Nikon Approaches its High Water Mark with the N90s – Camera Review

There was a time when Nikon was the undisputed ruler of the camera kingdom. The length of that dominance spans decades during which the brand produced some of the finest SLRs ever made, in machines such as the FA, the FM3A and the FE2. Point and shoots like the L35AF and 35Ti were then and are now still renowned for unbeatable image quality and extreme sharpness. And that’s without even mentioning the F series, the absolute finest lineup of professional SLR cameras a film shooter can hope to own.

I’m not beyond admitting that I’ve had actual dreams about owning an F6. I think of the F3 anytime I shoot a different brand of manual focus camera. I have a feeling the F4 might be my ideal camera, and while recently debating methods of reinforcing the foundation of my cabin, visions of F5s stacked like blocks crossed my mind.

Producing cameras as amazing as these for forty years kept Nikon above all other competitors. Brands like Minolta, Olympus, Pentax and Canon jockeyed for second place in both sales and reputation. But as is always the case, the king was bound to be challenged eventually. For Nikon, that challenge came banging on the drawbridge in the form of a seismic shift in the preferences of shooters.

The 1990s were a magical period. Cheers was ending and Beavis and Butthead was starting. The first Bush was vacating the Oval Office to the first Clinton. Hair metal was being shown the door in favor of grunge, and Jean-Luc Picard sat in the captain’s chair of the U.S.S. Enterprise. And most important to camera geeks, autofocus was finally ready for prime time. The AF revolution had arrived.

Though Nikon had a pro camera with autofocus as early as 1988, by 1992 it was clear that Canon’s excellent new EOS system offered superior AF to the system found in Nikon’s four-years-old F4. This truth was rapidly drawing professionals away from Nikon. They needed a stop-gap camera to hold the fort until their next flagship professional camera (and its presumably game-changing AF) could be developed and released.

The N90 was it. Nestled between the F4 (later F5) and the N8008, the N90 was a high spec machine; what we’d call “Pro-sumer” today. And though it’s not a true professional’s camera, it performs like one. It has shutter speeds ranging from a blisteringly fast 1/8000 of a second to thirty seconds, plus bulb mode; four exposure modes; the capability of shooting 4.1 frames per second with continuous autofocus; full 3D matrix metering with D or G-type lenses; a four-mode flash system with a sync speed of 1/250; ISO range from 6 to 6400; seven creative programs; DX coding system; a self-timer from two to thirty seconds; and an informative LCD information panel.

That’s a spec sheet that nearly matches the F4 in capability, all while requiring two fewer AA batteries. Two years later Nikon unveiled the N90s, which added a faster and more accurate autofocus system, shutter speeds in thirds of a stop, and weather sealing.

Before getting my hands on an N90s, I read about it. And the more I read about it the more I wanted it. All I could think of when looking at my N8008 was how my pinky finger had a habit of slipping off the bottom of it while shooting – and that’s all the convincing I needed.

Nikon sold the N90s as recently as 2004 and often at price tags above $1,000. I bought mine (with the MB-10 battery grip) for $40 on Ebay and it’s never let me down. That’s beyond highway robbery. You’re going to spend more money buying and processing the first three rolls you run through it. At that price, you would be downright foolish not to grab this camera. It’s an unbelievable deal that can’t be overstated.

Coupled to the no-muss, no-fuss, 50mm f/1.8D – also known as “the best lens you can buy brand new for a hundred bucks”, the N90s is without question the best overall value in Nikon SLRs. It’s a near-pro machine for less than some trendy point-and-shoots.

The body isn’t as heavy as the N8008, but with the MB-10 battery grip attached (which is permanently affixed to my N90s) there is serious heft in the hand. I frequently walk around with a Canon 6D and 24-70mm f/2.8 sans camera strap, so I’m used to the weight, but frail weaklings may want the warning, so there it is. The frequent criticism that plastic cameras feel cheap is unwarranted here; there’s no mistaking the extremely high build quality of this camera. I can tell that mine has been put through its paces in the years before my ownership (the wear and dust speak to a long and well-loved life), but it’s never bogged down, failed, or even struggled in the field.

The sound of its shutter is more addicting than most. It has that classic “Girls on Film” sound that makes you want to put it on continuous shooting mode and hold down the trigger. It’s not a sexy camera that’s going to turn heads. But as soon as you’re standing next to someone and you make that shutter squawk, they’re likely to notice this Nippon siren that no camera makes today.

True, there is only one autofocus point square in the middle of the frame. That’s fine with me. I don’t shoot sports or anything you would consider “action,” so I just focus, recompose and fire away. But those who desire more from their AF system may struggle. I never saw the camera fumble to achieve focus, but then again I don’t use a demanding lens. I imagine there could be some difference between a D-series zoom and my nifty fifty. As for AF noise, well, it’s not quiet and it’s not loud. While some early ‘90s autofocus cameras sound like the love-making of a fax machine and a dial-up modem, the N90s is comparatively discreet.

By the early nineties, Nikon’s Matrix Metering system was really finding its groove, and that’s evident here in the N90s. It’s metering system simply does not fail. It also avoids limitation for shooters who want a different approach, in that the shooter can instantly switch to spot or center-weighted metering at any time. Shooters will make stunning pictures with little hassle, as long as they remember the difference between challenging light and bad light; good cameras can work with the former, and no camera works with the latter.

Shots in the gallery were made with Ilford FP4, Agfa Vista, and Fuji 400H.

All this praise begs a question – if it’s worth so much more than what I paid for it, why are people only charging $40 for such a fantastic camera?

I don’t have a definitive answer. Maybe there’s just no demand for chunky, workhorse cameras from the nineties. I’ll admit that while I love the N90s and can’t recommend it enough, there’s nothing sexy about it, just like I don’t find anything particularly sexy about the F5, or pretty much anything made by Canon.

I know the manual-focus stuff is more attractive. Those classics have a lot of heart and soul and often produce stunning, timeless images. Decades went into their design and refinement. They’re cameras made by masters to last forever. They will always command a higher price. But I resent any besmirching of the N90. In fact, I think we owe it more respect.

Above its reliability and technical performance, the N90s should be remembered for what it represents in the annals of film photography. The N90s and the F5 are the high-watermark of Nikon as a producer of film cameras, and possibly as a brand. From its inception in 1917, every single camera they made was better or more innovative than the camera that came before it – all leading to the F5 being the last powerhouse film SLR to deserve the title. After the F5’s debut, Canon had caught up, and would begin to truly outpace Nikon heading into the digital era.

Holding the N90s, I can feel the crest of that high water mark starting to build. It’s an era that produced truly outstanding cameras that refuse to give out to this day. It’s both relevant and historical, utilitarian and sometimes decorative.

It makes me feel nostalgic while creating amazing images and new memories. And I got it for forty bucks!

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