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Nikon D90:
    Digital SLR Cameras as HD Video Camcorders (10/2009)

    by Douglas Dixon

Digital Cameras as HD Camcorders
Shooting With The Nikon D90
The DSLR as a Video Camera

There never have been so many options for shooting images, stills or in motion. Today's digital cameras shoot video, camcorders shoot photos, and ubiquitous camera phones shoot both. But what makes the most sense for your particular needs? If you want to shoot both good images and good video, do you really need to carry both a Digital SLR camera and a HD video camcorder, or might one device do a good enough job to serve both needs (and stay under the $1000 price range)?

On the video side, high definition has come to even consumer camcorders, with HD versions of camcorders that shoot to DV tape, hard disk, or memory cards. Plus, these camcorders can shoot multi-megapixel photos, even simultaneously while recording video.

Enthusiasts who are primarily focused on shooting video then can take advantage of their camcorder's zoom lens and smooth auto-focus and auto-exposure features to quickly zoom in and shoot high-res photos as well. But camcorders do not provide the range of creative control as traditional SLR cameras.

Digital Cameras as HD Camcorders

Then what about still photographers? Even today's consumer digital cameras can capture video sequences, albeit often of limited length and compressed. But can a Digital SLSR shoot high-quality video that's suitable for serious video productions?

The Nikon D90, introduced in August 2008, was a trailblazer in integrating HD movies and sound into an advanced, full-featured DSLR camera, creating what is sometimes called HD-DSLR cameras. (Or at least until all DSLRs shoot HD video.)

The D90 is still going strong as a 12.3 MP digital SLR with full-up Nikon optics and processing, plus D-Movie Mode with 720p HD video (1,280 x 720) shot at cinematic 24 fps frame rate. It's priced around $899 (body only, originally $999).

    Find the Nikon D90 digital SLR on

D90 starts as a full-featured DSLR for photographers who expect deep control over shooting images. It provides extensive icons and controls to help compose the shot in the viewfinder display, plus an additional control panel display on the top of the camera. Or you can run the D90 in Auto mode for quick and easy shots, with auto focus and pop-up flash if required for the exposure.

D90 - Camera body -

As a digital camera, the D90 is a full-strength DSLR, with the complete array of Nikon imaging technology. Key features include:

  • Nikon DX-format CMOS imaging sensor, 12.3 effective megapixels. Shoots photos at 4,288 x 2,848, 3,216 x 2,136, and 2,144 x 1,424. With built-in ultrasonic image sensor cleaning.
  • Bright pentaprism viewfinder, with approximately 96% frame coverage.
  • High-resolution 3-inch LCD, approximately 920k dots, 170 degree viewing angle. Dedicated Live View button for composing photos and video.
  • Image sensor cleaning: four-frequency, ultrasonic cleaning removes dust particles.
  • D-Movie movie mode, shoot cinematic movies up to 1,280 x 720 pixels at 24 frames per second.
  • Shutter speed from 1/4000 seconds to 30 seconds.
  • Continuous shooting mode up to 4.5 frames per second.
  • Fast 0.15 ms power-up and 65 ms shooting lag.
  • Low noise ISO sensitivity from 200 to 3200, even at high ISO settings.
  • Exposure scene modes: Portrait, Landscape, Close-up, Sports, Night Portrait. Automatically optimizes the exposure, image processing, Active D-Lighting, and Picture Control.
  • Full exposure control: Five scene modes plus Program Auto, Shutter Priority, Aperture Priority and Manual.
  • Active D-Lighting technology for high-contrast scenes. Optimizes detail within shadows and highlights, selectable and auto.
  • Picture Control System to customize the look and mood of images: Standard, Vivid (colorful), Neutral (less contrast), Monochrome, Portrait (skin tones), and Landscape (greens and blues). Quick Adjust function for further adjustments: Sharpening, Contrast, Brightness, Saturation, Hue. Save the settings as Custom Picture Controls.
  • Scene Recognition System integrated with Face Recognition to adapt exposure to a wide variety of conditions using an on-board database of over 30,000 photographic scenes. Optimizes the autofocus, auto exposure, i-TTL flash control, and white balance.
  • Playback zoom detects up to ten human faces during playback, zoom in to check focus.
  • 11-point AutoFocus system with Face Priority, plus Color Matrix Metering II and Scene Recognition. Center focus normal and wide, Single-point for stationary subjects, Dynamic-area for moving subjects, Auto-area for spontaneous shooting, 3D-tracking (11 point) for changing composition after focusing.
  • Nikon F bayonet lens mount for compatibility with Nikon NIKKOR lenses and optics.

