Who would’ve thought? Nikon, a decidedly still image capture company, was the first to design a D-SLR that takes high-definition video. Until now, no D-SLR could capture video of any type unlike point-and-shoot digicams which have taken clips for years. This breakthrough is pretty startling. One would’ve thought Sony or Panasonic—true video outfits—would have blazed this trail but it was venerable Nikon of 35mm film fame. Soon after the D90 was announced, archrival Canon unveiled the EOS 5D Mark II D-SLR which also takes HD clips. This monster, due late November, is a 21.1-megapixel full frame D-SLR while the D90 is only a 12.3MP APS-C sized sensor edition. In other words, the 5D Mark II is a completely different animal and costs many times more than the $999 USD D90. (Actually it’s 2.7 times more as the new 5D is $2,699 for the body only). Still—on paper–this new Nikon has many things going for it: 12.3MP resolution, 4.5 frames per second burst shooting, 3200 ISO, a nice 3-inch LCD screen as well as the ability to record 1280 x 720-pixel HD video at 24 fps. Now let’s see if the D90 is a winner.
Features and Design
I received the D90 in kit form with its 18-105mm VR lens. Clicking it into position with the supplied lens hood on, the camera looks and feels solid with a substantial grip. The body with battery tips the scales at 25.2 ounces; add the lens and it’s 41. As we always say, carrying a D-SLR around is a commitment but the payoff in picture quality and speed is well worth it.
The front looks like practically ever other Nikon D-SLR with a large logo on the flash cover, D90 nomenclature on the right and the whimsical red accent on the grip. The camera has a Nikon F bayonet mount and all functions work with AF Nikkor lenses. It’ll handle other Nikon lenses but some of the features may not work automatically. The Nikon site has all the details. Since this camera has an APS-C sensor (Nikon calls it the DX format) there’s a digital or crop factor of 1.5x when you attach the lens. So that supplied 18-105mm is actually 27-157.7mm in 35mm terms. Nikon has tons of optional glass but this is a good starter range with a nice wide angle for landscapes and decent telephoto. Play with it before hitting the credit card limit.
On the front you’ll also see the lens release button with the AF/Manual lens switch, BKT (bracket), flash/flash compensation keys on the right side of the lens mount. The three pinhole mic is here too. There’s an AF Assist/self-timer lamp near the grip with the FN (function) and depth-of-field preview button below it. On the grip is a jog wheel for making menu adjustments.
The top of the camera has something that immediately separates it from the entry-level—an LCD readout so you can quickly see your settings. It’s much easier looking down than bringing the camera to your face and checking the LCD screen on the back. If you’re shooting in low light, just flick the on/off ring around the shutter button and it’ll light up, a nice little touch.
To the right of the display are a variety of buttons. AF lets you adjust the type of auto focus (for still or moving subjects), Release is for single, burst or remote control shooting, Exposure Compensation lets you do that and Metering gives you options for Color Matrix, center weighted or spot. There’s a hot shoe in the center and a mode dial on the far left. The dial has the usual settings: Auto, Program AE, Manual, Shutter/Aperture Priority, Flash Off and a variety of scene modes—Portrait, Macro, Sports and so on.
The rear is dominated by a large 3-inch LCD rated 921K pixels, about the best you’ll see in 2008. This is a major step up from the 10MP D80 with its 2.5-inch display. Nikon supplies a plastic cover for the screen to prevent scratches and you can use a handy sleeve to wipe off finger prints without worrying. This screen shows the very intelligently designed menu system. I hadn’t tested a Nikon D-SLR for some time and the difference between displays was dramatic. Well done, guys. Directly above the screen is a viewfinder surrounded by a rubber eyecup. The viewfinder has 96% coverage and a diopter control for fine tuning to your eyesight.
For the most part, the controls surrounding the LCD are typical of any D-SLR. On the left are Delete, Playback, Menu, White Balance and ISO. A Quality button lets you adjust image size by turning the jog wheel on the back. On the right are AE-L/AF-L (exposure and focus lock), Lv for Live View and the D-Movie mode, a four-way controller with center OK button, a focus selector lock and an Info button to quickly check your settings.
On the grip side, you’ll find the SD/SDHC card slot and a very tiny speaker. The left has a variety of inputs/outputs under a surprisingly flimsy door—DC-in, USB, mini HDMI and A/V out as well as an accessory terminal in a separate smaller compartment. This door has GPS on it so if you buy the optional GP-1 (due November, price TBA), you can record the latitude, longitude, altitude and so on so you’ll know exactly where you took your shot. The GPS fits into the hot shoe. On then bottom of the camera is the battery compartment and metal tripod.
What’s In The Box
If you opt for $999 USD body only version, the D90 is packaged with a rechargeable Li-ion battery, quick charger, eyepiece cap, rubber eyecup, USB and A/V cables (no HDMI), strap, LCD monitor cover, body cap, accessory shoe cover and software CD-ROM with Nikon Transfer and ViewNX for handling images. There’s also a 56-page pocket Quick Guide for carrying around and a huge 280-page printed Owner’s Manual for your desk. As a $1,299 USD kit you’ll also get the 18-105mm VR (Vibration Reduction) lens. Since this camera is in pretty high demand, don’t expect huge discounts. We saw it for around $50 off with free shipping from a reputable online source.
