At the top of Nikon’s consumer-level DSLR range, the enthusiast D80 has been due a replacement for a while now. Enter the D90, a camera that adds a raft of features while keeping the basic D80 design intact.
All the headline specifications have had a considerable boost over its predecessor. Resolution is now 12.3 megapixels to the 10.2 of the D80, burst frame rate gets a significant increase to 4.5fps, and there are higher ISO settings. Sensor-shake dust reduction appears for the first time, too.
Finally, there’s a live-view mode and the screen size has been upped to 3in, essential for the D90’s major new feature: it records video.
Body construction remains plastic, but that’s no bad thing in this context: it’s as solid as you like. The basic design is essentially the same as the D80 in styling and dimensions, but with a slightly more angular look.
The new body also comes as a kit with a newly introduced lens, offering a useful 18-105mm zoom range, and the now-standard VR (vibration reduction) optical image stabilisation.
As with any stock lens it isn’t the fastest ever, with f/3.5-f/5.6 maximum aperture, but build quality is a definite cut above the standard stock offerings of consumer-focused DSLRs.
The D90 records video at up to 720p (1280 x 720 pixels) at 24fps, in MJPEG format. MJPEG is relatively inefficient in terms of compression, being essentially just a series of standard JPEG frames packaged into a single file.
In HD resolution, file size is around 110MB per minute of footage. But MJPEG maintains quality and makes editing faster: each frame is standalone and doesn’t need to be derived from key frames inserted into the video stream.
With such a large sensor and the high-quality optics it’s no surprise that the quality of the D90’s output is superb, matching any equivalently priced camcorder we’ve seen.
With the aperture wide open, you can get cinematic depth-of-field effects that are almost impossible to achieve with a typical camcorder. Plus, the fact you can change lenses opens up stacks of possibilities.
There are drawbacks in video mode, though. Most obvious is that autofocus doesn’t work. Prior to shooting you can use contrast-detect autofocus to get the scene sharp initially, but once you hit the record button you’re limited to manual. With the full-time manual focus ring on the kit lens this is easy enough, though, and it’s helped by the high-resolution screen.
A second limitation is that in HD movie mode you’re limited to a maximum recording time of five minutes per clip – compare that with the seven hours or so continuous recording of the average hard-disk camcorder.
On top of that, the manual warns of potential damage to the image sensor if the camera is pointed at bright lights for too long in movie mode, as well as the possibility of internal overheating after shooting a lot of video, which will cause the camera to automatically stop recording. We didn’t encounter the problem in testing, though.
Anyone thinking about an upgrade from the D80 will be pleased to hear that the 1500mAh battery and charger are identical. Nikon claims the D90 is more power-efficient than previous designs, and we wouldn’t disagree.
In testing, we never came close to flattening the battery; Nikon claims 850 shots per charge.
As you’d expect on a new DSLR, maximum ISO sensitivity has increased by a couple of stops over the D80. ISO 3200 is the highest normal setting, but you get three high-gain options to take the camera to a maximum ISO 6400.
At 3200 results are usable, but if you’re expecting results as good as ISO 1600 on previous-generation models you’ll be a little disappointed. The camera makes a brave attempt to suppress noise, but a fair amount of detail is lost in the process. Go into the high-gain modes above ISO 3200, and things are good enough for web-sized shots only.
But at lower ISO levels quality is great. It’s helped considerably by Nikon’s clever automatic chromatic-aberration reduction, which is permanently activated when you’re shooting JPEGs (it has no effect on RAW files).
It works remarkably well, and JPEGs come out with very little colour fringing, essentially giving the stock lens a software upgrade. Autofocus is faster than the D80, too, although we found the autofocus point dancing around too readily in the default AF-A mode.
Another slight downside is the menu system. With the number of new features, the pages of menus are becoming long-winded. And on the software side, Nikon continues to disappoint.
Although the new View NX application is better than the old Picture Project, it still falls far short of Canon’s Digital Photo Professional, bundled free with its DSLRs. You do get a trial version of the Nikon Capture NX2 workflow tool, so you can at least decide if you want to shell out the $250 or so for the full version.
But the D90 really does very little wrong. Image quality is great, there are features aplenty and the stock lens is a cut above the rest. It isn’t cheap, but you’re getting an awfully capable camera for your money.