The Nikon Coolpix A – DSLR in a compact?

A solid little camera and very compact when you consider what is inside.

Talk to anyone lately and they are looking for a compact camera solution that matches the performance of their DSLR. A huge ask. After all, a DSLR is what it is because of what it is. A large camera with mirror box, shutter mechanism and optical prism. The bulk has been tuned down as much as it can and now we see DSLRs in the marketplace that start at 400 Euro. An incredible feat that has only been made possible by the demand of the consumer market and the cheap production facilities.

So, the Nikon Coolpix A.

1. A fixed lens compact camera.
2. A whisker under 1000 Euro.
3. DX sensor.

Some people might have already stopped reading at the mention of a fixed lens. Others might have got as far as the price tag. Hopefully the majority have got to the bit about the sensor and are still reading.

The lens is 18.5mm ( 28mm in 35mm terms) with maximum aperture of F2.8. Obviously the choice of lens is a massive design consideration when penning a camera design. Nikon opted for what is widely regarded as a nice wide but not too wide general lens setup. Not so much a focal length that I’d do many portraits with but for general shooting it’s a nice length. The F2.8 maximum aperture on the DX sensor also gets away from that typical ‘all in focus’ feel we dread with compact cameras, Selective focus with the wide open lens immediately opens doors to creativity.

Getting back to that Holy Grail of DSLR  quality in a compact body dream. What Nikon have done is not simply drop a DX sensor into a compact, they have also added a rather decent AF system that is not unlike the system found in the D7000. In fact,what they seem to have done is pretty much shoe-horned the entire D7000 gubbins into a very solid feeling Japanese build plastic and magnesium alloy body.

How does it perform?

Well, it does everything it says on the box, Focus is very fast and accurate, image quality is superb. The compatibility with Nikon Speedlights is very welcome, as is high speed flash sync speed. I connected an SB800 via the Nikon SC-17 cable and was shooting happily at 1/2000s.
For the feel-at-home-factor, the complete menu structure just mirrors that of my Nikon DSLRs. No upsets there at all. Programmable function buttons and 2 user preferences settings on the mode dial offer a very flexible custom setup. I managed to get 940 shots out of one battery, albeit shooting a time-lapse and in manual focus, that’s not at all bad.
ISO goes from 100 to a very usable 6400. Of course, the camera can shoot in NEF too so the full flexibility of the RAW image data can be exploited.

So basically, it really is all there. However, there is one HUGE omission in my book. The lack of viewfinder. I’m one of those people that have slowly crept into the world of needing reading glasses. Viewing the  LCD screen at close quarters is getting tiresome for my eyes so I need to put my glasses on to use the camera, but then take them off to look over the camera at my subject. There is an optional optical viewfinder that sits on the hotshoe that will relieve you of $379. Ouch. That’s a lot for something that merely gives you an idea of what’s going on in front of the camera. No, for a 1000 Euro I would expect an EVF built in. In fact, without it, the camera is very hard for me to use seriously. The same goof that Sony made with the RX-1 and one of the things that wins the Fujifilm x100s so many points.

I want, and in fact I do love the Coolpix A, I can grab it blindly after using a Nikon DSLR and use it purposefully. I can set it up just the same as one of my DSLRs I can edit the NEF files alongside the DSLR into a consistent look. The lens vignettes a bit but can be post fixed, the charger annoyingly has the power plug built in but on the whole, I love it and can oversee the minor shortcomings.

What I can’t love is that lack of EVF.

My bottom line.

Nikon, you have the makings of a excellent companion camera here. It is an excellent product. However, by proving that you can squeeze a DSLR into a compact body you did forget one of the most important bits.

++++ UPDATE ++++

I’ve just returned from a road-trip around Florida (full trip post coming soon) and noticed that during the trip I used the Coolpix A more than my D800E.
I put this down to a couple of reasons.

1. I could put it in my pocket.
2. A fixed lens just made me enjoy the trip more then fiddling with switching lenses or zooming.
3. I could use the camera one handed.
4. I was even more incognito and if I didn’t talk, I didn’t stand out too much like a tourist.
5. It has more then enough resolution.

I shot pretty much entirely in aperture priority and was pleased with how little exposure compensation I really needed to use. However, that’s one thing I’d like to see different. A dedicated exp-comp dial like the Fujifilm X series. To be honest, the lack of viewfinder bothered me less than I expected. Even in the incredibly bright Florida sunshine the rear LCD screen was ok, that’s probably more down to me ‘snapping’ shots though rather than me worrying too much.
All in all, it’s one of the test cameras that I really am going to miss. It’s travelled everywhere in my top pocket, gets pulled out, started, used, put away.
That 28mm (equivalent) lens is nice and wide too. I usually love 35mm but after seeing what the 28mm does, I’ve another favourite focal length for holiday photos.
The Auto Focus is very very quick. Very few missed focused shots and no hunting for focus either.  I love the X series but this is one area they really need to be stronger in. The Coolpix A just nails even the quickest snapshot every time.
Battery life has been stunning and image feel is totally comparable to the Nikon DSLR range. It might look like a generic compact camera but it sure does deliver the goods.
Nikon DSLR users. You want a camera to stick in a pocket but want to keep your ‘Nikon feel’ in post processing? Give the A a look.

I’ve inserted some more photos from the Coolpix A too.


 

 

 

The rear controls of the camera are all very familiar to Nikon users, sold and robust controls and build quality.

What seemed very over exposed on the LCD turned out to be fine once the NEF file had been processed. As it's supposed to be DLSR image quality, this shouldn't have surprised me.

I was very impressed with the level of detail in the images. Nothing 'compact' about that.

Using the in camera NEF conversion, coupled to the small WU-1a wifi dongle, images can theoretically be processed and uploaded in seconds.

Perfectly suited to reportage style shoots when a large DSLR is very intrusive.

 

 

 

 

  • Model Software - Your blog is great. Two things I like about the post, one it is straight forward and two it does not attempt to promote anyone’s position particularly. Nice work Rob.

  • Alexander Leaman - I’d jump on the Nikon A (or the Ricoh, for that matter) but for the focal length. I’d love to see Nikon hit 35 or even 40mm then I’m in. Great review though – got me changing my mind a bit there…

  • Rob Mitchell - Alexander, The 28mm is just what I love though 🙂 Don’t get me wrong, I love walking around with the DSLR and 35mm and the Fujifilm X100s with it’s 35mm. For the sheer, take-in-a-scene shots I’ve warmed a lot to the 28mm. There is a screw bezel on the lens so It wouldn’t surprise me if some converters pop up too, just as the X100s has a wide converter options that takes it to 28mm.
    I still have to look at the Ricoh for a test. I’ve heard lots of good about it.

  • Alexander Leaman - Well, the fuji is awesome. It’s the DR that does it. And the 35mm (for me, anyway).

    it should be noted that the Ricoh is essentially the same camera as the Nikon (DP review even thought it better in their opinion). And perhaps crucially it is also to be found significantly cheaper.
    That said, I’d buy the Nikon purely because of the speedlight compatibility.

  • Rob Mitchell - Yes, the Fujifilm images are fabulous. The has always been spectacular on their products.
    I use the XE-1 and X-Pro1 regularly.
    Where this little ‘compact’ wins me over is that it is pocketable. Literally the shirt top pocket and the fact that processing the files next to my Nikon DLSR files is a dream. The Ricoh seems to be even lighter though so dead curious. I saw that DPreview test too, nothing really to split them.

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