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Nikon CoolPix 990

Nikon updates the hugely successful Coolpix 950, with 3.34 megapixels and numerous enhancements

Review First Posted: 3/1/2000



Must-have e-book for this camera -- $20, Click Here!

MSRP $999 US

 

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Full 3.34 megapixel sensor delivers 2048x1536 images
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Exceptionally well-designed user interface and controls
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32 Megabyte SDRAM buffer for 2 second cycle time
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Enormous creative control and flexibility
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Excellent color and tonality
Must-have e-book for this camera -- $20, Click Here!
   


Manufacturer Overview
By carefully applying their camera-building expertise honed in the professional and advanced-amateur segments of the film-camera market, Nikon has developed a commanding position in the digicam world, even though their consumer digital camera lineup has consisted of only two models. The key has been the exceptional image quality and picture-taking feature set embodied in their cameras, which have obviously struck a responsive chord with digicam enthusiasts. When the 1.3 megapixel Coolpix 900 first burst on the digicam scene almost two years ago, it was an immediate hit. The 2.1 megapixel Coolpix 950 a year later extended the winning streak, and now the 3.34 megapixel Coolpix 990 appears poised to do the same again. (Meanwhile, the Coolpix 800 has been a popular choice for an inexpensive 2 megapixel digicam with a slightly less robust feature set.)
Besides increasing the 990's resolution to a full 3.34 million pixels, Nikon has also upgraded several camera functions, added numerous features, and improved the camera's physical design.
Highlights

What's New
Since many people reading this review will be familiar with the previous Coolpix 950, it makes sense to begin with a list of the new features Nikon has included on the 990. As you can see, engineering the 990 was more than a matter of just slapping a larger sensor into an existing design. Here's a (doubtless partial) list of what's new:


Executive Overview
We're pleased to report that the Coolpix 990 takes all the best features of the previous 900 and 950 models and combines them with a host of new ones that make this camera really shine. The swivel-lens design is one of our favorite design elements, as it greatly enhances the camera's optical flexibility. Additionally, the control layout stayed relatively the same but with a few additional features, such as the programmable Function buttons. (These programmable buttons make one handed operation of the camera much more feasible under varying conditions.) The camera provides both a real-image optical viewfinder and an LCD monitor display for image composition. A nice feature on the LCD is the very extensive information display that reports a variety of exposure information, including aperture and shutter speed settings. In Play mode, the LCD gives an equally informative readout on captured images and also offers an index display of thumbnails and a playback zoom option.
Optically, the Coolpix 990 is equipped with a 8 to 24mm, 3x zoom lens (equivalent to a 38 to 115mm lens on a 35mm camera), made up of nine elements in eight groups (all made from environmentally friendly glass, we might add). New to the 990 is the seven blade iris diaphragm design, which greatly extends aperture control over the earlier 950. Zoom is easily controlled via the W and T buttons on the back panel and the settings menu even allows you to select the Fixed Aperture feature, which keeps the aperture constant while the lens zooms. A 4x digital zoom can be turned on and off through the settings menu and offers an "stepless" incremental zoom range from 1.1x to 4.0x. We should also mention here, that the 990 has a nice variety of focusing options, including Continuous and Single autofocus as well as a manual control. Under the autofocus setting, you can set the desired focus area, or let the camera decide on its own (which displays a complex target series on the LCD panel and bases focus on the object closest to the lens). With manual focus, you can select a peaking feature that shows what part of the image is in focus, as well as a distance scale to help in difficult situations.
Exposure-wise, we greatly enjoyed the flexible options under the Manual Record setting. When you turn the camera on, you have the option of a completely Automatic or Manual Record mode, in addition to the Play mode. Under the Automatic Record mode, the camera handles everything, from the shutter speed to the white balance, but when you switch to Manual Record, your options multiply greatly. Within the Manual Record mode, you can select either Program, Flexible Program, Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority or Manual exposure modes. Program does exactly as it sounds and selects the aperture and shutter speed, but you now have absolute control over white balance, exposure compensation, etc. Flexible Program does the same but instead lets the user select from a variety of aperture and shutter speed combinations. Aperture Priority and Shutter Speed Priority are also pretty self-explanatory, letting the user select one value while the camera selects the other. Finally, Manual gives you total control over everything, a feature we really like. Shutter speeds are adjustable from eight to 1/1000 seconds (with a bulb setting for longer exposures) and apertures range from F/3.5 to F/9.8.
The Coolpix 950 already offered outstanding features like Best Shot Select and a variety of continuous shooting modes. These are all repeated on the 990 and accompanied by a few new ones. In addition to the Continuous and Multi-Shot 16 shooting modes, the 990 also offers an Ultra High-Speed Continuous (approximately 30 frames per second with a total of 80 QVGA shots) and a Movie mode (up to 40 seconds of QVGA sized images at 15 frames per second). There's also an Auto Bracketing feature that brackets as much as two stops up and two stops below the set exposure, producing a total of five images. We really enjoyed these features and the amount of creativity and flexibility they allow. We were also pleased with the return of the extensive white balance menu from the 950 (Auto, Preset, Fine, Cloudy, Incandescent, Fluorescent and Speedlight) and the variety of metering options (the famous 256-element Matrix mode, Center-Weighted and Spot). Also, under the settings menu, we enjoyed the ability to alter the in-camera sharpening as well as increase or decrease the contrast or turn the image into monochrome black and white. Not to mention the ability to connect an external flash and use with or without the built-in flash. This camera is so feature laden, it's hard to find lack to complain of.
The Coolpix 990 uses CompactFlash for image storage and runs on four AA batteries. We found the camera a little power hungry (partly because of our reliance on the LCD monitor during the studio shots), so we highly recommend keeping a couple sets of spares around or working with the AC adapter when possible. The camera supports both USB and standard serial connections (using a dual purpose port), for quick connection to a PC or Mac. (The availability of a USB connection is decidedly good news on a high-resolution camera, especially one that can make nearly 10 megabyte uncompressed TIFF files like the '990!) There's also an NTSC video cable (European models ship with PAL) for connecting to a television set.
What a camera! We really love the almost excessive amount of control and think that you will too. The Coolpix 990 gives you as much control as you want, but also offers the luxury of sitting back and letting the camera do all the work as well. With its bevy of exposure options, compact portability, and high image quality we think this camera will be very popular.
Design
Nikon continues the swivel-lens design of the Coolpix 900 and 950 models with the Coolpix 990. With its ability to swivel just shy of 360 degrees, the lens can be pointed back towards the user, straight ahead or straight down to the ground, while keeping the LCD screen oriented for easy viewing. The camera body is compact and light weight, measuring approximately 5.9 x 3.1 x 1.5 inches (15 x 7.87 x 3.81 cm) with the lens stowed in its upright position and weighing about 13.1 oz (371.4 g) without the batteries.


