Operation and controls

Unlike some manufacturers, Nikon has a habit of 'fine-tuning' its user interface with every new generation of consumer compact cameras. In this instance the changes over the 7900's immediate predecessor are relatively minor, and for the most part welcome. As well as a redesign of the user inteface, the menus themselves have been rationalized slightly, with more options per page (the shooting menu, for example, now has more options yet uses only three pages to the Coolpix 5200's five). It's still not the prettiest - or easiest - menu system on the market, but once you've read the manual fully and used the camera for a while it offers a pretty comprehensive feature set. The basic layout of the external controls has changed since the Coolpix 5200, mainly due to the larger LCD (2.0-inch to the Coolpix 5200's 1.5-inch), which has pushed most of the buttons over to the right hand side of the rear of the camera. Otherwise this is a camera that will feel fairly familiar to anyone who has used any recent Coolpix.

Rear of camera

The majority of the 7900's main controls are found on the rear of the camera, with all the most commonly accessed photographic controls (flash mode, AE compensation, macro mode and self-timer) grouped together within thumb's reach directly below the shutter release. If you press and hold down the play button when the camera is turned off it powers up directly into play mode, without extending the lens (though since it takes nearly as long as turning it on in record mode and switching, there seems little point...). It is also worth noting that - unlike virtually every other camera on the market - there is no button for turning the color screen on or off (or for changing the amount of information displayed in record mode). This lack of a 'display' button means you actually have to switch to setup mode and use a menu option to turn the screen on or off...

Top of camera

The top of the camera is home to the main power button, which is recessed to ensure you don't accidentally turn the camera on when it is sitting in the bottom of your bag. Next to this is the chrome shutter release, which has a nice positive feel, with a distinct half press 'stop', and the main mode dial. Again the design is such that you can change modes with your thumb when using the camera with one hand. Nice.

Display and menus

Although ostensibly a fully automatic camera designed for the 'point and shoot' snap shooter, the Coolpix 7900 has a bewildering array of modes, options and features - some of which are not only very useful, but are unique to the latest range of Coolpixes. The sheer number of features can be a little daunting at first - the seemingly endless pages of menus and icons mean that a good hour or two with the manual in one hand and the camera in the other will pay dividends when you actually go out and start shooting. Unfortunately for the more seasoned snapper the user interface can also be a little frustrating; changing the ISO setting, for example, requires at least 13 button presses (to bring up the menu, find the option, select a new ISO and dismiss the menu). To speed things up Nikon has included - hidden away in the setup menu - an option to replace all menus with a single page of icons, which speeds things up a little, but is nowhere near as elegant as, for example, Canon's FUNC menu.

This is a typical record mode live view with basic information displayed around the edge of the screen. You can turn most of this off if you wish using one of the options in the setup menu (screenshot). Half-press the shutter release and the camera will calculate exposure (AE) and focus (AF) indicating the AF area used, and warning if there is a possibility of camera shake (exposure information is not shown).
The 7900 normally automatically selects one of five focus points, but you can manually select an off-center focus point yourself from 99 positions within the central 60% of the frame. Also shown here is the 'rule of thirds' framing guides option. The 7900 uses the same unnecessarily complicated method as its predecessor for the basic photographic controls (flash, macro etc) that have their own buttons. Press the flash button and, rather than the usual cycling through options with each press, a small menu appears on-screen. You then have to use the arrow keys to change the setting, then press the enter button to confirm the change. That's three button presses just to turn on the macro mode - or turn it off again.
There's no option for a live histogram in record mode, but if you use the AE compensation button, a histogram magically appears on-screen (we've shown it here against a black background for clarity - normally it is overlaid on the preview image). One new - and pretty cool - feature is the Blur Warning. If the camera detects camera shake in the image it displays the warning shown above and offers you the option to save or delete the image. It's far from perfect - mainly as it only checks images taken below a certain shutter speed, so excessive camera shake at higher speeds won't trigger the warning - but it's a pretty neat trick that saved a couple of my night shots.
The extensive shooting menu is split into three pages of options covering: Image size/quality, white balance, metering mode, drive mode, best shot selector, color effects, contrast and sharpness options, ISO, bracketing (white balance and exposure), saturation, autofocus and noise reduction (on or off). You can optionally view menus as a single page of small icons (screenshot), which makes accessing some features a lot faster. Turning the mode dial to SCENE and pressing the menu button allows you to select one of 12 scene modes, including panorama assist mode, which shows a ghosted portion of the last picture taken overlaid on the preview image. The only other thing you can change in scene mode is the image quality and size. Pressing the help button brings up a brief description of the mode, and when to use it.
The four 'scene-assist' modes - first seen on the Coolpix 3200 - take the hand-holding concept even further. Each offers several basic alternatives (including, in the portrait mode, the new Face-Priority AF, which works remarkably well at finding a face in the frame).
Extra screenshots: landscape and sport modes.
In scene-assist mode (the shot above shows the portrait assist mode) framing guides appear. These are not only used to make sure you frame correctly, but also to set the focus and AE points.
Here's a typical screen from playback mode - much like every other Coolpix camera for the last few years. You can turn this information off using the setup menu. In a retrograde step, there is no longer an option to view any exposure information - or a histogram. Pity. Pressing the right zoom key lets you enlarge images up to 10x for a closer look. The left zoom key brings up thumbnails - one press gives you 4 (2x2), a second press gives you 9 (3x3).
The 7900 features Nikon's excellent 'D-Lighting' feature - a sort of digital 'fill-flash' that lightens shadows without affecting highlight detail. All you need do is press the OK button when an image is displayed. If you accept the change a new file is saved (i.e. the original isn't deleted). Pressing the menu button in the playback mode brings up two pages of options covering printing, viewing slide shows, deleting/protecting, resizing and copying from the internal memory to the SD card.
The setup menu (which gets its own position on the mode dial) consists of three pages of basic camera options, including the usual date/time/audio settings, language, card formatting and the aforementioned monitor settings. You can also replace all menus with icons, which makes it a lot faster to access options when shooting, but takes a little getting used to. In movie mode you get the usual size and frame rate options (up to a maximum of 640x480 pixels at 30 fps) and a unique 'Electronic VR' image stabilizer (similar to that used on digital camcorders), which seems to work (though the difference isn't huge). You cannot use the optical zoom during filming, but you can zoom digitally.