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Nikon CoolPix 950 Digital Camera
Nikon ups the ante with 2.1 million pixels, better color, faster shooting, a raft of new features, and a great user interface!

(Initial review date: 15 February, 1999, full review 10 March, 1999 )
(Final? revision 22 July, 1999)

 

 


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1,600 x 1,200 pixel resolution
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3X optical zoom, + 2.5X digital
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Optical and LCD viewfinder
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Matrix, Spot or Average light metering
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Program, shutter-, aperture-priority auto exposure modes.
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Large RAM buffer for rapid shot-to-shot cycling.

 

Manufacturer Overview
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Long a powerhouse in the world of film-based photography, Nikon has lately been making waves in the digital world. Their previous CoolPix 900 was one of the more popular digital camera models in recent memory, providing excellent image quality in a well-designed, ergonomic package. Now, Nikon has developed the significantly upgraded CoolPix 950, incorporating such a broad sweep of enhancements that it represents more of a revolution than an evolution of the product line.
"Bigger, better, faster, smarter..." There are so many enhancements bundled into the CoolPix 950 that it's literally hard to know where to begin describing them! For starters, it sports a 2.1 megapixel, 1/2-inch CCD sensor, producing images up to 1600x1200 pixels in size. (Our resolution tests showed a very real increase in usable resolution, resulting from the increased sensor pixel count.) A total of three image sizes is supported, with three different compression levels available for each, and an additional, uncompressed storage mode at the highest resolution.
The CoolPix 950 will be immediately recognizable to readers familiar with the earlier '900 model, based on the same split-body, swivel-lens design. The CoolPix 950 incorporates both optical and LCD viewfinders, the latter via a 2 inch (51mm), 130,000-pixel display on the rear of the main body section. The lens is an optical zoom ranging from equivalent 35mm focal lengths of 38-115mm. (Moderate wide-angle to moderate telephoto.) As with the '900, front-element threads are provided for mounting filters or accessory lenses. The camera includes both an internal flash, and a sync connector for connection to many of Nikon's extensive line of external speedlights, providing full exposure feedback (albeit not TTL capability). Both macro and low-light capabilities of the new CoolPix are truly exceptional, relative to the current (February, 1999) field of "prosumer" digital cameras.


High Points

  • 2.1 million-pixel, 1/2 inch CCD sensor element
  • Image sizes of 1600x1200, 1024x768, and 640x480
  • Three JPEG compression levels, plus uncompressed TIFF
  • 3x Optical Zoom lens, with macro focusing to 4 inches
  • Multi-ratio digital zoom, magnifications of 1.25, 1.6, 2.0, and 2.5x
  • 4746-step(?!) autofocus system, with continuous or single-shot focus modes
  • Manual focus option, with 10 focus steps from 4 inches (10cm) to infinity
  • Three-aperture lens system: f2.6/4.0, f4.4/6.8, and f7.4/11.4
  • Multiple autoexposure modes: full program, aperture- and shutter-priority
  • Aperture priority allows selection of any of three lens openings (see above)
  • Shutter priority allows selection of shutter time in 1-stop increments from 8 seconds to 1/500 of a second (1/750 in final production units?)
  • 256-segment Matrix, spot, and center-weighted exposure-metering options
  • "Live" feedback of current aperture, shutter speed values
  • Huge RAM buffer for full-res continuous shooting at 1.5 frames per second (2 fps in VGA mode)
  • Rapid cycle time of ~2-3 seconds in normal shooting mode
  • Both LCD and dioptric-correcting optical viewfinders
  • Exceptional low-light capability
  • Exceptional macro ability (to 2 cm!)
  • External flash sync, with TTL capability for Nikon dedicated strobe units
  • Gamma-based image brightness/contrast adjustment (vs more-common linear adjustments)
  • Seven-mode white balance adjustment, including manual white-point selection
  • "Best Shot Select" function automatically picks sharpest version of an image from a multi-shot sequence.
  • Special exposure program modes for auxiliary Wide, Tele, and Fisheye lenses (Standard program mode is sensitive to tele/wide angle, shifting toward faster shutter speeds at longer focal lengths)
  • Exposure/white balance lock for panorama shooting
  • Sequential frame counter option to avoid accidental file overwrites on host computer
  • Selectable auto-off times of 30 seconds, 1, 5, and 30 minutes
  • Support for "folders" to organize images in-camera
  • Excellent user interface!



Executive Overview

The Coolpix 950 is the first digicam in Nikon's line of popular digital cameras to break the 2-megapixel barrier, boasting a 1/2-inch , 2.11-megapixel CCD capable of producing prints as large as 8 x 10 inches. Measuring just 5.6 x 3 x 1.4 inches, and featuring the signature split-body, swivel-lens design, the 950 is smaller than its predecessors and compact enough to carry almost anywhere. Its black magnesium body houses a 3X Zoom-Nikkor 7-21mm, aspheric glass lens (equivalent to 38-115mm in 35mm format), real-image optical zoom viewfinder, and a low-temperature, polysilicon, 130,000-pixel resolution LCD display for sharp, high-quality previews of digitally captured images.

Images are recorded in 24-bit RGB color as uncompressed TIFF files, or one of three Exif 2.1 JPEG modes: Fine (1:4 compression ratio), Normal (1:8), and Basic (1:16). File sizes range from 640 x 480 pixels (VGA), to 1,024 x 768 (XGA) and 1,600 x 1,200 pixels (UXGA). The camera is shipped with a Nikon 8MB Removable CompactFlash card, which holds up to 32 Basic JPEG images. However, the 950 will accept memory cards with capacities as large as 64MB, or anything in between. (We strongly suggest that you invest in higher capacity memory cards, as low-resolution files are only satisfactory for Web purposes, and an 8MB card can only accommodate one high-resolution image.)

The Coolpix 950 is divided into two segments by a swivel bearing joint in the middle. The right side of the camera has a hand grip and Command Dial on the front panel; a shutter release surrounded by the Power/Mode dial, small LED data display, Flash/ISO control, and Normal/Macro/Self-timer button on top; an LCD monitor on the back; and a battery compartment and CompactFlash slot accessible through the bottom of the camera, next to the built-in tripod mount. Arranged around the LCD are the Monitor on/off button, Menu on/off button, Up and Down Arrow buttons, and three buttons under the LCD that serve as the heart of the control system, performing various functions, based on the Mode and Command Dial settings.

The left side of the camera houses the lens, built-in flash, off-camera flash synch connector, optical viewfinder, and flash/autofocus LED indicator lights next to the viewfinder. This portion of the camera can be turned to four different 90-degree locked positions, which allow you to turn the lens facing front, back, up, or down. The camera's lens is similar to the Coolpix 900, with an electromagnetic drive, three-step, rounded diaphragm opening that provides apertures of f/2.6, f/4.4, and f/7.4 at the wide-angle end and f/4.0, f/6.8, and f/11.4 at the telephoto end.

