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Nikon D90

The First DSLR to Shoot HD Video

Video clips used in this report are not original unaltered camera footage.
This is impossible with video because of file sizes, with this camera
running at about 100MB / minute. Other than compression and resizing
for the web though, no grading (colour adjustment) has been done.

The Nikon D90 is that company's newest mid-range consumer DSLR. It has all the requisite features for a current $999 camera, including a 12.3 Megapixel sensor, claimed to have similar low light characteristics to its bigger brother, the D300. It shoots at up to 4.5 FPS and features ISO settings up to 3200. It also features a bright, hi-res 3" rear LCD, sensor dust shake removal, Nikon's always excellent handling and build quality, and so must I even ask – what's not to like?

Usually I wouldn't review a camera like the D90, simply because it fits in the mid-range of the company's line, neither compelling because of small size or low price, or because it is the latest and greatest with state-of-the-art features.

But, there is something that makes the D90 potentially special, and that is its claim to fame as the world's first DSLR with HD video capability. Indeed, this is what will be the focus of the review. If you're interested in the D90 as a straightforward camera (and it's an amazingly good one for the money) then you might want to read one of the mainstream review site's, such as DPReview, or Imaging Resource, or Camera Labs. This report though will instead look at what is the first of what I have dubbed Combocams – DSLRs that can shoot video, or video cameras that can shoot still images.

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Who's on First?

While the D90 was the first to be announced in late August, it was followed by the Canon 5D MKII just two weeks later. Interestingly, Nikon has been unable to get me a sample camera, even after the camera started shipping. Canon on the other provided me with a pre-production sample of the new 5D quite early, so my Canon 5D MKII pre-review actually ended up appearing online before this D90 report, even though the Canon still won't ship for another month or so.

Big companies? Go figure. But then, what company would want about a million people in 130 countries to read a review just as the camera starts selling? I can't imagine, can you?

But, not to be deterred, as soon as my local dealer had stock I purchased a Nikon D90, and here then is my report. Please note that I am primarily looking at the D90's video capabilities, just as I did with the 5D MKII. If video isn't your thing – sorry – nothing here to see – move along please.

I was aided in image evaluation for this report by Chris Sanderson, who has been a commercial film and video director for some 30 years as well as a talented cinematographer, videographer, and editor. Chris is the producer of The Luminous Landscape Video Journal as well as our numerous video tutorials.

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What Appeals?

There are going to be two constituencies who will read this report – video folks who want to find out how the D90 meets their needs, and still photographers wondering what all the fuss is about.

Those who shoot video already appreciate that a video-capable DSLR that uses Nikon's entire stable of lenses, from ultra-wide to ultra-long, from ultra fast to macro, to tilt/shift and so on, and which can shoot 720P video, is something to wonder at. This is because video cameras, even relatively high-end ones, typically have sensors which are much smaller than even Nikon's DX format, let alone full frame 35mm. Small sensors mean lots of depth of field – not a desirable thing in filmic story telling. Smaller sensors also mean high noise in low light conditions, and it's only really the top-end video gear that offers interchangeable lenses.

Now, before jumping into a lot of jargon, I'd like to suggest to stills-only people that they have a look at my recent article titled Understanding Video. This should help smooth the way forward.

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The Nikon D90 is Not a Video Camera

Let's be clear. The D90 is first and foremost a DSLR. A very nice, state-of-the-art mid-range DSLR to be sure, but it is not a camcorder. It can though shoot 720P video. In other words, HD video at 1280 X 720 resolution at 24 FPS.

The HD uninitiated, those whose familiarity with HD is limited to the LCD or plasma set in the livingroom, might be tempted to say – too bad it isn't 1080i or even 1080P. Well, yes – but 720P ain't half bad. If you've read my Understanding Video article you'll know by now that while 720P has only half the spatial resolution of 1080i, it has double the temporal resolution. That's why half the TV networks in the U.S. have chosen one standard while the others have chosen the other. It's a matter of needs and taste.

Why do I write though that the D90 isn't a video camera? Because of its many limitations (including image quality) in comparison with even the lowliest of consumer camcorders. These include lack of stereo sound including no supplementary mike inputs; no power zoom – which camcorders always have, often with variable speeds; no autofocus, the lack of an articulated LCD, and a slew of expected setting capabilities and other features that are simply lacking in the D90.

