Thursday 22 January 2009

Nikon D90 DSLR Review

Released in August of 2008, the Nikon D90 DSLR raises the bar with a plethora of digital photography features, including:

  • The first DSLR to record video
  • Live View mode
  • Face priority auto-focus for razor sharp portraits and candids
  • Large 3″ LCD screen with 170 degree viewing angle
  • Active-D Lighting Control for on the fly tone correction in high contrast situations
  • ISO range from 100-6400, auto selectable or manual
  • Sensor Cleaning Technology
  • GPS port for geotaging images as they are shot

I was given the Nikon D90 and a Nikkor 18-105mm DX lens with image stabilization to take for a test spin and review around the lovely island of Whidbey in Washington State.  As is typical of Washington in the winter, the day was overcast with a bit of fog lingering throughout which meant some really nice, even light.  This is also the first Nikon I’ve used in quite a long time.  For full disclosure, I’ve used Canon DSLRs for over 6 years but I don’t give in to the blind brand loyalty some profess.  I’ve chosen Canon simply because those are the lenses I have.  So I was excited for the chance to try something new and review the Nikon D90.

Tibetan Herders In NepalFirst, some tech speak on what the camera is about.  The D90 is a 12.3 megapixel single lens reflex (SLR) body with11 point auto-focus and an ISO speed ranging from 100 to 6400 in 1/3 stop increments.   The camera employees Nikon’s advanced 3D Color Matrix Metering II to produce sharp, accurate colors while maintaining an impressive control on white balance.  Exposure can be compensated by +/- 5 full stops in 1/3 or 1/2 stop increments and can be locked at any time with the handy Exposure/Flash Lock button.  The camera uses Secure Digital (SD) and Secure Digital High Capacity (SDHC) cards and can store approximately 274 Large-Fine JPG images on a 2GB card.

DSC_0021Picking up the camera for the first time I’m impressed with the feel.  The grip has a slight indent where my three fingers go which gives me a more secure hold on the camera.  And the size is just right to accommodate all my digits comfortably.  The camera without lens weighs in at 1.6 lbs (.72kg), is balanced very well and was comfortable all day while shooting. I’m also dazzled by the array of buttons, 16 of them in all with three switches, two dials, two controls wheels and one control pad.  All are within easy reach but I did come to find that adjusting the Exposure Compensation, Frame Rate and Auto Focus modes required a near crippling contortion of my right fingers.  Each button is activated with the right index finger and then requires the right thumb to use a scroll wheel in what seems like a Pinch Grip Of Death maneuver.  And the Flash button is a bit high for my liking.  However, the Function button on the front of the camera is a welcome location for quick adjustment while using the right middle finger, a finger that doesn’t get much, if any, use on an SLR.  More on the Function Button in a bit.

DSC_0027The Nikon D90 has a normal array of shooting modes (Auto, Program, Shutter Priority, Aperture Priority and Manual), including five Advanced Scene Modes: Portrait, Landscape, Close-Up, Sports and Night Portrait.  It also has what’s called D-Movie.  The movie mode works very well with an array of settings available including a HD setting (1080i) and wide screen mode (1280×720 16:9).  As the movie mode works with nearly all of Nikon’s lenses, the creative possibilities are vast.  I was skeptical when movie modes started coming around but am now a convert and love the ability to record a quick HD movie and not have to switch cameras.  One draw back of the D-Movie mode is the lack of auto-focus while recording.  Manual focus can still be achieved, however, depending on the lens in use.  The mode is very easy to use while in Live View with the press of a single OK button on the rear of the camera.  Sound is only recorded in mono and the playback speaker is nice and loud.

DSC_0018Speaking of Live View, this is also a new feature on many DSLRs starting in 2008.  A standard feature of almost all point and shoot cameras, the ability to view the image coming through the lens of any DLSR was left out in favor of the traditional viewfinder.  To enable the Live View so the image is seen on the 3-inch rear display the reflex mirror is flipped out of the way, rendering the viewfinder useless, but opening up a large degree of possibilities.  Nikon takes advantage of the new data collected by the sensor to enable features such as Face Priority and Wide Area Auto-Focus.  In Face Priority Auto-Focus mode, the camera can detect up to five faces in the scene and lock on the closest one before taking a shot.  Live View really does add flexibility and ease of use to the DSLRs Nikon is releasing.

