November 29, 2008

Nikon D-90 Mini Review

Photo by Scott Bourne

Photo by Scott Bourne - Nikon D90, Nikon 14-24 F/2.8 lens - handheld - ISO 400shot at 14mm - F/8 - 1/2000th of a second

Let me say this right off the bat. The D90 is not a perfect camera, but in my opinion, it’s one of the best DSLRs you can buy for less than $1000 IF – your primary concern is image quality. If you’re buying it because it’s sturdy, or because it does video, (I’ll get to that,) or for ergonomics, maybe it’s no better than any similarly-priced camera.

First-let’s talk about the D90 as a still camera.

This is an all-new product on the inside. It doesn’t just cannibalize other Nikon gear. It’s a 12.3 Megapixel CMOS sensor with a 4.5 FPS burst mode. It offers live view on a lovely three-inch LCD. It also offers Nikon’s cool Active D Lighting which improves dynamic range.

I tested the D90 with several high-quality lenses and found it to work well with all of them, including the Sigma 300-800. I installed the spare battery grip, but I did find the standard battery life to be incredibly good. Double incredibly good with the grip. I shot on and off for two full days and the batteries still had juice into the next morning.

And the grip – the Nikon MD-80 is where I ran into my first big disappointment with this camera, and Nikon in general. How can I put this delicately – well I can’t. The grip is a gigantic piece of crap. In fact, I have no hesitation saying it’s the cheapest (and I don’t mean price), most poorly designed and manufactured piece of photo gear I’ve EVER owned. The door on the back of the grip where you insert the batteries broke within 20 minutes of use. I highly recommend avoiding this grip unless you absolutely need it, and then, I’d recommend a different camera. It’s that bad.

Back to the body. . . The D90 does have a built-in motor so you can use most any Nikon lens on it. It also comes with a dust-reduction system (yea) and a built-in popup flash.

The LCD screen is the same as the D700 screen and it’s fabulous. I tried live view mode using the LCD and found it very easy to compose and gauge my shots.

In field tests, I was able to get nine shots off in RAW only mode before the buffer filled. Quite satisfactory for a camera in this price range.

Image-wize, the camera performs very, very well. Colors are accurate and the images are full of detail. While it doesn’t offer the same kind of high-ISO/low-noise performance of the D3 or D700, shots made at ISO 800 look great and 1600 is useable.

The autofocus was good, and while not up to the specs of the pro bodies like the D3, autofocus speed and accuracy was better than expected.

There were a few things I’d prefer to change. The camera is plastic, so if you’re used to the rugged D700 or D3 you need to be careful with the D90. There are more menus and nested menus than ever. And the JPEGs out of the camera leave something to be desired. Shooting RAW is required to get the most out of the D90.

Noise performance is typical in a camera in this price range, but far better than similarly-positioned mid-range cameras were just a few years ago.

Now about the movie mode.

The movie mode is an incredible idea. This is the first DSLR that also shoots real 720p HD video. (There’s even an on-board HDMI port – a rarity in this price range.) The process of recording video isn’t very intuitive. It’s obvious that this camera was designed for still photography NOT video. The ergonomics are not terrible for shooting video, but could be better. And the results? If you’re patient, great at manual focus (the D90 autofocus is switched off in movie mode) and you shoot from a tripod, you can make good video with this device. But it will take some practice. After numerous tries, I haven’t been able to focus the camera for video so I gave up on it.

While I appreciate the bonus of the movie mode, it’s important to note that I wouldn’t buy this camera just because of that. You can get a much better-quality, dedicated digital camcorder for $1000. The lack of an audio input other than the built-in mic, and no control whatsoever over aperture and shutter speed eliminate many cool tricks that could be done with this camera.

That said, I can see a whole bunch of cool videos being made with it anyway…much the way people take advantage of a Holga camera’s flaws to make a creative statement, people will be able to do the same thing with video on the D90. I just won’t be one of those people.

I do believe this camera is ground-breaking in that it shows a huge interest in the convergence between still and video. And I expect the next Nikon DSLR (that offers video) will have an even more advanced, refined and valuable approach to shooting video. But the execution leaves a lot to be desired in my opinion.

NOTE: I had trouble working with the movie files (they appear to be AVI’s) in Final Cut Pro. So I imported them into Streamclip, a free utility that converts them into .mov files that worked well in both Final Cut Pro and iMovie. You should also note that Nikon doesn’t supply any movie conversion or editing software with the D90.

