At first glance, the Nikon Coolpix A looks like a typical, if slightly retro, compact camera. But, it actually contains a large APS-C sensor, the same size found in most DSLRs. It also boasts a relatively speedy f/2.8 18.5-mm fixed lens, which should enable it to take photographs rivaling the quality of much bigger cameras. After getting a brief pre-release hands-on with the camera, we've now had the chance to spend some quality time with it, to see if it lives up to the potential.
A couple of years ago this would have been a niche product, but other large-sensor fixed-lens cameras like the Fujifilm X100 series, the Leica X2 and the Sigma DP Merrills have shown there's a sizable market out there. Arguably, smartphones have also played a part in creating this market as people have got used to shooting with a fixed focal length, rather than expecting and demanding zooms.
Aimed at enthusiasts, professionals, and DSLR users who want to travel light, the premium compact seems to focus on doing a few things well rather than trying to do everything. It's clearly been designed to prioritize image quality, manual controls and portability. In my tests I found that on some occasions it was a suitable replacement for my smartphone camera, and on others it took on the duties of my DSLR.
For a more detailed run-through of the specs, check out our news article about the release of the Nikon Coolpix A.
The Nikon Coolpix A is by no means a big camera, in fact it's only marginally larger than a standard compact. This is quite an engineering feat when you consider how much larger its sensor is than that of its smaller rivals. It houses an APS-C DX-format (23.6 x 15.6 mm) CMOS sensor compared to the 2/3-inch (8.8 x 6.6 mm) ones in higher-end compacts, and the more common 1/1.7-inch (7.6 x 5.7 mm) sensor of many other smaller cameras.
That said, the camera feels reassuringly heavy and solid when you pick it up – but not so much that it becomes uncomfortable when hanging around your neck. While the camera also feels nicely balanced in the hand, my only gripe would be that the grip bar can become uncomfortable if holding it for long periods of time.
The layout of the controls will be mostly familiar to Nikon DSLR shooters. These include pleasingly tactile mode and control dials which have been cut from metal. With nice detailing around the sides, they feel like a great compliment to the magnesium alloy top cover. I've never been a fan of cheap-feeling plastic buttons sticking out of a quality metal finish, so this attention to detail is very much welcome.
Turning the camera on, the lens barrel extends slightly, but this being a fixed 18.5-mm lens, it's not like turning on a camera with a big zoom and the movement is minimal, maybe a centimeter or so. It also happens very quickly. There's a control ring around the lens for manual focus, and focus settings (AF, macro and manual) are controlled by a switch on the side of the camera.
While there's a hotshoe on the top of the camera for an external flash, there's also a somewhat abrupt pop-up flash. Personally, I'd have liked to see this omitted and an optical viewfinder included in its place. I know there's an optional optical viewfinder available for the camera, but at US$450 this doesn't come cheap and adds considerable cumbersome bulk to the device.
After turning it on, the Nikon Coolpix A can be ready to shoot very quickly, often before you are. It is as fast as any non-DSLR I've used, which is a good thing for a camera which will most probably be bought by people who are used to the speed and responsiveness of DSLRs.
As mentioned previously, there are plenty of manual controls on the Coolpix A and it will be a familiar shooting experience for Nikon shooters. On the top of the camera, the shutter button is joined by a command and mode dial. The mode dial gives access to PASM (Program, Aperture priority, Shutter priority, and Manual) options as well as Auto, Scene and two user options, which are almost enough to make D800 and D4 users jealous.
Using the button press and dial spin method, most settings can be quickly accessed and changed. The most glaring contradiction to this is accessing movie recording mode (more on that later). The GUI looks good on the 3-inch LCD with 921,000 dots, and will also be familiar to previous Nikon users, though it could be harder for new users to navigate. It's not as intuitive as that on something like the Sony RX100, but gets the job done perfectly well.
A control ring around the lens barrel allows users to focus manually, though because the lens protrusion is so small, it can feel a little fiddly in operation and isn't as smooth as that of quality DSLR lenses. It's also worth noting that the camera forgets a manual focus setting and defaults to infinity when powered down and back on again. This could be frustrating if you're a keen zone focuser.
Using the camera, I again felt myself wishing for an optical viewfinder. If I was to buy this camera, it would certainly be with the optional DF-CP1 viewfinder, (or a third party alternative). As such I was also slightly disappointed that I couldn't find a way of turning the LCD off, rather than just dimming it. This means that if adding a hotshoe viewfinder, the LCD will still be glowing against your cheek.
The only other slightly negative issue I ran into using the camera was that it feels like it requires two hands to hold and operate. Where the similar Ricoh GR is designed to be used in one hand, the Nikon Coolpix A handles a lot more like a DSLR.
While I've mentioned that the Nikon Coolpix A can be ready to shoot in double-quick time, it's a shame the autofocus doesn't quite live up to this speediness. That's not to say it's slow, in fact it's quick for this type of camera, it's just that if you're coming from a DSLR you'll notice the difference.
The autofocus on the Nikon Coolpix A is actually suitably quick in most situations, and this isn't going to be a valid excuse for missing all but the briefest of shots. It seems to perform well in most lighting conditions, though is slightly slower in darker situations, and on the whole does so without excessive hunting.
