|By Peter Bargh
The Coolpix 950 was one of the first true photo-quality digital cameras to appear. Although it has now been outmoded by far superior models, it's still worth considering if you haven't yet moved to digital and want a bargain.
I first came across the Coolpix 950 when launched a couple of years ago. As editor of Digital PhotoFX I was in the fortunate position to see the latest technology before the general public. I'd experienced the first truly commercial digital camera proposition back in 1995 - the Casio QV-10. The prospect of being able to see the result as soon as you'd taken them gave me a similar buzz to the first time I'd seen a print appear in the developing tray of my home darkroom. Shame the quality of that ground-breaking Casio was so poor!
Cameras improved dramatically over the next few years, but it wasn't until I laid my hands on the Nikon Coolpix 950 that I thought now is the time to consider digital as an alternative to recording on 35mm film and scanning in.
Originally costing 800 this two million pixel model has a zoom lens and a host of great features housed in a rather unusually designed body. Nikon introduced this styling on the Coolpix 900 and at first it does take a while to get used to. The body is held like a traditional shaped compact, but the lens part swivels around 90 degrees to the standard shooting position.
You're tempted to pick it up and wonder where the viewfinder is! As you become familiar, though, you'll soon realise the major advantage this has over many of its competitors.
The camera, like most of the latest digital models, actually has two viewfinders - the normal optical one that we're all used to using and a 1.8in LCD viewfinder, that first appeared on camcorders. And it's the LCD where the swivel design comes into play. The lens section actually revolves over 270 degrees so you can point the lens at the subject and if the subject is a person you could swivel the LCD viewfinder around so that person can see themselves in the viewfinder. This is great when you're photographing a model - compose the picture and swivel the LCD finder to show them what the shot looks like. Cleverly the image flips so that it's still the right way up.
Handling is really good...once you get used to the design.
The design also lends itself to flower photography. You may have the latest low angle tripod but you still have to scramble around on the floor using a conventional style camera. With the Coolpix 950 you simply point the lens from a worms eye view and rotate the finder so you look down on it. Similarly when trying to get that shot of the celebrity in the crowd, raise the camera above the heads, point the lens downwards and swivel the viewfinder so you can see. You can shoot at waist-level too for more candid style images.
Now all these options depend on using the LCD viewfinder, and unfortunately this is where the Coolpix 950, and the 900 before it, is let down. The display is appalling to view in bright daylight - you can't see a thing on it. This is also bad when you want to preview images you've just taken or select one of the many functions - bright daylight, no chance! Nikon realised their technical flaw when developing the successor, the Coolpix 990, which has a far better anti-reflective design. This viewing problem is not just confined to Nikon cameras and there are a couple of manufacturers, Hoodman and SRB to name two, that are now supplying viewing hoods to assist viewing using many camera brands.
One concern with many cameras is there viewfinder accuracy. With digital compact cameras the optical finder is less accurate because your view is slightly offset from the lens that's taking the picture. The Coolpix 950 has a couple of black lines to help you reposition the shot, but you often forget to use these so you may produce a badly composed image, especially when using the camera for close ups. What you see through the finder is also quite misleading. If you tightly crop a photo you will find that it records about 10% more around the edges. You can, of course, crop this using image editing software, but you are then reducing the number of pixels in the image so effectively reducing the resolution.
The LCD finder is a more accurate way of working, but used often drains the batteries quickly. I get through a set every 20-30 pictures. If flash and the LCD are used you'll feel as though you're throwing batteries in like fuel on a roaring fire!
I found the best way to use this camera is to have a couple of spare sets of NiMH rechargeables to hand, or invest in a 6v lead acid battery pack. Both options increase the weight you carry but it's well worth your while.
The lens is a 3x optical zoom from 7 to 21mm (about 38 to 115mm on a 35mm camera). This is fine for most situations and a digital 2.5x zoom increase the magnification, but something a little wider would be useful occasionally. Nikon sell two optional converters - one wide, one fisheye.
The lens has a close focusing capability of just 2cm, which is one of the closest of all digital cameras. At this distance you have to take care not to get your shadow in shot, but it's surprisingly useful for photographing all sorts of subjects from insects and tiny flowers to slide duplication or record your stamp collection.