    D90 - Specifications -

Shooting With The Nikon D90

You can use the D90 like a traditional DLR, setting up for the shot with the mode dial and composing through the viewfinder eyepiece. You also can control options with the command dial and the control panel display on the top right of the camera.

Nikon D90 - Top with model dial (left), control panel display and command dial (right).

The D90 also uses the 3-inch LCD monitor on the back of the camera to display each photo as you shoot. Press the Play button on the left of the monitor to review your photos (and videos).

Or work with the D90 like a simple point-and-shoot camera by using the monitor in Live View mode. Press the Live View (Lv) button on the right of the monitor, and the mirror flips up so that you can view directly through the lens on the monitor (the viewfinder is disabled). Then to start recording video, press the OK button (in the navigation pad to the right of the monitor).

Nikon D90 -- Back with 3-inch LCD display, Play botton at top left.
    Right side has Live View (Lv) button, and navigation pad with OK button to start video recording

However, the D90's autofocus mode works differently in Live View mode, and operates more slowly. Instead, you choose one of three available AF options in Live View mode: Face priority (up to 5 faces), Wide area for handheld shooting, and Normal area for accuracy when using a tripod.

The D90 then stores images in two formats: compressed JPEG format or full-quality RAW format (NEF, compressed 12-bit), or you can shoot each image in both formats. JPEG compression can be size priority or optimal quality, Fine (approx. 1:4), Normal (1:8), or Basic (1:16).

The camera also shoots video in three resolutions: QVGA (320 x 216), VGA (640 x 424), or 720p HD (1,280 x 720), at 24 fps frame rate. The video is quite suitable for editing, stored in AVI files with Motion-JPEG compression and mono sound.

However, the D90 has limited video recording time: It records movies to the SD / SDHC card, in files limited to a maximum of 2 GB in size. This gives a maximum recording time of around 5 minutes for HD, and 20 minutes for the lower-resolution formats.

The D90 has a hi-speed USB connection for transferring files to a computer, plus NTSC video out to display video and photos, and HDMI output to display directly on a HDTV.

The DSLR as a Video Camera

While HD camcorders can shoot 10+ megapixel still photos, they do not provide the depth of shooting options and control over focus and exposure that are available in DSLR cameras.

So even with their limitations, a DSLR camera like the Nikon D90 can provide some compelling advantages over camcorders in composing shots, including:

  • Quality and flexibility of using interchangeable professional camera optics, from micro to fisheye, such as the Nikon line of NIKKOR lenses.
  • Deeper range of control over focus and exposure. For example, the large image sensor in the Nikon D90 provides high ISO performance for low-light shooting.
  • Precise control over depth of field, to pull out the subject in a shot with shallow depth of field for a more emotional and cinematic look.

As an early version of this kind of product, the Nikon D90 works fine for capturing relatively short clips, but is not designed to record contiinuously for extended periods (and does not have the storage capacity for hours of video). It also records HD video at 720p, and not the 1080p full HD, and only with mono sound, not stereo

In addition, the Live View mode in the D90 works differently than composing a shot with the traditional through-the lens viewfinder, so you don't have the full creative freedom as when shooting stills. In particular, autofocus is not available when recording video, and matrix metering is used regardless of the metering method selected. So even though the D90 has auto modes for easy photo shooting, the video mode is still best for more advanced users who can properly configure the camera.

Nikon also warns of additional limitations with video: horizontal pans or fast movement within the scene can cause banding or distortion, as can some kinds of lighting. Bright light sources can leave after-effects and cause other artifacts. And using Live View for extended periods may overheat the circuitry, causing image artifacts and the camera to shut down.

Bottom line: If you are primarily a photographer or a videographer, then dual-use devices can provide reasonable options to capture stills plus videos, or vice versa. But the additional format will be limited in terms of the flexibility that you have become comfortable with from dedicated devices. If you're shooting a long event, you can't beat a dedicated video camcorder to shoot on the go and keep on rolling -- and memory card camcorders are especially light and easy to carry. And for shooting profession photos, you still can't beat the solid feel and dedicated controls of a digital SLR.


The Nikon D90 is a 12.3 MP digital SLR with full-up Nikon optics and processing, plus D-Movie Mode with 720p HD video shot at cinematic 24 fps. It's priced around $899.

Nikon D90 product information

Nikon D90 product details USA

Press release, August 2008

Press release, August 2008 USA


Portions of this article originally appeared in the Winter 2009 issue of Digital Photographer magazine