The new breed of enthusiast digital cameras is completely different from the usual bunch of point-and-shoot, travel zoom and superzoom cameras. What sets them apart are large sensor, superior optics, RAW support and fine-grained control—all packed in a compact form. So, you get DSLR-like performance and flexibility in a solidly built camera that can fit in your pocket. Nikon’s latest flagship, the Coolpix A, is one such camera featuring an APS-C type sensor and a 28 mm prime lens. Let’s find out if this shooter will bring smiles to enthusiasts.
Features and performance of a DSLR packed in a compact shell
Design and features
The 16MP CMOS sensor, around which the Coolpix A is built, is as large as those used in entry-level DSLR cameras. Mated to this is a 28 mm-equivalent prime lens with a moderately bright f/2.8 aperture. It’s as wide as the stock 18-55 mm lens mounted on an entry-level DSLR, the difference being you cannot zoom because the focal length is fixed.
Switch to set the focus mode
Like many enthusiast digital cameras, the lens has a rotatable metal ring with fine ridges around the lens. Its sole function is to give you the flexibility to adjust the focus. There’s a tiny switch on the left side to set the focus to Auto, Macro or Manual. Rotating the ring while keeping the shutter release half-pressed will override the set focus irrespective of the focus or shooting mode. Thus, you have the option to focus manually even in Auto and Program modes.
Above the focus selection switch are two ports that reside under a plastic flap. The USB port for PC connectivity doubles as host to the optional WU-1a Wireless Mobile Adapter, with which you can transfer photos from the camera to a smartphone over Wi-Fi. The other port allows connecting a wired remote or GPS unit (both optional). Over to the right side, there’s a mini HDMI port that lets you hook up the camera to a TV.
Magnesium alloy top panel with metal dials
Despite the restrictive width, the top panel houses quite a few components—a concealed pop-up type flash (releasable by a button), a hot shoe, the mode dial, an on/off lever with a large shutter release button at its centre and a dial to change values. The rear panel is very different from what’s found in mainstream Coolpix digital cameras. The control panel of the Coolpix A bears resemblance to a Nikon DSLR. The left side is flanked by buttons for EV, ISO and zoom control. To the right of the 3-inch LCD monitor lie a 5-way D-pad with a jog dial and buttons for playback, menu, info and delete.
If you are familiar with a Nikon DSLR, it won’t take more than a few minutes to get used to this camera. Otherwise, it could take some time getting used to the user interface of this camera, after which you’ll like the way it handles things. Starting from the top, the mode dial offers PASM modes in addition to the plain Auto mode. There are 19 scene modes including Food, Silhouette, Low Key, Sunset, Sports, Autumn Colors and Child, all clubbed into the Scene mode on the dial. The U1 and U2 are user-definable modes that allow you to set custom shooting parameters.
Rear panel and user interface
A notable feature of the control panel is the way the dials and secondary button functions work. In A and S modes, the dial on the top changes the aperture and shutter speed respectively, and the D-pad jog dial does nothing. To change the EV and ISO, you have to hold down the respective buttons to the left of the LCD monitor and rotate the top dial to change values—quick and very intuitive. The D-pad jog dial springs into action only in the M mode. Now, the top dial adjusts the shutter speed and the D-pad jog dial adjusts the aperture. With the EV button pressed, the functions of dials switch the other way round. So, you have choices—use individual dials for shutter speed and aperture, or use only one of them to adjust both the shutter speed and aperture in combination with the EV button.
The customisable Fn1 button. Also note the texture of the shell
Note that the ISO button has Fn2 mentioned above and there’s the Fn1 button on the front easily accessible while you’re holding the camera. The Fn1 button can be assigned one of the 11 available functions from the menu. These include Flash mode, Release mode, AE/AF lock, Self-timer and RAW. Likewise, you have 7 choices for the Fn2 button including White balance, Metering, Auto bracketing and Image quality/size.
The zoom buttons don’t control digital zoom. Instead, they allow zooming in and out of the selected focus area in the frame so that you can check the focus. Moving the focus around the frame can be painful. You have to use the D-pad to move the focus, and the buttons have to be kept pressed until the focus moves to the desired area in the frame.
Unlike many digital cameras, there’s no stack of controls/parameters that overlays the live view with the press of a button. The approach is more DSLR-like in this case. The Info button takes you to another interface that displays current settings and allows you to change image quality/size, white balance, ISO, autofocus mode, bracketing, EV, flash compensation and flash mode. You use the directional buttons to navigate and on pressing the OK button, you’re allowed to change values. A bit fidgety, but you have everything in one place.
