The D90 isn't just another DSLR joining Nikon's Editors' Choice-winning lineup (although it certainly delivers the same superb image quality); it's also the first DSLR in the world to record video. Although the recording itself is clumsy, the 720p video looks beautiful, and the 12.3-megapixel photos are even more so. And with fast all-around speeds, this mid-range DSLR is a winner.
Design and Interface
In an effort to make DSLRs less intimidating, some companies have unleashed some seriously lightweight models recently. Suffice it to say, in size, weight, price, and target user, the D90 is not one of those cameras: At 2.4 pounds with the battery, 18-105mm lens, and SD Card, you'll definitely want to use the strap.
The good news is that the D90 feels sturdy in the hands. As always, Nikon's rubbery ergonomic grip and thumb indentation make it easy to hold. And for a camera so advanced, you learn your way around pretty quickly. The mode dial and dedicated exposure, autofocus, and continuous shooting options are self-explanatory, thanks to their accompanying icons.
On the back, flanking the bright 3-inch LCD, which was brought over from the higher-endD300, are buttons for playback, menu options, white balance, and ISO, as well as a five-way navigational pad and button for switching between Live View and the optical viewfinder. We love the D90's viewfinder, not just because it's sharp, but because the rubbery lining makes it comfortable to press against our eye.
On the opposite side of the camera from the battery compartment and SD Card slot are power, A/V out, USB, and HDMI ports, the latter of which you can use to connect your camera to your HDTV and immediately watch clips. There's also a port for the GP-1 GPS unit (price TBA), which allows users to geotag photos. Inside the camera, Nikon's built-in sensor-cleaning system keeps dust off (this feature, too, trickled down from the D300).
The D90 has Live View, a standard feature in point-and-shoot cameras but, ironically, a premium one in DSLRs. This feature allows you to see the action in the LCD as you frame it and adjust settings. Unlike earlier DSLRs, we were able to focus just as easily with Live View as with the optical viewfinder. Taking pictures in Live View did cause shutter lag, however. Whereas the D90 snapped photos almost instantaneously when using the viewfinder, about 5 seconds elapsed between pressing the shutter and being able to take another picture. It snapped the picture soon enough, but then the picture lingers on the screen for a few seconds before the D90 readies itself for another shot.
First DLSR with Movie Mode
Live View is integral to the D90's breakthrough movie-recording feature. (The Canon EOS 5D Mark II, a prosumer model nearly three times as expensive, was announced just three weeks later and shoots 1080p video.) It records 720p video at 24 frames per second. Although Nikon insists the D90 shouldn't be a camcorder replacement, and the movie mode is just for taking clips, using a DSLR to record video has huge potential.
First of all, you can swap in different lenses to get different kinds of shots. And all those advanced settings that give a DSLR superior photo quality? You can adjust these settings before you start recording, so your movies will have the same polish. Unfortunately these settings become locked once you start shooting.
We love that recording is as easy as entering Live View mode and pressing OK. But recording video on a DSLR--at least the D90--is otherwise clumsy. For starters, if you use the zoom ring during filming, the lens does not autofocus. So, while you rotate the zoom ring with one hand, you'll have to use the manual focus ring with the other. Even if you decide not to use the zoom, your video might be shaky, since the camera and lens are difficult to hold steady. You can use a tripod, but that's not spontaneous enough for most users.
That said, the D90 produces gorgeous video. Our clips had accurate color, exposure, and fluidity, and the sound quality, in particular, was excellent. Whereas other cameras make their subjects sound tinny, the sound in our clips was loud and rich, from a water fountain to cheering fans at the late Shea Stadium. Unlike with a standalone camcorder, there's a time limit: clips can't be longer than 20 minutes.
Stellar Image Quality
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While video recording--the D90's most high-profile feature--is imperfect, it still wins our Editors' Choice thanks to Nikon's trademark image quality. In all sorts of shooting conditions--daylight, indoors, and at a nighttime baseball game--our shots showed lifelike color and brightness. We especially loved the way our portraits turned out: the D90 rendered skin tones beautifully, and our subjects' faces always stood out against their background, even when we chose not to use the dedicated portrait mode.
Behind the scenes, the D90 employs Nikon's 3D Color Matrix Metering II and Scene Recognition System, the latter of which compares scenes against a database of 30,000 scenes to ensure the most accurate exposure setting. Indeed, we were most impressed by how excellent our photos turned out, regardless of the shooting conditions, whether it was a sunny day or nighttime event.
The D90's ISO ranges from 100 to 6400, with Automatic ISO ranging from 200 to 3200. Even in tricky lighting conditions, our shots never looked grainy or washed out. We took shots at a night Mets game sitting underneath a mezzanine, facing a wall of fluorescent lights. Our shots looked bright, but never unnaturally so.
The D90 also has strong dynamic range--that is, it brings out highlights and shadow detail in harshly backlit situations well. In shooting someone overlooking the fanfare at Shea, the camera captured the wrinkles in his dark shirt and Mets cap, without washing out the stadium's colorful background.
Speed and Battery Life
The D90 offers burst shooting at a rate of 4.5 fps. This came in handy when capturing pitches and home runs at the baseball game. All of our sequential shots looked crisp, and we managed to get a few freeze-frame action shots without having to try too hard. In regular shooting, too, the D90 is fast. It takes less than a second to start up, and about the same to ready itself for a consecutive shot. The camera is also quick to focus, even in tricky lighting conditions.
The D90 is also the first (and currently, only) camera that supports SanDisk's Extreme III 30-MBps SD Card, which can record 39 images in continuous shooting mode at a rate of 4.5 fps. We used an 8GB card to take our rapid-fire shots at the Mets game. These cards come in 4GB ($65), 8GB ($109), 16GB ($179), and 32GB ($299) capacities.
As for the D90's battery life, we took almost 300 shots and still had four out of five bars in the LED battery indicator on the top of the camera. Then again, using the camera to record longer high-def pieces (or using the LCD at all) will translate to shorter battery life.
As the first DSLR to deliver movie recording, the D90 takes an impressive first step; although it can be difficult to wield the camera while fiming, the quality itself is excellent. And even if you consider movie-recording a bonus, the D90 produces stunning photos, including in low light, and it has fast all-around speeds. For $999 ($1,299 for the lens kit), it's a compelling choice for people in the market for a DSLR that's a step above the entry level.