Nikon Coolpix A Review
Performance - How well does it take pictures?
Ultimately, image quality is what makes a camera worth buying. This is why it forms the basis of digital camera ratings here. The Nikon Coolpix A has an APS-C sensor paired with an F/2.8 lens equivalent to 28mm on a full-frame camera. To extract maximum sharpness from its Nikkor lens, the Coolpix A forgoes an anti-alias filter. It makes this camera more prone to moire artifacts though since it uses a traditional Bayer color-filter array.
The 16 megapixels CMOS sensor of this digital camera has exactly the same specifications as the one used on several DSLR. Since Nikon does not produce their own sensors, this is likely the same one. DSLRs using such sensors have been performing very well which places high-expectations on the Coolpix A.
The Nikon Coolpix A's sensor does not disappoints. It produces clean noise-free image up to ISO 1600. At 3200 noise is barely visible. At ISO 6400 noise starts affecting fine-details, reducing maximum print sizes a little. This is an excellent performance for the standard sensitivity range.
There are expanded sensitivities up to ISO 25600, which Nikon labels Hi 2.0. These two extra stops are visibly noisy. The finest details get destroyed but images remain surprisingly crisp. At ISO 12800, mid-size prints are possible and 25600 can still pull-off small 4"x6" prints. No compact camera has ever done this before!
Dynamic-range of the Nikon Coolpix A is good and compares well with other APS-C cameras. Blacks are not as deep as from recent DSLRs though which is why ISO crops look a little dull. Contrast can be increased but this, as usual, reduces the captured dynamic-range.
The metering system of this digital cameras is generally good. It meters conservatively and rarely blows out any highlights unless they are very small or away from the focus-point. Arguably, there too much emphasis on the focus-point. This produces images with a bright subject which may appeal beginners more but it is somewhat disapointing to see this on a product aimed at advanced photographers.
The Nikkor 18.5mm F/2.8 lens of the Coolpix A is impressively sharp. From F/2.8 to F/11, just before diffraction starts occurring, details are perfectly sharp except at the very edges of the frame. Corner softness is strong at F/2.8 and becomes moderate at F/4 but is still noticeable until F/5.6. For most purposes, F/4 and up is entirely usable without cropping.
There is a very slight amount of complex optical distortion visible in images from this digital camera. It appears unnoticeable in most images, unless they have a number of perfectly straight lines in them. Vignetting is highly disturbing at F/2.8 and still strong at F/4. It becomes moderate at F/5 but sadly always remains noticeable.
Color accuracy is reasonable. Both Standard and Natural modes show colors with too much red. Dialing down Hue to -1 improves things. There a slight amount of over-saturation by default which can easily be toned down. As for Automatic White-Balance, it performs better than average. It handles most types of lighting relatively well. When it does fail, it is unfortunately time-consuming to find the right preset and fine-tuning amount. With some neutral object around, it is much better to use Custom White-Balance which works just as expected.
The single-axis digital-level, optionally shown on the display, measures tilt. On the review unit we received was unfortunately miscalibrated and there is no way for an end-user to correct it. This is really unfortunate as levels only serve if they are completely precise. The human eye can easily tell what is almost level but needs help to get things exactly level. Luckily, this camera has a hot-shoe which supports a bubble-level that can measure three axis independently, depending on the model.
All aspects of the Nikon Coolpix A are fast except for autofocus. The Contrast-Detect AF system in this camera needs plenty of contrast to focus. It takes between ¾ and 1½s to focus with an average around 1s. By modern standards, this is really slow. Additionally, it fails to focus more than usual in low-light. Fortunately, the fly-by-wire focus-ring with MF Assist magnification makes manual focusing quick and precise.
Performance of the Nikon Coolpix A are characterized by the following measurements:
- Power On: 1½s, good for a camera with a retracting lens.
- Power Off: 1½s, good for a camera with a retracting lens.
- Time-to-First-Shot: 2½s, average.
- Autofocus: ¾ to 1½s, slow.
- Shutter-lag: Quick, followed by ¾s black-out. Average.
- Shot-to-Shot Speed: 1¼s in good light. Below average.
- Instant Review: About ½s. Average.
- Playback Mode: ½s. Average.
- Shooting Mode: ½s. Average.
The interface of the camera is very responsive. Nearly all actions get immediate feedback and the user rarely has to wait for the Coolpix A. The final performance number is battery-life which is quoted as 230 shots-per-charge according to the CIPA standard. This is below average but sufficient for most days of shooting as long as the built-in flash is not used much.
In the end, the Nikon Coolpix A manages to deliver one of the best image-quality seen from a compact camera. Its only major fault is slow autofocus speed which makes it much better suited for static subjects than moving ones. Posed portraits are y possible but the 28mm wide-angle is not flattering to most people, so groups are more likely to be photographed than individuals. The second main flaw is excessive vignetting which is fixable by software without much loss of quality but it does take time.
The Nikon Coolpix A can impress photographers with DSLR-quality images from a compact-camera. While not actually exceeded the best APS-C models, it easily satisfies expectations with noise-free images until ISO 1600 and completely usable results until ISO 6400. Dynamic-range and sharpness are excellent too. Metering, color and white-balance are also quite good. There is strong corner softness and vignetting at bright apertures which are the only notable image-quality flaws.
The main limitation of the Coolpix A is precisely what lets it be that small: a fixed 28mm F/2.8 equivalent lens. This focal-length is very useful but not ideal for all subjects. Being able to use it well is a matter of skills and personal preference.
Performance of the Coolpix A is adequate for everything but erratically moving subjects due to its slow autofocus system. The camera responds quickly to button presses and keeps up with its user quite well. Despite having a good number of button though, this camera can be frustrating to use. The self-timer resets itself every time and white-balance has to be set blindly unless one gives up on direct access to ISO sensitivity.
The Nikon Coolpix A clearly delivers stellar image quality for a compact camera. While it does so, it also shows the compromises required to land this achievement. Buyers have to value more the photographic opportunities presented to this camera by the virtue of its discreet and pocketable size over its limitations. Pro photographers are probably more ready for this than novices.
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