Updated Sept. 13, 2021
Maybe it has something to do with the application of the term "vintage" to items over 30 years old, but there is a dead space for most cameras (and many other manufactured goods) that are in the 15 - 25 year old range. Not elderly enough to evoke nostalgia, and far from the cutting edge of current technology, they languish in a veritable no-man's-land. The subject of this article, the F90(X), is in such a place today. If you are a 35mm bargain hunter, and are willing to look past its plebian polycarbonate pelt...your ship may just have come in :-).
The F90(X) is a proverbial case of Nikon being forced to respond to the success of Canon, and in this particular instance, the high-tech EOS-1. Introduced three years to the month after the EOS-1 debuted, in September 1992 the F90 rolled out as the most computerized Nikon the camera world had ever seen. Although, at first glance, it may merely appear to be an F-801s with a facelift (and maybe a collagen injection in the prism housing ;-)), the F90 represents the true entry of Nikon into the modern AF SLR era. But why had it taken Nikon three years to come up with a reply to the EOS-1? A very good question! Let's see if we can dig down to some solid answers and get a gander at the finest single-AF-sensor Nikon to come down the pike while we're at it.
Prelude to All-Out AF War
First, we have to go back to 1988 and the F4's grand entrance. Things could not have gone much better for Nikon. As was their custom for decades, Nikon and Canon used the platform of the Olympic Games to promote their latest achievements in professional SLRs and lenses. So, with Canon having brought out their shiny new EOS system in 1987, speculation was running rampant as to whether they would be able to get a pro EOS SLR readied in time for Seoul. As it turned out, they weren't (fortuitously for Nikon), leaving them to promote the EOS 620 (their top enthusiast SLR) as the best option for Canon shooters at the Games. Which left Nikon licking their chops, as they had the new F4 harnessed and ready to go precisely in time for the Olympics.
The F4 set new standards for pro SLRs in all the standard metrics: shutter speeds, film advance speeds, ruggedness...plus it added AF that was as good as anything on the market at the time. The press on the camera was nearly unanimous: the F4 was a triumph, and Nikon started selling them as fast as production would allow. In fact, in its first three years of public availability (dating from Dec. 1988), Nikon sold an average of 75,000 F4s per year, a very strong figure for an SLR that was selling for $2,000+ USD ($4,000 adjusted to 2018). For comparison, the previous top pro Nikon, the F3 (including its detachable MD-4 motor drive), was selling for roughly half of that at the time. The F3's sales peak had been in the 100,000+ neighborhood, 7 years before, when it was priced at $750 USD (including the MD-4; $1,500 USD, 2018-adjusted) and that was in the second best year ever for SLR sales. So the F4's sales showing was nothing to sneeze at. Let's just say that Nikon felt very comfortable at this point. They had the tandem of the F4 and the very capable F-801 in their two most important market slots (pro & prosumer) and they were more than holding their own.
Fast forward to late-1989, and the EOS-1 finally appeared. One can imagine the Nikon brass stifling a yawn as they first laid eyes on this pretender to the professional SLR throne. I mean, come on, a plastic body shell??? You can't be serious! A shutter rated for 50,000 cycles?? Our amateur models are rated for that! Oh by the way, can it work with all your old pro FD glass?? Not so much? That's too bad...(cough, cough). Oooh, so you have some fancy new sensor that can focus on vertical and horizontal lines. What's that? You mean to tell me that it can only do that with lenses with a maximum aperture of f/2.8 or larger, or it just reverts back to vertical lines only? Our AF system works down to f/5.6 with all our lenses (on our amateur cameras, too). Did we mention ALL our lenses, even the manual focus ones (electronic rangefinding only) that you can't mount? And why is that? Oh that's right...because your engineers couldn't find a way to make your old mount AF even as well as a two-bit Minolta. (Aside: if you can't beat 'em, just copy 'em, that's the Nikon way). Sorry folks, my imagination may have just run slightly amok ;-). Nevertheless, Nikon was not too concerned about the EOS-1, which they figured the F-801 could handle easily, let alone the F4. That would change.
