The Nikon COOLPIX A is a premium compact sitting at the very top of Nikon's COOLPIX range. Does it warrant the premium price tag? Find out in our Nikon COOLPIX A review...
The arrival of the Nikon Coolpix A is set to appeal to a specific audience with its fixed lens design, but boasts a number of interesting features that we’ve never witnessed on a Nikon compact before. Is this then an indication of the way Nikon see their compact cameras heading in the future? Perhaps it is, but with a launch price that’s just shy of four-figures, it has to offer something spectacular if it’s to score highly in terms of value for money. Let’s begin by assessing the Nikon Coolpix A’s key features.
Nikon COOLPIX A review – Features
Though the Nikon Coolpix A shares similar visual characteristics to other compacts in Nikon’s Coolpix range, a glance of its specification reveals it’s an entirely different breed of compact camera altogether. Instead of featuring a 1/2.3inch or 1/1.7inch CMOS sized sensor, the Nikon Coolpix A incorporates a larger APS-C CMOS sensor that’s been lifted from the company’s enthusiast DSLR, the Nikon D7000. Squeezing a sensor of this size inside a compact that easily slips into a trouser pocket is an impressive technological achievement and it’s no surprise that it claims to be the world’s smallest compact camera to feature a DX-format sensor.
Much like the Nikon D800E and Nikon D7100, Nikon has omitted the anti-aliasing filter in an attempt to squeeze the very best out of what the sensor has to offer. The benefit is claimed to be better detail rendition and it’s likely the Nikon Coolpix A’s in-camera processing has been adapted to rectify any false colours or moiré patterning, which can occur as a result of removing the filter altogether.
The Nikon Coolpix A produce an effective resolution of 16.2MP, with Nikon stating the idea behind this is to combine the portability of a compact with the performance of a DSLR. As well as inheriting the sensor from the Nikon D7000, the Nikon Coolpix A adopts Nikon’s EXPEED 2 image processor. This is technology is a generation older than the EXPEED 3 processor we’ve been used to seeing on Nikon’s latest DSLRs. Perhaps it’s no surprise then that the camera doesn’t shoot a breathtaking speeds, but at a more conservative 4fps when the release mode is set to continuous.
Unlike compacts that feature zoom lenses, the Nikon Coolpix A is more of a niche product with its fixed lens. The 18mm f/2.8 wide-angle optic is equivalent to 28mm in traditional 35mm terms and features a construction that’s made up of 7 elements in 5 groups, with 1 aspherical lens completing the design. The decision to use a fixed lens rather than a zoom is presumably in order to optimize the best image quality at one specific focal length while ensuring the lens doesn’t protrude too far from the body, which would affect its size and portability.
The limitations of the fixed lens immediately single out the Nikon Coolpix A for anyone looking for a compact that’s capable of zooming in to the heart of the action. That said, the Nikon Coolpix A doesn’t pretend to be anything it’s not and though it may not be the best choice if you’re after a general purpose compact, it’s apt for reportage, street, travel and documentary photography, where the importance lies in the portability of the camera and the quality of the images it produces.
The Nikon Coolpix A features an ISO range of 100-6400, although it’s possible to push the sensitivity higher if required to a maximum equivalent of ISO 25,600 in the Hi2 setting, much like the Nikon D7100. Supporting 14-bit compressed Raw (NEF) and JPEG file formats, autofocus is the contrast-detect type and offers the choice of Single-servo AF or Full-time-servo AF with a selection of four AF-area modes that include subject tracking, face priority, wide-area AF and normal-area AF.
Viewfinder and video
Though the Nikon Coolpix A isn’t supplied with a viewfinder, Nikon has produced the DF-CP1 optical viewfinder for those who’d like to compose traditionally. Without it you’ll be reliant on using the 3in, 921k-dot screen and at the time of writing, the price of the optional viewfinder was still to be confirmed by Nikon.
