Nikon has finally entered the large-sensor compact game (I don’t count the 1 series, which is a bit of an odd beast in that logically it’s all the system camera most people need, but not the camera that most people want.) The Coolpix A is a 16MP, 28/2.8 equivalent setup that’s built around a Sony DX sensor – an upgraded unit of the one in the D7000 and Leica X2, it seems. Unlike the D7000, and like the D7100 and D800E, this camera has no anti-aliasing filter. It’ll shoot full-fat 14-bit raw files at approximately 4fps, with a reasonably deep buffer. Focus is via a contrast-detect system, and there’s a fly-by-wire ring around the front of the lens for manual focus, plus two command dials – one on the top plate, and the other around the D-pad.
A continuously updated set of images from the camera can be found here on my Flickr stream.
I got the impression that this camera launched to a decidedly lukewearm reception; issues mainly to do with a) price, b) a ’slow’ lens, c) slow focusing, and d) ‘only’ 16MP, instead of the newer 24MP sensor. At around the $1,100 mark before adding in exorbitantly overpriced accessories (viewfinder, hood), it’s comparable to the X100s, Sigma DPs, and cheaper than the Leica X2 and Sony RX1, though I suppose the latter two have premiums attached because of the red dot or full frame sensor. Despite all of this, I had to try one: this might finally be the large-sensor 28mm compact I’d been looking for to replace my GR-Digital III, and perhaps also the Sony RX100, whose files were surprisingly excellent, but lens performance at 28mm left a lot to be desired.
In the meantime, Ricoh has also launched its GR V, with an almost identical spec sheet and gestalt with the exception of two things: price – it’s $400 cheaper at $799 – and AF speed, which is claimed to be just 0.2 seconds. I don’t know exactly how much faster that is than the A, but I do know the A can take upwards of half a second if you pick the wrong kind of target. I also know that in the Ricoh GR-Digital tradition, the GR V will have proper manual focus implementation, too. How it performs remains to be seen – I will endeavour to do a side by side comparison between the A and GR V as and when the latter camera is available.
B&H were kind enough to supply a review sample during my stay in New York for the Outstanding Images Workshop tour, along with the Fuji Finepix X20. Initially, the one thing I liked about the camera was its build-feel; I had the black version, which has the same spatter-paint finish as the pro-grade Nikon DSLRs. It doesn’t have the same engraved marking as the Fuji X20, nor a sticky rubber grip area. Instead, it makes do with the same little (faux?) leather-covered bar on the front.
It’s a solid, weighty little unit with no play or wobble anywhere, and pleasingly tactile controls; the buttons have weight and travel, and the dials click nicely. The manual focus ring has the right amount of damping too, though it’s somewhat rough and tends to catch fingernails. There’s also a much shinier silver version that’s finished differently; the mix of concentric machined, brushed and matted surfaces remind me of a camera from another time. It’s beautiful, but not really what you’d call stealthy, though, so I opted for black.
Importantly, the Coolpix A is pocketable: the lens extends and retracts very quickly, with a flick of the spring-loaded power switch that surrounds the shutter button. (You can also power it up in playback mode without extending the lens by holding down the play button for a second or two.) This is a quick-draw camera. Too bad what it gains in ready time, it loses in autofocus speed. The trouble is, you can’t really predict when it’s going to slow down; sometimes it’s as fast as anything else, but at others it’ll hunt. It doesn’t have the same positive lock-on as say, the Fuji X20 or Olympus OM-D. Subjectively, I found it to be comparable to the Leica X2, or Ricoh GRD III (not IV, that has phase detection). It’s usable, but not lighting fast; I’d say just on the right side of fast enough.
However, I found the best way to set up the camera was to use one of the custom functions to decouple AF to the Fn1 button on the front of the camera (you press it with either your third or fourth finger of your right hand). This way, you get continuous autofocus by default and instant shutter response if you need it; the halfway position of the shutter button becomes AE-lock, and yields very precise exposures and a responsive shooting experience if used in conjunction with the spot meter and a little practice. It’s the opposite of what I normally do – I like AF-ON tied to the shutter button wherever possible – but it works well in this case, and is much, much faster than waiting for the camera to lock focus on half-press. (If you still prefer to do that, then you’ll just have to prefocus all the time.)
