Nikon takes its place at the front of the classy compact category
While Nikon’s approach to interchangeable-lens compacts—the Nikon 1 system—took a decidedly different direction than its line of DSLRs, the same can’t be said of its first Coolpix to sport an APS-C-sized sensor. The Coolpix A was clearly designed to make advanced Nikon shooters feel at home. The menus look like SLR menus, there’s a manual focusing ring, the “i” button brings up a dashboard of image settings, and a switch on the left side of the camera body lets you select the focusing mode. There’s even 14-bit RAW capture. On top of everything, this $1,097 (street) camera has a hot shoe that will let you mount an accessory flash or Nikon’s DF-CP1 ($379, street) optical viewfinder made to go with the Coolpix A’s 28mm (equivalent) f/2.8 Nikkor fixed prime lens.
With the Coolpix A’s DX-format 16.2MP CMOS sensor, Nikon shooters will have to accept less resolving power than the 24MP sensors many of the company’s DSLRs provide. But this camera finds itself right in line with the rest of the APS-C compacts currently available. How did it do in the Popular Photography Test Lab and in our field trials? Read on.
In the Test Lab
Plenty of resolution, super-accurate colors, and Nikon’s superior ability to control noise combine to give the Coolpix A an overall image quality rating of Extremely High from ISO 100 through ISO 1600. That puts it ahead of the Ricoh GR, which earned the same rating, but whose noise restricted this to a range of ISO 100 through 400.
As it stands, Nikon’s resolution lead is modest at best. The Coolpix A earned an Extremely High rating in our resolution test with 2450 lines per picture height at its lowest sensitivity of ISO 100. The Ricoh earned the same rating with 2425 lines. At ISO 1600, the Nikon served up 2400 lines, and the Ricoh 2375. These differences are negligible, but if you were to apply more noise reduction to the Ricoh’s images, you’d get to a point where the resolution discrepency would be meaningful.
While we’re on the topic of resolution, we should mention that Fujifilm’s X100S outresolved the Coolpix A with 2525 lines at ISO 200 (the lowest sensitivity at which it captures RAW images). At ISO 3200, the X100S turned in 2375 lines. That said, the Fujifilm doesn’t control noise nearly as well as the Nikon does, so resolution nearly ends up being a tie for all three of these cameras, especially at the low end of their sensitivity ranges, with the Fujifilm barely taking the lead.
The Coolpix A, which ships with Nikon’s View NX RAW converter, had the best noise performance we saw of any of the APS-C compacts when using the software that comes with the camera to convert from RAW to TIFF. It achieved top honors with Extremely Low noise ratings at both ISO 100 and ISO 200. It also maintained a Low or better rating all the way up to ISO 1600.
Both the Fujifilm and Ricoh ship with versions of Silkypix RAW conversion software, and neither could hold a Low or better rating past ISO 400. If you plan to shoot RAW with a camera like this, the Coolpix A provides the simplest path to low-noise images with plenty of detail.
This Nikon easily earned an Excellent rating for color accuracy, as it did for Ricoh and Fujifilm. The Coolpix A came in behind those two, but all three models were able to yield fantastically accurate colors once white balance was set properly. Our test allows for a one-click white balance based on a neutral gray patch from our test target. We always suggest this for best color results. The Ricoh’s auto white balance wasn’t as good as the Nikon’s, even though it scored better in accuracy than the Nikon once this was corrected. For shooters that don’t want to mess with gray cards, the Nikon is probably the better choice, though the Fujifilm did well in this area, too, when compared with the Ricoh.
Not many cameras offer the level of image quality in a camera as small as this. Sony’s full-frame Cyber-shot RX1 obviously springs to mind, but that will do far more harm to your bank account.