  It is great for backup camera for your full frame camera as well. If I have to choose to keep only one DSLR camera for play and work, I will choose to keep  this camera.

Sample images shot by Nikon D90

ISO 640, 70mm at f/2.8, 1/125

ISO 640, 70mm at f/2.8, 1/125

ISO 640, f/1.4, 85mm, 1/125

ISO 640, f/1.4, 85mm, 1/125

ISO 450, 85mm f/2.5, 1/125

ISO 450, 85mm f/2.5, 1/125

More pictures at my portfolio galleries

Main specifications

  • 12 Megapixel image resolution
  • Live view mode & video recording 720p
  • 3″ LCD screen, 920k resolution
  • Creative Lighting system / wireless flash commander
  • 4.5 fps continuous shooting speed
  • 11 AF points with 3D tracking

Subjective Rating – Relative to crop sensor DLSR cameras

  • Image Quality: 5/5
  • Features: 5/5
  • Performance: 4/5
  • Body and Handling: 4/5
  • Value for money: 5/5
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{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Dave September 12, 2009 at 10:30 pm

From everything I’ve read this is the camera for me. However, that new Panasonic GF1 has some neat features not found on the D90, plus it’s a lot smaller. I wonder if the image quality will be much different between the two? Thanks for the review.

admin September 12, 2009 at 11:46 pm

Because they have almost similar sensor size, the image quality will be similar. Because the the m43 has smaller sensor, the image won’t be as clean as the D90 in high ISO. D90 has advantage of approximately 1 stop.

About the size, if you are coming from compact camera, it is a pretty significant change. Even you get GF1, you are not able to put your camera in your pocket anymore. You might need a waist belt, or just hang the camera with strap with you when you walk. But the weight of GF1 and lens is significantly lighter than D90 or any other DSLR cameras.

My other concern about Panny GF1 or Oly E-P1 is about the use of LCD screen as a mean to compose picture. If you use GF1, you will likely to compose picture with back LCD screen like in compact cameras.

For me, composing with back LCD screen is hard because of the glare and reflection. GF1 does come with live viewfinder, but that viewfinder cost several hundred bucks, very tiny (almost half the size of regular DSLR viewfinder) and low res.

The major advantage of DSLR in practice compared to GF1 is the handling and control. It is very fast and easy to change settings and auto focus points. There is also a viewfinder. Viewfinder is nice in outdoor setting to compose shot because they are not reflective and they are through the lens meaning you are actually see the the subject. They are also more responsive. But they are big.

The other alternative for you is the G1. It is only around US$625 now with 14-45mm lens. It is bigger than GF1 because it has viewfinder hump & flash, pistol grip and swivel LCD. The screen has 1.4 million pixel which is almost as clear and as big as DSLR camera. In practice you might appreciate the pistol grip especially when you mount it with longer and heavier lens.

However, if you plan to shoot prime / pancake 20mm /1.7, then it won’t matter. Image quality is the same as GF1 but you won’t get video recording feature.

If else fails to satisfy you try to get advanced compact with manual setting, such as Canon S90, Samsung WB1000/TL320 or Panasonic LX3.

Dave September 13, 2009 at 8:41 am

Thanks Enche, great advice. Earlier in the summer I was all ready to pull the rigger on an LX3, but with rumours abound about the GF1 I decided to wait. The one drawback with the LX3 is it’s only 2.5x zoom.

That new Canon S90 looks really nice. I also like the upcoming G11, for its swivel screen.

Part of the attraction to the 4/3rds cameras is the LCD screen, since that’s how I’m used to composing my shots. Right now I have a small Panny LZ2 that’s years old.

Realistically, though, the D90 might be a better “long run” camera. My plans include taking a photography class in November – one of many I plan to take. The prerequisite is you have to own a dSLR. The GF1 would do, of course. They are really more concerned that you own a camera with full manual controls. If I want to get into photography in a serious way, however, then the D90 would be my best bet, I think.

Another camera I like is that Oly E620. It sells for the same price as the Panny G1 here in Canada, around $800. I find it actually feels better in my hands than the Panny G1. Not sure about the image quality, though.

I also hear that the larger sensors on dSLRs, such as the D90 or Canon 50D or T1i, offer better dynamic range overall.

Bottom line, with so much to choose from, it’s tough making a decision.

admin September 13, 2009 at 8:52 am

yes I agree. Have you heard a site call http://www.dxomark.com? if you believe in scientific testing about dynamic range and sensor quality you should check the site and compare cameras side by side.

Dave September 13, 2009 at 9:58 am

Thanks, I’ll check it out.

OtherDave January 7, 2010 at 4:09 am

Thanks for the discourse guys, I am facing the same question right now Dave. I had a basic Pentax KM setup years ago so some of the manual issues still ring a bell. I have been through 2 compact digitals since so I have gotten a bit lazy with a lot of the finer points in creating pictures. I am being tempted towards the DSLR’s and considering the 4/3’s as well (GH1 tops that list for me). I agree that the Nikon or Canon move would be better for advancing into photography as there is a much larger offering of lenses and accessories than is currently available for the 4/3’s group. But I am still intrigued by the GH1 package especially considering its video capability. After having been spoiled by my Panny TZ5’s performance in a compact size, I find it hard to commit to a larger package of photo equipment. I guess I am looking for larger sensor, raw files, manual controls, wider wide angle and future flexibility while keeping the size to a minimum. I also want to keep the $ to a reasonable level. I think the GH1 with the 14-140 zoom and 7-14 wide zoom would be a nice package on its own but I have to consider what I could get for the same price point (about $3000 Canadian) with Nikon or Canon. Thanks to Admin for the heads up on the http://www.dxomark.com site, I will check it out too. Cheers

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