Nikon CoolPix 900
1.3 MegaPixels, Designed with the photographer in mind...
||1280 x 960 resolution|
||Multiple metering modes|
||Multiple flash modes, including slow-sync|
||High-quality glass aspheric 3x zoom lens|
||Excellent macro capability|
Nikon has a long-standing and well-earned reputation for photographic excellence. Their early efforts in digital photography were more oriented toward business applications (as exemplified by the "personal image assistant" of the CoolPix 300) though, and gave all appearances of being an awkward fit with their heritage in fine photography. With advancing technology though, digital photography is poised to become legitimate photography, and Nikon is applying their hard-earned photographic know-how in a new generation of digital cameras, beginning with the CoolPix 900. Probably more than any preceding unit, the CoolPix 900 is a photographer's camera, bringing many creative capabilities to the digital realm previously available only in film-based devices.
At first glance, the CoolPix 900 (simply "900" henceforth, for brevity) looks similar to many others on the market. The pivoting case is split in the middle though, roughly divided between electronic and optical functions, with the viewfinder and lens on the left-hand side, and the LCD panel, shutter release, and other controls on the right-hand side. While it could be stuffed into a largish coat pocket, it by no means attempts to fit the "shirt pocket camera" category. To our mind though, this fits the serious photographic intent of Nikon's target market for the device -- People who bring their cameras along as more than just an afterthought to the primary activity.
The '900 provides truly excellent image quality, employing a somewhat larger than normal sensor with 1.3 million pixels to deliver images with 1280 x 960 pixels. Images are stored at this resolution by default, using 3 different compression settings, although the camera can also capture VGA-level (640x480) images if so desired. The '900 includes both an optical and LCD viewfinder, and augments its 3x optical zoom with an additional 2x "digital zoom" for really reaching out to distant subjects. Unique attributes include a sophisticated multi-mode exposure system, and a built-in 5-mode flash, providing unique low-light capabilities. The lens housing swivels 270 degrees, allowing the user to take photos below, ahead, above, or behind (facing) them.
Overall, the CoolPix 900 has a resolutely rectangular design, although we found its ergonomics to be excellent. The unit has a good "feel," with the mass of the batteries nicely balancing the weight of the lens and other optics at the other end of the case. The body housing is a combination of light gold-anodized aluminum and black plastic with a cleanly stylish if not overly sleek appearance. In normal use (e.g., shooting while looking through the viewfinder), the left half of the body will be rotated horizontally, with the right held vertical. We found this arrangement to be both comfortable and stable for picture-taking, with the primary picture-taking controls (shutter and zoom toggle) very conveniently located under forefinger and thumb respectively. At 6.1x3.0x1.4 inches (154x75x35 mm), and 12 ounces (340g), the camera is a compact handful.
As with many other digital cameras on the market these days, the '900 solves the issue of optical vs. LCD viewfinder by providing both. The bright optical viewfinder provides marks denoting the centered auto-focus region, as well as a displaced left-hand boundary for macro shooting. Nikon claims that the optical viewfinder covers 85% of the picture area, which agrees with our own measurements, at least in terms of the linear dimensions of the frame. (The viewfinder crops out 15% of the image in both the horizontal and vertical directions, thereby displaying a total of about 72% of the area of the final image.) In practice we found this degree of cropping a little more than we would have preferred, forcing us back to the LCD display (which only crops to about 93% of the linear frame dimensions) for more critical framing. On a positive note, we liked the provision of a viewfinder "diopter" adjustment for eyeglass wearers. Unfortunately, use of heavy diopter correction disrupts the normal functioning of the viewfinder's zoom optics: If you deviate too far from a neutral diopter setting, you'll find that the viewfinder focus (viewfinder only, not the main lens) varies substantially between wide and tele settings. For best results, set the diopter correction with the lens in about the middle of the range, and it will be reasonably focused from wide to tele.
