Nikon Coolpix A review – At a glance

  • 16.2-million-pixel, APS-C-sized CMOS sensor
  • 18.5mm (28mm equivalent) f/2.8 lens
  • 3in, 921,000-dot LCD screen
  • 14-bit raw capture
  • ISO 100-25,600
  • 4fps shooting rate
  • Expeed 2 image processor
  • Street price £999

Nikon Coolpix A review – Introduction

As the general public increasingly opts to take its snapshots using mobile phones rather than compact cameras, many manufacturers have been forced to rethink their approach and adapt their compact line-ups. Over the past year or so, manufacturers have been reducing the number of compacts in their ranges and concentrating instead on more specific models, such as a travel zooms and high-end models.

This new direction has been the most positive area of growth in the camera market, with a new range of premium compact cameras appealing to many enthusiast photographers. The emphasis in these cameras has been on using large imaging sensors and high-quality lenses to produce image quality more akin to that of DSLRs than normal compacts.

The most notable success has been the Fujifilm X100 and the X100S, which have 12.3 and 16.3-million-pixel, APS-C-sized sensors respectively, the type more usually found in a DSLR or compact system camera. Even more impressive is the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX1, which packs a 24.3-million-pixel, full-frame sensor into what is one of the smallest cameras of its type.

Joining the premium compacts now is the Nikon Coolpix A. Like those that have gone before, it has an APS-C-sized sensor, but in this case with a resolution of 16.2 million pixels, and a fixed 18.5mm f/2.8 lens, equivalent to a 28mm focal length on a 35mm full-frame camera. Better still, it is all crammed into a small, reasonably slim body, making it a camera that can be taken everywhere.

With such a strong specification, the weight of expectation among enthusiast photographers lies heavy upon the Nikon Coolpix A. I have been looking forward to testing it.Nikon Coolpix A review – Features

Although on the outside the Nikon Coolpix A may look like a slightly larger version of the Coolpix P330, inside the cameras are very different. The key difference is that where the P330 has a typical compact-camera-sized sensor, the Nikon Coolpix A packs in an APS-C-sized, 16.2-million-pixel unit. This is the same sensor that is used in the Nikon D7000 DSLR, a camera that has gained something of a cult status for its excellent dynamic range and low image noise at high sensitivity settings.

The Nikon Coolpix A has an excellent ISO sensitivity range of 100-6400, extendable to ISO 25,600, and if its performance up to ISO 6400 matches that of the D7000, the Nikon Coolpix A could prove to be a very popular camera – but more on image quality later.

The Nikon Coolpix A follows the recent trend for removing the anti-aliasing (AA) filter from in front of the sensor. We have discussed this at length several times over the past year, so I won’t go into detail here, but suffice it to say that removing the AA filter should improve detail resolution and sharpness, although it may mean that moiré patterning becomes an issue.

Nikon is obviously confident enough in the sensor and the processing capabilities of the Nikon Coolpix A’s Expeed 2 image processing engine that it does not believe moiré patterning will be a major concern.

A sensor of this calibre obviously needs a lens to match, and the Nikon Coolpix A comes equipped with a Nikkor 18.5mm f/2.8 lens, which offers the equivalent view of a 28mm lens on a 35mm full-frame camera.

As we would expect from a camera at this level, the Nikon Coolpix A has a full complement of exposure modes, including two custom modes that can be accessed from the mode dial on top of the camera. Images can be saved either in raw or JPEG format, or both simultaneously, with a maximum shooting rate of up to four frames per second.

There are, however, a few omissions that I would have liked to have seen included in the Nikon Coolpix A. First, there is no built-in electronic viewfinder, although there is an optional optical viewfinder accessory, which I will discuss in more detail later.

Second, there is no built-in ND filter. Although the lens has a maximum aperture of f/2.8 and not f/1.8, ND filters are quite common in high-end compact cameras and it would have been a good idea to include one in the Nikon Coolpix A.

