Nikon Digital SLRs > D90 Guide
Published: October 2008

Nikon D90 Guide

I'd like to kick off this Nikon D90 guide with a quick three-word description that pretty well sums up this camera for me: the possibilities are endless.

Every other digital SLR camera that I've used has come with some type of limitation - which means that it's great for one style of photography (portrait) but maybe not another (action).

The Nikon D90 suffers from no such limitiations, allowing you to do just about anything you want to precisely capture the image you've created in your mind's eye.

It's a camera that is able to capture exceptional portraits, can render sweeping landscapes, and will also serve you quite well capturing your son or daughter in his or her first sporting event.

It works equally well when there's plenty of available light or when there's virtually no light at all, and can compensate for the color shifts that occur under artificial lights.

The end result: you wind up with natural-looking photos even when you're taking pictures in less-than-ideal lighting conditions.

This is one of those rare cameras that simply works exactly the way that it is supposed to and captures remarkably high-quality results, regardless of your subject matter.

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Quick Overview

  • 12.3 megapixels
  • Compatible with all Nikon F-mount lenses
  • 4.5 photos per second
  • ISO settings from 100 to 6400
  • Maximum shutter speed of 1/4000th of a second
  • 1.6 times crop factor
  • Stores photos on SD memory cards
  • 11-point autofocus system
  • Dust control system
  • 3.0 inch live view LCD
  • Extra dynamic range
  • Digital movie mode (the first of any DSLR)

Key Feature

The one key feature of the Nikon D90 that really sets it apart from all of its competition is this:

The Nikon D90 is the first digital SLR ever to include a movie capture mode.

The inability to capture movies in addition to still images was really the last major limitation (if you could call it that) of every digital SLR camera.

Since virtually every compact digital camera made today has a movie mode, it often surprised people that the more expensive and feature-rich digital SLRs did not have one.

Well, the Nikon D90 finally breaks down that barrier, allowing you to toggle between still capture mode and movie capture mode with the touch of a button.

And this isn't your old VHS camcorder video capture either.

In addition to regular-format video, the D90 can also capture High Definition (HD) video: in short, the video captured is in a widescreen format - perfect for display on any plasma or LCD flat-panel TV.

Even though the D90 is a real breakthrough and a pioneer in the realm of digital SLR cameras, true video enthusiasts will still want to stick with a dedicated video camera.

The reason: since the sensor inside the D90 is really only designed for still images, it heats up dramatically the longer it is in use. In order to prevent overheating, the length of the video you can capture with this camera is limited:

  • Regular format videos are limited to 20 minutes
  • High Definition videos are limited to 5 minutes

While not the ideal solution for those who want to record entire dance recitals, it is great for capturing shorter segments of video in between your still frame photographs.

And it has a huge benefit over a regular video camera: you can change lenses for dramatic video segments.

Stick on a telephoto lens to capture video of animals in the wild, or pop on an extreme wide angle lens for videos with a radical perspective.

Your only limitations are your imagination and the willing participation of your subjects.

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Who The Nikon D90 is For


This is a really tough question to answer, and something that I pondered for a long time while writing this Nikon D90 guide.

In the end, I came up with an answer that made sense: the Nikon D90 is a great choice for spontaneous photographers.

That's the simple overview - let's dig a bit deeper.

I mentioned at the beginning of this guide that there really is nothing that the Nikon D90 can't do.

It will take beautiful portraits, can capture fast-moving action, will render a landscape in vibrant colors and excels at capturing images even with very low ambient light levels.

And - oh yeah - you can also grab some videos with it.

All this just means that the D90 is a superb choice for the go-anywhere, snap-anything type of photographer.

As a parent with two children, I found it especially useful in a wide variety of photographic situations:

  • If I was taking pictures indoors, I could increase the ISO without having to worry about significant loss of image quality
  • The 11-point autofocus locked on instantly, helping me capture fleeting expressions and smiles
  • The built-in flash did a great job of adding light without washing out the entire image
  • If my kids started hamming it up, I could switch over to video mode to capture the action with sound effects

If you're not snapping photos in constantly shifting light conditions or have no desire to capture video with your SLR, then the D90 will still serve you very well as a still camera.

Just realize that you're paying a premium for these special features - if you really don't think you'll use them, then there are plenty of other cheaper cameras out there that don't have the versatility and price tag of the D90.

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In Comparison

Nikon D90 vs. D80

The Nikon D90 is such a substantive improvement over the D80 that it seems a bit odd to even compare the two.