The LCD panel can be turned on or off at any time, although the default for the camera is "on". (When shooting in "manual" mode, you can set the LCD to default to "off" to conserve battery power.) One of the ways in which the '900 is unusual relative to other digital cameras is that the autofocus circuitry runs continuously whenever the LCD panel is on in "record" mode. This undoubtedly drains the batteries faster, but has the advantage of providing much less delay between the press of the shutter button and the actual release of the shutter (about a second) than do some cameras. (If you half-press the shutter button to preset the exposure prior to the shot, this delay drops to a small fraction of a second.) In common with other current high-end digital cameras, the '900 uses a TFT active-matrix LCD display, which is very sharp. Display brightness can also be adjusted up or down a notch in each direction, to accommodate brighter shooting conditions or conserve battery life, although the range of adjustment seems rather limited.
Exceptional optical quality has long been a hallmark of Nikon products, and there's every indication that the CoolPix 900 continues that tradition. The lens on the '900 is an aspheric design, with a total of 9 elements in 7 groups. Digital camera manufacturers generally don't publish construction details for their lenses, but it's safe to assume that this level of sophistication is unusual. While our tests don't directly evaluate lens characteristics such as chromatic aberration, coma, corner softness, or other such artifacts, the '900 clearly captures excellent images.
The focal length of the 900's lens ranges from the 35mm equivalent of 38mm to 115mm, and the aperture varies stepwise between values of f2.4, f4.0, and f6.6. This is a useful zoom range, typical of many cameras on the market. In addition to the optical zoom though, the CoolPix 900 also incorporates a 2x "digital zoom". ("Digital zoom" means that the camera selects pixels only from the central portion of the sensor array, and then interpolates the resulting data to the full image size. The result is an image with higher magnification, but which is also softer overall.)
The 900's lens autofocuses from 20 inches (50 cm) to infinity in normal mode, and from 8 to 20 inches (20 to 50 cm) in macro mode. (The lens will focus closer at the wide-angle end of its zoom range, but the overall magnification ends up being less). With a maximum effective focal length of 115mm and an 8 inch (20cm) minimum focusing distance, the 900's macro performance is very impressive. At closest approach, the field of view is roughly 1.6 x 2.1 inches (4.0 x 5.3 cm). This is one of the best macro performances we've seen to date. At the other end of the scale, the '900 provides an "Infinity" setting, which fixes the focus at a distance of 30 meters (just under 100 feet), for faster picture-taking in appropriate situations. Because both the autofocus and flash are turned off in this mode, the camera cycles much faster between exposures, and captures each frame within a fraction of a second of when the shutter release is triggered.
The autofocus system in the CoolPix 900 is another distinguishing feature: Most digital point & shoots employ relative coarse focusing mechanisms (or rely on fixed-focus lenses). In contrast, the CoolPix 900 discriminates 945 separate focus steps, providing an extraordinary degree of focus accuracy. In practice, this means that the camera will accurately focus images shot with the lens wide open, critical for low-light shooting. (Nikon does warn however, that autofocus may not be accurate in Macro mode with the lens zoomed out to the widest-angle setting.)
Nikon rates the CoolPix 900 at an equivalent ISO of 64. On the other hand, they also state its exposure range as EV4.5-16 at wide-angle settings and EV5.8-17 at the telephoto end. (The effective f-stop of many zoom lenses changes as you zoom from wide to tele.) The reason we're puzzled by these ratings is that the ISO rating appears to conflict with the combination of claimed EV performance and the camera's maximum exposure duration and f-stop. If the camera really had an ISO rating of only 64, the lowest light level it could capture an image at (with a shutter time of 1/4 second and aperture of f2.4) would be a very modest EV10. In actual testing, we found the truth to lie somewhere between these extremes. We were able to obtain usable (but dark) exposures down to about EV7, but EV4.5 clearly seems out of reach. (For reference, an EV7 performance with 1/4 second shutter and f2.4 aperture roughly corresponds to an ISO of 400.)
IMPORTANT NOTE: We insert here our standard tirade against users who expect to handhold every shot, just because the camera is digital: The 1/4 second lower limit on shutter speed can be a great help in getting shots in conditions that would otherwise be too dark. This is a long exposure though, well beyond most people's ability to hold the camera steady enough to render a sharp image. Use a tripod when it's that dark! A few pros may venture to hand-hold a 1/4 second exposure, but it's just about guaranteed that most amateurs will have a hard time below 1/30 or even 1/60. 'Nuff said...
