Nikon Coolpix 950 Review
last update: 8 February, 2004



 

Even if you're a dedicated 35mm aficionado, you've probably been intrigued by the Nikon Coolpix digital cameras. Have they reached the point where they're good enough to use in place of a film-based camera? What do you gain and/or lose by going digital?

The Coolpix 950 was the first of the Nikon digital cameras that began to attract serious amateurs and professional photographers. Why? Because the 2-megabyte pixel resolution promised the ability to produce large prints, and the 950 had just enough user control to take it out of the "point and shoot" realm. You can find used 950's in excellent shape at low costs. So, do you buy a 950, 990, or 995 or one of the current Coolpix models?

The primary things the 950 sacrifices over the 990 are:

Benefits of the 950 over the 990 are:

Things that are essentially the same on the two cameras:

Compared to more current Coolpix models, such as the 5400, the two changes you'll most note in the newer camera are control refinements and higher resolution. Battery life in the newest models is much better, also. Still, the 950 works fine if you don't need more resolution than it provides. If you can live with 5" x 7" photos and only produce the occasional 8" x 10", the 950 may be all you need.

The Basics

There are a lot to cover so let's go to the chalkboard...

The Coolpix 950 is light (12.3 ounces, 350g without batteries) and reasonably small (longest dimension is 5.6 inches, 143mm). Like the Coolpix 900 it replaced (and the 990 that replaces it), the 950 features Nikon's unique twist-and-shoot body. For those who haven't seen this in action, the body is split into two halves whose connection allows you to rotate one in relation to the other. This is more convenient and useful than it sounds (see handling).

You power the 950 with 4 AA batteries or an optional AC adapter (which inconveniently plugs into the front edge on the top of the camera). Buy several sets of Nimh rechargeable batteries, as you'll be changing batteries as often as every 30 minutes of continuous use, especially if you're using the color LCD to compose photos.

You'll be wanting to use the color 2", 130,000-pixel color LCD to compose your shots if critical framing is an issue, or if you're using any of the accessory lens converters (fisheye, wide angle, and two telephoto converters are available). That's because the optical viewfinder only shows 85% of the image, and is blocked by the optional lens converters. On the plus side, the optical viewfinder has a -1 to +2 diopter adjustment and is close enough to the lens that parallax is only a problem at close distances. The optical viewfinder zooms to match the lens, and AF and flash confirmation LEDs are easily visible without taking your eye from the viewfinder. Lens wearers can see the entire frame (at least I can).

The lens is a 7-21mm Nikkor (that's equivalent in angle of view to a 38-115mm in the 35mm world). At the wide end, the lens opens to f/2.6. At the telephoto end, the variable aperture lowers this to f/4. You'll see some apertures you've never seem before (f/4.3 anyone?) when you choose aperture priority, and the lens only closes down to a little over f/11 (I've seen f/11.3; I can't remember seeing anything smaller). The lens itself is worthy of the Nikkor name (and uses glass elements, not plastic), though I'd argue that it has a bit too much barrel distortion at the wide end. If you don't mind ugly artifacts, there's a 4x digital zoom effect that produces Big Pixels (if you really must blow up a portion of the frame, save the image using the Genuine Pixels software supplied with the camera, and/or use PhotoShop's sizing controls).

You get 4746-step autofocus from 11.8" (30cm) to infinity. In macro mode, the lens focuses as close as 0.8" (2cm). An infinity focus function is available, but it's really a hyperfocal focus. You can also choose one of 10 manual focus points.

Now that you've read all about all those focusing abilities, forget 'em (well, the macro setting is useful). Depth of field is always quite high with this camera. You don't need 4846 autofocus settings, all they do is wear the batteries down without giving you any real control over what's in and out of focus. (If you don't believe me, plug in a focal length of 7mm and a circle of confusion of .008 into your DOF calculator and see what you get).

Image quality and size ranges from 640 x 480 with high JPEG compression to 1600 x 1200 uncompressed TIFF, with a wide variety of options in between. The camera is billed as being a 2-megapixel camera, which in reality is 1.92 million pixels. Like most modern digital cameras, the Nikon uses the same Sony CCD sensor every other manufacturer does. That doesn't necessarily mean two cameras from different companies with the same sensor produce the same results, though. Nikon's use seems to produce slightly lower saturation than I've seen from some other companies, but there also isn't a color cast and the results are quite sharp. The default sensitivity of the CCD sensor is about ISO 80, but if you don't mind spurious noise, you can manually override that to ISO 100, 200, or 400.

