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Nikon announces D90 with 720p video capture
Tuesday, August 26, 2008 | by Rob Galbraith
Nikon's new D90 digital SLR packs a 12.21 million image pixel CMOS sensor, 4.5 fps still photo shooting rate, LiveView and 720p video capture into a lightweight body with the same dimensions as the D80 it replaces. The new model is slated to ship in September 2008 at an expected street price of US$999.95 in the U.S.

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Hybrid: Views of the Nikon D90. Click either photo to enlarge (Photos courtesy Nikon)

Nikon D90 feature summary

Some of the features in Nikon's newest digital SLR include:

Body Nikon has matched the D80's 5.2 x 4.1 x 3.0in (132 x 103 x 77mm) dimensions exactly in crafting the D90, and the control layout is similar to the earlier camera everywhere except the back, which has seen a reworking. The revised button arrangement was necessary to accommodate the larger three inch rear LCD, plus Nikon has added dedicated INFO and LiveView buttons. From the front, the most obvious outward difference, other than the D90 name badge, is a small mono microphone near the flash exposure compensation button.

The D90 incorporates a built-in flash that can operate in Commander mode to control up to two groups of i-TTL-capable Speedlights.

Sensor and image processing The D90 has what Nikon is describing as a CMOS sensor newly-developed for the D90, though its specs are very close to that of the D300 (and its image quality is likely to be very close as well). At 15.8 x 23.6mm, the sensor is DX Format with a 1.5X focal length cropping factor relative to 35mm. At full resolution, D90 files are 4288 x 2848 pixels, the same as the D300.

The D90's image processing engine utilizes Nikon's EXPEED processing technology, but without some of the capabilities of pricier EXPEED cameras. The D90's analog-to-digital (A/D) converter is 12 bits per colour, as is subsequent digital image processing; the D3, D700 and D300, by comparison, offer 12 or 14 bit A/D and 16 bit digital processing. The D90 sensor package includes a self-cleaning mechanism.

The D90 is the latest Nikon digital SLR to adopt the Picture Control menu for customizing the colour look of JPEGs coming from the camera, as well as NEFs processed through Nikon conversion software. Picture Control options include Standard, Neutral, Vivid and Monochrome, like other Picture Control-equipped models, plus two new ones: Portrait and Landscape. Each setting can be customized. Customization options are Sharpness, Brightness, Contrast, Saturation and Hue. It's possible to store up to nine custom Picture Control combos as well.

The D90 offers a single NEF type: compressed (visually lossless, 40-55% compression rates). Unlike the D700, where Nikon slid support for its NEFs into its software well before the camera was released, new versions of ViewNX and Capture NX2 will be required to process D90 NEF files.

Three inch rear LCD The D90 contains the same three inch (diagonal), 170 degree viewing angle, 920,000 dot rear LCD as the D3, D700 and D300. As we've noted previously, this screen is fantastic. The D90 has the standard 4-up and 9-up thumbnail display modes, plus a 72-up thumbnail display mode primarily intended for when the camera is connected to an HDTV via its new HDMI port. Also new is the ability to sort and view photos by date using a calendar interface.

When the D90 is set to display a photo right after it's taken, the time it takes to process that photo and show it on the rear LCD is a snappy 120ms.

LiveView While not the first Nikon digital SLR to offer a real-time display mode, the implementation of LiveView in the D90 may well be the most versatile. With a refresh rate of 24 fps, the LiveView image will be noticeably smoother than the somewhat jerky 15 fps of the D3, D700 and D300. And while it lacks the dual autofocus methods (phase detection, contrast detection) of the more-expensive LiveView cameras, the D90 compensates by offering much quicker contrast detection focusing. It is, says Steve Heiner, Senior Technical Manager at Nikon USA, both faster at detecting the correct point of focus and at driving the lens to that distance.

The above is true when either Normal Area AF or Wide Area AF are used in LiveView. Plus, focus peppiness is promised to be better still when the new Face Priority AF is used. Face Priority AF, says Heiner, can quickly lock in on a stationary person's face and hold focus steady there, as well as provide rudimentary tracking when that person begins to move.

D-Movie mode Nikon is the first to offer video recording capabilities in a 35mm-style digital SLR, and its no-frills implementation in the D90 is likely to be equal parts fun and frustration.

The fun will come from having this capability built into what is likely to be a fine consumer-level digital SLR camera, and potentially from the 1280 x 720 pixel video quality, which should be and probably will be superb (as of this writing, we haven't seen any clips captured with the camera).

If the video quality is top notch, then the frustration will come from the scarcity of typical video camera features in the D90, and how their absence will inevitably limit the usefulness of its D-Movie mode. More on that in a moment.

