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Nikon CoolPix 950 - Nice Enough Pictures

Review by John Barnes

Washington Apple Pi Journal, March/April 2000, pp. 30-32, reprint information

Just after Christmas I simply had to drop in on my local professional photo supply house to see what the "megapixel" buzz in digital still cameras was all about. I fully expected to hear the "not yet ready for prime time" comments that they had given me in the past. Or maybe they would have something good but I would find the price too high. In any case I was skeptical and I thought I had conditioned myself not to leap at the new technology.

Well, I wound up subjecting my credit card to another bloodletting on the altar of bleeding edge technology.

My purchase of a Nikon CoolPix 950 camera at a competitive price has put a new spark into my home snap shooting. The claim that one can produce attractive 8 x 10 prints with an ink jet device turns out to be fully justified. The choice of this particular model of this particular brand was conditioned to some extent by media hype, but I excluded all models that lacked an optical finder. LCD finders do not do the job for me out of doors. The idea of additional optical flexibility through interchangeable lenses has some allure. The CoolPix 950 is priced at the high end of its class, but not outrageously so.

It takes only a little imagination to find innumerable uses for one of these cameras. There are plenty of choices for those who want to shop feature sets and pricing. However, do not rely on the magazine articles, and do be sure to get a look at the widest possible range of products. This is an extremely competitive business.

Things I like

I was not disappointed when I started playing with the thing after getting it home.

The first thing I like about this gadget is its nice output. Figure 1 is a side-by side comparison of a picture taken with the Nikon and one taken with a Kodak DC50. The latter camera is representative of the previous generation of digital cameras. The Pi Web site.offers a color version of this illustration that probably has a lot more detail.

(click on image for more detailed view)

Secondly, the camera has every feature that one would expect in a high-end 35 mm SLR (single-lens reflex) camera. This flexibility in adapting to different situations is very important to me. The little lens cap with its built in attachment point is kind of cute, too. I used a cable tie to secure it around the camera strap.

The next thing I like is the ease with which the photo files can be handled. The proprietary photo formats that had to be converted to more general formats have been replaced by on-the-fly compression to files stored on flash memory. When it comes time to work with the images the computer treats the flash memory just like a removable disk drive. Just take the little flash memory card out of the camera, slip it into a suitable adapter, plug the package into the PCMCIA slot, and drag and drop. Users who lack a PCMCIA slot can use Nikon-supplied software to achieve the same effect through a serial connection to the camera. I have not yet tried this approach because I am concerned about battery life.

This simplicity in handling images is a terrific boon for newsletter editors, Web authors, parents, and other animal lovers. These folks can shoot their favorite subjects until the cows come home and get immediate gratification that beats one-hour photo stores all hollow for cost and convenience.

Party animals can upload slide shows and simply feed them to a TV set through the built-in video output port. Since the video display is live to the LCD screen it is possible to use a TV set as a viewfinder. People who make extensive use of these features will need to purchase an external power supply. It looks like the Nikon folks have cleverly engineered things so that their power supply is the only one to use.

Manuals and software are supplied as Acrobat Reader files on a CD-ROM. I also scanned in the "QuickStart" card so that I would not lose it. The documentation is clear and readable. However, as will be noted below, the system is complicated enough so that the user will use the manuals early and often. I found that some features were covered in yet a third document, a 30 page "Pocket Guide." I decided to scan this in as well, just so that I would not lose it.

The chief enabling technology of the megapixel revolution as seen in the CoolPix and others of its ilk is JPEG compression. The CoolPix offers three pixel counts, each with three different compression ratios, for a total of nine resolutions which allow from 8 to 200 images on an 8 MB flash memory card. An uncompressed TIFF Mode that gives a single frame on an 8-megabyte memory card is also available. Higher capacity flash memory cards run around $3 per megabyte and new models are appearing all the time.

I'll spare you the gory details and say merely that a full picture of the family beagle from a 1024 x 758 frame pleased the technophobe spouse enough to elicit a pained acquiescence in the form of a statement of "You might as well keep buying your techie gadgets because it might enhance the value of our high-tech mutual funds."

Those who crave detailed specifications can find them at the Nikon USA web site.

Things I don't like

Complexity is probably a price we have to pay for power in a small package. In any case this gadget is plenty complex. Figure 2 is a scan from the quick-start card showing the various features, buttons, and controls. Figure 3 is a guide to the information that is presented on the LCD viewfinder/playback screen. Let's just say that this all takes some getting used to. Users should devote a fair amount of spare time to fiddling with the various modes and controls in order to get a better idea of what suits them. There is provision for saving customized parameter sets for particular shooting situations.

