The new breed of enthusiast digital cameras is completely different from the usual bunch of point-and-shoot, travel zoom and superzoom cameras. What sets them apart are large sensor, superior optics, RAW support and fine-grained control—all packed in a compact form. So, you get DSLR-like performance and flexibility in a solidly built camera that can fit in your pocket. Nikon’s latest flagship, the Coolpix A, is one such camera featuring an APS-C type sensor and a 28 mm prime lens. Let’s find out if this shooter will bring smiles to enthusiasts.
Features and performance of a DSLR packed in a compact shell
Design and features
The 16MP CMOS sensor, around which the Coolpix A is built, is as large as those used in entry-level DSLR cameras. Mated to this is a 28 mm-equivalent prime lens with a moderately bright f/2.8 aperture. It’s as wide as the stock 18-55 mm lens mounted on an entry-level DSLR, the difference being you cannot zoom because the focal length is fixed.
Switch to set the focus mode
Like many enthusiast digital cameras, the lens has a rotatable metal ring with fine ridges around the lens. Its sole function is to give you the flexibility to adjust the focus. There’s a tiny switch on the left side to set the focus to Auto, Macro or Manual. Rotating the ring while keeping the shutter release half-pressed will override the set focus irrespective of the focus or shooting mode. Thus, you have the option to focus manually even in Auto and Program modes.
Above the focus selection switch are two ports that reside under a plastic flap. The USB port for PC connectivity doubles as host to the optional WU-1a Wireless Mobile Adapter, with which you can transfer photos from the camera to a smartphone over Wi-Fi. The other port allows connecting a wired remote or GPS unit (both optional). Over to the right side, there’s a mini HDMI port that lets you hook up the camera to a TV.
Magnesium alloy top panel with metal dials
Despite the restrictive width, the top panel houses quite a few components—a concealed pop-up type flash (releasable by a button), a hot shoe, the mode dial, an on/off lever with a large shutter release button at its centre and a dial to change values. The rear panel is very different from what’s found in mainstream Coolpix digital cameras. The control panel of the Coolpix A bears resemblance to a Nikon DSLR. The left side is flanked by buttons for EV, ISO and zoom control. To the right of the 3-inch LCD monitor lie a 5-way D-pad with a jog dial and buttons for playback, menu, info and delete.
If you are familiar with a Nikon DSLR, it won’t take more than a few minutes to get used to this camera. Otherwise, it could take some time getting used to the user interface of this camera, after which you’ll like the way it handles things. Starting from the top, the mode dial offers PASM modes in addition to the plain Auto mode. There are 19 scene modes including Food, Silhouette, Low Key, Sunset, Sports, Autumn Colors and Child, all clubbed into the Scene mode on the dial. The U1 and U2 are user-definable modes that allow you to set custom shooting parameters.
Rear panel and user interface
A notable feature of the control panel is the way the dials and secondary button functions work. In A and S modes, the dial on the top changes the aperture and shutter speed respectively, and the D-pad jog dial does nothing. To change the EV and ISO, you have to hold down the respective buttons to the left of the LCD monitor and rotate the top dial to change values—quick and very intuitive. The D-pad jog dial springs into action only in the M mode. Now, the top dial adjusts the shutter speed and the D-pad jog dial adjusts the aperture. With the EV button pressed, the functions of dials switch the other way round. So, you have choices—use individual dials for shutter speed and aperture, or use only one of them to adjust both the shutter speed and aperture in combination with the EV button.
The customisable Fn1 button. Also note the texture of the shell
Note that the ISO button has Fn2 mentioned above and there’s the Fn1 button on the front easily accessible while you’re holding the camera. The Fn1 button can be assigned one of the 11 available functions from the menu. These include Flash mode, Release mode, AE/AF lock, Self-timer and RAW. Likewise, you have 7 choices for the Fn2 button including White balance, Metering, Auto bracketing and Image quality/size.
The zoom buttons don’t control digital zoom. Instead, they allow zooming in and out of the selected focus area in the frame so that you can check the focus. Moving the focus around the frame can be painful. You have to use the D-pad to move the focus, and the buttons have to be kept pressed until the focus moves to the desired area in the frame.
Unlike many digital cameras, there’s no stack of controls/parameters that overlays the live view with the press of a button. The approach is more DSLR-like in this case. The Info button takes you to another interface that displays current settings and allows you to change image quality/size, white balance, ISO, autofocus mode, bracketing, EV, flash compensation and flash mode. You use the directional buttons to navigate and on pressing the OK button, you’re allowed to change values. A bit fidgety, but you have everything in one place.
The biggest flaw in the UI is the absence of a dedicated button for video recording. It’s not even available via the mode dial. It’s highly likely that you won’t find out how to record videos with this camera until you look up the user manual. Movie recording is available as one of the Release modes in addition to Single frame, Continuous (burst) and Self-timer.
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