CONCLUSION

I am both excited and disappointed by the D90. As a mid-range DSLR, it’s a great buy. As a video camera, it’s a waste of money. The cheap, low-quality spare battery grip also was a real disappointment. But in this price range, I can’t think of a better choice for now, so if you’re in the market, give the D90 a try.

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This post sponsored by the Digital SLR Store

Join the conversation! 48 Comments

  1. Love the no nonsense review, thanks for your honesty

    Reply
  2. Love the no nonsense review, thanks for your honesty

    Reply
  3. Wow finally….I’ve been waiting for your review for 2 weeks now :) I was also hoping for some sample pic’s from your test shoot, but it’s here now so Thank You!

    Well I’ve been looking forward for this DSLR mainly because of the new guts and the added bonus of video. I’m upgrading form a D40 so would you recommend this, or this too big a jump too soon?

    Reply
  4. Wow finally….I’ve been waiting for your review for 2 weeks now :) I was also hoping for some sample pic’s from your test shoot, but it’s here now so Thank You!

    Well I’ve been looking forward for this DSLR mainly because of the new guts and the added bonus of video. I’m upgrading form a D40 so would you recommend this, or this too big a jump too soon?

    Reply
  5. I was hoping your review was going to be ok, as i’m getting a D90 for xmas.
    Not bothered about the video, but as this is my first DSLR i was hoping i’d made a good choice.
    Great podcasts as well! Cheers Scott.

    Reply
  6. I was hoping your review was going to be ok, as i’m getting a D90 for xmas.
    Not bothered about the video, but as this is my first DSLR i was hoping i’d made a good choice.
    Great podcasts as well! Cheers Scott.

    Reply
  7. I just switched from Canon to a D90. I bought the kit lens and the 70-200 f2.8. I am very happy with the purchase and look forward to upgrading to a D3 like camera in a few years. I do feel the movie mode is more of a gimmick at this point. And if the worse thing you can say about the D90 is that an accessory is cheap and that it’s not a D700 or a D3, considering those cameras are a multiple more expensive, it sounds like the D90 is a great camera.

    Reply
  8. I just switched from Canon to a D90. I bought the kit lens and the 70-200 f2.8. I am very happy with the purchase and look forward to upgrading to a D3 like camera in a few years. I do feel the movie mode is more of a gimmick at this point. And if the worse thing you can say about the D90 is that an accessory is cheap and that it’s not a D700 or a D3, considering those cameras are a multiple more expensive, it sounds like the D90 is a great camera.

    Reply
  9. The D90 is my first DSLR camera. I bought it primary for still image quality. And I have not been disappointed. I don’t have a whole lot to compare it to, but it really is a nice camera to use. It is fast, easy to use, and it has really let me take some great pictures in less than perfect situations. I have a 4 week old newborn, and I am yet to use a flash, even in the darkest rooms. I’m able to get “usable” natural light photos, without hurting my sons eyes with a flash.

    I have tested the video, and Scott is pretty much on the mark. It’s hard to pull focus precisely, and without a stable shot, you get CMOS warping. But, I have a 30 second video of my son looking around 20 minutes after being born. I think that was worth it. I didn’t buy this camera for the video, but I’ll use it in a pinch.

    Reply
  10. The D90 is my first DSLR camera. I bought it primary for still image quality. And I have not been disappointed. I don’t have a whole lot to compare it to, but it really is a nice camera to use. It is fast, easy to use, and it has really let me take some great pictures in less than perfect situations. I have a 4 week old newborn, and I am yet to use a flash, even in the darkest rooms. I’m able to get “usable” natural light photos, without hurting my sons eyes with a flash.

    I have tested the video, and Scott is pretty much on the mark. It’s hard to pull focus precisely, and without a stable shot, you get CMOS warping. But, I have a 30 second video of my son looking around 20 minutes after being born. I think that was worth it. I didn’t buy this camera for the video, but I’ll use it in a pinch.

    Reply
  11. @Scott

    I was just wondering how exactly the battery grip broke. I’ve been using that grip with my D80 for over a year without any problems with it. Do you think its possible you received a defective grip?

    Reply
  12. @Scott

    I was just wondering how exactly the battery grip broke. I’ve been using that grip with my D80 for over a year without any problems with it. Do you think its possible you received a defective grip?

    Reply
  13. Scott, how would you compare the D90 to the D300? I’m thinking of buying a 300 for my next body and I was wondering if it’s apples to oranges?

    Jason

    Reply
  14. Scott, how would you compare the D90 to the D300? I’m thinking of buying a 300 for my next body and I was wondering if it’s apples to oranges?

