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

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

2000 1125 Jeb Inge

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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Jeb Inge

Jeb Inge is a Berlin-based photographer and writer. He has previously worked in journalism, public history and public relations.

All stories by:Jeb Inge
  • Awesome camera, I got mine for $25 with the data back. The 4 batteries in it are the same ones I put in it a good 30 rolls of film ago. This is my cold weather camera since my old Soviet rangefinders gum up in cold weather. I took my F90s out in -30°c weather and it never skipped a beat. Its plastic on the outside, but built like a tank. Anyone passing this camera up because it isnt a F4 or F5 is a fool. It has the brightest viewfinder of any camera Ive held, it makes manual focusing a breeze, and focuses my 105mm 2.8g lens as fast as any digital camera I’ve used. Unbelievable value for money.

  • I wonder if the N90/N90s is only at the nadir of its value curve. The Pentax K1000 passed through its nadir something like 15 years ago when they could be had for nothing, but now they’re cult classics and, in good nick, go for $100 and up. I’ve thought a bunch of times that I should buy up all the $40 N90/N90s’s I find and wait for their value curve to turn around!

  • I got back into photography big time in the early 1990s and drooled over the Nikon F4. As a young parent, there was no way I could afford one. I saved and saved and bought a brand new N90s from my corner photo store (remember those) and I think I paid close to a grand. I had the body several months before I could afford a lens; the 50/1.8D. I loved that camera so much it inspired me to build a home darkroom so I could have full control of the process. Unfortunately, the N90s was one of the casualties of a divorce. I don’t miss the ex, but I do miss that camera! 🙂

  • Very nice write up and pics. The bang on focus and exposures show the value of the N90s. Just a few days ago some dood on ebay got a bunch of NOS N90s that were discovered in a government warehouse. They were still in their boxes, in plastic etc. He was selling them for $125 each – now all sold. I couldn’t pull the trigger on it though as that is how much I paid for my used but mint F100. And I have too much stuff already…

    This review does tie in nicely with the “how to take better film pics” essay from a few days ago. And it is nuts that cameras this good are this cheap. My Olympus Stylus 35 costs more!!!

  • I actually got the chance to use one of these in the summer. My friends Aunt gave it to him pretty much brand new (she bought it in the early 2000s and it pretty much just sat in a closet since). Using that camera few me off alot lol. I’m used to my digital camera and old manual film camera, but using the N90s was like using a combination of them both. It definitely took me some time to get the feel for it.

  • I’ve owned a couple of N90s bodies and I’m in total agreement that they are stellar performers with regard to AF and exposure. Obviously, you can’t beat the price! I sold them both because I find that the N90s is located in a strange spot in the Nikon lineup. I find that my autofocus lenses are much better served on an F100 and with manual focus lenses a FM2N or FE2 is a more natural fit. My other irritation with the N90s is how the back of the body gets gummy with time. I’ve never seen a N90s that didn’t have that problem. I’ve been told that there is a remedy for that, but I’ve forgotten what it is.

  • Just 3 weeks ago I picked up a second N90s with an auto MB-10 power grip but no lens. $10. It cost $11 to ship it. I have a good handful of Nikon lenses so it was a no-brainer. The N90s is my favorite auto focus camera – hands down. Took it on a trip recently and every shot was in focus and properly exposed.

  • I still have my N90s bought new in 1998. Rode it hard for 7 years, and don’t think I ever got a bad exposure or out of focus shot. Simply the best autofocus film camera ever made. Still trot it out from time to time.

  • A great little camera. I bought mine in near mint condition for $45 to keep my F100 company. I added a Meta35 kit so I could download the shooting data and set the custom function. A very fun combination!

  • Ever since I got back into collecting cameras, specifically Nikon cameras, I had heard many people sing the praises of the F100. it was a modern film SLR with a design and interface not unlike the digital SLRs that I had been shooting for the past 10+ years. It had a magnesium weather proof body, one of the best metering systems known to man, and pretty much every feature that you could ever need (and many you don’t). But the problem is that a lot of people know that, and the prices are quite a bit higher than the $20-$30 garage sale specials I was used to picking up.

