A number of factors have helped spur a great increase in the diversity of camera types now available. The Nikon Coolpix A - an APS-C compact with a fixed 28mm equivalent F2.8 lens - is something that would have seemed incredibly unlikely just a few years ago and yet is now just one option providing those specifications.

The ongoing competition from smartphones has prompted manufacturers to look for ways to offer higher image quality from compact cameras (and carve out the kinds of profit margins that no longer exist in the compact market). Meanwhile, the advent of the mirrorless camera has helped demonstrate that there's an enthusiast market that wants something other than a DSLR. And, in a quirk of fate, the popularity of smartphone shooting has helped introduce a new generation of photographers to the experience of shooting with prime lenses.

The large sensor, fixed-lens camera is a prime example of this new diversity, and the Coolpix A is just the latest offering. The 28mm-equivalent Nikon joins models from brands including Fujifilm, Sony and Sigma in offering small cameras with prime lenses. More to the point, it joins Sigma's DP1 Merrill (the latest incarnation of the model that first created this market) and the Ricoh GR in offering a 28mm equivalent option with an APS-C sensor.

The Nikon Coolpix A is built around a 16MP CMOS sensor - the same one that performed so spectacularly well in cameras such as the D7000. Nikon says the sensor's microlenses have been designed to work with the camera's wide-angle lens, to reduce corner shading, despite the wide-angle lens mounting fairly close to the sensor. It doesn't gain the on-sensor phase detection elements that have started appearing on some of its contemporaries, however.

The Coolpix A follows the lead of the Pentax K-5 IIs and Nikon's own D7100 in doing away with the optical low-pass filter. We can only assume that Nikon's engineers have concluded that attempting to process out any additional moiré was the lesser evil, compared with the sharpness usually sapped by the filter.

Interestingly, Ricoh's GR is also built around a 16MP sensor - also without an anti-aliasing filter. And, given how similar the two camera's specifications are, the rest of this review will focus on comparisons between the two cameras, with the full Ricoh GR review to follow shortly. We've also shot many of the same scenes with Sigma's DP1 M but will publish that as a separate article, since its performance means it doesn't make as much sense to compare them head-to-head.

Nikon Coolpix A key specifications

  • 16.2MP 'DX' format CMOS sensor
  • 18.5mm (28mm equivalent) F2.8 lens
  • ISO 100-6400 (with 12,800 and 25,600 equivalent extension settings)
  • 3.0" 920k dot LCD
  • 14-bit uncompressed NEF Raw shooting capability
  • Up to 4fps continuous shooting
  • 1080p movies at 24, 25 or 30fps
  • i-TTL compatible hot shoe

As with those other brands, this is an unashamedly enthusiast-targeted product. Nikon makes clear that the camera is primarily intended as a second camera for DSLR users, with PASM exposure modes brought to the fore, and a menu system that's 'much more DSLR familiar than Coolpix familiar.' So, while the Coolpix A does offer nineteen scene modes, including 'Pet Portrait,' they are all clustered together under a single option on the mode dial, leaving room for two user-definable positions.

The Coolpix A will be available in a choice of two colors - DSLR-style black and a 'titanium' color scheme that brings to mind the elegant Contax G-series rangefinders.

In addition to its external controls and interface being consistent with Nikon's DSLRs, the camera is also compatible with Nikon DSLR accessories. It uses the same 7.4Wh battery as the 1 System J-series cameras and has an i-TTL compliant flash hot shoe. Sadly, though, while it does include a built-in flash, it isn't able to operate as a remote flash commander, so you'll have to attach at least an SB700 to the body to gain the ability to control flashguns remotely.

28mm equivalent Nikkor lens

The Coolpix A has a lens with 7 elements arranged in 5 groups, with one of those being an aspherical element. Nikon promises 'professional quality' in terms of sharpness and corner consistency. Mounting a wide-angle lens so close to the sensor poses a problem, one that Nikon says they've overcome in two ways, first by applying an anti-reflective coating to the sensor. Then they designed the microlenses to cope with the sharp angles from which light will approach the sensor.

The Coolpix A has a dedicated manual focus ring, which can be used to override autofocus at any time.

In front of it is a slim screw-off ring that covers a thread which can be used to mount an (optional) adaptor, to allow the use of 46mm filters or the HN-CP18 hood.

The lens extends when you power up the camera, so startup isn't immediate (although it's still pretty quick). It has a 7-bladed diaphragm and a lens shutter that work together for essentially silent operation. The in-lens shutter allows the camera to flash sync all the way up to its maximum shutter speed (1/2000th of a second)

Optional accessories

The Coolpix A has been designed to share a range of Nikon's DSLR accessories, including flashguns, IR remotes, GPS and Wi-Fi modules - clearly in the hope that existing Nikon users will add the camera to their kit bags. The only unique accessories are a hot shoe mounting optical viewfinder (which will cost around $450/£299) and an UR-E24 adaptor/lens hood pack that allows the use of 46mm filters (recommended price around $130/£95).

The DF-CP1 optical viewfinder includes brightlines that mark 90% scene coverage.

If you're new to digital photography you may wish to read the Digital Photography Glossary before diving into this article (it may help you understand some of the terms used).

Conclusion / Recommendation / Ratings are based on the opinion of the reviewer, you should read the ENTIRE review before coming to your own conclusions.

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