Steve's Digicams


Coolpix 900
User Review

Review posted 6/30/98


Nikon Coolpix 900

Nikon Coolpix 900 User Review

After having had an Agfa ePhoto1280 for about a year I felt almost immediately at home with the Coolpix 900, its overall design is very close to the Agfa. The first time you handle a "swiveling" lens digicam it can be either fun or work -- I prefer fun!

Not only does it allow you to get shots that you could otherwise not get without using a ladder or laying on the ground, it really helps when using the LCD outside in the bright sunlight. You tilt the screen part back slightly and it shades itself while you point the lens at your subject. For crowd shots you simply hold the camera over your head and tilt the screen down so it faces you and shoot. If you ever wondered what life as a dog or a cat might be like, just hold the camera a few inches off of the floor and tilt the LCD upwards.

The Coolpix 900 also has an optical viewfinder which is something that is lacking in the ePhoto1280 design. Granted it isn't the greatest optical viewfinder I've ever used but it is there and it is useable. Outside in the bright sunlight using the optical finder not only lets you hold the camera up to your head like a convential camera which makes it easy to follow fast-moving action but it also saves your battery power by not running the high-drain LCD monitor. So far the only negative that I and many other people have found with the optical viewfinder is that setting the diopter adjustment is a confusing thing. If you adjust the diopter at the wideangle setting it is off when you zoom out to telephoto position and vice-versa. Set it at the midpoint and forget it, even if the viewfinder seems to be out of focus the camera is auto-focus and as long as the green light is steady, the picture is properly focused.

Manuals, I don't need no stinking manuals...

Being the whiz-bang digicam pro that I (think I) am -- the first thing I do with a new camera is load it with batteries, pop in a flash card, turn it on and shoot! If this fails, I then (yawn) read the user manual. The Nikon once again proved that I am incredibly smart (or is it that "damn lucky") as it performed marvelously in the [A]REC mode without ever once looking at a the quick start guide. I just started snapping away at anything that held still long enough to be captured by the sharp 3x Nikkor lens. The images I saw being previewed on the LCD looked great so I knew this was going to be a real winner as a PnS (Point-n-Shoot) type digicam for the masses.

After rapidly filling up the included 4MB CompactFlash card I couldn't wait to plug it into my 32" Sony TV and check out my pictures. What I saw was incredible, the color and sharpness of the images was truly amazing. I had even pushed the macro button and shot a closeup pic of my watch laying on the dresser and could easily tell the time down to the sweep second well as the tiny lettering that said "Timex" on the face. This shot had been taken at about 8-9 inches with the telephoto out to the full position and using the flash, it was sharp and not the least bit overexposed. To do the same thing on the ePhoto1280 would have required that I go into the manual override and set the aperture to minimum to avoid burning it up with the flash.

I punched the menu button while playing back images on the TV screen and quickly found the "slideshow" setting and then sat back and watched my pictures pop up onscreen at 3 second intervals. Now I couldn't wait to put the CompactFlash card in my PCMCIA reader on the desktop computer and see what these pictures looked like on the 17" monitor. Again I was totally thrilled by what I saw as only one picture out of 15 or 16 was a throw away and the rest were definite keepers. The overall color saturation of the Nikon is not as rich as the Agfa or any of the Kodak cameras I have had but it can be easily adjusted with any good graphics program to suit your individual tastes.

It doesn't take long using this camera before you come to the conclusion that the Nikkor lens in combination with the 945-step autofocus system really works. If the green light is steady and not blinking it IS correctly focused on whatever is in the center of the viewfinder or the LCD monitor. I was glad to see this as I had gotten very used to relying on the ePhoto1280 to focus on what it was pointed at. This was not the case with the Olympus D-600 or the D-500 that I had used earlier this year. And for catching action shots - Nikon included an infinity (100-foot) focus lock button. Turn it on and the camera doesn't waste time "hunting" for the proper focus as you pan with your subject which means the shutter goes off much faster.

Nikon Coolpix 900

If you are a fan of taking closeup/macro type shots then the Nikon 900 is going to make you very happy. Once you learn the trick of zooming out to full telephoto after pressing the macro button and backing away from your subject rather than crowding it - the shots are incredible! This is the preferred way to take macro shots if you use a 35mm SLR and a good 100mm lens but, most digicams make you use the wideangle setting and get real close. Two problems with this, first is that wideangle settings yield all kinds of barrel distortion (outside edges bend inward at the top and bottom) and the closer you get to a subject the more harsh the shadows get from the flash and usually result in overexposures.

Framing your closeup subject or any subject in any focal setting is a breeze on the big 2" color LCD. The update (refresh) rate of the LCD has got to be close to 30fps as it is realtime with no jerking or smearing as you pan side to side or up and down. I have seen vertical lines appear on the LCD when used outside in bright sunlight but they do not affect the captured image. Buyers of the new Kodak DC-260 are already finding out that their camera's LCD refresh rate is nowhere close to realtime. There are many reports of badly smeared LCD images and comments like "well, it's OK for revewing pictures or selecting menu options but you can't use it as a viewfinder."

