Being the first digital SLR to record video, the Nikon D90 has garnered an impressive amount of buzz. Besides having the ability to change lenses, another big attraction of the D90 is its large CMOS sensor in comparison to consumer camcorders. The D90 boasts a huge 23.6mm x 15.8mm sensor, which converts to a 1.12-inch diagonal sensor length. In comparison, this is more than twice the size of the 1/1.8-inch sensor found in the Samsung SC-HMX20, which currently houses the largest CMOS sensor in a consumer camcorder. It's completely normal to expect larger sensors in DSLR cameras, and it's important to recognize that sensor size is really only one small aspect of a camcorder's video performance. Many other factors have a large affect on overall video quality.
Unfortunately, the Nikon D90's highest quality setting records video at 1280 x 720 rather than at 1920 x 1080, which any quality HD camcorder is capable of. The second DSLR to record video, the Canon EOS 5D Mark II, is capable of recording video at 1920 x 1080 (it also retails for $1700 more than the Nikon D90). The D90 also has the ability to record in both NTSC and PAL settings, with the option located in the Setup Menu. PAL and NTSC are two different encoding systems, with NTSC being the standard in North America (as well as Japan, parts of South America and other areas) and PAL being the standard in most of Europe, Asia, and Australia. We did some recording in both settings and found very little quality differences between the two, but it's a good option to have if you plan on using the camera overseas. Unless noted, all of our testing was done in NTSC.
The Nikon D90 records video at 24 frames per second (fps), which is different than the usual 29.97 fps rate that most camcorders utilize. This gives the footage a slower, more cinematic look (as film traditionally captures at 24 fps). This slower frame rate is intriguing for many users who desire video that captures motion in a different manner than traditional video. Many camcorders, specifically models from Canon and Panasonic, offer different frame rate modes in an attempt to simulate the 24 fps style.
With these unique specs, the D90 was often able to produce impressive results (especially in moderately low light), but it really never came close to matching the quality a true HD camcorder is capable of.
Nikon D90 at 3000 lux in Auto mode
The Samsung SC-HMX20 at 3000 lux in Auto mode
The Panasonic HDC-SD100 at 3000 lux in Auto Mode
Beginning our testing with the D90, we shot a DSC Labs Chroma DuMonde chart at an even 3000 lux, which is very bright light. We then pulled frames from that footage and compared them to similar images captured from other camcorders that we've put under identical testing. In our bright light testing the Nikon D90 produced a decent image, although it didn't come close to matching the sharpness of consumer HD camcorders. A fact mainly due to the lack of a 1920 x 1080 full HD capability on the D90, but also probably associated with the insufficiency of the Motion JPEG compression. Compared with Canon camcorders (the HF11 and HG20), the D90 produced colors with much less saturation. We noticed the same thing when comparing with Panasonic (HDC-HS100 and HDC-SD100). The D90's closest matches, as far as color reproduction goes, are the Sony (HDR-SR12 and HDR-CX12) and Samsung (SC-HMX20), which both produced soft, less-saturated colors. The D90 does offer a picture controls feature, which allows you to adjust sharpness, saturation, hue, etc. This gives you a chance to boost colors or give your image the look you desire. The picture controls don't work wonders in video mode, but they do have an effect.
As hard as it might try, the Nikon D90 simply cannot record video with the same shapness as a dedicated HD camcorder. The blown up images above give you a good idea of how much sharper most HD camcorders are in comparison to the D90. The presence of moiré patterns was another prominent flaw produced by the D90 in our testing. In the first image above, notice the blue discoloration above the 2.35 marker as well as the slight yellow band towards the right side of the image. These instances of interference are called moiré patterns and they mostly occurred during our testing in areas with fine lines and grids (look at the stills from our video resolution test to see more examples). While this interference was prominent in much of our lab tests, it was rarely noticeable in footage we shot in 'the real world.'
Nikon D90 showing off its shallow depth of field
Depth of field control is one of the appealing features of the D90. Most camcorders tend to have a large depth of field, which makes it easy for both foreground and background objects in the frame to be in focus at the same time. With a shallow depth of field, the focus tightens to a smaller plane—foreground, midground, background, or somewhere in between.
The big problem with the D90's video mode is a tendancy towards 'wobbles.' Panning and moving the D90 around while you record can produce a terrible horizontal wobble within the frame. Objects appear to tilt in the direction you are moving the camera while a pan is taking place. When you stop, the object bounces back into its straight appearance, giving off a wobble that is similar to jiggling Jell-O. This problem was very noticeable anytime we recorded quick back and forth motion and the only real way to avoid it would be to use a tripod when panning or to only record stationary shots.
Here is a sample video we took of the D90 that shows off the the terrible wobble effect:
The wobble effect is created from the D90's sensor processing different parts of the image at different points in time. This is called a 'rolling shutter,' which has nothing to do with the camera's shutter speed or an acutal moving shutter. What's happening is the sensor begins to expose the top of the frame and then works its way down. Because the sensor works too slowly in the D90, the bottom and top of the frame appear to move independently of each other, producing the wobble effect. Rolling shutter and wobble effects are problems with any camcorder that uses CMOS sensors, but the D90 has worse problems with these effects than most camcorders. For more information about rolling shutter and how it relates to different sensors, visit this website.
The D90 simply doesn't have the detail of an HD camcorder.
The D90's lack of sharpness were in plain sight when we shot scenes with a lot of detail. In the shot above, of leaves on a tree branch, there's a good deal of noticeable artifacting, especially in the high contrast areas of the image.
Overall, the Nikon D90 works well in bright light, but it has a completely different quality and feel to it than a traditional HD camcorder. The 24 fps frame rate does create a unique look, and it has a more cinematic feel than the 24P mode some camcorders offer. However, the D90 has way too many problems with video performance—choppy auto exposure, no auto focus, rolling shutter (producing wobble), artifacting, moiré patterns, and lack of sharpness with images of fine detail.
It is definitely possible to record amazing video with the D90—just check out these sample videos Nikon posted on its website. It should be noted, however, that while many of these videos look very impressive, none of them involve a quickly panning camera, nearly all of them were shot using a tripod, and each of them was an expertly pre-set scene (rather than footage taken on-the-go). Also, many of these videos were taken with expensive, specialty lenses.
