Steve's Digicams





  



PLAYBACK MODE

As with most digicams the Nikon 950 has a thumbnail preview mode while in Playback. This lets you quickly see up to 9 images stored on the memory card and by moving the selection box around with the zoom buttons you select the picture to display full screen.



After you make your selection you press the shutter button to display the picture. Here is what the playback screen looks like. The time and date, the Folder name and file name, the image mode and other data is superimposed over the picture.



While viewing a picture you can zoom into it and then move around in 9 smaller segments by using the Command Dial. This lets you check critical focus even in a very small portion of the picture.



You can even zoom in one step closer by pressing the zoom button again! Pressing the zoom button one more time will return you to normal playback mode.






Most functions here should be apparent by their titles. The LCD BRIGHT lets you change the brightness of the LCD display, options are "-" , "O" and "+". The SOUND option turns the beep noise on/off. The CONTROLS option lets you enter the CONTROLS MENU (see below). The AUTO OFF lets the user select the automatic "sleep" timer to save battery power. The CARDFORMAT function is used to format or erase memory cards. DATE and LANGUAGE functions are (hopefully) obvious.




FOLDERS

A new feature allows you to store images in multiple folders on the memory card. Be default all pictures are stored in the folder named NIKON. The FOLDERS option is available from the A-Rec, M-Rec or PLAY menu. You can create, delete or rename folders in the field and each can hold up to 999 images.






STEVE'S   CONCLUSIONS


Enough about the mechanics of the Coolpix 950, how does it work in actual use? I'm glad you asked ...

It works very well! The Coolpix 950 breaks away from conventional camera design and uses a lens unit that swivels independantly from the main camera body. Either you love it or hate it, there seems to be no middle ground in this argument between the users. I think the swiveling lens is a major plus, it lets you get shots that would otherwise be impossible. You can hold it up over your head or down near the floor and rotate the LCD screen around to compose the shot.

LCD or Optical Viewfinders

Besides the big, 2-inch, color LCD there is also a linked optical viewfinder that zooms in and out with the lens. To adjust to the individual user's eyesight the Coolpix 950 has a diopter adjustment control. I found it best to set it at midpoint and then just leave it there. Whether the optical viewfinder image is sharply focused or not really isn't important, the green focusing light tells you when the autofocus is properly locked.

The Coolpix 900 is a great camera but it never felt secure in my hand, it was like I always had to make sure I was holding it firmly enough not to drop it. The Coolpix 950 is the exact opposite, it feels solid in my hand because of the new grip and sculptured body design. Nikon opted for a magnesium alloy body and it gives the 950 a level of durability that I don't think the 900 ever had.

On the big LCD there is more information displayed then most people will ever need to know but it's there in M-Rec mode. The shutter speed, aperture, white balance setting, image mode, flash mode, focus mode, metering mode, exposure override, picture number and more is superimposed over the screen. Some icons are not shown when set to their default values which keeps the screen from getting too cluttered up. You can also push the Monitor button once to get rid of the info displays or twice to turn it off to conserve battery power.

Faster Operation

The biggest complaint about the Coolpix 900 was that it took way too long to turn on. I'm happy to report that the 950 is ready for action in about 2-1/2 seconds after you flip the power switch. The improved central processing unit speeds up all aspects of the 950's operations. Thanks to a large internal RAM buffer you can shoot a sequence of pictures, even at high resolution, without waiting for each one to be saved to the memory card.

Nikkor Optics

The 950 has a high quality Nikkor optic 3x zoom lens. Ask any professional photographer and they'll tell you that the lens is what makes the camera. Nikon has long been known for its high-quality Nikkor glass lenses and the Coolpix 950 really puts it to good use. Everyone I know agrees that the 950 takes extremely sharp and well-focused pictures. In its extreme wideangle setting there is some noticeable edge (barrel) distortion but it is not as bad as others I've seen. If shooting an exterior building shot or anything with a lot of up and down straight lines the distortion will become more of a problem.

Nikon has optional wideangle and fisheye lenses that have been matched to the Nikkor optic zoom. New with the 950 is an optional 2x telephoto adapter that is just now coming to the market. The engineers know that a large diameter exit area on these adapter lenses keeps them from absorbing light, unlike other adapters, the Nikon auxilliary lenses don't make you sacrifice one or two f/stops to use them.

Amazing Macros!