To save battery power the Nikon goes into "sleep" mode and shuts down the LCD and other onboard electronics after only 30 seconds. If you push a button or tap the shutter halfway it will extend this timeout value. Many users have already been complaining that this timeout value is too short and it is not currently changeable in the camera's menu system. Nikon says the firmware is upgradeable so expect this to be one of the first changes. Or use the excellent CAME program to change the timeout value to whatever you want. Download CAME08.ZIP the version that works w/Nikon 900 cameras.

Buttons, Knobs and Switches...

Nikon Coolpix 900

There is a minimum of user controls on the camera itself, there's a 4-way selector switch built around the shutter button that lets you pick the operational mode. Choices are "Play" "Off" "[A]REC" and "[M]REC" for image playback, camera off and record auto and manual mode. There's a small LCD display on the top that shows vital info like the battery condition meter, number of pictures remaining, flash setting, picture quality and the exposure mode selected. Along the edge of the info LCD is three buttons, one sets the image quality, one locks the focus at infinity or sets macro or self-timer mode and the third button sets the flash modes. These same three buttons also do double duty when the camera is in the playback mode and allow you to delete the current image, bring up a 9-picture preview of thumbnails or magnify the center 50% of the current image being displayed.

On the LCD side of the camera is the rocker switch to go from wideangle to telephoto and if you hold it in the telephoto position for more than two seconds it goes into 2x digital zoom giving you a 6x zoom equivalent. Below the LCD is two more buttons, one controls the monitor on/off and also turns the image information displayed on or off. The last button is the MENU button which lets you access the manual modes during record or the playback options if you're in the play mode.

Auto record mode...

What can I say other than the Nikon 900 is one of the easiest to use digital cameras that acts like a PnS camera when in the auto record mode. Anybody can pick it up, turn it on and point it in the right direction, press the shutter button halfway, wait for a steady green light -- and take a great picture!

In the [A]REC mode it automatically sets all the default parameters such as auto flash and matrix metering to insure good pictures under normal circumstances. You can still: manually select the flash mode (normal, redeye, slow shutter, always on or always off), select between normal autofocus, infinity-locked focus, macro focus or self-timer mode and you can select the image quality (fine, normal or basic.) The MENU button is non-functional, it only works in the PLAY or [M]REC modes, not while in the [A]REC mode.

Manual record mode options...

I became a real fan of the manual override controls on the ePhoto1280 so it wasn't long before I was digging into the menu of options that are available in the [M]REC (manual) camera mode. Believe me when I tell you that this camera works almost flawlessly in the [A]REC (auto) mode. The manual overrides are like icing on the cake for the shutter bug in all of us and can greatly expand the usefulness of this fine digicam.

Briefly, you can change the exposure metering modes between the default matrix mode which averages the entire frame to Center-weighted which bases the exposure on the central portion of the frame or you can choose spot metering. Spot metering is great for backlit subjects or areas of high contrast between light and shadows.

You can override the exposure system by ±2 full f/stops in one stop increments. You can select the Exposure Lock when shooting panaromas so all the images have the same EV. The white balance can be selected from: sunlight, overcast, incandescent, flourescent or flash as well as automatic. You can digitally adjust images using the Image Adjustment function which works on all pixels in the image to either change the brightness or contrast levels up and down. You can make the LCD screen brighter or darker or set it to always be off when shooting in the [M]REC mode to conserve battery power.

For shooting sequence shots the Nikon 900 offers two methods, either the Continuous mode which shoots frames as fast as the camera can go in the currently selected 1280x960 mode (fine, normal or basic) or you can choose the VGA Sequence mode that sets the camera to 640x480 mode and allows up to 10 frames to be shot at a speed of 2 frames per second.

Even more manual options are available by selecting the Extra Functions menu which has the following choices: VGA Shot (640x480 mode), Black&White, Digital Tele (camera is always in 2x digital zoom mode and the wide/tele button now uses the 3x optical to zoom in or out - must use LCD to see what this mode is doing and the pictures will be slightly "grainy" because of the digital enlargement process), Fisheye & Wideadapter which are only used if you have purchased the optional fisheye or wideangle Nikon lenses.

If you really want to know what it can do - get on the Internet and go to the URL below and download the Advanced Reference PDF file, you'll need the Adobe Acrobat Reader (v3.0 or newer) but it is worth it as the manual is full of detailed pictures and screen captures of the menus as displayed on the LCD monitor. The Adobe Acrobat Reader is freely available all over the net. Besides the Advanced Reference Manual there is also a full set of FAQs (frequently asked questions) for the Coolpix 900 too.

Playback options...

Nikon Coolpix 900

When you switch the camera into Play mode the last image taken is loaded into memory and displayed on the LCD screen, this takes about 7 seconds if the image is in Fine mode and slightly less if it is in VGA mode.

