Nikon's new premium compact fixed lens camera made quite a splash when it was introduced. But the Nikon A has some stiff competition to contend with. Will this expensive large sensor, fixed lens camera be able to compete with the newly released Ricoh GR and the Fuji X100s or will the image quality send the others packing?
So, what kind of camera does $1100 buy you nowadays? Enter the Nikon Coolpix A, a top-notch camera with a lot to offer. The Nikon A offers users a 16.2-megapixel APS-C CMOS sensor (DX-format)--the same one found in the Nikon D7000, one of Nikon's most popular prosumer DSLR cameras. The Nikon A however, is smaller, more compact and more portable than the D7000 ever dreamed of being. In fact, these two cameras aren't even comparable by most other standards. The Nikon Coolpix A actually fits into a relatively new category of compact, fixed lens, large sensor cameras. These cameras feature sensors that can be found in traditional DSLRs, but their form factor is much smaller than a DSLR. Most of these cameras are about the size of a point and shoot. Yet, these cameras have features that rival top DSLRs including fully manual mode dials, fantastic low light capabilities and RAW image capture.
The Nikon A is no exception to the robust features listed above. As Nikon's most expensive compact camera to date, the A offers professional level imagery in a pocketable camera. The camera has a large 16.2 MP CMOS sensor that works in unison with its 18.5mm (28mm equivalent) f2.8 fixed focal length lens. The lens has been manufactured with Nikkor glass and contains 7 elements in 5 groups. The A has no viewfinder. Instead, the camera offers users a 3-inch LCD screen with 921k dots. The Nikon A accepts SD, SDHC, and SDXC memory cards. The camera sells for about $1100.
Build and Design
Although the Nikon A is small, it has a solid build quality that actually surprised me. I honestly didn't think the camera would be as nicely built as was. The camera weighs 10.6 oz. and measures only 4.4" x 2.6" x 1.6"--making the Nikon A the smallest camera with an APS-C sensor. The camera is easy to carry, won't tire your neck and might even fit into your jacket pocket or large wristlet purse.
The camera's design is quite simple with very few nods to luxury or pretense. In fact, the camera is almost too plain with an asking price this high. Its overall beauty sits snugly in between the Fuji X100s which is known for its classic elegance and the Ricoh GR which looks a bit like a homely point and shoot.
Ergonomics and Controls
If you are familiar with Nikon's general control layout, then picking up the Nikon A and using it straight out of the box will be a breeze. Similar to the button layout of the Nikon D7000, many loyal Nikon users will feel right at home.
The camera maintains a low profile. The front of the camera features a prominent Nikon logo and a DX tag. The only button on the front of the camera is an "Fn" (function) button--a programmable, quick recall push button. The lens is an 18.5mm (28mm equivalent) that expands and retracts like a traditional point and shoot. The lens is sheltered by an iris style cover that opens upon startup.
The top of the camera features a mode dial with the standard P,A,S,M modes as well as an auto mode, scene mode and 2 user defined modes. The on/off switch sits near the front right side of the camera. Offset to the bottom right of the on/off is the shutter button/control wheel. The top of the camera also houses the hotshoe and the pop-up flash. The flash release sits on the back of the camera, not far from the flash itself.
The back of the camera has a plethora of physical buttons including 4 on the left side of the LCD screen: the exposure/lock button, the ISO/Fn2 button, the image increase and the image decrease/"?" button. The right side of the camera features: the playback button, the menu button, the "I" button (for frequently used settings), the delete button, and the round selector dial.
The side of the camera features an AF, MF and Macro switch for easy access to these frequently used modes. As an avid macro shooter I appreciated the quick access to this feature.
But where oh where is the direct video button? Unfortunately, it is totally absent from the outer shell of the camera. You will need to access the Movie mode via the internal menu. Really?
Although the camera is lightweight, it's not really comfortable to hold. The camera only offers a small ridge to utilize as a finger rail. The ridge looks a bit out of place and diminishes the camera's attractiveness. I would prefer having a more sizeable grip.
Menus and Modes
The camera offers a wide array of menu options as seen in the image below. It has a striking resemblance to the Nikon DSLR shooting menu.
The Nikon A also features the full spread of manual and automatic shooting modes:
The 3.0-inch monitor on the Nikon A has 921,000 dot composition, is adjustable for five levels of brightness and offers 100% coverage. Although this resolution sounds high, I had a hard time with the screen while in use outdoors. It was difficult to see if an image was correctly exposed, if it was washed out or if the contrast was accurate. When I brought the camera indoors, none of these issues were relevant. However, as a primarily outdoor shooter, I found the LCD hard to deal with if I was not in a very shaded area.
The overall performance of the Nikon A's autofocus system was slightly slower than I expected. The camera does not offer a vibration reduction system, but the quality of the images still appeared sharp and clear despite this neglected feature.