The Coolpix 950 has an incredible macro capability and can focus down as close as less than one inch. It isn't readily apparent but if you closely read the User Manual there is a small paragraph that describes how to properly use the 950's macro function. First you press the button on the top to put it into macro mode and then you zoom out to about mid-focal position and watch the "flower" macro icon on the LCD. When you hit the "sweet" spot the flower goes from white to a yellow-green color. In this mode the 950 can get so close to things that the camera actually blocks most of the light. Close enough so that a U.S. quarter coin fills the entire frame!

Good Night Shots!

I have long wanted a digicam capable of taking night shots and was extremely pleased with the 950's increased ISO sensitivity and the long shutter speeds. Shooting night time scenes has been no problem and the vast majority of my shots have been nothing less than fantastic. My average night time building shots are around 1/4 to one second and have been sharp, colorful and noise free. When pushing the ISO to +2 and using a shutter speed of 2 to 8 seconds you do get some digital noise in your pictures. Random pixels will be seen scattered throughout the picture. These can be removed using PhotoShop or any good editing program or by using Mike Chaney's Qimage Pro printing program which has special filters for dark current or high ISO "noise."

Best Shot Selection

The BSS mode is something totally new on the Nikon 950. It uses what the Nikon folks call "fuzzy logic" to electronically examine an image and see if it is blurry or not. When the camera is switched into BSS mode the flash is disabled to allow you to shoot a rapid sequence of shots. My tests showed that it usually took four or five shots when the shutter was held down continuously. Using this fuzzy logic the camera selects and stores the least blurry picture of the group.

BSS mode allows you to get shots that you otherwise could not. Shooting at shutter speeds below 1/30s usually means motion blur due to camera movement unless using a tripod. I have been able to take some handheld shots at 1/15s and even a few at 1/4s that came out great thanks to the wizardry of Nikon's BSS.

User Controls

For a system as complex as what the 950 employs the user interface is relatively simple but it does take some practice to get comfortable with it. There are many menus and sub options and thankfully the most used ones are found on the top layer of the menu structure.

Switching between the record modes of [P]rogrammed AE, [S]hutter or [A]perture priority is as easy as holding down the Mode button on the back and rotating the Command Dial on the front. Most of the important camera functions are echoed on the top LCD display so these can be set or changed even outside in the bright sunlight when it is impossible to see the color LCD on the back.

To give you an easy way to use the multitude of manual options there are three user-configurable preset shooting modes. You can configure a variety of shutter, exposure, metering, flash, lens and focus options in each of the three memory locations and then recall them as "1", "2" or "3"

Fairly Good Battery Life

I won't lie and say that I was able to take five hundred shots but the battery life was comparable to the Coolpix 900. I got an average of 45 to 60 pictures, half of them flash, per set of NiMH batteries. As with all digicams that have a large LCD, power zoom and high-resolution CCD imager - forget using alkalines. You'll get eight to ten pictures using the LCD if you're lucky. Invest in two sets of NiMH batteries and a good charger, they're the only batteries that will give you any decent runtime.

In M-Rec mode they are several power saving settings for the LCD screen and the autofocus mechanism available. I like the monitor off and autofocus set to single-autofocus for shooting outdoors. You use the optical finder and the autofocus only works when the shutter is half-pressed, this saves a lot of battery power. The auto power down can now be set for the default of 30s or 1m, 5m or 30 minutes. Thirty seconds is too short but one or five minutes is good if you watch your LCD useage and switch the camera off when not in use.

Rapid Shooting

Thanks to a large internal RAM buffer the 950 can shoot sequences of pictures, even at the highest resolution of 1600x1200 pixels. The best way to shoot an action event is to set the LCD to OFF and use either a focus preset or the infinity setting in conjunction with shutter priority. The camera will capture the shot almost the instant the shutter is depressed because there's no autofocus delay. Without the LCD on you can shoot four or five shots in rapid succession and they are temporarily stored in the buffer and then written out to the CF card as fast as it can take it later.

There's also a shooting mode called 16-Shots where sixteen VGA resolution shots are captured and saved as a single 1600x1200 picture. Granted most people will have little use for this but there is a nifty program called Animator-9 that generates an animated GIF from these files that is great for use on web pages. I have a sample animated picture that you can view online.

New Playback Features

When you flip the main mode selector to Play the first thing you see is a low-res thumbnail, during this time you can hit the tele/wide buttons and move to another picture before it is fully loaded. The best way to find anything other than the last picture shot is by using the 9-picture thumbnail playback mode. You can now pick from one of the nine small pictures or bring up another screen of nine more pictures to choose from. Once you have your selection you just hit the shutter button and that image is loaded from the CF card.

