Classic Camera Review: Nikon N90

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My first autofocus camera, and what turned out to be my last film camera, was a Nikon N90 35mm single lens reflex (1992–2001). I needed to replace one of my Nikon F3 bodies and I got tired of waiting forever for the long-rumored Nikon F5 film camera to become available. (Sound familiar?)

The F3’s replacement camera, the Nikon F4, was readily available but the F4’s autofocus and metering systems were woefully behind the times, and if you turned the camera from vertical to horizontal or vice-versa, the meter would often get confused. And no, there were no firmware updates.

Photographs © Allan Weitz 2020

The Nikon N90 35mm SLR Camera

The N90 was, in many ways, the Nikon D860 of its day. Though not up to the construction or performance standards of Nikon’s modern-day flagship camera, the D5, the N90 was quite capable and, as is often the case with Nikon cameras, the company’s “Number 2” camera had features not found on the company’s flagship camera.

The Nikon F4 was certainly built to higher standards and could rattle off more frames per second than the N90 (5.7 fps vs. 3.6 fps), but the AF system on the N90 was quicker and more accurate than that of the F4. 

Unlike Nikon’s F-series cameras, which were constructed of aluminum alloy with stainless-steel fittings and interchangeable meter prisms, the N90 had a black polymer body with a non-removable prism. Despite the lack of metal-alloy components, the N90 body still offered a solid and secure feel.

The control layout on the Nikon N90 top plate look similar to many of today’s DSLRs. The Nikon MF-26 Data Back (right) enabled longer exposures, time lapse, and exposure bracketing functionality.

 The viewfinder on the N90 only shows 92% of the total picture area, compared to the 100% coverage of all of Nikon’s flagship models, but considering I was mostly shooting slide film, the 8% clipping along the edges was about the same area rendered unviewable by the slide mount, so it was a wash. The N90 also lacked a mirror lock-up, which at the time wasn’t a deal-breaker for me.

If there was a universal complaint about the N90, it would have to be the matte-black rubber coating that covered the back and sides of the camera. Though it looked good and certainly made the camera easy to grip, it started peeling off the camera in about 10 days or less after you started using it, depending on the heat and humidity index. But this was a cosmetic issue that most people got over once they finished peeling the last of the rubbery coating off.

Peeling rubber coatings aside, the size and weight of the N90 fit my hands perfectly, and with a built-in winder, I wouldn’t need the added weight and bulk of add-on motor drives like I had on my F3 bodies. As for durability and dependability, I never had a problem with the camera and it still works—25-plus years down the road.

One of the things I liked about Nikon in the ’90s is that when transitioning from manual focus camera systems to autofocus systems, Nikon didn’t abandon its rabidly loyal customers by making all of its current Nikon gear obsolete. Canon essentially did just that when it introduced its original EOS autofocus cameras and lenses—nothing from its existing manual focus catalog was interchangeable with the new EOS system. Needless to say, many Canon users were pissed, though most eventually came around.

To Nikon’s credit, and at the cost of slower development of quicker, more accurate AF systems, Nikon designed its new camera systems to work with Nikon’s extensive lineup of manual focus lenses. Considering at the time I owned more than a dozen Nikon NIKKOR lenses, ranging from 15mm to 500mm, this was welcome news.

Nikon’s engineers were even thoughtful enough to place a small green focus confirmation LED in the corner of the viewfinder to assist focusing in low light. For me, that was more than enough, considering I could still manually focus my lenses quicker than most 1990s-vintage AF systems.

The accompanying photographs are part of a series of photographs I captured over the course of many trips to the New Jersey shore in the mid-to-late 1990s.

The accompanying photographs are part of a series of photographs I captured over the course of many trips to the New Jersey shore in the mid-to-late 1990s. I would frequently get off the main thoroughfares and take back roads wherever they took me. Along the way, I photographed many shore houses and fishing shacks I’d pass, using a 28mm f/3.5 Nikon PC NIKKOR, which I used to eliminate keystone distortions.

Something special the N90 had that the F4 didn’t have was Nikon’s then-new 3D-Matrix metering, which is the granddaddy of the segmented, matrix-type metering systems found in just about every camera you buy today. 

For the longest time, Canon had the edge on Nikon when it came to autofocus speed and accuracy, but when it came to metering, Nikon’s engineers had it down pat and, with the introduction of 3D-Matrix metering, they once again raised the bar in terms of meter accuracy, even under the most extreme lighting conditions.

One of the limiting factors of earlier-generation AF systems was that, unlike modern AF systems that can track your subject corner-to-corner with dead-on accuracy, the earliest AF systems had a single sensor located in the middle of the frame, which meant in order to be in focus, your subject had to be in the middle of the frame too. Like all cameras of the day, the N90 had a single AF sensor located dead center in the frame, which required you to lock focus with the subject centered and recompose the frame before pressing the shutter. Many shooters simply reverted to focusing manually when these situations came up. Thankfully, we no longer have to work in this manner.

An old roadside farmhouse at sunrise (top) and one of the numerous rows of pastel-colored beach bungalows that can be found up and down the New Jersey coastline.

Out of the box, the N90 featured 30 seconds to 1/8000-second exposure times. The basic exposure modes were the familiar PSAM selections we have today.  

The most popular accessories for the N90 were the Nikon MB-10 battery grip, which in addition to providing more surface area to grip, featured a secondary shutter release that came in very handy for vertical shooting. The MB-10 also had a chamber that held 4 AA batteries, which did nothing to improve the camera’s 3.6 fps continuous burst speed nor the life of the 4 AA batteries that ran the camera. Regardless, if you needed them in a pinch, it was reassuring to know they were readily available.

I didn’t use an MB-10, but my camera does have the optional Nikon MF-26 data back, which enables ambient and flash exposure bracketing, time-lapse photography, interval and time delays, multiple exposures, and time exposures of up to 12 hours. 

Beached runabouts and fishing skiffs along with abandoned gas stations with 1940s-vintage Oldsmobile “getaway cars” parked under the awnings were once common sights along the southern New Jersey shore.

The N90 played its own role in ushering in the history of digital photography because it served as the basis of the Kodak’s DCS 420 (1.5MP, 1994) and DCS 460 digital camera (6.2MP,1995) during Kodak’s brief but glorious reign as the king of digital imaging technologies, in the 1990s.

The Kodak DCS 420 (1994) was a 1.5MP DSLR based on the Nikon N90, which was followed by the 6.2MP Kodak DCS 460 a year later.

I retired my Nikon N90 when I purchased my first DSLR, a FUJIFILM FinePix S2 Pro, which was, interestingly enough, based on my N90’s predecessor—the Nikon N80. The FinePix S2 Pro accepted all Nikon lenses and contained a 6MP APS-C format Super CCD sensor. It would be years before I shot another roll of film.

Do you have a favorite or special classic camera? Let us know about it in the Comments field, below.​

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Shot thousands of pics with an Ftn during Vietnam era but later got a Rolli that I really liked because of size and good results. Still have both today but the tn finder no longer works. Currently use D750, 500 and 850. The 500 is my favorite. Cheers

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