But, what the D90 does offer is the use of Nikon's full stable of lenses, providing optical versatility almost unknown in non-broadcast video and film making. And, all of this for less than $1,000. (No the video isn't perfect – as we'll see – but this may not deter many potential users.)

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Upfront – The D90's Dirty Little Secret

Before we get too excited about the D90's video capabilities we need to understand how Nikon has implemented it. At the core of the issue is that there is almost no control over the camera's shutter speed, aperture or ISO when in video mode. The camera essentially goes into a fully automatic mode and the only control over exposure that one has is the exposure compensation dial.

Here's the reason why. In still camera Live View what camera makers try and do is show you the best possible view of the subject, adjusting the LCD display to make it as accurate and pleasant looking as possible. This is regardless of whether or not the exposure is correct.

What Nikon appears to have done is simply take this adjusted (good looking) image and used it for video. So, if you have dreams of using a very wide aperture to achieve narrow depth of field, a high shutter speed for creative purposes, or low ISO to minimize noise – fugedaboutit. It ain't gunna happen unless Nikon decides to or is able to release a firmware upgrade. (Or, maybe they're saving this capability for the D3x.)

Just to be clear then – shooting in video mode is the same as having the camera in full auto mode, with auto ISO also activated. The actual current settings of the camera for stills shooting are irrelevant. (Yes, there are some klugy partial work-arounds that require the use of older manual iris lenses that are being discussed on the DVXUSER forum, but for most people these are not going to be terribly helpful.)

What does affect the image are, of course, focus and focal length via manual focusing (no AF), and manual zooming. Also, all of the camera's shooting parameters such as white balance, sharpening, tone curves and so forth are also user settable prior to filming.

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Control Layout

The controls on the D90 are quite nicely laid out. Unlike many smaller-sized DSLRs the D90 has not abandoned the highly useful top panel LCD, and so access to shooting info is readily accessible.

White balance, for example, is changed by holding a right-rear button down while rotating the rear control wheel between the various options. If the direct "K" color temperature setting is chosen then the front control wheel actually runs though the range of settings. Since this is all done in Live View mode it is very easy to see directly whether your colour temperature is appropriate and then to change it accordingly.

Because the D90 lacks an articulated LCD (SLR viewing is blacked out during video), this makes shooting video with the D90 very awkward (the Canon 5D MKII is no different in this regard). Holding a camera at arm's length to shoot a still is one thing, but shooting video this way is a formula for jittery and wobbly footage. My recommendation therefore is that the D90, and all future Combocams without articulated LCDs or EVFs, be considered strictly tripod cameras. And, you'll therefore want to buy a fluid head as well, because a typical stills ballhead isn't suitable when shooting video.

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Battery Issues

The D90 uses the same battery as the D300 and other current Nikon DSLRs. In normal stills use this should provide enough juice for many hundreds of shots. But when shooting with Live Video battery consumption increases considerably, and when shooting video even more so because in addition to Live View mode data is being continuously written to the card. Add to this the use of a VR lens, where VR is running all the time that one is shooting, and battery usage become significant.

On one day I found that starting with a new, freshly charged battery, and shooting a total of about 20 minutes of video with VR on all the time was enough to cause the battery indicator to show red. My suggestion is to have several extra batteries along if you plan on shooting video with this camera.

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Video Activation

Video mode is part of Live View. Unlike many camera which have Live View activation as part of their mode selection (like the Nikon D300, for example), the D90 has a separate Live View button. Convenient. Once in Live View to shoot video simply press the rear controller's OK button. One press to start shooting, another other to stop.

Reviewing a shot can't be done while the camera is in Live View and so it must be turned off first by pressing the LV button again. Then, pressing the Review button allows video clips to be viewed just as one would still images. There is full control over play and pause as well as fast forward and rewind.

The camera has a built-in speaker for audio playback and volume can be changed, or sound can be turned off completely during playback if one wishes. But, there's no audio recording for stills, as there is on the D3. Since the camera already has a mike and speaker you'd think that adding it would be trivial, and since this camera is bound to appeal to newspapers and photojournalists to my mind this is a glaring omission.

Speaking of omissions, there is no live histogram in either stills or video mode, other than optionally on playback.