D-Movie mode offers three movie sizes, 1280 x 720 (equivalent to 720p HD resolution), 640 x 424 and 320 x 216, all at 24 fps. The compression format is Motion JPEG; movie files emerge from the camera with an .avi extension (and can be imported directly to an editor like iMovie without an additional conversion step).

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Hear Ye: The D90's microphone (Photo courtesy Nikon)
The camera will record clips up to five minutes long at 1280 x 720 pixels (20 minutes at the smaller movie sizes) before recording is stopped to give the image sensor an opportunity to cool. The file size for a typical five minute, 1280 x 720 pixel clip is roughly 600MB. There's no control over the JPEG compression level. A mic on the front of the camera picks up audio.

Video capture can be started and stopped with the OK button at the centre of the 4-way controller (capture is also automatically stopped by pressing the shutter button to take a still picture). The D90 allows you to select the aperture (from wide open to f/8) prior to commencing, then it handles the adjusting of ISO and shutter speed automatically as needed to maintain video brightness as lighting conditions change during recording. To disable automatic exposure adjustment, it's possible to lock exposure prior to beginning the recording.

The recording of audio can be turned off. If a lens with Vibration Reduction (VR) technology is attached, its VR stabilization will automatically kick in when recording commences.

This all sounds good so far, but that's also about where the list of D90 video features ends. Auto WB, as well as the selection of an alternate white balance setting, is disabled during recording, so white balance has to be firmed up before you start. Autofocus is also inactive, leaving manual focus as the only focus option while a movie is being made. Zooming will be similarly manual, since there are no powered F-mount Nikkor zoom lenses available, though the camera itself can't be faulted for that of course. But, the D90's D-Movie mode lacks any sort of digital zoom which, given the expected sensor quality, could have been both useful and had a minimal negative impact on video quality if it were limited to 2X or so.

Audio is mono only, with no provision for plugging in an external microphone. Other than turning the mic off, there are no audio options such as manual level adjustment or wind filtering.

Based on its feature set, the D90's D-Movie mode will be about as restrictive as the typical video function found in an inexpensive compact digital camera, though the D90 will probably deliver profoundly better video quality and you'll have more focal length options. Nikon gets full marks for being first, ahead of even longtime video camera makers Canon and Sony, but we can't help wish they aimed a little higher in their first attempt at digital SLR video. The addition of Auto WB, autofocus (even if somewhat slow), manual audio level setting and a mic jack would have made the D90 dramatically more useful as a video camera.

If you're a newspaper photographer keen to dump the dedicated video gear you're carrying around, the D90 is probably not going to be the model that enables you to do that. It will allow you to do nifty shallow focus video with wide aperture telephoto lenses, an effect that isn't readily done with consumer video equipment, or you can go wide with lenses such as the AF DX Fisheye-Nikkor 10.5mm f/2.8G ED for another specialized video look. But the D90's overall lack of video camera-ness is likely to relegate its D-Movie mode to such specialty uses, while as a working shooter you'll continue to mostly rely on a full-fledged video camera to gather footage for your newspaper's website.

If, like me, you're both a photographer and a Dad, and you want to record video of your kids playing soccer, on vacation or during special events, it remains to be seen if the D90's limited video features will be sufficiently offset by its possibly sweet video quality. I rely on a Canon PowerShot S5 IS still camera for weekend shooting now, in large part because its video mode has all of the missing features described above (except for an external mic jack), plus a tilt-and-swivel rear LCD, stereo mics and a smooth 12X power zoom. In addition to having features such as Auto WB and autofocus while capturing video, it has implemented them well. Plus, it delivers decent video and audio quality too.

So, the S5 IS absolutely clobbers the D90 based on their respective video features. But the Canon point-and-shoot is limited to 640 x 480 pixels when capturing full-motion video, and its tiny sensor is almost certainly no match for the D90's. So, the new Nikon is in a position to whack the S5 IS right back with sharp, clear HD 720p movies.

The point of this rant? If the Nikon D90 produces great quality video, still photographers who have a need for moving pictures too are going to be faced with quite a conundrum.

Note: A video shot with the camera is linked to on Nikon USA's D90 product page . It has been edited in iMovie and includes both stills and HD clips captured with the camera. Click the D-Movie Demo button on the linked page to view the video.

ISO range The D90 has a standard ISO range of 200-3200, and an extended ISO range of 100-6400, all in 1/3 step increments.

Frame rate The camera tops out at a healthy 4.5 fps for a Nikon-specified 25 JPEG Fine, 9 NEF and 7 NEF+JPEG frames (full resolution).

Basic performance The D90 has a shutter lag of 65ms (CIPA standard), shutter duty cycle rating of 100,000 frames, startup time of 0.15 seconds, top shutter speed of 1/4000 and standard top flash sync speed of 1/200.

