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Nikon Coolpix 5900 Digital Camera

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Dave Etchells
Review Date
User Level
Novice - Amateur
Product Uses
Family / Travel
Digicam Design
Point and Shoot
Picture Quality
Very Good, 5.1-megapixel CCD
Print Sizes
11x17s or 8x10s with heavy cropping
Suggested Retail Price
(At introduction)

NOTE: The Nikon Coolpix 5900 is virtually identical to the Coolpix 7900 model, the main difference being the five megapixel resolution of the 5900, vs the 7900's seven megapixels. If you've already read our Nikon Coolpix 7900 review, you can skip to the Test Results section below, as the other information in the review is pretty much identical to that for the 7900. (Alternatively, if you like the Nikon Coolpix 5900's features, but would like more resolution, the Nikon 7900 would make a good alternative, for about $100 more at retail.


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The Nikon Coolpix 5900 is the latest in a long line of Coolpix digital cameras whose popularity stretches back to the original Coolpix 900, Nikon's first "breakthrough" digicam. The new Nikon 5900 is the latest in a line of user-friendly models that emphasize a wide range of Scene modes and special "assist" features to help novices bring back good photos from tricky shooting situations.

From a feature standpoint, the Nikon Coolpix 5900 is similar to its cousin, the Coolpix 7900, and also similar to the earlier Coolpix 5200. Relative to the 7900, the Nikon 5900 offers essentially the same exposure features and lens, but with a smaller 5.1-megapixel CCD (and also drops the Electronic Vibration Reduction setting for movies). The Coolpix 5900 is super compact, very light weight, and has a rugged metal body to withstand lots of wear and tear. And with its excellent range of user-friendly, almost fail-proof point & shoot exposure modes, the Coolpix 5900 can handle just about any photo opportunity you're likely to throw at it. Read on for all the details!


Camera Overview

Portable and compact, the Nikon Coolpix 5900 ranks among the smallest digital cameras currently on the market. Slightly taller than a credit card (just about as wide), and a little under an inch and a half thick, the Nikon 5900 is designed to fit nicely into shirt pockets and small purses, perfect for travelers. It's so tiny (weighing just 6.4 ounces or 180 grams with the battery and memory card loaded), I'd highly recommend keeping the included wrist strap securely around your wrist when shooting. The automatic lens cover makes it quick on the draw, and eliminates any worry about keeping track of a lens cap. The camera's black body with shiny silver highlights is attractive and understated. Built into the Nikon Coolpix 5900 is a 3x optical zoom lens with ED glass (which stands for Extra-low Dispersion glass, used in Nikon's finer lens elements to improve optical performance) and a 5.1-megapixel CCD for capturing high quality images, a macro mode capable of focusing as close 1.6 inches, and no fewer than 16 preset shooting modes. Since the camera operates mainly under automatic control, its control layout and menu display are very user friendly.

The Nikon Coolpix 5900 features both a real-image optical viewfinder and a 2.0-inch color LCD monitor. Though the LCD monitor provides more accurate framing, it also decreases battery life. You can turn it on or off via the Monitor option on the Setup menu. The camera's 3x, 7.8-23.4mm zoom lens (equivalent to a 38-114mm lens on a 35mm camera, a moderate wide angle to medium telephoto) offers maximum apertures from f/2.8 to f/4.9, depending on the zoom setting, and is made up of seven elements in six groups. The camera uses contrast-detection autofocus in normal mode, which ranges from 1.0 feet (30 centimeters) to infinity. Multi-point AF chooses among five autofocus points to find the nearest object. The chosen AF point is then illuminated in the LCD display. Users can also choose to position the AF point manually, anywhere within the central 60 percent of the frame. In Macro mode, the camera focuses as close as 1.6 inches (4.0 centimeters), and automatically switches to continuous AF mode, focusing constantly when the Shutter button is not half-pressed. (Note that closest focusing is possible only when the lens is set to a fairly narrow range of focal lengths towards the wide-angle end of its range. The zoom indicator that appears at the top of the LCD when zooming and the "tulip" macro icon both turn green when the zoom is set within the optimal range in Macro mode.) Turning on the camera triggers the shutter-like lens cover to open, and the lens to extend forward a bit over three-quarters of an inch. In addition to its 3x optical zoom, the Coolpix 5900 offers a maximum 4x digital zoom, which lets you "zoom" in even closer (equivalent to a 450mm lens on 35mm camera). As always though, keep in mind that the digital zoom simply enlarges the center pixels of the CCD, resulting in lower image quality. The 5.1-megapixel CCD produces high-resolution images, good enough for printing to 11x17 inches with good detail, as well as lower-resolution images for sending via email or printing as 4x6-inch snapshots.

In keeping with the tradition of the entry-level Coolpix line, the Nikon 5900's exposure control is very straightforward. Operating mainly under automatic control, the Coolpix 5900's user interface is easy to learn. Most of the exposure options are controlled through the multi-page LCD menu system, although a handful of external controls access basic features. A Mode dial on top of the camera controls the operating mode, with four preset modes (Portrait, Landscape, Sports, and Night Portrait), a Scene mode for selecting from among a range of 12 other specific shooting situations, an Auto setting, and Movie and Setup modes. The Framing Assist modes are optional in Portrait, Landscape, Sports, and Night Portrait modes, each offering a range of framing scenarios. For example, under Portrait mode, you can set up the framing for a centered single subject, a single subject off to the right or left, a close-up portrait, two subjects positioned side-by-side, and a figure shot with the camera held in portrait (tall) rather than landscape (wide) orientation. Once a specific setup is chosen, faint yellow subject outlines (these used to be quite bold on earlier models) appear in the LCD monitor to help you line up the shot for the best focus and exposure. Sports mode offers enhanced options for capturing fast-paced action, such as a rapid fire mode that captures 16 tiny images in two seconds that form a single 4x4 image mosaic. The Scene position of the Mode dial provides access to 12 preset "scenes," which optimize the camera for what would normally be more difficult shooting situations. Available Scenes are Party/Indoor, Beach/Snow, Sunset, Dusk/Dawn, Night Landscape, Close-Up, Museum, Fireworks Show, Copy, Panorama Assist, Back Light, and Underwater. Each scene mode sets multiple camera options to configure it for the specific type of subject and shooting condition chosen. These tools make the Coolpix 5900 extremely flexible in a variety of conditions, providing almost worry-free operation.