But the D80 is the direct predecessor to the D90, so it helps to run down what the D90 offers that the D80 does not - and why you might be inclined to fork over the extra money for the more recent model.

Release DateSeptember 2008August 2006
Continuous Speed4.53
Autofocus Points1111
ISO Range100 - 6400100 - 3200
Max Shutter Speed1/40001/4000
LCD Size3.0 in.2.5 in.
Dust Control 
Image Stabilization 
Live View 
Extra Dynamic Range 
Movie Mode 
Weight21oz (595g)21oz (595g)

If you consider both cameras from a purely photographic perspective they are quite similar (although the D90 captures a few more megapixels for slightly larger prints).

Where the D90 really sets itself apart from the older D80 is in the realm of "extra" features - the D80 has none, and the D90 has them all (and then some).

Do you really need the extras? Let's find out.

The D90 has dust control, the D80 does not This is a good thing - once dust contaminates a digital sensor (which can happen any time you change the lens) it can be a real pain to get off and shows up in all your photos as little black smudges. The dust control system repels dust from the sensor to keep it clean.
The D90 has an image-stabilized kit lens, the D80 does not Image stabilization is a great feature for anyone who wants to photograph non-moving subjects in dim available light without using flash. The stabilization prevents your images from blurring due to the slight motion of the camera in your hands when you use slow shutter speeds.
The D90 has live view, the D80 does not Live view lets you compose photos using the LCD in addtion to the viewfinder. It's most helpful when composing photos at odd angles when holding the camera up to your eye isn't feasible (or comfortable). Live view really only works with static subjects since it slows down the overall performance of the camera.
The D90 has dynamic range control, the D80 does not The dynamic range control (called Active D-Lighting) has a very subtle effect on your images - if you're not used to closesly inspecting the tone of highlights and shadows in your photos, you probably won't leverage this feature a lot.
The D90 has a movie mode, the D80 does not The video mode on the D90 leverages the live view system, allowing you to capture regular format and widescreen videos with the same camera (and lenses) that you use to take stills.
The D90 has HDMI, the D80 does not The HDMI port on the D90 allows you to connect a cable from the camera to a High Definition television set - allowing you to run enormous slideshows of your latest family vacation.

Bottom Line: if you want camera that repels dust from the sensor, helps you take photos in dim available light, allows you to compose images in both the viewfinder and on the LCD and can capture video in addition to stills, then the D90 is the camera to choose.

Nikon D90 vs. Other Manufacturers

The current cameras competing with the Nikon D90 include the Canon Rebel XSi, Olympus E-520, the Pentax K20D and the Sony DSLR-A350.

There are several advantages and disadvantages of these other camera models relative to the Nikon D90:

Canon Rebel XSi Smaller size and lower weight make the XSi easy to carry and hold. Doesn't have a movie mode or the ability to connect to a High Definition T.V.
Olympus E-520 The stabilization on the E-520 is built into the camera body so it works with any new 4/3 lenses. With the D90, only the kit lens has stabilization - many other lenses don't include it. Doesn't have a movie mode or the ability to connect to a High Definition T.V.
Pentax K20D The K20D has in-body stabilization, is weather sealed and it's compatible with virtually every lens ever made by Pentax. Has two less megapixels (10.2), a slightly smaller LCD, and has a slow continuous drive speed (2.8 photos per second vs. 4.5 on the D90).
Sony DSLR-A200 The live view LCD on the A300 flips out from the camera body, allowing you to compose photos from high and low angles. Sony digital SLRs have yet to achieve the extremely low noise at high ISO settings that can be achieved with the D90.

In the end, the biggest single limitation of the D90 - if you can call it that - is the fact that you can only get image stabilization with the camera if your purchase special Vibration Reduction (VR) lenses.

Part of the reason why this is not such a huge problem with the D90 is because of its exceptional performance at high ISO settings (more on this later).

Image stabilization only comes into play to help prevent camera blur when you're taking photos with the camera in your hands at very slow shutter speeds.

Being able to set the ISO on the D90 to 1600 with relatively little loss of image quality means that you'll rarely be taking photos with this camera with shutter speeds that necessitate the use of stabilization.

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How It Works

In Use

I can say this with certainty - the Nikon D90 is one of the most comfortable digital SLR cameras I've had the pleasure to use.

Something that often gets overlooked in all the technical analysis that surrounds a new digital SLR is the ergonomics: whether the camera is comfortable to hold for long periods of time.

