Canon 90D Field Test Part I

On the track & around town: Examining the handling and image quality of Canon's new intermediate-level DSLR

by William Brawley | Posted 09/30/2019

EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6L: 70mm, f/16, 1/100s, ISO 125

Announced alongside the compact EOS M6 Mark II, the new 90D shares many features with this smaller, lighter mirrorless camera. Both offer the same imaging pipeline (and thus more or less identical image quality performance), both have similar performance specs and the video-shooting features have a lot in common. For photographers and videographers alike, the 90D and M6 II offer a lot of bang for the buck.

In the end, Canon is providing customers with a choice in form factor. Do you prefer a smaller, lighter, more portable camera with an electronic viewfinder? If so then grab the M6 II. If you love a bright optical viewfinder, prominent handgrip and better ergonomics with longer, heavier lenses, then the 90D is probably the better choice.

Let's take a closer look at the new Canon 90D and see how it handles and performs in the field...

EF-S 18-135mm f/3.5-5.6 ISO Nano USM: 135mm, f/5.6, 1/250s, ISO 500

Build Quality & Ergonomics

While digital cameras come in all shapes and sizes nowadays, it's hard to beat the comfort and balance of a nice DSLR like the Canon 90D. This updated, intermediate-level DSLR, as the model name suggests, is the successor to Canon's popular EOS 80D, and while there are several under-the-hood improvements and new features, the exterior design remains familiar and comfortable, though there are a couple of new updates.

Let's start with the few new features on the exterior of the 90D. The first of which is a new button, or rather the reappearance of one, anyway. We finally see the return a multi-directional (aka joystick) control on the rear of the camera. The joystick control was previously featured on earlier mid-range APS-C cameras, such as the 40D and 50D, but was then removed on 60D. Canon hasn't been the most consistent when it comes to including this handy control across their camera range, though it's often found on their larger DSLRs, such as the 5D Mark IV, 7D Mark II and 1DX Mark II (yet oddly not on the 6D Mark II).

(Editor's Note: We were initially incorrect in stating which prior Canon DSLRs offered a joystick control. We've clarified wording in the above paragraph.)

The Canon 90D (left) vs. the Canon 80D (right)

Personally, I'm a huge fan of the joystick control, as it makes moving your AF point(s) easier and faster. There's a setting in the 90D Custom Function menu (C.Fn III: Custom Controls) where you can program the various buttons and dials around the camera. Within that menu, there's an option to enable "Direct AF point selection" for the joystick (and rear multi-directional pad). This lets you immediately change your AF point position without first having to press the AF point selection button on the top of the camera or on the rear of the camera (the 90D sports two such buttons). One quirk, however, is that the 90D doesn't allow you to separate the functions of the joystick control and the rear multi-directional pad. For example, if you enable "Direct AF point selection" for the joystick, the same function will be enabled on the directional pad. In practice, it's not that big of a deal, but I find it odd that the camera doesn't offer a way to program these two controls separately.

The second design change to the exterior is a deeper, more comfortable grip. The overall dimensions of the camera body aren't that dissimilar to the previous 80D camera. However, Canon's made the body near the grip slightly slimmer, which gives you more room to wrap your fingers around the grip. The result is that you have a fuller, more comfortable, and secure hold on the camera. The camera really feels excellent in the hand.

The Canon 90D (top) vs. the Canon 80D (bottom)

Other than these two changes, the exterior design and control layout is more or less identical to the 80D. Surrounding the handgrip area are the usual array of easy-to-reach buttons that offer quick access to primary shooting and exposure settings. Along the top of the small LCD info panel on the top deck of the camera, there are dedicated buttons for AF mode, Drive mode (Single-shot, Burst, self-timer, etc.), ISO level, and Metering mode. In front of the top control dial, there is a dedicated AF point selection button, and on the top-rear corner sits a secondary AF point selection button. Oddly, even though there are duplicate buttons, neither of these two AF point selection buttons can be customized to any other function.

On the rear of the camera, again, the user experience is extremely similar to that of the 80D. Apart from the new joystick control, the layout of the control and buttons are nearly identical to the predecessor. The Playback button is moved down to the bottom next to the Delete button to make room for the joystick. Other than that, things are very familiar. The optical viewfinder is the same as the last model, offering approximately 100% coverage and about 0.95x magnification (0.59x in 35mm eq). The articulated rear display, too, is the same 3-inch, touchscreen display that uses a 1,040,000-dot LCD panel. As with the previous model, the articulation and overall build quality of the rear monitor feel sturdy and well-built.

Overall, the handling characteristics of the 90D are pleasing and familiar -- a large grip, a clear optical viewfinder, and a healthy array of physical controls and dials. The 90D feels great in the hand, with comfortable yet robust build quality (that is weather-sealed to some degree) with plenty of easy-to-use controls. It's a classic Canon DSLR experience.

EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II: 200mm, f/5.6, 1/640s, ISO 100

Image Quality

Now, on the image quality side of things, this is where the big change lies when you compare the 90D to its 80D predecessor. The 90D (along with the M6 II) is a major jump in megapixel count compared to all of Canon's previous APS-C cameras, going from an already-pixel-packed 24MP sensor in the 80D to an all-new 32.5-megapixel APS-C CMOS sensor. The 90D is now Canon's highest-resolution APS-C DSLR to date.

Additionally, the 90D sports a much newer, faster image processor, utilizing the latest DIGIC 8 processor over the 80D's DIGIC 6, which gives the 90D improved performance, such as the 10fps burst rate seen on the higher-end the 7D II, as well as improved video shooting features like 4Kp30 capture. Additionally, the new sensor combined with the processor gives the 90D a new native ISO range of 100 up to 25,600, with an expanded high ISO of 51,200.

But are more megapixels always a good thing?

EF-S 18-135mm f/3.5-5.6 ISO Nano USM: 72mm, f/5.6, 1/320s, ISO 100

When it comes to sheer image quality performance, all things being equal, the more megapixels, the more detail a camera can resolve. Given a sharp lens, a low ISO and good light, a high-resolution camera can produce very detailed photos. However, higher ISO performance can be concerning the higher the megapixel count becomes as the individual pixel sizes become smaller and smaller as you attempt to cram more and more onto a given sensor area. Despite an increase in pixels, their tinier size gather less light, and generally, that results is worse signal-to-noise ratio and therefore higher noise for a given ISO compared to a similarly-sized sensor with a lower resolution (and thus larger pixel sizes). A past example of this was with the earlier 50-megapixel Canon 5DS R. Despite it being a full-frame camera, Canon pegged its high ISO performance on-par with the APS-C 7D Mark II camera due to their similarities in pixel pitch.

EF-S 18-135mm f/3.5-5.6 ISO Nano USM: 119mm, f/5.6, 1/200s, ISO 250

EF-S 18-135mm f/3.5-5.6 ISO Nano USM: 50mm, f/5.6, 1/400s, ISO 100
RAW file edited in Adobe Lightroom. Click here for the original, unedited image.

In my time with the new Canon 90D, image quality overall has been quite pleasing. Lower ISO images are sharp and detailed with accurate color reproduction and nice dynamic range performance from the RAW files. I spent some time shooting it harsh, midday sun, and I was relieved to see that I was able to easily recover bright highlight details and boost up some shadows areas without introducing egregious noise.

EF-S 18-135mm f/3.5-5.6 ISO Nano USM: 18mm, f/7.1, 1/125s, ISO 100
RAW file edited in Adobe Lightroom. Click here for the original, unedited image.
Straight-from-camera JPEG

Resolving power is quite good if you have a sharp lens, but as with the vast majority of Canon cameras, the sensor features an optical low-pass filter, which subtly blurs things ever-so-slightly in order to remove or heavily reduce any visible moiré and aliasing artifacts. As such, images weren't as tack-sharp and crisp as I was hoping, but overall, detail is very good for this class of camera.

EF-S 18-135mm f/3.5-5.6 ISO Nano USM: 29mm, f/5.0, 1/800s, ISO 100

At the other end of the ISO range, I will say that the 90D does better at lower ISOs. High ISO performance is pretty good, but not outstanding and somewhat disappointing. I was afraid that the high-res nature of the APS-C sensor would impact high ISO performance, and that does appear to be the case here to some degree. Even at moderate ISO levels, such as 800-1600, images show a bit more noise than I was expecting. The noise reduction processing used JPEG files straight from the camera appear it strong for my liking as well, showing noticeable softening and processing artifacts. All that said, the 90D is not terrible at higher ISOs by any means, but it's certainly not its strong suit, unfortunately.

EF-S 18-135mm f/3.5-5.6 ISO Nano USM: 135mm, f/5.6, 1/320s, ISO 800
RAW crop (Adobe Lightroom Default settings)

Overall, the Canon 90D's image quality is pretty good, especially if you shoot at lower ISOs. If you shoot primarily outdoors, landscapes, portraiture, or other daytime subjects, the 90D does well for these tasks. The 32.5-megapixel APS-C sensor is an interesting choice, however. The 80D's 24MP sensor, I thought, provided a good balance of detail and higher sensitivity performance -- though even back then, it didn't fare as well as some of its competitors at high ISOs. The increase in megapixel count on the 90D -- and M6 Mark II as well -- seems like a strange direction for this intermediate-level camera, as there doesn't appear to much improvement in high ISO performance compared to its predecessor.

Up Next

That wraps my initial field test of the refreshed Canon 90D. Stay tuned for more!