Aug 7, 2003
|Nikon Coolpix 990 Review
Great things sometimes come in small packages. The Coolpix 990 proves why it was named Time's product of the year (2001).
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[Note: this review was written in 2001 when the D1 and Coolpix 990 were both current. I updated this article with a few additional pieces of information and corrections in August 2003.]
You're tempted by the Nikon D1, but the $5000 price tag scares you off. You looked at the older Coolpix 900 or 950, but they didn't quite make the grade. Friend, you're a candidate for a Coolpix 990.
A continuation of the twist-and-shoot digital camera line that began with the 900, the 990 uses Sony's latest 3-megapixel CCD to capture images of up to 2048 x 1536 pixels. Since many claim, mostly correctly, that you only need 150 dpi files to print stunning images with the latest Epson photo printers (870/880, 1270/1280, 2000P, 2200), that means that the 990 should produce almost enough resolution to create 11" x 14" prints. And how many of us print anything bigger than that?
Of course, at 300 dpi we're down to a 5" x 7" image, but with some careful Photoshop work, you can easily get an 8" x 10", and perhaps even an 11" x 14" print that doesn't reveal its digital origins.
So, for one-fifth (or less) the price of a D1, the Coolpix 990 looks very tempting. (If you are comparing the 990 against previous Coolpix models, look at my review of the Coolpix 950. A Coolpix 995 review is also available on this site.)
The primary things the 990 sacrifices over the D1 are:
Benefits of the 990 over the D1 are:
Things that are surprisingly similar on the D1 and 990:
The bottom line is this: if you can live without the interchangeable lenses, a professional-level build quality, and a few features at the extremes, the Coolpix 990 is probably a better choice for 35mm shooters wanting to experiment with digital. [Even in 2003 that statement still stands: the Coolpix models are very cost effective with very good image quality overall. The primary frustrating user issues compared to digital SLRs are lens flexibility and shutter lag.]
Update: Since you'd now be buying this Coolpix used, the question
is whether it's the right model to purchase. Here's my view with hindsight:
the 900 and 950 are preferred if you want to shoot Infrared; the 995 is
preferred for all else. This leaves the 990 in a no-man's land in the
middle. There's nothing particularly wrong with the 990, so if you can
get one in good shape significantly cheaper than the 995 and don't need
the few extras the 995 has (Type 2 card support, for example), I'd say
go for the 990. But if the price for a used 990 and 995 are similar, get
the 995. Personally, I don't find that the 4500 (the current twist-and-shoot
model) offers anything over the 990 or 995, so a good used Coolpix can
save you some money. On the flip side, the Coolpix 5000 and 5400 do offer
a bit more control, features, and image quality (for a price); but they're
not twist-and-shoot (though the LCD can be twisted into a wide range of
2003 Update: Since you'd now be buying this Coolpix used, the question is whether it's the right model to purchase. Here's my view with hindsight: the 900 and 950 are preferred if you want to shoot Infrared; the 995 is preferred for all else. This leaves the 990 in a no-man's land in the middle. There's nothing particularly wrong with the 990, so if you can get one in good shape significantly cheaper than the 995 and don't need the few extras the 995 has (Type 2 card support, for example), I'd say go for the 990. But if the price for a used 990 and 995 are similar, get the 995. Personally, I don't find that the 4500 (the current twist-and-shoot model) offers anything over the 990 or 995, so a good used Coolpix can save you some money. On the flip side, the Coolpix 5000 and 5400 do offer a bit more control, features, and image quality (for a price); but they're not twist-and-shoot (though the LCD can be twisted into a wide range of positions).
note: a few users have discovered that using the 990 for time lapse
photography off an AC adapter produces a small glitch: the batteries and
camera get quite warm and the LCD goes into a coma. The camera still works
just fine, but to get the LCD back you need to let the camera rest for
as much as a few hours. The solution: take the batteries out when you're
shooting with AC power, and turn the LCD off if the camera is going to
Tech note: a few users have discovered that using the 990 for time lapse photography off an AC adapter produces a small glitch: the batteries and camera get quite warm and the LCD goes into a coma. The camera still works just fine, but to get the LCD back you need to let the camera rest for as much as a few hours. The solution: take the batteries out when you're shooting with AC power, and turn the LCD off if the camera is going to be unattended.
You've already learned about some of the major features, but let's take a closer look:
The Coolpix 990 is light (18.8 ounces, 390g without batteries) and reasonably small (longest dimension is 5.9 inches, 149mm). Like the Coolpix 900 and 950 it replaced, the 990 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 990 with 4 AA batteries or an optional AC adapter (which inconveniently plugs into the front edge near the top of the camera; watch for cables in your shots if you shoot using the AC adapter). Battery consumption is better than the Coolpix 950, but still, buy several sets of NiMH rechargeable batteries, as you'll be changing batteries as often as every 60 minutes of continuous use, especially if you're using the color LCD to compose photos.
You'll be wanting to use the color 1.8", 110,000-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. The color LCD--if you can see it--shows 97% of the frame. On the plus side, the optical viewfinder has a -2 to +1 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 built-in 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 8-24mm Nikkor (that's equivalent in angle of view to a 38-115mm in the 35mm world; Coolpix 950 users will wonder why the focal lengths are different, but the equivalents are the same; this is explained by the difference in the size of the CCD sensors in the two cameras). At the wide end, the lens opens to f/2.5. 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. The lens itself is mostly worthy of the Nikkor name (and uses 9 glass elements in 8 groups), producing barrel distortion at the wide end and exhibiting a fair amount of chromatic aberration. 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 4896-step autofocus from 11.8" (30cm) to infinity, which is way overkill due to the deep depth of field the small sensor produces. 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 50 manual focus points (up from the 10 in the Coolpix 950).