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Focusing

The D90 has excellent autofocus, but not in video mode. In fact it does not have continuous autofocus when shooting video, and in Live View / video mode its one-shot autofocus changes from phase detection (which DSLRs use) to contrast detection, which digicams and camcorders use. This type of autofocus is slow and not as accurate in low light.

The way focus is achieved is to half-press the shutter release button. This causes the camera to change its focusing rectangle from red to green when focus is achieved. You can, of course also manually focus, and the camera has a magnify-view button that makes this highly accurate and convenient.

The lack of autofocus may seem like a glaring omission to many who see the D90 as a camcorder replacement (which it isn't). But the Indy film maker who uses the D90 as an additional tool in his or her arsenal, where its strengths can be put to good use (shallow DOF and low light shooting) already likely shoots with autofocus, auto iris and auto gain turned off.

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JelloCam

Click the above image
to play a brief video clip demonstrating D90 "Jellocam"
in a worst case example.

Yes Virginia, the Nikon D90 suffers from Jellocam (rolling shutter) , just as does every device that shoots video with a CMOS sensor. It just happens to be worse than most in this regard. The clip above shows the nature of the problem – shimmy, and wiggly vertical lines on fast pans and rapid subject motion.

The cause is that unlike CCDs, CMOS sensors do not record the entire image simultaneously. Rather, they record from top to bottom, and so it's possible for a rapidly moving object to appear in different places on the same frame. Some cameras that use CMOS sensors, such as the pro-grade RED One and Sony EX-1, seem to display less shimmy though. It's just a matter of learning to expect it in certain situations and compensate with what and how one shoots accordingly.

Click the above image
to play a brief video clip demonstrating D90 "Jellocam"
in a real-world example.

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AE-Lock is Your Friend

Because of the D90's penchant for automating everything users would be well advised to set the AE-L button to lock mode (f4 - AE-Lock Hold). The reason for this is that the D90 likes to hunt for the correct exposure, and when panning, for example, or even if there's a slight fluctuation in the light level (such as a person walking past a window) the exposure will change – noticeably.

This is not much different than what most camcorders do, and so the D90 is not unique in this regard. For this reason most experienced videographers disable all automatic modes, autofocus, auto white balance and autoexposure before filming.

So once you've programmed the AE lock button to Hold, simply point to something appropriate in the scene (a gray card would be nice) and Lock the exposure.

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Inbuilt Limitations

There are several limitations on shooting video with the D90. The first is that no clip can run more than 2GB. This is likely because of the limit on FAT 32 files sizes.

The second is that no single HD video clip can run more 5 minutes. The reason for this is not technical, but political. In Europe any device that can record more than 5 minutes of HD video is classified as a video recorder and attracts higher import duties than do still cameras. Why this limitation then needs to be applied to those of us outside the Euro zone is a bit of a mystery. Companies find it quite easy to make and distribute the same product with different names and features in different geographic markets, so why we all must suffer this (admittedly minor) limitation is curious.

There is also a limit of one hour to the time that the camera can be in Live View (as well as video) mode. This is to prevent overheating. The camera will warn that there are 30 second remaining and count down the time before shutting down. If the ambient temperature is not too high it may be able to start shooting Live View and / or video again right away, or, in high ambient temperature conditions it may shut down even sooner.

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Audio

The D90 records single channel audio of not too high quality. It serves as a guide track and for anything serious should not be regarded as more than this. Since there is no external audio input capability my suggestion is that if you want to record audio you should invest in a good quality stand-alone recorder. The Edirol R-09 is very highly regarded, and not too expensive. Many pros use them as location recorders. Even their built-in stereo mikes are of decent quality.

With the D90's mono audio track as a reference it is very easy to line up the Edirol sound when doing editing. A single hand clap on camera is all that's needed, and with a maximum 5 minutes per take maintaining sync should not be any problem.

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Techy Stuff

The D90 shoots a .AVI file, more accurately called an Open DML JPEG video, or Motion JPEG. It uses a variable data rate that seems to range from 11 mbits/s at low ISO and with little in-frame action, up to about 19 mbp/s at high ISO and with rapid motion. This is relatively low compared to most video systems.

I measure storage consumption at about 100MB / minute, so each Gigabyte on an SDHC card will hold about 10 minutes – so well over an hour of recording is possible on a typical 8GB card.