Three-mode metering system
Nikon's extensive photographic heritage is also evidenced in the '900s sophisticated autoexposure system. Working through the lens (TTL), the metering system can be set to operate either as a spot meter, center-weighted averaging meter, or 64-segment "matrix" meter. This matrix metering taps directly into technology developed for Nikon's advanced film cameras, and is by far the most sophisticated we've seen on a digital point & shoot to date. (Matrix metering is much less likely to be fooled by off-center subjects or backlighting conditions than would simple averaging, as is used on most point & shoots.) Matrix metering is the camera's default, but the other methods can be chosen from the menu when the camera is operating in "manual" capture mode.
"Manual" Capture Mode
Although the CoolPix 900 has a "manual" capture mode that gives considerable control over picture-taking parameters, there is still no ability to set aperture and exposure time independently, a feature many advanced film shooters will miss. (No strike against the '900 relative to the competition though: At least as of this writing in late May, 1998, no digital camera that we are aware of under $10,000 offered fully independent aperture and shutter speed control.) The manual mode does allow you to adjust the exposure up or down by two EV units, in one-unit increments. This is accomplished via a menu selection, but is a function we'd prefer to see directly accessible via the control buttons, for faster access. (Again, in fairness to the '900, for reasons unfathomable to us, the exposure-compensation controls of most digital cameras are buried within the menu interface. Of course, proper use of the spot metering and exposure-lock functions greatly alleviate the need for exposure compensation in many situations. Also, the minimum number of button-presses (4) required to adjust the EV compensation is far from the worst we've encountered.) For the record, while we're being picky, we'd also prefer to see finer gradations of EV adjustment, perhaps in steps of 1/2 EV unit, rather than the 1EV steps provided.
In addition to its conventional EV compensation, the CoolPix '900 also offers brightness and contrast image adjustments when shooting in "manual" mode. These settings direct the camera to increase or decrease the overall brightness or contrast of the image before saving it to the memory card. The brightness increase function in particular is useful when shooting in low-light conditions, as its effect appears to be additive to that of the EV adjustment.
Since we mentioned the subject, let's talk about exposure lock: Like many cameras, the CoolPix 900 locks both exposure and focus when you depress the shutter release halfway. This is particularly useful in conjunction with the spot metering mode, letting you choose the part of the picture you want to expose for, lock that setting in, and then shift the camera to frame your shot. Nikon goes the competition one better here, by also allowing you to select (via the menu system) a special "exposure lock" mode, in which the exposure settings for subsequent shots are fixed at those of the first shot taken after the "lock" mode is enabled. This is very useful for panoramic shooting, in which a number of images will be stitched together to create the final, larger scene. (This is especially important with the Enroute Imaging stitching software provided with the '900, which allows two-dimensional matrices of images to be stitched together to create super-resolution composites. With the 2-D stitching capability, it's much more likely that you'll encounter widely varying light levels, as you assemble images including both predominantly sky and predominantly foreground. To stitch effectively, you'll want the exposure to be consistent across all images in a group, and the exposure lock function provides a way to insure that.)
The CoolPix 900 offers two different "continuous shooting modes," normal or "VGA sequence". In both modes, the camera takes pictures as rapidly as it can cycle, as long as you hold down the shutter button, up to a maximum of 10 frames, or the remaining memory capacity, whichever comes first. In normal mode, the cycle time varies slightly, depending on the compression setting chosen and the complexity of the scene, but averages around 5 seconds between frames. In VGA Sequence mode, the camera grabs about two frames a second. The flash is disabled during continuous shooting to enable faster cycling, so you won't be using this feature for any shots in lighting below about EV7.
While we found the CoolPix '900s automatic white balance to work quite well, the camera also allows you to select between several predefined white balance settings as well, which generally do a better job of removing the color cast from various lighting conditions. Available settings include: Sunny, Incandescent, Fluorescent, Cloudy, and Flash. The inclusion of separate settings for Sunny, Cloudy, and Flash is interesting, in that most cameras distinguish only between "daylight" and the two common interior illuminants. The Cloudy setting appears to throw in a little more yellow hue adjustment to balance the cooler tones of an overcast day, while simultaneously boosting the contrast slightly. The difference between Flash and Auto white balance is more subtle, but the Flash setting appears to produce somewhat cooler tones under mixed flash/tungsten ambient lighting.