Jump to 1992, and things were not looking so rosy for Nikon. F4 sales were beginning to slow. The F-801 had been refreshed into the F-801s in 1991 in an effort to make it more competitive with the EOS-1. The problem was that the EOS-1 was more than a match for it and neatly split the difference between the F-801s and the F4 as far as price went. That made the EOS-1 an attractive alternative to either Nikon model, especially for shooters looking for speed. Because the EOS-1 had appeared following the 1988 Olympics, Canon had not been able to cash in on that particular cow. But word had since been steadily spreading among pros that this thing could out-AF, not just the F-801, but even the mighty F4, especially with super-telephotos (300mm and up), and almost silently with Canon's USM (Ultrasonic Motor) lenses, to boot. It also handled like a dream, with Popular Photography calling the EOS-1:
the black Ferrari of 35mm autofocus SLRs: quick, streamlined, and unusually responsive.
Also, since most pros or enthusiasts with an EOS-1 were using lenses with maximum apertures f/2.8 or faster, that new-fangled cross sensor actually did its thing. There was a new AF sheriff in town, and it wore a black (polycarbonate) hat. And when the 1992 Barcelona Olympics came a-callin' in July, the shootout was more of a massacre. The 300/2.8 was the de facto standard lens of sports shooters, and the EOS-1 paired with the 300/2.8L USM (Ultrasonic Motor) EF lens blew the F4, with its corresponding screwdriven AF Nikkor, away when it came to fast, accurate AF. The not-so-old warhorse simply could not keep up when speed was the object. That is not to say that everyone dropped their F4s...Nikon still managed to sell around 500,000 in nine years. But with the EOS-1 and its descendants, Canon would do what they hadn't been able to in the previous two decades...take over the number one spot in professional SLR sales. This was no small feat, as Nikon had owned roughly 75% of the pro market in that previous 20-year period. The 30-year reign of the Nikon F-system as the benchmark of pro SLRs ended within half a decade during the 1990s. The combination of the responsive button + twin-dial layout of the EOS-1 and AF speed advantage inherent in the USM lens motor configuration would prove to be the turning point in the battle for pro AF SLR supremacy. Due to the speed limitations of the traditional control layout of the F4, Nikon never saw fit to upgrade its AF system, either. They decided to just move on, both in development of the next F-series SLR (into something that resembled the Canon more than the F4 ;-)), and as far as interim measures were concerned. Canon had seized the momentum, and Nikon was now left with the task of coming up with a challenger to the EOS-1.
The F90 was their answer. It didn't debut until September 1992 and was not available to the public until the end of the year. While its appearance certainly gave the impression of a warmed-over F-801, under the skin it was a huge step forward for Nikon. It featured their first all-new AF sensor in five years, the CAM 246. Want to take a wild stab at what the "C" stood for? "Cross". Yep, if you can't beat 'em...copy 'em, eh Nikon ;-). The CAM 246 featured switchable wide (7mm) and spot (3 mm) AF sensor configurations and carried on the Nikon tradition of the best low-light sensitivity in the business, along with being able to work down to f/5.6 in both axes. However, the biggest objective for Nikon was to increase AF speed. The F90's microcomputer was four times faster than that of the F-801s which, along with other improvements, was stated by Nikon to add up to 30% faster AF, overall.
Nikon's catchphrase for the F90 was 3D. 3D Matrix Metering; 3D Multi-Sensor Balanced Fill-Flash (only with the SB-25 and newer flash units), both requiring the use of new "D"-series AF Nikkor lenses. "D" stood for "distance", as such lenses now transmitted the distance of the focused subject to the camera body to assist in its metering calulations. A brand-new 10-pin connector appeared on the camera, allowing it to, not only make use of more advanced accessories, but also...for the first time......ever.........you could hook up a Nikon...........to a.............computer?! Ye gads!! Nikon trying to out-Canon Canon? This was almost as bad as the F3 needing batteries!
The funny thing was, if you ignored all of the fancy high-tech stuff, at its core the F90 was a very responsive, reliable, easy-to-live-with camera, that could hold its own with an EOS-1. At least until it came to fast and near-silent AF with big lenses ;-). Nikon tried to close the gap by introducing AF-I Nikkors in the big telephoto lengths (300/2.8, 400/2.8, 500/4, & 600/4) with the F90. The "I" stood for...you guessed it..."internal" as in an internal motor in the lens. Hmmm, now that seems like a familiar concept... I wonder where Nikon ever got the idea? However, the AF-I Nikkors used a standard coreless motor that was noisier than, and still wasn't as fast as, Canon's ring-shaped USM technology. It would be another 4 years (when the 300/2.8 AF-S was brought out with the F5) until Nikon finally went the distance and adopted the ring-style (Nikon called theirs Silent Wave Motor) motor configuration and was at last able to meet Canon on equal terms in the telephoto AF speed arena. That was as close as you would ever get to an admission from Nikon that Canon had been right about lens motors all along. Actions speak louder than words ;-).
