Nikon Coolpix A £999.99

16th Apr 2013 | 15:00

Nikon Coolpix A

DSLR quality from a compact camera

TechRadar rating:

4 stars

Like:

Good build quality; Controls are sensibly arranged; Produces superb images; Little noise;

Dislike:

Not the fastest autofocus; Corner shading;

Introduction

Large sensors are in vogue at the moment, with full-frame devices creeping down to enthusiast-centric DSLRs such as the Canon EOS 6D and Nikon D600 and APS-C format chips appearing in the Fuji X100S and Sigma DP1, and now the Nikon Coolpix A. There's even now a compact camera, the Sony RX1, with a full-frame sensor - though its price is on a par with the likes of the Canon EOS 5D Mark III and Nikon D800.

Priced at £999.99 / AU$1,298 / US$1,099.95, the Nikon Coolpix A could even be considered an "affordable" alternative to the Sony RX1, which retails for around £2,600 / AU$3,000 / US$2,800.

Like the Fuji X100 and Fuji X100S, the Nikon Coolpix A features an APS-C sized sensor. In fact, it's the very same 16.2 megapixel device as can be found in the Nikon D7000, the company's mid-level enthusiast DSLR.

Nikon Coolpix A review

The camera also features the same Expeed 2 processing engine, which should mean that it produces images of a very similar quality to the DSLR.

However, one key feature could enable the Nikon A to top the Nikon D7000 for image quality. Nikon has removed the optical low pass filter from the sensor, and this should mean the camera manages to record more detail, or at least sharper fine details.

It does mean that there's an increased risk of moiré patterning, but Nikon believes that this shouldn't be too much of an issue for the intended users of the camera, who would prefer the higher detail results.

Nikon Coolpix A review

The camera features a fixed 18.5mm lens with a maximum aperture of f/2.8. In 35mm terms this focal length is equivalent to 28mm, making it particularly useful for street, documentary and landscape photography.

Sensitivity may be set in the native range of ISO 100-6400, with up to ISO 25,600 being available if the expansion settings are enabled.

Active D-Lighting, Nikon's dynamic range optimisation system found in its DSLRs, is also available, with four levels being available from Low to Extra High, as well as an automatic option.

Build quality and handling

Nikon Coolpix A review

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In the same way that it's hard to believe that Sony has managed to fit a full-frame sensor into the RX1, the small size of the Nikon Coolpix A comes as a pleasant surprise, bearing in mind that it houses a DX or APS-C format sensor.

The Nikon A is smaller than the Nikon P7700, one of the company's other premium offerings. In fact, the sleek exterior of the camera makes it one of the more pocketable options in the premium market, large sensor or not. It's perhaps not quite jeans pocketable, but it's certainly jacket pocketable, and a very flexible option.

Constructed from magnesium and aluminium alloy, the Nikon Coolpix A remains nevertheless very light, and won't add too much bulk to a kit bag. Yet it feels solid and weighty enough to give it the air of high quality that its price tag suggests.

Nikon Coolpix A review

There's no hand grip on the camera, but a small strip on the front lends it extra purchase, especially when shooting one-handed. Anyone used to a Nikon DSLR will be familiar with the menu layout and controls of the Nikon Coolpix A, which has been based around the design of the cameras higher up in the range.

A mode dial on the top of the camera can be used for quickly switching between the various shooting modes on offer, including fully automatic, fully manual and semi-automatic modes such as aperture priority.

Handily, there's also room here for a couple of user-defined groups of settings, which is useful if you often find yourself shooting in any given situation, such as low-light. This dial doesn't have a lock, but it has a reasonable degree of resistance and doesn't seem prone to being knocked out of position too easily.

Nikon Coolpix A review

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Sadly the same cannot be said of the power switch. This surrounds the shutter button, and there were several occasions during this test that we withdrew the camera from a jacket pocket or bag to discover that the camera was switched on.

This could lead to the battery flattening earlier than anticipated, but our main concern is that the camera may be damaged if it is powered up and the lens cannot extend properly because it is confined within a bag.

Another feature that's likely to be appreciated by the more advanced photographer is the customisable Function buttons on the front and back of the Nikon Coolpix A. The small button on the front can be found near the lens and can be set to a number of different parameters, including ISO and switching between raw and JPEG format shooting.

