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|| News Item: Posted 2008-10-03

Photographer's Toy Box: Nikon D90 Users Report
Myung J. Chun of the Los Angeles Times looks at the new camera that also shoots video.

By Myung J. Chun, Los Angeles Times

Photo by Myung J. Chun

Photo by Myung J. Chun

The Nikon D90 features 720p video capture via Live View. Interchangeable lenses offer numerous, creative possibilities.
My first thought upon seeing the new Nikon D90 was, ‘ Gee, that’s pretty small.’ And it is but it sits mid-pack as the D60 and D40 are smaller.

I didn’t know much about the camera when it was handed to me other than it shot 720p video, more on that later. The more I used it though, the more pleasantly surprised I was.

The newest Nikon is a consumer-level model targeted more towards soccer moms and dads but is quite competent doing medium-duty professional work. Users will find a camera packed full of creative controls. When you think consumer-level, you think cheaper quality, but the D90 feels solid and is very comfortable to hold.

The image files are huge thanks to its effective 12.3-megapixel CMOS DX format sensor. There are six picture control settings that allow the user to fine tune the images in-camera. Additionally, you can save up to 99 custom picture controls onto a memory card. I seriously doubt that any majority of the target audience will ever change the settings beyond the factory presets. For the serious hobbyists and professionals, there are enough settings and choices to keep them happy.

I shot everything in the Standard mode, JPEG-Fine with a default sharpness of 3 and found that I needed to apply more sharpening in Photoshop. The images were fairly neutral in tone with plenty of room to make minor color and exposure adjustments. As good as the images were, they lacked snappiness like what you would get from the D3. I know that’s not a fair comparison but there’s a certain amount of subjectivity involved when looking at pictures.

I used the D90 with the AF-S DX Nikkor 12-24 mm 1:4 G ED and AF-S Nikkor 70-300mm 1:4.5-5.6 G ED lenses. Their lightweight made them very comfortable to carry. There is a 1.5X focal length magnification. With the current crop of digital cameras capable of producing clean images at high ISO settings, I wasn’t too concerned with the slower lenses. In fact, the VR stabilizer on the 70-300 provided a very stable shooting platform.

The ISO range is from 200 to 3200 with Low and High settings (in 1/3 EV increments) that gives you an effective low of ISO 100 and a high of ISO 6400. At ISO 3200, noise in the blacks seemed to be kept to a minimum. Noise in the neutral areas (light gray, medium tones) was more noticeable. At High1.0 (6400), there was more noise as expected throughout the tonal range. However, for news work, the images were more than acceptable and the quality of the ISO 3200 image wasn’t even a possibility a couple of years ago. I was really impressed with this low-light capability from what is essentially a camera designed for beginners.

Photo by Myung J. Chun

Photo by Myung J. Chun

ABOVE: Fullframe of High1 (6400) image. BELOW: Detail of High1 (6400) image.
The camera motors through pictures at 4.5 fps and has a generous buffer – 25 for JPEG-Fine and 100 for JPEG-Normal and JPEG-Basic. However, if you’re shooting RAW or RAW+JPEG, you only get 9 and 7-frame buffers, respectively, which severely limits the use of those settings among sports or news photographers. As the image clears the buffer, you can take another shot but that second or two it takes to clear feels like forever.

The camera’s autofocus system seemed fast and accurate with little hunting during my testing. One complaint I have is with the placement of the back focus button. For those with small or medium-sized hands, the AE-L/AF-L button is an uncomfortable reach with the thumb. It’s placed about ?-in. too far to the left. Maybe it’s Nikon’s way of saying, “Use the shutter release button to focus.” Even so, I was using the back button to lock the focus or exposure. After a while, my thumb hurt.

A unique feature of the D90 that sets this DSLR apart from all others, until the recent announcement of the Canon 5D MkII, is its ability to record 720p (1280 x 720) video with sound. A wide range of available, interchangeable lenses opens up great creative possibilities, however, actual use is a little more problematic.

The camera captures footage as an AVI with Motion JPEG compression at 24 fps. In 720p, 5 minutes is the maximum recording length per clip. In 640 x 424 or 320 x 216, 20 minutes is the maximum recording length per clip.

The video mode is entered by pressing the Live View button on the back. Focus is acquired, which takes a second or two or three, by pressing the shutter release button half-way down or you can manually focus. Video is captured by pressing the OK button in the middle of the directional pad.

The video handling is a little awkward. Since the optical viewfinder and autofocus are disabled during recording, the LCD screen is used for focusing and framing. Bright conditions make the screen difficult to see for focusing which is more critical because of the shallower depth of field. Trying to follow a moving subject with the camera held away from you as you stare into the LCD screen is a lesson in frustration as you’re battling a shaky camera, manual focus ring and trying to find focus on a hard-to-see screen.

The thick manual doesn’t provide any information about adjustments for video -- only the ability to lock exposure with the AE-L/AF-L button. Swinging the camera horizontally creates an interesting distortion in which vertical lines tilt. I’m guessing it’s caused by the camera’s vertically traveling shutter.

I did like the ability to take a still photo during video recording allowing me to go from video to stills instantly. Pressing the OK button resumes video recording. Pressing the Live View returns you to still photography and the optical viewfinder.

The built-in microphone records a single mono track but is pretty useless as it picks up a lot of handling noise. The quality is no better than what you would get with a point-and-shoot that records video and sound.

Photo by Myung J. Chun

Photo by Myung J. Chun

The new Nikon D90 is a small, responsive camera to join the company lineup.
It’s easy to be critical about the video capabilities of this camera, because it’s not a video camera. It’s a very good still camera that happens to shoot 720p video. Beautiful video projects can be created with this camera if care is taken and the limitations of the camera are understood. I see the video function being used for specific shots – super tele or super wide-angle footages that would be incorporated into another video project.

The camera is designed for the point-and-shooters with video who want to move up to a DSLR and still have the video capability. For those who thought this was the hybrid camera that we’ve all been waiting for, no it’s definitely not it but the idea is there and the technology can only get better.

I liked the camera…as a still camera. I liked the lightweight and size. I liked the responsiveness and the big, image files and was impressed with its low-light capability. I can see the D90 being used as an around-the-neck camera at a sporting event or as a second camera for working photographers.

I didn’t like the placement of the back focus button as I found it too far of a reach for the thumb. I didn’t like the video function as I found the camera awkward to use in that capacity and was turned off by the panning image distortion. But for mom and dad shooting their kid’s little league game, this may be the perfect camera and all for an estimated selling price of less than $1,000.

(Myung Chun is a staff videojournalist at the Los Angeles Times. He is also the video guru for the Sports Shooter Academy.)

Related Links:
Myung's member page

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