Nikon's Latest Lives Up to its Name
I'll confess my bias up front. For nearly two years I've been using an Epson PhotoPC 850Z ($619 street price) in my design business and I've been very pleased -- not to mention familiar -- with it. As result, I can't but help compare my experience with the Epson camera to the new Nikon CoolPix 990. But the 3.3-megapixel CoolPix takes resolution to the next level (2,048 x 1,536 pixels), while the PhotoPC 850Z tops out at 2.1 megapixels (1,600 x 1,200 pixels).
First impressions are important. When I unwrapped the CoolPix 990 I was disappointed to see that the package contained four unrechargeable AA alkaline batteries. The LCD (liquid crystal display) that allows you to preview images on the camera unit is notorious for gobbling up battery life. After a 4-hour sightseeing drive with the CoolPix I had 12 discarded batteries to show for it. In the long run disposable batteries are expensive, wasteful (not to mention ecologically irresponsible), and inconvenient. Naturally, I could buy NiMH rechargeables (recommended in the manual) and a charger, but for $999 I'd expect them to be included with the CoolPix, as they are with the less-expensive Epson and Olympus cameras I've used. The CoolPix also lacks an AC-power adapter (available separately for $49.95). Why should I drain the batteries when I'm at my desk downloading images?
Nikon Provides a USB cable with which to download images to the PC, but I probably won't use it. I'm hooked on Lexar's JumpShot CompactFlash Reader (included with the CoolPix) -- a USB cable with a built-in Compact Flash (CF) slot. I can store images on the included 16MB CF card, then pop the card out of the camera and insert it into the JumpShot slot, where my PC recognizes it as drive G. This eliminates a download delay as well as the battery drain, and lets me retrieve images just as I would from any drive. Nikon also sells a 64MB CF card for $249 and a 96MB card for $349.
Ergonomically, the CoolPix is lightweight and easy to hold (at least for a right-hander), with a large extruded rubber grip area for one-handed operation. The shutter button falls naturally under the forefinger, while the zoom buttons are within easy reach of the thumb. By contrast, in my previous experience with Kodak's digital cameras my fingers were either covering the lens (with the DC215) or the LCD (with the DC240 and DC280) because these features were too close to the camera's edge.
The CoolPix's most distinctive feature still baffles me. The camera is split nearly down the middle into two pieces joined by a swivel hinge. One half contains the electronics -- the LCDs, buttons, and dials -- while the other comprises the lens, viewfinder, and flash apparatus. In its default state, the lens points upward, while the viewfinder sits on the camera's underside. To operate the camera normally -- that is, to photograph something in front of you -- you must swivel the lens 90 degrees. Why should you have to bother with this? Sure, this lets you view the LCD straight-on regardless of where the lens is pointed, but come on, how often do you need to shoot at odd angles? Of course, you can also swivel the lens 90 degrees in the opposite direction for a self-portrait, but unless you're an exhibitionist, I doubt it's worth the inconvenience this design imposes.
Another serious problem for me is the CoolPix's removable lens cap. This is primarily a field camera. The last thing I want to fiddle with outdoors is a quarter-size plastic disc, which is sure to get lost in no time. This also adds another tedious step to taking a simple picture. Yet to go without the lens cap is to risk damaging a pricey camera.
Which begs another question: Why don't digital cameras come with any protection for the exposed and very vulnerable LCD screen? The CoolPix's LCD, as with most other cameras I've seen, easily can be scratched on buttons, snaps, and zippers just bouncing on its strap around my neck; not to mention the dangers posed by protruding objects while I scramble to get a good shot. A simple zippered pouch for the camera would be nice (another option for $19.95).
Not only did I find the lens fumbling to be a nuisance, I frankly don't use an LCD to frame my shots very often, for two reasons. The first is the obvious battery drain. The second is that I've found in most outdoor situations the lighting is just too bright to see the LCD clearly. What's more, it's just more natural to hold the camera to my eye than at arm's length. Unfortunately, the CoolPix's LCD comes on automatically every time the camera is switched on for picture taking. It can be turned off with two presses of the Monitor button -- which the manual recommends -- but there's another annoying waste of time. Why isn't the monitor off by default?
