The Coolpix's shooting experience is, like its concept, fairly stripped-down. Its control logic is very similar to that of Nikon'S D3200 and D5200 DSLRs, and is likely to be immediately familiar to anyone who has shot a Nikon DSLR in recent years. A single control dial on the camera's rear shoulder changes either shutter speed or aperture. Holding the exposure compensation button allows the dial to adjust the exposure compensation (or the aperture in manual exposure mode).
The sub dial / four-way controller isn't extensively used (which isn't a terrible oversight, since rear wheels are rarely particularly pleasant to use). It only serves a purpose in Manual exposure mode, setting aperture or shutter speed (holding the Exposure Comp. button swaps functions between the main and sub dial). The sub dial can also be used to scroll through menus.
This system gives direct access to the key shooting parameters and, in addition, there's a customizable Fn button on the front of the camera, plus a re-configurable ISO/Fn2 button on the back. The camera's Auto ISO feature has to be engaged and disengaged via the menus but can be controlled to a sensible degree, with both maximum ISO and minimum shutter speed being definable. This means most users will be able to comfortably re-configure the ISO button and still have quick access to the couple of things you're most likely to want to change, shot-to-shot.
|The Fn1 button on the front of the camera.||The Fn2/ISO button on the rear.|
Should you find yourself developing a range of shooting styles (different Auto ISO setups, depending on whether you're more concerned about hand shake or freezing subject motion, for instance), you can save two sets of user settings that can then be accessed by turning to the U1 or U2 positions on the mode dial. These user settings do not include camera behavior settings, so you can't quickly swap between Fn button configurations, but they can still be pretty handy.
The Coolpix A has the standard Nikon choice of manually configuring a 'My Menu' tab or simply having that tab populated by the 20 most recently used menu options. Take the time to set up My Menu and even the odd quirks like having to use the menus to control Auto ISO can be ameliorated.
|My Menu. One of the Coolpix's more customizable features (standard of the company's DSLRs for many years), it allows you to group your favorite menu options together.
It certainly makes it quicker to engage, disengage and modify Auto ISO.
The other feature you have full-time direct control over is the positioning of the autofocus point. The four-way controller starts moving the focus point slowly, with the rate increasing if you hold it down. In real-life use we found this system can take rather a long time to position with any precision. Pressing the OK button returns the focus point to the central position.
In the real world
The Coolpix A is a pleasant enough camera to shoot with - it gives easy access to the primary shooting parameters but doesn't make it particularly easy to play with anything beyond that. As we've already said, the effective Auto ISO system allows you to customize both buttons without losing access to a feature you need to control, so you get to choose one parameter beyond exposure and focus point selection. (The front button tends to engage a feature, rather than adjust a parameter).
Should you want to adjust a setting that you haven't added to the Fn2/ISO button, you'll find yourself having to click around the rather inefficient [i] function menu. It could be improved by making the camera's control dial spin through the options, once you've navigated to a parameter, but instead you have to press OK, scroll to find the option you want, then press OK again to confirm. It's not a huge burden but it could be better. Worse still, some of the parameters in the [i] menu (specifically Auto ISO and several aspects of White Balance), can only be adjusted from the camera's main menu.
|The [i] menu looks promising initially, but the need to select, adjust and confirm every setting slows everything down.
It would be greatly improved if, having navigated to an option, you could simply spin the dial to change settings. Sadly...
This is not necessarily a problem - purists, particularly those who shoot Raw, may welcome this focus on photography's primary parameters. And yet when compared to the Ricoh (that lets you put so many options readily to hand) the Coolpix's controls seem limited - they don't encourage playing with settings in the same way.
The other thing we found a little disappointing about the Coolpix was the speed of focus. It's certainly not terrible, but it's just slow enough to make it difficult to capture decisive moments. We regularly found that we'd miss the capture of a key facial expression because the camera would focus just as our subject was becoming overly aware of the camera. This combined with the rather slow mechanism for positioning the AF point (something that also troubles the Ricoh), make the Nikon a rather slower camera to use than we'd like.
On the plus side, it's possible to set the front, Fn1, button to act as AF-ON - something that continues to work in manual focus mode - allowing you to jump to near the correct AF point before you start manually fine-tuning the focus.
|Another missed opportunity - too often we found that re-positioning the focus point meant missing the perfect moment.|
Fujifilm's 35-point system on its X100S is a less precise, but the ability to jump to one of a series of pre-defined points is simply quicker to use than the free-ranging systems used by the Nikon and the Ricoh - and that makes the shooting experience feel much more direct.