    Jason

    Reply
  15. I’m allready thinking about buying a D90 next year because my D40 has some limits to it and the D90 would make those limits undone.
    And now that u gave it such a good review i’m shure i gonna buy one.

    Reply
  16. I’m allready thinking about buying a D90 next year because my D40 has some limits to it and the D90 would make those limits undone.
    And now that u gave it such a good review i’m shure i gonna buy one.

    Reply
  17. My sentiments exactly …. feels sort of “cheap” in your hands, tried at the camera store. Images I took home on my card turned out nice though and the movie mode doesn’t cut the mustard unless you use a tripod and find an alternative for the sound.
    On the whole I find it a bit to expensive for what you get

    Reply
  18. My sentiments exactly …. feels sort of “cheap” in your hands, tried at the camera store. Images I took home on my card turned out nice though and the movie mode doesn’t cut the mustard unless you use a tripod and find an alternative for the sound.
    On the whole I find it a bit to expensive for what you get

    Reply
  19. Scott,
    Thanks for the review. I have had this camera for about a month now, having upgraded from the D80. I am loving it. The live view mode is a real bonus when composing shots in which getting my face to the viewfinder would be difficult. Recently useful when hanging over the top of a waterfall or getting a low angle shot just above a creek that I, otherwise, would have had to lay down in to get the shot.
    I am sorry, though, about your experience with the grip. That grip also worked with the D80 so I have been using it for a couple of years and it has performed flawlessly. I have to wonder if you didn’t get a grip with a defect.

    Thanks again for the daily work you put in on this site.

    Reply
  20. Scott,
    Thanks for the review. I have had this camera for about a month now, having upgraded from the D80. I am loving it. The live view mode is a real bonus when composing shots in which getting my face to the viewfinder would be difficult. Recently useful when hanging over the top of a waterfall or getting a low angle shot just above a creek that I, otherwise, would have had to lay down in to get the shot.
    I am sorry, though, about your experience with the grip. That grip also worked with the D80 so I have been using it for a couple of years and it has performed flawlessly. I have to wonder if you didn’t get a grip with a defect.

    Thanks again for the daily work you put in on this site.

    Reply
  21. isn’t it funny thought, Video Camera’s with Photo capabilities are crap (the photos) and vice versa.. (well I’m not counting the new Canon)

    Reply
  22. isn’t it funny thought, Video Camera’s with Photo capabilities are crap (the photos) and vice versa.. (well I’m not counting the new Canon)

    Reply
  23. Just to back up my previous comments… here was a candid shot with very little light to work with. The kit lens was wide open at f/5.3 (@ 70mm). With aperture priority and auto-ISO, the camera kept the shutter speed at my 1/30 sec. lower threshold and raised the ISO to 2500. Not ideal, but I got the shot. Having come from a Panasonic Lumix that was unusable beyond ISO 400, I have to say I am very pleased with this camera.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/cjohnson78/3032513942/sizes/l/in/set-72157608629459115/

    Reply
  24. Just to back up my previous comments… here was a candid shot with very little light to work with. The kit lens was wide open at f/5.3 (@ 70mm). With aperture priority and auto-ISO, the camera kept the shutter speed at my 1/30 sec. lower threshold and raised the ISO to 2500. Not ideal, but I got the shot. Having come from a Panasonic Lumix that was unusable beyond ISO 400, I have to say I am very pleased with this camera.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/cjohnson78/3032513942/sizes/l/in/set-72157608629459115/

    Reply
  25. Thanks for the review, Scott. I agree with Clive … it’s good to hear a real user review; sometimes the technical reviews are okay, but they tend to leave out the “human” aspect of using the product.

    Reply
  26. Thanks for the review, Scott. I agree with Clive … it’s good to hear a real user review; sometimes the technical reviews are okay, but they tend to leave out the “human” aspect of using the product.

    Reply
  27. I think I’m right in the market, and currently collecting money to get the D90 so first of all thanks for your review. This kind of information is very valuable to me now.
    I’m aware of the drawbacks, and I don’t need the video mode, but than again D300 is too expensive for now (here in Poland it’s about $1600). So I’d love to see a Nikon DSLR between D90 and D300 without the video mode but with more sturdy body and weather protection (hint, hint :)

    Reply
  28. Thanks for review Scott.
    I decided not to wait with my purchase of D90 as the prices are likely to go up with the way the Australian currency goes. Since it was my first DSLR I considered alternatives and was actually slightly put off by the hype about the D90 gadgets and video capabilities. Good thing that in other reviews it also showed that the images are great, so in the end I decided to go with the D90 and the 18-200VR. It is a great 1st DSLR for me. Look forward to the podcast every week. Keep it up.