Nikon Coolpix A review

On the top of the camera, within easy reach of the thumb, is a small dial that can be used to alter shutter speed, or in combination with one of the other buttons, such as ISO or exposure compensation. At the back of the camera is a dial for altering aperture, when in aperture priority mode. Like the rest of the Nikon Coolpix A, these dials feel well made and are responsive.

A small switch on the side of the Nikon A enables you to select the focus mode. Here you have the option to choose standard automatic focusing, macro focusing or manual focusing.

When in manual focusing mode, a ring around the lens is used to fine-tune focus. You can also magnify the scene for critical focusing using a button on the back of the camera.

Nikon Coolpix A review

Unlike many compact cameras, the Nikon Coolpix A's manual focusing system works well. The lens ring lacks the friction of a DSLR lens's focusing ring, but there's enough to work with.

The 3-inch 921,000-dot LCD screen on the back of the camera also provides enough detail for you to be sure that the subject is sharp - although we found the magnified view more or less essential.

It would be nice if the lens ring could be used to adjust other settings when it's not being used for manual focusing. It could, for instance, be used for altering aperture, like on the Sony RX100, but sadly that's not possible with the Nikon A.

Nikon Coolpix A review

To change the autofocus point, you first need to hit the OK button at the back of the camera, and then scroll around the screen using the directional keypad. This can be a little bit of a long-winded process, and if you're keen to capture fast moments, it might be easier to set the AF point to the centre of the frame and focus and recompose.

It would have been nice if Nikon had chosen to incorporate a touchscreen here, since this would have made changing the AF points much quicker, and would better suit the quick street photographer that this camera is clearly aimed at. It would also have given it a point of difference from the Fuji X100S and Sony RX1.

Performance

There's no question that the Nikon Coolpix A can resolve plenty of detail, and images look nice and sharp straight from the camera, whether they are recorded as JPEGs or raw files.

Like the Fuji X100S, the level of detail resolved by the Nikon A is on a par with a DSLR rather than the average compact camera.

Nikon Coolpix A review

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Noise is also well controlled and it isn't overly obtrusive as the sensitivity climbs towards the maximum point. However, as is often the case, we'd recommend not pushing beyond ISO 3200, and avoiding the expansion settings.

One advantage that a compact camera can offer over a DSLR is that the lens can be perfectly tailored to match the sensor. While this seems to be the case with the Nikon Coolpix A's detail resolution, it doesn't appear to be the case for vignetting. Some of the images taken during our testing suffer from quite significant corner shading, and it's even evident in some taken at f/8.

Nikon Coolpix A review

While many people like a little corner shading, and may even add it post- capture, it is rather surprising to see it so clearly in images from the Nikon Coolpix A.

One other aspect that blots the Coolpix A's copybook is its lacklustre AF speed. Even when shooting outdoors in bright light there is a discernible backwards and forwards adjustment in the focus, and it takes around half a second to get the subject sharp.

Nikon Coolpix A review

In most instances this isn't a major problem, but with shot to shot times a little longer than we would like too, the Nikon A isn't the camera for capturing fast-moving subjects or a rapidly developing event.

On a more positive note, the Nikon Coolpix A produces natural-looking colours in the default Standard Picture Control mode. The automatic white balance system also manages to cope well with a range of lighting conditions, even faring better than many other cameras in artificial light.

Nikon Coolpix A review

The Nikon Coolpix A's matrix metering system also delivers in most situations, even managing to cope with quite tricky light and high-contrast situations. Like many metering systems there is a tendency to underexpose a little in overcast conditions, but it's not excessive and it means that any highlights are preserved.

Given its price and specification, this isn't something that is likely to faze the average Nikon Coolpix A user.

Image quality and resolution

As part of our image quality testing for the Nikon Coolpix A, we've shot our resolution chart.

If you view our crops of the resolution chart's central section at 100% (or Actual Pixels) you will see that, for example, at ISO 100 the Nikon Coolpix A is capable of resolving up to around 26 (line widths per picture height x100) in its highest quality JPEG files.

For a full explanation of what our resolution charts mean, and how to read them, check out our full explanation of our camera testing resolution charts.

Examining images of the chart taken at each sensitivity setting reveals the following resolution scores in line widths per picture height x100:

JPEG

Nikon Coolpix A review

Full ISO 100 image, see the cropped (100%) versions below.

