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My Nikon Buying Recommendations.

What's New with the Nikon D90?

There's a lot of new stuff to like about the D90.  Here's what has me most excited:
  • New CMOS (not CCD) sensor.  The D90 joins the big boys with a low-noise 12.3 megapixel CMOS sensor that delivers low-noise images from ISO 200 to ISO 3200, and with a boost to ISO 6400 (equivalent) with the H1 setting.  There's also a Lo1 option when you need the equivalent of ISO 100.  The low noise is the big deal. To be honest, the D80 had great image quality with its 10 MP CCD sensor, and you probably shouldn't expect a huge difference in resolution with the 12 MP Nikon D90.  I'll be testing for higher ISO performance and will report back.  I don't expect slightly higher resolution to be the primary reason to upgrade or buy this camera. 
  • Video recording.  I'll be interested in evaluating the HD 720p video clips at 1280 x 720-pixel resolution and 24 frames per second available with this camera.  The D60 lets you create silent stop-motion mini-movies, assembled from a series of stills, and that's fun, but that capability doesn't really qualify as video.  If the D90 beats my cell phone in this department -- as it should -- I expect that Nikon should garner a lot of sales from those who are tired of carrying around both a dSLR and a video camcorder, and want one device that will go both ways.  Start saving up for an 8GB or larger SDHC card. This one feature alone may make the D90 a smart purchase for many.
  • Live View.  Nikon finally got Live View right. Instead of rotating a Mode dial, as on the D3, D700, and D300, Live View on the D90 is activated by pressing a single button.  And there are three (count 'em) contrast detection focus modes which, unlike phase detection, allows you to move the focus zone to any point on the screen.  Whether you use Face Priority, Wide Area, or Normal Area focus modes, you'll like the precision focus available with Live View (both tripod-mounted and hand-held.) I was skeptical about Live View at first, but I've grown to value its ability to show you (more or less) exactly what you're going to get, particularly when gluing your eye to the viewfinder is inconvenient or not the best mode. (Live View is great for shooting fireworks!) The D90 becomes the least expensive Nikon digital SLR to offer Live View, and Nikonians have come to expect it.
  • 18-105mm f/3.5-5.6G DX VR.  This new "kit" lens is a perfect match for the D90: affordable, covering a decent range of focal lengths, and with VR.  It produces the equivalent of a 27 to 158mm range on an FX camera, so it offers moderate wide-angle to medium telephoto settings.  This lens theoretically beats the pants off the most popular alternative lenses, hands down.  It has a longer zoom range than the excellent 18-55mm VR kit lens, is more compact and less expensive than the useful, but flawed 18-200mm VR, and includes Vibration Reduction where the older 18-135mm Nikkor zoom did not.  Many D90 users will favor this lens over the 18-55/55-200mm zoom combination. Unless you're shooting field sports or wildlife, this lens covers most of what you need.
  • Larger LCD/Better Optical viewfinder.  The 2.5-inch LCD on the D80 was pretty good, but Nikon has been cleaning up with its vibrant, enhanced LCDs, and Live View deserves a big, bright image.  That's what the D90 will give you with its new 3-inch LCD.  If you're using the optical viewfinder to frame, the D90 offers 96% of the full image display, at .94X lifesize.  The view is big and bright, because the D90 uses a pentaprism -- not pentamirror -- system.
  • Compatible with older accessories.  You can use the same Nikon EN-EL3e batteries, MH-18a charger, MB-D80 vertical grip/battery pack, ML-L3 infrared remote, and many other accessories carried over from the D80.
  • Faster 4.5 fps continuous shooting.  The D90 gains the CL and CH (continuous low-speed and continuous high-speed) options of the D300/D700/D3. You can shoot from 1-4 fps using CL, and 4.5 fps with CH. I find that 3 fps isn't fast enough for effective sports shooting, and that 8-9 fps is much better, but sometimes is overkill (and a good way to saddle yourself with a zillion images to wade through; I typically shoot 1000 pictures at sports events.)  But for much of my shooting, I find that roughly 5 frames per second is just about right, so the 4.5 fps rate offered by the D90 should satisfy most non-pro sports shooters.  You can get 25 JPEG Fine images grabbed before the buffer fills -- more than enough.
  • HDMI port.  I only recently upgraded to an HDTV, and am kicking myself for not doing it sooner.  The ability to connect the Nikon D90 to an HDTV using an HDMI cable (not included; make sure you have a spare) means you can evaluate your shots on a huge screen.  Of course, Live View means you can watch what you're shooting in real time. Now I am wondering if I don't need an HDTV for my studio.
  • GPS compatibility.  The D90 has an optional GPS unit that slips onto the accessory shoe. With GPS features built into point-and-shoot cameras and cell phones, many dSLR owners will come to expect at least the ability to connect a GPS location tagger to their cameras.  If you go this route, you'll never wonder where you shot your vacation pictures again.
  • More extensive in-camera retouching.  The Retouch menu has improved color balance, small picture, RAW processing, quick retouch, straighten, and distortion control options, plus a very useful de-fish-eye feature that owners of Nikon's 10.5mm Fish-Eye Nikkor will love.
  • How does the D90 Fit with Nikon's Current Digital SLR Lineup?