Take Two: the X Cometh
With the coming of 1994, the final act in Nikon's enthusiast single-sensor saga unfolded, with the unveiling of their ultimate such SLR, the F90X. Nikon was by now in full stall-until-Atlanta (1996 Summer Olympics) mode to unleash its next professional AF SLR (the F5), and the F90X was the placeholder until it arrived. Improvements over the F90 included:
The F90X became the primary camera of not a few Nikon-carrying professionals, due to its combination of better AF, metering, and flash performance all in a smaller and lighter form factor than the F4 (along with being substantially less expensive than the flagship; you could buy two F90Xs for the price of one F4). Whereas Nikon was unwilling to classify the original F90 as a professional SLR, there was no hesitation with the F90X (at least in N90s form in the USA), as they desperately sought to stanch the flow of defectors to the Canon camp. You could not pay much more of a complement to the EOS-1 than that. However, Nikon's achievements with the F90X would be overshadowed by Canon's near-simultaneous release of the the upgraded EOS-1N with its 5-sensor AF array and improved durability over the original EOS-1, which served to keep Nikon on their back foot in the pro market. Eclipsed as it was by the EOS-1N, the F90X was such a solid camera that it stayed in the Nikon lineup officially until 2001, with the final remnants selling into mid-2003. That alone is testament to its intrinsic capability and all-around performance. Even though the fourth-generation AF Nikons, the F5 (1996) and F100 (1998), offered more AF sensors, more precise matrix metering, and more advanced control systems (that were indubitably influenced by Canon's twin-dial layout), the F90X held up remarkably well.
Lens Compatibilty - The F90(X) offers excellent compatibility with both MF and AF Nikkors. Here are the MF exceptions:
And the AF exceptions:
Fun F90X Facts
The F90X played a large role (in the hands of Galen Rowell and other pros) in dispelling myths about the supposed dangers of using lithium AAs in SLRs and cameras in general. By 1996, Nikon had reversed their earlier position against the use of such batteries, and most interestingly, in the January 2001 dealer pages for the F90X, they gave factory specifications for the expected life of lithiums versus alkalines and Ni-Cads in terms of how many rolls of 36 exposure film could be shot per set of (4 - AA) batteries:
I was previously aware of the cold-weather advantages of lithiums versus alkalines, but was pleasantly surprised by the disparity at so-called "normal" temperatures, with the lithiums giving 5 times more life than alkalines and stretching that advantage to 14 times at colder temperatures. With lithium AAs recently having dropped in price up here in the Great White North, and now available in 12-packs instead of just 4s, I may run them all year round, and not just in the F90X :-). You also don't have to worry about them leaking all over in the battery compartment if you forget them for a long period of time in the camera. Lithium AAs are also much cheaper and readily available than the 2CR5 battery used in the EOS-1 without its accessory grip (which does allow you to use AAs).
Another appealing feature of the F90(X) was its size and weight. It hit a nice balance of solidity, while saving considerable weight and bulk versus the F4. You could also think of it as a bit larger than a bare F3HP but having the capability of the F3's MD-4 detachable motor drive built-in at 815 grams (28.7 oz) with 4 lithium AAs loaded, versus 1355 grams (47.8 oz) for the lithium-loaded F3HP/MD-4 combo. It was also about 200 grams (7 oz) lighter than its nemesis, the EOS-1. With the F90X there also came an accessory grip (the MB-10) which offered a choice of power sources (4 - AAs or 2 - CR123s) and added a vertical shutter release. While the MB-10 could be mounted on an F90, that model had to be taken to a Nikon service center for modification to enable operation of the vertical shutter release. The 8-segment matrix meter was only surpassed by the 1005-segment Color matrix meter of the F5 and you could pretty much call it a wash with the 10-segment meter of the F100. When it came to flash metering, the F90(X) was hardly bettered by the latter two cameras.