Nikon Coolpix A review

ISO 100, score: 26 (Click here to see the full resolution image)

Nikon Coolpix A review

ISO 200, score: 26 (Click here to see the full resolution image)

Nikon Coolpix A review

ISO 400, score: 24 (Click here to see the full resolution image)

Nikon Coolpix A review

ISO 800, score: 24 (Click here to see the full resolution image)

Nikon Coolpix A review

ISO 1600, score: 24 (Click here to see the full resolution image)

Nikon Coolpix A review

ISO 3200, score: 22 (Click here to see the full resolution image)

Nikon Coolpix A review

ISO 6400, score: 22 (Click here to see the full resolution image)

Nikon Coolpix A review

ISO 12800, score: 22 (Click here to see the full resolution image)

Nikon Coolpix A review

ISO 25600, score: 20 (Click here to see the full resolution image)

Raw

Nikon Coolpix A review

ISO 100, score: 26 (Click here to see the full resolution image)

Nikon Coolpix A review

ISO 200, score: 26 (Click here to see the full resolution image)

Nikon Coolpix A review

ISO 400, score: 24 (Click here to see the full resolution image)

Nikon Coolpix A review

ISO 800, score: 24 (Click here to see the full resolution image)

Nikon Coolpix A review

ISO 1600, score: 24 (Click here to see the full resolution image)

Nikon Coolpix A review

ISO 3200, score: 24 (Click here to see the full resolution image)

Nikon Coolpix A review

ISO 6400, score: 24 (Click here to see the full resolution image)

Nikon Coolpix A review

ISO 12800, score: 22 (Click here to see the full resolution image)

Nikon Coolpix A review

ISO 25600, score: 20 (Click here to see the full resolution image)

Noise and dynamic range

We shoot a specially designed chart in carefully controlled conditions and the resulting images are analysed using DXO Analyzer software to generate the data to produce the graphs below.

A high signal to noise ratio (SNR) indicates a cleaner and better quality image.

For more more details on how to interpret our test data, check out our full explanation of our noise and dynamic range tests.

Here we compare the Nikon Coolpix A with the Canon G1 X, Fuji X100S, Sigma DP1 and Sony RX100.

JPEG signal to noise ratio

Nikon Coolpix A review

This chart shows that the Nikon Coolpix A's JPEG files have a more impressive signal to noise ratio than those from the Canon G1 X and Sony RX100 at lower sensitivities, but fall behind after ISO 400. They beat those from the Sigma DP1 at every ISO setting, but sit below the Fuji X100S throughout the sensitivity range. The Nikon is the only camera in this group to go right up to ISO 25600, too.

Raw signal to noise ratio

Nikon Coolpix A review

Signal to noise ratios of the TIFF images (after conversion from raw) from the Nikon Coolpix A are much more impressive, sitting above the Fuji X100S and Sigma DP1 throughout the sensitivity range, and sitting at the top of the pile until ISO 1600, when the Canon G1 X's TIFF images overtake the Nikon A's. The Nikon A's TIFFs beat those from the Sony RX100 at every sensitivity but ISO 6400.

JPEG dynamic range

Nikon Coolpix A review

JPEG results for dynamic range show the Nikon Coolpix A sitting in the middle of this group of cameras, again above the Sigma DP1 for the whole sensitivity range, and above the Fuji X100S at every sensitivity but ISO 12800. The Nikon A's JPEGs show greater dynamic range than the Sony RX100's at ISO 100, but at higher sensitivities the Sony is more impressive. The Canon G1 X's results start off at the top of the group, above the Nikon A's, but drop off sharply at higher sensitivities, falling behind the Nikon's at ISO 6400 and 12800.

Raw dynamic range

Nikon Coolpix A review

This chart indicates that TIFF images (after conversion from raw) from the Nikon Coolpix A produce images with similar dynamic range to the other cameras here. At lower sensitivities, the Nikon A's TIFFs show greater dynamic range than the Canon G1 X's, but at ISO 3200 and above the two cameras produce almost identical results. The Nikon A's images are slightly stronger than the Sigma DP1 and Sony RX100's at ISO 100-400, but at ISo 800 and above this is reversed. The Fuji X100S's TIFF images consistently show slightly greater dynamic range than the Nikon's throughout the range.

Sample images

Nikon Coolpix A review

Even though this was shot at f/16, vignetting is still apparent in the sky. There's lots of detail in the focused areas of the image though.

Click here to see the full resolution image

Nikon Coolpix A review

Despite the tricky lighting conditions the Coolpix A has done a pretty good job with the exposure here - it just needs a little post-capture adjustment to the brightness.