With the lens facing forward in its normal "stowed" position, the design of the front of the camera remains quite minimal. The lens itself doesn't protrude much from its barrel and the built-in flash and front side of the optical viewfinder fit snugly beside it. Beneath the lens barrel are the external flash sync socket and the dioptric adjustment dial for the optical viewfinder. On the very inside of the hand grip is the DC power input jack, covered by a soft rubber flap. Interestingly enough, Nikon swayed from their usual black and red design features to an updated combination of black and purple, and a rainbow reflective logo on the front.


This shot shows the camera with the lens unit rotated to the position most people will use it in. This orientation orients the LCD panel vertically, while the lens, flash, and optical viewfinder face forward.


Looking at the top of the camera body, there's a small status display panel (helpful for conserving batteries by not using the LCD monitor), the Power/Mode dial, shutter button, a couple of function buttons and a small command dial that 's used to change certain camera settings. An exceptional feature on the 990 is that the Mode and +/- buttons on the top panel also double as Function buttons, programmable through the Setup menu in Manual exposure mode to access various exposure options. This was designed specifically to allow one handed operation, as you can hold down one of the buttons with your index finger and scroll through the chosen options with the command dial. This is a nice design change from the earlier Coolpix models, which were decidedly two-handed cameras.


The majority of the controls are located on the back panel of the camera, along with the LCD monitor. The layout of the controls is, again, very similar to the preceding Coolpix models. The Monitor and Menu buttons live at the top of the LCD panel, with the zoom controls and rocker toggle button off to the right side. Beneath the LCD are several controls for macro, manual focus, flash, quality, size and a few others. When the lens is pointed frontwards, the optical viewfinder is visible from the back panel. Two LEDs located directly beside the viewfinder report the status of the autofocus and flash.


We like the bulky hand grip on the right side of the camera which enables a firm, secure hold on the camera. (We noted that this feature is somewhat larger on the 990 than the earlier 950, making for a more secure grip.) The soft rubber surface fits directly under your fingers, providing additional friction for a good grip. Located inside the hand grip are the serial and USB I/O jack (a dual interface), the video output jack, the CompactFlash compartment and an attachment for the carrying strap. The digital and video inputs live beneath a soft, flexible rubber flap that quickly and securely snaps into place. The placement of the CompactFlash slot makes it easy to change cards when mounted to a tripod and the plastic door simply flips open and snaps shut. (The sturdy design of the CompactFlash door addresses the single most frequent complaint of 950 owners: The flimsy plastic flap used to cover the memory slot on that model. There is no access light to let you know when the camera is accessing the card, so you'll have to pay attention to the LCD monitor or the small status display to know when it's OK to change cards. (It's important to never remove a memory card while the camera is writing to it, lest you corrupt your images or even damage the card.)


Finally, the flat bottom of the camera holds the battery compartment and a metal tripod mount that are unfortunately too close together to allow battery changes while on a tripod. The battery compartment has a sliding lock that keeps the door tightly shut.
Viewfinder
The Coolpix 990 offers both an optical viewfinder and an LCD monitor display. The real-image zoom viewfinder, located on the backside of the lens barrel, provides about 85 percent frame coverage according to Nikon. In our own tests, it ranged from 86 percent coverage at wide angle to 91 percent at telephoto. A center focus target helps line up shots while two LEDs beside the viewfinder indicate the status of the flash and autofocus systems. Additionally, a dioptric adjustment dial lies on the underside of the lens barrel to accommodate eyeglass wearers.
The 1.8 inch, 110,000 dot, low temperature, polysilicon TFT LCD monitor on the back panel operates both as a viewfinder and information display while in any capture mode. The LCD on the 990 is smaller than that on the earlier 950, but is higher resolution. It also sports a very high refresh rate, so images of moving objects are sharp and clear. Nikon estimates its frame coverage at 97 percent, a good deal more accurate than the optical viewfinder, which is usually the case. Our own tests showed it 97 percent accurate at wide angle, and nearly 100 percent at telephoto. When the camera is in autofocus mode, a series of targets can be continually displayed on the LCD. This shows you all the areas that the camera looks at to determine focus (in this autofocus mode, the part of the subject closest to the camera determines the focus). The LCD monitor display can be quickly called up and canceled by hitting the Monitor button just above it and we applaud the amount of exposure information that's displayed. Nearly all the settings are reported, including aperture and shutter speed (when in Manual exposure mode).
We felt the LCD screen was a minor weakness in earlier Coolpix cameras, as the unit used by Nikon was very difficult to read in sunlight. (This is true of all LCD screens, but seemed more so of the displays on the Coolpix 900 and 950.) We felt the viewscreen on the 990 was much better in this respect: It seemed to trade off a narrower usable viewing angle (you need to look at it pretty much straight on, for the best view) in favor of less tendency to wash out in very bright ambient light. The 990's LCD is also the first we've seen (February, 2000) that had an adjustment in the setup menu to control the screen's color balance, in addition to the common brightness setting. (!) We found this very interesting, perhaps useful as a way to adapt the camera's behavior to surroundings with strong tints in the ambient lighting.
As was the case with the Coolpix 950, an exceptional level of exposure information can also be displayed in Play mode. The screens at right show the three successive information screens that are accessed by rotating the command dial in playback mode. (The image in the screen shots here was deliberately underexposed using Manual capture mode, to make the information display more visible.)
Completely new in the Coolpix 990 (and very welcome!) is the histogram display shown at right. This is a feature that has been common in professional digicams for some time now, but that has seldom been seen in "prosumer" models. The graph shows the distribution of brightness values in he image, with the left edge corresponding to pure black, and the right edge to pure white. Once you learn how to read it, a histogram is phenomenally useful in determining whether you've managed a good exposure or not. There's hardly room or time here to go into histograms in full detail, but we thought it would be useful to show you two examples: In the screen shot at top, the image was deliberately underexposed. Note how the peaks in the histogram are all bunched toward the left-hand side of the graph, and how little there is going on at the right side. By contrast, the lower image was overexposed. Note how the graph is bunched against the right edge. Ideally, a well-exposed image would produce a histogram curve that just filled the graph from left to right, indicating that it contained a full range of tonal values. We really like the histogram feature, and hope other digicam makers will be motivated to include it in their cameras as well.