The shutter is a combination of mechanical and electronic, and offers shutter speeds from 8 seconds to 1/750. Useful range is much more limited than that, though, as long shutter speeds tend to generate random pixel noise. While there's a mechanical shutter, I've never heard it (or felt it), so it's darn quiet (the camera defaults to a computer beep to tell you that you've taken a shot).

Photos are stored on a removable CompactFlash card. An 8MB card comes standard, though you can purchase third-party cards with capacities over over 200MBs. Unfortunately, the 950 only supports Type 1 CompactFlash cards, which means that the IBM 340MB Microdrive, which comes in a CompactFlash card version but requires a Type 2 slot, can't be used. Providing only a Type 1 slot is a suspiciously poor decision on Nikon's part. For each 8MBs of CompactFlash memory you can store approximately:

You can set Program (P), Aperture-priority (A), or Shutter-priority (S) exposure modes, but the latter two are only available when the camera is set to M-Rec (Nikon provides an all-automatic A-Rec mode and a user-adjustable M-Rec mode). White balance can be set automatically or manually. Metering is done via traditional spot, centerweighted, or 256-element matrix methods. Exposure compensation can be set in a -2 stop to +2 stop range. Additional exposure and image options include a few dubious controls: Best Shot Selector (camera throws away all but what it thinks is the best image of 16), Image Sharpening (better left to the computer), plus user-adjustable Contrast and Brightness settings (again, usually better left to the computer; if you need 'em in camera, your exposure is probably wrong).

The 950 uses serial (not USB) communications to Windows or Mac computers. Both cable options are supplied, though you might need an adapter if you've got an older computer that doesn't use the current connectors. Macs get a reasonable 230kbps transfer speed, Windows users are stuck with the Wintel-imposed 115kbps. (My suggestion: get a USB CompactFlash card reader to transfer images more conveniently and quickly.)

Your Coolpix 950 will either be a NTSC (US) or PAL (Europe) model, which enables it to display images on a television. If you purchase a gray market import and live in the US, be sure to check that you're getting the NTSC version. A video cable is supplied with the camera. Rudimentary slideshow controls are built into the camera.

Handling

I'm not a fan of the 950's control layout and handling (or that of any Coolpix, for that matter). There's a wee too much engineering-let-loose and not enough user-influenced product marketing input in the final design. If you've read my other reviews, you know that I bristle at illogical and inconsistent user interface design. Get ready for some more bristling...

Take the self timer control, for example. It's coupled with the Infinity and Macro focus settings. Press a button once, the camera sets Infinity focus (not really, it's actually closer to hyperfocal focus). Press the button again to set Macro focus. Press the button again and you get...ta-dah...the self timer! Press it again, and you get regular autofocus with no self timer. And when you've set the self timer, you press the shutter release twice to set it to a shorter time (3 seconds instead of 10). And, yes, you can't set the self-timer in conjunction with Infinity or Macro focus. In M-Rec mode (why can't they just say Manual?), the button does a Dr. Jekyll--now you hold it down and turn the Command Dial to set a manual focus distance. Say what? (Think you'll remember everything in that last paragraph one month after you've last used the camera? Think again.)

Then there's the heavy reliance on the color LCD. Some settings, like ISO sensitivity, metering method, etc., are controlled by a hierarchical menu system that's displayed on the color LCD. Outdoors in normal daylight, it's nearly impossible to see the color LCD, so good luck setting the camera. Luckily, exposure compensation and image quality are set via the top LCD, which is readable in most conditions in which you'd use the camera.

Fortunately, the manuals that come with the camera are quite good. I highly recommend reading them before trying to figure out what the designers were thinking. You'll almost think the controls make sense if you work your way page by page through the manuals. Almost. But you'll eventually have to use the camera in the field without a manual at your side, and then you'll be reminded just how idiosyncratic some of the design decisions really are.

Flash is best avoided on the Coolpix 950. Because the flashtube sits immediately next to the lens, there's no way to avoid redeye, even with redeye reduction enabled. Second, the flash has virtually no range (10 feet [3m] is being generous), and when a subject is in range, it has a tendency to overexpose the subject. Some Nikon documents seem to refer to a TTL sensor, but the flash is really an automatic NTL unit (near-the-lens). If all that weren't enough, flash won't work with any lens converter mounted, and it's just one more thing that chews down the batteries of a 950.

