“The Canon EOS 90D is a DSLR that tries to fit into a mirrorless world and it is successful.”
Dual pixel auto focus
Excellent battery life
Tracking and eye AF problems
Since every new mirrorless camera is the last one, the DSLR desperately tries not to be banished to the bargain basket. Equipped with dual pixel autofocus (DPAF) and a burst speed of 10 frames per second, the Canon EOS 90D embodies Canon’s promise of $ 1,200 that DSLRs will remain relevant even in the mirrorless era.
While the best mirrorless cameras outperform most DSLRs in terms of burst speed, 10 fps are anything but slow and a neat advance over the EOS 80D. It is important that it is an additional 2 fps faster than the Nikon D7500, although the 90D has 12 megapixels more. And thanks to DPAF, the 90D feels almost like a mirrorless camera in live view if you can ignore the weight of the camera.
With the same 32.5-megapixel APS-C crop sensor as the mirrorless EOS M6 Mark II, the 90D offers specifications on paper to match the best DSLRs. Still, the question remains open: can the 90D offer enough advantages to justify buying a heavier DSLR instead of the cheaper Canon EOS M6 Mark II or another mirrorless model?
Heavy but solid design
The Canon EOS 90D is not light – neither in terms of functions nor in terms of mass. Weighing 24.73 ounces, the camera is a traditional DSLR in every respect. However, this larger size fit my hands better than some smaller cameras.
As Canon’s most advanced crop sensor DSLR, the 90D 80D shooters will immediately feel familiar and take on some of the physical features more common with full-screen DSLRs. There is a secondary screen on the top of the camera that can be illuminated at the push of a button to show important shooting settings in low light conditions. With a joystick you can quickly adjust the focus. Unfortunately the controls are deactivated by default and you have to reach into the menu so that it actually does something.
Two control wheels, one on the top of the shutter and one on the back of the camera, provide direct access to the shutter speed and aperture. The rear dial is not quite where the thumb rests naturally, which creates a somewhat uncomfortable grip when used compared to cameras where the dial is higher.
The shutter and aperture can be easily adjusted without taking your eyes off the viewfinder. If you are new to Canon, the top autofocus, drive mode, ISO, and measurement mode buttons will take some time to learn, as they all feel similar, except for the ISO option, which has a small bump.
As expected, the back of the 90D is dominated by a movable LCD screen that also tilts a full 180 degrees to the side. Less expected, the touchscreen is easy to use and the screen options were large enough not to be the wrong option to “fat fingers”. The images on the screen are sharp and have an excellent color.
Unfortunately, the 90D only has a single SD card slot, although many photographers are likely to agree. You also get connections for USB, HDMI and a microphone.
The optical viewfinder distinguishes a DSLR from a mirrorless camera. This way, 90D can take photos all day without changing the battery. The battery life is 1,860 shots, but as always, use in the real world can mean much more than that. We took almost 1,200 photos – some with Live View – and the battery indicator still showed about half of the remaining life.
Annoyingly, some of the advanced features are disabled by default, so new users reach into the menu to actually activate and turn them on. In addition to the joystick, which has no function before the assignment, the focus tips and the autofocus for eye detection must be activated in the menu. These can be functions that you will find years after owning the camera if you don’t explore all the different options in the menu.
DSLRs tend to have poorer autofocus performance in Live View mode than through the optical viewfinder. However, this is not the case with Canon’s dual pixel autofocus. With the viewfinder, the 45-point autofocus system can be set to subjects relatively quickly, but the live view lacks the coverage area of DPAF.
The autofocus worked as expected even in limited light – the camera was able to focus in a dimly lit cabin without serious delay. Interestingly, the technical data sheets show that the EOS M6 Mark II has an edge in low-light AF sensitivity that DSLRs usually do better.
When using the zone autofocus, I could not find any significant differences in performance between the viewfinder and the live view. Continuous autofocus had a hit rate of around 80% and struggled the most with the subjects heading straight for the camera, but still produced a decent number of goalkeepers.
Live View autofocus offers some features that are not accessible through the viewfinder, including eye autofocus, face detection, and tracking autofocus. Eye and face AF were fine – the function did not work as well with moving subjects, but worked well with stationary subjects. Distant faces are not registered, which is common, and the eyes must occupy a reasonable portion of the frame before the system switches from face to eye detection. Eye detection also seemed to be easily fooled by glasses that focused on the lower part of the frame rather than the eyes.