The Nikon D90 includes a little extra feature in the grip - I'll do what I can to describe it verbally, but if you're considering this camera it will really pay off to go hold one yourself.

Most digital SLR camera grips have a smooth surface on the front of the grip where your fingers wrap around the camera.


The D90 has a slight depression that sits right underneath the tips of your fingers: this allows you to really curl your hand around the grip, eliminating any sense that the camera might suddenly drop out of your hand onto the ground.

The advantage of the secure grip is that you don't have to hold onto it for dear life — a relaxed grip prevents wrist and finger strain during a long photo session.

In addition to the nice grip, the D90 is a very well-balanced camera and I found it quite easy to hold in one hand - a useful practice when using the live view mode.

Controls and Operation

One thing's for sure - the Nikon D90 is really not for beginners.

Sure - there's certainly nothing stopping you from picking up this camera if you're a digital SLR newbie, but the sheer number of buttons and custom controls can be daunting.

The top of the camera features the main mode control dial where you can select from a variety of AUTO modes (landcape, portrait, macro, action, etc.) and from the MANUAL modes (Program, Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority and full Manual).


The D90 also includes a nice feature for those who like to make exposures in manual mode: two control dials (one on the front of the camera that changes aperture and one on the rear that changes shutter speed)

These three are - I am afraid to say - merely the tip of the iceberg.

In addition, 16 buttons packed on the top, rear and side of the camera allow you to quickly change any one of the following settings by pressing the button (and often spinning one of the control dials at the same time):

Depth-of-field Preview Allows you to see a preview the aperture setting of your lens in the viewfinder. Narrow lens apertures result in great depth of field (the area of the image that appears in focus) while wide apertures result in shallow depth of field.  
Bracketing The bracketing features allows you to take three sequential images where the camera automatically adjusts the settings so the images are over exposed, under exposed and exposed right in the middle.  
Flash Manually pops up the camera's built-in flash unit when one of the manual modes is selected (in auto modes, the camera pops up the flash automatically when it detects that the light is low).  
Delete Image Lets you delete images during playback that aren't representative of your best work.  
Image Playback Like any other playback button, this displays the images stored on the memory card - the special feature here is that you can adjust the display to show photos in a calendar view, based on the date the photos were taken. d90 playback
Menu Accesses the D90's plentiful menu system so that you can make refined adjustments to camera settings. d90 menu button
White Balance (WB) The white balance setting helps you to optimize color capture depending upon the available artificial light. You can choose from settings like incandescent, fluorescent (7 sub-types), sunlight, flash, cloudy, shade and custom. d90 white balance button
ISO Select an ISO value between 100 and 6400. d90 iso button
Image Quality (QUAL) Cycle between RAW (highest quality) and JPG Fine, Normal and Basic. d90 image quality button
AE-L/AF-L The auto-exposure lock / autofocus lock button is most helpful when your primary subject isn't in the middle of the viewfinder. If your subject is off to the side, the camera might expose for or focus on the background. With auto-exposure/autofocus lock, you can point the D90 straight at your subject, lock in both exposure and autofocus, and then re-compose without having to worry about the camera changing settings. d90 ae-l af-l button
Live View (LV) This button activates the camera's live view mode. d90 live view button
Info Pressing the button once displays camera settings on the LCD. Pressing it a second time allows you to modify many of the same settings that have a dedicated button. d90 info button
Metering Mode Choose between area (3D Color Matrix II), center-weighted (8mm circle in center of viewfinder) and spot (3.5mm circle centered around the selected focus point - great for precise metering of off-center subjects). d90 metering button
Exposure Compensation Lets you deliberately over or under expose your images when you're using Program, Shutter Priority or Aperture Priority modes. d90 exposure compensation button
Drive Mode Choose between single shot, continous low speed (anywhere from 1 to 4 photos per second), continuous high speed (4.5 photos per second), self-timer, delayed remote (2 second delay), and remote control. d90 drive mode button
Autofocus (AF) Mode Pick one of three different modes: AF-A (camera switches between single servo and continuous), AF-S (single servo - for static subjects) and AF-C (continuous servo - for moving subjects). d90 autofocus mode button
Movie Mode

I can definitely say that writing about an SLR camera's movie mode is not something that I ever would have expected at the beginning of 2008.

SLR purists were holding on to the fact that SLRs could not capture video as a clear indication of their photographic superiority over their compact cousins.

After all, SLR cameras were built to capture STILLS, not moving pictures - leave that to all the perfectly good video cameras out there. If you wanted to capture low-quality video for YouTube, you could easily do that with any compact camera.