Video Resolution* (15.75)
*We tested the video resolution of the D90 by shooting a DSC Labs video resolution chart under a bright, even light. We then view the footage on an HD monitor to analyze it. Recording at its highest quality setting (1280 x 720 HD) the Nikon D90 produced a horizontal resolution of approximately 525 line widths per picture height (lw/ph) and a vertical resolution of approximately 600 lw/ph.
This is a fairly good score, especially when considering the camera doesn't record in full HD. The best resolution from a consumer camcorder we've seen so far this year is 700 lw/ph both horizontal and vertical, which was achieved by the Samsung SC-HMX20. The D90 came close to matching the resolution of the Panasonic HDC-SD100 (600 lw/ph in both horizontal and vertical) and the Sony HDR-CX12 (600 lw/ph horizontal, 575 lw/ph vertical).
In standard definition recording, at 640 x 424, the D90 produced an awful resolution of 300 lw/ph horizontal and 225 lw/ph vertical and the image quality was severely diminished.
The D90 speckled our resolutions chart with moiré patterns.
While the D90's HD resolution scores were generally decent, there were problems with moiré patterns appearing throughout the chart—producing strange yellow and blue color bands as well as interference.
Low Light Performance* (7.34)
*We test low light performance in three separate stages: comparative analysis, color accuracy/noise/saturation testing, and light sensitivity assessment. For our comparative analysis we shoot a DSC Labs Chroma DuMonde chart at both 60 and 15 lux, then compare the results with other camcorders that we've put through the same tests in our labs.
The Nikon D90 at 60 lux, auto shutter, auto ISO (up to 1600)
The Samsung SC-HMX20 at 60 lux auto mode
The Panasonic HDC-SD100 at 60 lux auto mode
The D90 produced some wonderful results at 60 lux, producing a brighter image than we're used to seeing from HD camcorders. The colors were also deeper and more saturated (especially noticeable in the reds and yellows) at 60 lux than the HD camcorders we compared it to. The D90 still couldn't compete in sharpness at this light level. Noise also started to make a slight appearance at 60 lux.
The Nikon D90 at 15 lux, auto shutter, auto ISO (up to 1600)
The Samsung SC-HMX20 at 15 lux auto mode
The Panasonic HDC-SD100 at 15 lux auto mode
The Canon HF11 at 15 lux 24P mode
Next we shoot the same DSC Labs Chroma DuMonde chart at very low light—an even 15 lux. The D90 produced a respectable image at this light, but it didn't have the brightness advantage over HD camcorders that we saw at 60 lux. The camera still captured deep, saturated colors, although noise was very prevalent. Again, ISO and shutter speed adjustment didn't improve or alter the image one bit. Comparing the D90 with the Canon HF11's 24P mode at this light, we saw both capturing vived, dark colors, along with a similar overall image (except with the Canon being far sharper).
Our second low light test looks at color accuracy, noise, and saturation levels. After shooting an X-Rite Color Checker chart at an even 60 lux, we export frames from that footage to Imatest imaging software for analysis. According to Imatest, the Nikon D90 produced a color error of 7.22. This is an excellent score, exceeding the 9.9 posted by the Samsung SC-HMX20, which gave the most accurate color performance amongst the top tier consumer HD camcorders.
The noise percentage of the Nikon D90 at 60 lux was a low 0.7925%, another very good score compared to your average HD camcorder. Only Panasonic had a lower noise percentage, with the HDC-SD100 recording 0.738% noise at 60 lux. The D90, however, had a far higher color saturation with 103.4% at this light level—a score very close to what Canon received with the HF11.
The third, and last, stage of low light performance testing looks at sensitivity. We hooked up the D90 to a waveform monitor, which measures exposure in IREs (the standard measurement used in broadcasting). We then slowly lowered the light until the camcorder generated a peak of 50 IRE. Recording in auto mode, the D90 produced 50 IRE at 10 lux. This is really nothing special compared to some of the top-notch consumer HD camcorders. The Panasonic HDC-SD100 required 13 lux to produce 50 IRE and the Sony HDR-CX12 and HDR-SR12 both required 14 lux of light. The Samsung SC-HMX20, one of the best low-light performers, needed only 5 lux.
It comes as a surprise, considering the enormous size of the D90's CMOS sensor and it's slower frame rate, that it didn't score better in our low light sensitivity test. The Canon HF11, when recording in 24P mode produced 50 IRE at only 4 lux. We expected results like this from the D90, especially after it showed us such a bright image at 60 lux. Because the D90 showed a significant drop when we lowered the lights to 15 lux, suggests the camera is very good in moderately low light, but the quality doesn't hold up when things get really dim. The fact that changing shutter speeds and ISO didn't provide any boost in low light performance was also a big disappointment. Even so, the D90 is a strong low light performer, although not entirely living up to its expectations.
The kit lens with the Nikon D90 is equipped with a Vibration Reduction image stabilization system. We tested its ability to reduce the shakiness of a video image by attaching it to our specialized device in our lab.
We ran stabilization tests at two different speeds. On speed one, which is comparable to the motion of an unsteady hand, the Nikkor lens reduced 80% of the shake. On speed two, which is much faster and more agitating (like that of a moving vehicle), the lens was able to reduce 83% of the shake.
The D90 and its kit lens, the AF-S DX Nikkor 18-105mm f/3.5-5.6G ED VR, performed far better in our testing than most consumer camcorders that make their way through our labs. The D90 being such a heavy piece of equipment likely assisted in maintaining its balance as well.
Wide Angle* (13.6)*
Obviously, the wide angle ability of the Nikon D90 entirely depends on what lens you are using with the camera. We did all our testing with the supplied kit lens—an AF-S DX Nikkor 18-105mm f/3.5-5.6G ED VR lens. With this lens, classified as a standard zoom lens on Nikon's website, the camera measured a wide angle of 68 degrees in video mode. This is about 20 degrees, or 40%, wider than the average camcorder that passes through our labs. This score emphasizes the biggest advantage the Nikon D90 has over every consumer camcorder on the market—a huge stock of wonderful interchangeable lenses
The Nikon D90 records video using the Motion JPEG codec. While not the standard method of compression amongst HD camcorders (usually AVCHD or HDV), M-JPEG is commonly used in digital still cameras to record video. By settling with M-JPEG instead of AVCHD, Nikon chose an outdated codec, rather than going with the new standard being set by HD camcorders. With M-JPEG each frame of video is independently compressed with a JPEG picture compression—this creates very large file sizes in comparison to AVCHD (although, the video clips created by the D90 aren't too big as the camera's highest recording quality is 1280 x 720). M-JPEG does have some benefits. It's compatible with a wider range of software than AVCHD, and, since information is stored in each frame of an M-JPEG video, the footage is not as taxing on computer hardware—making it easier to edit.
In contrast, the new Canon EOS 5D Mark II compresses video using the MPEG-4 codec—a similar, but slightly different codec than AVCHD.
Memory card slot with 4GB SDHC card
The D90 has the ability to record Motion JPEG video in 3 different qualities: 320 x 216, 640 x 424, and 1280 x 720 (HD). The two smaller sizes record at an unusual 3:2 aspect ratio, which is commonly used for still photos. It would have made more sense for Nikon to adhere to video standards for these lower quality settings. Normal television is a 4:3 ratio (e.g. 640 x 480 or 320 x 240) and widescreen is 16:9 (the D90's 1280 x 720 quality produces a widescreen image).
The D90 records video to SD/SDHC cards, just as it does still pictures. The card slot is on the right side of the camera, behind a sliding door. The door has no locking mechanism and requires no switch to open, but it feels well constructed and it closes tightly, regardless.
The camera has no internal memory, which makes the SD/SDHC cards you load into it the sole method for recording video. While most digital SLRs don't come with internal memory, it is an increasingly common feature found on HD camcorders that record to non-linear media (i.e. anything but tape or DVD). This isn't a glaring problem for the D90, but it's one more drawback when considering the camera as a video recording device.
Far more irritating is the D90's 5-minute record limit per video clip. Yes, you read that correctly. Video clips are limited to 5-minute blocks. Nikon doesn't try to conceal this time limit either—a counter on the top right of the LCD begins counting down from 5 minutes the moment you start recording. This restriction is likely due to the processing limitations of the D90. The thing is, once the timer goes down to zero and recording stops, you can start it right back up again by pressing the OK button—up to a point. After about thirty minutes of straight recording (six back-to-back clips in HD), the D90 begins to overheat and live view mode will automatically shut down. The camera gives you a 30 second warning before the mode conks out, but it won't let you start it up again until the camera cools off for a few minutes. Nikon claims live view mode can function for up to an hour before it overheats, but we never recorded for longer than 35 minutes without running into problems. After giving the camera a 15-minute rest, we were again able to record for about another 30 minutes before live view mode again shut down.
While these time constraints may not affect some people's filming habits, it could easily become an issue if you're trying to capture every moment of a school play or live concert. The 5 minute clip limit is only implemented when recording video at 1280 x 720, the highest quality setting. At lower qualities, the limit is 20 minutes. Still, live view mode runs into the same shut-down issues no matter what quality setting you're shooting in.
*The Nikon D90 comes with a Software Suite CD-ROM, but the included programs do little more than assist with transferring files and helping you organize your photographs and video clips. The camera does not ship with video editing software.
An advantage of Motion JPEG is its extensive compatibility with most software and video players. While compatibility used to be an issue with AVCHD, it is rarely a problem now that the codec has become more of a standard in the industry. Motion JPEG also produces smaller file sizes, making the editing process far less power hungry than working with AVCHD.
Picture & Manual Control
* Automatic Control (2.5)
*The Nikon D90 has numerous weaknesses with automatic controls. Being the first SLR to record video, it is likely that a majority of these problems will be solved in future models, but for now, however, we are going to have to deal with the issues at hand.
The D90 is not like most consumer camcorders, which are designed to be yanked out of a bag, immediately at the ready with fully automated controls. The D90 has seven automatic scene settings, which are selected by turning the mode dial on the top left of the camera. The settings include: Auto, No Flash, Portrait, Landscape, Close-up, Action, and Nighttime. Working in these modes, the camera will automatically adjust its settings to fit with the specific scene.
Autofocus is one of the staples of today's consumer camcorder market. Every camcorder has the feature and it's something we take for granted when we record video. Here's the kicker—the Nikon D90 cannot autofocus during video recording. Manual control freaks and experienced filmmakers may find this acceptable, but the omission makes the D90 nearly impossible for beginners or casual users to work with. Be forewarned!
You can perform an autofocus before you begin recording—just press the shutter button halfway (as if you're taking a still photograph) and the camera will automatically focus your image for you. After you press OK to begin recording, however, anything that moves within the frame (or any movement you make as the shooter) will immediately lose focus unless it is manually restored. During recording, all focusing must be done with the focus ring on the lens (this is called 'pulling focus'). On the upside, the focus ring offers very precise control and makes manual focusing much easier than the touchscreens and joysticks you often have to use on consumer camcorders.
The D90 also runs into some problems with its auto exposure feature. The primary weakness is the lack of smooth transition between changes in light. Moving the camera from dark to bright scenes produces a choppy, step-function effect with the exposure rather than a fluid, even adjustment. Again, this may not be a problem for some users, but many will find this auto exposure performance unbearable. If you're working with the D90 in a studio setting or someplace where you don't anticipate any lighting alterations, the auto exposure difficulties won't be much of an issue. Shooting anywhere else—like outside, or under a variety of different indoor lights—may prove unsatisfactory.
There are ways around this dilemma, but it requires using some of the camera's manual functions and controls (see below).
Auto white balance didn't always work up to par, either. During our testing, under tungsten lights, the auto white balance gave the image a very orange hue. This really isn't much of an issue, however, as the D90 offers many white balance settings as well as an excellent manual white balance option. The white balance presets offered include: Incandescent, Fluorescent, Direct sunlight, Flash, Cloudy, Shade, and Choose color temp. This is a wide range of presets and it definitely outdoes consumer camcorders everywhere.
The focus ring and Vibration Reduction controls on the D90's kit lens
*Overall Manual Control (3.0)
*The Nikon D90 offers nearly every manual control you could ask for to adjust your digital photographs. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said about the camera's video mode. The D90 has too many peculiar manual control quirks—making the entire process of recording video a trial-and-error spectacle.
The D90 has four manual control settings: aperture-priority, shutter-priority, program mode, and manual mode. Aperture-priority allows you to choose the aperture setting, while the camera automatically selects a corresponding shutter speed. Shutter-priority is the same concept, but instead allows for shutter speed adjustment (and the camera automatically chooses an aperture setting). Program mode allows you to select different combinations of shutter speed and aperture together. Manual mode is fully manual and allows you to make all the aperture and shutter speed adjustments yourself. With all these modes, aperture is adjusted by rotating the dial just below the on/off switch on the front of the camera. Shutter speed is controlled by a similar dial on the back side of the camera, where the thumb of your right hand rests. Nikon did an excellent job making these dials and buttons easily accessible and comfortable to use.
