Nikon D90 IRL Review

DSC01305 Nikon D90 IRL Review– The Nikon D90 was my first major foray into a serious large sensor camera. Prior to this, I had been dreaming of a large sensor camera for years. My previous cameras were all small sensor cameras. Previously, I had been mostly with point and shoots. My enthusiast venture started with the Nikon P5100 and Canon S3IS. While both of these cameras were quite amazing for me for their time, they had serious limitations. The Canon was very prone to noise, and the noise removal in JPEG was pretty awful. The Nikon was incredibly slow. While the Nikon’s IQ was actually quite good (good enough that I don’t mind shooting with it still to this day), it was limited by noise as well, but not as bad as the Canon. I also hated how slow it was. Basically with these two cameras, you had to shoot in perfect lighting, or use flash. I was longing for a low light monster, and the DSLR itch was creeping on me.

The D90 had a bit of a legendary status behind it. It was slotted to replace the D70 and D80, and sit between the entry level D40/D40X, and the pro level D300/D300s. Reviews started hyping up the D90 sensor train, stating it was almost like a baby D300 in performance. This was a big deal for me, because I was looking for a massive jump in IQ, particularly in low light.

One day, while perusing sale flyers, I saw an amazing price for the D90. With memory express’ 25% off the price difference, I swung by and nabbed the D90/18-105VR kit. This was nearly 7 years ago! ISO 800 became an available option for me! The following is my IRL review of the Nikon D90. Fun tip- I typed this entire review on the Sony VAIO TZ ultraportable- thats another review soon to come!DSC01315

Design- Its a Nikon DSLR. There’s really not a whole lot I can talk about design here. Its slightly larger than the entry level Nikon DSLRs at the time (D40/D60), and meant to be the enthusiast cam- therefore, it adds a few extra controls, a top level info LCD, and an in-body screw motor. The latter allows it to use older Nikon lenses that do not have motors built in (I have one 50mm f1.8 for this). This was originally a big point for me, because I wanted access to the older Nikon catalogue of lenses. This would later prove to be a moot point for me, because I have not done so at all. The top level LCD was important to me because I like having more info at my hands, at all times. The extra controls were a plus for me, because mechanical buttons to change settings ont eh fly, rather than dig through menus is huge (cough Sony NEX cough). It has an IR port for remote shutter control, a huge plus for me (and one that I use regularly in most of my cameras). The grip is a nice chunky one, and stood out to me compared to other DSLRs I was familiar with because of friends- i.e. Canon Rebel

One of the things that bothered me about the D90 was that just a year later, mirrorless cameras hit the market hard. With the same sized sensor, I was choked seeing the Sony NEX-5 out on the market. I remember being mind blown seeing it in person at Marine Land. It was miniscually tiny compared to the D90. This would later be less of a deal for me as I realized the differences in handling. That DSLR design is just huge though.


Handling- This is a hard one for me. The grip is maddeningly meh. Its much better than the entry level D60 grip, and the Canon Rebel, but its not deep enough for me. When I picked up the Sony A700 and A77 later, it drove me nuts how well the grip on those bodies fit my hands. I ended up putting Sugru on my grip to try to make it fit better, but it only improved a little. For example, on my P5100, it just molds right into my hand, and feels secure from just holding it. The D90 feels like I have to squeeze hard physically to grip it. The a700/77 feel just like the p5100. Its not a deal breaker, but for an enthusiast camera, I would have wanted a better grip. The grip material is also too smooth for my liking. Nikon improved this with the D7000 later, and gave it a grippy rubber.

I love the button layout- dual jog dials font and back, make aperture/shutter speed control a breeze. The numerous buttons everywhere make it so so so easy to control. I love shooting with the D90. This is why the NEX range had to open up to the NEX-7’s tri dial control. The control on enthusiasts DSLRs was just light years ahead of the NEX-5. I still hate shooting with the NEX-5, even though it was meant to be the enthusiast model, vs the NEX-3. This is almost a given, that most enthusiast level DSLRs have immense levels of manual control, while their mirrorless brethren are just starting the catch up. Even though the a6000 makes good use of at least two dials, most of the options are buried in the menus. And those two dials are on the back. A front dial like the one on the d90 adds quicker ease of use, so two digits are able to operate the dials simultaneously. I do wish those jog dials were rubberized like the one on the d7000 series, but the ridged plastic will do fine.