    For a long time, I pined for an F100, but the only ones that ever came near my price range were usually missing the film door and the battery compartment, or were in such terrible shape, theres no way they worked.

    Then I discovered the N90s. The N90s was the model right before the F100. It has a chunkier body thats not very sexy (as you pointed out), but once you get beneath the skin, feature for feature, the N90s is almost identical to the F100 (yes I know the AF system is supposedly better and the F100 improves AE with a 10 segment meter) but for the average Joe like myself, the two cameras are basically the same.

    I finally plunked down $25 I think for a nice looking N90s and fell in love with it. Yeah, it has the sticky back, and yeah, the plastic doesnt age as nicely as the rubberized coatings of the F100, but considering I got a rock-solid camera with every feature I could ever want, for a price thats nearly 1/4th of the cheapest F100s, I think its one of the best bargains in film out there!

    • My F80 kicked the bucket after a summer of beach duties… Frankly I was a bit reckless with it and saltspray must have eaten in from the inside until it suddenly died. Have dad’s F401 (N4004) but it is crazy clunky and cyborg looking, in an ugly way. So buying these (almost) pro bodies for cheap ends up being a no brainer. I like these cameras because they have modern convenience and my Medium Format is unmetered and Manual.

      After a couple months of no 35mm at all I bought on eBay a pack of F90 and F801s, which were roughly contemporary.
      The F90 even had spiders in the mirror box, haha. But after some cleaning both seem to work nicely. 2×1 deal, as both models attract me quite a bit. These feel much more robust in comparison to the F80, being a notch above in the range. I noticed that in the US, bodies are quite cheap. Mike has a screenshot of ebay and $15 N90’s… EU is roughly double that price. F100 are more expensive and I just prefer the $ to go towards film and processing or other expenses.

      Still have to shoot them, but the sensation is quite fine.

  • Merlin Marquardt April 30, 2018 at 9:07 pm

    Very nice review. Now I want one of these too. Already have F70 and N80. I should stop reading these reviews!

  • Nice review. Despite the slower AF, I prefer the Nikon N8008/F801 for its more compact (slightly) body size. The front of the F90 seems to bulge out too much.

    Is another solution for the sticky rear door replacing it with the MB-26 Data back? (assuming you can find one).

  • Just got my hands on F90x… After years of waiting and watching on the online market. Finally i got one in mint conditions for 51 bucks… Er… A little bit pricey… Consider it is body only (without MB-10) which i could get one at the same price. But i guess it’s a good bargain for mint conditions with a still fresh back door.

    Great review… Makes me more excited to run film on it while waiting on getting the 50mm 1.8D, meanwhile i just gonna run it with my Nikkor 28mm f2.8.

    I think the F90x would be a great addition next to the F3 HP’s.

  • I got both the F4 and the N90s in 1995/early 1996, respectively, and I always felt the F4 was a dog; I took far better pictures with the N90s, no question. Plus, the weight of the N90s, especially when doing live-action concert shots, was a really good thing. I beat the heck out of it too; that plastic body never complained and took its beating and scars with aplomb. And, wow, the 3D matrix metering with SB-26 flash was always on the money without fail…Care to guess which camera I still have for 35mm shooting in 2018? Yep. My N90s (with the fabled 24-120mm “Streetsweeper”). The F4 was sold long ago.

  • I got mine on Craigslist with the MB-10 , data back door + two more replacement doors (one data back too and one regular, in case one gets sticky) + a nice Vivitar 19-35mm Series 1 lens and who knows how many more accessories for $50 bucks!! I shoot it and LOVE IT!!!

  • I bought my N90s from eBay for $40 without the MB-10. I didn’t do very much with it after I got it early in June 2018, because I have a love thing going on with my F4, but when I got serious with it I really fell for it. This is a great camera. So glad I have it.

  • All the Nikon pro and semi pro cameras are truly wonderful. With that said, in my opinion the Nikon F100 is overrated. Sure, its specs are really great. But no film camera has great specs compared to a contemporary digital camera. I much prefer the way the F90X feels. The film drive fork on the F100 is plastic, on the F90X it’s metal. The lens mount on the F100 is brass, on the F90X it’s stainless steel. I just find the F90 to be a nicer camera and it gives me greater pride of ownership. I love the F4 deeply too.