The main problem with the D90's manual controls is how so few of them can be manipulated while recording is taking place. Shutter speed, aperture, and ISO all must be adjusted before you begin recording, making only zoom, focus, and exposure adjustment the only available controls while the camera is capturing video.
To further complicate things, you must exit live view mode in order to make adjustments to aperture, ISO, and shutter speed. What is most frustrating about this is the fact that you can still make changes to the settings while in live view mode, but you must exit and reenter the mode in order for those changes to take effect. This can make you think you are adjusting the aperture or shutter speed (as the camera will display number changes on the LCD and in the info box), while no changes have actually taken place.
In live view mode, even with the camera in a fully manual setting, the D90 will still continue to make automatic exposure adjustments (without registering any change in aperture, shutter speed, or ISO). This means you can setup the exact aperture and shutter speed you desire, only to have the entire exposure change when you point the camera to a darker or brighter light source. To get around this problem you need to make use of the auto exposure-lock button (AE-L/AF-L) to the right of the viewfinder. Holding this button maintains a desired exposure no matter how much the lighting within the frame changes. By default, the AE-L/AF-L button must be held down continuously to produce these results, but in the D90's custom settings menu (under f Controls, Assign AE-L/AF-L button) you can set the button to lock and hold the exposure with a single push. While we were able to produce some interesting effects this way, it was clearly too much of a roundabout measure just to get exposure adjustment under control.
Many times, numerous manual features don't seem to produce any different results, even though the camera says they're being adjusted. This adds to the confusion of certain settings not being able to adjust during recording or while live view mode is engaged. Really the only way to see if your changes are having any effect is through trial-and-error.
If you're looking for a consumer HD camcorder designed with manual control options in mind, both the Panasonic HDC-HS100 and HDC-SD100 offer some excellent features. Each are outfitted with a lens ring that allows for smooth adjustment of numerous settings (focus, zoom, white balance, shutter speed, aperture, and gain).
Camcorders are generally noted for having a zoom toggle, dial, or switch, usually manipulated by the right index finger or thumb. Being a digital SLR, the D90 instead utilizes a conventional zoom ring around its lens. Because of this, zooming on the D90 is entirely dependent on what lens you have attached to the camera. The kit lens we used was classified as a standard zoom lens and the zoom level was manipulated by rotating the gripped, outer ring of the lens. By not using a motor, the zoom ring gives you complete control over the amount of magnification you desire. Numbers at the top of the lens, ranging from 18-105mm, give you good anchor points if you want to replicate shots and zoom lengths.
There are problems with not using a motorized zoom toggle. While nearly all camcorders are designed to be wielded with the force of one sturdy hand, the D90 requires two hands if you want to zoom (or focus for that matter). Manipulating the zoom ring is also extremely noisy and it forces your left hand right up next to the tiny microphone on the camera's front side. Performing any extensive zooming during recording will result in scratchy, rough audio that is ultimately garbage.
It should also be mentioned, there is a cheap feel to the kit lens on the D90. The focus ring feels too loose, which makes focus adjustments more difficult than they should be.
Zoom Power Ratio (5.8)
The kit lens, AF-S DX Nikkor 18-105mm f/3.5-5.6G ED VR, comes with a 5.8x optical zoom. A variety of different zoom lenses are available and compatible with the Nikon D90.
*Because autofocus is not a possibility while recording video, users must be prepared to use manual focus for the bulk of their shooting. The focus ring on the kit lens could be a little smoother. It feels a little loose and it makes far too much noise (the internal microphone will pick up any focus adjustments made during recording). The ring is capable of making very precise, finely tuned, adjustments and it is positioned well. Unless the D90 is on a tripod, two hands are required to use the D90 as the left hand works the focus and zoom ring (as well as providing extra balance).
Manual focus on the D90 also provides one of the tremendous benefits of the camera. Because of the large lens, the variety of aperture settings, and the finely-tuned manual focus system, the D90 is able to produce a tremendously shallow depth of field—the likes of which have never been duplicated in the consumer camcorder market. The D90 is capable of producing remarkable shifts between foreground and background objects.
In live view mode, the D90 has a focus assist feature to help you sharpen the image. Pressing the QUAL button (also labeled with a magnifying glass) digitally zooms into the image on the LCD, allowing you to then focus on this blown up picture. Pressing the ISO button above (also labeled with a magnifying glass), zooms back out to normal view. This focus assist is good if you want to make sure you get a crisp image of a specific object in the frame, like when filming an insect on a flower or a person laying in a field.
Manual focus is always available in any mode setting (even if the autofocus button on the left side of the camera is engaged).
Exposure & Aperture (9.17)
Exposure and aperture are both adjustable on the Nikon D90. Exposure adjustment is the easiest, as it is one of the few features (along with focus and zoom) that you can actually manipulate while live view mode is engaged. The exposure adjustment button is right next to the on/off toggle and it is labeled with a +/– icon. While holding this button down with your index finder, you can adjust the exposure by rotating the command dial on the back of the camera where your thumb rests (this is the same dial that normally adjusts shutter speed). Each turn of the dial changes the exposure by 1/3rd of a step and the exposure can be adjusted 15 steps down and 15 steps up (in the camera settings menu exposure can be set to larger 1/2 step adjustments). Exposure can be adjusted in any of the manual settings (manual, aperture-priority, shutter-priority, and program mode), but not in any of the automatic control modes. Even with exposure adjustment implemented, the camera will still continue to automatically adjust to different exposures unless you press the auto exposure lock button.
Aperture is also adjustable, but it is a far more convoluted process. Aperture-priority and manual mode both give full control over aperture, while program mode allows you to select from a set of aperture and shutter speeds together. Changing the aperture does alter your video, often providing assistance in low light and making a difference with depth of field. Aperture cannot be changed while recording is taking place (even though the numbers appear to change on the LCD), as the alterations will not take place until you exit and reenter live view mode. The D90 with its kit lens (AF-S DX Nikkor 18-105mm f/3.5-5.6G ED VR) has apertures of f/3.5, f/4, f/4.5, f/5, f/5.6, f/6.3, f/7.1, f/8, f/9, f/10, f/11, f/13, f/14, f/16, f/18, f/20, and f/22. Despite this wide range of choices, it is unclear how many of them actually affect video footage. In our testing, many of the apertures appeared to do nothing to alter picture quality, which seems to suggest that only a few settings work with video at all. Also, the camera will continue to change exposure levels throughout filming, regardless of what your aperture settings are (unless you utilize the auto exposure-lock feature).