Depending on the exposure mode, the Nikon Coolpix 5900 offers a wide range of exposure options. Though no mode allows the user to control the aperture or shutter speed directly, the exposure compensation adjustment can be set in any mode to deal with high contrast, dark or light subjects. (This is a nice touch. Exposure compensation is a pretty essential control, but it's disabled in the Scene modes of many digicams.) The Exposure Compensation adjustment optionally increases or decreases overall exposure from -2 to +2 exposure equivalents (EV) in one-third-step increments. It is not reported on the LCD display, but the Coolpix 5900's shutter speeds range from 1/2,000 to four seconds. A White Balance adjustment offers six preset modes, an Auto setting, and a Custom setting for manually determining the color balance. The Nikon 5900 uses a 256-Segment Matrix metering system to determine exposure, evaluating the contrast and brightness across the frame to determine the best exposure. Through the LCD menu, you can also access Center-Weighted, Spot, and Spot AF metering options (Spot AF ties the spot point to the AF point). ISO light sensitivity can be manually adjusted to 64, 100, 200, or 400 equivalents, or you can choose the Auto ISO setting. (Note though, that the camera doesn't report its automatically chosen ISO value to the user while shooting.) You can also access Nikon's Best Shot Selector mode, which automatically chooses the least blurry image in a series shot while the Shutter button remains pressed. (The Best Shot Selector feature is one of my all-time favorite digicam features, as it makes it possible to hand hold even very long exposures by playing the odds that during one of those moments you're going to be still enough to get a sharp image.)

The Nikon Coolpix 5900's built-in flash is rated as effective from approximately one to 14.8 feet (0.3 to 4.5 meters) depending on the lens zoom setting, although in my own tests, I found it only usable to 8 feet at ISO 64 and with the lens set towards its telephoto position. The 5900's flash operates in Auto, Red-Eye Reduction, Anytime (Fill) Flash, Flash Cancel, and Slow Sync (night) modes. An option in many modes, Slow Sync combines the flash with slower shutter speeds, letting more of the ambient light into the exposure, making for brighter, more natural-looking night shots. In some Assist and Scene modes though, the flash mode is automatically set for you. Portrait Assist, for example, defaults to Red-Eye Reduction mode but can be overridden, while in Night Portrait Assist the default Red-Eye Reduction can not be overridden. Night Portrait Assist and the Scene modes Night Landscape and Dusk/Dawn also enable an automatic Noise Reduction feature to eliminate excess image noise resulting from the higher ISO sensitivity and longer exposure. Flash is also not available in Sports or Landscape modes. While this panoply of default flash modes and constrained options may sound complicated, the net result is that the camera's scene modes let average users bring back good-looking photos from tricky shooting conditions, while enjoying point & shoot simplicity.

Most digital cameras these days have special red-eye reduction flash modes, which pop the flash (or blink a bright LED) a few times before the shot itself, to make the pupils of your subject's eyes contract a little. This reduces the likelihood that light from the flash will reflect off the insides of the subjects' eyes, causing the dreaded red-eye. The Nikon Coolpix 5900 goes quite a bit beyond the simple pre-flash red-eye reduction approach though, as it also incorporates special software inside the camera that can look for and remove red-eye before it saves the images to the memory card. While I don't have a standardized anti-redeye test (for whatever reason, our eyes here at IR just don't seem very prone to redeye), I can attest that the 5900's system does indeed seem to remove red-eye very well when it's enabled, vs when it's disabled. The one downside to the 5900's approach though, is that the post-processing that the camera uses to search for and remove any remaining red-eye takes an appreciable amount of time, resulting in a rather long delay before you can capture the next shot. Thus, the "cycle time" between shots stretches to on the order of 6-7 seconds when the camera is operating in red-eye reduction mode.

Another really unique feature of the Nikon 5900 is its innovative "D-Lighting" option. This is a Playback-mode option that could be thought of as a "virtual fill-flash," in that it brightens shadow areas. There are a couple of important differences between D-Lighting and on-camera flash though. First and foremost, it brightens all the shadowed areas in the image, regardless of how far they were from the camera (that is, there's no light falloff as you'd have with a flash). A second point is that this is a post-capture option, one that makes a copy of the image with the D-Lighting effect applied, so your original image is undisturbed. On the downside, a third key factor with D-Lighting is that it will make image noise more apparent in the areas that it's brightened.

D-Lighting Examples
(Shot with Coolpix 7900)
With Without

D-Lighting's effect on images is generally pretty subtle, as you can see from the two examples above (borrowed from my review of the Coolpix 7900 - The function works identically on the 5900.) In the situations where you'd want to use D-Lighting though, subtle is good, you ideally want the image to look natural, as if nothing unusual was done to it. About my only quibble with D-Lighting is that Nikon more or less hid it in the user interface: You access it in playback mode by pressing and holding down the center button of the multi-controller on the camera's back panel. There's nothing to indicate that the function is there, so if you're not a dedicated reader of instruction manuals (or of our reviews ;-), you could easily miss it.

Other camera features include a Self-Timer mode, which provides a three- or 10-second delay between the time the Shutter button is pressed and when the image is actually captured. A Continuous Shooting mode captures a rapid series of images while the Shutter button is held down, with the actual number of images dependent on the size and quality settings, as well as the amount of memory card space. The special 5-Shot buffer mode is designed to help you catch the action, even if the action is happening a little faster than your reflexes can catch up with. Just hold down the shutter as the action approaches, and release just after the action has occurred; the camera then saves the last five images in the buffer, recorded at one frame per second. There's also a Multi-Shot 16 mode, which captures 16 thumbnail images in sequence, arranged in rows of four within a full-sized image. The Coolpix 5900's Movie mode offers four options: TV Movie 640* (640 x 480, 30fps, 3:40 max on 256MB card), TV Movie 640 (640 x 480, 15fps, 7:20 max on 256MB card), Small size 320* (320 x 240 pixels, 30fps, 7:20 max on 256MB card), and Smaller Size 160* (160 x 120, 30fps, 25 minutes max on 256MB card). The actual length of recording time depends only on the amount of available SD card space (there is no arbitrary limit set by buffer capacity), and appears in the LCD monitor.