For those interesting in creating video, the Nikon Coolpix A supports full HD video at a variety of frame rates, including 30/25 and 24 frames per second. Movies are recorded in the MPEG-4 format using H.264 compression and a built in stereo microphone is included. Regrettably, there’s no 3.5mm port to attach an external microphone, which seems an oversight when you consider Nikon’s ME-1 microphone could have been attached via the hot shoe on the top plate.
To make the Nikon Coolpix A apt for those who’d like to transfer their images wirelessly to mobile devices, the camera is compatible with Nikon’s WU-1a mobile adapter (£49). Any travel photographers who’d like to tag their images with GPS co-ordinates also have the option of clipping on Nikon’s GP-1 GPS unit (£199).
Nikon COOLPIX A review – Design
To give the Nikon Coolpix A added strength, aluminum alloy covers have been used at the front and back, while the top plate surface is made from magnesium alloy. The rock-solid feel of the camera suggests it’s resilient enough to shrug off occasional misuse and heavy handling, but given a choice we would have preferred a traditional lens cap which is less prone to damage or failure.
The overall design of the camera shares similarities with the Nikon Coolpix P310. When the two are viewed side by side, it’s clear to see where Nikon’s inspiration for the Coolpix A has come from. The top plate layout is virtually identical, but Nikon has used the Coolpix A’s larger footprint wisely to incorporate a hot shoe for attaching an external flash if the built in flash isn’t powerful enough for the consumers needs.
All the buttons on the top plate are very well positioned, with the mode dial in easy reach of the thumb when the camera is used single handedly. The toggle on/off switch offers a quick way of turning on and off the camera, and against the stopwatch the camera sprung into life within 2.5 seconds of flicking the switch.
Bulk and controls
Slightly bulkier than the Nikon P310, the Nikon Coolpix A’s buttons beside the screen are a welcomed addition.These are used to control ISO, exposure compensation and zooming into images in playback mode. The zoom buttons are also used to magnify the screen view to guarantee pin-sharp results when focusing manually. On the subject of MF, the focusing ring offers a pleasingly smooth action, and a focus distance indicator is displayed onscreen for reference. There’s also an AF/MF switch on the body, with a macro setting in-between for the times when you’d like to focus closer than the 50cm minimum focus distance allows.
In keeping with its DSLR roots, the Nikon Coolpix A employs the same graphical user interface (GUI) from Nikon’s DSLR range – such as the Nikon D7100 – to make it easy to navigate for those familiar with the layout of Nikon’s menu system. The scroll dial at the rear steers you through the menus in an instant and the quick menu provides direct access to the most commonly used settings, including image quality, white balance, metering modes and exposure compensation.
One omission on the Nikon Coolpix A is the lack of a movie-record button on the body. Disappointingly, neither of the two function buttons can be assigned to this task, and to create a movie clip you have to load the quick menu, enter the release mode, scroll down to movie recording before hitting the central OK button to commence a recording. Likewise, when you’re in movie mode, it’s not quick or easy to switch back to shooting still images, which could be the difference between bagging yourself a shot and missing an opportunity.
Nikon COOLPIX A review – Performance
For a compact that has stiff competition from rivals such as the Fujifilm X100S, the Nikon Coolpix A has to offer a jaw-dropping performance if it’s to get the thumbs up from the audience it’s aimed at. Regrettably, the Nikon Coolpix A is let down by a mediocre AF performance that’s not immediate or as sprightly as we’d hoped for. In bright lighting conditions the camera manages to focus on subjects at tolerable speed, but as soon as you attempt to focus in dim or darkening lightening conditions, the AF system starts to struggle. The Nikon Coolpix A does feature an in-built AF illuminator, but the way the lens hunts forward and back becomes irritating when you just want it to lock on straight away without any hesitation or delay.