Shutter Speed (0.0)
As with aperture, there are a wide range of shutter speed controls. In video mode, however, changing shutter speeds doesn't do anything to the quality or look of the recorded image. Even though the camera says the shutter is being adjusted, through our extensive testing we didn't notice any effect. The Nikon D90 received a score of zero for shutter speed because of it's ineffectiveness working with video. The camera has 53 different shutter settings ranging from 30 seconds to 1/4000 of a second (as well as a bulb option), and they all work effectively for taking still photos.
White Balance (8.0)
Besides the variety of white balance presets, the D90 has a manual preset option. It works by having you take a picture of a white card or object and then balancing the colors based on that image. The camera allows for storage for 5 different preset white balance images and they can be accessed via the white balance selection under the Shooting menu.
You can set a preset by holding down the WB button to the left of the LCD screen. After holding down for about two seconds, the letters 'Pre' will start blinking in the display box on the top of the camera. Now you can take a still photograph of whatever it is you want to white balance your image to. This process does not work in live view mode, but the setting will remain once you enter into the mode.
Manual white balance is only available in the four manual modes and is not available in auto mode or any of the specific scene modes.
The Nikon D90 offers ISO control, which is what the world of still photography calls gain. Unfortunately, even with the wide range of ISO settings, the results are similar to what we saw with shutter speed. Settings can be adjusted and changed, but they don't seem to have an effect in video mode (especially since the camera automatically adjusts ISO settings while recording). The ISO settings can, however, work wonders when taking still photos. There are 13 regular ISO settings (ranging from 200-3200), as well as three Lo and three Hi settings for extra sensitivity control. The D90 also has settings for high ISO noise reduction and long exposure noise reduction. All ISO controls are located in the Shooting Menu.
In the world of camcorders, Panasonic is the only manufacturer that offers gain control on its consumer models.
Other Manual Controls (2.0)
Picture Controls - The D90 also has six picture control presets: standard, neutral, vivid, monochrome, portrait, and landscape. There are also nine user-customizable settings that allow you to manipulate your own picture controls. The adjustable controls include sharpening, contrast, brightness, saturation, hue, and quick adjust (as well as color tint with monochrome). These settings give you a good deal of control over your image and they do work with video footage.
Grid Lines - Grid lines, to assist with framing your image, can be turned on an off in the Custom Settings menu under the shooting/display selection. With grid lines on, a set of three horizontal and three vertical lines will be displayed when you look through the viewfinder. Grid lines are also available on the LCD in live view mode by pressing the info button next to the lower left corner of the screen. The lines will not appear in your final shot and are only for framing purposes.
Still Features* (15.5)*
Being a dedicated still camera, the Nikon D90 obviously has more still features than video functions. We'll give you an overview of the different options and settings, but for an in-depth review visit our sister siteDigitalcamerainfo.com.
The D90 offers control over ISO, shutter speed, aperture, white balance, exposure adjustment, focus, zoom, and a variety of picture controls. Everything the camera can do with video it can do with stills (only with stills there is far more freedom and control).
Stills can be taken in seven different quality settings—NEF (RAW) + JPEG fine, NEF (RAW) + JPEG normal, NEF (RAW) + JPEG basic, NEF (RAW), JPEG fine, JPEG normal, and JPEG basic. Stills can also be captured in three sizes—Large (4288 x 2848; 12.2 megapixels), Medium (3216 x 2136; 6.9 megapixels), and Small (2144 x 1424; 3.1 megapixels).
An internal flash pops up out of the top of the D90 if you press the flash button (on the left side of the camera at the very top) or if you are in an automatic mode and the camera detects a flash is required.
The D90 also has an extensive Retouch Menu (accessible by pressing the menu button on the left side of the LCD screen, then selecting the Retouch Menu tab). The Menu has many options for giving your photographs a desired look after you've already taken the picture. Retouch options include: D-Lighting effects, red-eye correction, trim, monochrome, filter effects, small picture, image overlay, NEF (RAW) processing, quick retouch, straighten, distortion control, and fisheye. While these adjustments and effects are readily available with any decent photo editing software, it's a useful addition if you want to quickly retouch images without a computer. The Retouch Menu features are not available for videos.
The built-in flash of the D90
Still Performance* (8.89)
*We tested the still performance of the Nikon D90 by photographing an X-Rite Color Checker chart in our labs under bright, even light. We then run these stills through Imatest imaging software to analyze color accuracy, noise levels, and saturation. We photographed the chart under a number of different exposure settings and picked the best results.
The D90 produced a color error of 6.75, which is comparable to some of the top scores achieved by HD camcorders (Sony does particularly well with color accuracy in still mode). The D90 earned a saturation of 102.2%, which is also comparable to many HD camcorders we've tested (again, very close to Sony). This is quite an interesting result, suggesting many camcorders and digital cameras reproduce colors in a similar manner.
The Nikon D90 did fairly well with noise, tallying an approximate measurement of 0.75%. All these tests were performed with the camera in auto mode, and under our lights the camera went with a 200 ISO setting.
Note: Because Camcorderinfo.com utilizes different testing setups than our sister site, the results of the Still Performance may show slight variations from those found on Digitalcamerainfo.com.
Still Resolution* (56.61)*
We tested the still resolution of the Nikon D90 by photographing an ISO 12233 resolution chart under a consistent, bright light. We then send these images through Imatest imaging software and analyze the results. The D90 measured a horizontal resolution of approximately 1939 line widths per picture height (lw/ph) with a -0.8 undersharpening and a vertical resolution of 1872 lw/ph with a -12.5 undersharpening. These results are far better than every consumer camcorder on the market, which makes sense. Digital SLRs are designed to take photographs at very high resolutions, whereas camcorders are not.
Ease of Use* (3.0)*
In short, there's really no easy way to use the Nikon D90 as a video recorder—professionals will be frustrated by the oddities behind the manual controls, and beginners will be lost without an autofocus feature.