Finally, the USB socket is not the universal Micro USB unit that is now used on many compacts and CSCs. As many mobile phones are also now charged via Micro USB, the leads required to transfer data or charge the battery are plentiful and USB sockets are found everywhere. I’ve even charged a camera using a USB socket on the back of a television in a hotel room when I have forgotten to bring a foreign power adapter with me.

While a battery charger is included, and charging via USB is slower, I think it would have been in Nikon’s favour to ditch the less common connection the firm uses and go for the more widely available option.

Nikon Coolpix A review – Nikkor 18.5mm f/2.8 lens

There are many advantages to using a fixed lens. First, a fixed lens is smaller than even a short zoom lens, which helps to keep the camera size to a minimum. Another plus point is that a fixed lens has the potential to produce far sharper images than a zoom lens.

The Coolpix A is fitted with an 18.5mm f/2.8 lens that, when paired with the APS-C sensor, produces the same field of view as a 28mm lens on a full-frame camera. The optic comprises seven elements in five groups, which produces a minimum focus distance of 10cm when the camera is set to its macro mode.

I was very impressed with the quality of the lens. When combined with the lack of an anti-aliasing filter and the sensor, it resolves a superb amount of detail. Even more impressive is the sharpness of images in the corners. When shooting landscapes, grass, the trees and shrubs that would usually appear soft are still distinguishable and detailed. There is also only the merest hint of curvilinear distortion, so an aspherical lens element or two has clearly been used in the design.

Whether the 28mm-equivalent focal length is suitable will depend entirely on the individual’s style of photography and the images they take. I find that 28mm is my favoured focal length for landscapes and I use this focal length a lot, particularly when taking travel images. However, as a general-purpose lens, I find 35mm is more suitable. That said, users of the Coolpix A need only take a few steps forward to make up for this slight difference in focal length.

Image: The Nikon Coolpix A’s f/2.8 lens creates a nice shallow depth of field

Nikon Coolpix A review – Build and handling

The Coolpix A is a very conservative-looking camera. Its simple black polycarbonate body is fairly linear in design and it has a magnesium-alloy top-plate. On the front of the camera is a slight rubber strip that acts as a grip. The lack of a significant grip helps to keep the depth of the Coolpix A to a minimum, which in turn means that it is easy to slip into a pocket. I would have liked the option of a slightly larger grip that could be screwed in, though, to offer extra support.

The Coolpix A could easily be mistaken for the Coolpix P7700 or the P330 and it has obviously come from the same design department. As photographers, we spend more time behind the camera than in front of it, and as such I would rather blend into the background a little more with the black version of the camera. The silver version is the better-looking model, though.

In terms of operating the camera I had no real problems, and all the buttons are clearly labelled. On the side of the camera is a focusing switch that changes between manual and automatic focusing, and a focus-limiting setting to allow macro shooting. By default, macro shooting is not available, and limiting the range in this way helps to speed up the focusing.

On the front of the camera is a customisable function button that can be easily pressed while the camera is in use. On the rear is another function button, as well as the option to set the function of the rear control dial. Overall, there is just enough in terms of customisable buttons to allow quick access to the features and settings you may need to change.

Around the lens is another dial that is used to manually focus the lens, and a quick turn of this switches it from autofocus to manual focus. The focus ring operates electronically rather than mechanically. This means that as the ring is turned, it sends an electronic signal to shift the focusing motors. One improvement that I would make is to allow the ring to change the lens aperture setting. A number of other cameras offer this facility and I’m surprised that it hasn’t been included in the Coolpix A’s custom menu. After all, on a camera like this a photographer will change the aperture far more frequently than they will focus manually.