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Nikon Coolpix A lighthouse

We had to increase the suggested exposure by 1EV to get the white stripes of this lighthouse looking just right.

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Nikon Coolpix A review

Taken at f/16, the 28mm (effective focal length) lens has captured plenty of depth of field.

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Nikon Coolpix A review

Colours are natural - if muted by the weather conditions.

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Nikon Coolpix A review

Left to its own devices the Coolpix A's Evaluative Metering system has delivered a good result here despite the bright, overcast sky. There's very mild chromatic aberration visible along some of the branches in the top left corner of the frame.

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Nikon Coolpix A review

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Nikon Coolpix A review

The white balance system has coped well with the mixed lighting in this scene.

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Nikon Coolpix A review

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Sensitivity and noise images

JPEG

Nikon Coolpix A review

Full ISO 100 image, see the cropped (100%) versions below.

Nikon Coolpix A review

Click here to see the full resolution image

ISO 100

Nikon Coolpix A review

Click here to see the full resolution image

ISO 200

Nikon Coolpix A review

Click here to see the full resolution image

ISO 400

Nikon Coolpix A review

Click here to see the full resolution image

ISO 800

Nikon Coolpix A review

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ISO 1600

Nikon Coolpix A review

Click here to see the full resolution image

ISO 3200

Nikon Coolpix A review

Click here to see the full resolution image

ISO 6400

Nikon Coolpix A review

Click here to see the full resolution image

ISO 12800

Nikon Coolpix A review

Click here to see the full resolution image

ISO 25600

Raw

Nikon Coolpix A review

Click here to see the full resolution image

ISO 100

Nikon Coolpix A review

Click here to see the full resolution image

ISO 200

Nikon Coolpix A review

Click here to see the full resolution image

ISO 400

Nikon Coolpix A review

Click here to see the full resolution image

ISO 800

Nikon Coolpix A review

Click here to see the full resolution image

ISO 1600

Nikon Coolpix A review

Click here to see the full resolution image

ISO 3200

Nikon Coolpix A review

Click here to see the full resolution image

ISO 6400

Nikon Coolpix A review

Click here to see the full resolution image

ISO 12800

Nikon Coolpix A review

Click here to see the full resolution image

ISO 25600

Verdict

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Nikon has produced a very interesting premium compact camera with the Coolpix A. The APS-C sized sensor proves its worth, capturing lots of detail and keeping noise well within acceptable boundaries.

Having a larger than average sensor inside a compact camera brings the added bonus that the lens has a relatively long (18.5mm translates to 28mm in full-frame terms) focal length lens (for comparison, the Nikon Coolpix P7700's lens has a focal length of 6-42.5mm, giving the equivalent of 28-200mm in full-frame terms) and this means that depth of field can be restricted for creative effect.

The Nikon Coolpix A is very nicely built, and its quality is clear from the moment you pick it up. It's also small and neat, with sensibly laid out controls that fall with easy reach. With the exception of the automatic focusing system and the relatively long write times, its controls are responsive.

With an asking price of just shy of £1,000 / US$1,100 / AU$1,300, this is a serious investment, and not one to be taken lightly. Though it's not quite up there with the asking price of the Sony RX1, it's also worth pointing out that it has a smaller sensor, being an APS-C format rather than full-frame.

We liked

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The Nikon Coolpix A is well built and the controls are sensibly arranged. Thanks to the APS-C format sensor and the high quality lens, it also produces superb images with lots of detail and well-controlled noise.

We disliked

Although the Nikon A doesn't have the slowest autofocusing system we have used, it's not the fastest either, and it's some way off what compact system cameras like the Panasonic G5 can manage.

Corner shading is also more noticeable than we would expect, suggesting that Nikon has pushed the boundaries of its technology in squeezing an APS-C sized sensor into such a small camera.

Final verdict

While it is considerably smaller than the Fuji X100S, the Nikon Coolpix A doesn't have a viewfinder built in - there's an optional optical finder available.

It also lacks the traditional aperture ring and shutter speed dial that give the Fuji X100S some of its appeal, but exposure adjustments can still be made quickly and easily.

Despite our minor gripes about its write times and AF speed, the Nikon Coolpix A is an enjoyable camera to use, and it delivers superb images on a par with those from a DSLR. It's a nice 'carry-everywhere' camera, but its current price seems rather steep in comparison with other more flexible options on the CSC market.

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