longer made, it's still a great value in the used market.
few years back, this was the backup camera in most pros bags.
A very well thought out update to the N8008s, the N90s is
rugged, has fine performance (even the outdated AF works fine
if you don't need wide coverage), and a feature list that's
a block long.
original review of the N90s first appeared on photo.net
in 1996 (!) and is still posted there in its original form. The
review has undergone two major updates on this site (last update:
7/30/03). The N90s is no longer manufactured by Nikon, though in
a few parts of the world, new ones can still be found. Due to the
robustness and popularity of this camera, many used N90s bodies
are available. Just make sure that you get the N90s and not the
earlier N90 (no "s"), which is less desirable (outside
the US, you want the F90X).
N90s is the US-only version of the camera. Elsewhere in the world,
the camera is referred to as the F90x. Since I refer to my own camera
in this review, I'll use N90s throughout to refer to it. However,
those of you reading this outside the US can assume that everything
I say applies equally to the F90x.
1994, I went on a three-week photo safari in Botswana with the
late Galen Rowell, author of the Inner
Game of Outdoor Photography. One thing that I noticed
towards the end of the trip was how well his Nikon equipment held
up to three weeks of dusty, bumpy beating from a Land Rover. Upon
my return, I sold off my older Minolta Maxxum equipment and spent
US$5000 on converting to the Nikon AF system. It seemed like a
lot of money, but I take my equipment seriously. I never want
to be on a shoot when the perfect picture pops up and I'm not
ready or capable of taking it.
chose the N90s as my primary camera over an F4. [For a brief
comparison between N90s and F100, see right column.] This
surprised some of my photographic friends, especially those that
equate cost with quality, but if you know anything about the two
cameras you already can guess why.
primary advantages of an F4 over the N90s are:
viewfinders (right angle, waist level, reflex prism, etc.)
higher continuous frame rate (5.7 fps versus 4.3)
view in viewfinder
advantages of the N90s over the F4 are:
the missing mirror lockup and 100% view gave me a moment of pause
in making my decision.
used an N90s for six years--including shoots in Alaska, a high-altitude
Andes trek in Peru, as well as a number of local, shorter, trips--I
have strong opinions about what is good and not so good about
N90s is a professional caliber, autofocus camera. It features
a wide-area autofocus module (CAM246) with predictive autofocus
that can track objects that are moving quite fast. Autofocus detection
works from EV -1 to EV 19 (ISO 100; f/1.4 lens), and the metering
range extends out to EV 21. Unlike the N90, the N90s uses 1/3-stop
shutter speeds from 1/8000th of a second to 30 seconds
(the N90 uses half-stop changes). You can shoot single shots,
continuous at 2 fps, or continuous at 4.3 fps.
lot of marketing noise has been made about program modes. Personally,
I've yet to find anything other than the standard auto program,
aperture priority, shutter priority, or manual modes useful on
any camera. Besides these, the N90s includes seven additional
modes: portrait, portrait with red-eye reduction, landscape, silhouette,
sport, and close-up.
eight-segment matrix meter incorporates information about the
focus point if you're using "D-type" lenses. Alternatively,
you can chose Nikon traditional spot or center-weighted metering.
An exposure compensation button gives you a +/- 5-stop range in
1/3-stop steps. Exposure (as well as autofocus) can be locked
by on-camera controls. ISO values from 25 to 5000 are automatically
set from DX-coded film, with manual override and automatic override
setting also possible.
sync works to 1/250th of second for normal flash. Flash
metering uses five segments and can be TTL balanced, red-eye enabled,
slow-synced, and synchronized with the rear curtain.
the viewfinder, you'll see about 92% of the full frame. Shutter
speed, aperture, exposure mode, metering method, focus indicator,
exposure compensation, flash ready, and frame counter are all
visible, even to eyeglass wearers like me.