Nikon Coolpix A review – Metering

Image: (Left): the raw image seems to have a little blown-out highlight detail, and the plinth is very dark. (Right): Adjusting the highlights and shadows reveals a lot of detail that looked lost

With centreweighted, spot and evaluative metering, photographers using the Nikon Coolpix A should be able to cope with any tricky lighting situations. That said, I would imagine that for the most part the Coolpix A will be used in its evaluative mode (or matrix, as Nikon calls it).

When shooting landscape images using matrix metering, the Coolpix A produces good exposures with the emphasis seemingly on retaining as much highlight detail in the sky as possible. On a bright but hazy overcast day, I found that the metering tended to underexpose the foreground of a scene while keeping detail in the sky. Naturally, this meant that the foreground needed lightening in software, which, given the capabilities of the sensor, presents no significant problem, especially at low sensitivities where noise isn’t an issue. Those who shoot JPEG images may want to increase the Active D-Lighting in this situation to help brighten shadows a little.

With a prominent subject occupying most of the scene, the matrix metering performs admirably, providing the subject with a good exposure. With quick access to exposure compensation via a button on the rear of the camera, exposures can be quickly adjusted, and most photographers should feel confident leaving the Coolpix A set to matrix metering while shooting.

One mode I found useful was Auto ISO. Most cameras have this function in some form, but it can be quite basic and will simply select the lowest possible ISO sensitivity while maintaining a fast enough shutter speed to shoot handheld. The Coolpix A offers a little more in terms of control, as the minimum shutter speed, which by default is set to 1/30sec, and maximum ISO setting can be selected. Now any ISO sensitivity can be chosen, and the auto ISO will only kick in when the shutter speed drops. So, for example, the camera can be set to ISO 400 and then, only if the lighting conditions become dark enough that the shutter speed falls below 1/30sec, will the ISO sensitivity change and only enough to maintain the minimum shutter speed.

Shooting close-ups of flowers in aperture priority mode, with a sensitivity of ISO 100, I noticed that the Auto ISO feature shifted the sensitivity just a little to ISO 160, which was enough to increase the shutter speed so I could take the image handheld. In manual mode, the user can even pick the desired shutter speed and aperture, perhaps for a specific motion and depth of field they wish to capture. By then setting the Auto ISO minimum shutter speed to the selected exposure shutter speed, the Auto ISO mode will change the ISO appropriately if the light changes.

Nikon Coolpix A review – Autofocus

Image: Macro mode has a minimum focus distance of 10cm, which is quite impressive given the size of the sensor in the Coolpix A. Focusing is a little slower within the macro range 

I found the contrast-detection autofocus of the Coolpix A to be steady, rather than snappy. For the types of images that will be taken with the camera it should be perfectly fine, but it is a little slower than we are used to seeing from the best CSCs. In dim light the camera does tend to hunt a little more, but unless it is very dark it still manages to focus correctly. Similarly, the Coolpix A is a little slower to focus when in its macro mode. In fact, if an image is taken in the macro setting, then switched to the standard AF mode to focus in the distance, it becomes clear why Nikon has included the macro limited range, as offering the whole range would clearly have significantly slowed down the focusing speed.

There is a reasonable range of focusing options, including single AF and full-time AF (AF-F). The latter continuously focuses the lens and is designed to be used for video capture. However, I found a way to make use of it for taking quick still shots, by first switching the function button on the front of the camera to AF lock. As the AF-F continuously focuses, often in the second it takes to compose a shot the Coolpix A will have already focused. Pressing the function button locks the focus, and with virtually no lag the shutter fires almost instantly.

Without using AF lock, AF-F mode will focus, but then as soon as the user puts their finger on the shutter button, the camera will focus again, rendering the mode almost pointless unless shooting video or using the AF lock trick.

The Coolpix A has two sizes of AF spot, normal and wide, with wide being the larger of the two. There is actually little automation of the AF area in use. By default, the AF spot is centred, but it can be repositioned to anywhere in the scene. It can be a little slow to shift the AF point around, particularly when set to its normal size, so by far the better option is to set the AF to its tracking mode. Use the centre point to select the subject to track and then simply recompose the scene. The tracking AF will now follow the position of the subject as the image is composed.