A final Play-mode information display is also new to the 990, showing lens, shutter and focus settings, and indicating (by the green brackets) what the autofocus system had locked onto when the picture was taken. -Another very handy way to check that you actually got the shot you were looking for!

In Play mode, the LCD can also display a thumbnail index page, showing either four or nine images to a page depending on the setting. You can cycle between single-image, four or nine image views by pressing the flash/thumbnail button under the LCD display. You can also mark images for deletion in this mode.

There's also a playback zoom feature, which enlarges captured images up to 3x, letting you get a reasonably good idea of how well-focused the image is, check the framing, and examine details to see if you got the shot you wanted. (Did anyone blink?)


Optics
A Nikkor 3x zoom, 8 to 24mm lens comes with the camera (the equivalent of a 38 to 115 mm lens on a 35mm camera), with nine elements in eight groups (all made up of environmentally friendly glass). Aperture ranges from F/3.5 to F/9.8. New to the 990 model is the seven blade iris diaphragm, which gives very fine-grained aperture control, useful for controlling depth of field, but more so for working with external flash and precisely controlling the balance between flash and ambient exposure. The contrast-detect TTL autofocus features a 4,896 step autofocus mechanism with a working range from 0.8 inches (2.0 cm) to infinity (this includes the macro range). When shooting in the Auto exposure mode, the autofocus remains in the Continuous setting while using the LCD monitor but reverts to the Single autofocus mode when the LCD is off (which means you must halfway press the shutter button to set focus). However, the Manual capture mode gives you the freedom to choose between Continuous or Single autofocus, regardless of LCD status.
The Continuous focus mode results in the lens continually "hunting" for the best focus as you move the camera around, settling down when the camera and/or subject stops moving. Autofocus tracking speed isn't terribly high (mentioned in case you were expecting AF tracking as on Nikon's F5 pro film camera), but the continuous option would definitely be a benefit with moving subjects. The downside is that it burns more battery power.
The manual focus option is controlled through the settings menu and offers choices between a peaking scale or a distance readout (extremely beneficial in hard to focus situations). Once enabled, just press the Manual Focus button (lower left of the LCD monitor) and simultaneously turn the command dial to adjust the focus in 50 steps.
As a focus aid in manual focus mode (it can also be enabled in autofocus modes as well), the Coolpix 990 has a clever "peaking" display. This appears to be some sort of on-screen sharpening function that tends to exaggerate the current state of focus of the camera: In-focus objects look extra-sharp on the LCD when "peaking" is enabled. With textured objects, the peaking display mode produces a glimmering, moire-type effect on the display screen. We didn't test manual-focus accuracy extensively, so can't comment on just how well this works, but it is clearly a step ahead of most digicams, in which the LCD screen has far too little resolution to be of practical use in evaluating focus.
We should note here that the 990's autofocus mechanism is quite sophisticated, with several operating modes. It has five possible focus zones (center, top, bottom, left, right), which can be very useful for achieving accurate focus on off-center subjects. The screenshots above right show the camera preferentially focusing on two objects at very different distances, based on the focus area selected. It could also take some getting used to if you're accustomed to lesser cameras with only a single focus zone. The Focus option under the settings menu does allow you to choose modes in which the camera chooses the focus zone, or in which you can explicitly set the location of the focus area (a nice feature that works well when combined with the spot metering mode, which can likewise be directed to determine exposure from the same 5 zones). In the "Auto" option for focus-area selection, the camera chooses the area corresponding to the object closest to the camera. When the area focus option is set to Off, the camera bases focus on the central area. (One playback mode displays a focus-area overlay, and shows which focus area was chosen for each image, by highlighting the appropriate set of marks in green. - This last function wasn't yet operational on our test unit.) Overall, the 990's focusing system is by far the most sophisticated we've seen on any digicam to date