The Nikon Coolpix 5900 stores images on SD memory cards, but the standard retail package in the US includes no memory card. There is enough onboard memory, however, to hold up to about six "full resolution pictures" according to the box. Files saved to internal memory can be easily copied to an SD card, and vice versa. Given the camera's large 2,592 x 1,944-pixel maximum image size, I'd recommend picking up at least a 128 - 256MB memory card so you don't miss any important shots. Images are saved in JPEG format, with three compression levels available for. A CD-ROM loaded with Picture Project software accompanies the camera, compatible with both Windows and Macintosh platforms (including Windows XP and Mac OS X). Nikon Picture Project provides organization and image editing tools for enhancing images. The camera comes with a slim EN-EL5 lithium-ion battery and a charger. While the Coolpix 5900 has good battery life, I as always recommend picking up a spare battery and keeping it freshly charged at all times, to avoid dead-battery syndrome. (Murphy's law applies in spades to digital camera batteries - They invariably go dead when you can least afford it.) The optional AC adapter uses a "dummy battery" that slides into the battery compartment. This could be useful for offloading pictures after a long day of shooting, but really isn't necessary for the vast majority of users. Also included with the Coolpix 5900 is a video cable for connecting to a television set for slide shows, and a USB cable for downloading images to a computer.


Basic Features

  • 5.1-megapixel (effective) CCD delivering image resolutions as high as 2,592 x 1,944 pixels.
  • 2.0-inch color LCD display.
  • Real-image optical viewfinder.
  • 3x, 7.8-23.4mm zoom lens (equivalent to a 38-114mm lens on a 35mm camera).
  • Maximum aperture f/2.8-f/4.9, depending on lens zoom position.
  • Shutter speeds from 1/2,000 to four seconds.
  • 4x Digital zoom.
  • Automatic exposure control.
  • Built-in flash with five modes.
  • Built-in mic and speaker for including sound in videos and playback from the camera.
  • 13.5MB internal memory.
  • SD memory card storage.
  • Power supplied by lithium ion rechargeable battery, or optional AC adapter.
  • Nikon Picture Project software for both Mac and Windows.

Special Features

  • ED Glass lens.
  • Five Multi-point AF, or user selectable AF point.
  • QuickTime movies (with sound).
  • Continuous Shooting, Multi-Shot, and Multi-Shot 16 mode.
  • Twelve preset Scene modes, plus four Scene Assist modes.
  • Red-Eye Fix automatic red-eye correction.
  • Self-timer for delayed shutter release.
  • Best Shot Selector mode.
  • Macro (close-up) lens adjustment.
  • White balance (color) adjustment with eight modes, including a manual setting.
  • 256-Segment Matrix metering, plus Center-Weighted and Spot modes.
  • ISO equivalent sensitivity range of 64 to 400.
  • PictBridge compatibility.
  • USB cable for quick connection to a computer.
  • Video cable for connection to a television set.


As one of the smallest Coolpix models in the line (and one of the smaller digicams on the market), the 5900 is a combination of a fine Nikkor 3x ED glass optical zoom lens, a 5.1-megapixel CCD, and a range of automatic, preset shooting modes in a very consumer-friendly digicam. Automatic exposure control lets the camera take charge of all the picky details, although a handful of exposure options provides creative tools when you need them. With its diminutive dimensions, the Coolpix 5900 is great for travel, and the range of preset shooting and framing modes anticipates most common shooting conditions. The 3,072 x 2,304-pixel maximum resolution is high enough for making acceptable 11x17-inch photographic prints (or 8x10 prints with some cropping), while the 640 x 480-pixel resolution setting is perfect for sending email attachments over the Internet. The uncomplicated user interface means you won't spend much time learning the camera. Perfect for novice users or anyone looking for a point-and-shoot camera with a slick look, a few extra features, great ease of use, and sharp, colorful photos, the Coolpix 5900 could also serve as a great take-anywhere snapshot camera for more advanced shooters.



Slim, trim, and super-tiny, the Nikon Coolpix 5900 is one of the smallest Coolpix models so far (it's not much taller than a credit card). Though the camera body has a few protrusions, they're slight enough to avoid catching on pockets, especially when combined with the smooth contours that define the camera. Despite its small size, the Nikon 5900 fit my rather large hands surprisingly well, though I highly recommend making use of the included wrist strap. The Coolpix 5900's matte silver, metal body is offset by shiny silver highlights. High quality Nikkor optics and a 5.1-megapixel CCD give the Coolpix 5900 great image quality, and a broad selection of Scene Assist modes makes operation a breeze, even for novice users. The Nikon 5900 measures 3.46 x 2.4 x 1.44 inches (88 x 60 x 36.5 millimeters), and weighs 6.4 ounces (180 grams) with battery and memory card.

The camera's front panel contains the 3x zoom lens, built-in flash, optical viewfinder window, seven holes for the microphone (just above the lens and beneath the flash), and the self-timer lamp. The self-timer lamp also serves as a relatively bright AF (autofocus) assist illuminator. A shutter-like lens cover protects the lens when not in use, and automatically slides out of the way when the camera is powered on (eliminating the hassle of keeping track of a lens cap). When powered on, the lens telescopes out nearly 5/8-inch into its operating position. A curved, sculpted ridge beneath the Shutter button acts as a finger grip, and comfortably aligns your fingers as they wrap around the camera.

On the right side of the camera is the Secure Digital (SD) memory card compartment and an eyelet for attaching the wrist strap. The SD card compartment door opens with a pull toward the back of the camera, and hinges forward toward the front to reveal the SD card, leaving plenty of room to grasp the card. The card releases with a downward press. Also visible from this side is the rubber door that hinges outward to make room for the cord when using the optional AC adapter pack.

