Steve's Digicams

Record / Playback / Options

Nikon Coolpix 990

Another most-requested item, the ability to use the selftimer while in macro mode is now a reality. You simply push the lower-left mode button below the color LCD to cycle through; infinity focus, selftimer, macro, macro with selftimer.

Nikon Coolpix 990

New to the Coolpix 990 is the Flexible Program mode. If the ISO is set to Auto and the camera is in the "P"rogrammed Automatic mode, you can rotate the main command dial and bring up different combinations of shutter speed and aperture. When the 990 is in Flexible Program mode the "P" changes to a "P*" and you can see the shutter speed and aperture values change as you rotate the command dial.

Nikon Coolpix 990

Another new feature is full Manual exposure control of both shutter and aperture.   While in Manual mode you get this onscreen exposure meter indication for ten seconds each time you rotate the command dial to change the shutter or aperture settings.

Nikon Coolpix 990

The Setup menu while in M-Rec is now a 3 page affair. You can toggle over to the numbers on the left and then quickly jump to the desired menu page.

Nikon Coolpix 990

Here's the onscreen color LCD backlight brightness adjustment menu.

Nikon Coolpix 990

The "Led Shot Confirm" when enabled will blink the redeye reduction lamp on the front of the camera when the shutter fires. The video output is now user-selectable and can be easily changed back and forth between NTSC and PAL format.

Nikon Coolpix 990

The rest of the screen shots will show the various features in the Play mode. This is a standard Play mode screen showing the last picture taken with all of the overlay data enabled.

Nikon Coolpix 990

To find a desired image you can use the thumbnail play mode, it is toggleable between 4 or 9 thumbsnails per screen. Just move the cursor to any desired image and then bring it up full screen.

Nikon Coolpix 990

Here's the Play mode menu of options, the same as the Coolpix 950. You'll note the obvious beta firmware error with the word "Scrole" at the bottom instead of scroll.

Nikon Coolpix 990

Even though the Coolpix 990 has a smaller (1.8") LCD screen it is actually a higher resolution type of LCD. The zoom playback mode now lets you enlarge the picture up to 4x in very small increments. At any zoom level you can freely scroll left and right and up and down using the 4-way jog switch.

Nikon Coolpix 990

As with the Coolpix 950, the 990 displays all the camera and exposure data of the viewed picture by rotating the command dial. There are four pages of this data available by continuing to turn the command dial.

Nikon Coolpix 990

This is the second page of camera and exposure data.

Nikon Coolpix 990

New to the Nikon 990 is this histogram display like the expensive pro cameras. The histogram graphically shows the levels of luminance in the captured image.

Nikon Coolpix 990

The last page is also new to the 990 and it shows lens and focus settings including what area the autofocus was centered on.

Steve's conclusion

Well here we are again, experiencing yet another feeding frenzy as the release date nears for the new Coolpix 990.   It's reminiscent of last year when we saw the same thing happen with the Coolpix 950's release, except this time it's even more intense.

Most people will likely compare the Coolpix 990 to the 950 so we'll start with the differences between these two cameras. The most important improvement is the new 3.34 megapixel CCD imager with a maximum finished image size of 2048 x 1536 in both JPG and uncompressed TIF format. The Coolpix 990 also has a 3:2 aspect ratio setting that yields 2048 x 1360 images that are perfect for uncropped 4 x 6" prints.

The most requested changes and new additions are:

