Nikon Coolpix A review

The Nikon Coolpix A is a dedicated wide-angle compact with a big image sensor. Image quality can suffer at the edges of the frame, and the autofocus is a smidge slow, but if if you want to pack a lot into your shots, it's worth a look.
Photo of Nikon Coolpix A

The Nikon Coolpix A ($1,099.95 direct) is another in an increasingly popular type of digital camera—a compact body with a prime lens and an D-SLR image sensor. It’s one of two with a 28mm-equivalent optic, the other being the Sigma DP1 Merrill. The 16-megapixel shooter is capable of capturing images that look like they came from an SLR, but is small enough to slide into your shirt pocket. It’s not perfect; the focus is a bit slow and results in a bit of a lag before taking a photo, and the lens doesn’t sharpen up from edge to edge until you stop down to f/5.6. Because of this we aren’t awarding it our Editors’ Choice award, that remains with the very expensive, full-frame 35mm Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX1, but if you prefer a wider field of view, the Coolpix A is worth a look.

Design and Features
The Coolpix A is impressively small when you consider its image sensor is the same size as found in the Nikon D5100. It measures just 2.6 by 4.4 by 1.6 inches (HWD) and weighs a mere 10.6 ounces. It’s a bit more pocketable than the Leica X2, which is 2.7 by 4.9 by 2 inches and a little heavier at 11.2 ounces. The body is available in black or silver.

The control layout should satisfy serious shooters, although it could be a bit better. Up top you find the On/Off switch, integrated with the shutter release, as well as the mode dial, a control wheel, and a manual flash release. Rear controls are broken up; some are to the left of the LCD, others to its right. On the left you get buttons for Exposure Compensation and ISO, as well as zoom controls for image review. To the right there’s the “i” control button; it switches the Live View feed to a display that gives you ready access to a number of shooting settings, including the focus area, drive mode, metering pattern, and focus mode.

Also to the right of the LCD is a circular control wheel with a center OK button and four directional button presses. The wheel only comes into play as a shooting control in Manual mode, it adjusts aperture there, but is used to navigate through menu settings. Pressing it up, down, left, or right moves the active focus area, displayed as a red box on the rear LCD; hitting the OK button brings the box back to the center of the frame. There are also a few non-shooting control buttons on the rear—Menu, Play, and Delete.

You may forget about it when shooting, but there is a programmable Fn1 button on the front of the camera. You can use it for any number of functions, but I found that setting it to act as an auto exposure lock was the best use. On the left side of the camera, there’s a toggle switch to change between manual focus, macro autofocus, and standard autofocus. When set to manual focus mode you can adjust the focus using the ring around the lens; unfortunately this control doesn’t double for any other function when the camera is in autofocus mode; it would have been beneficial to have the ability to reprogram it or the rear control wheel as a dedicated exposure compensation adjustment tool.

The 3-inch, 921k-dot rear display is big, bright, and sharp, which is excellent for image framing and review in all kinds of light. There is a $450 optical viewfinder attachment available that slides into the hot shoe, but you can use any shoe-mount optical finder that approximates a 28mm frame with the camera—a good thing when you consider just how expensive Nikon’s add-on is. Unfortunately for shooters who prefer to use a finder and trust the Coolpix A’s autofocus, there’s no way to turn off the rear display completely. You can dim it, but if you’re shooting at eye-level in a darker environment, the light from the LCD is still bright enough to induce some eye strain. If you already own a Nikon SLR and lighting equipment, rest assured that the hot shoe provides full compatibility with Speedlight flashes.

We’ve yet to see a big-sensor compact with built-in GPS or Wi-Fi. The Coolpix A supports the $60 WU-1a Wireless Mobile Adapter, if you’d like to share photos right after you’ve taken them. There’s also an accessory port so that you can connect an add-on GPS accessory.

Performance and Conclusions
The Coolpix A starts and shoots in about 1.5 seconds, can fire off photos at 3.6 frames per second, and records a 0.4-second shutter lag. In very dim light the focus slows and the shutter lag extends to about a second. Of these figures, all but the shutter lag are impressive. Our Editors’ Choice Sony RX1 takes 2.5 seconds to start and fire, does a bit better in the shot-to-shot department at 5.2 framers per second, and its shutter lag is only 0.2-second; although when shooting in very low light the RX1 can take up to 1.8 seconds to focus.

The lag, which is really a byproduct of the autofocus system, is complicated by the Coolpix A’s limited focus distance. In standard autofocus mode the camera can only lock onto objects as close as 20 inches. Switching to macro mode lets you get as close as 4 inches, but it takes a bit longer to lock focus and fire off a shot—about 1.2 seconds.

The 3.6fps burst shooting is limited if you’re working in Raw or Raw+JPG mode. You can capture about 12 Raw files or 17 Raw+JPG shots before the camera starts to slow. It took about 13 seconds to clear off all of the files to our SanDisk 95MBps memory card. This isn’t a concern when shooting JPG; the compressed format allows you to fire away for as long as you’d like at full speed.

I used Imatest to check the sharpness of the Coolpix A’s 18.5mm (28mm equivalent) f/2.8 lens. At its widest aperture it delivers impressive center sharpness, scoring a center-weighted score of 2,235 lines per picture height. This is better than the 1,800 lines we require of a sharp image, but it should be noted that edge performance is disappointing at f/2.8 and f/4. At these apertures the edge averages, which analyzes the 20 percent of the frame on the extreme left and 20 percent on the extreme right, scored only 1,041 lines and 1,172 lines respectively. Stopping the lens down to f/5.6 improves the overall score to 2,417 lines, but brings the edge performance up to 1,894 lines for a much more evenly sharp photo.