The built-in flash or "speedlight" as Nikon's manual is fond of calling it offers somewhat more versatility than most, and has the further virtue that it only flashes once per picture, which should make it possible to use standard optical strobe triggers with the '900. (Many digital cameras use a "pre-flash" for metering purposes. The two-shot flash fools most optical triggers, which fire attached flash devices on the preliminary metering flash, rather than with main, picture-taking flash itself.) Alas, to the disappointment of many, the CoolPix 900 has no built-in flash-sync connector. (To our knowledge, there's only one currently-shipping digital camera selling for less than $2,000 that has a flash sync connector, and that unit is now in its "twilight years" (months?) of product life.)
As we mentioned, the CoolPix 900's flash offers a bit more flexibility than those on most digital cameras. It offers the standard Off, Auto, Forced (fill) and Red-Eye reduction options, but also includes a slow-sync mode that chooses a slower shutter speed to brighten the background in flash shots. Two other welcome additions, for photographers hoping to use the '900 with auxiliary flash units triggered by optical slave units: First, the red-eye reduction mode uses a small, bright incandescent lamp next to the viewfinder to make subjects' eyes "stop down." This is less effective for subjects not looking directly at the camera's viewfinder, or who are considerably off-axis in the picture, but it has the advantage that it shouldn't interfere with optical slave units for external strobes. Red-eye reduction is usually available only as a separate mode, but is combined with all other modes when the self-timer function is enabled. As mentioned above, the '900 also eschews the multiple-flash flash-metering approach used by many digital point & shoots, which requires special-purpose strobe triggers.
The flash is rated on the data sheet as having a range from 3 to 12.3 feet (0.9 to 3.75 meters), although the manual also mentions the use of flash in conjunction with the macro mode. In practice, we found it worked quite well down to the 8" autofocus limit of the macro mode with the lens set in the "tele" position. Because the flash power varies with distance and subject reflectance, flash cycle time will vary depending on shooting conditions. It is also a strong function of remaining battery power: With fresh batteries, the flash usually cycles faster than the camera can save the previous image to the memory card, but with low batteries, will frequently take longer.
We found one aspect of the flash on the '900 that we would have preferred to be otherwise: When the camera is powered off, the flash settings aren't remembered for next time, even when running in "manual" mode. The flash always defaults to "auto" when the camera is powered up, which introduces a further delay before your first picture when you turn the camera on. Also, there's no way to change the flash status until the flash circuitry is initially charged. Our preference would be to either have the flash retain its last setting (which could be "off") in Manual mode, or to allow the user to abort the flash charging cycle by turning the flash off as soon as the camera is powered up.
Operation and User Interface
The CoolPix 900 is controlled by a top-panel rotary switch, 3 top-panel pushbuttons (plus the shutter release), 2 back-panel pushbuttons, and a back-panel toggle lever. The camera is powered up by turning the rotary switch to either the Play, Auto Record, or Manual Record settings. The camera takes an appreciable amount of time to power up, ranging from about 9 seconds to display of the first image in Play mode to as much as 15 seconds in Record mode with low batteries, due to the longer time required to charge the flash circuitry. Switching from Record directly to Play mode required about 13 seconds. While you do get a brief "review" of each image immediately after capture (and the camera cycles quite quickly between successive images), we found the long delay required for switching between image capture and Play mode image review a little tedious.
In common with several other newer digital cameras, the CoolPix 900 offers the user a choice of languages for the menu displays. Our evaluation unit offered options for English, French, German, and Japanese. Language selection may be made in either Record or Play modes.
As mentioned earlier, the CoolPix 900 has two Record modes: "Auto", in which the majority of camera functions are controlled automatically, and "Manual," in which a fair degree of control is given to the photographer. In Auto mode though, you can still choose among the three different compression settings, normal, infinity, and macro focus choices, the self-timer function, and the various flash modes. In both modes, when the self-timer function is enabled, the 10 second delay before the shutter is triggered is counted off by flashes of the red-eye reduction lamp.