N90s takes any Nikon F mount lens (early non-AI models may
to be adapted first). And like all 35mm professional Nikon bodies,
it uses AA batteries (four). A depth of field preview button
included, but no mirror lockup. The self timer is user settable
from 2 to 30 seconds.
camera weighs in at 26.6 ounces without batteries or any other
only significant missing features: mirror lockup, 100% viewfinder,
built-in vertical grip, built-in exposure bracketing, and built-in
multiple exposure abilities.
up the N90s and you're immediately struck by how substantial it
feels. Some might say "heavy," but it really isn't a heavy
camera, just a densely packed, well-built one. The N90s is certainly
heavier than the Minoltas I onced used, but the build quality is
also higher, with more gaskets and better buttons all around. (Hint:
invest in an Optech strap--you'll feel a lot less of the weight
around your neck.)
of the controls on the N90s fall naturally under the fingers, others
don't. (Caveat: I have rather small hands.) The shutter release
and auto exposure locks are right where I want them to be. I can't
say the same for the exposure compensation, autofocus lock, or metering
method buttons, however. The exposure compensation button is a long
reach from the shutter release for my index finger, although over
time I've managed to get used to it. The autofocus lock involves
using your ring finger pressing 90 degrees opposite of the shutter
release mechanism, and is a small, hard-to-find button (fortunately,
you can put light pressure on the shutter release to do the same
thing). I've never managed to use it effectively. The metering method
button is on the left side of the pentaprism, and this almost guarantees
that casual shooters will have to take the camera away from their
eyes to change metering methods.
only stupidly placed button is the LCD light button (it lights both
the LCD and the viewfinder display). This button is too close to
controls with multiple settings (flash, metering, exposure compensation,
ISO, mode, drive) are set by holding down the appropriate button
and rotating the knurled dial. Since the viewfinder provides a wealth
of information, generally you can change these settings without
removing your eye from the camera. Again, however, it helps to use
the camera enough to know by feel where each control is. This is
certainly possible, and I've watched masters in the field change
settings without ever looking at the LCD panel on the top of the
camera. On a three-week shoot, the first week I'll still be groping
to control the camera; by the third week, I've nearly got it mastered.
nice touch is that program modes and settings you've made are remembered
when you turn the camera off and back on. This is both a blessing
and a curse. If you're using the camera a lot, you'll find it a
blessing. If you use the camera infrequently, you'll curse this
feature. An example: you're shooting on snow, so you intentionally
set an exposure compensation to make sure you don't get gray snow
(typically +1 to 2 stops, by the way). You go home. A month later
you take the camera out to take a picture of the goddaughter. The
camera will still have the exposure compensation set (and be politely
reminding you of this with a very discrete indicator on the LCD
and in the viewfinder). It's easy to overlook indicators and start
shooting with the compensation still active. On the other hand,
it's nice not to have to keep setting aperture priority, spot metering,
1/3-stop ISO adjustment, and so on, every time you turn on the camera.
rule #1 of N90s use is: always zero out any one-time settings before
turning off the camera. The corollary: always check the LCD indicators
when you turn on the camera.
you would expect with a Nikon, mounting lenses, loading film, turning
on the camera, and returning to the "idiot" settings are
all straightforward. The camera back is opened by a two button lever
on the side of the camera--it's near impossible to accidentally
open the camera, and it's a one hand operation to open the back
when you need to. I've never had a misload on the automatic film
takeup, although I have had ISOs overridden due to my own mistake
(see rule #1, above).
abused my N90s for a little over six years (it was strapped to a
goat's back, dropped, rammed into trees while falling down a hill,
rained on, bounced around in a dusty vehicle over dirt roads, and
much more). There are two very small scratches on the pentaprism
that you can't see unless you're right on top of the camera. And
the rubber eyepiece accessory I bought refused to stay on (fortunately,
the eyepiece itself has a rubber gasket around its edge, so I'm
not putting my glasses against metal or plastic as on some cameras).
That's it. I've never had a camera that's stood up better against
my clumsy follies. [By the way: if the coating on the N90s's film
compartment door starts to peel, call Nikon USA. They've been quietly
sending out free replacement doors for quite some time.]
final comment on handling: if you're moving up from an N8008, the
N90s will be intuitively obvious to you; the user controls are similar.
If you're moving up from an N50 or N70, however, you'll probably
be baffled at first. Why Nikon chose to use three distinctively
different user control methods on the N-series cameras during the
N90s's heyday is beyond my capability to understand, but it does
mean some extra learning for those who step up.
noted my predilection against custom modes earlier, but the Nikon's
seven special modes deserve a few more words of derision. In short,
none of them are extreme enough to work as advertised.
basic program mode (Ps) works well. It adjusts to the lens you're
using (picking higher shutter speeds and wider apertures for longer
lenses in the same lighting situation, for instance). Better still,
you can use the control dial to "shift" the selected program
if it doesn't meet your needs. For casual shooting, this works well,
and as you would expect. (Caveat: I almost always shoot in aperture-preferred
so-called vari-program modes don't do as well. For example, the
Hyperfocal Program (HF) is a misnomer. A true hyperfocal program
would look at where you're focused, select an aperture and focus
setting that would put everything in focus from in front of that
subject to infinity (with the subject itself probably about 1/3rd
of the way into the "in-focus" field). A bit of experimentation
with this mode tells me that it simply sets a modestly small aperture
(typically f/11). Sorry, close but no cigar. Worse still, none of
the vari-program modes allow the control dial to shift the program!