The 950 is the first Coolpix camera to incorporate Nikon's exclusive 256-element matrix exposure metering and high-precision, contrast-detect, through-the-lens autofocus. Focus modes include: Continuous AF, Single AF, and 10-step Manual Focus from 4 inches to infinity. Focal range in normal mode is 12 inches to infinity, and in Macro mode, an impressive 0.8 inches (2 cm) to infinity. The 950 also features a four-step digital zoom, with a choice of 1.25X, 1.6X, 2X, and 2.5X telephoto settings. (We recommend that you stick with optical zoom and avoid digital zoom options, because they only magnify the existing pixels, and as a result, reduce the quality of the final print.)

The 2.1-million-pixel CCD offers a range of light-sensitivity ratings, from ISO 80 (default) to 100, 160, and 320. A selection of exposure modes increase the versatility and capabilities of the 950. They include: Programmed Auto Exposure (AE), Aperture-priority Auto, and Shutter-priority Auto, with manual Exposure Compensation from +2 to -2 EV (exposure equivalents), in one-third-step equivalents. Shutter priority allows selection of shutter times in one-stop increments from 1/500 to 8 seconds. Through-the-lens metering operates in three modes: 256-element Matrix, Spot, and Center-weighted metering. In our tests, the 950 delivered exceptional exposure results, especially in low-light scenes.

White Balance can be used in Auto TTL mode or set manually for Sunny, Cloudy, Incandescent, Fluorescent, and Flash lighting conditions. A White Preset option allows you to use a white card or sheet of paper to determine optimum white balance under specific lighting conditions. The 950 also provides five user-selectable Image Tone Curves to adjust image appearance for printing or monitor display. Settings include: Standard, Contrast +, Contrast -, Brightness +, and Brightness -.

The Coolpix Command Dial, patterned after the company's professional single-lens reflex film cameras, enables users to make setting adjustments with more speed and ease; and a Global Positioning System (GPS) input connector allows photographers to tag shot positions with precise accuracy, so they can return to the same location at a later time. The 950 also permits custom titling and renaming of stored shots, and features downloadable firmware that can be updated using CompactFlash cards.

Another new feature introduced with the Coolpix 950 is the Best Shot Selector. This function automatically records 10 frames of each exposure and then selects the sharpest image of the 10 to store on the camera's removable memory card. This sophisticated image analysis technology, which Nikon calls anti-jitter logic, is made possible by the camera's faster processing capabilities and increased RAM buffer. High-speed continuous shooting of up to 1.5 frames per second (or 60 continuous captures) is another benefit of Nikon's fastest Coolpix to date.

The Coolpix 950 is powered by four AA Alkaline, 1.2V NiCd, 1.5 NiMH, or 1.5V FR-6 Lithium batteries. An optional AC adapter is also available. The camera comes equipped with an NTSC video output for display on a standard TV, and serial interface connectors compatible with Windows and Macintosh computers, and ships with a soft case, carry strap, video cable, serial cable for Windows, Mac adapter, and NikonView Version 2.5 CD-ROM with NikonView Version 2 interface software, PictureWorks Hotshots, and Interactive Pictures IPIX.


Design
The swivel-lens design of the CoolPix 950 is very similar to that of the earlier 900, but the all-metal body feels more solid than we remember the 900 being. Nikon advertises the case as being made of magnesium, and it appears that this is indeed the case (no pun intended), the metal body conveying a very solid "feel" to the unit. Also, Nikon appears to have beefed-up the swivel bearing joining the two halves of the camera, a slight bulge on the camera's front allowing for a larger-diameter bearing. The picture below shows the '950 with the lens rotated into the usual 90-degree position. You can clearly see the bulge for the bearing on the left-hand side of the body. Again, we didn't have a sample of the '900 at hand while testing the '950, but the overall assembly felt much sturdier than we remember from when we tested the '900 almost a year ago. Other features visible in this view are the cover plug for the external flash-sync connector, protruding from the bottom of the right half of the body, underneath the lens and flash window, and the "selector wheel" control at upper left that we'll talk more about later.

 

Another noticeable design difference relative to the earlier '950 is the shape of the right-hand side of the case. As you'll see later in the top view of the camera, the case is contoured both front and back, to fit the shooter's right hand more naturally: The front of the camera has a pronounced bulge, with a red rubber grip-pad centered vertically. This provides a natural shape for your fingers to grip, and echoes the red/black design standard of some of Nikon's newer pro SLR film units (the F100 in particular comes to mind). The back has a much more subtle bulge in it, but provides just enough of a ledge for your thumb to comfortably grip. Overall, the new design makes a single-handed (the right one) grip of the camera much more comfortable and secure.
The shot below shows the rear of the camera, which will look quite familiar to '900 owners. The "Monitor" button at the top turns the LCD screen on for use as a viewfinder or for camera control via the extensive menu system (activated by pressing the "Menu" button just to the right of it). Significantly though, most camera functions can be controlled without resorting to use of the (typically) power-hungry LCD panel. - This bodes very well for battery life! The two buttons at top right control the 3x optical zoom lens, while the three buttons across the bottom provide access to the most commonly-used exposure and image-quality adjustments (more on this in a bit).

 

Viewfinder
As noted earlier, the CoolPix 950 provides both a zooming "real image" optical viewfinder, and a rear-panel LCD-based one. The LCD viewfinder is quite accurate, showing 95% of the final image area. (Somewhat surprisingly, it's quite common for digicams' LCD viewfinders to show less than 100% of the final image.) The optical viewfinder is more average, showing 85% of the CCD's field of view. Both viewfinders were slightly offset relative to the final image, in opposite directions. Once we became accustomed to the camera though, we had little difficulty achieving accurate framing.
The LCD display screen is quite sharp, both due to its 130,000 pixels of resolution, and the use of low-temperature polysilicon in its construction. (Low-temp "poly" seems to have a significant impact on LCD resolution, as all the cameras we've tested that tout this feature indeed have viewscreens that are sharper than average.) We did still find the LCD to be quite hard to see adequately in bright sunlight, though: In sunny settings, you'll almost certainly want to rely on the optical viewfinder instead.
One of the features we particularly liked about the '950 was the amount of information it gave us about the camera status and current picture-taking settings, via the LCD display. Most digicams currently (February 1999) leave you guessing as to the shutter speed and aperture value the camera has selected for the current picture. The CoolPix 950 though, provides a readout of both the shutter speed and lens aperture in the LCD viewfinder when the appropriate option is selected, as shown in the screen shot at right. If you don't want your viewfinder cluttered with data readouts though, you can easily turn them off. At the same time, a great deal of information about camera status is available on the top-panel LCD data readout, meaning that you'll very likely be able to operate the camera without having to turn on the color LCD display. This bodes well for battery life, as color LCD viewscreens are notorious power-hogs.