Manual Record mode
In manual record mode, the menu system is enabled, allowing a plethora of choices for camera control. The majority of these were discussed earlier, but several special functions should be mentioned here for completeness.
The LCD panel can be turned off at any time by pressing the back-panel "Monitor" button, but it can also be set to default to off by selecting the appropriate entry from the manual record mode menu. Note though, that whenever the LCD is turned off, you must explicitly turn it on again in order to access the menu system.
VGA-resolution recording can be selected only in "manual" record mode, by making the appropriate menu choice (from the "Extra Function" sub-menu). Once VGA mode is selected, the normal three choices of compression level can be made from the top-panel button devoted to that function.
The '900 also has a black and white mode which can be selected from the "Extra Function" menu. The operation of this mode is self-explanatory, but we were surprised to see that it didn't decrease the memory usage at all, relative to color modes.
The Extra Functions sub-menu can also be used to enable the '900s "digital tele" capability on a full-time basis. As mentioned earlier, this normally kicks in only after zooming to the full extent of the optical system, and then holding down the zoom toggle for an additional two seconds. By locking the digital tele capability on, you gain a smooth range of digitally-enhanced effective focal lengths, as opposed to the sudden jump from "tele" to "super tele" that the normal operating mode delivers.
Finally, the Extra Functions menu contains two presets for use with the fisheye and wide angle supplementary adapter lenses. The Fisheye option sets the camera to infinity focus, the zoom to its widest setting, turns off the flash, and sets metering to center-weighted. When this option is selected, these settings can't be altered from within the manual recording mode. Likewise, the Wide Angle option forces the zoom to its widest setting, and turns off the flash.
With the number and variety of settings available in manual recording mode, it could take you some time to restore the camera to its default values if you had to step through all the menu options to do so. Also, it would be easy to miss a setting and end up with a ruined shot. To ease the task of resetting the camera to its default values, the Record menu provides a Reset All function, which does exactly that: Returns the camera to its default condition with a single menu selection.
In Play mode, you can view previously-captured images, either singly, or in groups of 9 thumbnails at a time, delete images singly or in groups, set up and run slide shows, protect and hide photos, and change the setting for the camera's auto-off timer.
One of the things we liked about the '900 is the ability to short-circuit the display of one image to move on to the next one. Like most megapixel digital cameras, image display on the '900 in play mode is a bit leisurely, requiring about 6 seconds to fully paint a high-res image onto the LCD screen. Fortunately, you can hit the zoom toggle (which serves as a next/previous control in play mode) to jump ahead or back at any time, regardless of whether the previous image has finished displaying or not. (You do have to wait for the image to finish painting before accessing the menu though.)
Thumbnail view allows you to view images in groups of nine thumbnails at a time. The zoom toggle advances a cursor between images, and pressing the shutter button brings the currently selected image up full-screen. Images can be deleted singly from either thumbnail or single-image views by pressing the top-panel "trash" button (which doubles as the "quality" button in record mode). Multiple images can be deleted in a single operation by choosing the "Delete" menu entry, at which point you have the option of either deleting all the images in the camera, or just specific selections. Likewise, the "Protect" option lets you protect individual images from deletion during "delete all" operations. Finally, the "Hide Picture" function lets you mark images that you don't want displayed in a slideshow.
We mentioned that the Play menu lets you change the setting of the camera's auto-off timer. This is only partially true: It appears that changes made to this setting only affect play-mode operation, not record-mode. While it could be very power-consumptive, we would like to see an option to change the timeout for record-mode operation as well. Regardless of the auto-off timer setting, the camera will remain on for up to 30 minutes when a slide show is running. A final note: we didn't have an AC adapter for our testing, but the manual suggests that the camera stays on continuously when connected to AC power.
Image Storage and Interface
The CoolPix 900 stores images on removable CompactFlash (CF) memory cards. The unit ships with a 4 megabyte card, but accepts cards as large as 48 megabytes. Images are stored in an industry-standard JPEG format, so the card contents can be read directly into any computer equipped with a PC-card slot, using the optional PC-card adapter.