New to the 950 is the segmented zoom playback feature. When viewing a stored pictured you can hit the magnify button on the back and it zooms into a 1/9th segment of the picture. You can press the magnify button one more time and step even closer into the picture, this is great for checking critical focus in the field with a small, 2-inch LCD screen.

It's Not Perfect

The manual camera controls, the larger CCD imager, the Nikkor lens and the improved and faster operations make the Coolpix 950 a very nice package but it isn't perfect. Here are my major gripes:

  • The plastic door that covers the CF card slot - it won't stay closed half of the time.

  • The macro and self-timer functions are on the same button and cannot be selected at the same time.

  • The tripod socket is not very stable, it is located too close to the front of the camera and when tightened it puts the camera at a slightly tilted angle.

  • The CF card cannot be removed when the camera is on a tripod.

  • The CF card does not pop out very far, you quickly learn to snag the back edge of the card with your fingernail to extract it.

  • The auto white balance is easily fooled when dealing with interior illumination. The manual flourescent setting doesn't go far enough to remove the greenish tint. Occassionally the auto white balance is thrown way off when using the flash on closeup subjects.

  • The battery meter needs to be configured for use with NiMH batteries, nobody uses alkaline batteries in these power-hungry cameras! It shows a full charge and then it suddenly goes from one bar down to nearly depleted - in a very short time!

  • There are still a number of firmware problems to be fixed, especially dealing with the power management chip. I've had several memory cards corrupted when the NiMH batteries ran down during the time it was saving an image. None of the cards were permanently injured, most of the time an in-camera format brought them back again.

  • Many users have reported about blue "fringing" on highlit objects near the edge of the frame. Bryan Biggers has a page discussing the Nikon 950's chromatic aberration problems.

Firmware Upgradeable

The really good news is that the Coolpix 950 was designed to be field firmware upgraded. The Coolpix 900 and 900s were never built to allow this so most of the 950's "problems" can be fixed by a downloadable firmware update at a later time. Kodak users have enjoyed this capability since the DC40 came out several years ago.




You can display the firmware rev# by holding the
Menu button down while turning the camera on.




The firmware rev is also displayed when you PLAYback
pictures by rotating the Command Dial to show the picture details.

9/27/00 Nikon 950 Firmware update

Thanks to some detective work by Don Hergert we now know that you can also upgrade your Coolpix 990 or 950 firmware via the CompactFlash card if you have a card reader. If you do not understand the following then please use your serial cable and follow the firmware upgrade instructions as posted at the Nikon web site.

The procedure is fast & simple, just follow these steps:

  1. Be sure camera has fully recharged NiMH, new alkaline batteries or you have it connected to the AC power adapter before performing the update.
  2. Format the CF card in the camera.
  3. Go into camera Setup menu, change Auto Off value to 5M or 30M
  4. Set menu language to English (this procedure only verified in English).
  5. Turn off camera, remove CF card
  6. Put CF card in reader, create a folder called "Firmware" off the root directory of the card. (Using Windows Explorer simply highlight the drive letter of your card reader and click on File - New - Folder. Once it's created rename it to Firmware)
  7. Unzip the upgrade firmware file you downloaded and copy the firmware.bin file to the Firmware directory of your CF card.
  8. Put the CF card in the camera and turn the Mode dial to Play.

  9. A screen comes up telling you the current firmware version and the upgrade firmware version and asks to proceed Yes/No. If the upgrade firmware is a higher number than the current firmware answer YES.
  10. The next screen warns you not to turn the camera off until upgrade is complete.
  11. Final screen says "OK Complete" - you can now switch off camera
  12. Wait a few seconds, turn it on to Play again and both the Current and Upgrade firmware revision numbers should be the same - that's it !
  13. Turn Mode dial to A-Rec or M-Rec and format the CF card to erase the firmware upgrade software and use your camera normally.





Conclusion If you dig deep enough you can complain about anything, even the Coolpix 950 ... but I would rather use it than complain about it. How quickly we forget that only a year and a half ago we were happy with our 640x480 resolution cameras that could barely make a decent 3.5x5" print. Now we have multi megapixel cameras that can make photo-quality prints up to 11x14"

The combination of small size, fantastic image quality and a camera that is easy to use in automatic mode makes the Coolpix 950 a good choice for the average user. For those that like to manually control everything the Nikon 950 is an even better choice.

One of the big pluses for me is that it uses CompactFlash memory cards which are readily available up to 192MB capacity. Cameras using SmartMedia are still struggling with a maximum capacity of 32MB per card. Size DOES matter when you want to store 6MB uncompressed TIFF files!







Steve's Nikon 950 Sample Pics





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