Cruising On Autopilot
Initially I began using the CoolPix in tourist mode: that is, point and shoot with the autofocus and default settings. I've achieved excellent results this way with my Epson camera. Like many graphic designers, I'm only an amateur photographer and don't expect to delve as frequently into the manual mode settings as would a professional.
Using a point-and-shoot approach, the CoolPix's automatic settings captured these vibrant colors.
The foreground is crisp, while the background is a bit blurry.
Ergonomic tedium aside (rotate lens, remove cap, turn on camera, press Monitor twice), shots were easy to frame and shoot with the viewfinder. I liked the 3x optical zoom, a feature I use often for wildflowers and foliage. If I didn't disable the LCD monitor the extra digital zoom (up to 4x) kicked in when I held the Zoom button for more than 2 seconds. But digital enlargements can't be seen in the viewfinder (only in the LCD), so I didn't always notice. While the 1.8-inch LCD is slightly smaller than my Epson's 2-inch screen, the CoolPix's is definitely much easier to see than the Epson's, especially in bright light.
This picture of Mt. Hood was taken at a distance of 8 miles using the CoolPix's 3x optical zoom.
Digital zoom doesn't improve close-up shots any better than your software can. The image on the left was taken using the 990's 4x digital zoom (interpolated by the camera). The image on the right was taken using the camera's 3x optical zoom, then cropped and enlarged (interpolated by PHOTO-PAINT)
Even when shooting in automatic mode I was presented with a lot of decisions to make: image size, image quality, focus method, flash mode, exposure compensation -- all of these can be adjusted. At the very least it's important to decide on image size and quality, as these determine storage requirements and the uses for which the pictures will be suitable. The terms "size" and "quality" confused me at first; I thought they referred to dimensions and resolution. Actually they refer to resolution and compression ratio, respectively.
Four resolutions ("sizes") are possible with the CoolPix 990: Full (2,048 x 1,536), XGA (1,024 x 768), VGA (640 x 480), and a 3:2 size (2,048 x 1,360) that has the same aspect ratio as 35mm film. Multiply this by the four image compression ("quality") options -- HI (TIFF without compression), and three JPEG settings (Fine, Normal, and Basic) -- and you get a 16 square matrix describing the number of shots possible per storage card. Using the included 16MB CF card this number ranges from 1 uncompressed image to 333 compressed at 94 percent. I found Normal compression suitable for most of my needs, which allowed me forty 3-megapixel images per card.
Set to Movie mode, the CoolPix can also capture 320-x-240 (QVGA) QuickTime video at 15 frames per second, up to a maximum length of 40 seconds. I was able to get 106 seconds of video (in three segments) on a 32-MB CF card. Sound is not recorded and zoom is disabled in Movie mode.
Do It Yourself
You can adjust a plethora of settings in Manual Mode, so many so that it can be overwhelming to an amateur. To the CoolPix's credit however, it doesn't make you go cold turkey if you decide to experiment. You can choose to manually set, say, only the aperture, while the camera does the rest. (This particular method allowed me to take excellent close-ups of flowers and control the depth of field in a way not possible with my PhotoPC 850Z.) You can also opt to set only shutter speed, or set both. In the Programmed Auto Mode the camera will maintain the correct exposure while you select from among various combinations of speed and aperture. (Shutter speed and aperture are adjusted inversely to maintain a constant exposure.) This is a perfect "training" mode that lets you familiarize yourself with the effects of these settings.
Setting the aperture manually lets you adjust depth of field. Here the background is intentionally blurred, with the focus on the tulip at center.