    Reply
  29. Thanks for review Scott.
    I decided not to wait with my purchase of D90 as the prices are likely to go up with the way the Australian currency goes. Since it was my first DSLR I considered alternatives and was actually slightly put off by the hype about the D90 gadgets and video capabilities. Good thing that in other reviews it also showed that the images are great, so in the end I decided to go with the D90 and the 18-200VR. It is a great 1st DSLR for me. Look forward to the podcast every week. Keep it up.

    Reply
  30. As you always used to say, “keep it pithy” and indeed you did! Many thanks!

    I’m a very pleased D90 owner. At a local event last weekend the Nikon rep asked me where I first heard of the D90. Of course, it was “Nikon rumors in the air” on TWIP which first alerted me to start keeping my eyes open. Although he wasn’t familiar with TWIP, by the time we were finished talking, he learned what a great resource both the site and the podcast were.

    I would appreciate your feedback with daylight outdoor shooting. Always seems a bit over-exposed so I invariably shoot with a -.3EV when I’m outdoors on a sunny day.

    Lastly, I’m looking forward to your feedback on the new Nikon f/1.4 50 when it comes out in December.

    Reply
  31. As you always used to say, “keep it pithy” and indeed you did! Many thanks!

    I’m a very pleased D90 owner. At a local event last weekend the Nikon rep asked me where I first heard of the D90. Of course, it was “Nikon rumors in the air” on TWIP which first alerted me to start keeping my eyes open. Although he wasn’t familiar with TWIP, by the time we were finished talking, he learned what a great resource both the site and the podcast were.

    I would appreciate your feedback with daylight outdoor shooting. Always seems a bit over-exposed so I invariably shoot with a -.3EV when I’m outdoors on a sunny day.

    Lastly, I’m looking forward to your feedback on the new Nikon f/1.4 50 when it comes out in December.

    Reply
  32. Scott, Thanks for the thorough review. As a Nikon D300 shooter, I was pretty envious of the movie mode on the D90. After reading your review, I think I will just get a video camera when I want to do video for now. Do you think Nikon might add video to the D300 as an upgrade option?! Seems like it could be a simple upgrade to get a few hundred dollars out of those of us who shelled out for the D300. Keep up the great work at TWIP!

    Reply
  33. Scott, Thanks for the thorough review. As a Nikon D300 shooter, I was pretty envious of the movie mode on the D90. After reading your review, I think I will just get a video camera when I want to do video for now. Do you think Nikon might add video to the D300 as an upgrade option?! Seems like it could be a simple upgrade to get a few hundred dollars out of those of us who shelled out for the D300. Keep up the great work at TWIP!

    Reply
  34. I would be interested to see a head to head between the D90 and the 50D (priced just over $1000 body only).

    Reply
  35. I’ve only shot with a D50, D40x and now D90 and I have to say I’m very impressed. I love the enhanced detail and high ISO ability.

    Gary – I’ve heard the 50D is having problem beating out the 40D in performance, which is the older version. Although the 50D and D90 shouldn’t be directly compared, because the 50D would need to go up against the D300. I think the D90 would perform well against it. The 50 does higher resolution and fps. The D90 has better IQ and high ISO. I think the 50D would get beat down by the D300 though =)

    Reply
  36. I’ve only shot with a D50, D40x and now D90 and I have to say I’m very impressed. I love the enhanced detail and high ISO ability.

    Gary – I’ve heard the 50D is having problem beating out the 40D in performance, which is the older version. Although the 50D and D90 shouldn’t be directly compared, because the 50D would need to go up against the D300. I think the D90 would perform well against it. The 50 does higher resolution and fps. The D90 has better IQ and high ISO. I think the 50D would get beat down by the D300 though =)

    Reply
  37. Scott I am with you. I know that its not a D3 but then I can own the D90 and still eat! As a buff but no way a pro I find the camera great. I was attracted by the movie mode but strangely I haven’t been compelled to use it. Its there for emergency or that one off opportunity. The camera has enough menu options to confuse the average photographer but once you get the idea of it the results are fantastic for what it is. I do not agree that it is not sturdy, It feels solid to me. I can’t run down the battery but I have a spare. I won’t bother with teh grip, thanks for the heads up. This is my first true DSLR so I guess I have lots to learn. Thanks for your report, you turned me from the canon I almost bought to the Nikon D90. Glad you did. Love your work down here in Melbourne Australia. Come shoot the Northern territory sometime. Wow! Denis