But today, the boundary between moving images and still pictures is becoming blurry — even professional photographers in the media are being asked more and more to blend videography with photography.

As more professional photographers make the leap from stills to video, they're going to need one tool that does it all, much like modern day cell phones which act as phones, cameras, calendars and e-mail programs.

So while the existence of the video mode in the D90 is not all that surprising, it's just a bit of a shock to have it arrive so soon.

It's also a bit of a shock to transition from stills to video when you're so deeply rooted (as I am) in the techniques and composition that make a good still image (and I'll be the first to admit that many of the videos I captured for this Nikon D90 guide are - well - pretty boring).

It became clear to me quite early on that using the video mode on this camera takes plenty of time and patience to master.

If I had three months to work with it (along with a significantly better sense of what makes a good video) then I'm sure that my videos would have been much more compelling.

But enough movie mode philosophy, let's talk about what you can do with the D90.

There are three main movie quality settings:

  1. High Definition (HD) Widescreen: 1280 x 720 (16:9 aspect ratio)
  2. Standard Format: 640 x 424 (3:2 aspect ratio)
  3. Computer Playback: 320 x 216 (3:2)

As I mentioned at the beginning of this Nikon D90 guide, the amount of video you can capture is limited:

  • 5 minutes for HD
  • 20 minutes for the other formats

Of course, the true amount of time that you'll be able to record video depends entirely on the size of the memory card you use and how much space you've got left on it.

In addition to movie length, there are a few other limitations associated with video capture on the Nikon D90:

  • Focus is manual only - as subjects move back and forth you have to continually adjust focus using the ring on the lens
  • Exposure is locked in - once you choose an exposure setting for the movie, that's it (at least until you capture another movie)

All this means is that capturing great videos with the D90 is going to take a fair amount of practice: you're not going to get anything all that memorable on your first couple of attempts.

But as you learn how to manually track focus and set exposure correctly, the potential of this new medium becomes clear: first, you can capture video using ANY lens compatible with the D90 - which means that extreme wide angle and extreme telephoto videos are possible (macro videos anyone?)

Second, you can quickly switch between still frame mode and video mode - allowing you to capture motion and sound if that suddenly becomes more compelling than a still image.

Example: my son has developed a real fondess for songs by the Beach Boys.

He sets up two chairs side by side in our living rooms and pretends that he's surfing along to the music coming out of the stereo.

While I have taken countless numbers of photos of him engaged in this activity, there's one REALLY important missing piece: the music itself (that, and the silly motions he makes as he's "surfing").

With the D90 in hand, I was able to grab a few still frames of him perched on his chairs, then I switched to video mode to capture the action complete with music and arm flailing.

Even if the D90's video mode isn't 100% perfect - there's a definite learning curve - it allows you to do something that's just not possible with virtually any other digital SLR (although I guarantee we'll see this feature popping up on future models).

Live View

The live view mode on the Nikon D90 makes a few improvements over the older live view systems, but still has its limitations.

The first big improvement is how autofocus is engaged.

On some of the early digital SLRs that included live view - like the Olympus E-510 - engaging the autofocus in live view mode required pressing a different button than the main shutter release (which is what you use to autofocus when looking through the viewfinder).


A low angle composition using live view

On the D90, pressing the shutter release down halfway engages autofocus, regardless of what mode you're in.

Despite this improvement, the autofocus performance when the camera is in live view mode is slow, since the camera can't leverage the full power of its 11-point autofocus system.

Live view on the D90 therefore is therefore most useful for subjects that aren't moving around a lot, and for situations where composing using the viewfinder is out of the question.

It's much less practical for action photography, but for this you can either switch back to the viewfinder or you can also attempt to focus manually.

The second improvement to live view comes in the form of the D90's LCD screen.

This is by far one of the brightest and clearest LCD screens I have seen on a DSLR. The 3 inch display leverages 920,000 pixels (4 times more than the D80) to display your photos in all of their colorful glory.

Since the LCD is so clear and sharp, it improves the live view experience since you're able to judge focus accurately and you can see the image on the LCD even in bright sunlight.

ISO Performance

Talking about the ISO performance of the D90 is quite easy, since I can sum it all up in a single word: wow.

I've seen my fair share of cameras that did a great job of supressing image noise up to about ISO 1600, but the D90 takes that peformance a step further.

You'll have to closely inspect images taken at ISO 800 for a mere hint of noise, and even shots captured at 3200 should surprise you since they don't look like a grainy mess.