Autofocus The 11-area Multi-CAM 1000 autofocus system of the D80 carries over to the D90 too, with three changes:
  • Autofocus is promised to be faster
  • The AF area markings in the viewfinder are thinner and therefore less likely to obscure small or distant subjects
  • Nikon's Scene Recognition System is called on to assist with tracking, as well as to detect new subject position when the composition has abruptly changed, in the camera's multi-AF area modes
As before, the Multi-CAM 1000's centre AF point is cross-type, and its active area can optionally be widened.

Metering Ambient metering, flash metering and analysis by Nikon's Scene Recognition System technology utilize a 420-pixel RGB sensor, the same component as the D80.

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Get Connected: Nikon D90 connection ports (Photo courtesy Nikon)
Video out Video out is comprised of an HDMI port (using the newer, smaller Type C connector) as well as a standard analog video port. HDMI playback is at resolutions up to true 1080i (in addition to 480p, 576p, and 720p). When the HDMI port is used, it's not possible for the rear LCD and external display to be on simultaneously. When the video port is used, both can be on at the same time.

Viewfinder The D90 utilizes a 96% coverage pentaprism viewfinder with 0.94x magnification, 19.5 mm (-1.0 m) eyepoint, Type B BriteView Clear Matte Screen Mark II focusing screen with -2 to +1 m-1 diopter adjustment built in.

SD/SDHC slot The D90 accepts SD/SDHC cards in its single card slot. The company has worked with two memory card suppliers - SanDisk and Eye-Fi - to weave into the camera extra performance or functionality when certain cards are used.
  • SanDisk SanDisk today has revved its Extreme III SDHC 4GB and 8GB cards to a speed rating of 30MB/second, from 20MB/second previously.

    In all current SDHC-compatible cameras and card readers, the new Extreme III 30MB/s Edition SDHC cards will operate like the previous 20MB/second versions, because that's effectively the limit of the SD/SDHC specification currently. They've also introduced a 16GB SDHC card to Extreme III, and it too is part of the 30MB/s Edition line.

    The D90, along with SanDisk's upcoming ImageMate Multi-Card USB 2.0 Reader/Writer, has been designed to utilize an additional mode unique to these new SanDisk memory cards, a mode that ups the speed rating to the SanDisk-specified 30MB/second level. Manufacturer speed ratings are at best only a rough guide to actual in-camera performance, but at minimum it looks like SanDisk, by working directly with Nikon on the development of the D90's memory card support, may have ensured they're Extreme III 30MB/s Edition SDHC cards are the quickest in Nikon's newest digital SLR.

  • Eye-Fi The D90 will detect when an Eye-Fi memory/wireless Wi-Fi transmitter SD card is inserted and make visible an Eye-Fi menu on the rear LCD. From this menu the card's wireless function can be turned on and off, so as to enable when Wi-Fi is active and photos are transmitted.
Connection options The D90 has USB 2.0, DC input (for use with the Nikon EH-5a AC adapter), GPS, HDMI (Type C) and analog audio/video ports.

The camera is compatible with the new Nikon GPS Unit GP-1, a compact GPS receiver designed to slip into the camera's hot shoe and attach via an included cable to the D90's dedicated GPS port. Also included will be a second cable for hooking up the device to the 10-pin remote port of other GPS-capable Nikon digital SLRs.

With the GP-1 attached, GPS time, latitude, longitude and altitude data will be inserted into the associated photo's EXIF metadata.

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Here I Am: The Nikon GPS Unit GP-1 in the hot shoe of the Nikon D90 (Photo courtesy Nikon)

Power The D90 takes the same EN-EL3e Rechargeable Li-ion Battery as the D300. With the MB-D80 Multi Power Battery Pack attached, additional options include powering the camera with two EN-EL3e batteries simultaneously or six AAs. The D90 can also be powered by the EH-5a AC Adapter.

The AF-S DX Nikkor 18-105mm f/3.5-5.6G ED VR

Nikon has also announced a new zoom, the AF-S DX Nikkor 18-105mm f/3.5-5.6G ED VR.

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Zoomy: The Nikon AF-S DX Nikkor 18-105mm f/3.5-5.6G ED VR (Photo courtesy Nikon)

Price and ship date

The Nikon D90 is slated to ship in September 2008 at an expected street price of US$999.95 in the U.S., or US$1299.95 for a bundle comprised of the D90 and new AF-S DX Nikkor 18-105mm f/3.5-5.6G ED VR.

In Canada, the manufacturer's suggested list price (MSRP) for the D90 body is CDN$1119.95. In a kit with the AF-S DX Nikkor 18-105mm f/3.5-5.6G ED VR, the MSRP is $1449.95. Street prices are likely to be slightly lower than MSRP at Canadian dealers.

GPS Unit GP-1 is to ship in November 2008. A price has not been set.

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