Coolpix 7900

Coolpix 7900

Nikon Coolpix 7900 Review

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Nikon Coolpix 7900

Steve's Conclusion

The ultra-compact Coolpix 7900 is Nikon's most resolute and feature-rich point-n-shoot digicam for 2005. It's the "big brother" of the 5-megapixel Coolpix 5900. It integrates a 7-megapixel imager, Nikkor 3x optical zoom lens and advanced features in a durable and stylish package. Designed for simplicity, it offers users a point-n-shoot "Auto" exposure mode, and helps the less-experienced photographer obtain good results with its wide variety of pre-programmed scene modes. There's also scene-assisted modes (Portrait, Landscape, Sports, Night Portrait) that help you compose the shot with framing assist outlines on the LCD. The Coolpix 7900 will appeal most to beginners and photographers with intermediate skill levels; it lacks the shutter-priority, aperture-priority and manual exposure modes that advanced users demand.

Despite the 7900's small size, the ergonomics are good. The well-shaped handgrip allows for a comfortable feel even in my large hands, and the controls are well organized for ease of use but located so that they won't be accidentally activated. Nikon placed only a limited number of buttons on the 7900's body. As a result, many functions that are accessed directly via dedicated buttons on other cameras are implemented in the 7900's menu system. This compromise in the 7900's design allowed the production of a very compact camera, but its operation seems cumbersome at times.

The 2.0-inch color LCD is used for image review, preview, access the menus and serves as the camera's data display. It was easy to use in all lighting conditions, being bright enough to use even on the sunniest of days, and intensifying the live viewfinder image in low-ambient lighting for indoor shot composition. The eye-level optical viewfinder, although small, is useful when you want to conserve battery power, but you must navigate the Setup menu to turn the LCD monitor on and off.

Speaking of menu navigation, I was disappointed that the 7900 does not maintain shooting priority during menu operation or image playback. If you enter image playback mode or the shooting menu, the camera does not return to shooting mode by simply depressing the shutter button; you must first exit the mode you were in. The absence of shooting priority is also an issue within the Setup Menu, which is accessed via the Mode dial.

Shooting performance was good for a camera in this class. Power up to first image captured measured 2.6 seconds. Shutter lag measured less than 1/10 of a second when pre-focused and 4/10 second including autofocus; add about 1/10 second to those times if you are using the LCD as a viewfinder because of the delay in presenting the live image. The shot to shot delay averaged about 1.7 seconds between frames without the use of the flash and between 2 and 6 seconds with the flash, depending on subject distance. When battery is not fully charged, the LCD goes blank while the flash recharges.

There are three Sequential shooting mode to choose from, Continuous, 5 shot buffer and Multi-shot 16. Continuous mode was impressive; I was able to capture 18 Large Fine JPEG images in 10 seconds with subsequent shots coming at 4 second intervals while the buffer remained full. Buffer clearing, however, was slow, taking about 1 minute to write all 18 images to the installed SD memory card. 5 Shot buffer mode captures images continuously at 9/10 second intervals while the shutter button is depressed; only the last 5 images captured before you release the shutter button are saved. Multi-shot mode captures 16 frames in 8.6 seconds and combines them into single 7M/Fine image. The LCD viewfinder briefly displays the last image captured in all Continuous modes; you'll prefer to use the optical viewfinder if you are following a moving subject. All test were done using a Sandisk Ultra II 512MB SD card, using 7M/Fine size/quality, welcome screen off, preview off, and all other settings at default (unless otherwise noted.) Times may vary depending on lighting conditions, camera settings, media, etc.

The Nikkor 3x optical zoom lens produced good results throughout its range, with noticeable barrel distortion at wide angle but virtually no pin cushioning at the telephoto end of the zoom range. The lens moves smoothly and quietly through its zoom range, but not continuously; I counted 9 steps between wide angle and telephoto, adequate for most shot composition needs. Its 38 - 114mm (35mm-equivalent) zoom range is typical for a camera in this class, offering a sufficient field of view for most interior and landscape shots, and a telephoto range useful for portraits and to bring your distant subjects closer. Chromatic aberration (purple fringing in high-contrast areas) was nearly absent from our test images.