Nikon Coolpix A review – White balance and colour

As is standard on most Nikon cameras these days, there is a choice of two AWB settings on the Coolpix A. The first produces a completely neutral image, while the second takes tungsten lighting into consideration and leaves a hint of the orange colour in the picture.

I found that both of these auto settings worked well in daylight conditions, although sometimes they did just take a hint of any dominant colour out of a scene. Unless the weather conditions, or the scene, is constantly changing, try to use the default white balance settings for best results. This will leave some of the natural colour of the light in the scene, which looks attractive in daylight but is obviously more of a concern with artificial lighting.

The Coolpix A can, as standard, save images in either sRGB or AdobeRGB colour space, and there is a good but small range of picture styles available. The monochrome mode has the option to adjust the brightness, contrast and sharpness, as well as apply a coloured filter effect to alter how certain colours in the image are rendered in black & white. I generally set this to the red or orange filter to add contrast when shooting landscapes. There is also the option to apply a colour tone to the monochrome image. Again, if I do use these, I tend to add just a hint of blue to create a cooler image.

As in Nikon’s DSLRs, picture styles can be edited and saved as default user settings. Picture styles can even be created in Picture Control Utility, which comes with Nikon View NX or Nik Capture NX. This allows image styles to be adjusted with more precision and then loaded onto the Coolpix A. This is extremely useful for any Nikon DSLR users who want to use existing image styles they have created on the Coolpix A.

Image: This was shot using the Nikon Coolpix A’s black & white image style with the red filter effect used to darken the detail in the sky

Nikon Coolpix A review – Dynamic range

I was impressed with the dynamic range of the Coolpix A. Shadows had plenty of detail that could be recovered. At the lowest sensitivities, even an adjustment of up to +3EV revealed very little noise in shadow areas. Similarly, the evaluative-metered exposure left enough detail in the highlights that could be recovered in raw files that was lost in JPEG images. The dynamic range certainly matches what we would expect from a DSLR.

Nikon Coolpix A review – Noise, resolution and sensitivity

These images show 72ppi (100% on a computer screen) sections of images of a resolution chart, captured using the 18.5mm lens set to  f/5.6 . We show the section of the resolution chart where the camera starts to fail to reproduce the lines separately. The higher the number visible in these images, the better the camera’s detail resolution is at the specified sensitivity setting.

At ISO 100, the Coolpix A resolves up to almost 32 on our test chart, which is a very impressive number for a camera that has a resolution of 16.2 million pixels. In fact, it is about what we would expect from a camera with more than 20 million pixels. The detail resolution gradually declines as the sensitivity increases, but even at ISO 1600 the camera and lens can still resolve to around 28 on our chart.

In JPEG images noise is very well controlled, and it isn’t until around ISO 6400 that colour noise seems to creep in a little, with a hint of luminance noise softening detail slightly and reducing the resolution to around 26.

The Hi1 and Hi2 sensitivities suffer from colour and luminance noise to the detriment of image quality. Hi2 (ISO 25,600 equivalent) should be avoided, as it appears to push the sensor a little too far. Magenta noise is apparent and there is some linear pattern noise in dark areas.

In reasonable light I would be happy to shoot JPEGs with the ISO set to 100-3200 with little concern for noise. Raw images allow slightly more detail to be prised from the image, although it doesn’t really increase our test chart result, merely making images look sharper. Of course, it is far easier to reduce colour noise, and at higher sensitivities colour noise shouldn’t be an issue at all for raw shooters. Luminance noise is unavoidable as the ISO setting is increased, but the Coolpix A sensor does a good job of keeping this to a minimum. With careful exposure and editing, images look excellent even at higher sensitivities. As most users will take their images at between ISO 100 and 1600, I wouldn’t be too concerned about noise when using the Coolpix A, unless images are heavily edited for brightness.