One explanation for the Nikon Coolpix A’s sluggish focusing speed is the contrast-detect AF system it uses. Not as fast as phase detect or a hybrid system, it leaves you with an underwhelmed impression of its performance, particularly when you take into account the high price of the camera and how some cheaper CSCs offer faster AF responses. To take some positives from the Nikon Coolpix A’s AF system, it’s great to have the option of positioning the AF point anywhere in the frame and the subject-tracking mode responds favorably to moving subjects.
In situations where you’d like to focus on a subject that’s closer than 50cm from the front element of the lens, you’re required to use the Nikon Coolpix A’s macro mode. This enables you shoot as closely as 10cm from a subject, but if you attempt to focus closer than this, an orange LED will flash above the screen to indicate that the camera should be pulled back within the minimum focus distance range of the lens.
AF performance aside, the Nikon Coolpix A is an enjoyable compact to use, made more so by having two scroll dials to take independent control of aperture and shutter speed. Setting up and customizing the Nikon Coolpix A is effortless and the same can be said when reviewing images in playback mode. The only thing we’d say that isn’t clear is how to adjust the aperture on the heads-up screen display in manual mode. To do this, users are required to depress the exposure compensation dial at the same time as rotating the command dial on the top plate rather than using the scroll dial at the rear.
The quality of the Nikon Coolpix A’s 3in, 921k-dot display is exceptional. We didn’t experience any difficulties composing or viewing images, and reflections on the screen surface didn’t cause any issues either. The optional viewfinder isn’t an essential accessory that’s needed for this camera and its use is limited to compositional purposes due to it being the optical type, not electronic. Aimed at passionate photographers that enjoy taking manual control, the addition of a touch on the Nikon Coolpix A wouldn’t somehow seem right. With all the functions being easy to access from the quick menu, the only benefit of a touch screen would be to reposition the AF point more quickly around the frame.
Loaded with a class 10 SDXC card and set to continuous shooting, the Nikon Coolpix A records 12 frames set to Raw before the buffer kicks in and prevents more frames being taken. This compares to 10 frames set to Raw&JPEG and 38 frames set to JPEG (Fine) only. With a maximum burst rate of 4fps, the Nikon Coolpix A is certainly no speed-king and when it’s compared against its key rival, the Fujifilm’s X100S, it shoots 2fps slower.
Nikon COOLPIX A review – Image Quality
Colour and White Balance
The Nikon Coolpix A offers all the white balance settings you’d expect from a camera of its pedigree, including auto, incandescent, cool-white fluorescent, direct sunlight, flash, cloudy and shade. Set to Auto, the Nikon Coolpix A records faithful colours in bright light, but we did notice that it had a tendency to produce slightly cooler results than we’d like in overcast conditions. Provided you shoot in Raw, this is a quick fix with the temperature slider inside Adobe Camera Raw.
After shooting our Datacolor Spyder Checker chart, we inspected our results to ensure there were no signs of muted colour at high sensitivities. Vibrant and punchy colours are recorded between ISO 100-6400 and it was only in the highest expanded settings that we witnessed a very slight weakening in colour saturation.
Testing the Nikon Coolpix A under a variety of lighting conditions revealed no obvious shortcomings in the metering system. The camera handles tricky lighting very well and in scenes where there were dark shadows combined with some brighter areas, the camera showed no apparent signs of underexposure or overexposure. If anything we’d say the metering system is slightly in favor of getting the exposure spot-on in the shadows as the amount of detail that’s captured in dark areas straight out of the camera is impressive. If you’d like to get creative with exposure, the Nikon Coolpix A supports +/-5EV control in steps of 1/3EV, while exposure compensation for video is limited to +/-2EV.
With the Nikon Coolpix A’s Raw files yet to be supported by an Adobe Camera Raw update at the time of testing, we had little choice but to use Nikon’s ViewNX2 software to convert all test images to TIFF (8 Bit) before they could be inspected. With the largest sensor we’ve seen in a Nikon Coolpix model to date, we expected an impressive detail performance from the 16.2MP CMOS sensor and we weren’t left disappointed.
At ISO 100 the sensor resolves 28 lines per millimeter – the highest readout of any Coolpix camera we’ve ever tested. At higher sensitivities images do appear slightly softer, but this only becomes noticeable as you begin to push beyond ISO 1600. The detail the Nikon Coolpix A resolves for a camera of its size is exceptional and even before we had a chance to inspect the resolution test files, we were impressed by the detail that could be viewed at a high magnification in playback mode on the cameras screen.
To get a clear understanding of how well the Nikon Coolpix A handles noise, we shot a series of images in front of our diorama with the sensitivity expanded to its maximum 100-25,600 equivalent range. As could be expected, there are no traces of noise whatsoever at the lowest ISO setting and the first noticeable signs of noise appearing were discovered at ISO 800 in a light grey section of our colorful diorama.
The colour noise and luminance noise that becomes evident between ISO 800 and 3200 isn’t wildly disruptive to the final quality of an image when it’s viewed at 100%, but when you push above this point noise becomes less grain-like and has more of an influence on degrading image sharpness. For the best results you won’t want to push beyond ISO 3200 unless you’re prepared to carry out some noise reduction in post production. We’d also advise to stay clear of the ISO 12,800 and 25,600 settings, which introduce high levels of colour noise in the shadows.
Being a fixed lens there are no excuses for it to put in anything but a fine optical performance. Opening the lens to its maximum aperture (f/2.8) revealed there are signs of vignetting in the corners of the frame, however it’s quick to disappear as the aperture is closed to f/5.6. Chromatic aberrations are well controlled by the lens. Inspecting a selection of Raw files along high-contrast edges throughout the aperture range revealed no cause for concern, however users should be aware that the far corners of images shot at the maximum aperture are slightly softer than those shot with the aperture closed down.
Nikon COOLPIX A review – Verdict
With the Nikon Coolpix A being the first premium compact in Nikon’s Coolpix range, there’s no predecessor to compare it to. Instead, we’re left looking at its rivals to see how it stacks up against the competition. The Nikon Coolpix A’s direct competitor is the Fujifilm X100S, but with a much smaller footprint, the Nikon Coolpix A is a more convenient option if size and portability are your main concerns.
The Nikon Coolpix A officially becomes the first premium compact with an APS-C sized sensor that can be slotted into a trouser pocket with ease, and though the lens may not be as bright as the f/2 variant as found on the Fujifilm X100S, the wider focal will benefit photographers who’d like to squeeze as much as they can within the frame.
Our initial impressions of the Nikon Coolpix A’s NIKKOR 18mm f/2.8 lens were that it’s too wide for the street, travel and documentary photographers it’s designed to appeal to. As we discovered, the wide-angle lens encourages you to get closer to what you’re shooting but this doesn’t lend itself to every subject or situation, and for street portraiture we’d prefer a slightly longer focal length.
The combination of the wide-angle lens and fairly slow AF performance suggest there are areas for improvement and while on the subject of making the camera better, we’d also like to see a filter thread on the front of the lens – something advanced photographers looking at this type of camera would need for screwing on long exposures ND filters or polarisers.
The area in which the Nikon Coolpix A excels is in its build quality and the quality of the images it produces. Strong, robust and durable, it feels like a step up from the Coolpix P-series, which of course it is, and most importantly for a camera of this type it feels like it’s going to survive demanding use. Detail is exceptional for a camera of its size and users can be confident of producing first class results up to ISO 3200, without noise interfering with the overall quality.
As a first attempt, Nikon has produced a very powerful premium compact camera that’s capable of taking great images, but it’s let down by a performance that doesn’t match it’s price tag. For Nikon users looking for a smaller camera to compliment their DSLR, the Nikon Coolpix A is a camera that can be picked up and used instinctively, but when you consider the price, it’s particularly expensive at £999, especially when you consider there are some oversights and there’s such stiff competition from other manufacturers in the market.
The arrival of the Nikon Coolpix A is set to appeal to a specific
audience with its fixed lens design, but boasts a number of interesting
features that we’ve never witnessed on a Nikon compact before. Is this
then an indication of the way Nikon see their compact cameras heading in
the future? Perhaps it is, but with a launch price that’s just shy of
four-figures, it has to offer something spectacular if it’s to score
highly in terms of value for money. Watch our video review to find out more…
Sample Image Gallery
These are just a small selection of test images that we captured while out testing the Nikon Coolpix A. For a full selection of sample images, head on over to the Nikon Coolpix A review sample image gallery.
Nikon has used the Focus on Imaging show as its opportunity to showcase their latest compact camera – the Nikon Coolpix A. Featuring a 16.1MP APS-C sized sensor that lacks an optical low-pass filter much like the recently announced D7100, Nikon say it’s the same sensor as found with the D7000. Paired alongside an EXPEED 2 image processor, the ISO range is identical to the D7000 and can be set between 100-6400 and is extendable at the high end to an equivalent of ISO 25,600 in the the Hi2 setting.
Designed for passionate photographers that seek full manual control and excellent image quality from a compact model, the Coolpix A supports 14-bit compressed Raw shooting well as JPEG. To keep the camera small and easy to fit in the pocket, the Coolpix A features a fixed 18.5mm f/2.8 NIKKOR lens that equivalent to 28mm in 35mm terms. This prime lens is claimed to deliver excellent image quality for the street and documentary photographers this camera is aimed at appealing to. The optical construction is made up of 7 glass elements in 5 groups, with 1 aspherical lens making up the design.
For those who like to take movies as well as stills, the Nikon Coolpix A supports full HD video at a variety of frame rates that include 30/25 and 24 frames per second. A built in stereo microphone is also offered and movies are recorded in the MPEG-4 format using H.264 compression.
The built in flash that raises from the top plate has a guide number of 6.6 and also pre-flashes for greater accuracy in extremely dark shooting situations. Turning our attention to the body, Nikon has used aluminium alloy front and back covers to keep the body as rigid and strong as possible, while the top plate is made from magnesium alloy. The on/off switch is well positioned for quick operation with the index finger and the scroll dpad at the rear can be used to quickly navigate through the menu system. As for the screen, the Nikon Coolpix A features a 3inch, 921k-dot display, however it’s not a touch screen.
At the launch of the Coolpix A compact, Nikon made it known that there has been popular demand from their consumers for a model of this type for quite some time. To make it attractive for those who like to compose images via a viewfinder rather than the screen, the Nikon Coolpix A will be supported by an optional DF-CP2 Optical Viewfinder that clips onto the cameras hot shoe. It’ll also be compatible with Nikon’s GP-1 GPS unit and WU-1a wireless adapter for transmitting images to iOS and Android devices such as smartphones and tablets.
Available from the 21st March, the Nikon Coolpix A will cost £999.99 and will be produced in two colour variations – black and a more unusual, but desirable, titanium finish.
Additional Key Features of the Nikon COOLPIX A
- Wi-Fi compatible: use Wi-Fi to transfer your high-quality images and movies to your smart device* via an optional Wi-Fi dongle (WU-1a).
- Full HD (1080p) movie recording: in 30, 25 or 24 fps and in stereo, through the built-in stereo microphone.
- Advanced GUI: employs a graphical user interface (GUI) inherited from Nikon’s DSLR range. Continuous shooting at 4 fps (up to 26 frames): capture fast-moving action at 4 frames per second.
- Optional external optical viewfinder: for those who prefer a traditional viewfinder, this optional attachment (DF-CP1) offers an alternative to the LCD screen. The ‘hot shoe’ can also be used to attach a more powerful External Speedlight flash unit.
Compatible with Optional GPS (GPS-1): allowing you to record the exact location (latitude and longitude) of images as a ‘geotag’.