On the opposite side of the camera is the connector compartment, protected by a rubbery cover that remains attached to the camera. Inside is the Video Out / USB jack.

The Shutter button, Power button, Mode dial, and power LED are on the top panel.

The remaining external controls are all located on the camera's rear panel, along with the 2.0-inch, TFT color LCD monitor and optical viewfinder. Two LEDs next to the optical viewfinder light or flash to indicate camera status, such as when focus is set, the flash is charging, or the camera is accessing the memory card. To the right of the optical viewfinder is the camera's Erase button. Two Zoom buttons in the top right corner control optical and digital zoom, as well as some Playback viewing options. In the lower right corner of the back panel is a five-way navigational disk, which accesses Flash, Macro, Self-Timer, and exposure compensation options, in addition to navigating menu screens. The nav disk has a separate button in the middle for accepting selections, a solution that is easier than trying to press in the entire disk as we've seen in other cameras. This button can also be pressed to initiate picture transfer when the camera is connected to a computer that has the Nikon software loaded onto it. Just above the nav disk are the Menu and Playback buttons, as well as an array of speaker holes for playback of recordings and movies with sound.

The Nikon Coolpix 5900 has a flat bottom panel, with slightly rounded edges that curve up toward the rest of the camera. The battery compartment door and plastic tripod mount line up side-by-side, making quick battery changes while mounted to a tripod impossible. This won't likely be a problem for most Coolpix 5900 users, though, given the point-and-shoot orientation of the camera. A hinged, plastic door covers the battery compartment, releasing with a slide to the rear. A battery retention latch inside the compartment keeps the battery from falling free when the door is opened, a welcome feature.


Camera Operation

Despite the Nikon Coolpix 5900's limited exposure control, the camera offers a nice selection of external control buttons, making for an easy-to-navigate user interface. Flash mode, Self-Timer mode, Macro mode, zoom, record mode, and an Erase function are all accessible via external controls. The Mode dial on the top of the camera selects the main operating mode, and a multi-directional Arrow pad on the back panel navigates through on-screen menus, in addition to accessing camera features directly. The LCD menu system is fairly short, with user-friendly icons in the Scene Assist modes. Operating this camera is so straightforward I doubt you'll need the manual for much more than reference. It shouldn't take more than a few minutes to get into the swing of things.

Record Mode LCD Display: In Record mode, the Coolpix 5900's LCD reports limited status information, including camera modes, the resolution/quality setting, number of available images, etc. Half-pressing the Shutter button displays a green circle when focus is achieved, as well as green brackets indicating which focus point has been selected (if focus is not achieved, both the dot and brackets show red). In Manual AF Area Mode, you can use the five-way navigator to move the focus point around in the center 60 percent of the screen. The camera doesn't show aperture or shutter speed information as some do, a feature that I personally sorely missed. It does tell you when it thinks the image might become blurred by camera shake when it's forced to use a slow shutter speed. The display mode can be changed from the Setup Menu, letting you choose between a viewfinder display of the subject by itself, with overlaid status information, or with an overlaid grid as an aid to orienting the camera to your subject.

Playback Mode LCD Display: In Playback mode, the LCD reports the image series number, resolution/quality setting, file name and folder it's stored in on the memory card, and the date and time of image capture. It also displays an icon if the image is one that's been selected for quick download with Nikon's host software, as well as an icon indicating that you can record an audio note to accompany the image. There's no option for disabling the information overlay, but a slide show option lets you see the images sequentially, with no overlay on top of them, and if you just wait a few moments after selecting an image to view, the overlay display goes away. Pressing the "W" zoom button zooms out to a four-image thumbnail view of photos stored on the card. Pressing it a second time shows a nine-image thumbnail display. Pressing the zoom control in the telephoto direction zooms in as much as 10x on the subject, handy for checking image details and focus.


External Controls

Shutter Button
: Just to the left of the power switch, the Shutter button sits next to the Mode dial on the top panel. This button sets the camera's exposure when halfway pressed, and releases the shutter when fully pressed. In Playback mode, pressing this button lets you record a short sound caption to accompany the displayed image.

Power Switch
: Nestled in a small recess to the right of the power LED and Shutter button, the power switch turns the camera on and off with a push.

Mode Dial
: Behind the Shutter button, this ribbed dial selects the camera's main operating mode. Choices are Setup, Movie, Auto, Scene, Portrait, Landscape, Sports, and Night Portrait.

Zoom (W and T) Buttons
: Located in the top right corner of the camera's back panel, these buttons control the optical and digital zoom (when enabled) in any record mode. In Playback mode, the "W" button activates the index image display mode, while the "T" button controls digital enlargement of the captured image.

Multi-Directional Five-Way Navigator (Flash, Self-Timer, Exposure Compensation, and Macro Buttons)
: Just right of the LCD, this button features four arrows, one pointing in each direction. In any Settings menu, the arrow keys navigate through menu selections, and the center button selects.

In Playback mode, the right and left arrows scroll through captured images.

In Record mode, the arrow keys control specific exposure features. The up arrow controls the camera's flash mode, producing a popup menu of options (Auto, Red-Eye Reduction, Anytime Flash, and Flash Cancel). The left arrow activates the camera's Self-Timer mode, and the right arrow activates exposure compensation control, while the bottom arrow activates the Macro focus mode. All of these settings are confirmed by pressing the central button once the selection has been made.

When connected to a computer with Nikon's software loaded, pressing the center button triggers a "one touch" upload of selected images to the computer. If an image has been enlarged in Playback mode, pressing the center button lets you save the portion of the image in the frame as a separate file.

Playback Button
: Above and to the right of the Multi-Directional button, this button accesses the camera's Playback mode.

Menu Button
: Left of the Playback button, this button displays the settings menu in any camera mode. It also dismisses the menu display.

Erase Button
: Just above the LCD monitor, this button pulls up the Erase menu while in Playback or Record mode.


