Nikon Coolpix A Review : 7 Years Later
This 2013 camera was the mirrorless version of the Nikon D7000 from 2010. I thought it would be interesting to take a look at this camera to see how it has fared with time. Let’s face it; most digital equipment ages very badly.
The Coolpix A has the same DX sensor (except special micro-lenses on the pixels) and it actually cost about the same ($1,100 US) versus the D7000 ($1,200) when it was new.
I’m not much of a fan of this kind of camera design, for a couple of reasons. The Coolpix doesn’t have a viewfinder; it only has an LCD screen (very, very bad for action or sunshine photography). The Coolpix also has a fixed 18.5mm f/2.8 lens; you can’t zoom it or interchange it with anything else. You also can’t put any filters on the lens, unless you buy an adapter to fit 46mm filters. The field of view is equivalent to a 28mm lens on FX.
I have an LCD viewfinder (made by Xit) that I can use for this camera in the sun. This viewfinder is actually bigger than the Coolpix, and goes against the whole reason for getting this tiny Coolpix in the first place.
So why would anyone get this camera? Ironically, you’d get it for that 18.5mm lens. It’s really, really good. The resolution is simply sensational, and it has virtually no distortion. I sorely miss vibration reduction, however. Coupled with the absence of an optical low-pass filter on the sensor, you’ll probably get sharper shots with this camera than you can achieve with a DX DSLR. There is a manual focus ring at the base of the lens (it’s rotation-speed-sensitive on focusing rate). You can stop down to f/22.0, but resolution is already mostly ruined by f/16.0 because of diffraction. You can focus down to about 20 inches. I haven’t made much notice of vignetting; I adjust it in photo editors if I want more or less of it.
If you slide a little switch on the left side of the camera to the “tulip” position, the lens focus is in macro mode, and you can focus down to 4 inches.
This same left-side slider switch has an “MF” position for manual focus, which causes a vertical distance scale to pop up on the screen to help you both focus and also advertise that you’re in manual-focus mode. You can press the “+” magnifier button while focusing to zoom in the LCD screen and easily obtain critical manual focus. If you then press “OK”, it goes back to a full-screen view. If you’re a manual-focus type person, this scheme is rather nice. In full manual exposure mode, the rear dial around the 4-way controller controls the aperture, while the top dial controls the shutter. In aperture mode, the top dial takes over control for the aperture.
The Coolpix can fit in your (jacket) pocket, and it’s virtually silent as you shoot. The reason you’d shoot with this instead of your cell phone is because of the sensor. This 16MP DX sensor has 4.77 micron pixels, whereas typical cell phone cameras have 1.4 micron pixels. In terms of light-drinking surface area, that means the Coolpix A has 11.6 times as much pixel area as that cell phone.
The shutter only goes to 1/2000 second, but for a 28mm-equivalent lens, I suppose that’s plenty fast. You get a maximum of 30 seconds, plus “bulb”.
Since this is a mirrorless camera, the focus doesn’t need any calibration. The focus works via contrast-detect; it’s slow, but it’s quite accurate. This also contributes to very sharp photos. It only weighs 10.6 ounces, which actually conspires against it for steady shooting (it has very little inertia).
It’s a magnesium and aluminum camera body, although I wouldn’t call it “rugged”. It has a cheesy little vertical bar that they call a “grip”. I’m used to the really good grips on Nikon’s pro and enthusiast cameras, so this camera is very disappointing in that regard. It only accepts a single SD/SDHC/SDXC card.
The sensor supports a native ISO range of 100-6400, but please, please stay away from 6400. You can actually crank it up to 25,600 (Hi-2) if you want to emulate the painter Georges Seurat.
That LCD display is 3” and 920K dots. The 920K specification sounds pathetic, compared to modern screens, but the view actually looks pretty good. Nikon offered a hot-shoe-mounted optical viewfinder (DF-CP1) that sold for a whopping $450.00 US! I wonder how many of those they sold. It also makes the camera look like something out of the 1950’s.
The camera can only shoot at 4 fps continuous; modern cameras really spoil us with speeds that are about double this pace. Time marches on. Its EN-EL20 battery is rated at 230 shots.