The CoolPix also has four Sensitivity settings (Auto, 100, 200, and 400), which correspond roughly to film ISO ratings. Auto produces good results under most circumstances, while the higher values improve quality in low-light conditions. Among other adjustable settings available in Manual Mode are White Balance and Metering. You can also adjust contrast, brightness, and sharpening in the camera before you capture a shot. This helps eliminate the loss of image quality that often results from digital retouching after the fact.
The CoolPix 990 performs well even in low light, as this unretouched indoor shot shows. Using a tripod however, would have made the image sharper.
In addition to the QuickTime Movie Mode the CoolPix offers four other multi--shot modes. Continuous Mode allows up to five images to be captured in nonstop firing while the shutter button is down. VGA sequence does the same at 640-x-480 resolution (up to 44 frames), while Ultra HS will shoot up to 80 QVGA-resolution frames at 30 frames per second. I particularly liked the Best-Shot Selection (BSS) Mode. This is great if you don't have a tripod or your subject is moving about in a breeze. BSS will take up to ten shots while you hold the shutter button down, then the camera will automatically select and save the sharpest image, discarding the rest!
Professional photographers will be pleased that the CoolPix 990 accepts optional lens converters. The nonstandard lens size however, means an investment in new equipment. Wide-angle ($99), telephoto ($149.95), and fisheye attachments ($219.95) are available.
While the CoolPix offers a remarkable level of control over the camera's settings, one major drawback is the drain on the batteries that manual adjustments require. Menus are displayed on the LCD Monitor and settings on the LCD Control Panel, so even if you shoot with the monitor off, you'll have to switch it back on to change menu settings. There are also some camera effects and functions that are only available when the monitor is on. A feature called Auto--Bracketing does ameliorate this problem somewhat. In this mode the camera will take a series of shots (of the same subject) while automatically adjusting the exposure slightly on each one (from underexposed to overexposed). You get a sampling of exposures without having to return to the menu and manually set up each one.
The CoolPix offers the usual single-image and thumbnail playback modes for reviewing, locking, and deleting images in the camera, including a slideshow function. A histogram view is available for those inclined to trust the technical image data over the visual. Movie playback is also possible, including pause and frame-by-frame functions. You can also print directly from the camera (to an enabled printer) without an intermediary computer.
In addition to the Lexar JumpShot CompactFlash Reader, the CoolPix includes USB and video cables for downloading your pictures to a computer, TV, or VCR. (A serial cable is available optionally.) Bundled software includes NikonView 3 (a rudimentary thumbnail viewer that only lets you preview, rotate, and delete images), Canto Cumulus 5 LE for managing image archives, Altamira Group's Genuine Fractals compression plug-in for Adobe Photoshop and compatible applications, and an odd freeware program called IPIX Wizard for creating "totally immersive, unbounded images from fisheye photography."
The photo retouching software Nikon plans to bundle with the camera is unavailable for preview as of this writing. Currently a Mac--only application called Great Photo! from Software Architects, it will be "available for both Mac and Windows on June 1."
I've become so accustomed to immediately color-correcting my downloaded photos that it came as a surprise to find that this wasn't necessary with many of my CoolPix images. The corrections I did make were far fewer than I make with other digital cameras. The bluish hue I experience with my Epson camera was not in evidence with the CoolPix. This perception was further confirmed when I applied my software's AutoCorrect function to my CoolPix images and, in many cases, saw no noticeable change. Overall image quality is excellent, even in low-light conditions. Coupled with the CoolPix's ability to preadjust many image aspects, the final results are likely to be of a consistently higher quality than retouched photos from other cameras.
Features and image quality recommend the Nikon CoolPix 990 to casual and professional photographers alike. I suspect the price is a bit too steep, however, for most amateurs, and it ought to include the case, AC adapter, and above all, a rechargeable battery kit. I would likely recommend it for anyone who could afford it, except for the ergonomic frustrations I outlined earlier. Those, coupled with the high price, make me suggest waiting either for the price to come down or the next version of the CoolPix, which would hopefully address some of these issues. Still, it does get the pictures right, if you can live with its other foibles. And for many photographers, that's all that matters.
Read more by Marty Beaudet
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