    The Nikon I have come to love the most is, surprisingly, the Nikon F5. It looks rather boring but it is more solid feeling than any other pro Nikon in my opinion and its incredibly smooth. It has outrageous power inside and shooting with it is so much fun. Even though I’m just shooting single images, every shot feels like some brutal sports car going off at the traffic lights. The winding motor is so fast you barely hear it because its over so fast you think you just heard a click. The shutter mechanism is incredibly well dampened – there is not recoil whatsoever in the F5. Some think the F5 is too heavy, that its boring because it doesn’t have the retro allure of the F4 or the F90. Many write that the F100 is 85% of the F5 but I really disagree with that. The F5 feels completely different from the F100 in use and has a far more advanced light meter. But the most important difference is the feeling, the difference in materials (the F5 finder is made from titanium ffs!) and just how the F5 is an incredibly brutal sportscar/battle tank and you feel its performance with every frame, and every frame just wants to make you smile.

  • I still own the N 90 that I bought new a few decades ago, although the lenses have migrated on to my digital cameras. I loved this camera and it kept me shooting film long after I should have moved to digital. It helped me take better pictures than I was/am really capable of taking.
    My only additions to the review are that in challenging lighting it often underexposed by 1 or 2 stops, and with my 70-300mm zoom the auto focus would occasionally hunt a while before focusing properly. Neither items were a big deal once I was aware of them and knew to compensate.

  • Irish Photographer January 17, 2020 at 5:35 am

    Sadly, my F90X had to go for an F100, because it doesn’t do VR.

  • Mine was given to me by my high school photo teacher years ago. Came with MB-10.
    Lets see here:
    Late for bus, flew out of backpack and cartwheeled down the road.
    Tripod leg went out and fell down and the flash managed to rip the top off. Replaced the top from a dead unit
    15 Fahrenheit. Some Canon guy walks up to me and asks me how my camera is still running. Then smirks when he sees the Nikon logo.
    Set it on a table and someone walking by gets caugh on the neckstrap and yanks it onto the ground.

    After all that amateur abuse, it still runs well. After hunting down a Beattie prism screen, it makes for the perfect manual focus camera. I also have a new replacement shutter (in box!) saved for when the time comes.

  • 5 years after this article was written, my local shop has one in excellent condition (actually excellent not some weird ebay excellent ++++ description which means broken) for $50. I played with it and it is really nice. But I really don’t need another camera….

  • The thing is, the 19mm High Eyepoint OVF isn’t like the F3 HP OVF, but really better, than your average 90’s SLR. But from the build quality very solid, even plasticky outside. I like my F90x, even it’s heavy with my mounted 28-75/2.8 over hours…for that, the F80 with smaller 28-70 is quite handy, albeit the OVF isn’t that huge, and also via AF slower, than the F90x. I love the cinema-esque OVF of my XD7, and X700, though…but that’s another story…and without AF.

    To sum it up, the F90x still does deliver the goods, being weathersealed (but sadly no usual AF-D lens that i know..) and takes 4x AA batteries, doesn’t matter if alkanline, Ni-MH, or whatever type you put into…Eneloop (Pro) also does work perfectly fine…

  • Love my F90x so much I just picked up an F90 to keep it company, as when I grabbed it from it’s bag, at least a couple of years in there, a few weeks ago, it’s let me now it was alive and missed me, well missed recharged batteries, yes it came on, albeit briefly but it did.

    My fav personl combo is with the 85mm f2 AIS but I hammered it for years as a Music Photographer, bought from new with grip and SB-28 and all still functional and never failed me, I do own a F4s/F5 but this F90x just has something about it that I can’t resist, one of Nikons Best Underrated Classics IMHO up there with the big boys.

    Nice article and pics.

  • I just loaded fresh batteries into my N90s. And I happily saw it come back to life. I snapped a couple of pictures, and have it before me on my desk.
    I read your article and you nailed the essence and importance of this camera. Thank you.

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Jeb Inge

Jeb Inge is a Berlin-based photographer and writer. He has previously worked in journalism, public history and public relations.

All stories by:Jeb Inge