Review: Nikon Coolpix A

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Nikon hasn’t been as active in the large sensor compact camera arena (much like Canon) as other brands, but they recently launched a camera that was rather a-typical for them. The Coolpix A has a 16MP APS-C sized sensor with a fixed 18.5mm f2.8 (28mm equivalent) lens which makes it a compact street-shooter’s dream (on paper at least). It also was launched just before Ricoh’s latest GR model which shares a very similar spec-sheet. Adorama Camera was kind enough to loan me one for review, and I’ve had some time to spend with the camera. I’m here to share how I got along with it.

Pros and Cons

Pros

  • Excellent image quality throughout the ISO range (up to 12,800)
  • Excellent Matrix metering system
  • Reassuring build quality

Cons

  • Expensive compared to competition (Ricoh GR is $300 less as of this posting)
  • Too small for larger hands
  • Some buttons are awkwardly placed

Gear Used

For this review I used the Nikon Coolpix A on its own, with no accessories, though there are many available, Such as the Optical Viewfinder,  Lens Hood, GPS Unit and WiFi Module.

Tech Specs

Spec Sheet copied from Adorama Camera’s Product Page

Type Compact Digital Camera
Effective Pixels 16.2 million
Image Sensor CMOS
Sensor Size DX Format
Total Pixels 16.93 million (approx.)
Lens 1x optical NIKKOR glass lens
Lens Focal Length 18.5mm (angle of view equivalent to that of 28 mm lens in 35mm [135] format)
Lens f/-number f/2.8
Lens Construction 7 elements in 5 groups
Lens Zoom 1x
Autofocus (AF) Contrast-detect TTL AF
Autofocus (AF) Focus-area selection Center
Face priority
Subject tracking
Normal area
Wide area
Focus Range Approx. 1 ft. 8 in. (50 cm.) to infinity
Macro close-up mode: Approx. 4 in. (10 cm.) to infinity
Focus Lock Yes
Monitor Size 3.0 in. diagonal
Monitor Type TFT-LCD with 5-level brightness adjustment
Monitor Resolution 921,000-dots
Storage Media SD memory card
SDHC memory card
SDXC memory card
Storage File System DCF
EXIF 2.3
DPOF compliant
Storage File Formats Still pictures: JPEG, RAW (NEF; a proprietary Nikon format)
Movies: MOV (Video: MPEG-4 AVC/H.264, Audio: AAC stereo)
Movie Full HD: 1920x1080p / 30fps
Full HD: 1920×1080/ 25p
HD: 1280x720p / 30fps
HD: 1280x720p / 24fps
Image Size (pixels) 4928 x 3264
ISO Sensitivity ISO 100-3200
Can be expanded to 6400
Hi 0.3 (ISO 8,000 equivalent)
Hi 0.7 (ISO 10,000 equivalent)
Hi 1 (ISO 12,800 equivalent)
Hi 2 (ISO 25,600 equivalent)
Lowest ISO Sensitivity 100
Highest ISO Sensitivity 25,600
Exposure Metering Matrix
Center-weighted
Spot
Exposure Control Programmed auto exposure with flexible program
aperture-priority auto
shutter priority auto
Exposure Compensation +/-5 EV in steps of 1/3 EV
White Balance Auto
Cloudy
Daylight
Flash
Fluorescent
Incandescent
Preset Manual
Shutter Mechanical and CMOS electronic shutter
Shutter Speed 1/2000 30 s; bulb and time available in mode M (time requires optional ML-L3 remote control)
Continuous Shooting at Full Res Approx. 4 frames per second
Continuous Shooting Options Best Shot Selector
Continuous
Multi-shot 16
Single
Aperture Electronically-controlled 7-blade iris diaphragm
Aperture Range 19 steps of 1/3 EV
Self-timer Can be selected from 20, 10, 5 and 2 second durations
Accessory Shoe ISO 518 hot-shoe contact with sync and data contacts and safety lock
Built-in flash Range [W]: 0.5 to 11.5m (1ft. 8 in. to 37ft.)
Built-in Flash Control TTL auto flash with monitor preflashes
Manual flash control available
Guide Number approx. 6/21, or 6/22 when fired in manual mode at full power (ISO 100, m/ft, 23 °C/73.4 °F)
Built-in Flash Yes
Battery Rechargeable Li-ion Battery EN-EL20
Battery Life (shots per charge) Approx. 230 shots
Dimensions (HxWxD) 2.6 x 4.4 x 1.6″ (64.3 x 111 x 40.3mm)
Weight 10.6 oz (299g)

