It would seem logical for the first DSLR with video capture to come from a company that also makes camcorders. Nikon defied that logic, though, by creating the D90 ($1,000, estimated street, body only; $1,300 with AF-S DX Nikkor 18-105mm f/3.5-5.6G ED VR lens). And not only does it capture movies, it captures 720p high-definition video with sound. On top of that, it ably replaces the highly regarded D80 as Nikon's main midlevel DSLR.
Borrowing its 12.3MP APS-Csized CMOS sensor from the higherend D300, the D90 is the fourth successive 12MP Nikon DSLR. Clearly, the company has eased off the megapixel race, instead focusing on other areas of image quality, such as low noise at high ISOs and convenient features. And the results are impressive. In our lab tests, the D90 scored Excellent in overall image quality right up through ISO 3200.
While the D90 offers a slew of upgrades and worthwhile additions, the groundbreaking feature is, of course, its 1280x720-pixel (720p) video capture. Rivals are already hot on Nikon's heels. As we went to press, Canon announced its 21.1MP EOS 5D Mark II ($2,700, estimated street, body only; $3,500 with 24-105mm f/4L IS EF lens), which also allows HD video capture -- at 1920x1080 pixels.
While the quality of the Nikon's video compares favorably to what you'd get from some HD camcorders in terms of sharpness and a relative lack of video artifacts, the camera records at only 24 frames per second, slower than the 30-fps standard for TVs (which the Canon shoots). So video may not be as smooth as what you'd get from a camcorder. The D90 records only mono sound, and HD video is limited to 5 minutes before the sensor becomes too hot. Set to standard definition (640x424 pixels), expect up to 25 minutes of video.
Note, however, that autofocus doesn't work while shooting video. You can preset focus beforehand with AF, but once the video starts rolling it's strictly manual. Manual focusing is more difficult for video than for still images, especially if you're moving the camera during a shot. Also, if you're zooming in or out during a shot, you'll have to refocus after you zoom. Technically, you could do both at the same time, but you'd need to use a tripod to free up both hands.
While we wouldn't count on the D90 as a primary video camera, it's fine for short clips. One fun thing about video capture in a DSLR is that you can use any lens in your collection, even a fisheye. For example, a 50mm f/1.4 can give you shallower depth of field than almost any consumer-level camcorder.
Updates over the D80, aside from megapixels and video, include a 3-inch 920,000-dot LCD, up from 2.5 inches and 230,000 dots. The spotmeter is slightly more concentrated, covering 2% of the finder instead of the D80's 2.5%. ISO reaches one stop further to 6400, and the burst rate notches up to 4.5 fps from 3 fps on the D80.
The D90 is the first camera that can take advantage of SanDisk's new 30MB/sec Extreme III SDHC memory cards. In our lab tests, it captured 54 full-sized Fine-quality JPEGs in 12 seconds for an average of 4.5 fps, just as Nikon claims. Shooting RAW, we got 9 frames in 2 seconds before the buffer filled up, again verifying Nikon's 4.5- fps spec. And with this new card, the D90's buffer clears so quickly that the burst is like the Energizer Bunny -- it just keeps going and going. Slip any other SDHC card into the camera, and you can count on only about 13 JPEGs before the buffer fills. As with any DSLR, the number of images you get in a burst decreases as you raise the ISO, since the file size typically increases. Our tests were performed at ISO 200, the camera's lowest setting in the normal ISO range.
Also debuting with the Nikon D90 is the company's new optional GP-1 GPS unit. While we didn't have one to test by press time and the price is yet to be announced, it's among the smallest GPS systems for a DSLR -- tinier than most wireless flash transmitters. Mount it in the hot-shoe, attach a cable to the D90's mini-USB-sized terminal, turn on geotagging in the setup menu, and you're in business. Drawing power from the camera body, it inserts latitude, longitude, altitude, and universal time code data in the metadata of your photos.