Selecting modes of operation can get pretty convoluted. Some settings are controlled from a menu that is about as hard to use as the one on a VCR. Others are selected by turning a tiny wheel while mashing down on a tiny button. I wonder who designs these things. Maybe it's the Finnish guy who uses a cell phone to buy soft drinks. Is there a market for an infrared link that would let us read the manual and call up settings from a PDA?

The delay between shots could be an annoyance for sports photographers. There are provisions for multi shot work, but it seems easier to pop in a new roll of film than to make space in memory by editing out extra shots.

The next thing I don't like is the fragmentation of the documentation. Different pieces show different things. All of this should be collected in the comprehensive reference manual. It is frustrating to find an important feature such as the multi shot capability stashed away in a document that is otherwise not very useful and that is not available in electronic form.

Battery life is a real problem. It does not take much of a session to drain 4 AA cells. I may look into rechargeables, but it may be cheaper to simply buy the batteries in bulk. These costs will partly reduce the savings from not having to develop and digitize film. Will I need an AC adapter? I'm put off by Nikon's price, but I may have to bite the bullet. Judicious use of the "Monitor" button to turn off the LCD display ameliorates things a little bit. The flash uses quite a lot of juice as well.

The price of converter lenses seems rather high. I see no immediate need for them, but it is nice to know that they are there if I need them. The optical built-in zoom range supposedly corresponds to a 35 to 115 mm zoom lens on a 35 mm SLR. I might be happier with 28 to 100.

The built-in flash is kind of weeny. There is provision for synching to beefier flash units. Most of these are at least as bulky as the CoolPix itself. If one wants to light up the scene one needs a place to store all of those joules.

I wonder about the funky twist-to-shoot design. This certainly decreases the required storage space. It also gives added flexibility for some kinds of shooting. However, one does wonder if the joint between the two parts of the camera could be a weak point.

Will this be your only camera?

The last time my wife and I traveled abroad we shot twenty 20-exposure rolls of 35 mm film, for a total of about 400 frames. Perhaps a third of these were "keepers." A single 64 MB flash memory card would, therefore, hold all of our good snapshots at a resolution that is adequate for our purposes.

The cost, with batteries, would be comparable to what we spent on developing, printing, and digitizing those 20 rolls. Add in the fact that the CoolPix 950 is a lot less bulky than a standard 35 mm SLR and the idea of using such a camera as one's main photo device becomes quite attractive.

The biggest single drawback to this is the lack of a backup storage medium for the pictures. A theft or accident would result in the loss of all of our snapshots, not just those that happen to be in the camera or the gadget bag. With film the loss is limited to a day or two's shooting at most (unless our suitcases get totally lost).

Paper photo albums remain easier to work with than the digital ones, although viewing applications are improving rapidly. On the other hand, the ability to crop digital photos and compensate for some exposure defects is a huge plus. Consumables costs for digital printing are not negligible, but it certainly is a lot cheaper to make a 5 x 7 or 8 x 10 print that way. Modern photo-quality papers help a lot in this regard.

The bottom line is that I will probably use the Nikon for most shooting in those places where I have easy access to my laptop computer. On foreign trips of any consequence I will take along the film camera, either as a secondary camera or as the primary when I leave my laptop at home.

In my youth I spent a lot of time in dark rooms with smelly chemicals, bulky machines, and delicate media to create a very modest output of mostly undistinguished photographs. The newer digital technologies give me better prints and better creative control over the images that I make. I cannot yet rival Ansel Adams with big, dramatic, needle sharp prints, but I can learn a lot with the tools I have.

Will I Bleed Less if I wait?

Most of us find it galling to learn that our latest high tech toy became obsolete soon after we unpacked it. I suspect that this is doubly the case with digital cameras, still or video. On the other hand one needs to get a few things done. The answer is to learn to love your purchases until they really do show their age. Perhaps if you act quickly enough you can get some money for the old stuff at a Pi sale.

I have not attempted to spell out all of the ways that this camera could be used. I know that I personally have lots of projects that will benefit from this camera, and I think it will be a lot of fun to share my work with my friends and family.

Figure Captions:

Figure 1 - The little widget shown here is part of a materials science experiment. The left view was taken with my Nikon CoolPix 950, the one on the right with a Kodak DC50. Note the improved sharpness and tonal range in the left-hand image.

Figure 2 - Features and controls for the Nikon CoolPix 950.

Figure 3 - Information presented on the monitor display. Nearly every conceivable tidbit about the exposure can be read out here. The data is superimposed on the image in playback mode. It can be suppressed by a single push of the "monitor" button.

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Revised March 16, 2000 Lawrence I. Charters
Washington Apple Pi
URL: http://www.wap.org/journal/