The Motion JPG will display easily using Quicktime, but it's not suitable for editing. (Please note that I am a Mac user with Final Cut Pro. I have no idea what the situation might be with Windows and programs like Premier or Vegas). In FCP a D90 clip will play fine in the viewer window, but when you drag it onto the Timeline or try and do any grading or other work it requires rendering, which isn't terribly fast.

My recommendation therefore is to use MPEG Streamclip, which is a free program for both Mac an Windows. Set it to produce Prores 422 and 24 FPS and it'll make short work of your D90 files. These now converted .MOV files will handle beautifully in FCP.

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Video Quality

Unfortunately, the video quality produced by the Nikon D90 isn't terribly exciting. It's not really bad, but it appears not a whole lot better than what one sees from the latest generation of digicams that can shoot 720P. This is quite surprising given the D90's very large sensor, as compared to that in most digicams and also camcorders. And, it is also surprising given the exceptional image quality that is seen from the Canon 5D MKII, which though it has an even larger sensor and uses a proper video codec, shouldn't be that much superior for these reasons alone.

The core issue with the D90's video is that it appears soft. Compared to the bitingly sharp still image resolution that the D90 and quality Nikon lenses can produce, D90 video seems to have a layer of gauze over it.

At first I thought that my camera might be defective, or have focus issues. These were double and triple checked, and no, there aren't any. This simply appears to be the way that this camera shoots video. Reading comments on some on-line forums by users who have been shooting with the D90 for the past couple of weeks my conclusion is that we're all pretty much seeing the same thing.

By comparison with a current consumer camcorder in the same price range, such as the Sony SR11 or SR12 (the only difference between these cameras is the size of the built-in hard drive, and the price), the D90 pales by comparison in terms of image quality. In fact we shot quite a bit of footage directly comparing the SR12 with the D90. While the SR12 compared very favourably with our broadcast quality Sony EX-1, the D90's video only appeared comparable to the footage from a digicam that can also shoot video.

I had planned to publish comparison clips here between the D90 and the SR12, but frankly it wouldn't have been a fair comparison, and would have consumed terabytes of this site's bandwidth needlessly. Instead, below are a small collection of clips done with the D90 in various situations so that you can judge for yourself whether or not the image and sound quality are sufficient for your specific needs.

This clip shows the D90 using the Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 VR lens
in open shade. The focal length used was about 70mm.
Audio is from the camera's built in microphone.

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Demo Footage and Evaluation

I allocated one day for producing some demo footage. Unfortunately, as when I did my brief preliminary test of the Canon 5D MKII in early September, it turned out to be a mostly overcast day with intermittent heavy rain. Consequently, you're not going to see any bright daylight footage.

What I have provided in this assembly of just over a minute of footage are a variety of shots taken with lenses ranging from 10mm to 400mm (15mm to 700mm effective). These show some jellocam and some image softness, but overall I believe that it also shows that the Nikon D90 can produce some unique and very pleasing video quality, particularly for web use.

This one minute and 13 second assembly of clips shot with the Nikon D90
has been reduced in size from a 455 MB output .MOV from Final Cut Pro to a 12 MB .MP4 for web display.
I believe that the image quality is representative of what you can expect from the D90,
though obviously the original full-sized footage is of higher quality than is seen here.

If you've watched the above clips you may come to the conclusion that image quality from the D90 isn't as bad as feared, or as I may have made it out to be. In fact it isn't. The combination of 24 FPS and a slightly diffused look have an almost filmic quality that many will find appealing. Indeed compared to 30 FPS video shot with a medium to high-end camcorder at higher bit rates and with superior codecs, there are folks in the video world that may find the D90's video quality quite appealing. It's a matter of comparison and taste, not absolutes.

Finally, when it comes to image quality, be aware of depth of field as an issue. Because the camera does not allow any manual control of aperture there is no way of knowing what it is being set. After working with the D90 for a while it's my guess that the camera allows the lens to go wide open before starting to increase ISO, and it stays wide open as long as light levels remain anything other than daylight – high.

This means very shallow depth of field, which can be mistaken for poor image quality. In the above clip of Chris reciting from Lewis Carroll, you might be able to see how shallow the DOF is. Even a small amount of head movement is enough to cause the focus point to slip because of the seeming wide aperture used automatically by the camera.

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Who's it For?

Setting aside that the D90 is a very nicely speced, well performing, moderately priced DSLR, how does it rank as a video camera? Indeed does it fulfill its promise as a first generation Combocam?