Image taken at ISO 1600 with a shutter speed of 1/30

This makes the Nikon D90 a superb choice if you love to snap pictures in very dim available light without a flash.

This would be my camera of choice for taking pictures at concerts: available light is incredibly dim (except for the stage) and using a flash is out of the question (unless you have the good fortune to be standing ON the stage).

The only way to get clear shots in this sort of situation is to kick up the ISO as high as you can go.

With the D90, you could easily set the ISO to 1600 or even 3200 and still get nice, clear, relatively noise-free images.

If you pair the D90 with a wide maximum aperture lens like the Nikon 50mm f/1.8, you're able to take photos hand-held in extremely dim light - something that is simply not possible with any other camera (save for the professional models).

Exposure / Dynamic Range

The Nikon D90 includes a relatively new feature for digital SLR cameras - dynamic range control.

In the "old" days of digital and film SLR cameras, if you took a photo that was half in sunlight and half in shade, you'd have to make a decision:

  1. Do you want the shadows to turn out pure black?
  2. Do you want the highlights to turn out pure white?

Cameras - regardless of type - don't have the same dynamic range that your eyes do: this gives you the ability to see detail in shadows and highlights regardless of how extreme the contrast may be.

Instead, SLR cameras have compressed dynamic range - which means that they lose detail in some part of the image when there's too much contrast in the scene.

The latest breed of digital SLR cameras attempts to remedy this situation through the use of technology: for the Nikon D90, this particular feature is called Active D-Lighting.

Active D-Lighting can be engaged at various levels of intensity when you're taking photos where the range from light to dark is too great for the camera to capture accurately.

When Active D-Lighting is turned on, the camera tones down bright highlights and it also increases the brightness of just the shadow areas (in both cases, detail that would otherwise be lost is maintained)

Less useful for portrait work, this feature is a great thing for anyone who's a dedicated landscape photographer.

If you've spent any sort of significant time wandering around the great outdoors trying to capture pictures of the surrounding beauty, you're well aware that the available light doesn't always cooperate.

When faced with a panoramic vista, you may either choose to wait until the light is perfect (which is what the pros do) or you can grab the best shot you can with the light that's there.

If the day is overcast and the contrast is fairly neutral, then you don't have to worry about anything - the camera will capture the detail and tones exactly the same way that you see them.

But if the sun is out and the landscape is mottled with shadows and highlights, then the only way to get a keeper photo is to engage Active D-Lighting.

The default setting is on AUTO, meaning that the camera judges when there's a lot of contrast and just how much Active D-Lighting it needs to apply.

But you can also manually force the issue yourself, choosing between Extra High, High, Normal, Low and Off.

The image below shows the effect (it can be fairly subtle). Pay special attention to the areas in shadow (they'll get brighter) and anything in direct sunlight (it will become slightly darker).

In essence, Active D-Lighting is just compressing the dynamic range so that the image captured is a better match with what your eyes are seeing.

Image Quality and Size

At full resolution, the D90 is capturing massive 12.3 megapixel files, which give you plenty of printing and cropping options.

From a cropping perspective, you could cut out about 50% of your photo and STILL be able to make a high-quality 8x10 print. That's a lot of leeway to edit out part of the image you're not happy with.

nikon-d90-442.JPG nikon d90 100 percent crop

If you don't go crazy cropping your photos, you're able to print at huge sizes: up to 16 x 20 inches if you so desire.

The only drawback to these great big photos is that they take a lot of time to upload to an online gallery and e-mailing them to friends is out of the question unless you dramatically reduce the size of the original.

If you find yourself in a situation where you're taking photos that won't be made into enormous prints and you want to get more mileage out of your SD memory card, then you can reduce the number of pixels captured by the D90's sensor - provided the photos are in the JPG format (not RAW).

Images captured at 6.9 megapixels will still yield great 9 x 12 prints, while the small size (3.1 megapixels) is best used for sharing images online and for use on web sites.

With the JPG file format, you can also specify how much compression is applied to the image: images that are compressed more lose image quality, but also have a smaller digital footprint, taking up less space on your memory card and hard drive.

The following table shows the approximate file size and number of shots that you'd expect to be able to capture with a 2 GigaByte SD memory card:


Like much of its competition, the D90 is packed with settings that allow you to make fine-tuned adjustments to the color and clarity of the image captured by the sensor.

Before I get any further into this topic, a disclaimer is required: the image settings that I am about to describe only apply to JPG images - unprocessed RAW files don't leverage them.