As much as I like the immense amount of manual control on this camera, its just to big for me, to be an everyday carry camera. The weight gets to me quite fast, and its immensely heavier than any of my mirrorless/fixed lens cameras. I don’t feel insecure at all complaining about the weight of this camera- as a lifter, I think its a little ridiculous that I have problems lugging this camera around. For an event, I can see it worth taking. But for shooting everyday, I would be super annoyed pulling this around. Considering its the same sensor size as the NEX-5, its such a huge issue for me to bring this out for shooting casually. The one thing holding me back is of course the image quality/ease of use. More on that IQ later. But that weight/bulk is a pretty big setback. Comparing it to the a6000 with the 18-105F4, the D90 with the 18-105VR is a beast. Its somehwat mitgated by the awesomeleather grip Nikon makes- it securely ties it to my hand and makes the camera feel like its part of my body. A very very very heavy part of my body. Perhaps its unfair for me to judge the weight of the d90 specifically, as most DSLRs are like this, compared to mirrorless cameras. It is not just the D90 in particular. I do wish some of that bulk was made up with the intense magnesium skeleton that its successors are made of though. One last thing on that bulk- it balances out well with large lenses, so it doesn’t feel as awkward.


That bulk also limits me with street shooting- despite it being much much smaller than a full frame camera, like the d700/800 series or a d5, it stands out whenever it is pulled out my bag, and people react to it. It takes away the ability to shoot discrete. One of the reasons I am hunting for a white NEX cam is that it makes it look more like a toy/tourist camera, and doesn’t grab as much attention. Its also a limitation that live view shooting on this is so slow and the LCD is fixed. Its almost a given that you are going to be shooting at eye level. Again, this forces you to bring it up to point it at the subject, grabbing attention, again. In comparison, a multi angle LCD like the a6000, or even better, the one on the P7700, let you shoot at all kinds of angles in more discrete fashion.

Another huge thing about the D90 is the speed- its light years ahead of any mirrorless/fixed lens camera I own in shot to shot time/AF acquisition time/operation time. I just really like how this doesn’t get in the way of the camera. I can leave it in Auto and give it to a friend/family member and trust they don’t have to know the quirks of how to use it, to get a shot. Meanwhile, with the majority of my other cameras, they are so slow, that people often don’t know how to use them and often miss the shot/lose the kodak moment. While the a6000’s AF has a good reputation, its several years newer than the D90- that’s how good DSLRs were! Compared to the somewhat same aged NEX-5, its no comparison at all. Much much slower to get AF lock, much slower in shot to shot times…the DSLR is still a great machine to use. While IQ is super important, its still important that handling doesn’t get in the way of shooting. Certanly speed is not a limiting factor here, unlike a lot of other caemras I have used- i.e. DSC-F828/P5100. That’s always good to have. That’s one of the reasons I like the a6000 so much- it never seems to get in the way of my shooting, and its just fun to shoot with- too easy even! And that’s the D90, aside from the weight/bulk. Its a fun camera to shoot with, because the speed doesn’t get in the way. The NEX-5 offers good IQ (not on the level of the D90 though), but the handling gets in the way of it, and I have to think more about getting the shot, versus immersing myself in the moment. Certainly, that is waht makes it fun to shoot with challenging cameras, but I don’t want that all the time, especially if it makes me miss my shot.

One thing I forgot to write about was the AF assist lamp- its a gigantically bright white LED. One of the reaons I chose the Nikon over Canon’s rebel, was that the AF assist lamp seemed less intrusive- Canon does flashing with the xenon flash to assist with AF. In retrospect, it probably doesn’t matter- the Nikon’s AF light is super bright. In contrast, Sony’s lamps are much dimmer and orange in color (or laser beams like the hologram AF lasers in the DSC-f828/v3/V1)


Shooting with the optical viewfinder is pretty awesome- its much much clearer than any optical viewfinder I have used (obviously much better than the tunneled viewfinders on cameras like the DSC-V3, or like every G series camera. I can’t really compare it to any other DSLRs, because I dont own any others. Compared to EVFs of the DSC-f828/R1 or Canon S3is, its a beauty to use. No refresh lag at all, and much clearer image (no pixelated nonsense). Compared to the a6000’s EVF, and that’s a tougher call. I appreciate having the preview image available on the EVF live. And the a6000 refreshes fast enough, with a sharp enough image that I have never been in wanting.

One of the things I like about the D90 is that there is so much to learn about it, I still haven’t shot half its potential yet. As I start to dig more into manual mode, the D90 is a perfect camera for that new level of control that I find personally challenging. Due to the excellent controls available, its quite fun to shoot and explore new challenges with the D90.

Build Quality- its rock solid. Despite not having the magnesium skeleton of the d7000 series, its never left me an impression of being cheaply made. I’ve rarely picked up a DSLR and felt like it was a toy, but some do come to mind- the Canon rebel series, Pentax *ist Digital, and Nikon’s own 3000/5000 series never left me with a nice impression. Despite taking it througha  range of environments, including winters and aweful humidity in Asia, its still a good camera – I never dropped it, but I don’t think I necessarily babied it either. What I do know is that the grip material peeled off in the Asian humidity- I’m guessing it was Singapore or Hong Kong that did it in. That was a little annoying- and this happened on my P7700 as well. Truth be told, I would feel more comfortable with this in the humidity than the a6000- the a6000 feels quite delicate in comparison- not cheap, but not something you want to be rough with. In a sense, the D90 is great, despite being an all plastic build without the weatherproofing seals/metal alloy skeleton of its successors.