Subject-tracking AF does the job of keeping moving subjects in focus, and it performed better than I expected when combined with the burst speed shooting of 4 fps. Face recognition is another focus mode which performed well and is a handy addition to have in your shooting arsenal.
In general autofocus mode, the camera has a minimum focus distance of 50 cm (1 ft, 8 in), but in macro mode this is reduced to 10 cm (4 in) and the camera still performs well. This means you can get close enough to that tasty slice of cake for taking gratuitous food shots.
There's absolutely no disputing the quality of images that this little camera can produce, as they are quite simply gorgeous. Thanks to that large DX-format sensor, there is no telling them apart from an APS-C DSLR with a good quality lens on it. And given they're coming from a camera which can sit in a jacket pocket, that's really saying something.
In addition to shooting JPEGs, the Nikon Coolpix A can turn out 14-bit RAW files which are much more forgiving in post processing. There's also the option to perform in-camera NEF (RAW) processing to get your images looking their best before exporting them to a computer. Because Nikon omitted the optical low-pass filter, images are said to render details better, but unless you're a pixel-peeper you're unlikely to notice the difference.
Sixteen megapixels sit nicely on an APS-C sized sensor and are generally more than enough – unless you're wanting to crop images heavily – to give detailed images which can be printed at large sizes. The larger-than-usual sensor also means the camera is capable of performing better at low light than equally-sized counterparts, with minimal noise showing up until you reach higher ISO settings.
The above image shows 100 percent crops from the same image shot at a range of ISOs. While you can see small amounts of noise showing up from ISO 640, remember this is showing 100 percent crops. Personally, I would happily dial up to ISO 1600 without worrying unduly about negatively impacting an image. ISO 3200 and even 64000 can produce acceptable images in conditions in which it would previously not have been worth getting your camera out.
The lens on the Nikon Coolpix A is possibly the more controversial aspect of the camera. The fixed 18.5-mm lens gives an equivalent of 28-mm in 35-mm format, which is considered by many to be an in-between focal length. Some street photographers will argue it's too wide, and would prefer a more common 35-mm lens (in 35-mm format) while others say it's not wide enough for landscapes.
Personally, I don't dislike the focal length. I often shoot with a 28-mm on my full frame DSLR, so it felt familiar. And because this lens has has been specially designed for the camera and optimized for the DX-format CMOS sensor, it performs very well indeed. Constructed of seven elements in five groups, it is very sharp and suffers minimal distortion. Using a seven-blade iris diaphragm, images shot with wider apertures can feature a pleasing background blur.
This brings me onto another common criticism of the Coolpix A, that the lens is only f/2.8. Some people would have liked the lens to have been f/2 or even f/1.8 (allowing for shallower depth of field and use in lower light situations). Had the camera featured a 35-mm or 50-mm equivalent lens, I would have agreed that a faster lens would have been a better choice. But at 28-mm equivalent, I think the f/2.8 works fine and the size trade-off of a faster lens could have made the camera too big.
I almost didn't test the movie recording on the Nikon Coolpix A, not because of any purist photography tendencies but because, as mentioned earlier, accessing movie mode isn't as easy as it could be. There's no dedicated physical access to it – it's buried in the menu – and as a result I very nearly forgot about it altogether.
In the end I set up the front function button to give me faster access to it via shooting release modes. While the camera is capable of shooting full HD video at 30/25/24 fps and has built-in stereo microphones, there's no audio input and I personally found the fixed-lens much more of a restriction for movie recording than shooting stills.
If you've got big enough pockets – both in terms of money and physical space – the $1,100 Nikon Coolpix A could be the camera for you. It's just replaced the Sony RX100 as my favorite pocketable compact digital camera. But it's not a camera for everyone. It has a fixed lens, and the length of that fixed lens means that the camera has a very specific audience.
If you're part of that target market, in that you don't mind a fixed 28-mm equivalent lens, the Coolpix A can be surprisingly versatile. Its discrete styling gives it obvious appeal as a street shooting camera, but it's also great for someone who values image quality and wants to travel light. The wide angle lens also makes the camera good for shooting family gatherings, indoors, or even landscapes.
Things that really impressed me about the camera included the sturdy build quality, the understated styling, and the big one: that big-camera image quality. Looking back at images, you really wouldn't know whether they'd been taken on this or a considerably larger DSLR.
My only real disappointment with the Coolpix A was the autofocus speed, which really can't be that much of a complaint as it is still more than adequate as it is. That's not to say that the camera is otherwise perfect. A crop mode giving a 35-mm equivalent would have been nice (like the Ricoh GR) and that could been made even more useful with a larger resolution. There's also the lack of built-in optical viewfinder, but I won't go into that again.
Obvious comparisons can be made with the Fujifilm X100s (which has a 35-mm equivalent lens and more physical controls, but is bigger) and the Ricoh GR (which has almost identical specs and a smaller price tag). And if you are looking at the Coolpix A then you might have also looked at the Leica X2, the Sigma DP Merrills and the full-frame Sony RX1.
All in all, the Nikon Coolpix A is a great camera: a big sensor in a compact body and with a great quality lens. For me, the quality of a fixed lens holds more appeal than a zoom, although a 35-mm would suit me better. But is it worth the $1,100 asking price? Only you can answer that.
Product page: Nikon Coolpix A
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