If you're going to capture images in the RAW format, then the assumption is that you'll be using an image editing program to make these fine-tuned adjustments.

But if you enjoy the convenience of the JPG format and still want to have some control over the color in your images, the D90 delivers with plenty of different options.

Nikon's label for image tuning is "Picture Controls" and there are six of them:

StandardDefault mode - mild image enhancement
NeutralNo image enhancement applied (assumes that you will use an editing program to adjust the image)
VividEmphasizes primary colors by boosting contrast and color saturation
MonochromeSee below
PortraitCreates softer images where the colors are optimized for skin tones
LandscapeEnhances the colors found in nature to create landsape images with impact

Each one of these Picture Controls includes 5 default settings (selected by Nikon) that establish the "look" of the JPG image.

If you want, you can exert manual control over the factory defaults, and make adjustments to any one of them:

SharpeningImages that are sharper have crisp edge definition while softer images look slightly blurryFrom 0 (none) to 9 (max sharpening)
ContrastHigh constrast images have dark shadows and bright highlights while low constrast images look uniformly grayFrom -3 (low contrast) to +3 (high contrast)
BrightnessIncreasing brightness makes colors more vivid, while decreasing it makes everything look darkFrom -1 (low brightness) to +1 (high brightness)
SaturationImages with higher saturation have intense colors while those will low saturation appear dullFrom -3 (low saturation) to +3 (high saturation)
HueShifting the hue can dramatically alter how the camera renders colorsFrom -3 to +3

There are two reasons why you might want to adjust these settings:

  1. You'd like to create images in the camera with wild color tones
  2. You'd like to tune your images for a specific type of subject

Often you'll find that the six main Picture Styles get the job done, but if there's any part of the image that you're not satisfied with, then there's always room for adjustment.

Black and White (Monochrome)

I think that it's safe to admit that I've never seen quite so many monochromatic controls on a digital SLR before.

When I first dug into the monochrome settings for this Nikon D90 guide, I figured that it would have the same number of settings that are common on other cameras: just a few filter and toning effects.

Let's just say that the D90 takes the monochrome image to the next level.

In addition to the traditional black and white mode, you can also apply a variety of digital "filters" that replicate the effects of old black and white film filters: Yellow, Orange and Red are good for landscape photographers who want to enhance or tone down the sky, while the Green filter is often used by portrait photographers to produce a nice skin tone.

But wait, there's more.

You can also add a tint of color to your black and white images (each one can be applied at 7 different intensity levels):

Sepia Cyanotype
Red Yellow
Green Blue Green
Blue Purple Blue
Red Purple 

While this may seem excessive, it just means that if you feel more comfortable behind a camera rather than in front of a computer, you can achieve a wide variety of different "looks" without having to spend a lot of time working with an image-editing program.

Those with an artistic bent can also use this feature to create color collages - if you stitch together some full-size 12 megapixel images you can wind up with a massive image that is suitable for large-scale printing (poster size or bigger).


I don't often include information about flash in my digital SLR guides, simply because I don't think that built-in flash units perform all that well.

They're useful when you're in a pinch and need a little extra light in the scene, but if you really want good flash then I often recommend that you buy an external flash unit.

Imagine my surprise when I discovered just how good the built-in flash on the D90 really is.

Built-in flash units often blast the subject with light, creating a deer-in-the-headlights sort of look — not ideal if you'd like to flatter a portrait subject.

This is also true even when you want to add a bit of additional flash light to a scene with strong contrast and dark shadows: the light output from the flash is often too much, so that anyone looking at your photo will instantly know you used a flash.

The results I obtained with the D90 were much different.


Instead of the harsh, glaring light that I was expecting, the D90's built-in flash did a great job of brightening shadows and adding just a "touch" of light to scenes that really needed it.

Even when the flash was the primary light source, it still did a great job of evenly illuminating the subject and spreading the light out over a wide area.

The nice light output from the built-in flash is already a good selling point for anyone who uses flash on a regular basis, but the D90 takes flash photography to a whole new level.

When paired with Nikon SB600 and SB800 external flash units, the D90 can act as a wireless controller:

  • Several external flash units can be remotely fired using the signal sent out from the D90's built-in flash
  • The amount of light put out by the remote flash units can be set from the D90 camera body

This second point is a huge benefit for anyone with a strong desire to produce professional-looking portraits using a digital SLR camera.

In order to capture great portraits using artificial light, you often need two or more individual light sources. This allows you to wrap light around your subject, and can help your portrait subject stand out from the background.