Camera Modes and Menus

Auto Record Mode: Activated by turning the Mode dial to the Auto position (green camera icon), this mode places the camera in control of both aperture and shutter speed, as well as most other exposure features. Pressing the Menu button displays the following Shooting menu.:

  • Image Mode:
    • Image Quality: Sets the JPEG compression to Fine, Normal, or Basic.
    • Image Size: Sets the image resolution. Choices are 5M (2,592 x 1,944 pixels), 3M (2,048 x 1,536 pixels), 2M (1,600 x 1,200 pixels), PC (1,024 x 768 pixels), and TV (640 x 480 pixels).
  • White Balance: Chooses from Auto White Balance, PRE for custom presetting of white balance, Daylight, Incandescent, Fluorescent, Cloudy, Shade, and Speedlight (flash).
  • Metering: Allows user to set metering to Matrix, Center-weighted, Spot, or Spot AF modes.
  • Continuous: Chooses from Single, Continuous, 5-shot Buffer (when button is held down, saves last five shots in buffer to better catch action), and Multi-Shot 16 capture modes.
  • BSS: Best Shot Selector shoots up to 10 shots and picks the one with the least blur from camera shake or poor focus. Flash is automatically turned off in this mode, since it is intended for capture of natural light photos in low light.
  • Color Options: Sets the color mode to Standard, Vivid, Black and White, Sepia, or Cyanotype.
  • Image Adjustment: Sets contrast to Auto, Normal, More, or Less values.
  • Image Sharpening: Sets sharpening to Auto, High, Normal, Low, or Off.
  • ISO: Selects Auto ISO or sets the camera to 50, 100, 200, or 400.
  • Auto Bracketing: By default set to Off, this chooses between Auto Bracketing (BKT) or White Balance Bracketing (WB). Each press of the shutter produces three different images with varying exposure or white balance values.
  • Saturation Control: Chooses between Enhanced, Normal, or Moderate color saturation.
  • AF Area Mode: Sets Auto (5-point AF), Manual (user controls focus point), or Off (defaults to center AF point).
  • Auto Focus Mode: Selects Continuous AF (camera is always focusing--this setting uses more battery and makes some moderate repetitive sound) or Single AF (focuses only when shutter button is pressed).
  • Noise Reduction: Turns Noise reduction on or off.

Movie Mode: This mode is denoted by a movie camera icon on the Mode dial. Movie mode captures moving images at 30 frames per second for as long as the memory card has available space. (Provided that you have a fast enough memory card.) Pressing the Menu button pulls up the following options:

  • Movie Options: Sets the movie resolution. Choices are TV Movie Fine (640 x 480 pixels), TV Movie Normal (640 x 480 pixels), Small size (320 x 240 pixels), and Smaller size (160 x 120).
  • Auto Focus Mode: Selects Continuous AF (camera is always focusing--this setting uses more battery and makes some moderate repetitive sound) or Single AF (focuses only when shutter button is pressed).


Scene Exposure Mode: The word "Scene" indicates this mode on the Mode dial. Twelve preset scene modes are available, by pressing the Menu button:
  • Party/Indoor: Use to capture background details in situations that require flash. Also good for preserving the look of candlelight or other indoor lighting.
  • Beach/Snow: Boosts the exposure to compensate for subjects that are very bright overall.
  • Sunset: Preserves the deep colors of sunsets and sunrises. (Likely sets white balance to "daylight" rather than auto, and dials in some negative exposure compensation to get a good exposure on the sky.)
  • Dusk/Dawn: Preserves the colors seen in weak natural light seen before dawn or after sunset. The flash is disabled, noise reduction is automatically enabled at slow shutter speeds, and the autofocus-assist illuminator is disabled, even in dim lighting.
  • Night Landscape: Combines longer exposures with the "Landscape" mode. Focus is fixed at infinity, and the flash is disabled in this mode. Noise reduction is enabled for long exposures, and the autofocus-assist illuminator is disabled, even in dim lighting.
  • Close Up: Adjusts the lens for close-focusing on small objects, apparently also increases color saturation slightly. Autofocus operates continuously until you half-press the shutter button, helpful in focusing on very close subjects. AF-area mode is set to "manual", so you can select what part of the frame you want to focus on by pressing the center button of the multi-controller and moving the focus cursor around the image with the arrow keys. Press the center button again to save the new AF area selection.
  • Museum: Enables longer exposure times and higher sensitivity, for indoor situations where you can't use flash. Automatically turns on the Best Shot Selector to help get a sharp image. The autofocus-assist illuminator is disabled, even in dim lighting.
  • Fireworks Show: Sets a long exposure and small aperture so you can catch the colored trails of fireworks. Exposure compensation is disabled, and the autofocus-assist illuminator is disabled, even in dim lighting.
  • Copy: Sets the color mode to black and white, boosts contrast, and adjusts exposure to produce sharp images of black text (or line drawings) on white backgrounds.
  • Backlight: For difficult lighting conditions, when the main light is behind your subject, casting their features into shadow. The flash is set to fire even in bright conditions, to throw light onto the shadowed subject.
  • Panorama Assist: Lets you capture a series of images to be stitched together later on a computer as one panoramic image. Flash, macro, and zoom setting are all fixed at their values for the first shot in the series. Likewise, exposure and white balance values are determined by the first shot in the series, to help avoid visible boundaries between the component images in the final panorama, after they've been stitched together.
  • Underwater: For use with the marine housing accessory, this mode optimizes images taken underwater.
  • Image Quality: Sets the JPEG compression to Fine, Normal, or Basic.
  • Image Size: Sets the image resolution. Choices are 5M (2,592 x 1,944 pixels), 3M (2,048 x 1,536 pixels), 2M (1,600 x 1,200 pixels), PC (1,024 x 768 pixels), and TV (640 x 480 pixels).