None of this is to say that the camera doesn't have positive handling attributes. If you're an automatic-only, no-extra-features-please shooter, the camera feels good in the hand and the basic controls are right where you'd expect them. The extra width of the battery cage gives your right hand something to grip. Your second finger falls naturally on the shutter release. Your thumb finds the zoom buttons without hunting. Heck, even the twist-and-shoot section on the left gives you a natural place to grip with your left hand. Click, done deal. (Well, actually the "shutter sound" is a more computer-like beep, which can be turned off if you need to use the camera in quiet situations; of course, when you turn the shutter sound off, you won't know when the camera has actually taken a picture.)

And you'll end up loving that ability to twist the lens in virtually any angle to the main controls on the right. Not only does that allow self-portraits without a tripod, but it becomes darn convenient to frame shots with the camera plastered against a wall, on the ground, or held above your head (assuming, of course, that you can see the color LCD).

Exposure

If you're used to Nikon's metering on the 35mm bodies, you'll find the Coolpix 950 to be spot on to what you know. Matrix metering has the same problems with high contrast, large brightness range scenes as do virtually every Nikon 35mm body (expect underexposure). Virtually every normal condition is rendered with aplomb and accuracy.

Centerweighted and spot metering are a bit tougher to use on a Coolpix than they are on the 35mm bodies. First, the viewfinder indicators don't correspond as well to the actual metering area. Moreover, since the 950 doesn't have a manual exposure mode, the only way to lock in exposure readings is the traditional pressing the shutter release halfway.

Focusing

Why Nikon thought it necessary to provide a 4746-step autofocus system on the Coolpix 950 escapes me. Because of the small sensor size (compared to the 35mm frame) and the corresponding short focal lengths (7-20mm!), you're going to almost always have too much depth of field to worry about whether you need Step 2836 or Step 2837. Heck, Nikon could have provided only a couple dozen steps and not really compromised the focusing performance.

That said, autofocus performance is swift, though a bit "twitchy" (you'll often hear the lens making lots of small adjustments that, no doubt, don't really change the depth of field one iota). The 950 includes a close-up (macro) mode that'll take you down to 8" (2cm), an "Infinity" mode that actually sets a long focus distance that tends to maximize depth of field (and includes infinity), and a 10-step manual focus ability that takes a bit of study to figure out how to access and use.

Note that while the Coolpix 950 focuses well, some JPEG compression levels tend to compromise edge integrity, which can make a result look less sharp. Indeed, even at low- or no-compression levels you'll probably find yourself using an Unsharp Mask in Photoshop to generate sharp results. One tip: after sharpening, try selecting the background in your shots and "defocusing" them using Photoshop.

Drawbacks

Positives

For many, the Coolpix 950 will do a fine job:

Footnote

Your biggest frustrations with the 950 are likely to be twofold: (1) the ridiculously short battery life; and (2) the lack of a true wide angle lens. To solve problem one I stopped using alkalines in the 950 (even the so-called Ultra or Extended Life versions). In cold weather I use (expensive) lithiums, at all other times I carry three sets of NimH rechargeables. Well, that's not really a solution, but a band aid that'll get you by. Set the most aggressive Auto OFF setting, turn the color LCD OFF if you're not using it, don't use flash (ever), and use manual focusing whenever possible and you'll extend battery life a minuscule amount more.

The second problem is solved with one of Nikon's lens converters. The wide angle converter gives you almost the equivalent of a 24mm lens, though it introduces more barrel distortion than I'd like and makes framing with the optical viewfinder impossible (using the color LCD in bright light to frame shots is problematic). Nevertheless, it is a workable accessory that produces acceptable results and almost satisfies my wide angle lust.

The fisheye converter is another possibility, though it will definitely generate odd looks in your direction when you use it, as it looks like a cartoon lens exploded from too much steroid use on the front of your Coolpix. If you use the Fisheye2 setting, you get a full frame view very much akin to the Nikkor 16mm f/2.8D on a 35mm body: a nearly 180-degree diagonal view with dramatic barrel distortion. While not your everyday wide angle effect, it certainly can produce great shots when used properly. And depth of field? The term infinite springs to mind.