Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Nikon D90 Review

Nikon D90: Penultimate enthusiast shooter
Digial single lens reflex camera
12.2 mp, DX (APS-C), 4.5 fps, SD(HC), ISO 100-6400
Street: $900, body only; $1,200, w/ kit 18-105

At right: the D90 hanging on for dear life behind the Zoom Nikkor 17-35 f:2.8 with the now discontinued SB-800 providing illumination.

In a hurry? Get one, but skip the kit.

The good:
» Active D-Lighting helps tame high contrast shots
» Excellent performance at high ISO/ASA
» Fantastic configuration makes this a camera for the blind
» 4.5 fps a 50% improvement over the D80
» Fantastic flash exposures - better than the D300!
» Exposure comp button should last, since the D80 meter is gone

The bad:
» Kit 18-105mm lens is a pass - not even real AF-S
» LiveView autofocus is disappointing, even with f:2.8 AF-S glass
» Software needed to use body as card-reader
» Nikon software needed to use body as webcam

The ugly:
» Video limited to five minutes at HD-720
» No accommodation for piping in external audio into video
» Kit lens stinks - labeled AF-S but isn't, might burn up the focus motor

Handling: A-
Production: B
Performance: B+
Construction: B+
Value: A*

* Body only; kit is B-

Introduction ~

The D90 replaces the D80, which was getting long in the tooth by the time this newer body started shipping. This particular D90 replaced my old D80, which hand-me-downed to another newsie who had been happily shooting a D70s. The -90 is a little higher resolution, at 12.2 mp to the -80's 10, which leads to JPGs around 6MB in L|Fine.

I won't get into the RAW v JPG pissing match, except to say as a newsie I shoot JPG because it's faster in every way. My buffer is deeper, my cards hold more shots and our photo department can tear away on stuff much faster than wrestling with NEFs. I've sold 12x18 prints from the D80 shooting at L|Norm and the exercise was trivial. I'm working on making a 24x36 of one of those same L|Norm JPGs.

Nikon bodies:
D40 -- D40x -- D60
D50 -- D70 -- D70s -- D80 -- D90
D100 -- D200 -- D300 // D700
D1x -- D2x -- D3

The D90 is Nikon's second-tier camera. I'd call it an enthusiast offering, above consumer but below prosumer and professional. It is also Nikon's newest body, having shipped about six months after the D700 (FX or 35mm frame) and a year after the D3 and D300. The year's wait shows. The D90 incorporates most of the D300's tricks and several from the D3, as well, while adding video and automatic Auto D-Lighting.

As a PJ I like both of those features a lot. The ADL, or in Ken Rockwell parlance, adaptive dynamic range (ADR), is good enough in the D300, so long as you remember to set it accordingly. The D90 seems to do a pretty good job of selecting itself. The video is also a nice touch, as it means I don't have to carry separate equipment to cover something quick with a video clip to throw up on my newspaper's website. Less equipment is a good thing.

Handling ~

As a PJ and newsie, it's hard to overstate the importance of good handling and ergonomics. The D90's 12.2 megapixels are more than sufficient for newspaper work. Unless I'm shooting something for my own use I usually stick with M|Norm JPGs. A Sandisk 4GB card, which I stole from Adorama for $10 with rebate, holds over 2,000 snaps at that setting, or about 650 at L|Fine and 300 in NEF. Frequency of card changes is a handling issue. Also, in everything from L|Fine on down in terms of size and quality, the Class 6 SDHC card and buffer will work indefinitely. You'll run into Nikon's arbitrary 99 shot ceiling, but just lift your finger for a moment to reset the counter and blast away again. With some finagling you can increase the camera from 4.5 fps to 24; you'll just need to pull stills out of the resultant AVI video.

With a few evolutionary improvements, the D80 control layout remains. The multi-selector is much, much improved, even better than that of the D300. There just isn't much I can't set with push-spin between a button and a command dial. Good job!

The -90 also feels like someone put a glob of clay in my hand and told me to squeeze before setting the camera mold. I have big, clumsy paws, but the controls on this body are intuitive. Even with insulated leather gloves on, with only the right index and left thumb cut out, there are no worries.

This camera is also about a six-pack lighter than the D300, and a bit lighter than the D80 that it replaces, as well. Hurray!

Split between performance and handling is the rear screen. You simply must see one (the same as the D3, 300, and 700) to believe it. Not only that, but playback is snappy and the new multi-selector can do diagonal, too.

The integrated flash is no slouch and also works as a master for supported Speedlights including the SB-600, 800, and newest 900. Flash exposure onboard is the best I've seen, bar none. Things only get better with an external. (I've used the SB-28DX, 800, and 900 on the digital Nikons.) And in the few situations were the integrated psychic-computer can't figure out your perfect fill flash, program the AE-L/AF-L button to fire a strobe and lock exposure. Even with multiple flashes it's damned near infallible. In the 1-1,000 times when flash-lock doesn't work, manual compensation is also a poke-spin away, ±3 EV. The above photo shows two more or less identical shots taken seconds apart. The first was with flash-lock, the second with EV-1⅓ flash compensation. The first exposure was technically correct, but wasn't the look I wanted. But 99.9% of the time it will be.