 

Optics
The CoolPix 950's lens appears very similar to that on the CoolPix 900, although we understand that some changes were made to accommodate the larger 1/2-inch CCD sensor element. The lens is glass (as opposed to plastic), composed of 9 elements in 7 groups, including one or more aspheric elements. In addition to the 3X optical zoom (covering a range of 35mm-equivalent focal lengths from 38 to 115mm), a range of digital zoom ratios are available, running from 1.25x all the way to 2.5x. Macro performance has been significantly improved beyond the already-excellent level of the '900, and a manual-focus option provides 10 focus steps from about 4 inches (10cm) to infinity. (Note that these are the manually-selectable steps: Autofocus operation has been improved beyond the exceptional 945-step accuracy of the original CoolPix 900, the new unit apparently offering over 4,000 steps of autofocus adjustment. We suspect that this increase doesn't actually reflect an increase in focus resolution, but rather is a result of the greatly extended macro range on the '950.) The '950 has the same-diameter filter threads that the '900 did, permitting the attachment of a variety of auxiliary lenses and filters. (Nikon offers optional wide-angle, fisheye, telephoto, and macro adapters, although it isn't likely the latter will be needed, given the exceptional macro performance of the basic lens system itself.) Like the CoolPix 900, the autofocus mechanism by default operates continuously, whenever the camera is in "record" mode. This behavior can be changed via a menu selection though, to cause it to only autofocus when the shutter button is half-pressed. As with most things in life, this is a tradeoff: The continuous autofocus mode uses up battery power a lot more rapidly, but greatly reduces the shutter lag (see below), especially when shooting close-up objects in macro mode. NOTE that the autofocus is continuously active when the camera is set to "Auto" record mode, and the LCD is turned on, regardless of the setting of the menu option.
The lens in the CoolPix 950 uses a three-position electromechanical aperture assembly, providing apertures of f/2.6, f/4.4, and f/7.4 at the wide-angle end of the zoom's range, and f/4.0, f/6.8, and f/11.4 at the telephoto end. In a welcome addition, the lens aperture is decoupled from the shutter mechanism, allowing apertures to be selected independently from shutter speeds. The three steps provided are about 1.5 f-stops apart, meaning fine exposure adjustments must be made via the shutter speed.
Some readers have pointed out the barrel distortion of the 950's lens when set to its widest-angle position, as seen in the resolution target and viewfinder-accuracy images on the Pictures page. We characterized this distortion as "slight," as we felt it was toward the lower end of the range we've seen on cameras we'd tested, and clearly less than was present in the 900's lens. Barrel distortion seems to have become a cause celebre on the 'web recently, but is actually a rather common lens artifact on most point & shoot cameras with zoom lenses, whether film-based or digital. Because most strongly affects only straight lines near the edge of the field of view, its effects aren't apparent in most shooting situations. If you're doing architectural photography, it could be more of an issue. Beginning with this review, we'll be specifying barrel and pincushion distortion (the opposite effect of barrel distortion) in absolute terms, expressed as a percentage of deviation of a straight line from its optimal path, as measured at the edge of the image. The formula we'll be using is (total deviation from straight)/(total linear dimension of the frame). "Total deviation from straight" is measured as the maximum excursion of the straight line, measured by connecting the endpoints of the reference line in the image with a truly straight one, and then measuring the peak deviation of the distorted line relative to this. Using this measurement standard, the geometric distortion of the 950s lens is 0.9% barrel at wide-angle, and 0.7% pincushion at telephoto. (Thanks to reader Phil Baker for this measurement technique: This approach is more common in the world of video equipment than photography, but has the benefit of being easy to make and easy to understand. The photographic world uses a technique based on diagonal measurements, that we felt was a little more difficult and prone to error, so we opted for the method described above. We hope to post an article dealing with lens distortions in greater depth soon.) The lens also exhibits a small but visible amount of chromatic aberration, corresponding to about 2 pixels at the edges of the frame.
On the Macro front, we initially were fooled by the minimum manual focus distance of the lens into thinking that the '950 could only focus to a minimum distance of about 4 inches. Even at this distance, the macro performance was very impressive. Later, when we learned that the actual minimum-focus distance was only 2cm (!!), we were frankly amazed. A little experimentation in the studio revealed that (at least on our prototype unit) this minimum working distance could only be reached with the lens racked in a bit from its maximum wide-angle or telephoto settings. The best macro performance is therefore achieved with the lens a little bit in from the maximum telephoto setting. (Production models now tell you when you've hit the macro "sweet spot", buy turning the little flower "macro" icon green when the lens is zoomed to the right setting.) Macro-mode focusing covers a range from 2cm to infinity, while normal-mode focus extends from 12 inches to infinity. (So why have a separate "normal" mode, if the "macro" mode extends all the way to infinity? The answer seems to be autofocus time: Macro focus can take much longer than "normal" focusing, especially if the subject is distant.)
Two centimeters working distance (!) is close enough that lighting can become a little problematic, with light having to be supplied at a very shallow angle relative to the subject, to avoid shadows from the lens itself or the camera body. The photo at right shows a quick jury-rigged "light tent" we made for our own macro shooting, from a small piece of diffusion gel. By casting strong lights on either side of this mini-tent, we obtained the reasonably balanced light you'll see in the macro shot on the pictures page. At this close approach, the macro capability of the '950 is little short of incredible. Combined with the moderate telephoto lens and the 2.1 megapixel resolution of the CCD, the detail level is literally microscopic! (It strikes us that the 950 would be very handy for quickly duping 35mm slides to digital at the moderate resolution level offered by the 2.1 megapixel sensor: Obviously nowhere near the resolution possible with a dedicated slide scanner, but good enough for a wide range of uses!)