  • CompactFlash card slot has been moved from the bottom to the side
  • The selftimer can be used with the macro mode!
  • 32MB SDRAM buffer for exceptionally fast shot to shot times and 2fps burst mode in full resolution
  • Full manual mode with control of both shutter speed and aperture plus an onscreen exposure meter
  • 3D color matrix metering and multizone autofocus like the D1
  • Flexible Program mode with a variety of shutter speed and aperture combinations
  • Spot metering that follows the multizone autofocus
  • Focus confirmation in manual mode by edge-highlighting (peaking)
  • QuickTime movie capture mode
  • Ultra high-speed 30fps QVGA capture mode
  • Auto bracketing exposure control
  • Zoom lens startup position can be where it was when powered down or defaulted to full wideangle or telephoto
  • The internal flash can be disabled when using an external speedlight
  • The internal flash's intensity can be adjusted
  • Zoomed playback from 1.1x to 4x with free panning
  • High-speed USB port for downloading
  • Command dial has been moved to rear of the camera and is easily rotated using your thumb
  • A new 4-way jog switch (ala the D1) lets you navigate menus, select the AF zone, select playback thumbnails and freely scroll the image while in zoomed playback
  • A 7-blade iris diaphragm gives real depth of field control
  • Variable image sharpening, contrast and brightness settings
  • Stepless digital zoom (1.1x to 4x)
  • User selectable NTSC or PAL video output
  • Image histogram function during playback

One of the first things you notice when you pick up the Coolpix 990 is how much fatter the handgrip feels. It gives you a very secure, one-handed grip of the camera. The back of the camera is now fairly flat but the grip extends out farther in the front. When holding the camera, your thumb falls naturally on the zoom buttons, command dial and jog switch, it is very well designed.

The CompactFlash card slot has been moved from the bottom of the camera over to the side so the card can be removed while mounted on a tripod. The I/O ports have also been moved over to the side and are located just above the CF slot. The bottom of the camera is now perfectly flat, the metal tripod socket is more centrally located and there's even "grippy" rubber around it to make it very solid when mounted on a tripod. The battery door is on the bottom and it now has an easier to operate lever with a safety button in the center.

The monochrome data LCD on the top has been enlarged and allows the most-used functions can be changed without need of the color LCD. The Mode and +/- buttons have been moved to the top of the camera and the Focus and Flash control buttons are now below the color LCD. The Monitor, Menu and Zoom control buttons are in the same places on the back as they were on the 950. I really liked the way the 950 was layed out but the buttons and command dial are even more ergonomically placed on the 990.

The Coolpix 990 has benefited greatly by what Nikon learned while designing the D1. You may not know what the big deal is about multizone focusing but you will once you use it. It's especially handy when shooting in wideangle as the focus system will actually track an object moving from one zone to another or focus on the closest subject to the camera, whether in the center of the frame or not. As with the D1, the user can also manually control the focus area by using the jog switch and lock it on one area or another when desired. You can easily shoot an off-center subject by selecting the desired focus zone. And the spot metering system can be set to follow the focusing zone.

Great photographs start with great lenses, the Coolpix 990 has a fast f2.5, 9 element, all glass Nikkor 8-24mm (35mm equivalent of a 38-115mm) zoom lens. Behind the lens is a new 7-blade iris diaphragm for true depth of field control. The autofocus system is a contrast-detect TTL type with 4,896 steps for precise focusing from less than one inch to infinity. Autofocus can be continuous when the LCD is on or single autofocus is activated by a half press of the shutter release. Focusing can also be performed manually in which case the distance is indicated on both LCDs and can be visually confirmed on the color LCD with the peaking function.

As with the previous Coolpix 9xx cameras, the 990's lens is threaded and accepts all the Nikkor add-on lenses and filters. Currently available is the WC-E24 wideangle, TC-E2 2x telephoto and the FC-E8 fisheye converter and the Coolpack filter set. Coming soon is a new TC-E3 3x telephoto lens. And there are of course many other third-party 28mm-37mm adapters and stepup rings available too.

Another feature taken from the professional cameras is the Flexible Program mode. The 990 works like the 950 when in its the "P"rogrammed automatic mode, the camera will pick the best combination of shutter speed and aperture automatically. With Flexible Program you now just rotate the command dial to quickly select other combinations of shutter speeds and apertures. Whatever combination you pick, it will be be correctly exposed for the current lighting and ISO sensitivity.

