Nikon D90 Review

Nikon’s D80 gets updated with this new D-SLR, the Nikon D90. At first glance, it looks very similar to the D80 but is a dramatically different beast. Doug Harman investigates in this, its full Best4Reviews test.

Nikon has been busy over the last year, introducing a range of new cameras from the top end D3 and D300 models last August; the D60 in January this year and then the FX D700 (FX, Nikon’s moniker for its full frame D-SLRs) in July.

Enter the D90; a new D-SLR with a DX (Nikon’s APS-C sized) sensor in a camera designed to fill the niche currently occupied by the D80, a superb camera in its own right.

Nikon has, it says, designed the new camera for those trading up to a D-SLR from a compact and significantly, to provide the more advanced photographer enough camera control and quality to fulfil their more serious pictorial aims.

The most obvious change is a new CMOS, 12.3-megapixel sensor, piggy backed by Nikon’s excellent EXPEED image engine; a combination that Nikon claims will provide image quality akin to the D300 right up to shots taken at ISO 6400.

Another key change is the large, 920k-dot 3-inch colour screen, a feature that’s been filtered down from the D90’s higher specified brethren; it’s a cracker of an LCD to use in all conditions but significantly in bright or direct sunlight.

The screen has an excellent “Info” mode, invoked via a button below and to the right side of the screen, which, with another press, activates a settings menu (in info mode, this menu is always shown across the bottom) that allows you to quickly adjust items not already catered to by the hard buttons on the body including: noise reduction settings, Active D-lighting; the Picture Control settings, such as standard, vivid and portrait optimisations, for example. You can assign (or reassign) the function button, which sits snuggled tightly against the right side of the Nikon F lens mount as well.

I loved that function button since it quickly allows you to use oft needed features (I used it to quickly switch between matrix metering and spot metering for a portrait shoot) but you can assign the AF Area Mode, switch quickly to a central AF zone, you can lock the flash value or activate the framing grid, for example.

In terms of sensitivity, the standard range provides ISO 200 to 3200 but a boosted range allows you to choose from ISO 100 to 6400. Well, despite the boosted settings, the combination of that new sensor and the excellent EXPEED processor means noise is impressively controlled. Actual sensitivity provides usefully small steps between ISO 200 and 3200, so you get ISO 200, 250, 400, 500, 640, 800, 1000, 1250, 1600, 2000, 2500 and 3200.

It’s not until you get to ISO 1600 noise becomes remotely evident (colour leaches very slightly too) but only just. At ISO 2000 noise is still well controlled, better in fact than a typical digital compact at ISO 800. It’s not until you get to ISO 4000 you could say noise is getting intrusive and at the boosted ISO 6400 setting, detail suffers and noise is very plain in the shots.

Nevertheless, the noise is very “grain-like” in the shots so not unattractive and so this is a superb performance for such a camera. It means shooting at ISO 1000 and higher holds no image noise disadvantages whatsoever and so, Nikon’s claim it’s a sensitivity performance akin to that of the D300, holds true.

The D90 also sports a superb HD movie mode and at time of launching, was the world’s first D-SLR able to shoot video as standard. But intriguingly, the movie mode is only accessible/active using the cameras other now must have feature, Live View. Cleverly, this means you cannot accidentally shoot video when you want to shoot stills.

However, there are issues with the focusing in Live View, its snail-like when grappling with even the most general scene though switching to manual focusing does help. You can zoom the lens (assuming you have zoom lens fitted, that is) during movie capture as well.

However, the camera’s other 11-zone AF systems work speedily enough and complements the cameras lightening fast start up. The 3D tracking AF is excellent and there’s face recognition AF in there too, so there are plenty of options including selecting specific AF points if required other than the sluggish Live View AF system.

In terms of handling, the main shooting controls are on the top plate; the shutter release and on/off lever, the accompanying metering and exposure buttons sit just behind as does the large, backlit data LCD.

Over the pentaprism viewfinder you find the mode dial with the usual program, aperture and shutter priority modes, the full manual setting and an all auto mode brings up the rear, the latter effectively puts the camera into point and shoot mode; even the flash automatically pops up when needed. Six subject programs include the usual portrait, landscape, and night scene and sports settings among others.

Down the left are the main controls for playback, menu activation and a white balance (WB) control. One of the buttons activates the neat Help system button. Denoted by a question mark symbol, when you see a question mark icon on, say, a menu, pressing the Help button activates Help text explaining what the mode or adjustment does. The same button trebles as the Lock Image button when in playback mode.

ISO and image quality hard buttons come next, both dealing with magnification chores in playback or provide a grid thumbnail view for faster image scrolling. There’s a superb level of customisation on offer too, with 41 custom settings at your disposal, from the way colour and metering are biased to altering the way the control dials work: I set the front control (or as Nikon calls them, “sub command”) dial, nestled just below the shutter release, to switch ISOs, leaving the back dial to deal with apertures or shutter speeds, and so on – and you can reverse the control direction too is you prefer.

The camera can be tailored to you, quickly and easily and so makes it an even more appealing proposition for the more novice user, surely the broader target market Nikon hopes to reach with this camera.

So there’s plenty of mouth watering kit to tinker with, the camera is built and handles extremely well, but what of the image quality? Image noise may be almost non-existent in all but the highest ISO shots, but a question I did have was “where was the shadow detail”?

The camera’s dynamic range appeared a little stunted, D-Lighting helps dig out detail, sure, but shadows appear to quickly fill-in while also worrisome, highlights loose detail very quickly too. Like most of the recent Nikon D-SLRs I’ve tested, WB control is sublime even shooting complex, mixed lighting sources; they were handled well in auto mode. But WB quality shines through when the correct WB setting is selected for the conditions.

The camera’s AF system is pretty much faultless (my caveat on Live View AF notwithstanding) I found the face detection AF helps optimise skin tones and colour information, moreover, both of which are incorporated in the camera’s calculations to help keep things pin.

The lightening fast start up (0.15-seconds, according to Nikon) quickly gets you into action and this is backed up by 4.5fps continuous drive; combined with the AF focus tracking, capturing fleeting action is no problem.

The i-TTL flash set up outstanding too, with modelling flash thrown in for good measure, so you can quickly avoid unwanted shadows, say, in portraits. This system (first introduced on Nikon’s D3 and D300) uses a Scene Recognition System, which based on its readings, optimises the focus, exposure and white balance prior to the shutter firing.

Picture controls can be quickly adjusted to your liking, if default values don’t suit the subject, but the system works well enough in the default “standard” setting, ideal for most general shooting tasks. However, there’s a huge amount of control on offer if you feel the need to tinker or the subject demands a different “look”, practice will be key here however.

The D90’s extensive retouch menu is a bonus too and provides a range of photo effects and includes a clever fisheye and distortion control plus an image straightening system; I was able to mitigate problems caused by the disappointing barrel and pincushion distortion I had from the 18-105 VR kit lens I had to test. Happily, edits to your original image remain untouched; the camera creates a duplicate image with your edits onboard within the storage.

There is also a good range of playback functions; Nikon’s Pictmotion system is a built-in slideshow creator, there’s a 72-frame thumbnail display, a very funky calendar playback and a histogram display that even provides histograms of magnified sections of an image, which allows fine control and assessment of exposure if needed.

The D90 represents is a brilliant upgrade on the D80, worries over dynamic range need addressing but this is a new Nikon certainly capable of stunning results. In terms of pricing, looking at the body only price, it also represents stunning value for money too.