Nikon D90 - Review / Test Report - Body Tour
DSLR Reviews - DSLRs

General

Body Quality

Upon the first contact the D90 feels very solid. This impression is reconfirmed by the comparatively heavy weight for a consumer DSLR of around 708g including battery and a SD card and even 1146g with the kit lens. This weighty construction consist of a high quality plastic shell on an internal metal structure while the grip and the thumb-rest on the back are well rubberized.

In other words, the Nikon D90 has a well-conceived body with no creaks or rattles but there is, unfortunately, no weather sealing - one of the primary differentiators compared to the Nikon D300.







Body Handling

The Nikon control concept is convincing and sophisticated, but there is potential for improvement. All main controls are located around the huge rear display plus on the right top and - with the exception of ISO and white balance - can be managed with just one hand. In Addition, the exposure-relevant actions like shutter speed and aperture can be adjusted by the front or the rear dial. This is where the Nikon control concept shows its weakness.
The front and rear dial, are only used in manual exposure mode and one of the dials is left unused in shutter- and aperture-priority mode. Although in this case the unused dial could be used to apply exposure compensation directly, without pressing the corresponding button. The Panasonic DMC-L10 is a good example of how to improve the usability of the two dials.

Furthermore Nikon put the ISO sensitivity button on the left side of the display, making it somehow uncomfortable to change ISO sensitivity while shooting, but this is nothing new in Nikon land. Nevertheless Nikon presents a commendable control concept as there is a button for all regularly used functions.
Beginning on the left side, there is the delete/format button. By pressing this and the metering button simultaneously for approximately two seconds the SD-card will be formatted without entering the menu. This is pretty useful when thinking of the complex menu structure of the Nikon D90. Below this button is the playback- and menu-button located, followed by the white-balance- and the ISO-sensitivity-button. The following white-balance modes are available:

  • Auto (Camera sets white balance automatically)
  • Incandescent (use under incandescent lightning)
  • Fluorescent (use under fluorescent lightning with seven different light sources)
  • Direct sunlight (use with subjects lit by direct sunlight)
  • Flash (use with built-in or optional flash)
  • Cloudy (use in daylight under overcast skies)
  • Shade (use in daylight with subjects in the shade)
  • Color Temperature (choose color temperature from list of values)
  • Preset manual (for using the preset white balance)
Setting up the white balance manually is quite intuitive - just press the white balance button, choose "Preset Manual", aim the Nikon D90 at your WB target and confirm the reading by pressing the shutter release button.
Apart from that setting up the ISO sensitivity is quite extensive, as the ISO values can be selected in steps equivalent to 1/3 EV (200, 250, 320, 400, 500, 640, 800, 1000, 1250, 1600, 2000, 2500, 3200). In theory, a DSLR seems to be more flexible with such a big set of ISO sensitivities, but in practice, it is annoying as normally only full steps are used. For special exposure conditions ISO sensitivity can be lowered in three steps below ISO 200 (L0.3, L0.7, L1.0 equivalent to ISO 160, 125, 100) or raised above ISO 3200 (H0.3, H0.7, H1.0 equivalent to ISO 4000, 5000, 6400). While lowering the ISO sensitivity is useful in very bright conditions and has no noticeable impact on image quality, raising ISO sensitivity is subject to noise and color distortion and is not recommended at all. The last button on the left side is the image quality button for choosing the image quality (JPEG, RAW) and the file size (fine, normal, basic).

On the right side of the display there is the focus lock-, followed by the live view button and the multi selector including the OK button. Below this is the focus selector lock button, which prevents the selected focus point from changing and the information-/ quick setting-display button, which shows more detailed information on the big display shown on the control panel.

At the top of the Nikon D90 are further controls around the control panel. Besides the shutter release button, which is embedded in the power switch, are the metering-, exposure compensation-, release mode- and the autofocus mode-buttons. The metering mode button can be used to switch between three common metering modes:
  • 3D Color Matrix (judging the allocation of brightness on the whole screen)
  • Center Weighted (center of the screen, measures the whole screen evenly)
  • Spot (measures a limited narrow area in the center of the screen)
Continuing with the release mode button, which determines one of the following drive modes:
  • single frame (one photograph each time the shutter-release button is pressed)
  • Continuous low speed (1-4 frames per second while shutter-release button is held down)
  • Continuous high speed (up to 4.5 frames per second while shutter-release button is held down)
  • Self-timer
  • Delayed remote (with self-timer, optional ML-L3 remote control required)
  • Quick response (Optional ML-L3 remote control required)
Finally, the autofocus button helps to switch between the common servo modes:
  • AF-A - Autoselect (D90 automatically selects single- or continuous-servo AF)
  • AF-S - Single-servo AF (for stationary subjects)
  • AF-C - Continuous-servo AF (for moving subjects)
Typical for this class of DSLR, the Nikon D90 has a control panel and a 3-inch high-resolution LCD monitor. The LCD monitor with 920.000 dots is of excellent quality and is ideal in combination with the zoom function (8 steps up to 27x magnification) to evaluate accuracy exposure, even in bright sunlight.
The menu action layout is straight forward and in line with what we're used to, but can be exhausting as the menu options are nearly unlimited.

