Canon 90D Field Test Part II

One more time with feeling: Canon's enthusiast DSLR returns for night shooting and video

by Mike Tomkins | Posted 11/17/2019

A few weeks back, we kicked off our review of the Canon 90D with a first field test posted by senior editor William Brawley. In this second field test, I'm picking up the ball from Will to cover some of the remaining points he didn't get a chance to address previously.

If you've not already read that previous field test, you'll want to start there for the full story. In part one, Will shot the enthusiast-oriented EOS 90D DSLR alongside the simultaneously-announced EOS M6 Mark II mirrorless camera at Canon's launch event, which was held at the Michelin Raceway Road Atlanta circuit, giving him some great opportunities to try the 90D for sports shooting. (As well as a chance to compare it against its mirrorless sibling, which actually offers even greater burst performance so long as autofocus is locked from the first frame, although the 90D has the edge when continuous AF is added to the equation.)

35mm (56mm eq.), 1/80 sec. @ f/4.5, ISO 2000
Click thumbnail for JPEG, or here for raw file

Will's first field test also took a good look at the Canon 90D's ergonomics and handling, and especially some of the design changes made since the previous-generation 80D. He also reported on the 90D's image quality in daytime shooting, with a particular focus on how the new, slightly higher-resolution 32.5-megapixel image sensor shared by both the 90D and M6 Mark II compares to the earlier 24.2-megapixel chip from a few years ago. Click here to read part one of the field test for the full story.

What's on tap for part two of our Canon 90D field test

For part two, there are a couple of areas in particular on which I'm going to focus. Firstly and perhaps most importantly, I've been shooting extensively with the 90D in low-light conditions and towards the higher end of its sensitivity range. Will already addressed this a little in his own writeup, noting that he already saw more noise than he was expecting in shots at relatively moderate sensitivities on the order of ISO 800-1600 equivalents, and found himself somewhat disappointed.

But where the imagery Will shot, which you can see in our gallery, was pretty much all confined to relatively low sensitivities, I've now captured a good range of images all the way from sunset to full night conditions, and across the 90D's entire expanded sensitivity range of ISO 100 to 51,200 equivalents. (Since Will already provided a wealth of photos at the lower sensitivities, I've limited those I've added to the gallery to ISO 2000 and above, however.)

50mm (80mm eq.), 1/125 sec. @ f/5.6, ISO 3200
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The other main area which I'll be focusing on for this second field test is video capture. Here, you'll find both 4K and Full HD clips in both day and night conditions. I've also provided an example of the 90D's full-time video autofocus performance, and tried out its high frame-rate video capture mode as well.

And since Canon answered our call for the return of a cinematic 24p frame rate option -- it added support for 23.98 fps capture impressively quickly, shipping firmware version 1.1.1 just two months after we first posted our preview -- I've added that to the roster of features to try out, as well. (And I've also updated our earlier preview text to note this addition.)

Kudos to Canon for acting so quickly. To be sure, not everyone is going to want to shoot in 24p, and many 90D videographers will likely never touch it. But it's nice to have the option, and now you do.

18mm (29mm eq.), 1/60 sec. @ f/3.5, ISO 4000
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It's worth considering the M6 II instead, if you want the smallest possible package

I mentioned the Canon M6 Mark II previously, by the way, and it's probably worth noting here that I also reviewed that camera recently. Both the 90D and M6 II share basically the same imaging pipeline, and so not surprisingly, their image quality is also very similar. Hence the choice of which to shoot comes down more to other features like their performance -- as I said, the 90D will have a slight edge here -- and even more importantly, their handling. If you want an optical viewfinder, you're on the right review here. If you prefer the smallest and lightest possible camera body, you'll want to consider the M6 II instead, and I'd recommend reading that review too.

Speaking personally, while I enjoy shooting both types, I'm still a DSLR shooter at heart. My own daily shooters, when I'm not out and about with a review camera, obviously, are mostly DSLR models. And I still prefer the experience of shooting through a good optical viewfinder to that of shooting with an electronic viewfinder or at arm's length, at least in most situations. Out of the pair, I've definitely enjoyed shooting with the Canon 90D more than I did the M6 II.

67mm (107mm eq.), 1/50 sec. @ f/5.0, ISO 5000
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The 90D is a pleasure to shoot with in low light thanks to its pentaprism finder

But enough of the preamble; it's time to share my thoughts on the 90D after a good bit of time spent shooting in low-light conditions. You'll find a generous selection of my photos from those shoots sprinkled throughout this field test -- largely in order of sensitivity, so the further down the page you read, the higher I'll have cranked the ISO -- and there are still more to be found in the gallery, all the way up to the 90D's expanded maximum sensitivity of ISO 51,200 equivalent.