    Nikon appears to be following a course of filling every niche with what are arguably the best products in their class/price point.  My job "forces" me to buy/use everybody else's products, too (I currently am working with a Sony DSLR-A350, Pentax K200D, and Canon Rebel XS, in addition to my Nikon array), so I should know what I am talking about.  Slot for slot, Nikon is currently doing the best job in terms of features/price and sheer photographic goodness.  Consider the current Nikon digital SLR lineup.
    Nikon D40.  This super-compact, 6 MP camera is a low-cost sleeper.  I've taken my D40 to Europe as a backup camera, and used it on many other trips mounted with a second lens (usually an ultra-wide angle) to avoid having to swap.  When fitted with a good lens, the image quality was hard to differentiate from my D200 -- and that's saying a lot.  I'll never sell this camera; my wife and daughter are happily using it since I got my D60.  Available new with an 18-55mm lens for $469 (you can also buy the 10 MP stop-gap camera, the D40x, used for that price, too), the D40 makes the ultimate low-cost entry-level shooter.
    Nikon D60.  This 10 MP camera replaced my D40 as my everyday walkaround camera and backup for trips.  Stripped down to the body and body cap, it's not much larger than one of my better zoom lenses, and tucks in a pocket in my bag, ready for instant backup.  Or, I can mount a second lens on it and switch back and forth.  Available new for around $599 with the 18-55mm VR lens, the D60 is the entry-level Nikon for those who want to do serious photography without any serious hassles.
    Nikon D90. At 12 MP, and with the list of cool features I outlined above, the D90 serves three purposes in the Nikon line.  It's easy enough to use to serve as a first dSLR, and won't overwhelm anyone who wants to move slowly into more advanced features.  And yet, those features are in there, ready for you when you're ready for them.  It also makes a great upgrade from the D80, and works as a backup camera for those with a D300 or other more advanced Nikon body.  Other than the flexibility you get with the D300's four Shooting banks/four Custom Setting banks, you don't lose much by going with the D90.  I'll know more when I can compare sensors and high ISO image quality between the D300 and D90. I expect to see the D90 sell for about $999 with the 18-55mm VR lens, which makes it only about $50 more than the current price of the D80 with that lens. 
    Nikon D300. This 12 MP model is currently the flagship of the Nikon DX-format line (although nobody is gonna get my D2x out of my studio.)  The D300 fills several niches very well at around $1600.  When equipped with the MB-D10 battery pack/vertical grip, it makes a great sports camera, especially because of the 1.5X crop factor, which transforms lenses like my 70-200mm f/2.8 VR into the equivalent of a super-fast 105-300mm zoom.  The crop factor and the D300's high pixel density makes it a good camera for wildlife photography, too.  Oddly enough, many are using the D300 as a main camera, with the former flagships, the D2x and D2xs, as a backup (except, as I noted, in the studio, where the D2x-series excels in the ISO 100 neighborhood.)  The D300 is also finding some popularity as a backup for D3/D700 owners.  This model, as well as the D90, show that the DX format is far from dead.  It is, in fact, thriving.
    Nikon D700. With 12 MP of resolution, and the same amazing full-frame sensor as the D3, this camera is everything most advanced photographers will ever need.  Some are puzzled at the introduction of this camera so soon after the D3.  Some think that because this camera has 90 percent of the D3's features at a fraction of the price (think $2495 within six months), it will cannibalize sales of the D3.  I don't think so.  While some will purchase the D700 instead of the D3 (and spend the extra money on lenses), I think the D3 and the combination of the D3/D700 will help attract many more new photographers switching from other systems.  This increase will mean than the D3 should have just as many sales as if the D700 were never introduced.
    Nikon D3.  Although I also own the Nikon D700 (indeed, I own every current camera in the Nikon product line), this one remains my dream camera, especially now that you can buy them for around $4500.  It performed like a dream on a recent fashion shoot, and has revolutionized my sports photography.  I tend to use all my Nikon dSLRs for various applications that each does best, and the D3, so far, has excelled at everything.  I have used it in the studio, but still tend to prefer the D2x because the older camera's image quality at ISO 100 is better than the D3's at ISO 100 or L1.0 (ISO 100 equivalent.)  For me, the D3's only "drawback" is its weight, but if I had to have only one camera, I'd lug this one around with me everywhere even if it weighed a pound or two more.

