Nikon D90 review: Nikon D90

But I've no complaints about the D90's performance, which clearly improves upon the D80's. It has the same 11-point AF system, but Nikon adds an 11-point AF 3D-tracking mode that's a trickle-down technology from above. The camera feels exceptionally responsive for its class, which is borne out by our performance testing. For all but continuous shooting, it's about as fast as the D300, and overall one of the fastest in its class. It takes less than 0.2 second to power up and shoot. In bright, high-contrast conditions the shot lag runs about 0.4 second, while in harder-to-focus scenes that runs about 0.9 seconds. It typically takes about half a second to shoot two raw or JPEG frames in a row; enabling the flash bumps that to a still-respectable 0.7 second.

Continuous shooting on CNET Labs' tests typically clocked at about 4fps, which is very good for a sub-$1,000 model. In more casual tests using the 8GB SanDisk 30MB per second Extreme III SDHC card it reached about 4.5fps, as specced, without the buffer bottlenecking at all (our standard tests use a slower Class 6 card).

Even without the zippier card, the burst mode and AF system are certainly fast enough to keep up with kids and dogs--as long as you shoot JPEGs--which make this a great camera for parents of sports-minded children. The 11-point 3D-tracking AF mode is nice, as long as your subject moves in predictable ways. It was less successful trying to track a squirrel, for example, which randomly moved to and fro; the system would alternatively lock onto the tail and the head, whichever was closer to me.

Photo samples from the Nikon D90

Though it incorporates a 12-megapixel DX-format sensor, Nikon stresses that it's not the same sensor as in the D300. The pixels are the same size, however, and though it uses only 12-bit processing rather than 14-bit like the D300, Nikon claims high-ISO quality as good as the D300's, thanks to the same on-chip noise reduction. Our numbers don't exactly bear that out--the D90 seems to perform better up to and including ISO 400, then they reverse--but they're still excellent and quite competitive with the 40D. As usual it depends upon scene content, but the photos are quite usable up to and including ISO 3200. As usual for Nikon, the D90 tends to underexpose, and the dynamic range of bright shots fares better than dark, but you can easily compensate. Overall, the tonal range is very good and colors are quite accurate, as well as nicely saturated. (You can find more discussion of the D90's photo quality here.)

D-Movie doesn't match the best of the snapshot-camera movie modes. I shot the flags blowing in the breeze and a fountain that I typically use to test camcorder and camera video. The clips themselves look OK, although for some reason Nikon bumps up the saturation beyond the photo settings, and I wish the camera shot 30fps instead of 24fps. You also need three hands if you plan to use the zoom--which requires manually focusing--because it's hard to hold this relatively heavy dSLR out in front of you steadily while shooting videos in Live View. But problems and quality aside, I still like the creative potential of the mode.

Ultimately, the Nikon D90 gets high marks because it's a fast camera that delivers a great shooting experience and first-rate photos for the money. If your budget can't stretch quite that far, the D80 remains an excellent deal at its price.

Shooting speed (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)
Time to first shot  
Raw shot-to-shot time  
Shutter lag (dim light)  
Shutter lag (typical)  
Nikon D90
0.2 
0.6 
0.9 
0.4 
Pentax K20D
0.2 
0.4 
1 
0.4 
Canon EOS 40D
0.3 
0.4 
1.2 
0.4 
Nikon D80
0.1 
0.3 
0.9 
0.5 
Sony Alpha DSLR-A700
0.5 
0.6 
1.2 
0.5 

Typical continuous-shooting speed (in frames per second)
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
Nikon D90
4 
Nikon D80
3.3 

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