35mm (56mm eq.), 1/80 sec. @ f/4.5, ISO 6400
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And in terms of its low-light performance, I found the Canon 90D to be a very capable camera indeed. Its glass pentaprism viewfinder is crisp, bright and roomy by the standards of an APS-C DSLR, making it easy to see and frame your subjects even in low light. And AF point selection is a breeze even in total darkness, as a tap of either the AF area or point selection buttons clearly illuminates all AF points within the viewfinder in red, beneath an indication of the current AF area mode.

(Like Will, though, I find it a bit sad that the new joystick control simply duplicates the function of the multi-controller beneath. I'd really like to see Canon allow customization of the multi-controller separately from the joystick, to give quick access to even more functionality.)

High ISO results are perhaps a little disappointing, but certainly acceptable

I also found myself in agreement with Will when it comes to the 90D's high ISO image quality. Although I certainly found it to be acceptable when the sensitivity was dialed up some, just as I did the EOS M6 II, I also found myself a little disappointed that there wasn't a step forwards in terms of high ISO image quality, given that its predecessor's sensor design is now nearing its fourth birthday.

Like the M6 II before it, I felt image quality was very usable all the way to ISO 6400, and even ISO 12,800 was usable in a pinch. But with that said, I did notice some adverse affects of noise reduction even in shots as low as ISO 3200 equivalent, and some noise was noticeable at even lower sensitivities.

18mm (29mm eq.), 1/60 sec. @ f/3.5, ISO 8000
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A slight tendency towards overexposure, just as for the M6 Mark II

Just as I did for the M6 Mark II with which it shares its imaging pipeline, I felt that the Canon 90D had a slight but noticeable tendency towards overexposure. It's easily corrected by simply dialing in a 1/3 stop of negative exposure compensation by default, though, or can readily be fixed post-capture if you're shooting raw, so even if you're concerned about clipped highlights I don't think it's a significant issue.

35mm (56mm eq.), 1/60 sec. @ f/4.5, ISO 10,000
Click thumbnail for JPEG, or here for raw file

With that said, it's easier to overlook that in a camera like the M6 II which costs US$850 body-only as of this writing, but with the 90D costing more than a third as much again at US$1,200 body-only, It'd have been nice if the metering system could be tuned to the user's tastes. But again, it's a pretty minor quibble, really.

A swift and confident low-light shooter with capable autofocus

I also found the 90D to perform pretty well in terms of its low-light white balance. For the most part, it handled the complex mixture of different lights around downtown Knoxville well, with the auto white balance system turning in fairly attractive results the overwhelming majority of the time. Towards the highest sensitivities, colors did feel a bit muted though.

And autofocus performance was very good even in low light. I never really had any issues with getting the 90D to focus on my subjects. Even in pretty low light, autofocus was swift, confident and accurate unless my subjects had very little contrast indeed. And with the dioptric correction dialed in, I found it easy to focus manually through the optical viewfinder, as well.

Avoid ISO 25,600 and above, although DXO PhotoLab may soon make them more usable

For my money, the cutoff point in terms of acceptable image quality was around the ISO 6400 to 12,800 mark, depending on the subject and my purposes for the shot. I didn't find ISO 25,600 or 51,200 to be very usable, just as I noted in my M6 Mark II review.

24mm (38mm eq.), 1/60 sec. @ f/4.0, ISO 12,800
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But also as I noted in that review, my current noise processing tool of choice -- the utterly superb PRIME denoising engine in DxO Labs' PhotoLab application -- doesn't yet support the 90D, just as it didn't support the M6 II either. That support is currently slated to arrive in December 2019, and once it does I think there's a very good chance that raw files at ISO 12,800 and even ISO 25,600 will likely prove to be quite useful.

27mm (43mm eq.), 1/60 sec. @ f/4.0, ISO 16,000
Click thumbnail for JPEG, or here for raw file

I won't know for sure until PhotoLab support arrives, obviously, but I'm optimistic based on its results with past cameras.

But enough of stills, what about video? While the Canon 90D and M6 II share basically the same imaging pipeline -- and therefore, basically the same video image quality and capabilities in most respects -- there are a few ways in which the DSLR bests its mirrorless sibling.

In terms of their basic design, a case could be made for either camera. The M6 II, being smaller and lighter, will be easier to shoot handheld for extended periods without tiring. But the 90D's larger body has a much more generous grip and better-positioned controls that for my money make it the easier of the two to keep steady while shooting, and its tilt/swivel LCD monitor can be seen from a greater range of angles than can the tilt-only screen on the M6 II.

More importantly, though, where the M6 II has only a microphone jack, the 90D supplements this with a 3.5mm headphone jack. This means that you can monitor and manually control the audio levels, making adjustments not just before capture starts, but also during recording. That's a significant advantage for the DSLR over the mirrorless model, unless you prefer to rely on an external device for recording audio anyway.