Battery life- I am not sure how it compares to other DSLRs but the D90 is light years ahead of all my other digicams, including the a6000, in terms of battery life. Part of the reason is that it doesn’t need to power so many LCDs all the time,  just the monochrome LCD top level really. I would feel totally feel fine doing a full day of shooting with the D90. Meanwhile, the next best thing I have, the a6000, I would need at least two to three batteries to feel safe, and have one charging all the time too haha. So its great really.

Image Quality- Great up to ISO 800. 1250 is pushing it really, 1600 looks smeary, 3200/6400 are desperation attempts by me. That’s awesome compared to what I was shooting with at the time- ISO 200 was a barrier for me with all of my digicams. In fact, I never shot out of ISO 100 because digital noise was so awful. Its impressive that I can shoot with ISO 800 on a small sensor camera like the P7700 now (obviously not super clean, but impressive nonetheless). That’s how much sensor tech has changed. The a6000 in comparison lets me feel comfy with ISO 1600. The Nikon is just incredibly clean- compared to the sameish aged NEX-5, its still got the leg up in IQ. The NEX-5 just lacks the detail of the D90. I can say that the D90 is a step above, and you definitely need good lenses on the NEX-5 to show its APSC true colors. Meanwhile, the kits lens on the D90 is so good, that I can tell immediately which one is the D90 shooting, and which is the NEX-5. The DSLR just has a certain smoothness to it. Its great. That’s a bit of a cheap shot at the NEX, as the 18-105 has incredible reviews- great center/corner sharpness throughout the range, even wide open. Enough that it rivals pro lenses like the 17-55 f2.8. That’s awesome. But that’s for another review. The point is, that Nikon bundled an incredible kit lens with the D90, and its an amazing package. I’m particularly impressed with primes on the D90- the 50mm f1.8 looks amazing with the D90. Even compared to current lenses/bodies, the D90/50 mm f1.8 might be one of the best in terms of IQ that I own. Nice job Nikon. So basically, getting the D90 blew my phtography out of the water- it was a massive paradigm shift in power, one that I have not had since.

I have not had an issue with white balance, colors, anything really with IQ on the D90. I do think it might underexpose a bit, but thankfully there is an exposure button readily at hand. Nice. So to sum up- IQ is fantastic. Sure, modern cams have surpassed it, but not by a whole bunch (ISO 1600 being the max safe value on my a6000 vs. ISO 800 on the D90). And I am still very impressed by primes on the D90 in particular, although the kit lens is no slouch.

In a sense, the IQ was such a huge jump for me, that it completely changed the type of photographs I would take. The hardest shots by far were indoor shots for me. I could not get a steady shot unless I had a tripod. While image stabilization had done some great things, it could not compensate for shooting at low ISO indoors. I really like catching the ambience of a room, and I just couldn’t do that with my previous small sensor cameras. I haven’t used Xenon direct flash shots in ages. But that was pretty common for me prior to the D90. I do think the D90 made a good difference in my shooting.

There’s just so much to say about the D90. Lots of really really great things. The D90 was spectacular as an ehtusiast DSLR, and would be absolutely great as a first time DSLR for an enthusiast in the used market. How does it stand the test of time though? That’s tough to say. Certainly, mirrorless has not destroyed the DSLR market, as it was believed. The quality of DSLRs certainly still hold their own- while cameras like the a6300 have shortened the distance in focusing speed, DSLRs are not standing idly by- the new D500 shows that best. Certainly, they have a market for the enthusiast segment, and a still significantly larger lens system. The D90 was already a great DSLR on its own, and it still stays ahead in terms of handling, compared to what I shoot with mirrorless/fixed lens wise. However, the bulk it contains is quite significant, and I struggle to shoot with this regularly because of that. I find it far too cumbersome to bring out my DSLR to shoot an impromptu scene, while also juggling baby out in public. Larger cameras like my DSC-R1 suffer from the same fate, with the added bonus of being slow as poop. I still think it has the edge in IQ, particularly in good to moderately challenging lighting. It certainly beats out the NEX-5/DSC-R1. The a6000 is a better shooter in low light conditions, but not by a massive amount.


Conclusion- The D90 is an amazing camera, and it stands the test of time well. Newer DSLRs struggle with the same cons I find personally challenging- bulky size/weight primarily. The D90 excels in IQ, has fantastic handling due to the immense number of physical controls/top level LCD, great focusing speed/operation time speed, and is solid as a brick. Most of my shots are walk around shots, and carrying the D90 is an effort in itself. Furthermore, its far from being an inconspicuous camera, and the big black body disrupts the ambiance easily.  I’m definitely glad I own it, and I think it still has miles and miles of use still left in its body.

TLDR- the D90 is still solid in 2016, 7 years later. 


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