The biggest flaw in the UI is the absence of a dedicated button for video recording. It’s not even available via the mode dial. It’s highly likely that you won’t find out how to record videos with this camera until you look up the user manual. Movie recording is available as one of the Release modes in addition to Single frame, Continuous (burst) and Self-timer.
Build quality and ergonomics
The fit and finish of the Coolpix A is spot-on. Nikon has paid great attention to detail to ensure that even the tiniest button, the dials and the spring-loaded door-like flaps have a premium feel. The front and rear of the shell is made of aluminium and has a matte, rough finish, which exudes a rugged feel. The top panel is made of magnesium alloy and the dials on the top are made of metal. The top right corner of the rear panel has a textured thumb grip made of soft rubber; the thumb just sticks to it. There’s also a leatherette-clad vertical grip on the front to which your fingers latch on to, thereby inspiring good confidence and lending very good stability while shooting. The layout of the control panel is excellent. The dials are sufficiently large and the buttons on either sides of the screen are in comfortable reach of the thumb. Even the tactile feel of the buttons is nice—they make a distinct “tick” sound when pressed. All these factors along with the intuitive user interface make for quick operation and good shooting comfort.
The performance of the Coolpix A is quite a mixed bag. The large APS-C type sensor goes a long way in allowing you to shoot at high ISO without worrying about noisy results. Even at ISO 1600, the quality of images in low light is very respectable. Beyond that point, the graininess increases but there’s not much colour noise. Check out these sample shots (100 percent crop).
Thanks to the superior optics, the level of details that the camera manages to capture is incredible. Even the details in distant objects are crisp and not muddled unlike mainstream digital cameras. The shallow depth of field or background blur is prominent if the subject is in close range. A larger aperture (f/1.8 or f/2.0) would have been more fun than the pedestrian f/2.8 in this camera. You would then have more control over depth of field and faster shutter speeds in low light.
Notice the distortion on the sides
The 28 mm equivalent prime lens is good for wide shots, but it feels restrictive when you want to capture close-ups or zoom into distant objects. However, the incredible level of detail won’t let you down when you crop out small portions of the frame. Another problem of the wide angle lens is distortion towards the left and right sides of the frame. Tall, towering structures appear abnormally bent towards the centre of the frame. For this, Nikon has provided Perspective Control as one of the Retouch controls in playback mode. Others include Quick retouch, Straighten, Fisheye, Color sketch, Miniature effect and Selective color. We were particularly impressed with Selective color as it allows picking up to three colours in the frame as opposed to a single colour. There’s also a bunch of filter effects including warm filter, RGB intensifier, Cross screen and Soft. A good thing about applying effects and filters after shooting is that you have the original image with you and the processed image is stored as a separate file. This isn’t the case when you shoot with the effect filter already active at the time of shooting, which is usually the case with most digital cameras.
Wouldn't have been possible to shoot this without using the burst mode
The burst speed of the Coolpix A is quite commendable. At the fastest shutter speed (1/2000 sec), it can capture full resolution photos in RAW+Fine JPG at 4 fps. A maximum of 10 shots can be captured in a single burst, after which the camera takes a few seconds to write the photos from the buffer to the memory card.
The camera can record videos at full HD resolution and you have control over the white balance, EV, autofocus mode (single or full-time servo) and AF area (subject tracking, face priority, wide and normal). These parameters have to be set before you release the shutter to start video recording.
Sample shots (click on photos for full view)
Incredible control over focus!
Shot hand-held in low light—ISO 800 and 1/15 sec shutter
The only light source was a dim light in the car—ISO 1600
Excellent colours and details—ISO 800
Respectable quality at ISO 3200, in low light
Brilliant colours and details
Good background blur in close-ups
Panned shot with servo AF
Verdict and price in India
Priced at an MRP of a whopping Rs 54,950, the Coolpix A does come across as being ridiculously expensive. However, bear in mind that the Coolpix A is targeted at enthusiasts who want DSLR-like controls and imaging quality in a compact form. It’s worthy of being a primary camera if you don’t mind the prime lens, or a secondary camera if you already own a DSLR—especially a Nikon DSLR and accessories that are compatible with the Coolpix A. Considering you can buy the Sony Cyber-shot RX100 for Rs 20,000 less or the Canon PowerShot G1X for Rs 10,000 less, the Nikon Coolpix A is highly overpriced. But if you have a deep pocket to make it yours, go for it!
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