So you can't make up for the mistakes the vari-program modes make.
more? Portrait mode always picks the fastest aperture it can. It's
not very useful unless you have fast lenses, and then it really
is no different than setting aperture mode and picking your widest
aperture. Portrait with red-eye reduction simply preflashes the
SB-25 or triggers the SB-26's incandescent lamp; otherwise it is
the same as Portrait (again, you can set the camera to do this without
using the special mode).
Landscape mode is similar to the hyperfocal mode, but even lamer,
as it typically selects apertures between f/5.6 and f/16 using a
method I can't fathom. The Sport program almost always selects a
shutter speed of 1/250 or 1/500 (you'd think the predictive autofocus
would be used here to calculate how high a shutter speed was necessary,
but it isn't). The close-up mode picks relatively wide apertures
(typically f/5.6 on most lenses), which seems contradictory to the
limited depth of field you have at close range.
only program that seems to work as advertised, and then only if
the conditions are correct, is the silhouette mode. If--and that's
a big if--you have a strongly backlit situation with an object in
the foreground, this mode does indeed seem to ignore the foreground
exposure, resulting in a silhouette. Most professionals, however,
will still want to calculate their own exposure to make sure they
get the amount of silhouette they want.
eight-area matrix metering is pretty darn intelligent. It does a
good job of ignoring backlight and sky in horizontal exposures,
and with fill flash and D-type lenses is nothing short of awesome
in its accuracy. (Note: the N90s doesn't have a vertical detection
mechanism like the F4, so it doesn't do as good a job ignoring backlight
and sky in exposures when held vertically.) I've checked the camera
against my Minolta flash meter on many occasions, and the results
you don't like matrix metering, I suggest trying the spot metering
option. Spot metering reads only the innermost 1% circle (the inner
ring in the viewfinder). Switch to spot metering, place the inner
ring on a neutral gray area, and you've got your exposure. If only
the auto exposure lock button were easier to use and actually locked
(you have to hold it to save exposure info).
is possible (but not probable) to get outside the possible exposure
range. The N90s does a good job of letting you know, popping up
indicators in the viewfinder to help. In manual mode, you get an
electronic match needle in the viewfinder that indicates up to one
stop each direction in third stops. Unlike almost any camera I've
used before, the N90s's exposure system feels natural to me, and
always provides useful information.
can't say enough good things about the N90s's autofocus system.
Suffice it to say that it works better than my eyes do most of the
time. One thing that will fool most newcomers is the ground glass
indicators. While the brackets indicate the size of the autofocus
area, what they don't prepare you for is the predictive nature of
the continuous autofocus. What this means is that if you press lightly
on the shutter release to start autofocus on something that's within
the bracketed area, and then that object moves out of the bracketed
area, there's a good chance the autofocus system is still locked
onto it, even though it's outside the brackets. The autofocus detection
on the N90s is wider than that of the N6006, N8008, and F4, although
you can set it to a narrower view, if necessary. Compared to the
latest and greatest Nikon bodies, the N90s holds its own in the
central area; yes, the F5 and F100 focus faster and with more certainty
and even with off-center subjects. Still, the N90s does a good enough
job that unless you need the very fastest autofocus, you can get
by with the N90s.
autofocus is something you need to experience to understand and
appreciate. My suggestion: shoot some test rolls of a friend riding
towards you on a bike at varying speeds. Note the difference between
starting with the subject centered and not. Note the difference
between locking the autofocus on the subject first and just stabbing
the shutter release. Note the difference in vertical operation from
horizontal (the autofocus areas favor horizontal exposures).
the Minolta 7xi I switched over from, the N90s did not hunt for
focus with longer lenses anywhere near as much (longer lenses are
sensitive to this due, in part, to depth of field differences).