The Nikon Coolpix A is not the fastest camera out there, but it's also not the slowest either. It takes about 1.5 seconds to fire off your first image. Individual shots take over 1/2 second to acquire. At full resolution, the A can shoot about 4 frames per second.
The Nikon A's AF tends to be slightly slower than I expected for a camera that has a dedicated, fixed lens that was optimized for this specific camera. In macro mode, it is even more sluggish. The contrast detect AF of the Nikon A has a tendency to hunt more than cameras that are equipped with both contrast and phase detect AF. In good lighting the camera's AF will react relatively quickly. However, the Nikon A struggles in low lit environments. The camera has five focus-area selections: face priority, normal area, wide area, center, and subject tracking. When shooting normally, the camera can focus from 1.75 feet to infinity. In macro mode the camera can focus from as close as 4 inches.
The Nikon A records video at Full HD 1920x1080p at either 30 or 25 frames per second. The camera can also record 1280x720p at 30 or 24 frames per second. Audio is recorded in stereo sound. Unfortunately, the video mode is hidden in the menu instead of having its own dedicated button.
RAW shooters will be happy that the Nikon A offers a RAW file image recording feature.
The Nikon A is equipped with a pop-up flash that does good job. The flash is easy to trigger by way of a switch that is located under the flash on the back of the camera.
The camera's EN-EL20 lithium-ion battery is rated for about 230 shots or about 70 minutes of video. This is on the low end when compared to other cameras in its class.
Here is where the Nikon A truly shines. The lens is an 18.5mm (28mm equivalent) Nikkor fixed focal length lens. It has a constant aperture of f2.8. We would expect nothing less than a high quality, sharp image in a fixed lens camera because the lens should be specifically designed to work seamlessly with this sensor. The lens in the Nikon A does just that. The lens is comprised of 7 elements in 5 groups. The lens produces very sharp images in the center through most of the aperture range, but edge sharpness wanes as an overall rule.
The Nikon Coolpix A offers very good to excellent image quality. Modern cameras have become very effective at reducing noise up to 1600 and 3200. The Nikon A is no exception to this accepted norm. When entering into the extended ISO range, noise becomes apparent. But that is to be expected. There is a reason why it is not recommended to use the extended ISO range unless completely necessary.
Images taken with this camera showed great color quality as they were not too saturated or too flat. Although most Americans are like a more saturated image, the lack of saturation OOC gives more latitude to those wanting to tweak their images in post production software. That being said, images taken with the Nikon A have slightly more contrast and saturation than those taken with the Ricoh GR.
If you prefer a bit more sharpness straight out of camera, the menu offers a way to increase it.
At DigitalCameraReview.com we only give you images that are unretouched and straight out of camera (unless otherwise noted for specific reasons). By doing this we ensure that you are seeing the images as they were taken. We feel it would be unfair to our readers to alter the image's sharpness, color quality, or other features in post production. Default sharpness was used in this testing.
Although the Nikon A does a great job at capturing sharp, high quality images, this is not a camera for the masses. So who is this camera designed for? Due to the inflexible 18.5mm fixed lens, many casual photographers will be quickly disillusioned by the lack of zoom. But for those photographers that want the shooting mode functionality of a DSLR, a large sensor, the image quality of a high performance of a f2.8 prime lens, and the portability of a point and shoot camera, then the Nikon A is right up your alley. All purpose shooters might want to look for a more flexible camera. That being said, this niche camera can truly deliver on image quality.
The Nikon A bravely entered a new camera genre that already has a few heavy-hitting contenders. If you are looking at purchasing a large sensor, fixed lens camera there are several options from which to choose: Leica X2 , Sony RX1 (full frame sensor), Fuji X100s, Nikon A, or the Ricoh GR. The Leica X2 will cost you about $2,000. The Sony RX1 is a whopping $2800, but it does have a full frame sensor unlike the others listed here. The Fuji X100s can be found for $1300. The Nikon A sells for $1100 and the Ricoh GR looks like a steal at $800. Of this group, only the Fuji X100s has a built-in viewfinder. The Sony RX1 is the only one in this group to have a full frame sensor. The Leica's pretty darn expensive when compared to the Nikon or Ricoh, but it is a Leica and that classic red badge does not come cheap (unless, of course, you buy it on ebay). Budget minded photographers that don't care about a viewfinder will naturally lean toward the Nikon A or the Ricoh GR. Both cameras created pictures with excellent image quality. The Nikon A was neck-and-neck with the Ricoh GR during our comparative testing. At this point it comes down to the build quality and feel of the camera since the image quality is very, very similar. The Nikon does have a build quality that is more solid and the menu is going to be slightly more appealing to most. On the other hand, there is a $300 savings when purchasing the Ricoh GR. Is $300 worth a slightly less robust built quality? That one's up to you.