New to any Nikon camera is the QuickTime movie mode. You can capture Quarter-VGA (320 x 240) resolution motion video at 30fps. I'm not a big fan of this mode but it can be used to capture the baby's first steps or your kid smacking a home run out of the ball field. And probably a million other things that I think are more suited to a video camcorder, especially considering that the camera has no microphone so your videos will be silent movies. But it's there if you want it, just put the 990 into movie mode, press the shutter button and record up to 40 seconds of action. It eats up a lot of memory though, a 10-second clip is around 4MB in size.

Much more useful (IMHO) is the Best Shot Selector or BSS mode. This is a very controversial feature that a lot of folks say doesn't really work but it has for me. The camera takes a sequence of four or five shots and then analyzes them using some kind of high-tech "fuzzy logic" and saves the best one. It is handy for slow shutter speed shots in dim lighting or for handheld macro shots that probably should have been taken using a tripod. Another handy feature is auto-bracketing where the 990 will take a series of pictures and alter each one up to two f/stops in both the plus and minus directions. You get five shots of the same scene, all of them slightly different in exposure values so there is sure to be a "perfect" one in there somewhere.

The 990 has white balance options for Automatic, Cloudy, Sunny, Incandescent, Fluorescent and Speedlight as well as a manual Preset mode to let you perfectly tune the white balance using a known white value. Even the fixed white balance options are variable by a factor of +/- 3 steps and there's three different temperature settings for flourescent lighting.

Setting the white balance is only part of the overall equation of the exposure process. You can use the Nikon-exclusive 3D color matrix metering that uses a 256- segment area to determine the best possible exposure for the entire frame. Or the center-weighted averaging, spot or spot-AF metering modes to nail that perfectly exposed picture.

One of the most important parts of any modern digital camera is the color LCD display. This gives you instant feedback on whether or not you got the shot you wanted as well as displaying camera menus and other important exposure data or camera settings. The Coolpix 950 had a nice 2" LCD display but it was nearly impossible to see in high ambient light conditions, especially outdoors in the sun. The LCD used on the 990 is slightly smaller, measuring 1.8" diagonally, but it is a higher resolution display and considerably easier to see in bright conditions. Checking the focus or composition of captured images is a snap using the zoomed playback feature you can freely scroll around the entire image.

Shooting in Continuous mode with the production model 990 I have been able to capture 3 frames at full resolution at a speed of about 1fps. Dropping the resolution down to XGA (1024x768) it captures 8 frames at nearly 2fps. In VGA (640x480) resolution the capture speed was still about 2fps and the buffer handles around 20 frames. Other rapid capture modes include the VGA Sequence mode that grabs 40 640x480 shots at 2fps or the Ultra High Speed QVGA (320x240) capture mode that grabs up to 80 shots at 30fps speed.

The menu system is extensive but rather easily navigated once you learn to use the quick tabs on the left side. With the Coolpix 950 you had to cruise through all of the menu screens to get to the last one but with the 990 you can "jump" to different subsections using the 1, 2, or 3 tabs. The 4-way jog switch makes things much easier too and some of the main menu items can be selected and then quickly changed by rotating the command dial. With this many options the camera has to have a rather complex menu system but I think it is much easier than the way it was on the 950.

Another new feature on the 990 is the ability to select the video output format between NTSC and PAL. This was always the major distinction between the U.S. and European models but now the only way to tell them apart is by the color scheme used on the body of the camera. The U.S. and North American cameras will sport a charcoal grey textured body with a purple colored finger grip. The European model will look like the Coolpix 950 with the familiar black and red scheme. I wasn't crazy about the "purple" color when the Nikon folks first told me about it but, it does grow on you and now it doesn't really bother me at all.

Before you think that this is a "perfect" digicam, unfortunately it isn't. The Coolpix 990 suffers from the same problem as the 950, the builtin speedlite is too close to the lens and extremely prone to redeye. The redeye reduction mode does little to help, the only real solution is to use an external flash mounted away from the lens. There is a flash sync connector that connects the 990 to a number of different Nikon Speedlites including the new SB-28DX. Using these speedlites in bounce mode is of course the perfect way to be rid of redeye forever but it a rather expensive solution.

