Nikon introduced its large sensor enthusiast compact camera earlier this year in the form of the Coolpix A. It's good to see companies recognizing the potential in the large sensor compact market, but does that mean they're doing justice to it? We're loving the specs of the Coolpix A on paper, but as always, it boils down to whether those on-paper specs can match up to the real world expectations, and the Nikon Coolpix A does not disappoint. Read on to find out why.
With more and more manufacturers pushing to have at least one large sensor camera in their portfolio, it was only a matter of time before Nikon also joined the ranks of serious enthusiast point and shoot cameras. Initially we had thought that Nikon would recycle the same 1 inch sensor of the Nikon 1 system into a point and shoot, so imagine our surprise when we found out that the Coolpix A was actually going to house a proper DX (APS-C) sensor. Nikon sent us a unit over for thorough testing and here are our thoughts about this neat little camera.
Build and Ergonomics
For some reason, I’m of the opinion that all of Nikon's SERIOUS cameras tend to look way more "powerful" in black. We got the gold colour unit, which didn't look half bad itself. These are the two colour options available for the Coolpix A. That being said, another reason to prefer the black is that the little rubber bump on the front of the camera, that's supposed to provide the grip, is black in colour. It stands out a little too obviously on the gold version, but blends right in on the black. There is also a ring built around the lens, which is exclusively used for manual focusing, and nothing else. The feature feels incredibly crippled, with no option to map other settings onto the ring. The Sony RX100 II, in comparison, allows users to map specific settings to the ring, allowing it to be useful regardless of the shooting mode.
Moving from the front to the back, this is where all the magic the Coolpix A is capable of comes from. The back is laden with buttons, 9 in total along with one dial. This is rather similar to the layout of buttons you’d see on the company’s DSLRs. It’s interesting that despite all the buttons that have been placed on the back, Nikon did away with the 4-way buttons that one can normally find on the jog dial at the back. What you do get is a Fn1 and Fn2 buttons, that can be mapped to perform certain functions, like changing ISO speeds or changing the shutter mode. If you want to change any other setting, you’re either going to have to browse through the menu, or press the <i> button which shows up on the back.
Quite frankly, it’s a little tedious. What is worse is that if you’re shooting in Aperture Priority or Shutter priority mode, then the dial on top serves to change the respective aperture or shutter setting, but if you want to kick in some exposure compensation, then you have to first press the dedicated button on the back and then spin the dial on top. This means you will have to either move the camera away from you eye to maintain one handed function, or use both hands (without having to move the camera from your eye). If Nikon could have mapped exposure compensation to just the back dial, then it would have been far more ergonomic and time saving. Hopefully, a firmware update in the future would bring that functionality.
The top of the camera has a shutter button with an on/off toggle built around it, a mode dial and a non-marked dial which is used to change various settings. Then there’s a standard hot-shoe for attaching any of Nikon’s flash units and a pop-up flash on the edge.
Overall, the ergonomics of the Coolpix A are something of a cross between a DSLR and a point and shoot, which makes it a little confusing at first. It will take a little getting used to, along with a firmware update to improve the Coolpix A’s usability. However, the one glaring problem that cannot be fixed with a firmware update is the lack of a dedicated video recording button. We will talk more about this in the later section.
The Nikon Coolpix A is a rather feature packed compact. For starters, it has a 16 megapixel BSI-CMOS sensor that is built on the DX standard, which is just slightly bigger than the APS-C format followed by Canon. The sensor is accompanied by an EXPEED image processor. Nikon also developed the special 18mm f/2.8 (28mm equivalent) Nikkor Lens which is placed rather close to the sensor and had to be designed to prevent vignetting around the edges. The lens has a ring built around it, which is used for manual focusing and is rather convenient for the purpose, but doesn’t do much else. There’s also a pop-up flash, which must be engaged by a switch on the back.
Imaging wise, the Coolpix A offers a burst mode of a meager 4 frames per second, so we wouldn’t really count on it to shoot weekend sports. However, it does include a scene mode (Portrait, Landscape, Child, Sports, Close-up, Night Portrait, Night Landscape, Party/indoor, Beach/Snow, Sunset, Dusk/dawn, Pet portrait, Candlelight, Blossom, Autumn Colors, Food, Silhouette, High Key, Low Key) which should cover pretty much every shooting condition you could subject yourself to. For macro fans, the Coolpix A has a dedicated focus switch that puts the camera into macro mode, while allowing you full control over the settings of the camera.