In traditional multi-light setups, you have to adjust the amount of light emitted by each flash unit manually: you have to physically touch each separate flash unit to adjust its power.

Making adjustments to a setup like this is not exactly easy: take a test shot, walk over to the flash, tweak the power, take another test shot and so on.

But with the Nikon D90, these types of adjustments are downright simple, and can be handled entirely from a menu setting.

When the flash control mode on the D90 is set to "Commander mode" you have the ability to control the amount of light put out by the built-in flash as well as two different "groups" of flashes (where a group can consist of multiple different flash units).

If you don't like the amount of light being put out by one group of flashes you can either increase it or decrease it until you get the look just right — all without ever leaving the camera.

You can even choose to disable the built-in flash on the D90 so that it doesn't add any additional light to the scene - it just acts as a controller to fire all the other remote flash units.

Using this system, you can quickly capture some fairly nice portrait shots, even if you only have a budget for one external flash.

As you find loose change underneath the couch cushions and are able to afford a few more external flash units, your lighting can become more and more sophisticated (3 and even 4-light setups are not out of the question).

In-Camera Photo Editing

While I didn't use this feature of the Nikon D90 very much for this guide - I prefer to edit my images on the computer - it's definitely worth mentioning.

Any photo that you've taken with the Nikon D90 that is still stored on the memory card can be edited in the camera (no computer required) using Nikon's "Retouch" features.

D-LightingBrings out detail in the shadows (similar to what Active D-Lighting does when you take a photo)
Red-eye correctionRemoves glowing red eyes from portrait subjects
TrimLets you crop photos to remove blank space around your primary subject
MonochromeConverts any color image into black and white, sepia, or cyanotype (blue tinted monochrome)
Filter effectsAllows you to manipulate the colors in your images to enhance reds, greens and blues
Color balanceSelectively increase the amount of green, amber, magenta or blue in your photo
Small pictureCreate reduced-size versions of your images at 640 x 480, 320 x 240 or 160 x 120 (great for e-mail)
Image overlayAllows you to combine two RAW files where the end result is a composite of the two original images
RAW processingConverts RAW files into JPG files (allowing you to edit and enhance the RAW image before it is saved)
Distortion controlCorrects the optical distortion that is apparent in some lenses (called barrel distortion and pincushion)
FisheyeMakes your image appear as though it was taken with a fisheye lens
Side-by-side comparisonAllows you to see your unedited image and the edited one next to each other for comparison

One of the reasons that I prefer to use an editing program like Adobe Elements is because I find it much easier to see the changes I'm making to an image on a 19 inch monitor rather than a 3 inch LCD.

I think that the retouch features exist primarily for those who want to do some quick photo editing in the field, and for those who want to quickly edit images without having to camp out in front of the computer for hours.

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The default kit lens for the Nikon D90 is an 18-105mm f/3.5-5.6 VR (Vibration Reduction).

Unlike some other kit lenses (even some produced by Nikon), this lens is no flimsy piece of plastic.

It's large and solid, with a smooth zoom action and a manual focus ring that you can use at any time to fine-tune your focus.

The good news here is that the quality of the lens is a fine complement to the camera itself - an unusual situation.

Often the kit lenses packaged with the higher-end digital SLRs are of such low quality that it's better to buy the camera body and then purchase a lens separately.

With the Nikon D90 there's no need: the zoom range on this lens is excellent (from wide angle for landscapes to telephoto for portraits) and the image quality is superb.

nikon-d90-462.JPG nikon-d90-463.JPG

I left this lens on the camera almost the entire time I was taking shots for this Nikon D90 guide, and not once did I feel that the lens wasn't meeting my needs.

I only switched if off the camera once - and that was because I wanted to take a few shots with the Nikon 50mm f/1.8 (with its wide maximum aperture) to see just how far I could push the low-light capabilities of this camera.

There are only two groups of photographers who will need to consider an alternative (or additonal) lens: macro (closeup) and wildlife.

For wildlife photography, you'll want a little more range on the telephoto end to get up close and personal with distant subjects. A good, relatively inexpensive option is the Nikon 75-300mm f/4.5-5.6G ED-IF AF-S VR.

Macro photographers will benefit from a dedicated macro lens, and there are plenty of Nikon and third party macro lenses that are compatible with the D90.

One such lens is the Nikon 60mm f/2.8G ED AF-S Macro.

Finally, if you really want to get creative with the videos that you shoot with the D90 (and the photos as well), then consider an extreme wide angle lens like the Tokina 12-24mm f/4 AT-X, which will capture a distinctly unique point of view.