The Coolpix A continues a current trend by eliminating the optical low-pass filter. This filter is used to reduce the instances of moiré that go hand-in-hand with the Bayer image sensors found in most digital cameras, but can smear away very fine details. The Sigma DP1 Merrill also omits this filter, but that’s because its 3-layer Foveon image sensor isn’t prone to moiré effects.

We’ve yet to test a compact camera of this class that wasn’t impressively sharp using a center-weighted methodology. Top-performing cameras, like the Sony RX1, deliver edge-to-edge sharpness at every aperture. That high-priced compact recorded 2,275 lines with edge sharpness at better than 2,000 lines even at its widest aperture. It did show a bit more barrel distortion than the Coolpix A—despite covering such a wide field of view, its lens only displays 0.5 percent barrel distortion. This can be very easily corrected with software if it detracts from a shot; I found that a +9 distortion correction in Lightroom removed unwanted curvature from straight lines.

Image noise increases along with the sensitivity to light, measured in ISO. Cameras with big image sensors generally do very well in terms of noise control, especially when they apply in-camera noise reduction to JPGs. The Coolpix A keeps noise below 1.5 percent through a very impressive ISO 6400, which will let you shoot in very dim light. There is some loss of detail as you increase the ISO. Images look downright perfect through ISO 400, and start to show a bit of deterioration in quality at ISO 1600; that’s the top setting I’d use if I was capturing in JPG format. Noise reduction really hurts detail when shooting in JPG at ISO 3200, and despite scoring well on our test, image detail in ISO 6400 JPGs is greatly compromised. If you shoot in Raw, ISO 3200 can be used without hesitation, and while image quality at ISO 6400 suffers the results are still quite acceptable; just be prepared to apply a bit of noise reduction in Lightroom (or the Raw converter of your choice) if you prefer a cleaner image.

Video is recorded in 1080p or 720p resolution in 30, 25, or 24 frames per second, and files are saved in QuickTime format. The quality is excellent, but it can be a pain to get a quick video recording started. You need to hit the “i” button and change the release mode to Movie; it’s in the same setting block as Single, Continuous Drive, Remote, and Self Timer. In order to get autofocus to work while recording footage, you also need to change the focus mode to AF-F. I tried to save my movie recording settings to one of the two customizable user setting slots, but the camera only saved the autofocus setting to that slot; I still had to go and change the release mode from Single to Movie to start video recording.

There’s no microphone input, so you’ll have to rely on the internal mic. The audio quality is fine for casual use, but it does pick up the sound of the lens refocusing and the clicks as you change the active focus point when shooting a video. In my tests, they were very audible on the soundtrack. There’s a mini HDMI port if you want to connect the Coolpix A to an HDTV, as well as a dedicated port for the optional GPS and a proprietary USB port to plug into a computer or to add the Wi-Fi adapter. Standard SD, SDHC, and SDXC memory cards are supported. Nikon does include a dedicated battery charger, so you don’t have to tie up the camera to recharge; that’s definitely a plus for shooters who plan on purchasing a second battery.

The Coolpix A has the potential to be a great camera, but a few quirks and flaws limit it to being a very good one. I loved working with the wide 28mm field of view, but some photographers may feel that it’s a bit too wide for every day use. A camera with a slightly narrower lens, like the Fujifilm X100s (which we have not yet reviewed) or the Sony RX1 will be a better fit if that’s the case; both of those cameras are a full f-stop faster as well, which make them a bit better suited for shooting in extremely dark conditions. That’s not to say that the Coolpix A can’t be used in dim light; I got a few very acceptable shots in dark restaurant lighting, but found the results to be more miss than hit. That dim of an environment can stretch the limits of a full-frame D-SLR with an f/1.4 lens attached. The Coolpix A does a much better job at higher ISO settings than the only other 28mm compact currently on the market, the Sigma DP1 Merrill.

The Coolpix A’s lens could also use some improvement. Its f/2.8 aperture is perfectly fine for an 28mm optic, but it isn’t as sharp at the edges as other models in this class. The camera is quick to start and take a shot, but is slow to focus in macro mode. I was very happy with the images that I got from the Coolpix A, but expected a bit more from an $1,100 camera. Quicker focus and more even sharpness across the frame would go a long way toward justifying its price. We’re still searching for a truly stellar prime-lens compact with a 28mm field of view. The Coolpix A is more versatile than the Sigma DP1 Merrill thanks to support for HD video and good performance at higher ISO settings, but our Editors’ Choice for this category is still the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX1, which features a narrower, but faster, 35mm f/2 lens by Carl Zeiss.

Specifications
Dimensions 2.6 x 4.4 x 1.6 inches
Interface Ports Proprietary, mini HDMI
Sensor Type CMOS
Megapixels 16 MP
Battery Type Supported Lithium Ion
Recycle time 0.27 seconds
LCD dots 921000
LCD size 3 inches
Touch Screen No
Media Format Secure Digital, Secure Digital High Capacity, Secure Digital Extended Capacity
Maximum ISO 25600
Type Compact
GPS No
Boot time 1.5 seconds
35-mm Equivalent (Wide) 28 mm
Weight 10.6 oz
Waterproof Depth (Mfr. Rated) 0 feet
Video Resolution 720p, 1080p
Lines Per Picture Height 2235
LCD Aspect Ratio 3
Image Stabilization None
35-mm Equivalent (Telephoto) 28 mm
Shutter Lag 0.4 seconds
Sensor Size 18 x 24 (APS-C) mm
Viewfinder Type None

Verdict
The Nikon Coolpix A is a dedicated wide-angle camera with a big image sensor. Image quality can suffer at the edges of the frame, and the autofocus is a bit slow, but if if you want to pack a lot into your shots, it's worth a look.
Published under license from Ziff Davis, Inc., New York, All rights reserved.
Copyright © 2012 Ziff Davis, Inc