Today, the F90(X) has largely been lost in the shuffle when people are looking at 1990s SLRs. Admittedly, not that all that many people are looking at '90s SLRs to begin with ;-). Many 35mm enthusiasts look on that period as a wasteland, filled with technically-capable yet uninspiring cameras, and it is hard to argue with that in many respects. On the other hand, many present-day Nikon DSLR owners find the user interface of the fourth-gen F100 more familiar with its twin command dial setup, and prefer its better forward compatibility with newer AF Nikkors (such as supporting Vibration Reduction with AF-S lenses). So, many people pass the F90X by, which is to your advantage if you are willing to give one a try. Much like the situation with the F-801 & F-801s, you may as well go for the newer body (F90X/N90s) over the older one (F90/N90); you get all the improvements for the same money. If you are only going to use MF lenses, the improved AF of the F90X won't be an advantage, but the improved weathersealing and 1/3 stop shutter graduations are definitely worthwhile upgrades. Mind you, if an F90 fell out of the sky into your hands, it would be nothing to sneeze at.
The foibles of the F90X are remarkably few:
Once that has been taken care of, however, you will have yourself a rugged, reliable camera that plays nicely with most MF and AF Nikkors. Eyepiece covers, diopters, data backs, and focusing screens can still be found relatively easily. The Nikon SB-800 and SB-600 flash units are the newest flashguns that still offer full capability with the F90(X) while being Nikon DSLR-friendly (if you happen to have one :-)).
One of the F90X's finest attributes is its sheer simplicity of operation if you just want to go out and take pictures. It looks downright primitive control-wise compared to a DSLR. This belies its considerable sophistication on the inside. The styling is admittedly nothing to write home about, but that also means that this camera does not scream for attention if you are wanting to be more discreet. Put a piece of black tape over the Nikon logo on the front and the only thing that will attract attention is the sound of film advancing (not bad for the era), and maybe the whining of a screwdriven AF Nikkor ;-). (Remember, though, that you can use AF-S Nikkors which are much quieter). Ergonomics are right on for me (medium-sized hands), but, as always, YMMV. The biggest attraction of the F90X/N90s is all about bang for the buck. You can sometimes still grab one for the same price as an F-801s (although this is admittedly getting harder as values are starting to rebound), and although the exterior looks are similar, you are getting a lot more camera (faster performance, higher precision, better weathersealing, and better forward compatibility with AF Nikkors) for the money. And it is ridiculously little money when you consider that the camera sold for around $1,000 USD (over $1,600 adjusted for 2020) in its heyday.
If you are into film for the experience of doing everything manually and enjoying the tactile experience of finely-machined mechanical marvels, the F90X will not budge the needle for you, and that's totally fine :-). There are plenty of older MF SLRs to fill that bill. However, if the "image is everything" (sorry, couldn't resist a bit of good ol' '90s Canon advertising ;-)) you could do a lot worse than than this neglected Nikon. You would be hard-pressed to find another SLR from this era that provides more room to grow while offering a simple experience for newcomers to 35mm. It comes down to this: if you want to shoot film and AF is a necessity for you rather than a convenience (or an abomination ;-)), the F90X should be a contender when it comes to selecting a film SLR. F90Xs in excellent nick are selling for a tenth (and sometimes, less) of their original price presently and they take a licking and keep on clicking. Throw in the underrated AF 28-70/3.5-4.5D Nikkor that often came as the kit lens with the F90X, and you have a great walkabout companion.
Nikon N90 & N90s User Manuals @ www.butkus.org
The New Nikon Compendium: Cameras, Lenses, & Accessories Since 1917
By Simon Stafford, Rudolf Hillebrand, Hans-Joachim Hauschild
Popular Photography Magazine - Nikon F4: Test Report - June 1989; Canon EOS-1: Test Report - Feb. 1990; Nikon N90: Test Report - Sept. 1993
The Debut of the Nikon F4 @ http://imaging.nikon.com
The Debut of the Nikon F5 @ http://imaging.nikon.com
Our Products History 1980s & 1990s @ http://imaging.nikon.com
Nikon F90X, F4, & F-801s Brochures @ http://arcticwolfs.net/
Camera Hall EOS Film Cameras - Canon Camera Museum
History Hall 1987-1991 - Canon Camera Museum
History Hall 1992-1996 - Canon Camera Museum
Nikon N90s Review by Thom Hogan @ http://www.bythom.com/n90.htm
Suffers from a two-decade and counting film and manual focus SLR addiction. Has recently expanded into 1980's AF point and shoots, and (gack!) '90s SLRs. He even mixes in some digital. Definitely a sick man.