Ergonomics

Ergonomic tour borrowed from our First Impression

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The Nikon Coolpix A has a pretty spartan layout on the front of the camera. All you will find on this side will be the electronic manual focus ring surrounding the lens, and the Fn1 button which can be programmed via the menus to enable a number of different functions. Though I found that that button is somewhat awkward to press while holding the camera.

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Off to the left side of the camera you get a better view of the manual focus ring, as well as the removable accessory ring which will allow you to attach things like the optional lens hood. Behind a small fold out door is the connections for USB and AV connections. Also is the all-important switch to change between AF, Macro and MF modes.

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Onto the rear of the camera, where you will find most of the buttons you are going to have regular contact with, from the exposure compensation and ISO on the left hand side to the control dial and menu buttons of the right hand side.

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On the right side of the camera all you’re really going to find is the mini HDMI port behind a small door. You can see just how thin the camera is overall though, it’s a tiny thing.

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On the top deck is your popup flash, hot-shoe, command dial, power switch with shutter button and adjustment dial. The adjustment dial is probably going to be the most used button on this camera (next to the shutter button of course) it rotates its functionality depending on the chosen function.

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Not much to report on the bottom aside from the typical joint battery chamber and SD card slot that one finds in smaller cameras. Why change a design method that works?

Build Quality

When I first opened the box, I have to say that I was really surprised at just how small this camera actually is. I understood that it is supposed to be a compact, but it actually is a pocketable compact (if you use no strap or a thin wrist-strap). It feels very well made, nice and tight, with no loose pieces or rattles, but I was expecting this due to its $1100 retail price tag. The body is primarily metal, and feels solid without being heavy. As with my first impression, I still feel like this is a very well made camera. It’s been in my pocket or on my wrist for the better part of a month now and you can’t even tell it’s been used. I’ve used it in 105 degree heat and down by the ocean, and it’s never skipped a beat. I suspect that it will hold up well over time, which is good news for street/reportage shooters who need something dependable and unobtrusive.

Autofocus

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In using the Coolpix A, I found the autofocusing speed to be good, but not exceptional. In bright light and when not engaged in macro mode it locks onto a subject fairly quickly, or at least quick enough that it’s not going to be a problem. But in order to focus closer than 1’8″ you have to switch to macro mode and that seems to slow things down a bit. The first rack focus to get to minimum focus distance takes an extra moment or two, but then as long as you stay in the close range it will pick up subjects at about the same speed it would in the normal focusing range. Heat did not seem to be a factor when I was using the camera in the desert. As the temperatures surged past 100, the Coolpix A kept on working without trouble.

In bright light and in the “normal” AF range the camera isn’t up to DSLR standards as far as speed is concerned, but it is accurate and it works well enough. You can even track moving subjects reasonably well if you try and predict their movements. In lower light I did find that the camera would hunt for focus if the subject lacked strong contrast. It would eventually lock on (only rarely did it fail), but low light focusing is tricky for many cameras in all reality. Additionally you can set the camera to Manual Focus (MF switch on the side of the camera) and use the front ring around the lens to focus the camera. It is electronic (focus by wire) so there is a little bit of lag, but it works great for zone focusing purposes if that’s how you like to shoot.

Ease of Use

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The Nikon Coolpix A lives a dual life. The controls are laid out in a very logical manner which makes one handed operation incredibly easy, therefore making it a perfect snapshot point & shoot camera that you can keep with you everywhere you go. It’s small, unobtrusive and very nearly silent which are all great things for creating images without drawing excessive attention to yourself. It also doesn’t look like a serious camera to the uninitiated which furthers its overall “non-threatening” appearance. On the other hand it also has full manual controls and produces images that are of an exceptional quality for an APS-C sensor,. In some ways this could potentially be a backup camera for Nikon DSLR shooters as it shares some of the accessories, particularly their excellent speedlights.