It is always somewhat daunting to ditch my DSLR in favour of whatever camera I’m testing, which is exactly what I did when I got the Coolpix A. The first assignment I used this one was shooting the Sunburn Noida gig, where I took not just the Coolpix A, but also the Fujifilm X100s and the Ricoh GR. In terms of specifications, the Ricoh GR and the Nikon Coolpix A are quite similar, so it was interesting to see how the two performed in real life conditions, especially in the low light kind.
While shooting Sunburn Noida, the one area where I felt the Nikon Coolpix was lacking when compared to the Fujifilm X100s and the Ricoh GR was AF performance. While the other two cameras pretty much nailed AF ninety percent of the times, the Nikon Coolpix A struggled with subjects that were far away. Often, the AF square would remain red, which is the camera telling you that AF hasn’t locked on. Putting the AF issues aside, the images from the night were all shot at ISO 3200 on manual mode (f/4.0, shutterspeed 1/60s or 1/20s). Some shots of the crowd required the flash to balance out the ambient light, but when looked at closely, the images are very impressive. The Nikkor lens is tack sharp (when it nails the AF) and the sensor is actually quite good at handling high ISO. You can see all the low light samples from Sunburn Noida right here:
Low light isn’t the only thing the Nikon Coolpix handles well. The Nikon Coolpix A is a really nice carry around camera. In daytime, the AF is incredibly quick and actually very accurate. While shooting in RAW would be the best way to get the most out of your sensor, even the JPEG files retain an extremely fine level of detail. We shot a few cars from quite a distance and managed to pull up their license plate numbers just fine. If you like to shoot macro, you’re going to absolutely love the Coolpix A. Once the AF switch is turned to the Macro setting, the minimum focusing distance drops to 4 inches, which may not be a whole lot, but combine the f/2.8 aperture with a large 16 megapixel APS-C sensor, you not only get really nice bokeh, but also the ability to get closer to your subject by cropping. The colours from the camera tend to be slightly on the warmer side, something that actually converted many over to the Nikon camp. The contrast is mild at best, but can be made stronger through the picture settings.
The video performance of this camera is something we almost skipped over. No, not because we got lazy, but because it was near impossible to figure out how to get the video going. There’s no dedicated button to initiate video recording and neither can the setting be found in the menu. It was after a very long time that we had to take to Google to figure out how to get to a particular feature on a camera. Turns out, the only way to initiate video is to change the release mode to “Video.” The way to do this is to assign the “Release Mode” to one of the custom function buttons and then change the shutter mode to Video. Whoever designed this little bit of code for the Nikon Coolpix A is most definitely still stuck in 2004 and Nikon really should bring him/her up to speed. The lack of a dedicated video button is rather disconcerting, but what’s even more disappointing is how hard it is a feature to get to. Regardless, the video mode on the Coolpix A is nothing too spectacular. Once video recording is engaged, you cannot change aperture or shutterspeed, but can adjust the exposure compensation as needed.
In terms of the quality of the footage, it’s very similar to the quality you’d get out of Nikon’s entry level DSLRs. This isn’t surprising seeing how both the DSLRs and the Coolpix A use a DX sensor. The audio could have been better, but given that there’s no port to attach an external mic, it’s all you’ve got.
The advanced point and shoot is finally starting to come of age, with many major players joining the league. The Nikon Coolpix A is the first of its kind from the House of Nikon, but it is still a solid contender. Its lens is somewhat outperformed by the one on the Fujifilm X100s but it is still incredibly good optics. A Vignette can be noticed in certain situations while shooting wide open (at f/2.8). Yet, it gives gorgeous bokeh, is excellent for landscape and even macro work and can be a rather handy walk-around camera. Unfortunately, the slow 4 frames per second burst mode can be quite limiting for shooting action, the one area where the Coolpix A has somewhat of a tough time keeping up with the competition. The Coolpix A has great colours, a good, mellow contrast and given that it can also shoot RAW, the images out of this camera leave a lot of room for editing. If you’re looking for something that’s compact, but can perform just as well as an entry level DSLR, the Nikon Coolpix A could be a good option, especially seeing how it costs just as much. If you’re not a brand loyalist, we’d recommend the Ricoh GR instead, which is slightly cheaper, but offers a much better overall shooting experience.