The lens, as you'd expect from Nikon optics is excellent - sharp and well balanced for colour. There's a small amount of darkening towards the edges, but nothing serious enough to be concerned about. If you want to use filters or other lens accessories it has a small 28mm filter thread. SRB of Luton make the necessary adaptor rings to take this to more conventional sizes, but this can block the optical viewfinder.
The way this camera is designed is that anyone can pick it up, turn to P (program) and use without any effort. But advanced users can dig deeper and select a variety of modes to manually tailor the camera to their needs.
The top plate has a fully informative LCD panel showing the metering mode, focusing and flash modes, number of images left and battery condition
In program the camera works out what the lighting conditions are, selects the aperture and shutter speed and focuses automatically. You can, if you prefer, set the type of lighting you're shooting in, from a choice of six options, switch to manual focus, set the aperture or shutter speed, change the metering pattern, turn the flash off. You can also increase or decrease contrast, exposure, sharpness and adjust shooting resolution from a Raw Tiff mode to several levels of JPG compression at different resolution settings.
On a blank 8Mb card, that you'll probably get with the camera, you have the option of taking anything from one uncompressed TIFF to over 200 on the basic VGA setting depending on the type of pictures you need to take (click here to see advantages of different formats) I use a 32Mb card, which gives four times this amount and I generally keep the camera on the Fine JPEG setting, because the difference between the Hi and Fine modes is insignificant.
Selecting modes is relatively ease once you've worked you way around the control layout.
The memory card is loaded in the base. The cover is flimsy plastic and will break if badly handled. If you mount the camera on a tripod you can't gain access to the card or batteries which is annoying if you have everything set up and either the card or batteries need replacing.
The modes are arranged so often used ones can be controlled using buttons around the body, confirming changes on the small LCD panel. More advanced features are accessed by pressing the menu button and scrolling through a list on the larger LCD viewfinder. From here you use the zoom rocker switch and the shutter release.
The camera's control dial is used to set various modes including aperture, shutter speed, focusing distance and resolution. It's knurled but recessed so some may find it tricky to use.
Some of the modes are fiddly to find and frustratingly disappear when you switch the camera off. This can be rectified if you spend time setting up the custom bit in the manual users section. You can save up to three complete custom settings in the memory and return to these using the menu. So you may have all the best features for close ups and another for portraits and one for awkward lighting.
All the main menus are accessed from the LCD using the zoom lever to scroll and the shutter button to set modes.
This LCD also shows the shutter speed and aperture.
There's also a Best Shot mode that takes several pictures in succession and keeps the one it thinks is best. This is fine for action photography as it will pick out the sharpest and dump the rest.
You have to endure a complicated menu process with many cameras to erase a picture that didn't turn out right. A preview appears as soon as you take a photo with the Coolpix and this can be instantly erased by clicking the button below a trash can icon.
Also when running through a series of previously taken and stored images you are first given a lower resolution preview so you can skip past it if it is not the shot you're searching for. This feature saves lots of time and one that all manufacturers should adopt.
You can magnify the playback image too so you can check that the picture is sharp, or you can view the pictures as an index print and move the curser around to highlight the one you want to view.
Use the LCD preview in the zoom mode and you can scroll around an enlarged version of the recorded image to check quality.
The LCD preview can be set to show nine thumbnails to help you find pictures quickly
The camera came with a load of leads to connect to a computer and TV, plus a mains adaptor card and several bits of software on CDs. If you're lucky the previous owner will have kept this all together.
The 6v mains adaptor plugs into a covered socket on the top. This is a soft plastic that can become ill-fitting in time. The plug position can cause the cable to get in the way too. It would have been better on the side of the camera.
Although the camera has a flash sync socket it's not standard. You need to buy a Nikon adaptor to allow normal flash sync leads to be plugged in. Nikon sell an adaptor, but I feel it should be free!
The big question is; am I still happy with a two-year old camera? Apart from the difficult to view LCD, the flimsy card access and a couple of other minor points that have always been with the camera the answer's a resounding yes. It produces good enough images for day to day recording of events and, with a little bit of enhancement in Photoshop, even delivers photographs that I'd happily frame. It has a sharp lens, accurate metering and enough user control to cope with all sorts of situations.