Being a Canon user myself, I am accustomed a certain style of menu system and I’m happy to report that I had no trouble at all finding my way around the menus of the Coolpix A as everything was clearly laid out. The info button comes in handy to explain what a function does if it wasn’t clear from the label alone. I tend to judge cameras based on whether or not I have to break out the user manual to figure something out, and the Coolpix A user manual remains neatly uncreased in its box. While the menus were easy enough to navigate, I found myself wishing for a way to turn everything OFF of the rear LCD; you can almost have an open screen, but there is still a lot of info along the bottom of the screen, and there’s constantly numbers or icons flashing at you as you compose your images, I did find this slightly annoying, but it’s a very small detail. Overall, this is a very user friendly camera, and it’s not at all hard to get familiar with.

Metering

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Nikon cameras are known for their wonderful 3D-Matrix metering systems and the Coolpix A does not disappoint in this area. In my Sunny-16 tests the Coolpix A was spot on at 1/125 @ f16 ISO 100; practically every scene returned accurate metering results which was really encouraging.

Image Quality

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With an APS-C sized 16MP sensor the Coolpix A has a good amount of pixels for its sensor size, without going overboard. This means the image quality really delivers at pretty much the entire ISO range (within reasonable expectations of course). Part of me wonders if it’s the same sensor we’ve seen in so many recent cameras from the D7000, to the Pentax K-5/II/IIs and even the Fuji X-Pro1. If my hunch is correct that would mean this Sony-made sensor still lives on and continues to prove its worth. A 28mm f2.8 lens is moderately wide, without having excessive distortion making it suitable for many categories actually. The obvious choice is going to be street-photography, which I presume many who purchase this camera will use it for, but I find that a 28mm lens can be used just about anywhere.

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In my tests I found that the lens possessed minimal overall distortion when shooting straight on, but with Lightroom 5’s perspective correction filters, you can completely neutralize the distortion that is present. I was really impressed with what that one click could do. Naturally the trade-off is that you have to crop some of your image, but overall, it’s impressive.One thing I really liked was how well the files handled black and white conversion. My favorite method for doing this is NiK Software’s Silver Efex Pro, which allows you to create some of the best looking black and white files possible. When converted I thought the tones were really nicely gradated making for a very pleasant monotone image.

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High ISO Images

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I was impressed with what the Coolpix A can do with low light. In my opinion the files were very usable through ISO 12800, by 25600 the color goes and it’s really for emergencies only. Having usable 12800 is great news though because of the f2.8 maximum aperture.

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RAW File Versatility

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The APS-C sensor in the Coolpix A produces a very usable RAW file, you can recover completely blown highlights in most cases as long as your exposure is spot on (which it usually is thanks to the great matrix metering system). Since the First Impression post I started to use Lightroom 5 which has the great new perspective correction tools that I mentioned earlier. Having these adjustments available at your fingertips is extremely convenient and it really speeds up your overall workflow.

Additional Image Samples

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Conclusions

This camera is clearly intended to be a premium compact camera aimed at a specific type of shooter, the street photographer. With a fixed 28mm equivalent lens, you naturally have to get fairly close to whatever you’re photographing, and with a camera this small and this quiet, it makes it the ideal choice for capturing images on the streets in a discreet manner. Obviously the direct competitor is going to be the new Ricoh GR with its very similar spec sheet, but the Nikon makes a lot of sense if you are already a Nikon DSLR shooter as it will integrate well with that system.

I was very pleased and impressed with the level of quality in the images that the Coolpix A can produce, but I was admittedly not a fan of its overall size. I know that is a personal issue as I do have large hands, and I think other photographers like me that have big mitts may find some issue with using this camera. It’s certainly possible, but it’s not the most comfortable small camera I’ve used. In another matter, the pricing of this camera (As of June 2013) seems to be considerably higher than its direct competitor, the Ricoh GR. I also can’t fathom why an optical viewfinder which has no electronics or moving parts could cost as much as it does, but those are not my decisions to make. Nikon has created a great small camera, and they priced it according to what they think it’s worth. I did enjoy shooting with the camera overall, and I think it would make a great inconspicuous shooter for candid photography.


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