Detailed D90 First Impressions -- Part II

Feb 9, 2006
Riverside, CA
Okay, enough of the preliminary stuff in Part I. Now it's Saturday, and time to take my new D90 on a test drive -- literally, with my Lowepro bag in the back and the D90 with my trusty 18-200 VR lens on the seat beside me.

If you didn't read the D90 First Impressions --Part I thread (and please do,) you need to know that the only default settings I changed that would directly or indirectly affect JPEG photo output quality were, (1) File and image size, increased from Fine Normal to Fine Large, (2) Sharpness, increased from the default 3 to 5 (on a 0-9 scale), and (3) Auto ISO turned on with a minimum shutter speed of 1/30 and a maximum ISO of 3200.

For this preliminary test on Saturday I didn't change any of the D90's other default settings. Other settings pertaining to photo output and Picture Control were left at their default settings.

1. I used the default 3D-tracking (11 points). This is a new feature that I'm completely unfamiliar with because it's a new wrinkle compared to my D80. I'm always skeptical of these advanced features that make the camera so smart that it's trying to second-guess me, But in my initial tests I was quite impressed.

2. Wanting to evaluate the D90's matrix metering compared to the D80, I used matrix metering for all my test shots on Saturday. I spent about 4-6 months with my D80 trying to get matrix metering to work for me and couldn't do it. The results not only tended toward overexposure of contrasty scenes by 1/3 to at least 2/3 stop with blown highlights, but the results were also frustratingly inconsistent. I finally settled on using a combination of center-weighted and spot metering instead.

Thom Hogan, in his excellent D80 manual, describes exactly why this happens. I understand the theory too, but the practical results I got using matrix metering with my D80 were so consistently inconsistent that after almost six months of trying to tame the D80's matrix metering, I finally began using a combination of center-weighted and spot metering nearly all the time.

Unfortunately, the D80 and D90 share the same 3-D matrix metering hardware and firmware. So my dissatisfaction with the D90's matrix metering's propensity for overexposure of contrasty scenes carries over to the D90. However, that's not to say that matrix metering isn't very useful, and very accurate in many situations that I'll demonstrate below.

As DSLR metering methods and algorithms have become so much more sophisticated and complex in recent years, I've come to recognize that there's no "one size fits all" ideal metering mode. Matrix metering will produce excellent results under certain conditions, but center-weighted or spot metering will do a better job in others. It's all a matter of personal choice, knowing how each metering mode works, and being able to choose the right one for the photo you're framing.

But let's take my new D90 for a test drive on a routine day off.

First we start the car. And my first inkling that matrix metering was overexposing was the fact that I had to drastically tone down the brightness of this photo.

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My first leaving my apartment rearview mirror shot turned out very well. This is a nearly full-frame shot with no PP, and perfectly exposed.

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A wider rearview mirror shot leaving my apartment does a great job of demonstrating the D90's Active D-lighting feature (which I have set to Auto). Without overexposing the highlights, the shadow areas are preserved in this SOOC photo. Using the Auto default, the effects of Active D-lighting are very subtle, but quite effective.

This excellent D90 review includes a very thorough comparison of Active D-lighting with graphic examples about halfway down the page. Very interesting results that reinforce my belief in using conservative Active D-lighting.

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And so we proceed to brunch at Carrows. Slap on the Tamron 17-50 and photograph my meal.

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And I use Live View with the camera sitting on the table to capture a couple of fellow diners.

All the reviews mention that autofocusing in Live View is slow, and it certainly is. Don't expect an immediate focus lock like you'd get using the viewfinder. And one Live View quirk that I haven't seen mentioned in any of the reviews is the shutter lag. Just like with most P&S cameras, it takes about a second by my rough estimate for the picture to actually be taken after you press the shutter release. For these reasons, Live View probably isn't the best way to go if you're shooting fast action shots.

Nonetheless, I think Live View is a very useful new feature. Obviously, it's great for nabbing surreptitious candids like the one below. But, with the extremely wide angle viewing range of the D90's LCD, it's also very effective for capturing other candid photos where the angle you want to capture prevents you from using the viewfinder.

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Time for a car wash and a bit more camera testing.

This shot needed a little bit of cropping, but once again it shows the effect of the D90's Active D-lighting feature, bringing out the shadow areas.

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Here's a perfect example of the "hot" exposure that D80 and D90 matrix metering yields. In this photo, the shadow areas in the foreground (i.e., my car) are perhaps 1/3 - 2/3 overexposed, while the lighter background is totally blown out. Of course, you can't have both in a high contrast shot like this.

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Nobody has commented on this photo, but it's a favorite shot of mine. I planned it long in advance and thought 1/30 would give me just the right amount of blur. It's always fun to guess right :)

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Now resuming this thread where I left off last evening.

I just added some additional observations above, and now -- after the car wash -- we're off to PetsMart for some Fancy Feast for my best buddy Tonto on Saturday afternoon.

This full-frame SOOC shot demonstrates that matrix metering can be right on if the contrast of a scene is relatively uniform. My only very minor quibble (if you view it large) is that the photo could be a little bit sharper. If I wanted to make this into a finished product, I'd have to add a substantial amount of PP USM.

And, although the colors, brightness and contrast are completely accurate and true, I might also like just a hint of increased color saturation in photos like this.

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Arriving at PetsMart, matrix metering again provides excellent exposure of a relatively uniform scene, but just a tiny increase in color saturation and in-camera sharpening would be nice (in addition to modest cropping, I sharpened this a bit in PP).

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Switch to the Tamron 17-50 inside PetsMart to document the mind-boggling assortment of Fancy Feast flavor choices.

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On our way home we stopped at the golf course to shoot a busy bee,

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And a terribly high-contrast white primrose scene where matrix metering and -0.7 EV got the desired result.

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Live View again, a reflection of me in my car's rear window. Time to put away the camera and go home.

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A ton of fun on a Saturday afternoon, and the bottom line is that I LOVE the D90!

By all means, please share your comments on my two-part D90 impressions.
Sep 17, 2006
Ashburton , New Zealand
Interesting observations , thanks for sharing . The first shot of the black dash might be over-exposed by most cameras because it is black wouldn't it ?
A bit like my picture where the horse takes up all the focus points

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Even though it is 1 stop brighter than when the focus point was moved to the grass some would say the horse itself is correctly exposed though the grass is blown out .
Metering off something totally black would fool any meter .
But I agree with your observations and also love my D90 !


Excelent review, thanks. I am thinking about getting a D90. I am now using D200 for two-and-ahalf years after D50 for a while. The reason I want to switch to D90 is the combination of D200 and some of my lenses make them too heavy for a man my age. It's alright with the 18-200 but a bit too much for 105macro and 80-400 which I also use a lot. I also like the other more advance functions including vdo capability of the D90.
I have one question. With my D200 I use AF-Area Mode switch all the time. How do you change AF-Area Mode in your D90? I am spoiled by the user friendly AF-Area Mode switch switch on my D200.
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