Nikon D90
October 2008

by David Leeson

The first thing I do when I buy new equipment is try and figure out how to use it – without consulting any instruction book or manual. The good news: the Nikon D90 is as easy to use as any camera you've ever navigated. It took less than 10 minutes to figure out where all the controls were and how to effectively use them.

All video and stills made with the D90

Well, actually, there was one thing that vexed me. It took more than two days to try and figure out how to shoot video with the camera. In fact, as much as I hated doing it, I had to read the instructions. I practically had to read every page to find it out where the video "button" or "switch" was located. I thought that was odd since, as far as I am concerned, having a DSLR with video – HD no less – is its most significant factor.

by Kim Ritzenthaler
Nikon D90 - body
It felt almost conspiratorial although I acknowledge my general paranoia. As someone who has come to be known almost as much for my relation to video as I was for my still images – let's just say that video is currently photojournalism's bastard stepchild, the dirty little secret of Uncle Bob's vacation slide show and how he met his digital low-resolution bride in a chance encounter at "Hit Count Haven." No one in the family has been the same since and I figured Nikon was being sensitive and politely hid her somewhere within "Live View" with a humble nod to the sore spot.

Here is a camera that has finally broken the barrier of the much-touted "combo cam." You'd think they would be screaming it at the top of their lungs – "It shoots VIDEO too!" Instead, their own Web site ( doesn't even mention it until you ask to "learn more." It's like the coy paramour who only hints at something more than a second dance. "If you thought 4.5 frames-per-second was good then you should experience 24fps." She's not a video debutante but the D90's video can do one thing the HDV thoroughbreds can't do easily – better control of depth of field.

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The depth of field issue has been the bane of video. If you're not willing to spending truckloads of cash or go through elaborate production and/or post-production workflows … well, it looks like video. The D90 is an inexpensive solution to that problem. The footage produced by the D90 is the moving equivalent of a 35mm still photo.

The D90 is a wonderful new entry in the Nikon D-series product line – but, the way I see it, there's not much to get excited about other than the video. No offense to the fine folks at Nikon, but basically the D90 is just another digital SLR with blah, blah, megapixel this and blah, blah, Live View that. "Yawn."

So, here's my unsolicited advice for Nikon – be bold. Crank up the music. You can sleep late tomorrow. You've just created the first HD-quality video (with sound) in a DSLR. Surely the folks in the design department could come up with a cool new look. For starters, people like my dad and I would love to see a button emblazoned with one word, "video." Yeah, I know – it's in the instruction booklet on page 50 but oddly missing from "Quick Start Guide."

by Kim Ritzenthaler
Nikon D90 - detail
I believe most folks will buy this camera for the video. Well, okay, the price of the camera is also a major incentive. It's a bargain basement darling offering a smorgasbord of top-of-the-line pro camera features for $999.95. It's a lovely camera. It's highly intuitive. Even my mother, who has never sent an e-mail in her life, could figure out how to comfortably use every control on the D90 except one of them – video.

But, consider the technology of the D90, a camera that can produce a 12.5 megapixel still image and 24fps 720p HD cinema-quality video with the interchangeable lens versatility of a DSLR. Did I mention that it's the world's first DSLR with HDV recording capability? It makes you want to yell, "Stop the presses!" But, then again, why do that when they've already slowed to a painful crawl? The folks at Nikon and Canon know it too.

Which leads us to this really awkward place, in my opinion. Adding video to a DSLR is a no-brainer. Heck, one could argue that the video demand by newspapers was a raison d'être. "I want video in my 35mm DSLR" became a Hail Mary of the devout as the disillusionment decade began in 2000.

I know the D90 looks like the perfect pill to soothe that nasty video migraine that began as a low throb eight years ago, before it became the 10-headed monster assaulting America's newsrooms and giving birth to a hundred or more tin fox Spielberg wannabes. I wish it were that simple.

I know some of you have been waiting for this all-in-one solution. It's the logical panacea for the devout. However, my fear is that photo editors and upper management will hand them to staffers and expect great video and stills from the same assignment. There's no doubt that it can produce high-quality video and the built-in microphone isn't too shabby either under normal circumstances. But video storytelling is often complex and highly demanding and the D90 is not a video camera. It's a still camera with video capability.

I tested the camera at a local balloon festival. Granted, I was new to the camera and therefore less familiar with the controls but the first thing I noticed was the need for a solid workflow. Essentially, it's as I always expected – a combo-cam still feels like "two" cameras. Obviously, adding video functionality to a DSLR reduces weight and helps with basic ergonomic issues. Nonetheless, the actual use of the D90, flipping back and forth between video and stills, wasn't much different than having two separate cameras. Mentally, it was more difficult because the "old way" of reaching for the "other" camera is a deliberate and thoughtful action; adding video to a DSLR is easier to handle than carrying a video camera and a still camera.

A camera like the D90 could one day become the primary tool for photojournalists – a first step towards something far greater. But, let's be careful about what roles we ascribe to the latest gizmo or gadget. It's easily understood that the Wright brothers' first flight at Kitty Hawk was a significant breakthrough. Today's large aircraft like the Airbus A380 seem to defy the very physics that grant it wings.

Yet, the technological genius based on basic physics that lead to 650 tons gracefully rising from asphalt to sky – that can carry nearly 900 passengers across oceans at 600 mph on 261-foot wings – still can't replicate the dexterity and speed of the common housefly with a 12mm wingspan.

And that's the scary part about innovation – that something born of creativity and inspiration becomes ubiquitous enough, that over time, we forget what the original goal was – to fly like a bird. As for photojournalism, it's not the tool that matters most. It's our heart, mind and soul. It's not even about photography. It's about powerful storytelling for the purpose of making a difference in our world.

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© David Leeson

Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist David Leeson has been on staff at The Dallas Morning News since 1984. His assignments have taken him to over 60 countries and numerous world conflicts. He is a three-time finalist for the Pulitzer before winning the award in 2004 (along with DMN colleague Cheryl Diaz Meyer) for photographs made on the front lines with the U.S. Army 3rd Infantry Division during the invasion of Iraq.

In late 2000, Leeson began shooting video for The Dallas Morning News, making him the first staff photographer in the country to shot video full-time for a newspaper. Since then he has completed more than seven documentary films. One of them, "War Stories" (2003), won several honors, including a regional Emmy Award for best television documentary. He won a second Emmy in 2007 as producer/editor of combat footage from Afghanistan. Leeson is CEO/Producer of Protégé© Films LLC, currently working on a film entitled "At War" [].

In 2006 Leeson was named Innovator of the Year in Photojournalism by American Photo magazine for his work using frame grabs for newspaper daily still assignments.

To learn more about David's multifaceted work, go to his Web sites: