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Nikon Coolpix A Review

by
Preview posted 03/04/2013
Review posted

Nikon Coolpix A review -- Three quarter view

With the Coolpix A, Nikon breaks new ground for its fixed-lens camera line. For the first time ever, a DX-format image sensor appears in a Coolpix-branded body. The result is a camera presenting a very interesting proposition for the street photographer looking for large-sensor image quality, but not wanting the bulk of an SLR.

Rivals. Although the Coolpix A marks a totally new approach for Nikon, it enters a market niche that now has several established competitors. Optics manufacturer Sigma got the ball rolling back in 2006 when it launched the original DP1, a camera that eventually reached the market in 2008. German camera legend Leica joined the party with its X1 in 2009, and Fuji with its X100 in 2011. All three have since launched follow-ups. Sigma actually has no less than three large-sensor, fixed-lens models in its current line, differing mainly in their choice of lens. And since the Nikon's debut, Ricoh has also launched a strong contender.

And there are other entries that, in their way, demand comparison as well. Sony's RX1 is one example, although it sports a sensor far larger even than that in the Coolpix A, and a pricetag to match. Canon, meanwhile, takes a different route with its PowerShot G1 X, which offers up a large -- but narrower aspect -- image sensor coupled to a zoom lens. That's something all its rivals lack, increasing consumer appeal, but also adding significantly to its bulk.

Of all these, the nearest competitors to the Nikon Coolpix A are the Fujifilm X100S, Leica X2, Sigma DP1 Merrill, and the Ricoh GR. Nikon comes second to the Ricoh in terms of size, and those two cameras lead by quite some margin, as well. Nikon's contender is the third-most affordable in terms of list pricing, bested by the Ricoh GR and Sigma DP1 Merrill.

Camera Sensor
Type
Lens
(equiv.)
Dimensions
(w/o projections)
Cubic
Volume
Weight
(loaded)
List Price
Fujifilm X100S 16.3MP
X-Trans
CMOS
35mm
f/2.0
5.0 x 2.9 x 2.1 in.
(127 x 74 x 54 mm)
31.0 in3
(507 cc)
15.7 oz
(445 g)
US$1,300
Leica X2 16.2MP
CMOS
36mm
f/2.8
4.9 x 2.7 x 2.0 in.
(124 x 69 x 52 mm)
26.9 in3
(441 cc)
12.2 oz
(345 g)
US$2,000
Nikon Coolpix A 16.2MP
CMOS
28mm
f/2.8
4.4 x 2.6 x 1.6 in.
(111 x 64 x 40 mm)
17.6 in3
(288 cc)
10.5 oz
(298 g)
US$1,100
Ricoh GR 16.2MP
CMOS
28mm
f/2.8
4.6 x 2.4 x 1.4 in.
(117 x 61 x 35 mm)
15.1 in3
(248 cc)
8.6 oz
(243 g)
US$800
Sigma DP1 Merrill 14.8MP*
Foveon
28mm
f/2.8
4.8 x 2.6 x 2.5 in.
(122 x 67 x 64 mm)
31.8 in3
(521 cc)
13.8 oz
(391 g)
US$1,000
* Note: Sigma's Foveon sensor has resolving power similar to a 20-25 megapixel conventional CMOS.

Of the competition, Ricoh's GR -- announced shortly after the Coolpix A -- is without question its nearest rival. The lens specification is very similar, and the sensor design is likely very closely related. On paper the Ricoh is noticeably smaller, but in-hand that size difference isn't terribly noticeable. In terms of weight, however, the scales certainly tip in Ricoh's favor -- and while neither camera is terribly heavy, that's certainly something you may well wish for after a long day's shooting. Ricoh also wins for its impact on your bank statement.

Nikon wins for including a true twin-dial design, though, even if they're both on the rear of the camera. (You could even consider it to be triple-dial, if you count the focus ring around the lens barrel.) Ricoh, by contrast, offers what we'd consider to be one and a half dials, with the rear "dial" actually being a clickable rocker switch.

Sigma's camera, meanwhile, is similar to the Nikon in terms of optical specification, but in other areas there are important differences. Most notably, it features a higher-resolution sensor with full-color at every pixel location, but trades off on ISO sensitivity to achieve this. It also lacks a built-in flash strobe.

Nikon Coolpix A review -- Three quarter view with flash

Leica's X2 is, as you might expect for that brand, vastly more expensive, and its lens is rather tighter. It also has a narrower sensitivity range, and a more basic LCD panel. Its sensor is closer to that used by Nikon, though, and it does include a popup flash. We should note that of this group, the Leica is the only one where we cannot say with certainty whether or not it includes a low-pass filter.

Fujifilm's X100s is probably the furthest-differentiated from the Nikon Coolpix A. Its lens is not only tighter, but also brighter than that used by Nikon, and it's accompanied by a rangefinder-style viewfinder, where its rivals must rely on external optical finders. It also has an X-Trans II image sensor that uses a unique color filter array aimed at reducing moiré without an optical low-pass filter.

On paper, then, it's clearly the Ricoh that is Nikon's closest competitor. It's smaller, lighter, and more affordable. But as we've said many times, paper seldom tells the whole story -- the acid test is how a camera handles in the real world, and how its image quality compares. We've been fortunate to shoot both cameras side by side, and so while there will certainly be a significant measure of personal preference as to which is better for you, we'll nonetheless aim to answer that question.

Walkaround. The Coolpix A sports a body not much larger than that of a Nikon 1-series camera, if you don't count the lens. Factor a similar optic into the equation, and it's actually a little smaller, despite offering more than triple the sensor area. It also weighs just a couple of grams less than does the Nikon J3 with 10mm f/2.8 lens. All of which is great news, if you're looking for an unobtrusive street camera, and you're willing to sacrifice interchangeable-lens versatility to achieve that goal.

Nikon Coolpix A -- Front view

Seen from the front, the Nikon Coolpix A has a clean, businesslike design, with no unnecessary flair or affectations. It won't draw undue attention -- unless a fellow photographer catches that little gold DX badge, anyway -- letting you get your shots without your subject becoming self-conscious at the sight of a mammoth DSLR rig. A slim bar with leatherette trim attached to the camera serves as a grip. Coupled with a small protrusion for your thumb on the rear, this gives your fingers a little more purchase on the otherwise-smooth body.

There are just two controls on the front of the Nikon A: one of the camera's two Function buttons, nestled in the bottom right quadrant of the lens (as seen from the rear), and a focus ring encircling the lens barrel. Jumping up from the Function 1 button, you arrive at an autofocus assist lamp flanked by two small holes that are the left and right ports for the stereo microphone. Slide across to the other side of the lens, and you find a small, dark, circular window for the infrared remote receiver.

The lens itself extends to about double its original length when the camera is switched on, and includes a small, sliding lens barrier that retracts automatically as the lens is extended.

Nikon Coolpix A review -- Top view

The top deck is absolutely packed with controls and features, much as you'd expect from a camera aimed at enthusiasts. From left to right, there's a popup flash strobe, a standard ISO hot shoe with Nikon's intelligent contacts and a locking pin hole, a Mode dial, Shutter button encircled by a Power lever, and finally, a control dial. Directly behind the Power lever is a small, green lamp that makes clear when the camera is powered on.

Nikon Coolpix A -- Rear view

Enthusiasts will welcome the presence of two User modes on the Mode dial, for quick recall of settings. The popup flash strobe has rather limited articulation though, raising only a very short distance above the top deck of the camera.

Nikon Coolpix A review -- Left view

The flash strobe is released with a mechanical switch that sits directly behind the strobe itself, at the leftmost end of a slight bevel lining the top of the rear panel. Two small indicator lamps for the autofocus and flash subsystems sit in the middle of the camera on the same beveled area, right behind the Mode dial.

A column of four buttons line the left of the three-inch LCD panel. From top to bottom, these are the Exposure Compensation / Aperture button (which acts as a Lock button in Playback mode), the ISO / Function 2 button, a Zoom In button (Playback mode only; there's no digital zoom since this is an enthusiast camera), and a Help / Zoom Out / Index button.

Top to bottom on the right side of the LCD, the Playback and Menu buttons nestle inside the thumb grip, above a second control ring with central OK button. Beneath this are Nikon's configurable i-button, and a dedicated Delete button.

Nikon Coolpix A review -- Right view

There's only one other physical control on the Coolpix A, and it's to be found on the left end of the camera body. A small three-position slider selects the camera's focus mode. Above this is a hinged door, beneath which you can find both a combined GPS / wired remote control terminal, and a USB 2.0 High Speed port. At the very top is a lug with D-ring for the shoulder strap.

On the opposite side of the Coolpix A, the sole connection is a Type-C Mini HDMI port, located beneath another hinged, plastic door. This sits directly beneath the other strap lug with D-ring. If you plan to shoot much video, you'll likely want to remove these D-rings and rely instead on a wrist strap, to prevent handling noise from impacting your videos with every slight motion. One last detail on this side is a small cutout, plugged with a rubber flap at the base of the right-hand side of the Coolpix A's body.

The reason for this becomes clear when you flip the Coolpix A over: it's a cutout to allow access for a dummy battery cable, used to supply mains power to the camera body. Alongside the battery in a compartment on the base of the camera is a Secure Digital card slot. The only other features of note on the camera's base are a metal tripod socket (sadly not on the central axis of the lens), and a five-hole grille for the monaural speaker.


Nikon Coolpix A Review -- Shooter's Report

by

Nikon Coolpix A -- Sample photo

I had fun shooting with the Nikon Coolpix A. The prime lens made me look at subjects differently.

Since it was launched last March, I've been pretty intrigued by the Nikon Coolpix A, so I was glad to get my hands on the box and satisfy that curiosity. My shooting style typically favors zoom lenses, but over the last year or two I've picked up several primes, and have been working on learning a new style of shooting.

I can certainly see the attraction of shooting with a prime. Fixed focal-length lenses typically offer better image quality, unlike zooms where image quality is more of a compromise. And with no zoom to quickly tweak my framing, I find myself paying closer attention to my subjects, and the opportunities they offer for an attractive composition.

Head to head. I've also been pretty interested in the Ricoh GR, a model announced shortly after the Coolpix A which offers a similar feature set at an even more affordable pricetag -- and I was lucky to get to shoot side-by-side with both cameras. (You'll find a selection of similar shots in our galleries, shot at the same time on the same day, which should help in determining which model you feel offers more pleasing real-world results.)

First thoughts. On taking the Nikon Coolpix A out of the box, my immediate impression was that it was rather less comfortable in-hand than was the Ricoh GR. Both cameras have almost identical thickness at the handgrip, but the Nikon offers only a shallow plastic trim piece to provide purchase for my fingertips. The Ricoh, by contrast, has a slimmer body that lets my fingers wrap around the grip. The Nikon is more tiring to hold, and I wouldn't want to carry it for an extended period without a wrist strap or the included neck strap.

Nikon Coolpix A -- Sample photo
The Coolpix A's wide-angle prime lens forces you to think carefully about your framing, but it's quite good as a street shooter. Here, I'd have liked to have cropped in a bit tighter, but standing in the middle of a busy road wasn't really an option, so I had to make do. Of course, I could always crop later.

Build quality definitely swings in favor of the Nikon, though. Although the Ricoh, too, is made from magnesium alloy, its body feels like plastic. We put that down to a combination of the surface finish -- it doesn't feel as cool to the touch -- coupled with its lighter weight. It also feels just slightly creaky. By contrast, the cool, metal body of the Nikon gives it a reassuring heft, and there's not even the slightest hint of flex or creak. The Coolpix A feels a step above the Ricoh GR -- and well it should, given its higher price.

Nikon Coolpix A review -- Sample photo

Exposures were for the most part pretty accurate.

Ergonomics. I also found that I preferred Nikon's control layout to that of the Ricoh. For one thing, it offers a true twin-dial interface. The Ricoh GR looks like a twin-dial camera, but what at first appears to be a dial on the rear is actually a clickable rocker switch. It's a shame that neither of the Nikon A's dials are on the front of the body, but they're well-positioned for a flick of the thumb, and I preferred them to the dial-and-a-half of the Ricoh.

The button size and spacing was also more generous on the Nikon, and the Power toggle was easier to find and flick without looking at the camera than was the small, slightly indented button of the Ricoh. (And I never accidentally switched the Coolpix A on, although it's certainly possible -- if not likely -- should you throw the camera unprotected into a bag with other items.)

The Nikon's control layout does dictate a two-handed shooting style, though. More functions on the Ricoh can be operated single-handed, although some of them -- especially exposure compensation -- can be a tad difficult to reach because they're so close to the edge of the body. Personally, I don't have a problem with that, because I tend to shoot two-handed anyway. It lets me better-brace the camera and keep it steady, and I find I can get away with slower shutter speeds than for single-handed shooting. If you favor a single-handed grip, though, you may prefer Ricoh's layout.

I also find the two-handed control style of the Nikon better for another reason. Holding down the ISO button while spinning the Command dial feels more intuitive than pressing the Ricoh's Adjustment lever, perhaps rocking the lever left or right to access the ISO option, then rolling the front Up/Down dial. Sure, the Ricoh lets you access more options in this manner, but Nikon's control style feels more intuitive.

Nikon Coolpix A -- Sample photo
Images were sharp and jam-packed with detail, just as you'd expect from a prime-lensed camera. They also showed surprisingly little distortion, for such a wide-angle optic.

How good is the Nikon Coolpix A's fixed 28mm-equivalent lens?
Find out by clicking here to see our optical test results.

I did find myself wishing that the Command dial had a stronger detent, though. It's very easy to turn by mistake, and that often lead me to enable Flexible Program (or if you prefer, Program Shift) by mistake in Program mode, while in other modes I'd accidentally adjust the shutter speed or aperture. It's also a little disconcerting that the Command dial adjusts either variable, depending on operating mode. I'd prefer that one dial always change the shutter speed, and the other the aperture.

Nikon Coolpix A review -- Sample photo

Vignetting was sometimes quite noticeable, but it's easily corrected in Lightroom, Aperture, and many other photographer-friendly imaging apps.

I was also a big fan of the ring around the Nikon's lens barrel. It's a much better way of adjusting manual focus than the button-based approach of the Ricoh. Even though it's a fly-by-wire control, you feel more connected to the adjustment being made. (And you can actually feel the focus drive mechanism making each adjustment -- it's subtle, but resonates through the camera body -- so the lack of intentional feedback from the free-spinning, stepless design really didn't bother me much.)

I wasn't so thrilled with the location of two controls, though. The focus mode switch on the side of the body is in approximately the same place you'd typically find it on an SLR body. On a slim compact camera body though, you don't typically find controls on the sides, and I often found myself digging through the menus trying to adjust the focus mode, completely forgetting the physical switch. Likewise, I tended to forget the Fn1 button on the front of the body, pressing it accidentally more often than I did so on purpose. If you have shorter fingers, that would be less of a problem.

Screen. Outdoors, it initially seemed that Nikon's screen was the better, with the Ricoh GR being very dim. It turned out, though, that the Ricoh's auto setting simply doesn't ramp brightness up enough. I set the brightness on both cameras to their respective maxima, and although the screen on Coolpix A wasn't bad -- it was reasonably viewable in bright ambient light, but needed me to shade it with my hand in direct sunlight -- it was bettered by that of the Ricoh. Nikon's screen wasn't quite as bright, looked more washed-out at maximum brightness, and had less rich color that didn't so accurately reflect what was in my photos.

Nikon Coolpix A review -- Sample photo

Color was bold without being cartoonish, and I thought reflected my subjects fairly accurately.

User interface. But Nikon's screen won in another way. Its user interface both felt more modern, and was also much easier to read -- especially under sunlight. That's because it uses much larger, bolder fonts, and doesn't try to fit quite so many menu options on each page. It makes for a much more comfortable experience.

The Coolpix A's options also tended to be easier to use, at the expense of a little versatility. Ricoh, for example, lets you set any order for exposure bracketing, and with a step size that can vary between shots. With the Nikon, you have a selection of fixed step sizes and a fixed bracketing order, but the result is a bracketing mode that is much simpler to understand, and quicker to configure.

In one respect, Nikon's exposure bracketing was more versatile, though. The Ricoh GR captures all three bracketed exposures with a single press of the shutter button. By contrast, Nikon defaults to shooting one frame at a time, although you can combine burst mode with exposure bracketing to mirror the Ricoh's behavior. But enough of the interface: how did it shoot?

Autofocus. The Nikon Coolpix A's autofocus system seemed noticeably, consistently faster for me under a wide range of lighting conditions than that of the Ricoh. That's not to say it was terribly fast, because it wasn't -- many SLRs and mirrorless cameras offer better AF performance. I'd say as a street shooter with a pretty wide lens, the Coolpix A's AF system is fast enough, though. You're not likely to be shooting sports with a camera like this, and it was reasonably capable of handling my hyperactive four year old running around the house.

Nikon Coolpix A -- Sample photo
Noise levels were good at up to ISO 3,200, and the noise suppression didn't get too carried away either. Here, at ISO 2,500, there's still plenty of fine detail in the brick building at left, and relatively little signs of smudging or blotchiness. ISO 6,400 was as high as I was typically willing to go.

Performance. The Nikon A's modest burst shooting performance is another reason you're not likely to be using it for sports, but again it's probably sufficient for street shooting and keeping up with the kids. And the unlimited JPEG buffer -- if your flash card is fast enough, anyway -- is a definite bonus for the latter. Even in Raw+JPEG mode, there's sufficient buffer depth for a full two seconds and change of burst shooting.

Just how fast is the Nikon Coolpix A? Find out by clicking here to see our full battery
of rigorous, objective speed and operation tests conducted in the IR Lab.

Nikon Coolpix A review -- Sample photo

Another detail-rich capture. There's some subtle false color in the railroad crossing sign, though.

Flash. The Coolpix A's built-in flash strobe, while not terribly powerful, is just a little bit more so than that of the Ricoh. Its mechanism doesn't raise it quite as high as that of the Ricoh GR, but nonetheless it didn't seem terribly prone to more than mild, easily-corrected red-eye. And of course, you've got a proper hot shoe with connectivity for Nikon's intelligent strobes, although I didn't have access to one during my review. Importantly, the shoe does have a locking pin. I'd imagine you'll want to stay with a smaller strobe, though, or the pairing with such a relatively small and light camera body could prove rather ungainly.

Strange defaults. One feature of the Nikon Coolpix A to watch out for relates to its default settings. The camera has an Auto ISO function, which like those of Nikon's interchangeable-lens cameras simply overrides your manually-configured setting when the camera's metering thinks your chosen exposure will not be bright enough. However, although the function exists it is disabled by default. Even on an enthusiast camera that seems rather silly to me. If the option was enabled by default, you might end up with a noisier image than you'd like, but it would probably still be usable. With it disabled, though, by the time you realize there's a problem you've likely already lost a shot to blur from the slow shutter speed.

Nikon Coolpix A -- Main menu

Because it's been a little while since I've shot a Nikon, I missed that setting before going out for an afternoon's shooting. I only realized once I got home and noticed all my shots were at base ISO, including a few that while probably still usable were just subtly blurred. I've gotten accustomed to the option being available and default on most cameras, but mea culpa -- I should've caught this. But that doesn't make it a smart design: The shooter who's new to Nikon can hardly be expected to catch something straight away when it is layered three levels deep in the menu, and could take a dozen or more clicks to get to.

Nikon Coolpix A review -- Crop of sample photo
More false color can be seen in the fencing of Knoxville's Gay Street bridge, shown here at 100%. It's been a few years now since the bridge was repainted, but I'm pretty sure they didn't use rainbow paint!

Metering. The metering system, for the most part, seemed pretty accurate. For the majority of my shots, the default exposure was near enough right, and for those that required a touch of exposure compensation, it was largely subject-induced. Noise levels were good, and so was the balance between noise reduction and image detail. I was happy to shoot up to ISO 3,200 regularly, and ISO 6,400 at a pinch. Beyond that was, for me, as last resort.

You can view the IR Lab's in-depth Nikon Coolpix A image quality test results by clicking here,
and read further on in the review for side-by-side comparisons
against the Nikon Coolpix A's top competitors.

Nikon Coolpix A -- Sample photo

Dynamic range is superb, especially from raw. Here, you can see that there's plenty of detail both in the highlights, and in areas of deep shadow.

Image quality. I personally found the Nikon's color more pleasing than that from the Ricoh. Colors were bold without being cartoonish, and white balance typically hit the nail on the head. The GR, by contrast, tended to be somewhat cold. Vignetting was definitely quite noticeable in more than a few of my shots, though, something that surprised me a little given the fixed focal length lens, and the fact that this is an enthusiast camera. Perhaps Nikon expects enthusiasts who are worried about such things to shoot raw and have vignetting corrected automatically on the desktop, but I would've expected to see in-camera lens correction available.

As I did recently with the Pentax K-5 IIs, I had concerns about moiré with the Coolpix A, thanks to its lack of an optical low-pass filter. Though it did show up in the lab and in a few of my shots, it wasn't terribly prominent in any of them. That's quite likely just dumb luck, though. I didn't go out of my way to try and provoke moiré, nor to avoid it, and simply shot like I normally would. Take enough shots and eventually I'd likely have hit the perfect subject with the right frequency to induce moiré. If you're an enthusiast and willing to make that tradeoff for slightly better image sharpness, that's fine, but it's important to be aware of the tradeoff, and the fact that you're likely gaining very little over a camera with a weak low-pass filter anyway.

Video. I must admit that I didn't find the Coolpix A terribly exciting for video, but that was down mostly to its wide, prime lens. It offers good video quality, with Full HD (1,920 x 1,080) shooting at 30 frames per second, as well as a choice of 25 or 24 fps, and a lower-res 720p (1,280 x 720) mode, along with optional stereo audio. You can also adjust exposure compensation during capture, although turning the dial to make an adjustment causes noise and shake that disrupt the video.

Video from the Nikon Coolpix A is of fairly good quality, but prone to moiré and false color effects. Here, these are particularly noticeable in the surface of the water, which has a subtle rainbow flicker. The lack of a zoom also feels more limiting than for stills, and the lack of stabilization will demand a tripod or a very steady grip. (You can see a handheld sample without panning here.)
YouTube clips recompressed by Google; click to download originals of panning video and static video.

There are a few things that make Coolpix A video less fun, though. For still photography, the lens makes sense, but for video the lack of a zoom feels very limiting, and the only way to focus attention on a particular subject is to walk towards it. The lack of stabilization means that video shot while walking will be unattractive and shaky, unless you're using some kind of external stabilization device such as a Steadycam. And it's quite a challenge to capture interesting, attractive video with such a wide lens, having to essentially remain stationary.

Nor is it possible to focus during video capture, either automatically or manually. And honestly, you could very easily miss that the camera even offers movie capture. There are no separate movie controls, no Movie mode on the Mode dial, and there's really no indication at all externally that video capture is possible. To enable movie shooting, you have to change the release mode to Movie in the menu system.

I should also note that more so than stills, movies from the Nikon A seemed prone to moiré and false color. All things considered, I found the Coolpix A's movie capture capability of little utility, and I doubt the average Coolpix A owner will shoot video with it much. But then, it's not really the kind of camera I'd expect to use for video in the first place, so that's not really a huge knock against it.

Power. Battery life of the Nikon Coolpix A was only modest. I didn't run out in a typical afternoon's shooting, but I switched the camera off most of the time between groups of shots, and battery life did get low for me a fair few times. For day trips or longer, you'll want to have a couple of batteries handy.

Nikon Coolpix A -- Sample photo
I'm not really a prime shooter, but nonetheless I find myself not really wanting to give the Coolpix A back. If you can live without a zoom lens and don't shoot sports, there's a lot to recommend it.

 

Nikon Coolpix A Review -- Technical Info

by Mike Tomkins

Nikon Coolpix A review -- Sensor

Sensor. At the heart of the Nikon A is a sensor like that in no other Coolpix. Actually, it's more akin to that used in some of the company's digital SLRs. It's a DX-format -- also known as APS-C -- chip with an effective resolution of 16.2 megapixels, and a total resolution of 16.93 megapixels.

Those figures may seem familiar: they're exactly the same as those of the sensor in the Nikon D7000 and D5100, as well as Pentax's K-5, K-5 II, and K-5 IIs, suggesting that the Coolpix A's chip is closely related. And that's good news, because it's a sensor that's been widely praised for its image quality. For its part, Nikon says that the micro lenses have been designed exclusively for the Coolpix A, to optimize edge-to-edge performance with the built-in lens.

There's no optical low pass filter to maximize per-pixel detail, something also true of several of the Coolpix A's nearest competitors. As we've seen with past cameras that forgo the antialiasing filter, though, we did find the Coolpix A prone to moiré and false color.

Sensitivity. By default, the Nikon Coolpix A offers a sensitivity range of ISO 100 to 6,400 equivalents. For Program, Priority, or Manual shooting only, the upper limit can be relaxed, providing access to Hi 0.3 (ISO 8,000), Hi 0.7 (ISO 10,000), Hi 1 (ISO 12,800), and Hi 2 (ISO 25,600) equivalents. There's also an Auto ISO function which will override your selection, but note that it's not the default.

Performance. Nikon rates the Coolpix A as capable of shooting full-resolution images at a rate of up to four frames per second, and this matched nicely with the 4.1 fps we found in testing. Burst depth is essentially unlimited for JPEG shooting, while raw shooters will find a depth of around 17 frames. If you shoot Raw+JPEG, you'll still manage around ten frames in a burst.

Nikon Coolpix A -- Lens

Lens. Along with its sensor, the other defining characteristic of the Nikon Coolpix A is its lens. It's a Nikkor-branded, 18.5mm f/2.8 optic, with a field of view approximately equivalent to that of a 28mm lens on a 35mm camera body. The optical formula includes seven elements in five groups, and an electronically-controlled, seven-bladed aperture.

The lens' design doesn't include any form of image stabilization, but as noted previously, it does feature a built-in, automatically-retracting lens barrier similar to those found on many compact point-and-shoot cameras. The lens extends to around double its folded length when powered on, and includes a fly-by-wire dial around its barrel for manual focusing.

Lens accessories. The lens barrel is also encircled by a removable bezel, beneath which you can mount an optional UR-E24 adapter ring. With this in place, you can attach standard 46mm threaded filters in front of the Coolpix A's lens. The optional lens ring comes bundled with an HN-CP18 lens hood, and Nikon notes that this is crafted from metal. Not only does it shade the lens to prevent flare; it also provides some protection for the extended lens itself when mounted. Pricing for lens ring and hood together is around US$130.

Nikon Coolpix A -- Autofocus switch

Focusing. The Coolpix A -- unlike the company's 1-series mirrorless cameras -- relies solely on contrast detection autofocus, with no on-chip phase detection pixels, and nowhere in the optical path to place a phase detection sensor. Nikon claims the camera still offers "quick" autofocus performance, but our in-house testing found it to be a bit sluggish compared to most modern compact cameras.

The Nikon Coolpix A offers wide, normal, and spot AF areas, and includes focus lock, face detection and tracking functions. The focus range varies from around 20 inches (50cm) to infinity by default, and when set to Macro mode with a switch on the left of the camera body, can be reduced to as close as four inches (10cm).

You can, of course, focus manually, and there's a physical focus ring on the lens barrel for this purpose.

Nikon Coolpix A review -- Viewfinder

Viewfinder. Like almost all of its nearest rivals, the Coolpix A lacks any form of built-in viewfinder, and instead relies on an optional accessory viewfinder that mounts in the flash hot shoe. The Nikon DF-CP1 optical viewfinder includes focusing guidelines with about 90% frame coverage. It carries a hefty pricetag of around US$450, which adds almost 41% to the cost of the camera alone.

Display. Given that pricetag, we'd imagine many Nikon Coolpix A owners will instead rely solely on the monitor to frame and review images. It's based around a 3.0-inch TFT LCD panel, and is manufacturer-rated for 100% coverage horizontally and vertically, both for record and playback modes. The display has a five-step brightness adjustment, and a fairly high resolution of 921K dots. That's approximately 640 x 480 pixels, with each pixel made up of adjacent red, green, and blue dots.

Nikon Coolpix A review -- In hand with display

Shutter. The Coolpix A offers shutter speeds ranging from 1/2,000 to 30 seconds, plus bulb, and uses both a mechanical and CMOS electronic shutter.

Metering. Exposures are determined with matrix, center-weighted, or spot metering from the main image sensor. Exposure compensation is available within a +/-5EV range in 1/3EV steps for still images. Movies have a narrower range of +/-2EV. Three frame exposure bracketing is possible, with a step size of 0.3 to 2.0 EV between frames.

Nikon Coolpix A -- In hand from top

Exposure. As well as Automatic and Scene modes, the Nikon Coolpix A offers the usual enthusiast-friendly selection of Program, Aperture-priority, Shutter-priority, and Manual exposure control. There are also two User modes, which can be configured for a particular shooting situation and then instantly recalled at a later time, as needed.

Scene modes include Beach/Snow, Blossom, Candlelight, Child, Close-up, Dusk/Dawn, Food, High Key, Landscape, Low Key, Autumn Colors, Night Landscape, Night Portrait, Party/Indoor, Pet Portrait, Portrait, Silhouette, Sports, and Sunset.

Creative. Options in record mode include the typical features you'd expect, such as Active D-Lighting and picture controls. In Playback mode, options include D-Lighting, Red-eye reduction, Trim, Monochrome, Filter effects, Color balance, Image overlay, NEF (RAW) processing, Resize, Quick Retouch, Straighten, Fisheye, Color outline, Color sketch, Perspective control, Miniature effect, Selective color, and Side-by-side comparison.

Nikon Coolpix A review -- Flash

Flash. Nikon has included both a built-in popup flash strobe and a standard ISO 518 hot shoe in the Coolpix A. The built-in strobe has a guide number of 21 feet (6m) under automatic control, or 22 feet under manual control at full power (ISO 100, 73.4°F / 23°C). Working range is up to 37 feet (11.5m) with automatic ISO sensitivity. Flash exposure compensation is available, set separately from exposure compensation. X-sync for the internal strobe is possible at all shutter speeds.

The hot shoe includes Nikon's proprietary contacts for intelligent strobes, and is compatible with the Speedlight SB700, SB900, or SB910. It doesn't, however, directly support Nikon's Creative Lighting System. No X-sync speed is stated by Nikon for external flash, and we didn't have access to a Speedlight strobe during our review.

Nikon Coolpix A review -- Level gauge

Level gauge. The Nikon Coolpix A includes a single-axis electronic level which indicates left-to-right tilt on the LCD display. It lags motion more than most -- there's a good half-second lag between moving the camera and seeing the display update -- but nonetheless it's very helpful in ensuring your horizons are level.

Video. As well as stills, the Nikon A can, of course, capture high-definition video. Movies are saved in a .MOV container with H.264 / MPEG-4 AVC compression, and include stereo audio. There are two resolution choices: either Full HD (1,920 x 1080 pixels, aka 1080p), or HD (1,280 x 720 pixels, aka 720p). Both offer three progressive-scan frame rate options: 30, 25, or 24 frames per second.

Nikon Coolpix A -- Left side

Connectivity. Nikon includes both USB 2.0 High Speed data and Type-C Mini HDMI high-definition video output connectivity in the Coolpix A. There's also an accessory terminal for either a GPS receiver or wired remote release cable, and as noted previously, an ML-L3 infrared remote control is also supported.

The Coolpix A also supports Nikon's WU-1a wireless mobile adapter, which provides a 49-foot range, and is able to transfer to or provide for remote control from Android and iOS devices with a free Wireless Mobile Utility app.

Storage. Images can be stored either as JPEG files, or as 14-bit uncompressed .NEF raw files. Movies are saved in a .MOV container with H.264 / MPEG-4 AVC compression, and include stereo audio.

Images and movies are stored on Secure Digital cards, including the higher-capacity SDHC and SDXC types. No mention is made of the higher-speed UHS-I cards, so we're not certain if the camera takes advantage of the extra speed these cards offer.

Nikon Coolpix A -- Battery and storage

Power. The Nikon A draws its power from an EN-EL20 proprietary, rechargeable lithium-ion battery pack. According to Nikon, the Coolpix A is capable of approximately 230 shots on a charge, to CIPA testing standards and with 50% flash usage. We don't have a specific test for this, but it gels well with our experience in the real world.

The Coolpix A can also operate on mains power via an EH-5b AC adapter with EP-5C power connector, both sold as optional extras.

Nikon Coolpix A review -- Three quarter view

Price and availability. The Nikon Coolpix A went on sale in the US market in March 2013. Suggested retail pricing is set at approximately US$1,100, and two body colors are available: either black or silver.

The DF-CP1 optical viewfinder accessory carries a suggested retail price of US$450, while the UR-E24 Adapter Ring and HN-CP18 Lens Hood sell together for a suggested retail price of US$130. These accessories, too, shipped from March 2013.

 

Nikon Coolpix A Review -- Image Quality Comparison

Below are crops comparing the Nikon Coolpix A with the Ricoh GR, Nikon D7100, Olympus OM-D E-M5, Sigma DP1M and Sony RX1.

NOTE: These images are best quality JPEGs straight out of the camera, at default settings including noise reduction. All cameras in this comparison were shot with our very sharp reference lenses.

Nikon Coolpix A versus Ricoh GR at ISO 100

Nikon Coolpix A at ISO 100
Ricoh GR at ISO 100

In the first two sets of crops, the images look very similar, but the Ricoh does better with fine detail in the mosaic crop while the Coolpix A does better with the red fabric. Strangely, the Ricoh seems to have trouble with the red fabric; the leaf pattern is barely visible.


Nikon Coolpix A versus Nikon D7100 at ISO 100

Nikon Coolpix A at ISO 100
Nikon D7100 at ISO 100

Although both of these cameras feature an APS-C sized sensor, the Coolpix A is no match for the 24-megapixel D7100, which also doesn't have an optical low-pass filter. The red fabrics and mosaic images are the most telling, with the D7100 producing more fine detail.


Nikon Coolpix A versus Olympus OM-D E-M5 at Base ISO

Nikon Coolpix A at ISO 100
Olympus OM-D E-M5 at ISO 200

This is a bit of a mixed comparison, as the Coolpix A does better with the bottle crops (the Olympus appears to suffer from some noise reduction artifacts in the shadows) and the red fabric. On the other hand, the OM-D does much better with detail in the mosaic and the pink fabric.