The confusing nature involved with adjusting shutter speed, ISO, and aperture settings in video mode make the camera almost impossible to get the hang of. Instead of giving complete control over all these features, Nikon provides a mix of some manual control and some automatic control—often leaving the user wondering what settings they're actually adjusting. Even professional videographers will be left scratching their heads.
As far as being able to pick up the D90 and just start shooting... well, it's possible, but you may not like what you see. To get truly amazing footage you'll have to master the art of 'pulling focus' (manually focusing during recording), play around with different exposure and aperture settings, and learn how to use the auto exposure-lock feature. Also, it would probably be a good idea to know where your subjects are going to move within the frame and if any changes in light will occur during recording. Oh, and you'll definitely want a good tripod handy if you plan on spending any extensive amount of time recording anything with the D90. It's a heavy camera, it requires two hands to control, and your footage will come out too wobbly if you shoot handheld all day long.
The Nikon D90 is difficult to grip with one hand.
*The D90's handling ability is really dependent on what you're going to be doing with the camera. If you'll be using the D90 to take photographs, you can sleep well knowing it's a well-designed machine with a sturdy body that is easily wielded with two hands. The large right-hand grip is easy to take hold of, and the textured coating that makes its way around the D90's body does a decent job helping your hands maintain a tight clasp. Most importantly, the position of the shutter button and command dials are all well placed for taking photographs. The rubber eye-piece surrounding the viewfinder and the plastic shield covering the LCD both help keep the camera in good condition and maintain ideal viewing ability. Overall, the D90 handles well as a still camera.
Using the D90 to record video, however, is a completely different story. Compared to consumer camcorders it's a handling nightmare. The camera requires two hands to control (one to hold and the other to focus or zoom), it has no wrist strap for added support, it's heavy and bulky, and the LCD screen can't move, rotate, or swivel. While it works well for snapping photographs, the standard, boxy shape of an SLR really isn't conducive to recording video. It's simply difficult to move the camera around smoothly through space, which is generally what you do when recording movies. A tripod is generally necessary if you plan on doing extensive video recording with the D90—especially if you expect to pan or move the camera around repeatedly.
The LCD must be used to record video on the D90.
While the LCD is large and has a wonderful resolution, it's stationary position really hurts the handling. Often, it produces an odd viewing angle and it just doesn't help if you're trying to film anything above eye-level. Working with a stationary LCD screen quickly reminds you how beneficial a simple swivel-joint can be. Also adding to the problem is the strong reflectivity of the screen. While most camcorders have a soft, matte finish on the LCD in order to increase viewing ability under bright sunlight, the D90's screen has a glossy, reflective surface that can produce blinding glare under certain conditions.
The positioning of buttons on the D90 was obviously designed with photography in mind. Gripping the camera normally, your right index finger and thumb fall naturally on the shutter button and command dials respectively. Unfortunately, it's the small OK button to the right of the LCD screen that is used to start and stop recording, and not the shutter button at the top of the camera. Pressing the OK button requires you to move your thumb from it's comfortable resting place and severely weaken your grip on the camera itself—adding another reason why the camera is nearly impossible to use with one hand.
The large neck strap supplied with the Nikon D90 is nothing special, but it's still an excellent addition. It's best use is as a safety measure around the neck and as a way to carry the camera over the shoulder.
One positive aspect of the D90's handling is the incredible ability of the vibration reduction feature on the kit lens. With the feature turned on, it is possible to record steady images with the D90 (although your hands will tire eventually). You'll still want to stick to a tripod for any extensive video work, however.
The menu structure of the Nikon D90 is well designed while including numerous features. There are really only a few options that solely affect video recording. The first is in the Shooting Menu where you'll find the Movie Settings option. Here you can change the quality of the video record. There is also an option for turning off the sound recording feature here.
In the Setup Menu there is an option to switch between NTSC and PAL as well as an option for HDMI output settings.
The Shooting Menu on the Nikon D90
The Shooting menu contains the following options:
The Custom Setting Menu on the Nikon D90
The Custom Setting menu contains the following options:
The Setup Menu on the Nikon D90
The Setup menu contains the following options:
The Nikon D90 also contains a Retouch menu, although the features are not available for videos and can only manipulate still photographs.
The Retouch Menu on the Nikon D90
The Retouch Menu contains the following items:
The last menu on the Nikon D90 is My Menu, which allows you to customize your own set of menu options into a single, easy-access list. If you do not personalize My Menu, by default it will keep track of the most recent settings you have used. You can add items, reorder options, or switch between most recent settings and your customizable settings in this menu.
My Menu on the Nikon D90
A wonderful feature on the menu system of the D90 is the help button. While navigating the menu, pressing the WB button (to the left of the LCD, also labeled with a question mark and a key) at any time will bring up detailed information about the setting you have currently selected.
The help feature at work
*The Nikon D90 is a large, heavy piece of equipment. With the rise of ultra-compact camcorders and the light weight of HD camcorders in general, the D90 feels gigantic in comparison. Judging by size alone, the D90 doesn't look too bad with it's 132mm (5.2 in.) x 103mm (4.1 in.) x 77mm (3.0 in.) dimensions. Adding the kit lens to that gives you another 89mm of length, which pushes the camera into a size much larger than a standard consumer camcorder.
Weight may be a more important issue. The camera alone comes in at 620g (22 oz.) and the kit lens adds an extra 420g (14.8 oz.), which puts the total weight at 1040g (about 2.3 pounds). While this is an average size for a digital SLR, it is substantially heftier than even the heaviest HD consumer camcorder. Two of the heaviest models we've reviewed recently are the Sony HDR-SR12 and the JVC GZ-HD7. Both are HD camcorders that record to internal hard drives, and they weigh 650g and 750g respectively. Most consumer camcorders weigh between 300g - 600g, making the Nikon D90 roughly twice the weight (with the kit lens) as your standard video camcorder.
Using the D90 to record video periodically requires you to hold the camera in an unusual manner. Buttons don't always align correctly with your fingertips (for instance the OK button, which starts and stops recording), and the LCD screen isn't always in the best position for viewing. This uncomfortable grip can easily lead to slips and drops that probably wouldn't occur if you always used the camera for taking photographs.
Without a handstrap, as you would find on most camcorders, the D90's neck/shoulder strap becomes a necessary portability assistant. The provided strap, which connects to small metal rings on each side of the camera is nothing special, but it provides good support and is colorfully branded with a yellow Nikon logo and two narrow stripes.