Nikon Coolpix A review – LCD, live view and video

The specification of the Coolpix A’s screen will be familiar to many. The 3in, 921,000-dot screen has been used by Nikon in a number of other cameras going back almost six years to the Nikon D300 and D3. However, in that time technology has improved and the screen of the Coolpix A is noticeably better than that of the D300. The glass above the LCD screen is much thinner, which helps to reduce reflections, and the screen is also brighter, but with deeper blacks to create a higher contrast and better colours. Although there might be higher-resolution screens available, that include white pixels to help improve colour, brightness and contrast, the screen of the Coolpix A is very good and perfectly usable even in bright conditions.

There is no viewfinder, optical or digital, built in to the Coolpix A, but an optional optical unit can be attached via the camera’s hotshoe. This should appeal to many people, and by not including such a viewfinder the cost and size of the camera can be reduced.

I still find it incredible that so many compact cameras can record full HD 1080p video at 30fps, including the Coolpix A. Sadly, the movie mode is tucked away among the shooting modes, and there is no direct record button. For most photographers this shouldn’t be an issue as the video will hardly be used, but it is worth noting.

Nikon Coolpix A review – The competition

Even as I write this, the Nikon Coolpix A’s competition is increasing, with the Pentax Ricoh GR having just been announced. The GR has a strikingly similar specification, given its 16.2-million-pixel, APS-C-sized sensor and 18.5mm f/2.8 lens. The two cameras also look similar, although the GR is slightly smaller. Costing just £599 at launch, the GR should offer the Coolpix A some serious competition, and we look forward to testing it in the coming weeks.

Elsewhere, the most obvious existing rival is the Fujifilm X100S, with a 16.3-million-pixel, APS-C-sized sensor, but also a 23mm lens and built-in hybrid optical/digital viewfinder. And let’s not forget the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX1, which has an impressive 24.3-million-pixel, full-frame sensor, 35mm Carl Zeiss lens and superb image quality, but at a cost of £2,500.

Nikon Coolpix A review – Our verdict

Combining a small compact camera body and an APS-C-sized sensor, the Nikon Coolpix A delivers both convenience and high image quality. The camera has all the features that most enthusiast photographers would want from a fixed-lens compact camera, although there are a few quirks affecting the camera’s handling.

While the lack of a built-in viewfinder or EVF may concern some people, the trade-off is a small, genuinely pocketable camera that will serve landscape, documentary and travel photographers well.

The image quality can’t be argued with, and the amount of resolved detail and edge-to-edge sharpness of the lens equals the competition, as does the Coolpix A’s performance in low light. Images really are excellent.

At around £999, the Nikon Coolpix A is reasonably priced given the features it boasts and will be a welcome addition to many a photographer’s camera bag.

Nikon Coolpix A – Key features

Flash and hotshoe
On top of the Coolpix A is a hotshoe that is compatible with Nikon Speedlights, but there is also a small pop-up flash. This has a guide number of 6m @ ISO 100, so should be bright enough to add a touch of fill-in flash for portraits in backlit or low-light conditions.

Instead of a switch, the Coolpix A has an on/off lever that requires only a very slight nudge to operate it. When the camera is switched on, it powers up in around 0.5sec and is ready for action.

GPS/Wi-Fi socket
This socket allows the Nikon WU-1a Wi-Fi adapter or the GP-1 GPS unit to be connected to the camera. With the WU-1a attached, images can be transferred to a smartphone or tablet, or uploaded directly online. The device also allows the camera to be controlled remotely. The Nikon GP-1 GPS allows location data to be embedded into images.

SD cards
The Coolpix A is compatible with SD, SDHC and SDXC memory cards, with the card socket situated next to the battery on the bottom of the camera.

Image: The amount of fine detail that can be resolved is impressive, and very little sharpening needs to be done when processing raw images