Big sensor, small body—such is the mantra of camera manufacturers these days. It’s not just a trend limited to all those retro interchangeable lens models (ILCs), either: A new wave of compacts is arriving, led by the Fujifilm X100S, a compact cam with a 16-megapixel APS-C sensor and a fixed 23mm lens, and the Nikon Coolpix A (a camera we first previewed in Objects of Desire, May 2013), which boasts a similarly sized sensor and a fixed 18.5mm lens.
Why the surge in these sophisticated point-and-shoots? Simplicity. The latest ILCs can indeed capture SLR-quality images, but despite their small size, their protruding lenses and noticeable heft can present just enough of an argument to leave them at home. Throwing one of these super point-and-shoots in your pocket or bag, though, is a no brainer, as we found out over a three-week test of the Coolpix A. Our end result was a group of hundreds of impressively sharp images from dinners and events and impromptu hang sessions—places we wouldn’t have dragged a bulkier camera.
A Closer Look
The Coolpix A has a pleasing feel in the hand, courtesy of an ever-so-slightly roughed-up magnesium alloy body; a leather grip accent up front; and solid-metal, diamond-textured dials that emit a pleasing click when spun. A small rubbery grip at the rear right upper corner provides a convenient thumb hold, and in front, a metal manual focus ring is just deep enough to operate with the thumb and middle finger. At a little over 10.5 ounces, it has enough heft to notice when you’ve thrown it into a briefcase, but it’s still lighter than competitors like the Fujifilm X100S, which weighs in at over 14 ounces. At 1.6 inches in depth, the Coolpix A is pocketable in cargo pants, say, or a jacket—designer skinny denim, not so much. Our test camera was a handsome matte black that elicited comments from friends and colleagues; it’s also available in silver.
Its 3-inch, 921k-dot display looks vivid and bright from all angles and in all lighting scenarios we tried it in, from a dark trade show floor to a sunny test session on the Long Island, New York, shore. The screen is dimmable, but we found that the camera does a fine job of reacting to conditions automatically. It’s mounted flush with the camera’s back, so you can’t tilt it to avoid glare. The Coolpix A also has no optical viewfinder; if composing your shots with one is a sticking point, you can mount an add-on, the DF-CP1, to the camera’s hot shoe for $380. It provides 90 percent of frame coverage and magnifies by 0.52. If the steep price of that purely optical unit itself is a sticking point, then we’d suggest looking into the Fujifilm X100S, which has a switchable optical-electronic viewfinder built-in.
The Coolpix A’s 16.2-megapixel DX-format (APS-C) CMOS image sensor is the same one found in Nikon’s D7000 SLR. To extract the most information possible from a scene, Nikon doesn’t bake in the optical low-pass filter that’s generally used for anti-aliasing. It operates from ISO 100 to 6400 (with an expansion to Hi 2 ISO 25600) and nabs RAW images. One trick feature we really liked is the camera’s ability to override your ISO setting in situations where the scene is out of your preferred ISO’s range. Under ideal conditions, the camera can snap as many as 4 frames per second, and can record movies in full HD, too. While its sensor can be found in a bigger Nikon body, the Coolpix A’s lens is unique. It’s a wide-angle, 18.5mm unit (equivalent to a 28mm in the 35mm  format) and boasts seven elements for pleasingly blurry backgrounds. Its widest aperture is at f/2.8; the X100S’s, in comparison, is f/2. The lens’s perspective is utilitarian and functional, from crowded indoor scenes to outdoor panoramas. In practice, it was a nostalgic treat to have a fixed-lens point-and-shoot in hand.
Speed and Control
At its best, you’d carry the Coolpix A to get the quick-draw shots you wouldn’t be able to get with a bulkier SLR—and without the loss in image quality that would come with a lesser (but more pocketable) point-and-shoot. So it’s a slight bummer that the Coolpix A can be slow to focus, especially in dim conditions. A switch on the side of the camera can toggle between autofocus, manual and macro modes, where your fingers do the focusing via the lens-mounted ring up front. Since the focusing ring only controls focusing, and nothing else, your fingers learn its controls quickly. The camera’s exposure modes are fairly standard, too. Its addictively click-y control wheel cycles between P, S, A, M, an automatic mode, a scene mode and two customizable setups, U1 and U2. Its interface should be familiar if you are a Nikon user.
A series of outdoor car shots showed an impressive level of detail and very little aberration. At wide-open aperture, backgrounds were pleasingly and impressively blurred. A series of indoor shots of wristwatches looked like they were shot by an SLR, all the way up to ISO 3200. Compared with a series of similar shots taken with the Olympus OM-D E-M5 paired with a 17mm f/1.8 lens, the Coolpix A’s shots were slightly less sharp around the frame edges—but otherwise very competitive.
So, carry the Coolpix A instead of a heavier camera? In a pinch. Carry it instead of not carrying a camera at all (or even worse, using your iPhone)? Absolutely.
Pros: A great feel in the hand; a nice compact size; a cool, not-too-nostalgic look; the images it produces are sharp and contrast-y, though a touch soft around the edges; out-of focus areas are pleasingly blurred
Cons: It’s slow to autofocus; cost might give you pause
Price: $1,099; www.nikon.com
Read all of our camera reviews at pdnonline.com/cameras.