    The Future

    I don't have a direct line to Nikon, and I don't have a crystal ball.  But here's what I think lies in store for the company formerly known as Nippon Kogaku.

    New DX format cameras. As I noted, DX is far from dead.  While professional photographers and the most advanced amateurs often prefer FX ("full frame," a misnomer) cameras,  most everybody else can get along just fine with DX/"cropped" format models.  When you think about it, other than a couple models from Nikon and Canon (and "medium format" pro cameras), virtually the rest of the digital SLR photography universe is living with APS-sized sensors.  So, I expect to see new DX models in the near and more distant future.  These might include:

  • An entry-level D40 replacement.  Canon has the spiffy new EOS 1000D/XS (I own one), and I expect Nikon to replace the D40 with a model priced below the D60 to capture the rock-bottom entry-level market. It may even be smaller than the current D40/D60 models.  A lot of cameras can be sold in that "space" (to use a marketing term that I personally find amusing.)  This model could be introduced very, very soon.  Even newbies want auto sensor cleaning (and, maybe, Live View.) The lack of an autofocus motor (for compatibility with non-AF-S lenses) drives serious photographers looking for an inexpensive second camera nuts.  But the intended audience for the D40-D60-class cameras couldn't care less.  They don't own any Nikon lenses now, and a surprising number (you have to trust me on this) will never buy a second lens beyond the kit lens furnished with the camera.  In that configuration, the D40/D60-level Nikons are the best point-and-shoot cameras ever. 
  • A mid-level D60 replacement.  The D60 is still new, but there are some features it lacks that consumers want.  The D65 (or whatever) could have Live View, a 12 MP sensor, and maybe, even video shooting.  We can dream, can't we?
  • A big-brother (sibling) for the D90?  The D100 moniker has already been used, but there is a bit of room between the D90 and the D300 for a 14-16 MP camera with sensational high-ISO performance, perhaps 6 fps continuous shooting.  My Sony DSLR-A350 has a 14 MP sensor, and Nikon gets some of its sensors from Sony, tailored to Nikon specifications.  Nikon also designs sensors. So it's reasonable to think that a future APS-size image grabber will have 14 MP -- or more.
  • An improved D300.  Maybe a D300s, or D400, or christened some other name, this camera (which I see perhaps a year away, but maybe as early as PMA '09) will up the megapixel ante to 14-16 MP, and will provide high ISO image quality approaching that of the D3.  I don't know how Nikon would be able to do that given the higher pixel density (and smaller pixels) that a 14-16 MP DX-format sensor would have, but I have faith that sensor technology is not going to stagnate.  In the past, Nikon has shared sensors among D80/D200-level cameras (with the D200 getting two extra channels to speed data off for digital signal processing), so if  the company introduces one camera in this resolution range, we can probably expect another one (or two.)