Exposure
On almost every front, the CoolPix 950 provides significantly greater creative control than did its predecessor, the '900. Exposure controls include three different autoexposure modes (program, aperture-priority, and shutter-priority), and a seven-mode white balance adjustment. Metering modes include spot, center-weighted averaging, and 256-segment (!) matrix. (This last may be a step up from the '900, which we believe used a 64-segment matrix metering system.) Exposure compensation can be in 1/3-unit steps, across a range of +/- 2EV, the fine gradations of which will be set by varying the shutter speed. Shutter speeds range from an exceptional 8 seconds(!) to 1/750, although you need to switch to either aperture- or shutter-priority exposure mode to go slower than 1 second.
The CoolPix 950's ISO (light sensitivity) rating is adjustable, either automatically or manually, from the default value of 80 all the way up to 320. (While the default ISO rating is 80, some of Nikons specifications, such as flash range, are based on a rating of 100, leading us to believe that ISO represents a very usable value.) Technically, Nikon rates the unit's ISO at 80, but states that a "gain increase" is available, up to a maximum of 2EV gain step-up. This rather cryptic specification calls for a little explanation: With any electrical signal (in this case, the signal produced by light falling on the CCD), you can always increase the electrical "gain" or amplification to make the signal larger. The only problem is that, as you do so, any electrical noise present will also be amplified. Evidently wanting to establish a conservative benchmark for CCD noise in their images, Nikon chose to rate the sensor at an ISO of 80, and point out that they're just increasing the amplifier gain for the higher ISO ratings. We applaud both this conservative rating approach, as well as the very fact that Nikon has provided an option letting the user decide how they want to make the tradeoff of sensitivity vs. noise.
Even in the prototype we had for initial testing, low-light performance was exceptional, among the best we've seen from any camera to date, with the camera capturing usable (well, usable to someone anyway) pictures in light levels as low as EV4! (That's about 256 times dimmer than the bright residential interior used for our "indoor portrait" shots!) In the darkest conditions, with an 8-second exposure time, we did notice a number of "stuck" pixels, which showed up as glints of red, green, blue, or a combination. This is quite normal, based on other cameras we've tested in the past, but some of the test images we've seen taken with later-stage prototypes and posted on Japanese news pages don't show these artifacts. (As we'd hoped, our production test unit cleaned this up quite a bit, although at the very longest exposures, there wer still a few "twinkles.") A more usable lower limit on exposure is around EV 6-7, corresponding to typical outdoor night scenes lit by streetlights. The 950's contrast-detect autofocus also runs out of usable signal somewhere around EV 7, so for really low-light pictures, you'll want to use the manual focus capability. (Note though, that the camera's fixed manual focus steps mean that you'll need to pay careful attention to camera-subject distances with the wide-open aperture needed for low-light work.) Finally, in common with other digicams we've tested at very low light levels, color saturation drops significantly. Interestingly though, this probably worked to our advantage in the outdoor test shooting we did, where it reduced the strong color casts from the artificial lighting.)
As noted above, the CoolPix 950 brings a significant increase in exposure control. The 256-segment matrix metering takes advantage of the matrix-metering technology Nikon pioneered in their high-end 35mm SLRs, extending it even further thanks to the CCD technology the '950 is based upon. Metering modes also include center-weighted averaging and spot metering. Exposure may be determined either by full-program autoexposure (which intelligently adjusts to the current focal-length setting of the zoom lens, favoring shorter shutter speeds at longer focal lengths), or via shutter- or aperture-priority modes. Given the way the lens aperture functions, the shutter-priority mode deserves a minor additional comment: Since the lens aperture can only be adjusted in roughly 1.5 f-stop increments, exact exposure must be set via the shutter speed setting. Thus, in shutter-priority mode, it's unlikely that you'll end up with exactly the shutter speed you selected. As the exposure metering system demands, the camera will choose the lens aperture closest to the one called for by the shutter speed selected, and then make any fine corrections in the shutter speed itself. The camera will also override your selection, if you've picked a shutter speed that simply won't work, but it at least warns you it's about to do so by flashing the shutter speed value in the LCD viewfinder display. (Perhaps a minor point, but some in the internet community have expressed displeasure at cameras claiming to offer shutter-priority, but that in fact override the user's settings. Nikon's approach of warning of imminent overrides seems reasonable, but it would be nice if you could also tell the camera "I don't care if it's 'wrong,' just go ahead and do what I said.")
Flash Exposure
In addition to a 5-mode internal flash (auto, on, off, red-eye reduction, slow-sync) the 950 also carries forward the highly-integrated external-flash capability pioneered in the CoolPix 900 "S" model, taking advantage of the full range of features available from Nikon's high-end dedicated flash units. When using an external flash, the internal flash can optionally be turned off. The built-in flash is fairly powerful relative to other units on the market, with a range of 30 feet (9.2 m) at the wide-angle end of the lens' range, and the camera set to an ISO sensitivity of 100. Two notes: The slow-sync mode for the internal flash leaves the shutter open for a longer period of time, allowing more ambient light into the lens. It also appears to implement a "rear-curtain" sync function, firing the flash just before the shutter closes, rather than just as it opens. This produces motion trails of moving objects that appear to follow the flash-exposed image of the object, rather than precede it, a much more realistic effect for low-light motion photography. With regard to exposure-feedback for an attached Nikon external speedlight: Several sources (including ourselves) had initially reported that flash exposure was determined through the lens (TTL). This in fact isn't true, a small sensor next to the lens on the face of the camera actually providing the exposure feedback. This has both positives and negatives. On the plus side, you can fake out the flash exposure system if desired, either via a neutral-density filter on the lens (reducing exposure), or via a sliver of ND gel material covering the flash sensor (increasing exposure). This can be a useful trick for difficult exposure situations. The downside of the non-TTL flash exposure is that it's prone to being fooled by small subjects against a distant background, producing overexposed images in such cases. (To put things in perspective though, with TTL flash exposure, we're talking about a feature generally only available on high-end 35mm SLRs, and not at all on under-$1,000 digicams, to the best of our knowledge!)

White Balance
The CoolPix 950 has a range of white-balance settings, including auto, sunny, incandescent, fluorescent, cloudy, and flash. It also has a "white point" mode, in which the white balance is set by taking a picture of a white card under the same lighting conditions as will be used for your subject. (As with several other functions, this last white-balance mode wasn't functional on our prototype unit. Again, stay tuned) Overall, we found the white balance system to be reasonably competent: When used in the automatic mode, it left a bit of a ruddy cast in the difficult non-flash indoor portrait, a fairly typical outcome. The "incandescent" mode seems calibrated to professional tungsten lighting, with a color temperature of 3200K, vs. the household incandescent used in our indoor portrait shot, which typically has a color temperature of 2700-2800K. (This is good news for pros, less so for amateurs. - Also very common among digicams we've tested.) The other white-balance settings operated as we expected them to. (The "sunny" setting is balanced for somewhat warmer lighting than the "cloudy" one.)
Special Exposure Mode: AE Lock
As with most digicams, the CoolPix 950 "locks" the exposure and focus settings whenever the shutter button is half-pressed. This can be convenient for dealing with off-center subjects, and is particularly useful in conjunction with the available spot-metering mode. There's also a multi-shot exposure/white balance lock function available, which would be very useful for capturing panoramas. This latter control is accessed when in "manual record" mode via the rear-panel LCD menu system. The first exposure after the "lock" mode is set will control the exposure and white balance for all subsequent exposures, until the "lock" is removed or reset. (The menu controls include options to turn the lock on, off, or to reset it. This implies you may be able to leave the settings intact while you turn the lock off momentarily, but our prototype unit didn't work that way. - Stay tuned for our test of a final production model for more details)
Special Exposure Mode: "Continuous Shooting"
The CoolPix 950 offers several "motor drive" rapid-exposure modes, for capturing sequences of images very rapidly. There are three such modes, including "Continuous", "16 Shot", and "VGA Sequence." The Continuous shooting mode captures frames rapidly, at whatever resolution and image quality the user has selected, at a rate of 1.5 frames per second at full resolution, or 2 frames per second in VGA mode. Final production models will be able to capture up to 10 full-resolution images in this manner, before having to write the results to the CF memory card. (Our prototype would only capture a maximum of 5.) The 16-shot mode subdivides the sensor array into 16 sections, and captures a "mini-movie" of small images (400x300 resolution), which fill-in a 4x4 array within a single high-resolution image as the shooting progresses, at a rate of about 2.2 frames per second on our prototype unit. Finally, VGA Sequence captures a sequence of VGA-resolution frames (well, duhh), stored as separate files on the CF card, also at the roughly 2.2 frame per second rate. Because the final production units will have a faster processor than our prototype, readers should take the frame rates reported above as only approximations of the camera's ultimate performance.

