Nikon’s DSLR boffins have been busy over the last year, introducing a range of new cameras including the top end D3 and the D300 last August; the D60 arrived in January this year and then the FX D700 (FX, Nikon’s moniker for its full frame DSLRs) in July.
And now, stage left, enter the D90: a new DSLR 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 DSLR from a compact and significantly, to provide the more advanced photographer enough camera control and quality to satisfy the more serious snappers.
The most obvious change is a new CMOS, 12.3-megapixel-sensor, piggy-backed by the most recent iteration of Nikon’s EXPEED image engine, a combination that Nikon claims will provide image quality akin to the superb D300; it can shoot up to ISO 6400 too.
Another key change is the large, 920k-dot 3-inch colour screen, a feature that has been filtered down from the D90’s higher specified brethren; it’s a cracker of an LCD to use.
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 that in info mode is always shown across the bottom that allows you to quickly adjust items not already catered for by the hard buttons on the body. These include 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 that sits snuggled tightly against the right side of the Nikon F lens mount.
Now I have to say 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 also, 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. The D80 had an ISO range of 100 to 1600 and the boost there was to get it to ISO 3200 at the top end, so a significant improvement, but is it hamstrung by noise issues?
Well, despite the boosted settings, the combination of that new sensor and the excellent EXPEED processor means noise is impressively controlled. Sensitivity settings provide 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 evident (and colour leaches very slightly) 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, this is a superb performance for such a camera and one that 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 but intriguingly, the movie mode is only accessible/active using the camera’s other must-have feature, Live View. Cleverly, this means you cannot accidentally shoot video when you wanted to shoot stills.
However there are issues with the focusing in Live View, it’s slower than treacle kept outdoors on a frosty morning, so switching to manual focusing helps. You can zoom the lens (assuming you have zoom lens fitted that is) during movie clip capture throughout.
However, in the top quality movie mode, video sequences (with mono sound) are limited to 5 minutes, lower the resolution to 640 x 480 for example, and the video clip length stretches out to 20 minutes.
The camera’s other AF systems work a treat and as well as lightening fast start up, the 11-zone AF works really well. 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.
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, which 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 too.
On the back, the large screen is accompanied by what at first seems to be a rather large array of buttons. However, there’s logic to them. Down the left are the main controls for playback, menu activation and a white balance (WB) control.
This doubles as a neat Help system button, a question mark symbol denotes this, so when you see a question mark icon on, say, a menu, pressing it activates the Help screen, 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. Overall then, in terms of handling, if you’ve used a Nikon DSLR before, or one of their more advanced bridge compact models, such as the P80 or the P5100, you’ll be quickly at home here: menus and the layout are very similar.
There’s a superb level of customisation 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 highlights loose detail very quickly too. JPEG and RAW capture means you can pull about two stops of extra detail from the headroom in the RAW files but this was still a tad disappointing.
Colour performance is stunning though (even in the default standard setting, which I did not adjust) while the metering seems very slightly biased to underexposure, something that compounds the shadow issues.
Like most of the recent Nikon DSLRs I’ve tested, WB control is sublime even shooting complex, mixed lighting sources, they were handled well in auto mode but the quality shines through when the correct WB setting is selected for the conditions. Customising the WB to the conditions is a breeze as well, you can preview any changes in Live View to ensure it’s right.
The camera’s AF system is pretty much faultless; 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. My sequence during the test of a small dog running past proved no problem.
The i-TTL flash set up outstanding, with modelling flash thrown in for good measure, so you can quickly avoid unwanted shadows, say, in portraits. The D90 is also equipped with a 420-pixel RGB sensor that analyses scene and colour information of the subject. 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.
The 18-105mm F/3.5-F/5.6 G ED Vibration Reduction (VR) kit lens I had to test is sharper than cut glass and able to render bags of detail for that new CMOS sensor. However, on the down side apertures are fairly restricting if controlling depth of field is important, and it is for shooting portraits, for example; but more worrying, when shooting scenic images, there is noticeable barrel distortion at the wide end combined with distinct pincushion distortion at the tele end of the zoom.
Another initially very minor quibble is with the SD external storage and the port cover; the latter seems flimsy in comparison to the rest of the camera, while the former grips your card (as you try to remove it) tighter than a one-handed rock climber on a dangerous overhang without rope or pitons. The net result was on two occasions the card suddenly popped free, flew from grasp and ended up on the floor, so not ideal.
What is ideal however is the D90’s extensive retouch menu, which provides a range of photo effects and include a clever fisheye and distortion control plus a straightening system; I was able to mitigate those barrel distortion issues from earlier to a degree, as a result. Happily, your original image remains untouched; the camera creates a duplicate image with your edits on-board the camera.
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 is stuffed so full of new kit and clever tweaks I could be here for another week writing about them, suffice to say I’ve covered the major ones, but it is certainly no plain upgrade, this a serious new camera in its own right and well worth serious consideration.
In the final analysis, 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 and, when looking at the body only price, it represents stunning value for money too.
£699.99 (body only), £849.99 with 18-105mm F/3.5-5.6G ED VR