Compared to...

As with the majority of our studio image quality comparisons we selected the nearest competition by category, specification, price and feature set. The D90 sits towards the lower end of the enthusiast/semi-pro spectrum - it offers the pentaprism viewfinder we'd expect to see in that sector but doesn't offer the heavy-duty body of the Canon 40D/50D. As a result, we're going to compare the D90 to the 450D, which appears more similar in intent (the build and feature set of both are very enthusiast focused).

We also compare it to its predecessor, the D80, to show the differences made by two years' development and the application of the CMOS technology that has helped Nikon develop such a buzz with its D300 and D3. Finally, we compare it to the Pentax K20D, a camera that also straddles this category and the one above it. (We've added the D300 just because its sensor specifications are similar enough to make us wonder whether it they produce identical images)

Camera Body only price Sensor
(effective pixels)
Pixel density
Nikon D90 $ 999 12.3 MP CMOS; 23.6 x 15.8 mm (1.5x crop) 3.3
Nikon D80 $ 652 10.0 MP CCD; 23.6 x 15.8 mm (1.5x crop) 2.7
Canon EOS 450D $ 579 12.2 MP CMOS; 22.2 x 14.8 mm (1.6x crop) 3.7
Pentax K20D $ 965 14.6 MP CMOS; 23.4 x 15.6 mm (1.5x crop) 4.0

Lenses used

For direct comparisons we always use sharp prime lenses stopped down. Here we have used the Nikon 50 mm F1.8 (it's sharper than the F1.4 at F9), Canon EF 50 mm F1.4 and Pentax FA 50 mm F1.4. We tested the D90 at a series of apertures and concluded F9 was the optimal setting for testing. (The 3D nature of our scene means we have to balance the softness that can be caused by diffraction with the risk of areas of the scene falling out of depth of field).

Studio scene comparison (JPEG)

This is our standard studio scene comparison shot taken from exactly the same tripod position. Lighting: daylight simulation, >98% CRI. Crops are 100%. Ambient temperature was approximately 22°C (~72°F).

Nikon D90 vs. Nikon D80

Camera settings:

  • Nikon D90: Nikkor 50 mm F1.8 lens, Aperture Priority, ISO 200
    JPEG Large/Fine, Manual WB, Default Parameters (Standard), Active D-Lighting off) Self-Timer (with delayed exposure)
  • Nikon D80: Nikkor 50 mm F1.8 lens, Aperture Priority, ISO 100
    JPEG Large/Fine, Manual WB, Default Parameters (Standard), Self-Timer (with delayed exposure)
Nikon D90
Nikon D80
4.6 MB JPEG (4288 x 2848)
3.6 MB JPEG (3872 x 2592)

The default image settings on the D90 appear to be very similar to its forbear. There certainly isn't any appreciable improvement in resolution, despite the sensor finding space for another two million photosites. The D90 does a better job of rolling off the highlights on the paperclips but other than slightly lower contrast overall, there's not a huge difference between the two cameras at base ISO.