Special Exposure Mode: "Image Adjust"
(Another mode that needs to wait for the final production models to test properly.) It sounds intriguing though: Most digital cameras provide only an overall exposure adjustment (the familiar +/- EV adjustment we discussed earlier). This boosts or cuts the overall brightness of an image, moving the shadow and highlight brightness together. In practice, when you want to "brighten" an image on the computer, what you usually want to do is to smoothly boost the midtones, leaving the blacks black, and the highlights white. This is a much more sophisticated adjustment, and until now hasn't been possible within digital cameras themselves. The CoolPix 950 promises to provide not only this, but a contrast adjustment as well: Interesting features that we're eager to see.
Special Exposure Mode: "Best Shot Select"
Now, THIS is an interesting one! We all know we should use a tripod when working in low light, but sometimes there just isn't one available, or the time to use it. What to do? The '950 provides a "best shot select" mode, which captures 5 frames at about 1.5 frames per second, and then analyzes them in-camera, to see which is the least blurred! That image (and only that one) is saved to the CF card! We didn't try to measure the BSS-mode performance quantitatively, but the results of casual experimentation were VERY impressive, routinely producing sharp images in situations we never would have expected. (Such as 1/2 second, hand-held exposures!)

Special Exposure Mode: "Black & White"
Pretty self-explanatory: The CoolPix 950 can also capture images in black & white, saving memory space.
Special Exposure Mode: "Lens - Telephoto, Wide angle, Fisheye"
We mentioned earlier that the 950's autoexposure program adjusts its shutter and aperture preferences depending on where within the zoom range the lens was set. This capability is extended to include the Nikon accessory lenses, via three settings in the menu system. Presumably, the AE system would choose even faster shutter times for the telephoto adapter, shorter ones for the wide angle or fisheye adapters. These modes also zoom the lens to the wide or tele end of its range, as appropriate for the lens being used. A small thing, but a nice touch nonetheless.
Shutter Lag and Cycle Times

When you press the shutter release on a camera, there's usually a lag time before the shutter actually fires. This time is to allow the autofocus and autoexposure mechanisms time to do their work, and can amount to a fairly long delay in some situations. Since this number is almost never reported on, and can significantly affect the picture-taking experience, we now routinely measure it, using a little Windows utility developed by Digital Eyes.
We measured the 950's shutter lag at 0.8 seconds with full autofocus, about 0.1 seconds (!) when the camera was prefocused by half-pressing the shutter release, and about 0.3 seconds in manual-focus mode. In macro mode, focusing took quite a while longer, as the lens has to "rack in" a LONG ways to get to the macro position. Macro focus takes a variable amount of time, depending on how close the subject is to the camera: At closest approach, macro focus can require as long as 3-4 seconds. (A good argument for using the continuous-focus mode when shooting macro subjects!)
In operation, a huge RAM buffer memory provides rapid cycling and long-sequence "motor drive" shooting as noted earlier. Startup time is also very rapid, at about 3.5 seconds, and shot-to-shot cycle times are quite fast as well, at 3-4 seconds with full autofocus. Another area in which the CoolPix 950 is notably speedy is in switching between record and playback (about 2 seconds), and the speed with which you can scroll through successive images in playback mode: The camera initially displays a very rough representation of the image, which is refined over the course of 2-3 seconds. The rough version is enough to tell which image you're looking at though, and you can move on to the next without waiting for it to fully update. The result is that you can move through a large number of images very quickly, a nice feature as memory cards continue to grow. (Oops! - In a major oversight, we neglected to measure the shot-to-shot cycle times on our full-production test unit! Thus, we don't have exact times for you, but do see in our notes that the camera cycled between shots at about 3 seconds, even in the highest resolution mode, until the buffer RAM filled up.)
Operation and User Interface
To our minds, one of Nikon's most impressive achievements with the new '950 is how easy the user interface makes it to quickly control all of the camera's powerful features: The vast majority of adjustments you'd want to make during normal shooting can be made directly from the camera's external controls, without having to resort to the LCD menu system. This represents a huge improvement in usability over many competing units. Exposure compensation, autoexposure mode (program, shutter, or aperture priority), and all image quality settings are rapidly accessible via a set of three buttons on the back of the camera, and a slick little selector wheel set into the front of the camera, just below the shutter button. All commonly-used camera functions can be selected via these controls, and the small LCD readout on the camera's top shows the current status and function selections independent of the large, power-hungry rear-panel LCD screen. For those times when you do elect to use the LCD screen while shooting, we liked the way the '950 keeps you posted on all the relevant exposure and operating information, displaying shutter speed, lens aperture, autoexposure mode, and the currently-selected image size and compression setting through an optional overlay display on the LCD viewfinder screen.
Given its importance in the use of the camera, we'll devote a bit of our time & space here to the '950's user interface functions. We mentioned the "selector wheel" user-interface feature earlier: The photo located above-right shows this in close-up, positioned just below the shutter-release button, conveniently located for your forefinger to access, while holding the camera normally. Most functions on the camera are selected through a combination of pressing a button and rotating this selector wheel. We found this to be a particularly effective user interface design, as it made for very rapid access to a host of commonly-used features. (Maybe the Nikon engineers have been reading our reviews: We've routinely asked for ways to control camera functions (particularly exposure compensation) without having to burrow into an LCD menu system! ;-)
In normal operation, the heart of the camera's control system is the group of three buttons, located just under the rear-panel LCD screen, shown above. These control, respectively: Exposure compensation (the +/- symbol), the metering mode and priority setting, and image quality. Each of these buttons are used in conjunction with the selector wheel: To change a setting, you press the appropriate button, and then rotate the selector wheel until the desired result is obtained. The exposure-compensation control provides a range of +/- 2EV units, in 1/3 unit (1/3 f-stop) steps. The Mode control selects from among Program, Shutter-Priority, and Aperture-Priority metering modes when it is held in and the selector wheel rotated. Once a metering priority mode is chosen, you use the same button to enable selection of the appropriate exposure value, whether shutter speed or lens aperture: Press the button once briefly and release it, then rotate the selector wheel to choose the desired shutter or aperture value. Finally, the "Qual" button connects the selector wheel to the image-quality function: With this button held down, the camera will cycle through all combinations of image size and compression level as the selector wheel is rotated. Even though there are a total of 10 such combinations (including the uncompressed file format, when in "manual" mode), we found we could very quickly arrive at the setting we wanted. (We were somewhat surprised to find that the need to scroll through all settings to reach the one we were looking for didn't seem at all awkward.)
These same three buttons also control the most frequently-accessed functions in playback mode: The leftmost will delete the currently-displayed image, the center one switches back and forth between single-image and a 9-up "thumbnail" mode, and the third enables a 3x "zoom" playback mode that lets you closely examine the contents of each frame. (When "zoomed" in, the LCD displays a small window into the full frame, which moves between 9 fixed positions under control of the front-panel selector wheel.)