Nikon Coolpix A versus Sigma DP1M at ISO 100

Nikon Coolpix A at ISO 100
Sigma DP1M at ISO 100

The Sigma DP1 Merrill was born for low ISO performance, and it shows here, with the DP1M besting the Coolpix A handily. The fine detail in all three crops from the Sigma trounces the Nikon.


Nikon Coolpix A versus Sony RX1 at ISO 100

Nikon Coolpix A at ISO 100
Sony RX1 at ISO 100

The similarly-sized yet full-framed RX1 is showing its chops here, easily beating the Coolpix A and its APS-C sensor. The 24-megapixel RX1 does particularly great with fine detail in the mosaic and the pink fabric.



Most digital SLRs and CSCs will produce an excellent ISO 100 shot, so we like to push them and see what they can do compared to other cameras at ISO 1,600, 3,200, and 6,400. Recent advances in sensor technology have made ISO 1,600 look a lot more like ISO 100, but there are still cameras whose quality starts to fall apart at this setting. We also choose 1,600 because we like to be able to shoot at least at this level when indoors and at night.

Nikon Coolpix A versus Ricoh GR at ISO 1600

Nikon Coolpix A at ISO 1600
Ricoh GR at ISO 1600

If you look at only the first two comparisons, the Coolpix A and the Ricoh GR are pretty similar, although the vote goes to the GR for cleaner noise in the first shot and a bit more detail in the mosaic. In the fabric crop, it's another story. The GR struggles to produce almost any detail.


Nikon Coolpix A versus Nikon D7100 at ISO 1600

Nikon Coolpix A at ISO 1600
Nikon D7100 at ISO 1600

The results of this comparison are pretty impressive, with the Coolpix A holding its own compared to the increased megapixels from the D7100. The default noise reduction on the Coolpix A seems to do a slightly better job in the shadows in the bottle crop. Other than perhaps slight differences in contrast and exposure, the mosaic and fabric crops look very similar.


Nikon Coolpix A versus Olympus OM-D E-M5 at ISO 1600

Nikon Coolpix A at ISO 1600
Olympus OM-D E-M5 at ISO 1600

At ISO 1600, the Olympus bottle crops look less grainy than the Coolpix A, but noise reduction is noticeable. Overall it seems the E-M5 also does better in the mosaic, although the noise reduction seems to have an effect in the black tile area. In the fabric crop, the Nikon beats the Olympus, producing much better detail in the red fabric.


Nikon Coolpix A versus Sigma DP1M at ISO 1600

Nikon Coolpix A at ISO 1600
Sigma DP1M at ISO 1600

Poor Sigma. This comparison doesn't even seem fair, as the Nikon handily out-resolves and out-colors the DP1M. The Foveon sensor in the Sigma can't handle high ISOs, and as such, color accuracy suffers noticeably.


Nikon Coolpix A versus Sony RX1 at ISO 1600

Nikon Coolpix A at ISO 1600
Sony RX1 at ISO 1600

The RX1 does better than the Coolpix A at ISO 1600, producing much cleaner, less noisy images, as well as producing more fine detail in the mosaic image.



These days, ISO 3,200 is a very viable shooting option for most good cameras, so let's take a look at some comparisons there.

Nikon Coolpix A versus Ricoh GR at ISO 3200

Nikon Coolpix A at ISO 3200
Ricoh GR at ISO 3200

Like we saw at ISO 1600, the first two crop comparisons are quite similar, now with just a bit more chroma noise in the shadows from the Nikon. In the fabric crop, the Coolpix A wins hands down, producing some semblance of leaf pattern in the red fabric while the Ricoh barely produces any.


Nikon Coolpix A versus Nikon D7100 at ISO 3200

Nikon Coolpix A at ISO 3200
Nikon D7100 at ISO 3200

Like we saw before, these two cameras are comparing quite similarly at moderate to high ISOs, and it's the same story here at ISO 3200. The bottle crop from the D7100 looks more noisy but the level of detail from the mosaic and the fabric crops look very similar to each other.


Nikon Coolpix A versus Olympus OM-D E-M5 at ISO 3200

Nikon Coolpix A at ISO 3200
Olympus OM-D E-M5 at ISO 3200

At ISO 3200, it's a bit of a mixed bag, as the Coolpix A looks a bit noisier in the shadows of the bottle crop, but it does much better with the fabric. The Olympus meanwhile produces better fine detail in the mosaic and the text of the label on the bottle is sharper.


Nikon Coolpix A versus Sigma DP1M at ISO 3200

Nikon Coolpix A at ISO 3200
Sigma DP1M at ISO 3200

Ouch. The Nikon wins hands down compared to the Sigma, which produces very grainy, almost desaturated pink-colored photos at ISO 3200 (although there's still detail in some of the mosaic area and the text on the bottle is more contrasty).


Nikon Coolpix A versus Sony RX1 at ISO 3200

Nikon Coolpix A at ISO 3200
Sony RX1 at ISO 3200

The RX1 wins in this comparison by producing much cleaner photos and finer details. The mosaic and fabric area look much crisper and more defined in the crops from the RX1.



Detail: Nikon Coolpix A versus Ricoh GR, Nikon D7100, Olympus OM-D E-M5, Sigma DP1M and Sony RX1.