Portrait Assist Mode: Labeled on the Mode dial with a woman in a hat, this mode is best for portraits, and is the first of the camera's Framing Assist modes. In Portrait mode, the camera uses a larger aperture setting to decrease the depth of field, producing a sharply focused subject in front of a slightly blurred background. Pressing the Menu button calls up the Scene Assistance menu, which lets you choose from a range of portrait setups, including basic Portrait, Portrait Left, Portrait Right, Portrait Close-up, Portrait Couple, Portrait Figure, and Face-Priority AF. In each of these modes (except basic Portrait), an outline appears on the LCD display to help you align the subject.

Landscape Assist Mode: A mountain scene distinguishes Landscape mode on the Mode dial. Here, the camera employs a smaller aperture setting to produce sharp detail in both foreground and background objects. As with Portrait mode, the Scene Assistance menu offers a handful of options (accessed as in Portrait mode). Framing options are Landscape (no guidelines), Scenic View (mountain outline), Architecture (grid), Group Right (outlines of people with lines for buildings in the background), and Group Left (also outlines of people with building and horizon lines).

Sports Assist Mode: A figure in action is the icon for Sports mode, which uses faster shutter speeds to freeze action. The Menu button accesses the Scene Assistance menu, with options for Sports, Sport Spectator, and Sport Composite modes. Sport Spectator enables the user to instantly press down on the Shutter button without pausing halfway to focus, and works best with unpredictable subjects within a range of 9.8 feet (3.0 meters). Sport Composite mode takes 16 images in two seconds, each time the Shutter button is pressed, and arranges them in a four-by-four array, much like Multi-Shot 16 mode.

Night Portrait Assist Mode: Indicated by an icon of a person in front of a star, this mode is for twilight and dusk portraits. The flash is automatically set to Auto Red-Eye Reduction mode, and syncs to the slower shutter speed, which allows more ambient light in to balance color and shadows. The camera's ISO setting automatically adjusts as high as ISO 200, depending on the light level (not reported on the LCD screen). And Noise Reduction is turned on. The Scene Assistance menu offers the same framing outlines as in Portrait mode (described above), with the exception of Face-Priority AF.

Playback Mode: Pressing the Playback button on the camera's back panel instantly enters Playback mode. Here, you can review captured images and movies, erase, enlarge, copy, and protect images, and also set them up for printing. Pressing the Menu button offers the following options:

  • Print Set: Sets the DPOF settings for captured images. The "Print Selected" option pulls up an index display, letting you mark individual images for printing. Once images are marked, you can establish whether any text is overlaid on the image (such as image information or the date and time). You can also cancel print settings here with the "Delete Print Set" button.
  • Slide Show: Automates a slide show of all still images on the memory card with three seconds between shots. You can also enable a looped playback that will play for 30 minutes before the camera goes into standby mode.
  • Delete: Erases selected images from the memory card, or all images (except for write-protected ones).
  • Protect: Write-protects individual images from accidental erasure or manipulation. An special display of the images on the card appears, with a three image filmstrip across the top and a larger image preview on the bottom, which you scroll through and select images to be "locked." Protected images are only deleted through card formatting.
  • Transfer Marking: Marks all images or allows user to select specific images for auto transfer when the camera is connected to a computer running Nikon's software.
  • Small Picture: Creates a lower resolution copy of an image with this tool, choosing from 640 x 480, 320 x 240, or 160 x 120. Great for pictures you know you'll want to email.
  • Copy: Quickly copy images from internal to external memory or vise versa. Great for images you want to bring along or keep in memory for the startup screen.

Setup Mode: The following Setup menu automatically appears whenever the Mode dial is turned to the "Setup" position:

  • Welcome Screen: Chooses the welcome screen that appears at startup, either none, static, or animated, or lets you choose a previously-shot image as the welcome screen.
  • Date: Sets the camera's internal clock and calendar. The Time Zone option lets you set the time for destination city.
  • Monitor Settings:
    • Photo Info: Sets the monitor to Show info, Auto Info (displays info for 5 seconds), Hide info, Framing grid, or Off.
    • Brightness: Adjusts the brightness of the LCD display.
  • Date imprint: Includes the date, or date and time as part of the image. Options are Off, or to imprint Date, Date and Time, or a Date Counter, showing the number of days since a specific date that you've chosen and entered.
  • AF Assist: Disables the AF assist light, or puts it into Auto mode.
  • Sound settings: Can turn on or off the button sound, shutter sound, and startup sound, as well as control the volume.
  • Blur Warning: Turns the camera's Blur Warning on and off. (If off, the "camera shake" icon will not appear on the LCD monitor.)
  • Auto Off: Enables the Auto Off feature, which automatically shuts down the camera after a period of inactivity, to save battery life. Times are 30 seconds, or 1, 5, or 30 minutes. Sleep mode will put the camera in standby mode after 30 seconds regardless of auto off setting if no change in scene brightness occurs; a press on the power button returns the camera to full readiness.
  • Format Memory: Formats the internal memory, erasing all files (even protected ones).
  • Language: Changes the menu language to German, English, Spanish, French, Italian, Dutch, Swedish, Japanese, Simplified Chinese, Traditional Chinese, or Korean.
  • Interface:
    • USB: Sets the USB protocol to Mass Storage or PTP. The PTP option supports automatic processing of camera images under Windows XP and Mac OS X operating systems (unless you want to mount the camera on the desktop), while Mass Storage is best for older operating systems. Mass Storage makes the camera appear as a hard drive to the operating system when plugged in via the USB cable.
    • Video Mode: Sets the video output to NTSC or PAL timing.
  • Auto Transfer: Turns the Auto Transfer feature on and off.
  • Reset All: Resets all camera settings to their defaults.
  • Menus: Sets the menu display mode to Text or Icons.
  • Firmware version: Reports version number of firmware (the operating software) running on device.



See camera specifications here.


Picky Details

Cycle times, shutter lag, battery life, etc. can be found here.


In the Box

The Nikon Coolpix 5900 ships with the following items in the box:

  • Coolpix 5900 digital camera.
  • Wrist strap.
  • Video cable.
  • USB cable.
  • Li-ion rechargeable battery EN-EL5.
  • Battery charger MH-61.
  • CD-ROM loaded with Nikon Picture Project software and drivers.
  • Quick start video CD
  • Instruction manuals and registration kit.