The lens itself has the same filter threads as the preceding Coolpix models, which accommodate Nikkor accessory lenses for wide-angle, telephoto, macro and fisheye focal lengths. Once a lens is attached, you'll need to select the corresponding lens type in the lens settings menu, shown at right. (The camera adjusts its operation for different lens types by restricting the zoom range to avoid vignetting, switching to center-weighted metering for the fisheye adapter, etc.) A digital telephoto feature can be turned off and on through the Zoom option under the Settings menu, enlarging images up to 4x. The 990's digital zoom is different from most in that it provides a smoothly-varying range of magnifications. An indicator on the LCD monitor displays the range of digital zoom at each step (from 1.1x to 4.0x). Like this feature on most digicams, digital telephoto on the Coolpix 990 enlarges the center of the image, resulting in reduced resolution and more artifacts as more digital zoom is used. The camera automatically switches to center-weighted metering and a center autofocus target when digital zoom is active. Also under the Zoom option, you can set the startup position of the lens (either wide or telephoto) and activate the Fixed Aperture function, which keeps the aperture fixed as the lens zooms. The startup position option was another highly-requested feature among '950 users, and can really save precious seconds in fast shooting situations. Likewise, the fixed-aperture zoom option is very useful when working with external flash units, to avoid varying the exposure as a function of lens focal length.
Exposure
Sophisticated, accurate exposure control has been a hallmark of Nikon cameras, both in the film-based and digital realms. The Coolpix 990's exposure system incorporates several enhancements over that of previous models, through the addition of a 7-blade lens aperture, and a 256-element matrix white balance system. Losing no ground in the process, the 256-element matrix exposure metering system of the Coolpix 950 has been retained.
The 990 offers very flexible exposure control, with Program, Flexible Program, Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority and full Manual modes to choose from when set to the Manual exposure mode on the Power/Mode dial. Although it took a little figuring out at first (due in part to the fact that our evaluation model was a prototype and without a manual), we eventually discovered that changing modes and exposure features could be done quickly and painlessly without having to rely on the LCD monitor. The combination of the command dial and the control buttons gave complete access to most of the normal exposure functions. We also enjoyed the variety of Manual exposure mode settings. The main difference between the Auto and Manual exposure options on the Power/Mode dial is the availability of certain functions. For example, in Auto exposure mode, the camera completely controls the exposure, from shutter speed to white balance. The Manual setting provides the full range of options mentioned above, giving you as much or as little control as you need. We'll explain the various modes here.
Program mode gives the camera control over shutter speed and aperture but lets you set the white balance, exposure compensation, etc. The Flexible Program option goes a step further by letting you select from a range of shutter speed and aperture combinations. (The camera determines the required exposure, but you can choose whether it achieves that exposure with a shorter shutter speed and wider aperture, or a longer shutter speed and smaller aperture. This strikes us as a very nice option, achieving much of what people want from Shutter or Aperture priority modes, but without limiting the camera's ability to respond to widely varying light conditions.) Shutter Priority lets you select from eight to 1/750 second shutter speeds while the camera selects the appropriate corresponding aperture. Likewise, under Aperture Priority, you can select apertures from F/3.5 to F/9.8 while the camera selects the best shutter speed. However, in Full Manual mode, the camera increases the shutter options to include a bulb setting for long exposures and a quick shutter of 1/1000 seconds, with the same aperture range as in Aperture Priority. In any mode, if the camera disagrees with your exposure choices, the shutter and aperture values will flash in the display to indicate that this may not be the best exposure option.
Exposure compensation is adjustable from -2 to +2 in 1/3 EV increments by pressing the +/- button and turning the command dial. Additionally, under the Image Adjustment option on the settings menu, you can increase or decrease contrast, lighten or darken the entire image or switch into black and white mode, giving you a few more exposure adjustment options. These tonal compensation adjustments are quite a bit more sophisticated than simple exposure compensation found in most digital cameras. Conventional exposure compensation adjustments simply allow you to adjust overall exposure up or down relative to that selected by the camera's exposure system. By contrast (no pun intended), the "lighten" and "darken" adjustments on the Coolpix 990 preferentially adjust the midtone values of the image, without affecting the white and black values of the image. (That is, "lighten" will brighten the middle brightness values in the image, without blowing-out white areas, or lightening black ones.) There are also options to adjust contrast, and capture images in black and white.
The Coolpix 990's default ISO rating is 80 but is variable when shooting in Manual exposure mode. ISO values of dEF(default), 100, 200, 400, and Auto are available by pressing the ISO button and rotating the command dial. When shooting in the Auto exposure mode, the ISO value is left at its default setting of 80. In addition to the exposure value settings, you can adjust the in-camera sharpening to Auto, High, Normal, Low or Off under the Sharpening option of the settings menu. This is a useful feature, especially in situations where digicams tend to oversharpen such as high contrast boundaries within images. Also, we generally find that post-exposure sharpening in Photoshop(tm) or other image-manipulation program generally gives better results than the in-camera sharpening functions provided by most cameras. Thus, you may find it best to leave the in-camera image sharpening in the Coolpix 990 off for critical images, and apply unsharp masking in the computer later.
Histogram-based exposure confirmation.
We showed examples of the Coolpix 990's histogram display earlier, under our discussion of the viewfinder functions. Given that prior coverage, we'll make only brief mention here, but do want to underscore the significance of this feature. Shooters moving from the color-negative world will be accustomed to routinely favoring overexposure in their pictures, to insure optimum shadow detail. Digital cameras are quite different though, and need to be exposed more like slide film, with an eye to retaining detail in the highlights: Once the sensor hits an exposure value of 255 (in a system with 8-bit brightness values), any additional illumination has no effect, and all highlight detail is lost. It's thus very important to be able to recognize when parts of the image are being "blown out", as opposed to merely being very bright. LCD viewscreens aren't accurate enough to be trusted for this evaluation, so an explicit graph of brightness values (the histogram display) is exceptionally useful. We don't expect most casual users to routinely use the histogram exposure confirmation display on the 990, but for pros or others working with critical exposure requirements, it's indispensable.
White Balance
The Coolpix 990 offers a lot of flexibility in its white balance settings, with a matrix-based Auto setting as well as Fine (Outdoors), Incandescent, Fluorescent, Cloudy, Speedlight (flash balanced) and Preset (or Manual). We were able to get reliable results with the Auto and Fine settings, although we attempted Preset and had varying results (it's highly possible that this feature was not yet functional on our prototype test unit). Particularly interesting is the ability to "fine tune" the white balance setting in all modes except Auto or Preset. We've frequently found the various white balance options on digital cameras to produce images with an overall warm or cool color cast, depending on the manufacturer's biases, the current lighting conditions, etc. On the 990, Nikon gives you the option of tweaking the white balance to your own preferences. When you access the white balance sub-menu and select a white balance option, rotating the command dial will adjust the white balance up or down over a range of +/- 3 arbitrary units. Positive adjustments shift the color toward bluish hues, while negative adjustments move it toward warmer tones. (In the screen shot above, we've adjusted the incandescent white balance up by 2 units.)
Metering Options
The Coolpix 990 also offers several metering options, with 256 segment Matrix metering (intelligently examining 256 segments across the entire image), Center-Weighted, Spot and Spot AF Area. This last is another option that's entirely unique to the Coolpix 990 (February 2000). Taking advantage of the multi-spot autofocus capability, Spot AF Area exposure setting determines exposure based on a spot reading centered on the location designated as the autofocus target under the Focus Options menu.
Other Features
We liked the fact that you can save up to three sets of user settings for focus, exposure, and other camera options, which can be a real time saver in rapidly switching between widely different sets of options. We also greatly appreciated the programmable Function buttons, which were designed to allow one handed operation of the camera. (These normally control exposure mode and exposure compensation, but can be reprogrammed to control macro/manual focus, flash settings, white balance, or metering options.) An Auto Bracketing feature brackets five steps (two above and two below) the set exposure value while the (amazing) Best Shot Select (BSS) takes several images and allows the camera to choose only the sharpest (least blurred) to be saved. Best Shot Select makes it feasible to hand-hold the camera for surprisingly long exposures. You can also check your own work immediately as the camera gives you a quick preview of the captured image (when shooting with the LCD monitor) and gives you an option to delete or save the image (this function can be turned off through the Setup menu, under Monitor Options).