Once an image is played back the three buttons on the top edge of the camera allow you to delete the current image, show a matrix of 9 images in thumbnail size to pick one to display full screen or to digitally zoom in to the center 50% of the current picture which is ideal to check to see if the focus was critcially right or not.

The MENU button functions in the playback mode to let you toggle through the Slideshow, image delete or card formatting options.

The bottom line...

As of this writing (June 28, 1998) I will say that the Nikon Coolpix 900 is the best value currently for a megapixel digicam with a real optical 3x zoom lens. The average street price is in the $760-800 range. The CP900 produces incredibly sharp 5x7" and 8x10" pictures on my Epson Stylus Photo EX printer using high quality glossy photo paper and either the 720dpi or 1440dpi Microweave modes. The camera is small but not too small (I have big hands and clumsy fingers,) the Fuji MX-700 is too small for me...

The Coolpix is easy to use by almost anyone in the auto mode and when switched into the manual modes it offers a wide range of tools to further enhance the digital imaging experience for those willing to experiment. It uses my favorite type of storage media which is CompactFlash and is readily available up to 45MB size with much larger cards coming very soon from the major CF card makers. The camera runs on four standard AA cell batteries, your choice but NiMH rechargeables are definitely the way to go in my book. Alkaline batteries last long enough to take 10-15 shots max and then die whereas NiMH batteries go for a good 55-60 shots per charge.

And the real botom line -- this camera takes excellent pictures, the autofocus system is one of the best I've ever used and the macro mode is phenomenal. Set the camera in auto mode, push the macro button and then back away from the subject to about 14" and run the telephoto out to the full position and shoot. The detail is amazing and even at this close range with the flash being used, the exposure is perfect every time. I never thought I would see a digicam that could compete with the Ricoh RDC-2 when it came to shooting closeups but the Nikon blows it away!

Some users have said that the colors are undersaturated but this is fine by me as a lot of the digicams tend to try to be TOO COLORFUL like the Kodaks. One of the best reasons to go digital besides being able to instantly access your pictures is the ability to manipulate your images. You can always make adjustments to images once they're on the computer but you need the best image possible to start with. No amount of post-processing can make up for a badly misfocused picture or one that lacks in detail or has been badly overexposed or underexposed.

Nikon has a real winner here for the consumer willing to part with his hard-earned $800. If you have the money to spend then I don't think you can make a better choice at this time then by going with the Coolpix 900 digital camera. Nikon's earlier cameras, the Coolpix 100 and 300 models were a total disaster but I'm happy to report that they hit the nail on the head with this one! No digicam takes perfect pictures all of the time but the percentage of "keepers" versus "deleters" is very high with this camera.

Additional info added 6/30/98

I've fielded a lot of email asking me which large capacity flash memory card to buy for use in the Nikon 900. This comes down to your pocketbook and how deep your pockets are and how big of a card you want or need. I am using the brand new MicroTech 45MB CompactFlash card and am happy to report that it is faster than the supplied 4MB Nikon (SanDisk) card.

All cards tested were formatted in the Nikon to avoid any formatting problems before testing these cards head to head.

The average image save and retrieve time with the SanDisk cards is about seven seconds. I did not use a precision Swiss-movement stopwatch just a good sweep hand watch. Shooting the same scene in the same camera mode using the MicroTech 45MB card yielded image save and retrieve times of six seconds, sometimes even a little less than that. According to Al Conte, manager of memory products for MicroTech, the new 45MB CF card is using the newly developed Hitachi controller which accounts for the faster read and write times that I experienced.

The MicroTech 45MB CF card yields the following storage numbers: 73 in Fine mode, 147 in Normal mode and 295 in Basic mode. Needless to say these kind of numbers mean that you can shoot all day without ever having to worry about swapping out your memory card. If you need to shoot more than 295 pictures you can always switch the Nikon into VGA mode :-)

text added 07/04/98

My local camera store called me on the phone the other day and told me that my new Nikon Wideangle lens had come in. I've had a couple of days to play with it and can tell you that it's not bad at all. Some sample shots and a "before and after" shot taken inside the camera store are on my Nikon 900 Lenses page for download so you can see how it works for yourself.

It does come with a lens cap! And a rear cap too! It's quite small and lightweight and you hardly notice it is on the camera except when you look at the LCD and see how WIDE the image is. The Nikon WC-E24 lens is a 0.66x wideangle converter that almost doubles the field of view of the camera when in the full wideangle position. A word of warning - when you first power on the Coolpix 900 it usually does not start up in full wideangle so press the tele/wide button to the left before taking a super wideangle picture.

I have not yet done any panorama stitching but I can imagine that this lens is probably ideal for this kind of thing. Where you'd need to stitch four or five frames together with the stock lens you could probably get away with using only two or three with the wideangle adapter.

-Steve Sanders

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