Battery life is significantly improved when operating with the color LCD turned off. I had no problem taking a day's worth (150+) of shots on a single set of NiMH rechargeable batteries. It's the usual YMMV (your mileage may vary) once you start using the color LCD as everyone uses it a little differently. With the LCD on you not only power it but the continuous autofocus mechanism as well. Overall though I would have to say that the smaller 1.8" LCD has contributed to better battery life as well as making it easier to see in the sunlight.

The addition of the USB port was a major step in the right direction and it's no surprise that Nikon did not package a serial cable. Downloading three megapixel images with the USB port is a matter of seconds versus many, many minutes through a slow serial port. Maybe we'll see an IEEE1394 FireWire port on the next Coolpix!

The included NikonView software communicated flawlessly with the camera and downloads were very robust. The camera was detected by Windows 98 the moment I turned it on and the USB driver installed from the CD with no trouble. The new NikonView v3 software does not have the ability to control the camera though. As for the optional USB remote control, we'll just have to wait to find out -- it isn't available just yet.

The Coolpix 990 turns out some of the sharpest images I have seen yet from a three megapixel digicam. The color balance and saturation is very good and the exposure control is what we have come to expect from Nikon's best cameras. Just as the Coolpix 950 was one of the top selling digital cameras of 1999 I have no doubts that the new 990 is going to do the same in 2000. It's everything the 950 was and more, a whole lot more!

9/18/00 Nikon 990 (or 950) Firmware update

Nikon has released the v1.1 firmware for the Coolpix 990 which allows it to work with the wired remote control as well as fix or improve a few other things. The latest Coolpix 990 firmware is available from the Nikon Tech USA site and the Nikon Euro site - please get your upgrade from the appropriate source and read the upgrade instructions thoroughly before performing the procedure.

(This procedure verified on Coolpix 700, 800, 950 and 990 cameras)

Thanks to some detective work by Don Hergert we now know that you can also upgrade your firmware via the CompactFlash card if you have a card reader. If you do not understand the following then please use your USB 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.
    (I personally believe that batteries are safer -- they are not succeptable to power blackouts...)
  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 (or appropriate file for your OS) 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. Be patient even if screen goes blank for a moment...
  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.

Additional info for Macintosh users

Macintosh users may need to perform an additional step if they have the Nikon View software installed. With the software installed, you will not be able to copy files to the CF Card. Therefore, you must disable the following items (by removing them from their locations and then restarting the computer).

If you are using Nikon View 3.0:

  1. Move the files called Nikon View Extension and E990 Shim Driver out of the folder System Folder > Extensions to your desktop.
  2. Move the file called Nikon View Control out of the folder System Folder > Control Panels to your desktop.
  3. Restart your Macintosh Computer. You must put these file back after the firmware update has been completed. You can easily move the file back to the original locations by selecting them in the Macintosh Finder after the update has finished and then Using the "Put Away" command, which can be found in the "File" Menu on all recent versions of the Macintosh OS.

If you are using Nikon View 3.1:

  1. Move the files called Nikon View Extension and COOLPIX USB Shim out of the folder System Folder > Extensions to your desktop
  2. Move the file called Nikon View Control out of the folder System Folder > Control Panels to your desktop.
  3. Restart your Macintosh Computer. You must put these files back after the firmware update has been completed. You can easily move the file back to the original locations by selecting them in the Macintosh Finder after the update has finished and then Using the "Put Away" command, which can be found in the "File" Menu on all recent versions of the Macintosh OS.

Continue on to
Steve's Sample Pics

John Cowley's Nikon 990 Review

Imaging-Resource's Nikon 990 Review's Nikon 990 Review

Return To Steve's
Reviews Index



Note: All photographs and page content
Copyright © 2000 Steve's Digicam Online, Inc.

Nothing on this page may be used, distributed or
copied without the author's prior permission.