Flash
The Coolpix 990's built-in five mode flash (Auto, On, Off, Red-Eye Reduction and Slow-Sync settings) gives you a lot of flexibility: Through the settings menu, you can adjust the flash power from -2 to +2 EV units (!), as well as completely deactivate it. The Slow-Sync option is useful when shooting subjects with dark backgrounds (such as night scenes) because the camera actually leaves the shutter open longer and then fires the flash before the shutter closes. This lets a good amount of ambient light in and can be used to get a nice motion-blur effect. The "Red-Eye Reduction" mode fires a pre-flash before the main exposure, to try to get people's eyes to "stop down", reducing the internal reflection from the back of their eyeballs. Unfortunately, this is one of the real weaknesses of the 990's flash system (and the 950 too): The flash tube is so close to the lens (as seen in the photo above) that there's essentially no way you aren't going to end up getting red-eye, regardless of how much you get people's pupils to constrict. While an external flash will avoid this, it's a shame to need one to achieve good results on basic people-pictures. Keep in mind that the flash is automatically switched off when shooting in the Infinity focus mode; the Continuous, 16 Shots or VGA Sequence modes; when using the Best Shot Selector; using a lens converter; or when the AE Lock option is on. An external sync socket means you can connect a more powerful external flash, and the camera allows both external and internal flashes to work together. (The socket connects to Nikon Speedlight models SB-28, 28DX, 26, 25, 24 and 22.) If the 990's internal flash is anything like that of its predecessors', we should be extremely pleased with its performance. One puzzling note: The preliminary documentation we received from Nikon was self-contradictory, in it stated the flash's range as 2 meters (6.6 feet) in telephoto mode, but also gave it a guide number rating of 9/30 (m/ft). In our own tests, the flash worked fine out to a distance of 14 feet, the limit imposed by the dimensions of our test studio.
Continuous Shooting Mode
The Coolpix 990 offers several "motor drive" rapid-exposure modes for capturing quick sequences of images. Our information here is a little sketchy, as the modes on the prototype unit we tested didn't match those in the (equally prototype) documentation we received. Production cameras may behave quite differently than our prototype unit did. Our understanding of the production features is listed in the table at the end of this review section. The documentation showed five modes (Continuous, Multi-Shot 16, Ultra High-Speed Continuous, VGA Sequence and Movie), all selectable under the Continuous option of the settings menu. Our test unit didn't have the Ultra High-Speed setting, but had instead an option named "9 Shot Frame". (We're told that the 9 Shot Frame function may not be on the production cameras.) Several of the Continuous-mode options on our test unit appeared to be mis-labeled, so we'll just describe them using the names from the documentation, ignoring the spurious "9 Shot Frame" label.
The Continuous mode captures frames very quickly, at whatever resolution and image quality the user has selected. We measured continuous-mode frame rates at approximately 1.0 frames per second at full resolution (3 frames maximum in a sequence), 1.62 frames per second for a maximum of 8 frames at XGA resolution, and 1.72 frames per second for a maximum of 21 frames in VGA mode. We're not sure where the 9 Shot Frame mode's name came from: Probably due to a firmware bug, it actually did what we expected the Multi-Shot 16 mode to do: It subdivided the image area into 16 sections and captured a "mini-movie" of small images (400 x 300 resolution), which filled-in a 4x4 array within a single high-resolution image as the shooting progressed, at a rate of 2.0 frames per second on our prototype unit. The mode labeled "Multi-Shot 16" on our test unit actually captured a long series of VGA-resolution images at 1.76 frames per second. Depending on the subject characteristics (e.g., how well it would JPEG-compress), it captured 40-50 pictures at a time. (We imagine this will be the production "VGA Sequence" mode.)
The VGA Sequence captures a sequence of VGA-resolution frames, stored as separate files on the CF card, also at a very quick rate. (Maximum sequence length and capture speed are dependent on image information and available CF card space.) New to the 990 is the Ultra High-Speed Continuous mode, which captures approximately 30 frames per second, totaling about 80 QVGA-sized images (320x240 pixels). Finally, the Movie mode is another new feature for the 990 model. Movie mode captures up to 40 seconds of moving images without sound at approximately 15 frames per second (QVGA size). Movie mode worked quite well on our prototype model, especially when combined with the swiveling lens design (we could run the camera and swivel the lens back on ourselves to get into the picture).
Shutter Lag/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 an electronic test system accurate to 0.01 seconds.
The Coolpix 990 autofocus speed is about average, compared to other digicams we've tested (January, 2000), with a shutter lag of 1.13 seconds in full autofocus mode, 0.18 seconds when the lens is prefocused by half-pressing the shutter button, and 0.49 seconds in manual-focus mode. NOTE: Reader Bryan Biggers wrote in to report that a number of 990 owners have consistently measured shutter lag times of under 0.1 seconds in manual-focus mode. Unfortunately, we had already sent our test unit back to Nikon by the time we heard this, so couldn't repeat the test. We're pretty confident of our result though, since we (a) use an electronic test system that really couldn't produce an error of that magnitude, and (b) repeated this particular test several times, since we ourselves were surprised that the manual-focus delay was so long. We stand behind the number we measured, but given Bryan and others' experience, it's entirely possible that a modification was made in later production units. We tested a production model, but obviously one of the first off the line. A firmware change could easily account for this discrepancy. Thanks for the note, Bryan!
Shot to shot cycle time is very good though, at only 1.7 seconds for the first two shots in highest-quality JPEG mode, at which point the buffer memory is full and you have to wait something on the order of 7 seconds or so for it to empty. Lower resolutions increase the number ßof shots you can take in quick succession, and reduce the amount of time you need to wait for the buffer to clear again. At XGA resolution, you can shoot 7 frames at 1.62 second intervals, after which the next two frames will require 3 seconds each. If you continue shooting at maximum speed, the cycle time will alternate between 1.65 and 3.0 seconds indefinitely. We never found a maximum number of frames that filled the buffer in VGA mode, but it's something over 20. Cycle time in VGA mode was 1.65 seconds. (Note that all these cycle times were measured in manual focus mode: Autofocus mode would add about 0.6 seconds to the cycle times, to allow for focus-system operation.
Frame rates in continuous mode also varied as a function of resolution (albeit only slightly), as did the number of exposures we could capture before waiting for the buffer to empty. In high resolution mode, we could capture 3 frames at roughly 1 frame per second. At XGA resolution, we captured 8 frames at 1.62 frames per second. At VGA resolution, we captured 21 frames at 1.72 frames per second. The "VGA Sequence" option captured 40 frames at a rate of 1.76 frames per second. The 16-shot mode captured 16 quarter-resolution frames at a frame rate of 2.0 fps.Ultra high speed mode captured 80 320 x 240 frames at 30 fps (saving the results as individual image files in memory), while the Movie mode also captured 320x240 frames at 30 fps, with the resulting motion sequence saved in a single MOV file. The table below summarizes our cycle-time measurements:

Capture Mode
Interval/
fps
No. of
frames
Single-shot, 2048x1536
0.568 sec
2
Single-shot, 1024x768
1.62 sec
7
Single-shot, 640x480
1.65 sec
>20
Continuous Mode, 2048x1536
1.0 fps
3
Continuous Mode, 1024x768
1.62 fps
8
Continuous Mode, 640x480
1.72 fps
21
VGA Sequence
1.76 fps
40
16-Shot Mode (512x328)
2.0 fps
16
Ultra High-Speed Mode (320x240)
30 fps
80
Movie Mode
30 fps
40 secs
(w/incl 16MB card)

Operation and User Interface
As with the previous 950 model, we greatly appreciated the ease of the user interface on the Coolpix 990. The 950's interface was great, but the 990 goes quite a bit beyond it, making for what we feel is the best user experience in the industry. The LCD menu system is available for novices, or for less commonly-used controls, but experienced users will find they can make virtually all the most necessary adjustments without resorting to the LCD screen. Once you learn where the functions are, operation is quick and intuitive, thanks to the multiple control buttons and the excellent use Nikon makes of the black/white LCD readout. The inclusion of programmable Function keys simplifies operation even more, letting you assign common combinations of settings to a single key. Exposure compensation, exposure mode, ISO value, image quality and size, as well as focus controls (manual focus setting, macro, and infinity focus) and flash mode, can all be adjusted without the LCD. The small topside status display panel provides feedback for all these settings in a very clear fashion. When you do have to delve into the (very extensive) LCD menu system, navigation via the rocker toggle is easy, intuitive, and very rapid. In Record mode, the menu system is split into 3 pages of options(!), and a nice touch is the tabbed interface, by which you can jump between pages with only a few clicks of the rocker toggle, rather than having to scroll through every option to get to one buried on the second or third screen. Most of the camera's functions are controlled by a combination of hitting a button and turning the command dial. Functions that are accessed in this manner are delineated on the camera body with a very light purple lettering. This system makes it extremely fast and efficient to change settings without eating up too much battery power by using the LCD menu system. Control layout is also very logical, allowing one-handed operation for commonly-changed functions, requiring a two-handed approach only for manual focus setting, ISO, flash mode, and size/quality adjustment.
Control Enumeration

LCD Data Readout: Located on top of the camera, this readout displays status of a wide range of camera functions. More importantly, as noted above, you can manipulate and set most of these functions by using the camera controls and readout display together, letting you avoid the LCD menu system. This both saves power, and makes the camera functions much faster to navigate.

Shutter Button: Located on top of the camera and encircled by the Power/Mode dial, this button sets focus and exposure when halfway pressed and fires the shutter when fully pressed.
Power/Mode Dial: Also located on the top panel of the camera, surrounding the shutter button, this dial selects between Off, Auto Record, Manual Record and Play modes.

Mode/Func.1 Button: Located on the top panel, this button selects the exposure system mode (Program, Flexible Program, Shutter Priority, Aperture Priority and Manual) when held down while turning the command dial with the camera in Manual record mode. This button can also be programmed through the Setup menu to access various exposure functions with a single button actuation.

+/- / Func.2 Button: Located directly to the right of the Mode button, this adjusts the amount of exposure compensation (from -2 to +2 EV in 1/3 EV steps) when held down while turning the command dial. This button can also be programmed through the Setup menu to access various exposure functions.