I was generally satisfied with the image quality in 7-Megapixel Fine mode. Outdoor results were consistently well exposed and richly saturated, but exhibited softness using Image Sharpening settings of Auto and Normal. If you're making 4x6-inch prints, the softness won't be noticeable, but your 8x10-inch prints from cropped images will benefit from the use of High in-camera sharpening, or post processing in your image editor with a bit of unsharp mask. Image noise was not an issue below ISO 400. Noise is essentially absent at ISO 50, detectable in shadow areas at ISO 100, and becomes detectable in highlight areas at ISO 200. Noise is noticeable throughout at ISO 400, but the image is still usable.

Indoors, it also performed well. The AF system was very effective in dim interiors with the lens at wide angle, but failed more frequently at moderate to telephoto focal lengths. In near darkness, the AF-assist lamp was effective at distances of 3 to 4 feet with the lens at the wide end of its zoom range, but was of little help in the moderate to telephoto range.

Our portrait images were sharp, well exposed and skin tones look very natural. You can include yourself in group portraits thanks to the tripod socket and self-timer. Beginners will find the Portrait Assist mode handy, offering help with shot composition for several types of situations. Also available is a unique "Face-priority AF", which recognizes and focuses on faces present in the frame; it worked remarkably well. The red eye reduction flash mode was also very effective, helped by both the pre-flash and the camera's automatic Red Eye Fix feature. I saw virtually no occurrence of red-eye in the "people" pictures; Nikon seems to have gotten it right.

The flash has a range of about 14 feet with Auto ISO, less at ISO 50. The limited flash range coupled with the limited field of view at the lens 38mm widest focal length was adequate for small rooms or portraits of small groups, but not for large rooms or groups. Like most Coolpix models, the 7900 excels at Macro photography. You can focus on a subject as close as 1.6-inches from the lens. It also controls the flash well, "throttling down" to ensure you don't overexpose the subject. When shooting with natural light, the 7900's macro mode is complemented by the Best Shot Selector (BSS) feature, which captures a sequence of up to 10 images an saves only the sharpest one.

While it is designed for simplicity and ease of use, the 7900 offers the intermediate user the ability to control its otherwise automatic settings. White Balance, Metering, Color options, Contrast, Image Sharpening, ISO sensitivity, and Saturation can all be adjusted via the 7900's logically organized menu system. Help text is available in both the Shooting and Scene menus, encouraging the beginner to experiment with the camera's more advanced features.

The 7900 has two unique features that help you overcome common causes of poor images. Blur Warning detects camera movement during the exposure, warning you that the image is blurred and giving you the choice of saving the picture or not. If you are satisfied, you can save it; if not, you can retake it with flash or Best Shot Selector on, ensuring that you leave with a quality image. D-lighting solves a different problem, one of underexposure due to backlighting or insufficient flash power. D-lighting operates in image playback mode; if you find an underexposed subject, simply hit the OK button and the image will be brightened and displayed on the LCD monitor. If you like the result, confirm that you want it saved; it will be recorded with a different file name than the original.

Movie mode has a "TV" setting for shooting 15 or 30 fps clips at VGA (640x480) resolution, plus settings for 320x240 or 160x120 only at 30fps; movies are limited in size only by the remaining amount of unused memory. The 7900 includes a microphone and movies are always recorded with sound; as a result, the optical zoom can be used to compose movies before recording starts, but not during recording. The Digital zoom can be used, but image quality will be degraded. The 7900 allows you to set Continuous AF during movie recording, but the audio will contain the clicking noises of the AF system at work; I suggest that you use Single AF. The 7900's movie mode produced nice short clips, but it's no substitute for a camcorder.

The 7900 is powered by a proprietary EN-EL5 Lion battery. Battery life was good, capturing about 200 images before the low battery warning signal. But to avoid the inevitable disappointment that a dead battery brings to a unique photo op, I suggest that you obtain a spare and keep it charged in the supplied MH-61 charger.

The Nikon Coolpix 7900 will please a lot of families with its high quality images, ease of use and diminutive size. Set everything on automatic and beginners will have fun taking well exposed snapshots without being burdened with the details of camera settings. Turn the Mode dial to a Scene assist mode and the 7900 will demonstrate the basics of shot composition. Or get creative with the 7900's more advanced features and control metering, sharpness, color saturation and sensitivity. Its 7-megapixel Fine images have sufficient resolution to create photo-quality prints of 16x20-inches and larger, or 8x10's from heavily cropped images. There's plenty of camera to satisfy every member of your family, and at an MSRP of under $400 it's a good value. If you like the features of the 7900 but don't need 7-megapixels of resolution, take a look at its 5-megapixel "little bother" the Coolpix 5900, which costs about $100 less.

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