Recording length is another issue that has a stranglehold on the D90's portability. Not only can the camera only record in five minute intervals (at the highest quality setting), but live view mode also ceases to function after prolonged use.According to the manual, live view mode can be used for up to an hour, but in our testing the LCD shut down after approximately 32 minutes of continual use. The mode causes the temperature of the camera's internal circuits to rise, which may result in image noise and unusual colors (as well as the camera itself becoming noticeably warm). Live view shooting will automatically cease if the camera determines it is running so hot that it risks damage to the internal circuits. A 30-second count-down display appears on the LCD if the camera is set to shut down. Since you must be in live view mode to record video, this is a terrible problem for people planning an all day shoot. You'll either need a series of backup cameras, or you'll have to let the camera cool down periodically throughout the day. The worst part is, live view mode may conk out any minute and the camera only gives you 30 seconds of warning. Recording a wedding on a hot summer day could spell disaster if you're trying to shoot the entire ceremony. No fun, indeed. The last thing you want to see is your camera shutting down completely, not able to record video until you let it rest for 10-15 minutes.
A tripod isn't necessary for the D90, but it would be extremely beneficial if you plan on doing extensive video recording. Pans, zooms, and any movement of the camera are difficult to master on the D90 without the aid of a tripod. Not to mention, the camera's weight becomes a burden after long periods of shooting.
Changeable lenses are one of the primary benefits of the D90, but they're a deathblow to portability. Special lenses can often be heavier and larger than the camera itself and many telephoto lenses make having a tripod an absolute necessity.
If you're used to carrying compact camcorders everywhere you go, the D90 will drive you insane. If you're comfortable with lugging around SLRs all day (and you don't plan on recording multiple hours of video), it's really no different as far as portability goes.
LCD and Viewfinder* (7.5)
*The LCD on the Nikon D90 provides a familiar sight to those used to similar screens on conventional camcorders. The D90 has a good sized, 3-inch LCD screen that takes up a large chunk of the back of the camera. The LCD also has a high resolution, with its 920,000 pixel display (compared to 211,000 on most compact camcorders). The LCD is similar in size and resolution to the impressive one found on the Sony HDR-SR12. The LCD screen also features a removable plastic guard to protect the screen from scratches and smudging. In the Setup Menu, the D90's LCD brightness can be adjusted 3 steps up or 3 steps down.
The 3-inch LCD on the D90 is completely stationary.
The main use of the LCD is for playback and live view mode (which the camera must be in to record video). Next to the LCD, at the lower right corner, is a small info button that turns the LCD into an information panel displaying all sorts of information about the camera's current settings and modes. The LCD only displays this information if live view mode is not engaged.
The LCD itself has two distinct setbacks, which is a big deal because the screen must be utilized to record video. The first is the lack of any rotation or swivel, making the screen completely stationary on the back of the camera. This wouldn't be as big an issue if it weren't for the second problem with the LCD—it has an incredibly glossy surface, which does a terrible job handling glare under direct sunlight. The two problems often combine to create difficult shooting situations.
Another annoying aspect of the LCD directly involves live view mode and video recording. When framing your shot, the LCD displays a full scale 3:2 image on the screen. However, you'll likely be recording in the camera's highest quality setting, 1280 x 720, which is a 16:9, widescreen aspect ratio. To compensate for this, the LCD displays two gray bars at the top and bottom of the screen. The area the bars cover will not end up in your final shot, thus making the image widescreen. The problem here is that the bars aren't displayed until after recording begins. This means you must start recording before you can truly setup your shot. With a 5-minute clip limit at highest quality, this extra time allotted to framing could eat up a good chunk of your shot, especially if you're trying to create a tight, specific frame. It is a mystery as to why the camera doesn't offer a widescreen, 16:9 view mode prior to recording.
The viewfinder on the D90 cannot be used to record video.
If you want to look through the viewfinder while you record video with the D90, you're out of luck—the device does not work in live view mode. This makes the viewfinder only available for framing your shots, or for taking still photographs. The viewfinder itself is well designed and comes with a small rubber eyepiece that can be alternated with a variety of different eyepieces available from Nikon. The viewfinder has a 0.94x magnification and offers approximately 96% frame coverage. Its eyepoint is 19.5 and the diopter can be adjusted from -2.0 to +1.0 m-1.
The information box on the top of the D90
The D90 also has a monochrome LCD information box on the top right of the camera, right behind the shutter button. The box displays information about aperture, shutter, white balance, etc. and acts as a quick reference when you change settings. Flicking the on/off switch farther to the right (past the on setting) lights up the information box with a green glow, as it has no backlight capability.
Battery Life* (3.2)*
The Nikon D90 ships with a EN-EL3e Lithium-ion Battery. Nikon claims the battery will last an average of 850 shots per charge, although using it to record video consumes far more power.
Normally, we test battery life by continuously recording video in auto mode until the camcorder runs out of power. We ran into problems with this test on the D90, due to the camera's overheating and the automatic shutdown of live view mode. We were able to continuously record for 32 minutes before the camera ran into overheating issues (at which point the battery had plenty of charge remaining). Resting the camera for 5 minutes, we were then able to record for another 10 minutes before live view mode shut down again. Given a rest of 15 minutes, the D90 could again record for approximately 30 minutes before automatically terminating live view mode again.
Audio on the Nikon D90 is a disappointment. While Nikon was thoughtful enough to actually put an internal microphone on the camera (a rarity on an SLR), it didn't do a very good job directing attention to those looking for quality audio. Through its tiny little speaker on the front side, the D90 records mono audio only. Without a microphone jack or any way to connect an external microphone this dramatically limits the usefulness of the video the D90 is able to record. In contrast Canon’s EOS 5D Mark II is said to have an external microphone connection and the ability to record stereo sound.
The internal speaker on the D90 is also limited, but that is something that rings true for most camcorders as well. However, the absence of a headphone jack on the D90 is another omission that makes the camera an unreliable audio device. The camera would work best as an image-only recording device.
The D90 is also a very noisy tool. Using the zoom or focus ring is incredibly loud and adds an abundance of noise to your footage. The microphone is also placed in prime finger contact location—easily leaving itself open to noisy rubbing attacks from wandering fingers.
*Video playback is fairly simple on the Nikon D90 and it's accomplished in the same manner as you would look through your still photos. Just press the playback button on the back of the camera and your videos and stills will appear on the LCD. Use the directional selecting pad to navigate your way through your clips and photographs. Pressing OK on a video will begin playback.
