UPDATE 11/26/2009: I've owned this camera for over a year now, and I can only say that I'm still thrilled by it. My friend recently told me that I took the best photos at his wedding among the many people there with all sorts of high-powered digital cameras. I credit this in part to luck (of course!), in large part to the camera (for doing auto-focus, auto-exposure, auto-sharpening, etc. all automatically with ZERO bad exposures among hundreds of photos), and in small part to me (for framing the shots and being semi-competent with the camera). This camera+lens kit was a bargain at $1200+ last year, and it's down to $1100 or so this year, making it an even better deal!
Recommend this product?
Skip down and read "USER EXPERIENCES" first if that is what you want to know about, the BODY and LENS section is for those who want to know the technical details. :)
I'm going to assume that anyone willing to spend over $1000 on a camera knows the basics of photography, so excuse my use of abbreviations like fps (frames per second) and MP (megapixel). Please scroll down to "User Experiences" if you want to see how the D90 is without comparing it to its older predecessor, the D80.
Nikon's D80 was a very-well-regarded camera that ceased production in 2009 to make way for the D90. The D90 is better in almost every respect.
Most things are pretty similar between the D80 and D90. They both have good flash performance, similar startup and shutdown times, shutter lag times, capacity to take bursts of photos, etc. They both use the same, good autofocus system (CAM-1000). They have similar rugged-plastic builds over aluminum chassis that is okay unless you drop the camera on concrete or something, and neither is waterproof. Both use the EN-EL3e Lithium-Ion battery and use the same wireless remote control. Both take SD/SDHC cards. The D90's size is identical to the D80. The D90 is very slightly heavier (703 grams to the D80's 668 grams; both not including battery, card, or lens weight).
The main differences between the D80 and D90 are:
- Active D-Lighting. The D90 has an option called "Active D-Lighting" where the camera automatically extends the dynamic range so you capture more details in the shadows while simultaneously capturing details in brighter areas. It works quite well. (Regular D-Lighting is almost useless, as it's an after-the-fact touchup that you can do in Photoshop by yourself.)
- LCD. 920,000 pixels on a 3" LCD. This is a next-generation LCD screen and blows away the D80's screen (230,000 pixels, 2.5"); you can now zoom in and better tell if you are in focus or not, though for best results you still want to use the optical viewfinder.
- Anti-dust mechanism (the low-pass filter shakes off dust automatically at startup and shutdown, though you can turn this off or customize it so it only shakes at startup OR shutdown).
- The D90's sensor is 12.3 megapixels, not 10 megapixels like the D80. The D90 sensor is also more advanced and has been compared to the D300's sensor; you don't get noticeable noise until ISO 800, unlike the D80 where you started getting noise at ISO 400 or so.
- Live View. This is pretty useless to me since I like staring through the optical viewfinder, but you are forced to use it when you use the...
- ...video mode at 720p resolution. You are limited to five minutes at 720p resolution, or almost a 1/2 hour at lesser resolutions like 640x480. The main problems with video mode: before you start recording, you must go to Live View and use electronic autofocus, which is a lot slower than optical autofocus and requires you to use the LCD screen to compose your video. Once you start recording video, you are limited to manually autofocusing. No optical autofocus makes it a real pain to take videos in bright sunlight since there will be a lot of glare on the LCD screen, though this problem is common among all cameras.
- GPS encoder is an optional accessory. Sits on the hotshoe and embeds in the EXIF data the precise GPS coordinates where your photo was taken.
- D90 auto-corrects purple fringing (chromatic aberration). D80 doesn't.
- D80 maxed out at 3 frames per second (fps) in burst mode; D90 maxes out at 4.5 fps in burst mode. Both pale in comparison to more advanced cameras like the D3 which can take more than 8 shots per second, but that's more for professional sports photographers.
- The D90 has color tracking for better continuous-focus tracking of moving objects than the D80, but it's not a huge difference in practice.
Other than the differences I highlighted above, you'd be hard pressed to see the differences between the D80 and D90 unless you intentionally tried to highlight the differences.
- Special Note: In order to use older Nikon lenses (non "AF-S" series), you must have a screw drive. This is less of a problem as time goes on and Nikon (slowly) updates its lens lineup to include more and more AF-S lenses, which DO work with even the low-end dSLRS, but it remains a problem, especially since some of the really good lenses are only available without AF-S. The cheaper Nikons like the D40/D40X and D60 DO NOT come with the screw drive! The mid-range and high-end cameras like the D80, D90, D300, etc. DO come with screw drives.
As for the lens, the 18-105mm lens is $400 retail but you get it for basically $100 off if you buy it with the D90. (D90 body = $999, 18-105mm lens = $400, but together they are sold at $1299. Prices are current for early October 2008 though there are signs that the prices are already dropping.)
The 18-105mm VR lens (27-158mm in 35mm-equivalent terms) is consistently sharp throughout its entire zoom range (almost as sharp as the vaunted 16-85mm VR), with low chromatic aberration and relatively low distortion (concentrated mainly at the wide end at 18mm). Overall it's a good, sharp lens with a very useful zoom range for walking around when you don't know what to expect, but beware of its drawbacks:
- It has a plastic mount, not metal. (In practice there is no difference, though, unless you switch lenses a LOT.)
- It's DX, also known as cropped-frame, so it's meant for crop-body cameras like the D40, 60, 70, 80, 90, 300, etc. though technically you can use it in cropped mode on the D3 and other full-frame Nikon dSLRs. It just won't be very pretty due to all the vignetting.