The Nikon D90 offers an interesting set of retouch functionalities, including e.g. D-Lightning, Red-eye correction, distortion control and even RAW processing. This functionality is very intuitive and useful for quick retouch, but not a substitute for good old image postprocessing at the computer.
Finally the Nikon D90 provides different options for image reviews, including an RGB histogram and a clipping functionality.

Obviously, the Nikon D90 includes "all you need to fuel your passion for photography".


Viewfinder

The viewfinder has a coverage of approx. 96%, a magnification of approx. 0.94x and a dioptre correction from -2 to +1. Unremarkable specifications for one of the best viewfinders in the APS-C DSLR class but spectacle wearers would appreciate a reduced eye point.
This large and bright viewfinder comes with a built-in advanced focusing screen display, a useful technology from Nikon’s flagship digital SLRs. According to Nikon "this feature is capable of displaying superimposed on-demand grid lines over the viewfinder display, and is convenient for composing shots."



I would prefer grid lines featuring the rule of the thirds instead of three vertical and three horizontal lines, but nevertheless this is a helpful gimmick supporting creative photography.

Live View

Like all other current DSLR in its class, the Nikon D90 provides real-time viewing of the scene via the camera's TFT display instead of an optical viewfinder. Nikon's Live View feature belongs to the intuitive ones but unfortunately not to the fastest.
After pressing the live-view button the mirror pops up, the display shows the scene with almost 100% coverage and the rest is analogous to the use of the viewfinder with the possibility of taking Motion JPEG movies.
Optionally you can also superimpose a grid for compositional purposes. Furthermore, it is also possible to zoom in or out of your scene by pressing the zoom-in/-out button, magnifying the display format up to 6.7x. This is pretty useful for manual focusing in Live-View mode, for example.
Focusing in LiveView mode is only possible via the so-called "Contrast-detect AF", which means the conventional AF system is unfortunately not supported. The "Contrast-detect AF" is normally quite fast, but the Nikon D90's live view AF seems comparatively slow.

Battery

Nikon states that the established li-ion battery EN-EL3e is good enough for approximately 850 shots according to CIPA standard and it seems to be a reasonable estimation based on what we've seen in the field. However when using Live View Mode on a regular basis the battery life decreases noticeably. The supplied battery charger MH-18a takes approx 2 hours for charging which is quite fast. Nikon is a great example in respect to backward-compatibility, as the battery can be used with the Nikons D50, D70, D70s, D80, D100, D200, D300 and D700.

Pop-up Flash

The built-in flash unit is TTL-controlled and works fine in combination with the kit lens. The guide number of approx 18 is quite impressive for a built-in flash. The Nikon D90 supports fill-flash, rear-curtain sync, front-curtain sync, slow sync and red-eye reduction with a maximum sync speed of 1/200s. This is not overly speedy and slightly slow for this class. Furthermore the flash pops up automatically when taking pictures in automatic mode.

Speed

The operational speed of the Nikon D90 is impressive. The camera powers up virtually instantly without any delays and it can shoot continuously up to 4.5 pictures per second and up to 11 frames in succession (with a 8GB Sandisk Extreme III), before the frame rate slows down due to the memory buffer. On top of that Nikon has limited the maximum number of continuous frames to 100.

AF Performance

The AF speed and the accuracy of the Nikon D90 are exceptional, even in dark conditions. The excellent AF speed also shows up in continuous AF mode. In addition Nikon provides an AF sensor handshaking during object tracking, so if you're losing your target, the AF won't start to hunt in no-mans land.

Metering systems

The metering systems offers something special beyond what we are used to from a other consumer DSLRs. Beside the conventional evaluative (3D Color Matrix), center-weighted and spot metering, Active D-Lighting is available. Active D-Lighting is a useful function for high contrast scenes and preserves details in highlights as well as in shadows. Active D-Lighting can be selected from Auto, Extra high, High, Normal, Low, or Off and delivers pretty reliable images in combination with the evaluative system, even for tricky scenes.



Dust Removal System

DSLR sensors are very prone to collecting dust and make anti-sensor-dust systems an important feature in today's DSLRs. Nikon's dust reduction system consists of a vibrating low pass filter to prevent dust and debris on the sensor. This solution performs well in ordinary daily life, but we will keep it rolling and give you an update on Nikon's dust reduction system after during our long-term test.

Video Functionality

Movie functionality has reached the DSLR world and the Nikon D90 shows an user friendly implementation of this new feature. The motion JPEGs (AVI-Format) can be recorded in three different sizes from 320x216px and 640x424px up to 1280x720px (=HD 720p), with a common rate of 24 frames per second.
Taking videos with a DSLR feels slightly strange, but the results are well-above avarage and not comparable to the small, low quality movies from digital compact cameras.
But besides that, the Nikon D90 is no substitution for a digital video camera, as there are problems with fast moving objects (slight stuttering) and bad sound quality. Even worse there's no AF available during recording although manual focusing is still an option.

I guess you're also interested in some samples taken in the real world. Here we go - the first sample was recorded in dark lighting conditions.

The second sample gives you an idea of recording moving objects. The annoying sound quality is due to the heavy wind...






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