The '900 ships with serial cables and software for both Mac and Windows environments, with rather unusual "mounter" software ("Nikon View") for both platforms. Using the included software, the camera appears as a disk drive to the host computer, and image files appear as large thumbnails, showing their contents. Full drag & drop is supported on both platforms, and images can be read directly from the camera using any software that supports the JPEG file format. Perhaps for this reason, the software package does not include either TWAIN drivers for the Windows platform, or a Photoshop acquire module for the Mac.
On our (now badly aging) 133 MHz Pentium Windows machine, we found that Nikon View worked very smoothly indeed. While the transfer rate was limited by the 115 Kbaud maximum of the PC's serial ports, integration with Windows (even to the level of Windows Explorer itself) was seamless, and operation flawless. Performance for file transfers seemed very typical for PC serial connections (about 30 seconds per "normal" compression file), meaning the overhead contributed by the Nikon View software was very minimal. On the Mac platform, the more advanced serial ports support transfer rates of over 900 Kbaud, but we didn't get to test that as our (even more elderly) PowerMac appears to be having problems with its serial ports. If the performance on the Mac platform scales linearly with the increased port speed, this interface could be very zippy indeed; perhaps as fast as 4-5 seconds per image. (Any Mac/CP900 owners out there, please write us with actual download times!)
Besides the Nikon View software, Nikon also includes Adobe's PhotoDeluxe version 2.0 for general image editing, InMedia Presentations Slides & Sound presentation package, and Enroute Imaging's QuickStitch package for panorama stitching. This last application is quite unique: It not only allows stitching of either vertical or horizontal panoramas, but can also assemble grids of "tiled" images, up to 6 images on a side! We've only played with QuickStitch a little, but its capabilities seem to be a long step ahead of anything else on the market.
Overall, the software package included with the CoolPix 900 is very functional, and is all a beginning digital camera user would need to begin applying their new camera immediately.
As with all Imaging Resource camera tests, we encourage you to let your own eyes be the judge of how well the devices performed: Explore the links at the bottom of this page, to see how well the CoolPix 900 performed, and how its images compare to other cameras you may be considering buying.
Overall, we were very impressed with the image quality of the '900: We expect this will be a very successful camera at the higher end of the digital point & shoot marketplace, combining as it does both greater picture-taking flexibility and first-rate image quality.
As with essentially all digital point & shoot cameras we've tested, we found the '900s viewfinder somewhat inaccurate: The area shown in the viewfinder is a fair bit less than that captured by the sensor, approximately 85% smaller in both vertical and horizontal directions. The center autofocus mark is well-centered in the sensor's field of view, but the outer edges of the viewfinder on our test unit framed an area that was offset to the top of the frame relative to the area seen by the sensor. The LCD finder fared better, still cropping the image somewhat, but doing so both less and more evenly.
Using the "WG-18" ISO resolution test standard, the CoolPix 900's visual resolution measured an excellent 700-750 line pairs/picture height in both horizontal and vertical directions, with essentially no color aliasing.
In actual picture-taking situations, the '900 was a superlative performer, showing excellent detail and tonal range, and very good color with slightly lower saturation than some devices. Skin tones in the "Musicians" poster were excellent, and both shadow detail and delicate pastels on the "Davebox" test target were well-preserved.
The CoolPix 900's macro performance was particularly noteworthy, zooming in to cover a minimum area of only 1.6 x 2.1 inches (4.0 x 5.3 cm) across. This is about as good as we've seen in any camera to date, without the aid of add-on lenses.
The Nikon CoolPix 900 sets a new benchmark for functionality and picture-taking flexibility in the under-$1,000 category. In fact, relative to even more expensive cameras we've tested in the past, about all it could be said to lack is through-the-lens "SLR" viewing capability. The '900 is clearly aimed at people who take their photography seriously, and we expect it to do very well in that market: While still not approaching high-end film-based SLRs in capabilities or flexibility, it sets a new benchmark for "photographer friendliness" in under-$1,000 digital point & shoots.
Reader Sample Images!
Do you have a CoolPix 900 or 900S camera? If you'll post an album of your samples on one of the photo-sharing services and email us at firstname.lastname@example.org, we'll list the album here for others to see!