This review first appeared on photo.net in 1996, was updated in 2003, and re-edited for this site in 2012.
The 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.
In 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.
I chose the N90s as my primary camera over an F4. [For a brief comparison between N90s and F100, see bottom of this review.] 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.
The primary advantages of an F4 over the N90s are:
- Interchangeable viewfinders (right angle, waist level, reflex prism, etc.)
- Mirror lockup
- Conventional (traditional) controls
- Slightly higher continuous frame rate (5.7 fps versus 4.3)
- 100% view in viewfinder
The advantages of the N90s over the F4 are:
- Faster and better autofocus mechanism
- Lighter weight
- More sophisticated matrix metering
- Lower price
Only the missing mirror lockup and 100% view gave me a moment of pause in making my decision.
Having 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 the camera.
The 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.
A 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.
An 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.
Flash 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.
In 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.
The N90s takes any Nikon F mount lens (early non-AI models may need to be adapted first). And like all 35mm professional Nikon bodies, it uses AA batteries (four). A depth of field preview button is included, but no mirror lockup. The self timer is user settable from 2 to 30 seconds.
The camera weighs in at 26.6 ounces without batteries or any other accessories.
The only significant missing features: mirror lockup, 100% viewfinder, built-in vertical grip, built-in exposure bracketing, and built-in multiple exposure abilities.
The N90s has a couple of abilities you won't find in later bodies (well, one's in the F5):
- Program limitations with flash can be overridden. If you use the Flexible Program shift (Rear Command dial), you can get past Nikon's usual aperture limitations with flash in Program mode.
- Programmable barrier for flash shutter speeds. Like the F5, the N90s can be programmed to set a lower boundary for shutter speeds when using flash; but you need Photo Secretary to do this.
Pick 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 once 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.)
Some 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.
The only stupidly-placed button is the LCD light button (it lights both the LCD and the viewfinder display). This button is too close to the eyepiece.
All 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.
One 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.
So, 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.
As 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 mis-load on the automatic film takeup, although I have had ISOs overridden due to my own mistake (see rule #1, above).
I 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 quietly sent out free replacement doors for quite some time, long after the camera was no longer sold.]
One 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.
I 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.
The 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 mode.)
The 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. Useless.
Want 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).
The 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.
The 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.
Exposure: The 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 are dead-on.
If 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).
It 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.
Autofocus: I 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.
Predictive 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).
Unlike 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.
In 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.)
Flash: It's 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.
When 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.
I 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).
Better 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 ï¿½ in the viewfinder (in slow sync mode, a LO may also appear to indicate background underexposure).
- Some 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.
- Lack 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).
- No 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).
- Can't 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 mode.
- Solid build. Rugged and reliable.
- Value. 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 F100.
Recommended: a workhorse camera that has everything except state-of-the-art autofocus. Great starter camera for serious user.
F100 or N90s?
Since the introduction of the F100 (see review here), many have asked me about the differences between the cameras, and which they should buy. Here's a short list to help you make your decision:
The primary advantages of an F100 over the N90s are:
- Custom functions
- Viewfinder diopter adjustment
- Built-in exposure bracketing (N90s has it, but requires the optional databack to access!)
- Faster and better autofocus mechanism, especially for off-center subjects
- Slightly better weatherproofing
- Controls more like that of other current Nikon bodies (F5, N80), makes it easier to switch between bodies without focusing on camera controls. Controls such as AF lock are easier to reach.
- 96% view in viewfinder versus 92%
- More stable tripod mount (N90s has one that tends to protrude)
The advantages of the N90s over the F100 are:
- Slightly lighter
- Lower price
- Somewhat longer battery life
- Silly "novice" exposure modes that no one uses
- Built-in viewfinder blind
- Slightly higher viewfinder magnification (0.8x versus 0.76x)
N80 or N90s?
As for the N80, it is an adequate replacement for the N90s in virtually every way except two: build quality/robustness, and flash sync (the N90s not only has a higher flash sync speed, but also supports the high-speed sync mode of the SB-28 and SB-80DX Speedlights). The N80 focuses as fast as the N90s, but only with the central autofocus sensor. Feature-wise, the N80 is similar to a N90s with the optional databack (e.g., the N80 includes built-in bracketing options the N90s requires the databack for).