Good video image quality, both during the day and after the sun goes down

You'll find a variety of video clips shot with the Canon 90D just a little further down the page, as I've still got a few more high ISO images to fit in first. To sum up quickly, though, I was pretty pleased with its image quality for both day and night footage.

50mm (80mm eq.), 1/80 sec. @ f/5.0, ISO 20,000
Click thumbnail for JPEG, or here for raw file

4K video is packed with fine detail, and even Full HD video is reasonably crisp, although obviously with much lower resolution than the 4K footage. I didn't spot any of the moire or false-color artifacts that trouble some cameras, and color / white balance were good as well.

Great full-time autofocus for video capture, too

18mm (29mm eq.), 1/80 sec. @ f/3.5, ISO 25,600
Click thumbnail for JPEG, or here for raw file

The Canon 90D's full-time video autofocus also performs very nicely. You can either select subjects manually using the touch-screen, or allow the camera itself to determine the primary subject as I did in the clip further down the page. Either way, focus shifts are smooth but fairly swift, and the camera detects changes in subject distance well even while panning fairly rapidly.

If you're selecting subjects on the touch screen, you can change the subject during video capture. A white box appears on-screen where you've touched, and that box will then follow your subject as it moves around the image frame. Another tap elsewhere will select a new subject, or you can tap on an icon near the top right of the screen to cancel the subject tracking, returning the camera to selecting where to focus by itself.

And since the screen is very sensitive, it's easy to make these changes without shaking the camera, even when shooting handheld.

Slow-motion video is fun, but rather limited in its capabilities

As well as standard video, the Canon 90D can also record slow-motion footage in-camera. However, unlike some rivals, your choices here are rather limited.

To access high frame-rate recording, you enter the movie recording quality menu, and then enable the high frame-rate option. When you do so, the movie recording size option is greyed out, as you have only a single fixed choice of capture resolution and frame rate, and the output frame rate is also fixed.

35mm (56mm eq.), 1/200 sec. @ f/8.0, ISO 51,200
Click thumbnail for JPEG, or here for raw file

High frame-rate video is recorded at Full HD resolution, with a capture rate of 119.9 frames per second, and plays back at 29.97 frames per second. This yields a fixed 4x slow-motion effect, although you could of course adjust the playback rate post-capture to achieve anything from a 2x slow-mo at 60fps to a 5x slow-mo at 24 fps, should you choose to do so. As is typical with in-camera slow-motion / high-frame rate capture modes, no sound is recorded during capture, and so your HFR movies will be totally silent.

All things considered, I found the Canon 90D's video recording feature set to be pretty decent, for an enthusiast-grade camera. It may lack some of the options of higher-end gear, but for its pricepoint offers a good amount of control with great image quality, and the full-time autofocus means you don't have to learn how to pull focus manually to make the most of it.

Download Original
3,840 x 2,160 pixels @ 29.970 frames per second

Download Original
3,840 x 2,160 pixels @ 23.976 frames per second

Download Original
1,920 x 1,080 pixels @ 59.940 frames per second

Closing thoughts on my time with the 90D

I have to say that I've really rather enjoyed shooting with the Canon 90D over the past few weeks. Although I didn't discuss handling much, as this was already covered by Will in the first field test, I found it to be very comfortable in-hand. Its body, while made from fiberglass-reinforced polycarbonate over an aluminum frame, is nevertheless rock solid and free of creak, even if it might not feel as rugged as a metal-bodied camera.

And its vast number of external controls are all quite well positioned and easy to locate by touch, once you have become familiar with them. Still image quality might not lead the pack, but it's certainly very acceptable even once the sensitivity is dialed up somewhat, and performance is great. My quibbles, such as they are, are relatively few and quite minor. Honestly, my biggest complaint -- other than that I'd have liked to see a bit better high ISO image quality and a function for fine-tuning the metering system to taste -- is that I'd like to see Canon provide for better customization of the joystick / multi-controller.

Download Original
3,840 x 2,160 pixels @ 29.970 frames per second

Download Original
3,840 x 2,160 pixels @ 23.976 frames per second

Download Original
1,920 x 1,080 pixels @ 59.940 frames per second

I am definitely holding out hope that they do so, because they've already listened to early reviews once in adding support for 24p video capture in firmware, and improved customization seems like another natural fit for a firmware update. Even as-is, though, this is clearly one very capable camera for a pretty affordable pricetag, and I'd say it would make a great option for Canon shooters looking to upgrade from an older or lower-end Canon DSLR.

Download Original
3,840 x 2,160 pixels @ 29.970 frames per second

Download Original
1,920 x 1,080 pixels @ 29.970 frames per second, 119.9 fps record rate, 4x slow-motion effect

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