Monday, October 27, 2008

D90 video mode: room for improvement

I saw a TV spot starring famed photographer Ashton Kutcher last night touting the video capabilities of the Nikon D90. In it, Ashton is packing for a trip and shoots a quick video clip of his goldfish and shows it to his maid. Bing, bang, boom, the whole thing takes a few seconds, and he says something like "Let that blow your mind" when he shows her the goldfish video he just shot.

Now I understand the logic behind the ad campaign: these cameras are so easy to use, even Ashton Kutcher can get them to make pictures. I actually thought the Coolpix spots were clever; big hunky star Ashton leaves his Coolpix behind to take a phone call, while hot women snap photos of themselves and return his camera before he notices (happens to me all the time). His D60 spot shows him at a wedding snapping away.

The D90 spot is misleading. First of all, he is clearly using the 18-105 VR lens that comes bundled with the camera as a kit, and he's practically touching the fishbowl with it. Too close! Plus, he never focuses the lens. And herein lies the problem.

I took a D90 home from work a couple weeks ago simply to play with the video mode. Video in the D90 is shot through the Live View feature. And while it's just two button clicks to start shooting a video, you have no autofocus and the viewfinder is blacked out. You can't lock exposure, either, so the exposure is constantly adjusting itself — slowly, and in steps — to changing light conditions.

Focusing is very hard, despite the great LCD screen on the D90. And forget it if what you're shooting actually moves. About the only thing you can do is set the camera up on a tripod, carefully focus, then start filming. But who cares about your video of a still subject? It has to do something, it has to move to be interesting. That's why they're called movies.

Clearly the D90's video feature is just a last-minute throw-in so that the marketing folks can claim "first DSLR that shoots video" (true, by a couple of weeks). And now they're throwing it out there like it's a hybrid video/stills camera. It is not. It's a great stills camera. Forget about shooting Junior blowing out the candles on a whim; you need about 5 minutes to plan that shot, and Junior had better not lean into it.

Instead, Nikon should point out that the D90 is an outstanding camera, and oh yeah, you can sort of shoot videos with it. Any parent who buys it thinking "now I can just carry this around!" will be pretty disappointed. I mean, D90 videos don't even have stereo sound (and no mic input to mount on the hotshoe). Panned shots look awful. It's going to disappoint those people.

The Canon 5D markII's video mode, at least, has a stereo mic input, shoots in full HD, has a large sensor, and can shoot 12-minute clips. See Vincent LaForet's short movie "Reverie" to see what that one can do.

All of the next wave of consumer DSLRs will have video capability. And you can bet it'll be a whole lot more functional. The D90 is a wonderful camera in a lot of ways — just not as a video camera.

I think shallow depth-of-field in home videos is exciting. Being able to control white balance and change lenses for video is cool, too. But shooting videos with the D90 borders on being impossible — Nikon should be careful how they advertise the D90, because they're setting unreal expectations.

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