You can shoot 1080p movies at 24, 25 or 30 fps if you’re interested in video. It does have a stereo microphone and mono speaker. Your cell phone is probably a better choice.
The Coolpix A sports the “U1”,”U2” user mode settings, which I will always consider to be vastly superior to the “pro” camera memory banks. I still question if a single Nikon engineer has ever actually taken a photograph. Don’t get me started.
If you use built-in flash, this camera has a joke of a pop-up flash that sticks up a little over a quarter of an inch. Amazingly, it doesn’t readily produce the dreaded red-eye. The pop-up flash cannot act as a commander to other flashes; oh, well. You can slip the standard flashes into the hot shoe, such as the SB-600 and SB-700.
You can use the cheap Nikon ML-L3 infrared remote to control it, thank goodness. It’s a bummer that the only IR receiver on the camera is on its front; I personally want to use a remote from the rear of the camera about 95% of the time.
The Redeeming Feature: Lens Resolution
The following charts show what kind of resolution performance you can get out of this lens. These are taken from un-sharpened 14-bit Raw pictures.
MTF50 resolution lp/mm f/2.8
The resolution numbers are just astonishing. And this is with the lens wide open. Excellent, except in the corners.
MTF50 resolution lp/mm f/4.0
This is nearly as good as I have seen from the best lenses you can get. Just a slight drop-off in a couple of corners. I think that the sagittal-direction central doughnut pattern is due to the lens aspherical element.
MTF50 resolution lp/mm f/5.6
Great resolution throughout.
MTF50 resolution lp/mm f/8.0
MTF50 resolution lp/mm f/11.0
Diffraction is starting to affect the resolution by f/11, just as you would expect. It’s still extremely good, however.
MTF50 resolution lp/mm f/16.0
Diffraction is really starting to kill resolution at f/16.
I don’t have the heart to try measuring f/22.
MTF contrast plot
The following plot was actually measured, and isn’t the usual “theoretical” MTF contrast plot that manufacturers publish.
f/2.8 Contrast at 10, 30, 50 lp/mm
Lateral Chromatic Aberration
Lateral Chromatic Aberration f/2.8
Even wide open, CA is already a “don’t care”.
Lateral Chromatic Aberration f/4.0
Lateral Chromatic Aberration f/5.6
Lateral Chromatic Aberration f/8.0
Lateral Chromatic Aberration f/11.0
Lateral Chromatic Aberration f/16.0
Sherman building, built 1857. Washington DC. f/5.6 1/800 ISO 100
Rose Chapel built 1870, Washington DC. f/5.6 1/250 ISO 200
Lincoln life-sized statue by Lincoln’s cottage, Washington DC
Washington DC historic house
Potato Chip Rock, Poway, CA. It's really that thin.
San Diego skyline panorama. Stitched with Lightroom.
f/2.8 1/800 ISO 100. Bokeh is decent in most circumstances.
Color sketch, in-camera retouch menu option. Slightly cheesy.
In terms of attractive features, the Coolpix A has quite underwhelmed me. I think that the D7000 had far more features and flexibility for about the same price. At the same time, the Coolpix is very, very portable.
I imagine that Nikon expected photographers to slip this camera into their pockets (which you actually can) to always have gear available. Cell phones really ruined those plans, however. You might think of the Coolpix A as a cell phone without the phone or the apps, which I’m sure is the typical Millennial opinion.
You would get this camera for its lens; it won’t disappoint if you happen to like this focal length.
The Coolpix A is an interesting mix of cheesy and nice. I think of it as a ‘tourist’ camera.
To give credit where it’s due, this camera hasn’t broken down in any way over the years. It is a pretty well-made camera. I was a skeptic of its auto-extending lens (when you turn it on), but it still works like new. When it’s off, there’s no lens to bump and it keeps the front lens surface clean. It’s kind of nice to not worry about a lens cap.
I still take this Coolpix A out with me occasionally, when I don't want to lug any "real" camera gear along. My cell phone just doesn't have the satisfying 'feel' of a camera, and it's sensor can't compete with my Coolpix in really dim light. I never thought that I'd hold onto this camera for so many years, but I still don't want to let it go.