Nikon D90

The world’s first digital SLR with video is here… and we’ve got it in our hands. We’ll run it through our little circus to see if you should spend your money on it!

One of the most common things people ask when buying a new digital camera is “will it do movie mode?” We seem to be hung up on this whole idea of making movies out of anything. Perhaps it’s all about bang for buck or perhaps it’s just an inherent desire to be in front of a video camera. Whatever it is, that question still pops up.

It pops up most when salespeople are asked about those professional-looking cameras that have lenses attached to them, single-lens reflex cameras. Previously, the answer has been “no” or at least a humbled “no” followed by a quick explanation of why.

All of that is about to change.

The Nikon D90 is the first of a new breed of digital single-lens reflex cameras. Previous SLRs were only capable of taking stills but the D90 is the first of its kind to actually record in video. But rather than just include a basic 640×480 video resolution like most would expect in an idea seen as a gimmick by most photographers, the video Nikon chose to include hits the almost full HD resolution of 720p. At 1280×720 pixels, it’s true you’re not getting 1080p’s 1920×1080 pixel resolution, but it’s still bloody impressive considering what you get.

Modeled around the lighter gauge bodies like the D50 and D80 that came before it, the D90 is more of an amateur to semi-pro camera. With a weight of 703 grams and an overall body size that looks about just right, the D90 feels solid in your hands. Regardless if you have big or small hands, you’ll feel comfortable holding the D90. Nikon have continued with the same ergonomics they’ve been running with since the introduction of the D70 and its Italdesign red triangle.

If you’ve ever owned a Nikon digital SLR, a few things have changed from the research that has come with the D300 and D700 professional bodies. On the one hand, the D90 keeps the top-down design that was made popular in its other smaller semi-pro bodies with an easy to use rotating wheel for selecting the type of mode you want to be in (sports, automatic, manual, etc.) but on the other the back of the body has changed significantly. The D90 now has the swanky 3 inch 920,000 pixel screen that proved popular on Nikon models released last year as well as a simplified control scheme that needs on a few button presses to run through different options.

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As an upgrade on the D80, the D90 fares well. A new 12.3 megapixel CMOS sensor developed by Nikon instead of the usually-used Sony sensors easily bests the older 10.2 megapixel CCD used in the D80. Further, the 12.3 megapixel sensor found in the D90 feels in some ways slightly better than the one in the D300. While you don’t get the 14-bit modes, it somehow feels that you’re not getting any less of a camera short of weight, size, and full blown weather-proofing.

It also works well on the ability for upgrading it with the D90 being able to take a GPS unit as well as the battery grip from the past D80 model. Get started looking on eBay people, there are deals to be had!

Not hampering you in any way, the D90 will let you shoot in ISO 100-6400 making it able to take pictures in very low light without the flash, something many people with little compact digital cameras often yearn for. Dust cleaning now comes standard with all of Nikon’s digital SLR cameras as does a whole array of new cool things you can use like in-camera retouching on RAW files, distortion control, black & white mode, facial recognition, vignetting control, and even a calendar display which is something I didn’t expect to see on a digital SLR anytime soon.

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What makes the D90 different from all other currently available DSLRs is the ability to shoot video and that’s made ever more accessible by the button labeled “Lv” on the back of the camera. The “Lv” button switches the camera into “LiveView” mode, a setting which flips the mirror up and allows you to use the LCD as the viewfinder. Traditionally, single-lens reflex cameras only allowed you to shoot through the viewfinder but in recent years with advances in digital technology, this has changed.

Improving upon other Nikon models and in what seems like a first, autofocus can now actually occur in LiveView without you needing the blindly hold the shutter lightly down and have it work its magic is as the mirror goes down. No, now autofocus works within LiveView which will definitely prove to be a treat for many budding photographers.

LiveView is where it gets interesting though because when you hit the middle “OK” button in the directional pad while in LiveView, the D90 will start recording video as well as sound through its mono microphone located at the top right of the camera. Menu options will allow you to choose from either 720p bursts of 5 minutes or 640×424 & 320×216 in bursts of 20 minutes. The five minute time limit is only in that 5 minute burst (which is why I use the term “burst”) so you can shoot 720p as much as you like at around 80MB per minute provided that you have 5 minutes with which to shoot each burst in. Afterwards, you can play back your videos complete with sound because of an inbuilt speaker found on the D90.

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Overall, the camera shoots well. We’re talking about a well designed camera that is likely to impress you at every turn. In situations where light is abundant, the noise performs admirably giving you quality more like what film had than the pixel-y goodness of many other cameras. when you kick it into high gear and push it to 3200 or Hi-1 (6400), the noise increases and the colour definition starts to lessen (no surprises there) but it still performs very well. The “flash” isn’t something that’s quite extinct with the D90 but using it will probably happen less and less now.

Interestingly, I found that the auto white balance responded better than I’d ever seen on a Nikon camera.

With a light video mode sitting inside of a great digital still camera, we’re actually looking at a glimpse of the future. Digital SLRs like the Nikon D90 and even the upcoming Canon 5D Mark II look to give video cameras a run for their money for two reasons:

  1. You can actually change the lens on these video cameras giving you better lens quality and a more diverse range of focal lengths to use, and
  2. When you go on vacation, which would you want to bring: one camera that does it all or two cameras that you have to make room for? I know which one I would choose.

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Like all things though, there are a couple of downsides.

While the D90 shoots at a film frame rate of 24fps – a very useful thing if you’re planning to make a movie – it uses the Motion JPEG format to do so. This normally wouldn’t bother me but short of using the Nikon installation disc and installing their software or having a MainConcept codec licensed to you, editing might be a pain. Yes, you’ll actually have to install software if you want to edit your videos. I’ve tried it with Vegas & Premiere and while my installation of Windows had no problem reading the videos, neither of the editing suites enjoyed much success. It should be fine for uploading to YouTube and, as I say, it’ll all turn out fine if you install the software, but for those expecting a run & gun sort of attempt with these files, you’ve been forewarned.

Another downside is something which might annoy some first time users expecting video to be a simple process. When shooting video in the D90, you’ll have to manually focus. Manual zoom is a given seeing that the lenses don’t have motors for zooming in and out, but it’s strange that you need to focus manually in the video mode when you don’t in LiveView. Canon have stated that they don’t with their upcoming 5D Mark II – a camera that’s twice the price and targeted at the professional sector – but they also suggest that you don’t. Perhaps Nikon prefer the logic that you’ll at least be learning something as you focus manually. Focusing by hand doesn’t concern me and it shouldn’t you either, but it is something to be aware of.

Likewise, compared to the 5D Mark II it would have been useful for Nikon to include a microphone input for recording video from something other than the mono mic it has, but then again this is geared towards amateurs and semi-professional photographers.

In the end though, it doesn’t matter. Nikon have produced a master stroke. There isn’t a lot you can write that’s bad about the D90, short of all the annoyance people who just bought a D300 have felt when all they wanted was in the D90. For the price (which as of time of writing is an RRP of $1549 body only and $1849 with the 18-105 VR kit lens), it is an excellent deal considering you’re getting a decent video camera and an stunning stills camera all in a bundled package.

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Product: Nikon D90

Vendor: Nikon Australia

RRP: From $1549

Website: Nikon D90

Written by Leigh D. Stark