musing - Coolpix A, a love and hate

There seems to be a specific category of point and shoots somewhere along the spectrum of cameras that are considered painfully classic. They all have one or more redeeming qualities that make them a joy to use, yet still the nature of the camera and or it's film habits makes them very impractical to shoot casually today. In that category, there is special pedestal for cameras such as the Fuji Natura Classica, Nikon Ti35 and Ti28, Contax T3, Ricoh GR1v, and even ones with worse image quality like the Lomo LC-A. Each one of these cameras has enough character to them that using them is still really worth the trouble (depending on who you ask).

Nikon Coolpix A is such a camera.

It's stupid, yet beautiful. Formed from the amalgamation of blocks and blocks of metal, this camera screams quality. It sports a custom made 28mm equivalent lens that's ridiculously sharp, paired with a beautiful sensor. The camera feels so solid; it feels like a brick that I won't hesitate to use to defend myself with at a protest. The buttons have solid tolerance and satisfying clicks to them, and the only thing plastic about it is the battery door. Well, for 1100 dollars at introduction, it better has been beautiful. Even more ridiculous is the beautifully made solid metal and glass viewfinder introduced at almost 500 dollars. It's nearly half the price of the camera with no real function (I'll get to the viewfinder handling in a second).

The handling is archaic (comparing to Ricoh GR, its main competitor). At introduction, the Coolpix A is already the argyle wearing old man who likes to do things one way only. The button placements don't make sense (and I shoot Nikon DSLRs), plus they're not really customizable. The camera needs two hands to operate for button presses and stability. The flash is hard to recycle and unpredictable (it takes about twice as long to recycle this flash comparing to the Ricoh GR). Speaking of slow, the autofocus is abysmal even after the supposed firmware update.

On point and shoots, I often always turn on focus assist light. The Coolpix A somehow manages to hunt for focus even with the assist light turned on. The manual focus wheel is nice, but it's not accurate and the camera doesn't retail your focusing distance when you turn off the camera. I could assign one of the only two customizable buttons to focus, but the camera decides to scan the entire range of macro to infinity whenever I try to do that, taking even longer. Oh, that viewfinder? I can't even disable the camera screen with the viewfinder on the camera. What I could do, however, is assign the 2nd of the only two customizable buttons to lower the screen brightness. So after I turned the brightness down, I want to make myself to blindly trust the camera to grab the right focus using the right focus points in an acceptable and timely manner, well that's what I wanted anyway. Not being able to rely on the autofocus, I have to look at the screen to confirm the focus, pressing the 2nd custom button to brighten the screen again, defeating the entire purpose of staying quiet and quick and shoot with the viewfinder. Remember the two customizable button has been assigned right? Well, I now need to dig into the menu to change the ISO (because of those buttons was defaulted for ISO).

So what does it do right? The image itself. The quality from the lens and sensor combo is something I have never seen before in a point and shoot. The sensor is an old Nikon DSLR sensor repurposed into a smaller body, and the lens was made specific for that combination. Being from a DSLR, the sensor has latitude beyond any other point and shoot raw files I tinkered with. I can shoot three stops under and still recover all of the details that I lost, plus the sensor handles blue with just the right level of magenta that no other camera manufacturers can replicate. For the lens, at 2.8, it is already so clear that I never really worry about it. When I close it down to 5.6, the lens becomes so sharp that it's hard to believe that it came from a point and shoot.

Here we have an angry old argyle wearing man who is really good at image quality. But to fully take advantage of that, the user must jump through the hoops of right place tight time right focus right handling right blah blah blah just to be able to take advantage of the image quality. The Coolpix A demands your attention and forces you to make everything just right before it can take the perfect picture for you.

Through my blog and photos, you can witness my love for the Ricoh GR. While Ricoh GR lacks the color, dynamic range, and the smoothness of color of files from the Coolpix A, the Ricoh GR is at least self-aware enough to do what it does really well, such as handling and focusing and being invisible (almost every button is customizable, and the camera has a myriad of focusing options). The Coolpix A; however, does everything else just okay. Is not built for speed, it has an attitude (with just a little bit of forced soul), and it really only does one thing (take a static image).

If you can slow the fuck down and pave the way for the divA (sorry), then you'd have no problem enjoying the spoils of what this camera can bring you. I used this camera on several celebrity shoots with every one of them asking about what kind of camera I was using. The camera is interesting enough with image quality that surpasses even their expectations.

Elizabeth Banks

Horrible handling paired with excellent image quality, the Coolpix A deserves a place in that category of painful point and shoots that are a joy to use, if you can overcome its shortcomings. I can see myself taking the Coolpix A out with me just to use it to slow me down, perhaps shake things up a bit. Just maybe, the argyle wearing old man always deserves a place next to the celebrities.

It's a camera I can't really recommend. But if you have one, the camera is perfectly capable of making great images. Keep it with you and keep on shooting.

Categories: equipment

compact system camera coolpix a csc mirrorless nikon portrait rangefinder viewfinder