Nikon D90 Digital SLR Camera
At a Glance
Nikon rocked the DSLR world when it announced the D90, the first digital SLR camera to incorporate video recording. That feature needs refinement, but purely as a photographer's tool, the D90 stacks up as a worthy successor to the Nikon D80 on several counts. And it compares favorably to the competition, scoring well in our image-quality tests.
The D90, which costs $1250 (as of 11/15/08) with its AF-S ED 18mm-to-105mm kit lens, packs several upgrades: It inherits the excellent, crisp 3-inch LCD from the prosumer-level Nikon D300, it adds a new CMOS sensor, and it pumps up the resolution to 12.3 megapixels (from 10.2 megapixels on the D80). In addition to video, you'll find other features inspired by point-and-shoots, such as live view, face detection, in-camera retouching, and a calendar feature that allows you to view your shots by date.
The D90 weighs slightly more than its predecessor; it's solid and well built, but not too hefty. The camera feels substantial, but its grip is comfortable, and its design is pretty intuitive, with dedicated function buttons and common scene settings on the top dial. It also sports a dense, though easily navigable, menu system with some user-friendly elements borrowed from the D80, such as My Menu, which allows you to save your most frequently used settings. Non-Nikon users should find the interface visually appealing and easy to use; Nikon veterans will find shooting straightforward right out of the box.
The back of the D90 sports a button that activates the live view function, which includes still and video recording (the latter 720p at 24 fps). Once live view is activated, everything slows down as the mirror flips up, the shutter opens, and software takes over the recording process. While shooting stills, I found live view too clunky and its autofocus too slow, so I opted to use the viewfinder instead.
Before recording video, you must set the autofocus on your subject using live view. While recording, the D90 automatically adjusts for exposure, but not focus. You can manually adjust focus while shooting, but I found this too awkward to do without a tripod. Also, because of the way that CMOS records an image, you may see "rolling" (a shake-like impression) in your footage, which detracts from the overall quality and creative potential of the video feature. Clips longer than 5 minutes may cause the camera sensor to grow discernably warm, too.
Audio quality from the camera's built-in microphone was not great, and unfortunately you cannot use the mic to record notes on your still shots. Judging from my hands-on experience, I'd say that the D90's video function, though a welcome innovation, needs further development. In the meantime, I'm happy to use my point-and-shoot for off-the-cuff videos.
The D90 excelled in the PC World Test Center's evaluation: It came in second only to the Canon 50D in our digital camera tests. I was generally pleased with my field test shots. The D90 was quick to autofocus and usually was on the mark. The auto-flash also performed consistently well. I found that the camera tended to blow out the brightest highlights, however, and I saw some minor halos along very high-contrast edges. When I switched to high-quality JPEG from RAW, it produced a slight but noticeable softening in the images.
The image quality at high ISOs was very good compared with that of other models I've tried recently: Although some noise appeared in darker areas at speeds above 400, it was minimal, looking more like film grain than the usual jarring digital noise with accompanying sludgy colors. My RAW files showed a pretty impressive dynamic range; the JPEGs, a little less so but still quite good. A bit of sharpening and sometimes a contrast boost helped the look of JPEGs significantly. (You can make those settings in-camera.)
With its improved LCD, slightly larger frame of view, dust-cleaning sensor, enhanced 3D 11-point autofocus, an optional GPS attachment, and the ability to make a video here and there, the D90 definitely has an array of interesting features. And simply as a camera, the D90 turns out some of the best results you can buy.