Production ~

The D90 makes fantastic photos out of the box on full-idiot-auto (Green-Auto). F/I/A works well enough for 90% of shots, really (and is good for beginners because the camera is intelligent enough to pop up the flash whenever it is needed, something many of our photogs need help in remembering). The rest of the settings are just refinements to give the shooter more total control, or to override when the shooter has something in mind that might not be technically correct.

If you hand your -90 to a newbie, just put it on Green-Auto, and they'll get the shot. Just don't refer to it as F/I/A while they're within earshot.

I ignore everything except F/I/A, P (Program), S (Shutter priority), A (Aperture or f-stop priority) and M (Manual). Don't ever let a newbie accidentally slip the program knob into No-Flash, either. If they want no flash, they can shoot in Program.

As I mentioned above, I often shoot in medium resolution with normal JPG compression. If I'm shooting something at the long end of my zoom and will be cropping-in, I do shift up to L|Fine. To steal a line from Ken Rockwell, I occasionally shoot in RAW just to remind myself what a pain in the ass it is.

The popup flash works great for most stuff. I only need a Speedlight for special stuff, or if I'm shooting at point blank with my 17-35 since it's so large it casts a shadow.

Use a dedicated card-reader for top-speed, or run Transfer NX (included). I'm not a huge fan of Capture's interface, but it saves me a few steps in identifying images I've already transferred and copying to two locations for an instant backup. Rockwell recommends formatting a card (hold down the Trash and Meter buttons together for a few seconds, let up when the display blinks and tap them both again) each time you pull photos, and I generally agree. But I like an off-site backup, as well. I'll pull photos at work, bring my rig home and do the same here, and then format the card.

Here's a quirk, mentioned in the manual but nevertheless a strange obscurity: shooting in regular RGB colorspace, filenames are DSC_0000, but shooting in Adobe makes them _DSC0000. Go figure.

Performance ~

I've already mentioned most of it above. In JPG M|Norm you'll hit the 99-shot ceiling before you run out of buffer. Release your finger for a hair of a second and you're back in action. In L|Fine you can still get about six shots off in a burst. I hear the Sandisk 30mb/sec Extreme III cards are about 50% quicker.

You can shoot S (single), Ch (4.5 fps) or Cl (configurable from 1-4 fps) from the shutter release. Additional options are remote (the wonderful IR is visible in my hand in the top photo), remote self-timer, self-timer and self-timer-multiple (2-9 frames). After driving a D80 for 10 months, 4.5 feels like a machine-gun. You can tell the difference without having a D80 handy. The D300, on the other hand... I couldn't tell much off a difference until I put one in each hand and stuffed the shutter in Ch.

The D90 turns on in about an instant. You can try it at home: switch to manual focus, hold down the shutter and use another finger to throw the power on. I couldn't detect any delay. Resumption from what little sleep mode there is is flash-bang quick, too. Autofocus speed is about the same as the D300 and a whit quicker than the D80 in all but the dimmest light, where the -300 has an edge. (Hint: my boss, with the D300, keeps the wonderful 18-200 f:3.5-5.6 on his body. When I have my 17-35 f:2.8 on, however, I can best him in any light, except at 18mm, where we are a draw.)

Program shift, denoted as an inverted P* in the viewfinder and LCD displays, works flawlessly. The camera magically knows how long to remember the shift before falling back into regular Program.

My boss and I disagree on a few issues, but he can get his own blog. First, I find the meter on the D90 to be almost idiot-proof. ("Make something idiot-proof and they'll built a better idiot." --Ed. What's life without progress?) The D80 almost always wanted to overexpose about ½-stop, leaving me jacking around between -⅓ and -⅔ EV compensation. Sometimes I would find myself at +1 EV. The D90 improves upon this, and works well unless I'm shooting something very dark on a light background -- see right: bottom is matrix meter 0, top is +2 EV.

I also think the flash exposure works even better than on the D300, with both the older SB-800 and the new -900, and a good-bit better than the D80. Unless you like arguing as I do, it isn't worth the bruised egos: all three have excellent flash-exposure whether popup or Speedlight.

Battery life isn't worth discussing. If you carry one spare you will never go wanting in a day, unless you shoot the hell out of the popup flash. Two batteries and the charger will get everyone by. (If it doesn't, step up to the D3.) One battery and the charger will get 95% of you by. Remember: Nikon recommends you charge your battery daily. These don't suffer memory, throw them on the charger whenever it's handy.

Construction ~

The D90 makes no claim to be bulletproof, like the industrial strength D3. But I doubt anyone will wear one out. The D80 I had been using has clocked about 120,000 exposures and is still in active duty. There were only two signs of wear and tear: the rubber padding on the rear of the camera was starting to come loose (nothing a little Crazy glue can't solve) and the paint was worn off of the exposure compensation button (due to the D80's defective meter, which liked to overexpose ⅓-stop -- corrected in the D90).