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The Pros and Cons

Pros Cons
  • Video capture!
  • Extremely low noise at high ISO settings
  • Bright, clear LCD makes changing menus and reviewing photos easy
  • 12 megapixels allows for large prints and lots of cropping options
  • Kit lens includes image stabilization
  • Snappy performance prevents missed photo opportunities
  • Quick access to important settings (ISO, white balance, etc.)
  • Exceptional built-in flash performance
  • Slow autofocus in live view mode
  • No plug for an external microphone

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In case it's not obvious from the details included in this Nikon D90 guide, everything about this camera lives up to expectations (and then some).

  • It's fast - the 11-point autofocus system paired with a 4.5 photo per second continuous drive help for action shots
  • It's great in low light - the virtually invisible noise at high ISO settings make this camera very versatile in dim light
  • It's full-featured - dust control, live view, image stabilization and dynamic range optimization are all included
  • It's comfortable - the ergonomic hand grip is easy to hold, even for long periods of time
  • It's got video - right, can't forget that one

While many other cameras have their strong suits, the D90 is more like a jack-of-all trades.

Regardless of whether you're a nature, landscape, portrait, macro, action, daytime or night-time photographer, the D90 has some type of setting that will help you capture great images.

This makes it a good choice for photographers who are just starting out and don't know what they will ultimately want to photograph.

Parents can leverage the low noise at high ISO, video mode and flash capabilities to capture special moments of their children and those with an artistic bent can take multiple exposure shots and add color tints to monochrome images for impact.

From the regular-mundane to the ultra-creative, the Nikon D90 is the sort of camera that can capture it all.

Just a word of warning - there's a learning curve associated with this type of camera, and it's not a trivial one. If this is your very first digital SLR camera, the buttons and controls of the D90 might seem intimidating at first.

But give it time (and play with it every day) and eventually you should enjoy using the D90 to capture your favorite photos as much as I did.

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Nikon D90 Photo Samples

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Price Analysis

The Nikon D90 comes in two main kit configurations: one without a lens and one with the 18-105mm VR. Of course, there are plenty of other packages that you can find, if you're looking for more accessories in addition to the camera and lens.

PackagePrice convert currencyCompare At
Nikon D90 body only (no lenses)$890 USD Amazon  |   Adorama  |   B&H
Nikon D90 with 18-105mm VR lens$1,150 USD Amazon  |   Adorama  |   B&H
Other Nikon D90 Packages

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Memory Card
sandisk 4gb sdhc

The first extra you're going to need with a new Nikon D90 is a memory card, since it's not included with the basic camera and lens kit.

The D90 uses SD Memory cards, and the good news is that today there are plenty to choose from in a variety of capacities.

If you're only planning on using the camera for short trips and don't intend to use the RAW mode a lot, then a 4 GigaByte card should be fine.

Prolific shooters, those who exclusively capture RAW images and travelers who enjoy extended vacations should consider cards with more capacity like 8 GigaBytes and 16 Gigabytes.

nikon mb-d80 battery pack

The Nikon D90 uses a rechargeable lithium Ion EN-EL3e battery.

While battery life is quite good (and the camera's battery charge indicator is more detailed than on other models) it's quite easy to burn through a full charge, especially if you're taking a lot of video and using live view mode.

If you don't want to be left with a D90 paperweight, then you've got two options:

  1. Purchase a second backup EN-EL3e battery (and I recommend that you get a true EN-EL3e rather than a cheaper alternative - off-brand batteries can be hit-or-miss in terms of performance)
  2. Purchase the MB-D80 battery pack, which lets you power the camera either with two EN-ELe3 batteries (for extended shooting) or a set of six AA batteries

Some additional benefits of the MB-D80 battery pack are that it makes the camera much easier to hold in the vertical (portrait) position, and it even provides additional command dials and a shutter release button.

On the flip side, the battery pack also add an additional 1.13 pounds (512g) of weight to the camera, something to consider if you want to tote it around all day.


Remote triggers are best used when you have the camera locked on a tripod and are either taking photos with very long exposure times (where even touching the camera can result in a blurry photo) or when you would like to be included in the group portrait.

One of the following options keeps you tethered to the camera, while the other lets you roam:

  • The MC-DC2 remote release cord lets you fire the camera from no more than 3 feet (1 meter) away in any direction
  • The ML-L3 wireless remote lets you step away from the camera even further, up to about 16 feet (4.9 meters) in front of the camera

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Related Links

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