Zone focusing using the manual focus setting would be an option – and my preferred method of shooting, actually – if only the camera would remember the selected distance when the power was cycled; it instead defaults to infinity. Oh, and there’s a distance bar, but no depth of field markings. Nikon could really learn from Ricoh here; the GRD series not only remembers the last set distance, but also shows you a depth of field scale that changes with the selected aperture.
That flare top-right isn’t the camera’s fault: it was too bright for me to get the long shutter speed I wanted to blur the people inside Grand Central, so I used my sunglasses as a makeshift ND filter. Unfortunately, there was a bit of flare off the inside of the frame I couldn’t seem to get rid of…
In every other aspect, the camera feels just like a shrunken Nikon DSLR; perhaps somewhere between the D7000 and D800, with the controls of the former and the build of the latter. Anybody who’s used a recent Nikon DSLR will be instantly at home; the menus are the same, as are the button functions. There’s even an ‘I’ button that brings up shooting info/ settings that can be changed on the fly. I presume this must be designed for use with an external finder, but annoyingly, the LCD can never be turned off. You’re always going to have a glowing face even if you use a hotshoe finder. I thought I was missing something, but it seems that the manual agrees – it even suggests just dimming the LCD for use with an external finder, which is hardly practical or a solution. Despite having the LCD on all the time and powering that large sensor, I found battery life to be surprisingly good; 500-600 images per charge was routinely achievable.
Coming from this perspective, what I notice first is what’s missing from the ‘best of’ Nikon control paradigm; they do get a lot of things right, however. -You can’t set custom file names.
- The OK button can’t be set to zoom to 100% in playback mode.
- The built in flash cannot be used as a wireless commander (this is inexcusable given the price and the fact that the cheaper P7700 has this capability). But even worse, even an SB900 or SU800 attached to the hotshoe cannot serve as wireless commander – you can have TTL and the manual modes, but that’s all your getting. Admittedly I’d probably never use this function, so it isn’t that big a deal.
- Very oddly, primary and secondary command dials do the same thing unless you’re in manual mode – once again, the P7700 also does this; except even worse, it’s got three redundant command dials.
- You can’t set one to be quick exposure compensation in the same way you can with every single other Nikon DSLR.
- Though there are U1 and U2 custom positions on the mode dial, it seems to remember only one set of custom functions – so ideally I’d like one setup with spot meter and AF on the shutter for when I have time and want to prefocus, with the other position with AF moved to the Fn1 button and matrix meter for run-and-gun street mode. No luck – you have to have one focusing setup or the other. At least you can still assign it as one of the ‘My Menu’ items.
- Auto ISO isn’t selectable from the ISO menu – you have to enable/ disable it from the menu instead of having AUTO, 100, 200, 400 etc.
- Access to video recording is convoluted – there’s no button or mode dial position, you have to change the drive mode. This of course means you can’t shoot an image while recording a video.
It’s interesting to note that every single one of these things is easily fixable via a firmware update. Nikon could turn this into a GRD-series killer (except the GR V will almost certainly raise that bar again) with a little bit of code and no hardware changes; for the benefit of all photographers, I hope somebody from the mothership is reading this.
Undoubtedly, the camera’s showpiece is its image quality. The lens is a dedicated design matched to the sensor, and is stunningly good; it’s sharp everywhere, at every aperture. Lateral CA is minimal to nonexistent, and longitudinal CA is completely absent. This is all the more impressive given the size of the lens and the fact that it doesn’t even extend that much in the shooting position; the rear element must be very close to the sensor indeed; I suspect there’s some voodoo going on in the optics or microlens design. Since the GR V was launched, there’s been quite a bit of discussion about the corner performance of this lens – specifically the samples posted on DPR. All I can say is that I think they got a bad sample – the corners of my camera look nowhere near as poor; in fact, they’re pretty darned good even wide open, as you’ll see later. Tolerances for an optic of this sort are pretty tight, so I wouldn’t be surprised if QC issues are the cause of this.