 

The photo above shows the top panel of the camera, with the small LCD data readout, two control buttons, the shutter trigger, and the rotary camera-mode control. The main camera operating modes are set by the rotary control around the shutter button, selecting between "Off", "Auto", "Manual", and "Play". Despite its name, "Auto" mode still lets you make exposure-compensation adjustments, but you'll have to enter "Manual" mode to access the shutter- and aperture-priority metering options, or the uncompressed file format.
The two buttons at right cleverly incorporate multiple functions, depending on whether they're used alone, or in conjunction with the selector wheel. Used alone, the top button cycles through the five flash modes (auto, off, on, auto red-eye, and slow-sync). If you press and hold it while rotating the selector wheel though, you can change the camera's ISO rating. (This function wasn't fully operational on our prototype unit, but we're told that you'll be able to manually set the ISO from values of 80 to 320, or let the camera automatically choose an ISO rating, based on shooting conditions.) The lower of the two buttons normally cycles between infinity focus, macro focusing, and the self-timer function, but when pressed and held, puts the camera into manual-focus mode, in which the focus distance is set by rotating the selector wheel. (As mentioned above, manual focus is restricted to 10 different distances, ranging from 10cm to infinity.)
We mentioned the top-panel LCD readout earlier, but it deserves mentioning again: On most cameras we've worked with, these data-only LCD readouts are of relatively limited usefulness, restricted to displaying only a few camera status indicators. On the CoolPix 950 though, you can use the readout to control all the most frequently-accessed camera functions, in conjunction with the buttons and selector wheel control we've just covered. This strikes us as a huge benefit, since the larger color LCD screens used for the menu system consume so much battery power: We expect the '950 will have longer-than-usual battery life in normal usage, given that photographers will be able to use it effectively without having to switch on the LCD screen for routine operation.
Operating Modes, Menus, Etc.
Time for our usual exhaustive (exhausting?) run-down of the CoolPix 950's operating modes, controls, menus, etc. We've covered the basics above, but will now burrow into the camera's operating controls more deeply.
"Auto" Record mode
In "Auto" record mode, the advanced exposure modes of the camera (aperture- and shutter-priority) are locked out, as is manual focus, and any control over ISO rating. All other functions operate normally though, including macro and infinity-focusing, and even the manual exposure-compensation function. You also still get a shutter-speed and lens-aperture readout in the LCD display if it's enabled. As mentioned earlier, shutter speed in "Auto" mode is restricted to speeds of 1 second or faster: You must use either aperture- or shutter-priority modes to cover the range from 1-8 seconds.
"Manual" Record mode
This mode enables all the creative-control trickery the '950 is capable of, including aperture- and shutter-priority metering, variable-ISO control, and manual focusing.
Play mode
Self-explanatory - enables playback of images stored in camera memory.
Top-Panel Controls
We covered these briefly above, but will enumerate their functions again here, for the sake of completeness.

  • Rotary Control - Power on/off, selects Auto Record, Manual Record, and Play modes
  • Top button - Press to select flash mode (auto, off, fill flash, red-eye reduction, slow sync). Press and hold while turning the selector wheel to change ISO setting. No play-mode function.
  • Lower Button - Press to select infinity, macro, or normal autofocus, and the self-timer function. (Strangely, Nikon doesn't allow you to enable the self-timer for use in Macro mode, a much-requested feature.) Press and hold while turning the selector wheel to activate manual focus and choose the focusing distance. No play-mode function.

Rear-Panel Controls

  • Up/Down arrow buttons - control lens zoom when taking pictures, or select menu items when the LCD menu system is enabled. In play mode, step forward or back through available images.
  • Menu button - Enables rear-panel LCD display. Cycles through three states in both record and play modes: LCD Off, LCD on with information overlay (lens aperture, shutter speed, frame number, image quality setting, etc.), and LCD on with image display only.

     

    • Lower-left button (+/-) - Press and hold while turning selector wheel in record mode to change exposure compensation. Press in play mode to delete current picture. (Camera asks for confirmation before deleting.) In manual record mode, press immediately after image capture to erase the image before committing to permanent storage.
    • Lower-middle button (mode) - Press and hold while turning selector wheel in record mode to change exposure metering mode for manual recording. (Select Program, Aperture-, or Shutter-priority) Press in play mode to switch between normal and thumbnail image review. Unknown momentary function in manual record mode, immediately after image capture.
    • Lower-right button (Qual) - Press and hold while turning selector wheel in record mode to change image size and compression setting. Press in play mode to toggle 3x "zoom" playback.

Record-Mode Menus
The record-mode menu function layout is different for Auto and Manual modes, although the Auto-mode functions are just a subset of those for Manual mode, for the most part duplicating those of the Manual mode's third menu screen. For clarity though, we'll list all functions of both modes here separately, despite the redundancy involved in doing so.
Auto Record Mode Menu

    • Folders - The CoolPix 950 supports the creation, deletion, and renaming of "folders" to store images in separate groups. There doesn't appear to be any limit to the number of folders you can create: We made 5, which expanded the folder sub-menu onto a second screen, where there were at least two more slots for new folders. When a folder is selected, its name appears on the information overlay in both record and play modes, any pictures shot are stored in that folder, and upon playback, only the images in the current folder are shown. A playback-mode option does allow you to see images in all folders at once, though.
    • LCDBright - The CoolPix 950's LCD backlight has three brightness settings, so you can select a brighter or dimmer setting depending on ambient light and your need to conserve battery life. As noted earlier though, even the brightest setting made little difference in direct sunlight.
    • Sound - Turns on or off the soft annunciator beeps that signal image capture and other camera operations.
    • Auto Off - This will be a welcome addition for former CoolPix 900 owners: An "official" way to change the camera's auto power-down timer! Options include 30 seconds, 1, 5, or 30 minutes.
    • CardFormat - Reformats the memory card. (Erases any folders you may have created in the process - use the "delete" button to delete individual images and leave your folder structure untouched. - A "delete all" function would be nice, to clear-out a given folder, without affecting the others.)
    • Date - Set date/time, and select date display format. (YMD, DMY, MDY)

Manual Record Mode Menus
(First Screen)

    • White Bal - White balance setting. This sub-menu provides no less than seven different settings: Auto, manual white point, sunny, incandescent, fluorescent, cloudy, and flash. We couldn't test the manual white point option with our prototype model, but understand its intended function: You'd select this option, then aim the camera at a white surface lit by the same illumination as your eventual subject. The camera will read the RGB values from the known white surface, and set the white balance as appropriate. (If you think about it, this can give you tremendous creative control, if you had a range of very subtly colored off-white targets: You could force the camera's white balance to a color opposite that of the "white" target - warm-toned off-white targets would produce a cooler color balance, and cool-toned ones a warmer balance!)
    • Metering - Sub-menu selects matrix, spot, or center-weighted average metering patterns.
    • Continuous - Continuous shooting modes. Sub-menu selects between single-shot, continuous full-resolution (with resolution determined by the current image quality setting), VGA sequence, or 16-shot sequence (in which each frame is sub-divided into 16 smaller images).
    • Img Adjust - This is an interesting adjustment that we touched on briefly earlier. It provides for changing the brightness and contrast of the image, but is much more intelligent than the overall exposure compensation. Nikon tells us it uses a brightness histogram internally, to adjust midtone values without losing highlights or shadows. Options include brightness plus or minus, and contrast plus or minus.
    • BestShot - Options are on or off. Phenomenally useful feature, selecting the least-blurry picture from five captured in rapid succession. (See earlier discussion)
    • Dig Tele - Digital Telephoto. Sub-menu options are auto (digital tele selected via operation of the lens zoom controls), 2.5x, 2.0x, 1.6x, 1.25x, and off.
    • B/W - Black/White mode select. Options are on/off.