Nikon A
ISO 100
ISO 3,200
ISO 6,400
Ricoh GR
ISO 100
ISO 3,200
ISO 6,400
Nikon D7100
ISO 100
ISO 3,200
ISO 6,400
Olympus E-M5
ISO 200
ISO 3,200
ISO 6,400
Sigma DP1M
ISO 100
ISO 3,200
ISO 6,400
Sony RX1
ISO 100
ISO 3,200
ISO 6,400
Detail comparison. When it comes to high-contrast detail, at low ISO, the Sigma DP1M is king, with the Olympus E-M5 a close second. The Coolpix A performs admirably, and compares very similarly to the Ricoh GR. The D7100 also looks very similar to the Coolpix A at ISO 100. As the ISO rises, the Olympus and Sony RX1 appear the most consistent and overall best-looking. ISO 3200 and 6400 from the Coolpix A look very similar, and overall it does a great job, particularly with the small red text at the top.

 

Nikon Coolpix A Review -- Print Quality

Excellent 24 x 36 inch prints at ISO 100/200; very good 11 x 14 at ISO 3200 and a nice 5 x 7 at ISO 12,800.

ISO 100/200 prints look terrific at 24 x 36 inches with nice detail and rich colors across the spectrum. 30 x 40 inch sizes are quite suitable for wall display prints.

ISO 400 also prints quite nicely at 24 x 36 inches.

ISO 800 images are very crisp at 16 x 20, which is a fairly large size for this ISO, retaining excellent color throughout.

ISO 1,600 makes a really good 13 x 19 inch print, with 16 x 20s here acceptable for less critical applications where a bit of film-esque noise is ok.

ISO 3,200 prints a nice 11 x 14, with only minor noise apparent in some shadowy areas.

ISO 6,400 shots look good at 8 x 10 inches. It is here that we should note just how good our target red swatch still looks, as it generally gives most cameras fits by this high an ISO.

ISO 12,800 produces a very nice 5 x 7 inch print for such a high ISO.

ISO 25,600 yields a usable 4 x 6 for some instances and is not terrible, but is not quite up to what we can deem as "good".

The Nikon Coolpix A does a wonderful job in the print quality department, and that's probably enough said. But if you are interested in just how good this fixed lens compact camera really is, it should be noted that it rivals its APS-C DSLR cousins across virtually the entire range in the sizes it is capable of, and it prints the same size at ISO 12,800 as the highly touted Sony RX1, which is more than twice the price. Add in the fact that the Coolpix A renders the trickiest part of our test target just about as well as any camera sold for under $3000 and you get a lot more of the picture.

Testing hundreds of digital cameras, we've found that you can only tell just so much about a camera's image quality by viewing its images on-screen. Ultimately, there's no substitute for printing a lot of images and examining them closely. For this reason, we now routinely print sample images from the cameras we test on our Canon Pro9000 Mark II studio printer, and on the Pixma MP610 here in the office. (See the Canon Pixma Pro9000 Mark II review for details on that model.)

 

In the Box

 

Recommended Accessories

 

Nikon Coolpix A Review -- Conclusion

Pro: Con:
  • A camera that makes you grow as a photographer, think beyond the zoom
  • Solid, alloy body feels like a quality photographic device
  • True twin-dial design
  • Image quality like the Nikon D7000 from a much smaller package
  • Very good high ISO performance
  • Excellent dynamic range for its class
  • Fly-by-wire autofocus ring is intuitive
  • Low lens distortion (despite no in-camera correction)
  • Automatic chromatic aberration suppression (and low CA to begin with)
  • Active D-Lighting helps with high contrast subjects
  • Accessory terminal accepts a wide variety of add-ons (GPS, wireless remote, cable remote, etc.)
  • Optional lens adapter ring with 46mm threads
  • Optional optical viewfinder
  • Full HD 1080p30 movies with stereo sound
  • Almost non-existent handgrip
  • Ergonomics not great for single-handed shooting
  • Monitor washes out at max. brightness
  • Occasionally strange default settings
  • Some menus are deeply nested
  • Fixed focal-length lens
  • Significant corner shading even at f/8
  • Soft corners when lens is wide open
  • Larger than average macro area
  • JPEG images at default settings are not as sharp as expected from a camera without an OLPF
  • More susceptible to moiré and other aliasing artifacts
  • Top shutter speed is only 1/2,000s, and no built-in ND filter
  • Sluggish startup and autofocus
  • Mediocre burst mode speeds (but good buffer depths)
  • Weak flash
  • Very limited movie capabilities
  • Short battery life

Other companies -- key among them being Sigma -- may have invented the large sensor, fixed prime lens camera category, but the Nikon Coolpix A represents its first really mainstream effort. Like its main rivals, it is clearly not the camera for everybody, but for prime lens lovers who are willing to trade away lens interchangeability for a smaller body, the Coolpix A is exciting indeed. It offers clear advantages over those which preceded it in terms of size and weight, while matching the most affordable of its predecessors on price.

It also offers top notch image quality, although with the potential for moiré, false color, and aliasing artifacts thanks to its lack of an optical low-pass filter. (That's something we've been having to say about a lot of enthusiast cameras lately.) If you keep that fact in mind, and if you are willing to put up with reshoots or perhaps extensive editing to reduce the impact of these artifacts, though, it offers great image quality with only relatively easily-corrected defects such as its significant vignetting. And man, what an effort in terms of dynamic range and noise levels! Throw in a touch of unsharp masking to bring out the detail in its images, and it really sings.

Does the Nikon Coolpix A have its flaws? Yes, but so do most cameras. Key among these, it could stand a more comfortable grip design, faster autofocus and burst performance, and a more powerful internal flash strobe. Its too-easily-bumped Command dial could also use a design rethink. Does the Nikon Coolpix A do what it set out to, though, by providing excellent image quality in a compact package? Definitely.

Courtesy of its fixed, prime lens, the Nikon Coolpix A is a camera that really makes you think about your photos -- and in the process, how you can make them better. If you're not already a prime shooter, you'll be challenged by it, and you'll likely find yourself growing as a photographer courtesy of that experience. If you can live within its limitations, it's a great photographic tool. With the reservation that it's definitely not the everyman's camera, the Nikon Coolpix A clearly merits a place on our hallowed Dave's Pick list.

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