Recommended Accessories

  • Large capacity SD/MMC memory card. (These days, 128 - 256 MB is a good tradeoff between cost and capacity.)
  • AC Adapter.
  • Small camera case for outdoor and in-bag protection.


Recommended Software: Rescue your Photos!
Just as important as an extra memory card is a tool to rescue your images when one of your cards fails at some point in the future. We get a lot of email from readers who've lost photos due to a corrupted memory card. Memory card corruption can happen with any card type and any camera manufacturer, nobody's immune. A lot of "lost" images can be recovered with an inexpensive, easy to use piece of software though. Given the amount of email I've gotten on the topic, I now include this paragraph in all my digital camera reviews. The program you need is called PhotoRescue, by DataRescue SA. Read our review of it if you'd like, but download the program now, so you'll have it. It doesn't cost a penny until you need it, and even then it's only $29, with a money back guarantee. So download PhotoRescue for Windows or PhotoRescue for Mac while you're thinking of it. (While you're at it, download the PDF manual and quickstart guide as well.) Stash the file in a safe place and it'll be there when you need it. Trust me, needing this is not a matter of if, but when... PhotoRescue is about the best and easiest tool for recovering digital photos I've seen. (Disclosure: IR gets a small commission from sales of the product, but I'd highly recommend the program even if we didn't.) OK, now back to our regularly scheduled review...


Sample Pictures

See the full set of my sample pictures and detailed analysis here. The thumbnails below show a subset of my test images. Click on a thumbnail to see the full-size photo.

Indoor Flash






Viewfinder Accuracy



"Gallery" Photos

For those readers interested in a set of less "standardized" photos from the Nikon Coolpix 5900, we've assembled a "gallery" of more pictorial images shot with the Nikon 5900.


Test Results

In keeping with my standard test policy, the comments given here summarize only my key findings. For full details on each of the test images, see the Coolpix 5900's "pictures" page.

For a look at some more pictorial photos from this camera, check out our Nikon Coolpix 5900 Photo Gallery.

Not sure which camera to buy? Let your eyes be the ultimate judge! Visit our Comparometer(tm) to compare images from the Nikon Coolpix 5900 with those from other cameras you may be considering. The proof is in the pictures, so let your own eyes decide which you like best!

  • Color: Good color, highly saturated by default, but low-saturation option works well. A slight tendency toward warm casts. Like its higher-resolution sibling the 7900, the Nikon Coolpix 5900's color, while hue-accurate, is by default very bright and saturated. - A little bit much so for my personal tastes. The good news though, is that the 5900 has the same color-saturation adjustment that I appreciated so much on the 7900. With this control set to low saturation, I felt that skin tones were more natural, and color in general was less over-hyped.- So take your pick, either very bright or more subdued color, whatever's your preference. White balance performance was generally quite good, the Auto setting sometimes leaving a little warm cast in the images, but otherwise was quite capable, even doing an acceptable job on the difficult household incandescent lighting of my Indoor Portrait test. The Nikon 5900's manual white balance option handled a very wide range of lighting very well. The Coolpix 5900's Auto white balance setting often produced a warm cast in my testing, though overall color was still quite good. The best results were typically achieved with the Manual white balance setting. Saturation was usually pleasing and natural. Skin tones were often pink or slightly red, and the blue flowers of the bouquet in both the indoor and outdoor portraits had a purple cast. Indoors, the Manual white balance setting handled the tough incandescent lighting best, though the Auto setting wasn't too far off. Good results overall.

  • Exposure: Generally accurate exposure, but high contrast. The Coolpix 5900 handled my test lighting quite well, although its tone curve is rather contrasty, resulting in lost highlight detail under the deliberately harsh lighting of the "Sunlit" Portrait and the outdoor house shot. Its dynamic range is a little limited as a result, as contrasty lighting will lead to lost highlights even while midtones are on the dark side. While the camera does have a contrast adjustment control, in my tests that adjustment really seemed to affect the overall exposure more than it did the actual light-to-dark contrast ratio. On a positive note though, it typically held onto moderate detail in the shadows. Indoors, the camera required higher than average positive exposure compensation, both with and without the flash. The 5900 had no trouble distinguishing the subtle pastel tones on the Q60 target of the Davebox. Overall, good results, but I wish that the camera's contrast adjustment was more effective.

  • Resolution/Sharpness: Good resolution for its 5-megapixel class, 1,200 lines of "strong detail." The Coolpix performed about average on the "laboratory" resolution test chart with its 5.1-megapixel CCD. It didn't start showing artifacts in the test patterns until resolutions as low as 800, lines per picture height vertically and horizontally. I found "strong detail" out to at least 1,200 lines. "Extinction" of the target patterns didn't occur until about 1,600 lines.

  • Image Noise: Good noise levels at low ISO, high at ISO 400. (ISO 400 shots really only good for 4x6 inch prints, maybe 5x7.) Slight noise is present even at the lowest ISO setting of 64, but it isn't visible unless you specifically look at just the blue channel in Photoshop(tm). Noise is held in check quite well at higher ISO levels, but at considerable cost to image detail, making for very soft images at high ISO. At ISO 400, 8x10 inch prints are very soft, 5x7 probably acceptable for most users, 4x6s should be fine for anybody.

  • Closeups: A small macro area with good detail. Flash has trouble up close though. The Coolpix 5900 captured a small macro area, measuring 1.26 x 0.95 inches (32 x 24 millimeters). Resolution was high, with good detail in the dollar bill. The 5900's flash had trouble throttling down for the macro area, overexposing the shot, and the lens barrel cast a shadow. - Plan on using external lighting for your closets macro shots.

  • Night Shots: Slightly limited low-light performance, with higher than average noise and warm color balance. Sensitive enough for average city night scenes. The Nikon Coolpix 5900 isn't a fantastic low-light performer, but it's certainly entirely usable for typical city night scenes. Its autofocus works down to about 1/4 the brightness of typical city night lighting without the AF-assist light enabled, and the camera can focus in total darkness on nearby objects with the AF light turned on. The camera produced clear, bright, usable images down to the 1/4 foot-candle (2.7 lux) light level at ISO 400. At ISO 200, images were bright to 1/2 foot-candle, and images were bright only to one foot-candle at ISOs 100 and 64. Noise was moderate in most shots, but high at the higher sensitivities and darker light levels. Color balance with the Auto white balance setting was on the warm side.