(Second Screen)

    • Folders - See earlier description under Auto Record Mode menus.
    • Lens - Special camera setups for normal, wide adapter, telephoto adapter, or fisheye adapter. (For instance, "wide" forces the lens to the widest-angle setting, for use in conjunction with the wide-angle adapter.) Shutter-speed program also shifts to favor shorter or longer shutter speeds as appropriate for the adapter type selected.
    • AE Lock - For use when taking multiple shots for use in a panorama series. Exposure and white balance will be set when the first shot is taken after enabling this option, then remain the same until reset.
    • User Set - The CoolPix 950 can remember up to three different "setups", retaining settings for virtually all aspects of camera operation. This lets you make radical changes in the camera setup very quickly, for instance, moving from a setup suited for flash photography to one set up for available-light, with a tungsten white balance.
    • Card Format - (Described earlier)
    • Reset All - Resets all settings to factory defaults.
    • Set Up - Takes you to third screen, described immediately below.

(Set Up Screen)

    • LCD Bright - (Described earlier)
    • Sound - (Described earlier)
    • LCD On/Off - Controls both LCD operation and autofocus behavior. LCD Monitor may be on or off at startup, and may or may not provide a momentary image review after each picture is captured. Autofocus may be set to operate constantly when in record mode, or only when the shutter button is half-pressed.
    • Controls - In "Manual" mode, this option leads to a sub-menu with a host of options:
      • Menu Direction (see earlier note)
      • Distance Ft - Selects between meters or feet for manual focus readout.
      • Flash Mode Save - preserve current flash mode settings when camera is turned off.
      • Infinity/Macro Mode Save - preserve current status of infinity/macro setting when camera is turned off.
      • Modesave - Save exposure mode when camera is turned off.
      • +/- Save - Save exposure compensation setting between shots, and when camera is powered off.
      • Int Flash - Option to disable internal flash entirely, when using external flash unit.
    • Auto Off - (Described earlier)
    • Seq Xfer - By default, the frame counter used to construct file names resets whenever the memory card is erased. This option keeps it incrementing continuously, to help avoid confusing or overwriting images on the host computer's hard disk.
    • Date - (Described earlier)
    • Language - The CoolPix 950 carries multiple languages in its firmware, selectable via this sub-menu. Options are German, English, French, and Japanese.

Playback Mode Menus
(First Screen)

    • Delete - Takes you to a sub-menu, allowing deletion of all or selected images.
    • Folders - See earlier description under Auto Record Mode menus.
    • Slideshow - Self-explanatory, exact functions not finalized on prototype
    • Protect - Takes you to a sub-menu showing thumbnails 6-up. Allows marking single or multiple images to prevent their accidental erasure.
    • Hide Image - Takes you to a sub-menu showing thumbnails 6-up. Lets you hide one or more images so they won't show in normal playback mode. (Useful for hiding selected images when setting up a slideshow display.)
    • Print Set - Takes you to a sub-menu showing thumbnails 6-up. Lets you mark one or more images for printing, set print quantity, optionally choose to attach date and exposure information to each. (Full details will need to await production model.)
    • Set Up - Takes you to third screen, described immediately below.

(Set Up Screen)
(These functions largely mirror those of the auto-record mode menus.)

    • LCD Bright - See earlier description under Auto Record Mode menus
    • Sound - (Described earlier)
    • Controls - In "Playback" mode, this option leads to a sub-menu with a single option:
      • Menu Direction (see earlier note)
    • Auto Off - See earlier description under Auto Record Mode menus
    • CardFormat - See earlier description under Auto Record Mode menus
    • Date - See earlier description under Auto Record Mode menus
    • Language - The CoolPix 950 carries multiple languages in its firmware, selectable via this sub-menu. Options are German, English, French, and Japanese.

Memory and Interface
Like the '900, the '950 uses CompactFlash memory cards, shipping with an 8-megabyte card as standard equipment. We suspect that most owners will almost immediately want to purchase a larger card though: Not only are memory prices falling rapidly, with 64-megabyte cards now selling for under $180, but the high-quality storage modes of the CoolPix 950 have a voracious memory appetite! (Topped off by an uncompressed file format that gobbles a whopping 5.7 megabytes per image.) Actually, the memory design was about the only element we could find fault with in the '950: Not the memory itself, but the location of the card! As shown in the image at left, the memory card's "hatch" is located on the bottom of the camera's body, right next to the tripod socket. While this might not be an issue for most users, we frequently use digital cameras on tripods, and the need to dismount the camera to get at its memory card is a nuisance in the studio... Also, along with everybody else, we need to complain a bit about the flimsy plastic CF card cover - there have been reports of it breaking after heavy use, and we can't imagine why Nikon "cheaped out" on such a minor but important detail, when the rest of the camera is so superbly designed!
Wrapping things up, the '950 includes several more subtle niceties that make going digital easier, including a "folder" arrangement for organizing images in the camera, a sequential frame counter option to avoid problems with overwriting files when copying them to your host computer, some powerful in-camera tonal-adjustment controls, and a unique "best shot selector" option that automatically chooses the least-blurry image, when shooting under difficult conditions.
Video Out

The US version of the CoolPix 950 includes a video out jack, offering NTSC-formatted video output. Other nationalities will doubtless support PAL timing. Connecting the video output provides a signal to an external device, without disabling the internal LCD display screen. All images that would normally appear on the LCD are also routed to the external video display. (Including all camera operating control displays.)
Power

The CoolPix 950 can be powered either by 4 AA batteries, housed inside the hand grip, or by an external AC adapter producing 2.5 amps (!) at 6.5 volts. (This is an unusually high current rating for a digicam AC adapter.) Running primarily from AA NiMH batteries during our tests, we did find the prototype unit to be rather power-hungry. As with several of our other observations though, we're confident that at least some of this was due to the prototype construction itself: From past experience, we've often found early prototypes of cameras to consume much more power than the production models due, thanks to lower levels of electronic integration, and less-efficient microchips. On a positive note, the ability to switch the lens to a single-shot autofocus mode (vs. the continuously-active autofocus of the CoolPix 900), and the ability to rely almost entirely on the small top-panel LCD readout for normal camera operation, rather than the power-hungry color LCD screen, bodes well for battery life in the field. Because the LCD backlight and autofocus motor typically account for a large percentage of total battery drain in a digicam design, the ability to drastically reduce their use should significantly increase battery life relative to cameras lacking that ability.