Whatever Nikon have done, it’s an outstanding optic that outresolves the sensor at pretty much every aperture – no mean feat given the sensor itself is no slouch. More importantly, the way it renders is very pleasing indeed – plenty of microcontrast bite, in a way that reminds me of the Zeiss ZM 2.8/21 Biogon/ Leica M8 combination but without the vignetting; it’s even better, I think. I have a feeling it will probably perform very well on the new 24MP sensor, too. It slices things into clean planes, much like the modern Leica ASPH designs. To those who find the lens too slow: f2.8 is about as good as most of the premium film compacts (GR1, Contax T, Nikon 28/35Ti, Mju II etc.) got; and I’d much rather have a compact and outstandingly good f2.8 than a merely excellent f2 that I’ve got to stop down to achieve optimal results – especially in something that could possibly be pocketable. There’s a reason why Leica’s ‘ultimate 50mm’ is a f2 APO-Summicron and not a f0.95 APO-Noctilux.
Why they didn’t use the 24MP sensor is an interesting question; I’ve found that due to the lack of VR and holding-at-arms-length, you’re going to need higher shutter speeds than you think to get critical pixel-level sharpness; I’ve got my auto-ISO cutoff at 1/50s. More pixels would mean even higher thresholds, more precise focusing requirements, and a more limited shooting envelope for most. That said, given the quality of the output as it stands, I doubt there’s a need for more resolution for most applications: the resolving power of this lens-sensor pairing is simply incredible. I think you’d have to go Foveon to get any more resolution out at the pixel level, and even then, the difference is going to be marginal. I think the examples below illustrate this clearly – what’s shown inside the red boxes is a 100% crop at the size you’re viewing it at.
Click here for the full-size version.
And now a similar illustration of dynamic range: The first image is as-shot and a straight RAW conversion with zero adjustment on any of the exposure/ highlight/ shadow sliders; the second image is what’s recoverable with minimal noise and no clipping (base ISO); the third image is finished and seasoned to taste.
The sensor itself is a known quantity: it has excellent color, dynamic range and high ISO performance; ISO 3200 is not too bad, and I’m fine using 6400 for emergencies. There is a noticeable boost in fine detail and sharpness following the removal of the antialiasing filter; files that are critically sharp require little to pre-output sharpening. The sole thing I don’t like about the it is that the tonal response is very linear and CMOS-like; this means color is nice, but to achieve the pleasing B&W tones you see here requires a bit of work with the dodge and burn brushes.
I think there may be a solution involving the channel mixer and a custom profile, but for the moment I think I’ll just stick to shooting it in color. Despite all of that – and I don’t say this lightly – I think technical image quality of the overall package matches or slightly exceeds that of the Leica M9/ 28/2.8 ASPH or 28/2 ASPH combinations, and far exceeds the Zeiss ZM 2.8/28 Biogon/ M9 combination. (I’ve shot thousands of exposures with all three under a wide variety of conditions, so I’m intimately familiar with the results.) Needless to say, high ISO performance of the Coolpix A is significantly better. There’s also the size/ responsiveness/ portability equation to consider, too. I can’t help but think the quality of the results put the price very much in perspective.
The Coolpix A is a camera I wanted to like, landed up feeling lukewarm about – mostly due to the default AF behavior and inability to remember MF distances – but in the end was completely blown away by once I opened the files. I do slightly prefer the color and tonality of the Olympus OM-D I was shooting at the same time (with the 12/2), but the resolution, dynamic range and optical performance (especially in the corners) of the Coolpix A are a clear step above; it landed up being my most-used camera during my week in New York. The sheer quality of the results – so far unparalleled in something this pocketable – and its tactile feel, kept me picking it up again and again. MT
The Nikon Coolpix A is available here from B&H in black and silver.
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