Nikon D90 Video Tests: The Good, The Bad and the Shaky

Some of you are thrilled that the age of video on DSLRs is here; some of you are surprisingly pissed off about it. Truth is, the 720p video coming from the Nikon D90 can look amazing, but in some ways it can't replace even the cheapest cams when it comes to chasing kids and pets around. The good news is that you can use sweet DSLR lenses—in this case, a trio of Nikkors—for a cinematic look and feel. The bad news is, there's no autofocus in video mode. It's a bitch, but it forces you to think more like a filmmaker and less like a hockey mum. Check out the video above, then drop down for some issues and tips we've sorted out so far. Update: Still framegrabs from the actual video below.

Aperture Settings
The coolest thing about shooting with a DSLR is the fact that you can switch lenses, so the second coolest thing is inherently that you can tweak the aperture. (As a video camera shooting a constant 30fps, there's of course no shutter control.) I found that shooting family members with a 50mm lens at really low f-stops can be amazing as long as they're not moving around so much. If you have a moving target, like a cat, for instance, you can just dial up the f-stop to narrow it. You may sacrifice a bit of the intimacy of a portait shot, but you can keep your moving subject in a greater depth of field. As you can see from the rubber duck shots, though, it's not too great a depth.

Manual Focus and Zoom
I find that shooting with a tripod makes everything a lot easier with this camera, which is of course a flaw when it comes to mobility and capturing the moment. Staged shoots—like the one above, and the far more aesthetically pleasing Vincent Laforet Canon 5D Mark II film—are pulled off by reducing the amount of camera movement. At the same time, you can make use of this by doing funky focus tricks, like the rack focus shot above with the duck, the knife and the Giz logo. Manual zoom is also good and bad—you can't really achieve the kind of speed I get at the end of this vid when using regular cameras; however, even when I was being careful, there was a little jostle. I decided to keep it for effect, but it's a bit annoying. (Maybe a more expensive tripod would help.)

Color, ISO and Other Settings
Pretty much anything you can tweak before shooting a photo can be done with the D90. If you want a movie in black-and-white or any range of colour settings, just go into the shooting menu and make it so. Same goes for exposure settings, ISO and a lot more tweaky options. I was (accidentally) shooting with a high ISO for much of the duck shoot, and you can really only see a good bit of noise when I was in the high f-stop tight aperture setting. Truth is, you can unexpectedly do a lot of cool stuff in low-light thanks to the D90's ISO control.

A Few Things To Keep In Mind
• It's important to focus beforehand, and if you're in Live View on manual focus, you can tap the magnifying glass to zoom in (digitally) to get a better focus on your subject.

• When using Live View, the auto-focus is slow because it uses contrast or face recognition. Also, again, this can only be used to set up the shot, and can't be used when shooting vid.

• Holding AE-L AF-L button will lock the exposure setting when you're shooting, so panning from a bright window to a dark corner won't screw up your carefully constructed ambiance with a quick lighting change. (Of course, manually panning and adjusting your focus will probably mess up the shot anyhow.) Reader TimmyTimeTravel just told me about this article, which contains an additional AE tip: "To set your camera for AE-L (hold): Menu > Custom Settings (Pencil Icon) > f (controls) >> Assign AE-L/AF-L Button > Ae lock (hold) > Ok"

• Very important: Camera settings don't take for some reason unless you exit Live View. So if you change your aperture or ISO or some other setting, exit LV, then pop back in to see the change.

What Not To Do
Here in a second video I'm including some shots of me and Wade the Cat to show you how hard it can be to manage the thing when you're not really working at it. Notice how shaky everything is, and how objects come in and out of focus all too easily. Aside from the fisheye bit (in there because how can you not shoot your cat with a damn fisheye?), the video was shot at pretty wide aperture setting, partially explaining the inability to keep focus:

Update: Though I shot this in 720p, I had to edit it and compress it to put into our servers. I'm no pro, of course, but some blurring of in-focus shots did happen in the conversion process. The following are actual frames pulled from the movies seen above, preserved much closer to their native resolution:

[Nikon D90 on Giz; song in duck vid was "Tasty" by The Grift]