Update: Once we got the production model, we actually measured power drain in several modes. The power in "sleep" mode with the LCD turned off is remarkably low: You should be able to leave the power on with the LCD screen off virtually all day without running down your batteries! Note that in the following, the measurements were made at the 6.5 volt external supply voltage: The power drain with the lower-voltage internal battery supply would be higher, by an amount we can only estimate: For instance, the power drain during lens zooming is 900mA for an externally-applied 6.5 volt supply, but increase to 1,200 mA when the external supply voltage drops to 4.67 volts. The reason we don't know what the actual internal battery current is is that (a) we haven't come up with a way to reliably insert a "dummy battery" in the digicams, and (b) there are likely diodes and/or other electronic components that make for differences in the "effective" voltage between internal and external sources. Nonetheless, the following numbers should be informative:

    Operating Mode Power Drain
    Capture Mode, w/LCD 620 mA
    Capture Mode, w/o LCD 10 mA (!)
    Half-pressed shutter, no LCD 400 mA
    Zoom Lens actuation 900 mA
    Flash Recharge (Transient) 1000 mA
    Image Playback 420 mA
    "Sleep" Mode (Auto power-down) 10 mA (!)


Included Software

Learn what the manual left out -
How to *use* your camera.

Camera manuals are (sometimes) fine for knowing which button does what, but where do you go to learn how and when to use the various features? Dennis Curtin's "Shortcourses" books and CDs are the answer. (Cheap for what you get, too.) Order the Shortcourses manual for the camera reviewed in this article.

Our prototype unit came minus any software, and frankly, we didn't experiment much with the software provided with the production unit. There's a basic image-transfer application, called Nikon View, for both the Mac and Windows. Other packages bundled with the camera include PictureWorks "Hotshots", a general-purpose manipulation and cataloging application, and an introductory package from IPIX that lets you create 3-D "immersive" images.
Test Results
In keeping with our standard policy, our comments here are rather condensed, summarizing our key findings: For a full commentary on each of the test images, see the CoolPix 950 Pictures Page.
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 images on the pictures page, to see how well the CoolPix 950 performed, and how its images compare to other cameras you may be considering buying.
Overall, we were extremely impressed with the image quality from the CoolPix 950: Exposure was consistently accurate, with bright, clean colors, and exceptional detail, as befits a 2.1 megapixel digicam. When we saw the first images from the 950, it was immediately obvious that the Nikon engineering team hadn't been resting on their laurels after creating the CoolPix 900! The 900 consistently produced good, accurate color, but was rather conservative in its use of the available tonal scale, generally leaving a bit of extra range in both the highlights and shadows, thereby insuring that both shadow and highlight detail would be preserved. This approach produces images with maximum detail, but often at the cost of somewhat muted colors. Personally, we prefer this methodology, as we like to tweak our pictures manually post-exposure, to maximize the image quality before printing. Others prefer to let the camera trade away some of the highlight and shadow detail in favor of images with more "snap" right out of the camera. With the 950, Nikon appears to have arrived at an excellent balance between "snap" and detail, consistently producing images with clear, bright colors, yet which also show good handling of difficult highlight and shadow values. In this respect, we suspect that the 950 will win many new converts to the Nikon camp, while losing none of their earlier followers. Overall, color accuracy and saturation were very good, with only a minor tendency toward purplish blues and slightly weak yellows preventing a "perfect" score.
Detail and resolution are exceptional, with visual resolution approaching 800 line pairs/picture height horizontally and 650-700 vertically, the best we've seen to date. (2/14/99) Performance in the outdoor far-field shot was exceptional as well. (Update: We've now seen other cameras that do about as well also, but the CoolPix 950 remains at the top of the field, first among equals, at least as of July, 1999.)
The LCD viewfinder is quite accurate, showing 95% of the final image area. The optical viewfinder is more average, showing 85% of the CCD's field of view. Both viewfinders were slightly offset relative to the final image, in opposite directions. Once we became accustomed to the camera though, we had little difficulty achieving accurate framing.
We added a new low-light test with the CoolPix 950, and it's performance in this area was very good: We obtained semi-usable images all the way down to a light level of EV 4, and very usable ones down to EV6-7! - This is about what you'll find in typical outdoor night shots lit by street lights. (See our test images shot in a local mall parking lot.) See the Pictures Page for full details on low-light performance!

The CoolPix 950 really shone in the Macro test, capturing a miniscule area of only 0.58 x 0.78 inches (14.8 x 19.8 mm) at a minimum working distance of only 0.8 inches (2 cm). (Interestingly, closest focusing occurs with the lens racked in a little bit from its maximum telephoto setting, a phenomena we've observed in one or two other cameras as well.) This exceptional close-focusing ability, combined with the high image resolution results in macro shots with literally microscopic detail: If you want a camera for really tight macro work, this is the one! - The built-in flash just can't remotely begin to cover the subject area evenly at 2cm(!), but the ability to use external Nikon strobes in an interactive metering mode could open some very interesting possibilities for ultra-macro photography, using "light tents" to evenly distribute the strobe's light - This is how we shot our own maximum-macro image, as the 2 cm focusing distance made it tricky to get light into the subject area without being shadowed by the lens and camera body. (Note though that the flash metering isn't through the lens, but occurs via a front-panel sensor.)
See for Yourself!

Take a look at the test images from the Coolpix 950 (with extensive comments), or jump to the Comparometer(tm) page to compare its reference images with those from other digital cameras.

Conclusion
We expected to see an increase in resolution with the Coolpix 950, and thanks to the 2.1-megapixel sensor, we certainly weren't disappointed. The camera's overall image and optical quality appeared to be a solid notch above the already excellent levels of the earlier 900, and creative control was greatly enhanced with aperture- and shutter-priority exposure modes. Nikon also made major strides in the camera's user interface, with all of the most commonly-used options readily accessible from the external controls, without having to venture into the camera's LCD menu system. All in all, the Coolpix 950 represents a significant advance in the state-of-the-art for "prosumer" digital photography, and as such is sure to find an even wider following than the hugely successful 900 that preceded it.

 

Buying a CoolPix 950?  It's a GREAT camera, with a LOT of features: A good way to really learn how to use all its outstanding features is to pick up a copy of "A Short Course in Nikon CoolPix 950 Photography! At only $19.95, this is a fantastic introduction to digital photography in general, and the Coolpix 950 in particular. Follow this link to order a copy! (For more info on the book, click here.) The book covers a tremendous range of shooting techniques and general photographic background, but links it specifically to the features and controls of the '950. Highly recommended!

Reader Sample Images!
Do you have a CoolPix 950 camera? If you'll post an album of your samples (it's easy to do, and free) and email us at photos@imaging-resource.com, we'll list the album here for others to see!



Must-have book, $20: A Short Course in Nikon 950 Photography, Click Here!

 

For More Info:

View the Imaging Resource Data Sheet for the CoolPix 950

See the CoolPix 950 Pictures Page

Visit the Nikon home page for the CoolPix 950

Visit the Nikon Dealer Locator page to find a dealer near you!

Back to the Imaging Resource Digital Cameras Page

Or, Return to the Imaging Resource home page.

 

 

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