Command Dial: Located on the top right of the camera, this dial is used in conjunction with various controls in Record mode to adjust exposure options. In Play mode, the dial cycles through the five information pages associated with each captured image, giving the user an unparalleled amount of information about the exposure (image information page, camera firmware page, image adjustment page, exposure histogram and focus confirmation).

Monitor Button: Located on the top of the rear panel of the camera, this button recalls or cancels the color LCD screen information display and viewfinder.

Menu Button: Located directly to the right of the Monitor button, this button pulls up the settings menu in all capture modes as well as in Play mode. Pressing it again cancels the menu.

W and T Buttons: Located further to the right from the Menu button, these buttons control the optical zoom in all capture modes. Likewise, when the digital telephoto option is enabled, these buttons control the amount of digital zoom (from 1.1x to 4.0x). In single-image playback mode, pressing the "T" button repeatedly zooms in on the image (you can scroll around in the zoomed image by using the rocker toggle control). Pressing the "W" button cancels zoomed playback.

Rocker Toggle Control: Located on the right side of the LCD monitor, this button features four arrows that allow the user to navigate through the LCD menu system and make selections in Record and Play modes. We found menu navigation on the Coolpix 990 particularly straightforward, in that all menu actions are taken via the rocker toggle: There's no need to confirm a selection by pressing a different button. Different menu items are selected via the up/down arrows on the toggle control. Pressing the right arrow selects that item, generally taking you into a sub-menu. Pressing the left arrow takes you back out again. Once in a sub-menu, the up/down arrows again step between items, while a right-arrow selects. This process continues until you arrive at the final point of selection, upon which another right-arrow actuation makes that selection and returns you to the main menu. We were also pleased to see that we could left-arrow from the initial screen, to go to a set of tabs that let you quickly jump from menu screen one to two, or to the setup screen very quickly, without scrolling through all the menu entries first. All this takes much longer to describe than do: The 990's menu design and use of the rocker toggle made it by far the quickest system to navigate we've seen yet.
In Play mode, the right and left buttons scroll through captured images one at a time. As noted above, in zoomed playback mode, this control lets you scroll around within the enlarged image.

Manual Focus/Macro Button: Located directly beneath the LCD display, on the left side, this button has several functions. When held down while turning the command dial, this button controls the manual focus option in Record mode. Also in Record mode, this button (when pressed on its own) cycles through Infinity focus, Macro and Self-Timer modes. In Play mode, this button acts as the Delete command for the currently displayed image (designated by the trash can symbol). In a welcome addition, Macro and Self-Timer modes can be used at the same time, even though they're controlled by the same button. (As you cycle through the modes accessible with this button, one mode has both macro and the self-timer enabled simultaneously.)

Flash/ISO Button: Centered under the LCD panel, this button cycles through the flash modes (Auto, On, Off, Red-Eye Reduction and Slow-Sync). In Manual Record mode, this button cycles through the variable ISO settings (Auto, 100, 200, 400 and dEF). In Play mode, this button pulls up a four or nine image index display of all captured images.

Quality/Size Button: Located directly to the right of the Flash button, this button cycles between image quality options (Basic, Normal, Fine and Hi) in all record modes. In any record mode, this button also cycles through the image size settings (3:2 2048 x 1360, VGA 640 x 480, XGA 1024 x 768 and 2048 x 1536) when held down while turning the command dial. In playback mode, if the currently-selected picture is a movie sequence, this button initiates playback of it.

Dioptric Adjustment Dial: Located directly beneath the optical viewfinder (on the underside of the lens half of the case), this small, black dial adjusts the viewfinder to accommodate eyeglass wearers.
Camera Modes and Menus
Automatic Record Mode: Accessed by turning the Power/Mode dial to the "A" setting, this mode puts the camera in charge of exposure and focus, but still leaves settings like flash, exposure compensation, size, quality and the self-timer under the user's control. Pressing the Menu button in this mode pulls up the following Setup menu:

Manual Record Mode: Accessed by turning the Power/Mode dial to the "M" setting, this mode offers several options for manually controlling exposure (Program, Flexible Program, Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority and Manual). Program puts the camera in charge of aperture and shutter speed, while the user can control things like white balance, motor drive, etc. Flexible does the same, but allows the user to select between various combinations of shutter speed and aperture settings. Aperture and Shutter Priority put the user in charge of either the aperture or shutter speed while the camera controls the other value. And finally, Manual lets the user control both aperture and shutter speed, independent of the camera's exposure system. All of these capture modes are accessible by pressing the Mode button and turning the command dial until the desired mode appears on the status display. Pressing the Menu button in this mode pulls up the following settings menus:
Screen One

Screen Two

Setup Screen

Play Mode: Accessed by turning the Power/Mode dial to the Play position, this mode allows users to view captured images and movies. The right and left arrow buttons scroll through images while the Delete and Index Display buttons (beneath the LCD panel) offer quick image deletion and display. Pressing the Menu button in this mode pulls up the Play settings menu:
Screen One

Setup Screen

Image Storage and Interface
Like the 950 and the 900 before it, the Coolpix 990 uses CompactFlash memory cards for image storage, shipping with a 16 MB card. We suspect that most users will almost immediately want to purchase a larger card though, as 64 MB cards have become quite reasonable in price, and cards as large as 128 MB are currently available (February, 2000). We were glad to find the new location of the CompactFlash slot in the hand grip (the 950 model's slot was on the bottom of the camera, making it difficult to change cards while mounted to a tripod). The 990 also has a very nice, functional cover door for the CF card slot, a huge improvement over the 950's less-substantial arrangement.) The 990 includes several subtle niceties that make life a little easier, including a folder arrangement that allows users to organize images in the camera, a sequential frame counter option to avoid problems with overwriting files when copying them to your computer, some powerful in-camera tonal adjustment controls and the much appreciated Best Shot Selector option that automatically chooses the least blurry image, when shooting under difficult conditions.
Captured images can be individually write protected through the Play mode settings menu. Write protected files are only immune to accidental deletion, not card reformatting. File formats include several levels of compressed JPEG files as well as an uncompressed TIFF mode (Hi quality setting).