    Reply
  38. Scott I am with you. I know that its not a D3 but then I can own the D90 and still eat! As a buff but no way a pro I find the camera great. I was attracted by the movie mode but strangely I haven’t been compelled to use it. Its there for emergency or that one off opportunity. The camera has enough menu options to confuse the average photographer but once you get the idea of it the results are fantastic for what it is. I do not agree that it is not sturdy, It feels solid to me. I can’t run down the battery but I have a spare. I won’t bother with teh grip, thanks for the heads up. This is my first true DSLR so I guess I have lots to learn. Thanks for your report, you turned me from the canon I almost bought to the Nikon D90. Glad you did. Love your work down here in Melbourne Australia. Come shoot the Northern territory sometime. Wow! Denis

    Reply
  39. I went from the Canon XTi to the D90 when it came out. I am very impressed with this camera. I now have the ability to shoot high ISO without worrying about noise too much. The 4.5 frames per second is a nice upgrade. I agree with Scott on the movie mode, but I didn’t buy this camera to shoot video. I am very pleased with the image quality, and overall performance of the D90.

    Reply
  40. I went from the Canon XTi to the D90 when it came out. I am very impressed with this camera. I now have the ability to shoot high ISO without worrying about noise too much. The 4.5 frames per second is a nice upgrade. I agree with Scott on the movie mode, but I didn’t buy this camera to shoot video. I am very pleased with the image quality, and overall performance of the D90.

    Reply
  41. Ive just bought this camera as my first DSLR, and am very happy with it, I must admit I was hoping to use the video function, but its irrelevant now as I am very happy with the still side of the camera. I shoot a lot of HDR’s and find it exceptionally easy to use. I am yet to read the manual as I have found the menu system on the camera very user friendly and easy to navigate. I went with the two lenses kit option, but am wishing I had gone for the one lens option as I have now learnt it is a better lens. I am now a happy Nikon user and look forward to buying my next lens and to keep experimenting.

    Reply
  42. Ive just bought this camera as my first DSLR, and am very happy with it, I must admit I was hoping to use the video function, but its irrelevant now as I am very happy with the still side of the camera. I shoot a lot of HDR’s and find it exceptionally easy to use. I am yet to read the manual as I have found the menu system on the camera very user friendly and easy to navigate. I went with the two lenses kit option, but am wishing I had gone for the one lens option as I have now learnt it is a better lens. I am now a happy Nikon user and look forward to buying my next lens and to keep experimenting.

    Reply
  43. I love my D90! I’ve had it for about 3 weeks now. I got both the 18-105mm kit lens and the 50mm 1.8. The 50mm really is a great addition. I took some of my best pictures yet with this gear (not that that’s saying much :-) )

    @scott you’re right about the video. Although I love the quality you can get from it (considering you get it as a free bonus on top of a great DSLR) it is kinda hard to work with and you definitely need a tripod.

    Thanks for a great show and a great site!

    Reply
  44. I love my D90! I’ve had it for about 3 weeks now. I got both the 18-105mm kit lens and the 50mm 1.8. The 50mm really is a great addition. I took some of my best pictures yet with this gear (not that that’s saying much :-) )

    @scott you’re right about the video. Although I love the quality you can get from it (considering you get it as a free bonus on top of a great DSLR) it is kinda hard to work with and you definitely need a tripod.

    Thanks for a great show and a great site!

    Reply
  45. Wow, I’m glad I decided to look on. I have been looking at the D90 for may reasons. On is I purchased a program from Nikon where I can take pictures with my computer, and to use it the way it should be used I need to upgrade my camera and the D90 was one of the cameras to use with this program. The others cost way to much. So I was looking in to turning in my D50 and upgrade to the D90.

    Thanks. I will get the D90 when I get the money.

    Reply
  46. Wow, I’m glad I decided to look on. I have been looking at the D90 for may reasons. On is I purchased a program from Nikon where I can take pictures with my computer, and to use it the way it should be used I need to upgrade my camera and the D90 was one of the cameras to use with this program. The others cost way to much. So I was looking in to turning in my D50 and upgrade to the D90.

    Thanks. I will get the D90 when I get the money.

    Reply
  47. The Grip /battery holder for this camera is the worst grip, made of inferior material …mine stripped its screw on the camera, I could not get it off, I finally cut it off with a roto tool. Look at the d300 or d700 …thats the way a grip should be made.

    Reply
  48. The Grip /battery holder for this camera is the worst grip, made of inferior material …mine stripped its screw on the camera, I could not get it off, I finally cut it off with a roto tool. Look at the d300 or d700 …thats the way a grip should be made.

    Reply

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