If it takes you just a glance or two to tell the latest Nikon and Canon dSLR models apart from their predecessors, you know you're up there in the annals of camera geekdom. Measuring 132mm wide, 103mm tall and 77mm deep, the D90 is the same size as its forebear, the D80, which remains on sale. Despite the unchanged dimensions, the D90 is significantly weightier, tipping the scales at 620g without a battery, compared to the D80's 585g. The weight combined with the sturdy feel of the rubberised grips, as well as the satisfying buttons, lend the D90 an air of quality.
Out back there's a larger 3-inch LCD screen packing 920,000 pixels — up half an inch and almost 700,000 pixels — which is covered by Nikon's trademark snap off plastic shield. Like the similarly specified screen on Canon's EOS 50D, images and videos look great, and it works well in all but the harshest lighting conditions. Although Nikon has rearranged some of the buttons to the right of the LCD — for instance, the OK button now resides inside the four-way controller — anyone familiar with past Nikon dSLRs will feel at home. For example, there are two scroll wheels — one at the front of the right-hand grip, one at the back — for controlling camera settings like aperture, exposure and so forth.
On the top, there's a mode dial located to the left of the built-in flash unit. To the right of that there's an LCD screen, which can display most of the camera's critical settings. Some buttons' functions require you to hold down said button whilst turning a rear scroll wheel; this isn't too much of a hassle for the buttons to the left of the rear LCD (white balance, ISO, image quality), but requires an alarming amount of dexterity for some of the functions scattered around the top-mounted LCD, such as auto focus, shooting mode and exposure compensation.
The D90 is the first sub-AU$2,000 dSLR from Nikon to feature Live View. While we're not sure how much it smooths the transition process for SLR virgins, it does work well on the D90. For one, in Live View you can zoom in on a particular part of the image in order to fine tune the manual focus, which is a boon for anyone suffering from neck cramp as they try to perfect their macro shot.
And although autofocus is significantly slower in Live View, some may enjoy the utility of the moveable focus frame and face detection; the latter being only available in Live View. Photos can be shot or reviewed via a TV thanks to the D90's mini-HDMI connection, although there's no cable supplied with the camera. A geotagging GPS receiver, which plugs into both the side of the camera and into the hotshoe, is another option.
The feature though that makes the D90 really stand out amongst its dSLR peers is video recording. It's dubbed D-Movie by the marketing types at Nikon, which is quite apt actually as, on balance, we'd probably give this feature a D-grade.
There are three video resolutions and at the maximum (24 progressive frames per second at 1280x720) video, the image quality is OK but lower quality settings are best left untouched. High motion scenes are quite choppy and edge detail can become rather jagged too, but given that it's a part-time, nice-to-have-but-not-essential feature on a still camera, we weren't expecting high-def camcorder video quality. That said, it's still several rungs below what's promised in the marketing hype.
Where our D-grade jibe comes into play is in the more practical aspects. Key amongst these is the lack of autofocus in camcorder mode, which makes recording everything from Johnny's first steps to the dog's new trick an unnecessarily arduous affair. This constant need to twist and turn the lens' focus dial is picked up by the camera's mono microphone located at the lens barrel base that otherwise does an acceptable job considering its obvious deficiencies. The tinny, tiny speaker located in the camera's hand grip not only compromises on-the-go reviewing of videos but also tickles your hand which, depending on your views on tickling, may or may not be a bad thing.
Another demerit is the five-minute recording limit at 720p — 20 minutes at all other resolutions. As our wrists and arms began cramping — one kilo-plus cameras just aren't meant to be held out in front of you for sustained stretches — we were almost thankful for this limitation though. Indeed, prolonged use of either the video recording or Live View functions heats the camera up quite alarmingly, although we felt better for knowing that the camera automatically ceases recording if you get too close to frying the camera's chips.
Still Photo Performance
The D90's main game though is taking still photos and at this task it excels. Its 12.3-megapixel CMOS sensor shares much with the one used in its more expensive sibling, the D300. That camera though boasts 14-bit colour in Raw mode, whereas the D90 makes do with just 12 bits. Like the D80, D60 and D40 before it, Nikon's newest records to SD/SDHC cards, and, if you use a suitably quick card, you can shoot at a maximum rate of 4.5fps. Coupled with the nearly instantaneous start-up from off or standby, the D90 should be sufficient for most situations, including sporting events, although it is slower than comparable Canons.
Photos taken with the D90 have pleasing colours and a level of detail befitting a brand name dSLR. To our annoyance, the camera's 3D colour matrix metering tends to favour blowing out highlights in order to more accurately light the subject. Shooters who favour outdoor shots may like Nikon's D-Lighting feature, which uses local area contrast adjustment to bring out more detail in shadows and dampen highlights. D-Lighting can be applied automatically, but we preferred manual application as it allows for greater fine tuning. Distortion, fish-eye and red-eye correction, as well as straightening and Raw image processing, are amongst the other in-camera editing functions available and work reasonably well if you're not keen on using Photoshop. Unfortunately, you'll have to pay extra for the full gamut of Raw editing options offered by Nikon's Capture NX 2 application.
Choosing between the camera's 11 autofocus points, as well as its plethora of focusing options, requires first timers to thoroughly read the manual, but once mastered the system is flexible. Our favourite feature, however, on the D90 is its integrated pop-up flash. With a guide number of 17m at ISO 200, the D90 bathed most subjects in a blast of white light so bright we thought, on a number of occasions, that we had somehow attached a Speedlight in our sleep. On the downside, flash sync is still limited to 1/200 second and some of our shots exhibited a noticeable lens barrel shadow.
In the two-party race that will never end, D90 attempted to reach out to both independent voters and registered Nikonistas alike by selecting D-Movie as its running mate on the Nikon Corporation ticket. Upon close examination, however, D-Movie was found to be severely underdone, although by 2012 it might be ready for prime time. Good thing then that D90's photo taking base is so strong and competent.