  • New FX format cameras.  Most of the recent speculation has been around additional FX format cameras, with these models "scheduled" for introduction as soon as Photokina '08 or before.  Some of the guesses make a lot of sense to me, as well.  Here are some possibilities:
  • Super-high resolution "D3x":  Sony has introduced a 24 MP sensor; the D3's firmware seems to include provision for such resolution; and, more importantly, the rumors are rampant.  It seems likely that Nikon will indeed introduce a camera with super-high resolution, if only to top the Canon EOS 1Ds Mark III.  The camera would help Nikon make further in-roads into the professional photography market that it once owned (at least, in my lifetime, if not in yours.) Although the D3 was a massive blast in the battle, the D700 only gives Nikon even more pro cred.  But a 24 MP camera would be a killer.

  • Some have been puzzled at the thought of Nikon "obsoleting" the D3 so soon after it was introduced. No, no, no!  I don't see the two cameras competing at all (just as I don't see the D700 competing with the D3.)  Each model in the "D3x"/D3/D700 array will sell readily to photographers who need them.  While the D3 was purchased by a lot of well-heeled photographers who really needed a D700, most of those folks have already bought a D3, or will keep on insisting on overkill and buy one anyway.  So no D3 sales will be lost there.  The Nikon D3 will also gain sales from Canon photographers (and others) making the switch to Nikon, who actually need this camera.
    The D3 will remain as the consummate sports camera; the D700 as a backup and "My First Pro Camera" model.  I expect the "D3x" to have less high-ISO prowess (because of its extra pixel density/smaller pixels), but offer the ultimate (for now) in resolution.  It should make a great studio camera, and be perfect for those who need to make huge enlargements (e.g. portraits) or crop from small sections of an image.
  • Lower cost FX format models: I've already noted that amateur cameras in the DX format will thrive, and that pros, wannabe's, and advanced amateurs have a preference for "full frame" models.  (If FX is full frame, then are medium format cameras double frame?)  So look for Nikon to produce new FX models at lower prices.  Frankly, the Canon 5D (I owned one) has always been a glorified amateur camera with a sensational "full frame" sensor (can a pro camera really exist with only 3 fps continuous shooting?)  So, there is obviously room for at least one camera, such as a Nikon D600, with fewer features than the D3/D700 duo, at, maybe $1995.  It would make a great second or third camera for someone who relies on the D3/D700 (heck, I still have 12 Nikon film bodies; I sort of figured I needed that many to meet every eventuality.)

  • The "D600" would be a great camera for someone who owns few DX lenses, plans to move up someday, and wants an FX camera now while building a lens collection.  It could also serve as an excellent camera for someone who isn't going anywhere, anytime soon, but wants to move to Nikon from some other system, and doesn't already own any lenses.  Why not go FX format now, rather than later?
    Two or three years from now, there's no telling how the Nikon line will look.  Perhaps sensor and image processing technology will have improved so much that we'll have 24MP cameras for $1000 that can shoot both DX (at 10 MP) and FX format (at 24 MP), so you can use the lenses you already have and still get pictures that are equal to, or better than, what you're getting now.   I'd like that, because I have a few DX lenses, like my Tokina 10-17mm fisheye zoom, that aren't really practical on my D3 or D700 at 5MP of resolution. (That particular lens isn't all that sharp, anyway, and it just doesn't cut it in DX "crop" mode with current FX cameras.)

    I'll have more tips on the Nikon D90 as I become more familiar with it.  Meanwhile, check out my recommendations for crucial lenses and accessories you'll need for the Nikon D90 or another Nikon digital SLR you own (D40/40x through D3).  Just click the icon at upper right to go to my Nikon Guides Buying Guide page.