Autofocus works with any lens with a maximum aperture of f/8 or
larger. I've even gotten the autofocus to work with a 2x auto extender
on a 300mm f/4 lens (extenders are often have a problem with autofocus
mechanisms). In darkness, the SB-26 flash system can emit a near-infrared
signal that can be used by the autofocus system. Because of the
autofocus system, you must use circular polarizing filters. Finally,
if you use a manual focus lens, indicators in the viewfinder help
identify when the lens is properly focused.
my experience, the autofocus system works as you would expect. It's
faster than I can manually focus, it deals with off-center subjects
well, and except for macro photography, I use it all the time. (Note:
with the expensive, fast long telephotos like the 500mm f/4, you
can override the autofocus by simply rotating the manual focus ring
on the lens, a nice touch that is especially useful in wildlife
and sports photography.)
always been interesting to me how the three major SLR manufacturers
differ in flash technology. I see nothing compelling about Canon's
flash technology--it seems pretty basic and much a match for Nikon's
(though with fewer choices). Minolta was the first to provide wireless
flash, and I was a big user of dual, off-camera wireless flash with
my Maxxums (the new Nikon flashes can also go wireless, but they
don't work as well as the Minolta did). Nikon's claim to fame is
the slow-sync, rear curtain abilities. Indeed, it was the rear curtain
function that attracted me to Nikon's flash system.
you press the shutter release with most cameras, even in slow sync
mode, the flash fires immediately. The net result is that your subject
thinks that you've taken the picture and starts to move. And if
the movement is long enough or directional enough, you'll end up
with subject streaks that often go the wrong way (we expect streaks
to be behind the subject, not ahead of it). Rear curtain firing
of the flash means that the flash fires at the end of the exposure.
Movement streaks suddenly go the right way, and your subject (think
about wildlife here, folks) doesn't tend to move during the slow
sync portion of the exposure. Nikon was the first to have rear curtain
sync on a wide variety of bodies, though Canon has now caught up
here. At the time of the N90s's introduction, though, rear curtain
sync was a distinguishing feature.
also like the ease with which you can set fill flash with the Nikon
cameras. The late adventure photographer Galen Rowell wrote often
about the magic fill number (set -1.7 on a Nikon flash head), and
having watched him in the field and tried the same techniques myself,
I now swear by fill flash for many, if not most, situations I encounter.
(As Galen always said to his students: it's easier to control contrast
when you're taking the picture than it is after you've processed
the film.) The N90s and SB-26 make a great combination. I leave
my SB-26 set on standby and the magic fill number. When I need fill
flash, I mount the flash on the camera and shoot. Don't need fill?
Turn the flash off. With a little practice, it's that simple. This
method even works well with a remote flash cable (SC-17). The 1/250th
top sync speed gives you a lot of flexibility when you're working
with flash, and the camera is smart enough to remind you when you're
out of its shutter speed range. The N90s also supports high speed
sync (FP flash mode) on those Speedlights that are capable of it,
so you can sync at any shutter speed, if necessary (there are flash
power limitations that come into play, though).
still is the way the flash operation integrates with the exposure
system. First, with D-type lenses, both the flash system and the
exposure system consider the focus point. This alters which of the
matrix areas is used to calculate the primary exposure (the TTL
exposure system uses a five-matrix pattern). In the aperture priority
mode I use most often, the camera will even tell you if the background
is likely to be over or underexposed! It does this by displaying
a HI or – in the viewfinder (in slow sync mode, a LO may also appear
to indicate background underexposure).
controls are more difficult to use than necessary. Live
with the N90s for awhile and the controls become more and more
comfortable. But if you use this camera as an intermittent tool,
you'll find that there's always a few day adjustment period as
you relearn the feel of the exposure compensation, metering, and
various lock buttons again.
of some F4 features. You can't do anything about the
lack of mirror lockup (use the self-timer to lower vibrations,
if necessary), but some of the other missing features are possible
to achieve with an N90s. The MF-26 databack provides multiple
exposure, for example. The MB-10 grip provides a vertical release
and battery flexibility (including Lithium power capability).
exposure bracketing. Again, an MF-26 databack can add
this function to the N90s, as can the Sharp Datalink connection.
Unfortunately, neither is very convenient to use and the latter
is almost impossible to find (it's been discontinued for several
years as of this update).
use VR lenses. The one thing about the N90s's
age is that it pre-dates Nikon's VR technology. It can use AF-S,
but not VR. Also, if you end up with G-type lenses (no aperture
ring), you can only use them on the N90s in Program or Shutter-priority
Rugged and reliable.
You have to pay more these days to get as much camera. A used
N90s is a serious choice when considering the N80 or even the