With action, I had better results in zone autofocus mode than in tracking autofocus, which is only available in live view. Sometimes tracking autofocus loses the subject and only focuses on the background instead.
The burst rate can actually be increased to 11 fps when using Live View. However, due to high resolution files and a relatively small frame buffer, the 90D struggles to keep up with this speed. When shooting JPEGs, the camera will take a 5 second burst and then stop for 2 seconds before continuing. At RAW, the 90D shoots for about two seconds, stops for half a second, and then continues at about half the speed. Sometimes the camera may take a few seconds to finish taking large bursts before changing settings or taking another picture.
The additional resolution of the 90D ensures a nice level of detail, while fine details and textures are retained. The sensor captures a 6,960 pixel wide image, which leaves enough space for cropping.
The compromise for more megapixels is noise, but upgrading to the DIGIC 8 processor means that noise is not too terrible. When viewing the images at full resolution, the noise at ISO 800 was easy to see, including color noise. With some noise reduction in the mail, I would shoot at up to ISO 6,400 before worrying about serious quality degradation.
The colors of the 90D meet the expectations of a Canon – generally accurate and with good saturation. Automatic white balance tends to prefer a cooler look, which is the opposite of what I’ve seen on Nikon.
The RAW files from the 90D are flexible – I was able to recover a good amount of detail from the shadows in the post. Even some highlight details could be restored if the image were not too overexposed.
Combined with the 18-135mm f / 3.5-5.6, the images are sharp in the middle and still pretty sharp on the edges. The telephoto end of this longer kit lens helps compensate for the narrower aperture to create a blurred background. The lens even creates a nice, soft circular bokeh, but Canon obviously makes better lenses if you want to take things to the next level.
In video, the EOS 90D not only gains 4K, it also records 4K without cropping the sensor – a disadvantage of many other 4K-capable Canon. This way, you can get the details of 4K without making the wide-angle view difficult. Colors and details looked just as good in videos as in still images, and although built-in microphones are never great, the audio quality was decent.
With fast bursts and high resolution, the Canon EOS 90D is one of the best DSLRs with crop sensors on the market. It offers excellent speed, solid auto focus and untrimmed 4K in a comfortable case with excellent battery life.
However, the 90D is a DSLR that tries to fit into the mirrorless era and, apart from the exceptional battery life, hardly surpasses the faster, lighter and cheaper Canon EOS M6 Mark II.
Is there a better alternative?
The EOS M6 Mark II offers the same sensor and processor for identical image quality from a lighter case for $ 350 less. To put things in perspective: This price difference of $ 350 is enough to buy seven replacement batteries if battery life is an issue. While the additional viewfinder feels like an afterthought and the choice of lenses without an adapter is limited, the M6 Mark II is the more technologically advanced of the two with a burst rate of 14 fps and a larger auto focus range in low light conditions.
And even the M6 Mark II is outperformed by rivals like the Sony A6600’s superior eye AF, 11fps burst, battery life of 810 shots, and body stabilization, though it’s $ 1,400 more expensive than the 90D .
As a DSLR owner, I would not be sure if I did not acknowledge that there are still reasons to buy a DSLR in 2019, if not because of the battery life, then because of the lens selection and ergonomic feel. Compared to apples, the 90D has a faster burst rate than the Nikon D7500, but the larger resolution means that the Nikon has the better buffer for longer uninterrupted bursts. The 90D wins the sprint, but the D7500 wins the marathon.
The Nikon D500 now has the same speed of 10 fps with a much larger 200-shot RAW buffer. The lower-resolution D7500 is $ 300 cheaper (more when sales are available) at the list price, while the D500 is more expensive, but it also offers extras like two memory card slots and the best build quality you can get in a DSLR.
Do you want more options? Check out our favorite 2019 DSLRs.
How long it will take?
The 90D is weatherproof and is robust in the hand. It should easily take several years. The higher resolution also helps make the camera a bit more future-proof, although the resolution is certainly not everything. The Canon EOS 80D was launched in early 2016 and the 90D in mid-2019. We therefore expect an update around 2021 or 2022.
Should you buy it
Yes, if you know you want to stick to a DSLR. Buy the Canon EOS 90D if you need a fast, high resolution camera. However, compare them carefully with the slower Nikon D7500 to get a better buffer and a cheaper price.