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.
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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