Image Capacity vs
Resolution/Quality
Uncompressed
Fine
Normal
Basic
Full Resolution Images 1 10 20 40
Approx.
Compression
1:1 6:1 12:1 20:1
XGA Resolution Images N/A 40 79 150
Approx.
Compression
N/A 6:1 12:1 20:1
VGA Resolution
Images
N/A
100
187
332
Approx.
Compression
N/A
6:1
12:1
20:1


Video Out

One significant difference between the Coolpix 990 and its predecessors is that there now appears to be only a single international version of the camera, supporting either NTSC or PAL standards. The US version of the Coolpix 990 includes a video out jack and connection cable, defaulting NTSC-formatted video output. European models will doubtless support PAL timing and connections. You can switch between NTSC or PAL timing through a setting in the Setup menu. 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 so that the television screen becomes an enlarged version of the LCD monitor and can be used both for image playback and composition.

Power

The Coolpix 990 runs on four AA batteries, housed inside the hand grip, or an external AC adapter which plugs into the front of the camera. Nikon estimates about 1.5 hours of operating time when using the LCD monitor and four 1.5V LR6 (alkaline AA L40) batteries at a normal temperature of 68 degrees Fahrenheit. (We find this a trifle optimistic.) In our own tests, the Coolpix 990 prototype consumed about as much power as typical 2 megapixel digicams, despite the larger sensor and large SDRAM buffer memory. As always, we highly recommend keeping a couple sets of freshly charged rechargeable NiMH cells nearby. We should note here that the ability to switch the autofocus mode from Continuous to Single saves significant battery power. Enormous power savings are possible if you leave the LCD monitor off, and rely on the small top-panel readout when adjusting camera settings. Power consumption with the LCD screen turned off was very low indeed: You could easily run all day on a single set of batteries in this mode.

Operating Mode
Power Drain
Capture Mode, w/LCD
580 mA
Capture Mode, no LCD
< 10 mA
Half-pressed shutter w/LCD
570 mA
Half-pressed w/o LCD
340 mA
Capture Mode, Continuous AF
640 mA
Memory Write (transient)
580 mA
Flash Recharge (transient)
1000 mA
Image Playback
370 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.

As of this writing, Nikon had not yet finalized the software bundle for the 990. We'll update accordingly as the information becomes available.

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 990's "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 990 performed, and how its images compare to other cameras you may be considering buying.

The first thing that struck us about the Coolpix 990 was how sharp its pictures were! The earlier Coolpix 950 showed excellent sharpness and detail, but the 990 clearly raises this performance to a new level. Resolution was the best we've seen out of the digicams we've tested to date (early March, 2000), although in fairness, we have a number of 3 megapixel models yet to go. We "called" the 990's resolution at 800-850 lines per picture height in both horizontal and vertical directions, with significant detail visible all the way out to 900-1000 lines. By comparison, the 950 tested out at about 800 lines horizontally (and a bit of a stretch at that), and 650-700 vertically. Overall, a significant step up in resolution, much more than we saw in digicams when going from the 1.5 to 2.1 megapixel level. (These numbers were obtained with the lens at its wide angle setting: Telephoto numbers were slightly lower, as is usually the case.)
Color was very good as well, with excellent saturation across the spectrum. The only weaknesses we could find were a slight tendency to undersaturation in bright yellow hues, and the (very common) problem with the tricky blues in the model's pants and flowers in the outdoor shots. (For whatever reason, many digicams tend to produce rather purplish hues in these colors, and the 990 fell prey to that tendency somewhat as well.) Overall color was very good though.
True to its heritage from Nikon's high-end film cameras, exposure accuracy and control were excellent in the 990. Nikon's apparently added a matrix-evaluating white balance function to the 990, making its auto white balance algorithm a bit more sure-footed. For really tough lighting situations though, we still found ourselves using the manual preset white balance option, a feature we really like to see in digicams we test. (Note to other high-end digicam manufacturers: This is a "must-have" feature for high-end prosumer cameras!) The addition of a true iris-based aperture in the 990 was a significant improvement over the 950's three-aperture system, and very welcome.
As is the case with most digicams, the Coolpix 990's optical viewfinder shows less of the subject than the final image does, displaying a fairly typical 86% of the final area in wide angle and 88% in telephoto mode. The LCD viewfinder was almost 100% accurate though, a very welcome feature for shots involving critical framing (as so many of our test shots do).
Like the '950 before it, the Coolpix 990 is a spectacular macro performer, with a minimum area coverage of only 0.78 x 0.58 inches (19.69 x 14.77 mm). Combined with the 990's 3 megapixel resolution, the detail it can record is literally microscopic!
At the bottom line, the Coolpix 990 delivers a solid upgrade in image quality and resolution relative to the already-excellent Coolpix 950, with some of the best detail and sharpness we've seen yet in a digicam. (At least, as of early March, 2000.)

Conclusion
The Coolpix 990 is an exceptional follow-on to the already excellent Coolpix 950. The list of added features, options, and capabilities is too long to include in a brief conclusion, but suffice to say they're both extensive and eminently useful. Virtually every aspect of the camera's performance has been enhanced or extended, and the result is a true 3 megapixel powerhouse. Despite its incredible array of features though, its fully-automatic Auto record mode makes it easy enough for even the rankest amateur to use. (Set it in "Auto" mode, and hand it to your spouse with no worries or explanations.) For power users, the 990 sports one of the best-designed user interfaces we've had the pleasure to work with. Nikon clearly listened to users of the Coolpix 900 and 950 in developing the 990, and the results show: We're confident in predicting that this will be a very popular digicam, among both amateurs and professionals!

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