The D90 doesn't have any dedicated VCR controls, but instead uses the directional pad to manipulate playback. More dedicated buttons for play, stop, pause, etc. would have clearly mucked up the back of the camera and been more confusing than just having the multi-functional buttons.
The Playback Menu on the Nikon D90
Text the Playback menu contains the following options:
Considering the tiny built-in speaker on the D90, audio is not very good during playback of videos. Volume control is easily accessible, however, by pushing the magnification +/– buttons at the lower left of the LCD screen (also labeled as QUAL and ISO).
All the ports on the D90 are on the left side of the camera.
Top to bottom: DC input, USB, HDMI, AV out, GPS/Remote control input
*The Nikon D90 has an HDMI output port for connecting the camera to an HD television. It also has an AV output as well as a USB connection. The AV port appears to be universal, but we could only output a picture using the cable Nikon provided. There is a hot accessory shoe for an external flash or light, and a GPS input port for connecting a GPS unit or an optional remote control. All these ports are located on the camera's left side, behind a flexible, rubber port covering.
Without a microphone jack or a headphone jack, the D90 is nearly useless as an audio recorder. The internal microphone only records in mono and it does a really good job picking up noise made when you use the zoom and focus rings on the kit lens. We found the audio features useful for nothing more than making auditory notes about shots and settings. In comparison, the Canon EOS 5D Mark II offers the possibility of stereo sound via an external microphone jack.
Transferring video files to your computer is accomplished in the same fashion as you would transfer photographs. The D90 ships with some software to help you out, specifically Nikon Transfer, which does nothing more than help you move your files from camera to computer. The camera also comes with some other software (all located on the Software Suite CD-Rom, or available for free download from Nikon's website) that allows for some minor retouching and editing of your photographs. The D90 does not ship with any video editing software.
The D90 does not come with a DC cable, although they are available for purchase from Nikon. Not having a DC cable is something that probably wouldn't bother most photographers, but for recording video it is a startling omission. Using live view mode and recording video on the D90 eats through the battery at a much faster rate than simply snapping photographs. If you plan on recording lots of video with the D90, prepare to bring extra batteries with you on long trips or for all day events.
What’s in the Box?
D90 digital camera
BM-10 LCD monitor cover
DK-5 eyepiece cap
EN-EL3e rechargeable Li-ion battery with terminal cover
MH-18a quick charger with power cable
BS-1 accessory shoe cover
EG-DG2 AV cable
UC-E4 USB cable
Software Suite CD-ROM
The D90 sells for $999.95 MSRP or for $1299.95 with the AF-S Nikkor 18-105mm ED kit lens.
Other Features* (1.0)*
Active D-Lighting - A feature found in the Shooting Menu, Active D-Lighting refines details in shadowy areas and high contrast situations. The setting has five options—auto, extra high, high, normal, and low. It does not appear to produce any effects in video mode.
The Nikon D90 disappointed us with most of its video performance. While it did capture wonderful colors in low light, it couldn't compete against dedicated HD camcorders in most shooting conditions. That doesn't mean the images didn't look good—they did—we just wondered how much better things would look if Nikon had offered a full 1920 x 1080 HD resolution. The glaring lack of an autofocus and confusing manual controls made the D90's video mode very difficult to deal with overall.
Despite its problems, plenty of people will enjoy capturing video with the Nikon D90. Its 24 fps frame rate produces a slow, dreamy image that can be very attractive. Colors generally looked outstanding. Using special lenses, such as fish-eye, telephoto, and wide-angle models, can produce results difficult to achieve with a regular HD camcorder. These features, along with depth of field control, make the D90 a product that stands out in both the SLR and camcorder market.
Comparing the Nikon D90 to HD camcorders may be unfair, but, being the first of its kind, its the only product we could put it up against. The Canon EOS 5D Mark II, the second SLR to record video, has impressive specs—a 1920 x 1080 video quality, stereo microphone input, and an H.264 video compression codec. The question will be, would you rather pay $999.95 ($1299.95 with the lens) to play around with video on the Nikon D90, or shell out $1700 more to get your hands on the Canon? Then, of course, you need to question whether a first generation product is ever a good investment. Stay skeptical.
Judging the D90 solely as a still camera isn't our job, so if you want an in-depth analysis of the camera's photographic ability, visit our sister site Digitalcamerainfo.com.
Who It’s For
The Nikon D90 may have wonderful automatic controls as a digital still camera, but its design and control functions in video mode are disturbingly confusing. No autofocus, 5 minute length limits on clips, and an awkward grip for recording video make this a difficult camera for point-and-shooters to enjoy.
At around $1000, the Nikon D90 is a fairly well priced digital SLR. It is, however, the same price (more expensive when you count the lens) as some of the best consumer HD camcorders. If you're looking to record video cheaply, this is by no means the answer. However, if you want to play around with the video functions of an SLR, the D90 is your best bet right now—considering the other DSLR capable of recording video, the Canon EOS 5D Mark II, costs around $1700 more than the D90.
Still Photo / Video Camera Hybrid
Well, this is interesting. As the first digital SLR to record video, I think we have to say this ranks up pretty high as a hybrid device. The D90 is a wonderful camera for taking still photos and it captures far better footage than your average digital still camera (although worse than an HD camcorder). Overall, using the D90 mostly for snapping photos and every so often for recording a short video is an ideal practice.
The video feature will definitely attract many gadget freaks looking for a cool new toy to play with. The unique design, 24 fps frame rate, and changeable lenses will also be a big draw.
Manual Control Freaks
The D90 is geared towards manual control aficionados. The truth is, things don't work out so well in this arena. Most manual controls don't work with video mode and many of them have only a slight effect. Users hoping for full control over shutter speed and ISO will be roundly disappointed.
Pros / Serious Hobbyists
Because the D90 offers changeable lenses, pros with a large stock of extra lenses will definitely find it attractive. The ability to create a cinematic look at 24 fps as well as the shallow depth of field is also something something serious users will love. The lack of full 1920 x 1080 HD, and the limited manual controls are definitely a drag.
Meet the tester
Managing Editor, Video@nematode9
Jeremy is the video expert of our imaging team and Reviewed.com's head of video production. Originally from Pennsylvania and upstate NY, he graduated from Bard college with a degree in film and electronic media. He has been living and working in New England since 2005.
Checking our work.
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