Moon And Prayer Flags - Nepal

Moon And Prayer Flags - Nepal

While this is Nikon’s first foray into the Live View realm, there are a few items that can use improvement in my eyes.  First, the auto-focus seems to be a bit slower and hunts around more, especially in less than ideal lighting.  Definitely much slower than the speedy response when viewed through the viewfinder, which has very little problem with the same indoor, low lighting scenes.  Second, when taking a picture in Live View, it sounds like the mirror drops back down, the camera paces through its normal routine of lifting the mirror, tripping the shutter, dropping the mirror and then lifting the mirror again to return to Live View.  This is not only a lot of time (ok, not a ton, but a sizable amount) but a lot of noise to take one picture in Live View.  I’d like to see Nikon mimic what Canon has accomplished by not requiring the extra mirror movement.  Lastly, I must exit Live View to review any pictures taken.  I understand it’s *Live* View and not *RE*View, but it seems like an unnecessary step.

The list of features and menu selection capabilities is truly dizzying and I can’t hope to cover them all in this one review.  So I want to hit on some of the items I find most useful in the Nikon D90.

First, the light switch is very well placed and something I wish I could move over to my current camera.  The On/Off/Light switch is located on the front of the shutter release button and only requires a slight flick of the finger to get the top display light to illuminate.  For shooting at night when it’s hard to find all the buttons, this location is perfectly at hand.

Next, one of the menu items that caught my eye is the ability to change the spot meter size.  I’ve often found myself dissatisfied with the size the spot meter in my cameras.  It’s either seemed too small or too large, taking in more than just a spot.  Nikon addressed this concern by allowing the user to change the size of the center spot.  In the menu fields it’s possible to pick either 6mm, 8mm or a 10mm size for the center spot.  This seems like such a simple change and for someone like me it’s much appreciated.

The Nikon D90 is GPS capable!  Finally, more and more, we are seeing cameras with the ability to attach a GPS receiver and write the location information directly to the image when taken.  This is heaven for those of us who enjoy recording our travels and posting maps showing location and image together.  Nikon offers a GPS device that attaches to the flash hotshoe (not the best location) and there are some third party products in the works which will use an extended grip, much like Nikon’s battery grip, to accomplish this capability.  This will be a standard feature on most cameras moving forward and it’s good to see Nikon make this a reality.

Now about that Function button I mentioned earlier.  Yes, it’s handy and easy to use, but what does it do?  It is a user programmable button with up to ten functions depending on your likes and dislikes.  When pressed it can control:

  • Framing Grid Overlay (on/off)
  • Auto-Focus Area Mode
  • Center Focus Point (normal/wide)
  • Flash Value Lock
  • Flash Off
  • Light Metering (Matrix/Center Weighted/Spot)
  • Access Top Item In My Menu
  • Add RAW Image

I’m intrigued by the In-Camera Editing feature.  Some adjustments seem a bit cumbersome, but others, such as the D-Lighting control, are quite helpful.  D-Lighting allows for an increase or decrease in highlights and shadow detail much like the manipulation of curves in Photoshop.  With four settings it’s possible to even out a high contrast photo to reveal hidden detail.  The straightening feature is also handy but not if there are a lot of images needing help.  It’s still better to handle large amounts of edits outside of the camera.

Lastly, and this will seem like a small item to most out there, I’m really excited to see Nikon give a full range of Auto-Timer options.  Not only is it possible to select anywhere from one to nine images to be taken when the auto-timer is set, but there are four different pause intervals, including a twenty second option!  In the past month I’ve had at least two occasions where I needed just a bit more than the standard ten second countdown before I got into the picture.  Thank you, Nikon, for helping some of us not have to sprint to get in our own picture.

The Nikon D90 packs a lot into a well balanced, attractive package.  While I have noted some quirks of the camera, I’d use one in a heartbeat if I had more Nikon lenses.  It’s a great combination building on Nikon’s excellent photo quality with the addition of High Definition video and some very well thought out photographic features.

Get at price on the Nikon D90 DSLR at Amazon’s Nikon D90 DSLR page.

Courtesy: Digital Photography School

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