The rear display -- did I mention it is gorgeous? -- only has a plastic cover, not glass as does the 300/700/3, so keep the protector on it. You don't want to screw it up. Hell, I kept the static wrap on it until it was wilted half-off.

I doubt anything but outright abuse or neglect would damage this body. One thing, however, to keep in mind: be weary of shooting in rain or snow. You'll want a D3 if you plan on doing a lot of that, or make like me and keep some plastic bags in your shooting bag. Most non-pro (i.e. <$2,000) Nikkor zooms don't respond all that great to moisture, either. (Hint: if you're also a PJ and don't mind cropping a bit, cut a hole in one of your bags a little smaller than the front element and screw the filter on over it to hold it on.)

The one construction/durability/safety issue I wish Nikon would address would see them add a positive release to the SD door. I know better than to ask for CF in their lower-tier cameras, and SD is catching up in speed and capacity (to the point where ... who needs a 16gb chip?), but adding a latch would be nice. Sometimes I do paw open the card door.

Value ~

As a body-only, selling for about $900 as of Thanksgiving 2008, the D90 is the deal of the century. While also a fan of the $400 D40 (with the excellent 18-55 kit glass, no doubt), I think the D90 is worth it for anyone thinking about spending that sort of money. If you want an excellent photo rig but don't want to drop $1,630 (D90+18-200), ignore Rockwell and listen to Rockwell: shoot film instead of the D40.

The 18-105 VR lens kitted with the D90 is scrap. While a useful do-anything focal range, the lens itself is crap. It gets too slow too fast and isn't a real AF-S lens. Well, I suppose it is -- it has an integrated focus motor in the lens so the D40/x and D60 can autofocus with it -- but you can't override autofocus without throwing a switch! Compare that to a real AF-S lens, like the 70-300 VR, at right. Nikon knows this: that's why the 18-105 is labeled A-M and the tele is M/A-M. The reason the M is first on the tele is because manual focus gets priority. No such luck on the 18-105, even though its branded AF-S. This is, thankfully, the only AF-S branded Nikkor I know of to be so crippled.

(As an FE owner, don't even get me started on G lenses...)

Lens recommendations ~

If you have special needs you know what they are. But, especially in light of my trashing on the kit glass, I thought it prudent to offer a few suggestions. First, buy the body only. Then you can start thinking about what to do. Second, don't put the cludge 17-35 on your D90, as I have. I did so because my boss bought that lens back in the film days and I happen to like it, but its heavy, not to mention about $1,350 used. I like it for because it focuses laser-quick, focuses super-close, and has nice Bokeh.

For journos and PJ's, I recommend the excellent 18-200 do-anything. It is a VR lens and reasonably sized. It's also $650 new, and even two years after their introduction can be difficult to secure. If you're not a PJ, or are on a budget, have I got a deal for you! A coworker of mine recently purchased said 18-200 to replace his 18-55 and 55-200, both lenses par-excellence. He unloaded that glass on eBay. I'll have to check with him, but I think he may have sold both for $200, the (second-best) deal of the century! That's $1,100 for a D90 and 18-200mm coverage. With the built in sensor cleaning in the D90 changing lenses isn't as big of a crisis as with older Nikons.

The 70-300 pictured above is also a good lens. It isn't much faster than the 55-200, but I like it all the same. If it weren't so damned expensive I'd recommend it with an 18-55, but I can't. And avoid older 70-300 no-VR no-ED glass version. They are cheap used, but the build quality, like the design of the 18-105, should bring shame to Nikon.

I'm solidly in Thom Hogan's camp in being of the opinion that Nikon should introduce some DX (APS-C) prime glass, as well. If you have money, though, look for the new Nikkor 50mm f:1.4 AF-S, brand new. The older, regular AF 50mm f:1.4 should be nice, too. If you can find a used 35-70mm f:2.8 for cheap, I happen to like that lens, even if the macro mode is goofy. The old-school pro ED-AF 70-200 f:2.8 works well enough if you can find one cheap. While a little slower for autofocus, we have two at the office and I borrow one to shoot low light sports. It's a pig. But you get f:2.8 at 200mm, as opposed to f:5.3 on the above 70-300 and f:5.6 on both the 55-200 and 18-200.

A final note ~

I mention Ken Rockwell extensively above, and have a link to Thom Hogan as well. Most of my references are to Rockwell. I respect both of them and read them both closely -- where I quibble with Rockwell it is to point out our disagreements. The whole review would be in blue links if I highlighted stuff we agree about. You should read both of them. I tried not to repeat too much of what Rockwell says in his -90 review, but some of that is unavoidable. Please let me know how you feel about this review, and if there's anything else you would like to know. I focus on the PJ/journo/newsie side of things, because that's my day job. And, yes, I'm still waiting for the High-Sheriff to throw down the scratch for a D3 (or even a D700 so my 17-35 can realize its full potential as a wide-angle). But until then: I'm very happy with my D90.

Modest Holdings a/k/a Jonathan Green

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