  • Viewfinder Accuracy: An accurate LCD viewfinder, but very tight optical viewfinder. The Nikon 5900's optical viewfinder was very tight, showing only 72 percent accuracy at wide angle, and 76 percent at telephoto. The LCD monitor proved much more accurate, showing about 98 percent accuracy at wide angle, and about 99 percent at telephoto.

  • Optical Distortion: Higher than average barrel distortion at wide angle, no distortion at telephoto. Moderate chromatic aberration at wide angle, low at telephoto, good sharpness in the corners. Geometric distortion on the Nikon Coolpix 5900 was high at wide angle, where I measured approximately 1.3 percent barrel distortion. The telephoto end fared quite a bit better, as I couldn't find so much as a pixel of barrel or pincushion distortion. Chromatic aberration was moderate at wide angle, but much lower at telephoto. (This distortion is visible as a very slight colored fringe around the objects at the edges of the field of view on the resolution target.) The 5900's lens did a better than average job holding sharpness in the corners of its images.

  • Shutter Lag and Cycle Time: Slightly faster than average shutter response, average shot to shot cycle times. Apart from its blazingly shutter response time when you "prefocus" it by half-pressing and holding down the shutter button before the shot itself, the Nikon 5900 is just average in its timing performance. Shutter lag in full autofocus mode is a bit faster than average, particularly at the wide angle end of its zoom range, shot to shot cycle times are right about average at ~1.8 seconds/frame. Continuous-mode speed is also average, at about 1.65 frames/second. Flash recharge is on the slow side at ~7 seconds after a full-power pulse, but not as bad as that of some digital cameras, particularly compact models.

  • Battery Life: Very good battery life, particularly for a fairly compact digital camera. The Nikon Coolpix 5900 uses a custom rechargeable LiIon battery for power, and has no external power terminal, so I couldn't conduct my normal battery-life tests. In a simple run-down test in record mode with the LCD illuminated (the camera's worst-case power mode), a freshly charged battery lasted 155 minutes. This very good for a compact digital camera like the 5900, but I do recommend that you purchase a second battery if you plan any really extended excursions with it. (Particularly since the poor viewfinder accuracy means that you'll find yourself using the power-hungry LCD viewfinder more often than not.)

  • Print Quality: Good prints to 11x14 inches, sharp ones at 8x10. High-ISO shots very rough at 8x10, OK at 5x7, good at 4x6. Testing hundreds of digital cameras, we've found that you can only tell just so much about a camera's image quality by viewing its images on-screen. Ultimately, there's no substitute for printing a lot of images and examining them closely. For this reason, we now routinely print sample images from the cameras we test on our Canon i9900 studio printer, and on the Canon iP5000 here in the office. (See our Canon i9900 review for details on that model.) Prints from the Nikon Coolpix 5900 looked very good as large as 11x14 inches, and even 13x19 inch prints would probably be acceptable for display on a wall or other places where they wouldn't be scrutinized closely. Shots at 8x10 were plenty sharp. As usual, the toughest test of print quality was the high-ISO shots, and this is indeed where the Nikon 5900 had the most trouble. Its shots at ISO 400 were very soft and rough-looking at 8x10 inch print sizes. At 5x7, ISO 400 prints were rather soft, but would probably be acceptable to many users, while 4x6 output looked just fine.


Pro: Con:
  • Attractive design, well-built
  • Good-quality lens, better than average sharpness in the corners
  • Excellent macro performance
  • High contrast, slightly limited tonal range
  • Slightly faster than average focusing
  • Loads of helpful "assist" options for novices
  • D-lighting feature helpful for shaded subjects
  • Best Shot Selector works well for avoiding motion blur
  • In-camera redeye reduction seems to work well
  • LCD viewfinder actually works fairly well in low light
  • Very good battery life
  • Good VGA movie mode
  • Underwater case available
  • Very "tight" optical viewfinder, shows only 75% or less of the final image area
  • Images slightly soft at default sharpening (Still make good-looking prints though)
  • Skin tones can be ruddy at standard saturation setting (Nice with reduced saturation option though)
  • Flash recycles a little slowly
  • Some image noise even at low ISO, but most users won't notice it
  • Poor high-ISO performance, ISO 400 really only good for 4x6 prints
  • Higher than average compression on images, even at highest quality
  • Low light focusing requires camera and subject be totally still
  • No exposure info shown on the LCD
  • Only two aperture settings
  • Red-eye reduction option significantly increases shot to shot time

Free Photo Lessons

Check out the Free Photo School program for lessons and tips on improving your photographs!
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Nikon's Coolpix line of consumer digicams has always been well-received, appreciated for their image quality and ease of use. The Coolpix 5900 continues that trend, upgrading the design with a 5.1-megapixel CCD and a good-quality lens. The Coolpix 5900 is a good choice for anyone who wants an easy to use camera that delivers good-looking pictures with pleasing color and plenty of resolution. For those willing to delve just slightly deeper than "just pushing the button," its extensive scene modes and unique framing-assist options greatly extend the camera's capabilities, making it easy to bring back good-looking shots of what might otherwise be difficult subjects. I'd have been happier with the 5900 if it did better at high ISO settings, for available-light photography, but on the whole it's a very capable little camera, good enough to warrant being named a "Dave's Pick," and coming in at a good price point. If you like the features of the Nikon 5900 and can afford the roughly $100 difference in retail price though, the Nikon Coolpix 7900 offers better high-ISO performance, more resolution, and a vibration-reduction feature in its movie mode. Going in the other direction, the Nikon Coolpix 4600 offers a slightly pared-down feature set and 4-megapixel resolution, but at a list price that's $100 less. All in all, a good choice for the point & shoot user looking for an easy to use, compact digicam with a surprising range of capabilities.

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