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 4896 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 8mm 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 2048 x 1536 uncompressed TIFF, with a wide variety of options in between. The camera is billed as being a 3-megapixel camera, which in reality is 3.34 million pixels. Like most modern digital cameras, the Nikon uses the same Sony CCD sensor many other manufacturers do. 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. (That may be because Nikon uses a CYMG filtration pattern instead of the more standard Bayer RGB pattern.) Compared to the 950, the 990 seems to have slightly better color saturation and makes better white balance choices. 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, 160 (+1), or 320 (+2). [Note: previous versions of this review were incorrect in suggesting that the higher ISO values were 200 and 400.]
The shutter is a combination of mechanical and electronic, and offers shutter speeds from 8 seconds to 1/1000. 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. A 16MB card comes standard, though you can purchase third-party cards with capacities over over 200MBs. Unfortunately, the 990 only supports Type I CompactFlash cards, which means that the IBM 1GB Microdrive, which comes in a CompactFlash card version but requires a Type II slot, can't be used. Since the Coolpix 950 was criticized for this omission and Nikon moved the card slot to a better location on the 990, I don't understand why they stuck with only Type I cards [With the introduction of the 995, which has a Type II slot, we found out why: Nikon is worried about heat buildup from the drive.]. For each 8MBs of CompactFlash memory you can store approximately:
You can set Program (P), Aperture-priority (A), Shutter-priority (S), or Manual (M) exposure modes, but the latter three 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, center weighted, or 256-element matrix methods, there's also a AF spot mode that works like the spot meters in the N80, F100, and F5, but which is frustrating to use in practice, since you can't tell which area the camera is using unless you switch a special function on and use the color LCD to select focus areas.
Exposure compensation can be set in a -2 stop to +2 stop range in third-stop steps. Flash exposure compensation works the same way as it does in the 35mm bodies (+1 to -3 stops). Bracketing is done in as many as five steps, with as much as a 2/3 stop difference between each.
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 990 uses USB communications to Windows or Mac computers, though you can also use serial communications if you're got an older computer.
Unlike previous models, the Coolpix 990 has user-selectable NTSC (US) or PAL (Europe) video output, which enables it to display images on a television virtually anywhere in the world. A video cable is supplied with the camera. Rudimentary slide show controls are built into the camera.
I wasn't a fan of the 950's handling, so it will come as no surprise that the 990 isn't my favorite in this respect, either. Fortunately, Nikon's engineers are headed in the right direction--this Coolpix model fixes a few of the strange choices that characterized the interface of the 950 and 900. Still, there's much to dislike.
Buttons have been moved around from the Coolpix 950, but most of them live on and continue to have dual (or triple) personalities. The exposure compensation and mode buttons have been moved to the top deck just like on the 35mm bodies (did some engineer win an argument here?). The Control Dial has moved from the front to the back, where it falls naturally under the thumb. A Nintendo-type control pad has been added, though you'll rarely use it for focus selection point as you do on the 35mm bodies. Instead, here you'll find it useful for navigating the menu system.
Despite being moved to more logical places, buttons still have the ability to confuse. 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. 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. While I like what Nikon has done to simplify parts of the menu system, there are still too many options (meaning you have to scroll through multiple pages to find a setting), and it's darn difficult to see the color LCD in daylight. It isn't exactly intuitive to press the Right Arrow pad to get to sub-options of a menu item or to lock in a setting, though once you've done it a couple of times, it'll come naturally. If you've got big fingers, you might not like the Nintendo-pad control at all, as it is small, and the right side is cut out of the curve of the body creating a ridge right next to it.
The manuals that come with the camera are quite good, among Nikon's best. 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.
Unlike the 950, the built-in flash is sometimes useful on the Coolpix 990. That's because you can control flash exposure compensation. While the wimpy range and guaranteed redeye don't make it very useful for taking pictures of people, the flash is extremely useful for providing fill on static subjects. I find that I'm dialing in less compensation than I do in 35mm (-1.0 to -1.3 instead of -1.3 to -1.7), but at least I can dial it in!
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, though if you've got small hands, you might find the front bulge a little on the big side. Your second finger falls naturally on the shutter release. Your thumb finds the zoom buttons and command dial 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).
you're used to Nikon's metering on the 35mm bodies, you'll find the
Coolpix 990 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. (But take
a look at the examples in the right column--exposure is good, but color
accuracy and color space needs to be fixed before printing most images.)
(But take a look at the examples in the right column--exposure is good, but color accuracy and color space needs to be fixed before printing most images.)
Center weighted 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. The AF spot metering mode is hidden in the menu system and requires you to use the color LCD to select focus and metering spots.
Why Nikon thought it necessary to provide a 4896-step autofocus system on the Coolpix 990 escapes me, and why they increased the range by a hundred or so steps over the Coolpix 950 is even more puzzling. One photo friend chalks it all up to marketing ("hey, if Canon has 3999 steps, Nikon has to have more."). Because of the small sensor size (compared to the 35mm frame) and the corresponding short focal lengths (8-24mm!), 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. I don't find the autofocus as "twitchy" as the 950, but it'll still make lots of small adjustments that, no doubt, don't really change the depth of field one iota. The 990 includes a close-up (macro) mode that'll take you down to 8" (2cm), an "Infinity" mode, and a 50-step manual focus ability that takes a bit of study to figure out how to access and use.