The answer has to be a guarded – no. I would not expect the D90 to act as any sort of replacement for a camcorder. A combination of modest image quality combined with a lack of features compared to a real video camera count heavily against it. No stereo sound, poor sound quality (plus handling noise), no autofocus, no EVF (a non-articulated rear LCD only), no power zoom, and poor video ergonomics (great still camera ergonomics though) are enough to disqualify it for many people.

But, put it on a tripod, do all manual settings, add a terrific Nikon lens between fish eye and super telephoto, and you may have a useful add-on tool to the Indy and creative film maker / videographer. At under a thousand dollars it's a virtual steal for this type of use, costing far less than devices such as the Letus 35mm lens adapter, being also much smaller and more mobile, and of course providing a high quality DSLR as well at no extra cost.

Stills photographers who want to explore and become familiar with shooting video and exploring the world of convergence can now do so at under $1K. For someone that already owns a Nikon system and lenses this is a no-brainer, because the D90 is a very fine, small, and full featured DSLR regardless of its video capabilities. You get video for free to play with and learn about. What's not to like?

The third and final market that's going to be all over the Nikon D90 like a dirty shirt are newspapers. For the past few years, as newspaper readership declines, and papers are moving to the web and need to provide video content there, newspaper still photographers as well as reporters are being equipped with small cameras such as the Canon G9 / G10 (and one would presume the upcoming Nikon P6000). These allow reporters to shoot stills for the paper, video for the web site, and also to take audio notes.

With the D90 Nikon equipped newspaper photographers now have a DSLR for these tasks – one that produces video as well being able to take Nikon's wide range of lenses.

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In The Beginning

This is clearly a first generation product. Nikon saw an opportunity to add video capability to the DSLR and did so in a simple manner with little intention of creating a new type of hybrid camera. The D90 is a stills camera (and a very good one) at a very reasonable price, that happens to also shoot moderate quality video.

There's little doubt that stills / video convergence is on the way. The Nikon D90 though is simply a harbinger, and shouldn't be seen as much more than that. As discussed above, while it is no replacement for a camcorder (even a consumer grade one), in the hands of Indy film makers it will likely turn out to be a productive tool, filling in when shallow DOF or special lens use is required.

I expect that over the next 24 months virtually every new DSLR at every price point will have video capability built in. Now that Live View is de rigueur it costs manufacturers almost nothing to add. And like Live View, some people will ignore it and some will embrace it.

The challenge though will be for mainstream companies such as Nikon and Canon to find ways to make a true hybrid that meets the real needs of both still photographers and videographers. This is going to be no easy feat. Of the two market leaders, Canon has the most to lose because they are a major player in the consumer as well as pro level video camera business. Nikon on the other hand does not make video gear and so for them this is virgin territory and a great opportunity to expand into a new and growing market.

Newcomers like RED are going to be all over this, and indeed Jim Jannard the founder of RED announced earlier this month that they have gone back to the drawing board on their forthcoming Scarlet camera, no doubt because of the writing on the wall from Nikon with the D90 and Canon with the 5D MKII.

So – don't be too hasty in poo-pooing stills / video convergence and Combocams in general based on what we see with the Nikon D90. These are early days, and the next couple of years should be fun to both watch and participate in.

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October, 2008


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Concepts: Digital single-lens reflex camera, Camera, Nikon, Nikon D90, Live preview, Canon EOS 5D Mark II, YouTube, Camcorder

Entities: Vegas, Nikon, Canon, Sony, Europe, U.S., autofocus, video systems, ISO, DSLR, CMOS, auto white balance, Windows, DOF, Michael Reichmann, Chris Sanderson, Chris, stills, Jim Jannard, Lewis Carroll, D90, D300, DSLRs, P6000, Virginia, DSLRs, SLR

Tags: video, camera, Nikon, Live View, image, Nikon D90, 5d mkii, canon 5d mkii, video camera, video mode, camcorder, image quality, DSLR, sensor, HD video, video quality, autofocus, stills, video capabilities, video capability, button, white balance, video gear, video clip, Understanding Video, film makers, cmos sensors, Live View mode, low light, video convergence, video camera business, footage, Nikon D90 suffers, minutes, Final Cut Pro, shoot 720P video, indy film makers, HD video capability, real video camera, shoots