- The 18-105 VR uses an older form of Vibration Reduction, not the newer VR II technology. VR I is supposed to give you 3-stops of image stabilzation, not 4 stops like the VR II system, and while one stop doesn't sound like much, it can make the difference in some circumstances since it corresponds to a HALVING of shutter speed!
Overall, the 18-105 is a great bargain relative to the 16-85mm VR and 18-200mm VR lenses, which cost twice as much and yet don't deliver quite as much bang for the buck.
I would like to state that I do in fact own this and two other cameras (both Canons), along with the Nikkor 18-105mm VR, 18-200mm VR, 24-70mm ED, 50mm f/1.4D, and 105mm Micro VR lenses. The Nikon D90 just came out and its performance really depends on the lens as well.
The D90 is a joy to use, easily customizable, doesn't usually mess up the exposure time with its intelligent metering (so you will have fewer washed-out photos or too-dark photos), and it just plain feels right in my hands. I recently got a wireless off-camera flash (the Nikon Speedlight SB-800) and it works flawlessly with the D90. The D90's LCD makes it easy to verify sharpness of a shot in Review mode, though it's still not quite good enough to focus in Live View using eyesight alone. (By the way, Live View's slow autofocusing takes as many as 3 seconds in low light before locking on. All the more reason to stick with the optical viewfinder, which uses a much faster type of AF.)
The camera + 18-105mm VR kit lens takes sharp images and has a useful focal range of about 27-158mm (35mm equivalent). I've used it to take portraits and landscapes and macro. The lens is okay for portraits but doesn't excel due to its limited aperture range (3.5-5.6) meaning that you can only get razor-thin depth of field if you shoot wide open and zoom out. It can do well enough in a pinch, though. Furthermore, the bokeh (out of focus blur) is good but not spectacular, so professionals will want another lens if bokeh is important to them. However, the landscape shots I've taken with the lens have been good, and distortion is low. Although the lens isn't really designed for macro work, it takes acceptable shots of things flower-sized and up.
Also, after using the 18-200mm VR and 18-105mm side by side, I can say that for me at least, it's a tie. The 18-105 has shorter zoom range but is sharper with less distortion and vignetting (I was at an airshow where I shot 18-200mm and 18-105mm side by side and the 18-200mm definitely had darker corners). But the 18-200 has a larger zoom range. They are both fairly sharp at the wide end, so if you already have a 18-200mm you'd be better off getting the D90 body only, without the 18-105mm kit lens.
One thing I found especially useful on the D90 was the option of having superimposed gridlines on the viewfinder. Although this feature is not unique to the D90, it possible to level out landscape shots without resorting to post-processing in Photoshop. The cheaper cameras like the D40 do not have this option.
Also, in practice the Active D-Lighting should be left on automatic because it really does help bring out the shadow details a bit. You could always turn it off and do your own exposure manipulation via RAW, but the camera does a good job by itself.
I also take indoor shots sometimes and can say that the D90's high-ISO performance is good. It's not a miracle worker, so don't expect it to have no noise at ISO 1600, but the noise at ISO 800 isn't bad, and at ISO 400 or lower, you'd be hard pressed to see any noise, even zoomed in at 100%.
The D90 has relatively strong anti-aliasing so you will want to turn your sharpness level up to +5 or so, away from the camera's default of +3. Yes, you can do this in Photoshop later on, but I prefer to have relatively sharp images straight out of my camera. Don't overdo it, though, because while the in-camera sharpening is pretty good, it will cause noise/artifacts past +6 or so.
One final word, and it's about the live view/video. I try to use only the optical viewfinder, but you MUST use the LCD viewfinder when taking videos. I was at an airshow where the sun was bright and behind me, with tons of glare on the LCD screen. This made it hard to focus. I basically had to use the optical viewfinder to track a moving jet, then hurry over to Live View and hit "OK" to start filming. Then I would basically have to pray that I was tracking the jet right, because I couldn't see anything in all that glare. I suppose I could have covered my head and camera with a bag or something like a 19th-century photographer, but come on! (To be fair, no other camera would give better results because as far as I know, they all require you to use LCD viewfinders when taking videos, no matter how much glare there is!) Also, there is no autofocus in video mode, so I was constantly trying to manual focus to keep jets in focus without knowing how good of a job I was doing since I couldn't see anything in all that glare. One last minor point: although aperture is locked automatically when you take video, unless you lock exposure prior to taking the video, the sensor will try to auto-expose the video resulting in abrupt changes to the exposure in the video. This is a minor problem because it's easy to learn to just exposure-lock before taking videos; it's a habit to me now.
UPDATED TO ADD: I subsequently shot video at a late-afternoon football game that was quite good, in bright light as well as twilight. Of course, I didn't have a ton of glare off the LCD that time, unlike the air show. :)
This is a great digital still camera in every respect (fast autofocus, good and easy control system, good flash and lens compatibility, good exposure metering, etc.), especially now that prices have fallen. Great Camera. Period.
As for the video mode, it's quite good once you get used to its quirks. It takes really nice photos and can operate in lower-lighting situations than most commercial video cameras, thanks to the D90's huge light sensor. Plus you can use different lenses to have depth-of-field effects, etc. that most commercial video cameras can't do.
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Amount Paid (US$): 1220
This Camera is a Good Choice if You Want Something... Solid Enough for a Professional