Once the battery was charged and a 4 gig Class 4 SDHC card loaded, it was time to capture images and HD video.
Image Courtesy of Nikon
Performance and Use
The Nikon D90 is a 12.3-megapixel D-SLR so it captures 4288 x 2848 pixel images as JPEG and/or RAW files. This size image can readily make a 13×19 print. As noted earlier, the camera also takes high-def video clips rate 1280 x
720 at 24 fps. Unlike SD-card based HD camcorders that can record to the length of the card at a single setting, the D90 is limited to 5 minutes at a shot. This might be a deal breaker for some but if you seriously want to record a lot of high-def footage you’re going to use a camcorder. That said 5 minutes of action is typically plenty for a single scene. There are other issues with the video but we’ll get to them shortly.
This is first and foremost a camera and we wanted to give it a serious workout, especially since the D90 can crank off 4.5 frames per second at full resolution (versus 3 at 10MP for the D80, and 3.5 for the 12.2MP Canon EOS XSi, both less expensive than the D90 however). As outlined by the feature section the D90 can be as sophisticated or simple as you’d like. I began in Auto mode, when to various scene settings then tried a variety of manual tweaks. Still were shot as RAW+JPEG and JPEG. After that it was time to use the D-Movie mode.
Image Courtesy of Nikon
Since the HD capability is really what makes this D-SLR stand apart, let’s deal with that first. As DT readers know, I also review HD camcorders for the site so this was going to be fun. With a camcorder, you power it up, turn it to Auto, hit the record button and zoom away. Things are not quite as simple here. Yes, you can get into the D-Movie setting by just hitting the Lv (Live View) key. The internal mirror pops up and you frame your scene on the 3-inch LCD which is cool. Zoom in on the subject and kit OK and you can take a 5 minute clip at max resolution (720p versus 1080i of Editor’s Choice camcorders like the Canon Vixia HG21). This is all well and good but there’s a big time ouch coming next—you cannot use auto focus when shooting video. You have to switch to MF then use the ring on the lens to dial it in. This is OK for a static subject but if you’re shooting a child running you better get your skills up to that of a Hollywood cameraman. Can you learn to do it without shaking the camera too much? Probably but as they say in Brooklyn, this ain’t no camcorder. Also the quality is good but doesn’t compare to an HD video maker but that’s really asking too much since the cheapest high-def camcorder costs $799—and it certainly doesn’t take 12-megapixel stills.
The D90 saves clips as AVI files so although I could check out the stills on my Panasonic plasma with its SD card reader, video was a no go. Fortunately the camera has a mini HDMI out; unfortunately it’s optional but I had one nearby. Again, unfortunately the quality is not nearly as good as some of the better camcorders I’ve tested recently. Colors were off with jaggies galore. Still I have to Nikon credit for trying. This is definitely version 1.0 of this system so expect improvements in the months ahead.
Now let me get to something the Nikon D90 does really well—take photographs. Simply put: I haven’t had so much fun using a camera in a long time. And I had forgotten how good Nikon optics can be. Let me state upfront I dug my photographic bones with the classic Nikon F2 35mm film camera and always loved it (it’s safely stored in a closet so my heirs will probably sell it on eBay as an antique!). But times change and I’ve used dozens of cameras since then. The D90 brought me back. I enjoyed working the many, many options that are far too numerous to list here. Just go to the Nikon site and you’ll be buried in data. I especially liked the rapid frame rate and shooting in available light at high ISOs. Suffice it to say the proof was in the prints. Since Fall had arrived and leaves were turning with nearby mums blooming, colors beckoned. I also took shots of a still life at ISOs ranging from 200-3200. After easily downloading shots via Nikon Transfer I made a series of 8.5×11 full bleed prints with no tweaking on a Canon MX7600. The results were very good. Colors were spot on with a very natural true-to-life feel. They looked just right. What was amazing was the lack of digital noise at even the highest ISOs. It wasn’t until I moved from 2000 to 3200 that I noticed any that detracted from the photos. They were probably the most noise-free digital images I’ve seen outside of a full-frame D-SLR like the Canon EOS 5D.
The D90 as a camera is terrific. It focuses quickly, has zippy 4.5 fps burst mode, has more adjustments than you could possibly handle in a lifetime plus it takes fine photos with barely a hint of noise. As a camcorder, the D90 doesn’t make it. Yes it can take a fairly decent clip but they pale in comparison to a true HD video maker. And the lack of auto focus is a real inconvenience. I can easily recommend the D90 as a top-shelf 2008 D-SLR. Just don’t expect it to be the ultimate two-in-one device. The search for that Holy Grail goes on.
• Wonderful quality stills
• Minimal noise at high ISOs
• Great burst mode
• Excellent kit lens
• No AF in video mode