Nikon Coolpix 990 (click for larger image)

Review based on a Production Model Nikon Coolpix 990, Firmware V1.0

Probably the most eagerly anticipated digital cameras of 2000. Last year I made that statement of the Nikon Coolpix 950. This years Coolpix 9xx has already achieved the same cult status and it's not even yet available in the shops! Then why all the attention?

The Coolpix 900

Well, it does come from good breeding. The 9xx range started way back in 1998 with the Nikon Coolpix 900 (E900), soon to be followed by the updated 900s (E910) this was the first time we saw the swivel design and also opened peoples eyes as to what a digital camera was capable of. I admit my first (real) digital camera was a Nikon Coolpix 900s, soon to be followed by a Canon Pro 70.

The Coolpix 950

Last year came the 950 a completely re-engineered camera of a quality over and above what we'd seen in the 900. And it was well received by reviewers and owners alike, despite some shortcomings (chromatic aberrations and design-lame ergonomics) it soon became the de facto 2 megapixel digital camera, and in fact I still use it as my base comparison in reviews (stay tuned). Many other 2 megapixel digital cameras came, despite some very close competition (Olympus C-2000Z & C-2020Z) the Coolpix remained the favorite pro-sumer digital camera.

More pixels

What does the "megapixel war" mean to the digital photographer? Back in November 1998 when I was shooting with my Coolpix 900s I was stunned by the image quality, looking back on it now our expectations have certainly come a long way in a short time. Now we expect as good-as (if not better than) scanned 35mm slides, the flexibility of a pro-SLR, small enough to carry everywhere and enough pixels to generate prints that can fill your wall.

In the Coolpix 9xx family it's easy to trace the increase in resolution over time:

  • 1998: Nikon Coolpix 900s (E910), 1280 x 960, 1,228,800 effective pixels
  • 1999: Nikon Coolpix 950 (E950), 1600 x 1200, 1,920,000 effective pixels
  • 2000: Nikon Coolpix 990 (E990), 2048 x 1536, 3,145,728 effective pixels

The 950 had 56% more sensors than the 900. The 990 has nearly 64% more sensors than the 950. The 990 has 256% of the image gathering sensors of the 900s. More sensors mean more pixels in the image and that means several things::

  • Ability to print larger at the same resolution (10" x 7.5" @ 200dpi for the 990)
  • Higher quality images, when the image is reduced in size (down sampled) for normal monitor resolutions (web publishing for example)
  • Places higher demands on the quality of the lens system. Many experts agree that we're already close to the limits of standard lens systems to focus a sharp image down onto these tiny very high resolution CCDs (in fact the lenses found in most 3 megapixel digital cameras use glass of the same quality as only the most expensive 35mm systems), thus we're more likely to encounter problems such as chromatic aberrations as pixel count increases
  • Increased storage demands, more pixels equals more bytes at the same quality. However, flash memory manufacturers are keeping up with this demand (and rubbing their hands together in the process).
  • Increase internal processing demands, more pixels need to be processed in quicker and quicker times as photographers demand "pro-sumer" performance (cycle times) from digital cameras (high spec CPUs and specialised DSP chips)

In my personal opinion we'll reach a maximum pixel count, a level at which pro-sumers (those willing to spend upward of $1000 on a digital camera) will have enough pixels (probably around the 6.6 million pixel point - 3000 x 2200) and already demands are rising for increase CCD dimensions (physical size, to deal with some of the lens expense and problems), higher sensitivities (digital cameras are notoriously poor at higher sensitivities) and even completely new CCD designs (apart from April Fools jokes that is).

The Coolpix 990

In usual Nikon fashion the 990 was announced in unison globally on the 27th January 2000 at 8 AM Tokyo Time. The look was familiar if a little restyled, most significant was the increase in resolution to 3.34 megapixels (2048 x 1536) and the addition of some neat new features and a sigh of relief from 950 owners due to solutions to some long term Coolpix gripes. Adding to some confusion (and still) is the fact that the US models feature a purple/blue insert in the rubberised hand grip and non-US models (Europe / Asia) feature a red insert. As I'm now based in the UK the model I'm reviewing has a red insert, it is otherwise identical to the US Coolpix 990.

Full Circle: vs. Coolpix 950

So the big question on the minds of Coolpix 950 owners will be: Is it worth upgrading? My advice would be to read the whole of this review, analyse the features and image quality, find some more reviews and then decide (the 950 is still a very fine camera). Here's a very quick summary of the 990 vs. 950:

What's Totally New?

  • 3.34 megapixels (2048 x 1536 vs. 1600 x 1200)
  • 7-blade Iris Diaphragm for better aperture control
  • Five-area spot meter and AF points (just like an F100)
  • 256 zone matrix color white balance sensing
  • Coordinated adjustment of f/stop and shutter speed in Flexible Program mode
  • Color adjustment of factory white balance settings
  • New flast jog pad for rapid menu access
  • USB connectivity
  • Improved ergonomics (better button layout, control wheel on back, new menus)
  • QuickTime movies (40 seconds at a time)
  • Fine tunable white balance
  • Sharpening control
  • Full manual mode (with under / over exposure meter)
  • Histogram and overexposure highlighting (very D1)

What's Changed / been fixed?

  • The CF card slot is now on the side of the camera making it easier to load/unload on a tripod
  • The CF compartment door is now sensibly designed
  • New 3:2 image ratio mode
  • Brightness +/- and Contrast +/- improved
  • Zoom lens parking selection of wide/tele/memory
  • Flash EV compensation menu +/- 2.0 EV
  • Continuous zoom digital zoom
  • Continuous zoom playback magnificiation
  • Massively improved tripod mount with metal thread and rubber base
  • The swivel, though not lose on the 950 is even stiffer and more solid on the 990
  • Improved hand grip, bigger makes it fit in the hand more snug, all rubber now
  • Bigger and better internal buffers (no waiting)
  • Self-timer now operational in Macro mode
  • Sensitivity (ISO) control in Shutter Priority mode
  • Fixed aperture mode for studio flash shooting (aperture stays fixed throughout zoom range)
  • Improved LCD, better controls over LCD brightness and hue
  • Larger top information LCD with more detail
  • New "info.txt" photo information dumped on CF card (contains exposure info for each frame)
  • A string for the lens cap (whoopee! - ahem)
  • Switchable Video output (PAL/NTSC can be chosen from menu - one global firmware?)

What's still missing? (ever wonder why they didn't call it the Coolpix 1000?)

  • CompactFlash Type II support!
  • Wrist Strap! (Hand camera.. not a neck camera)
  • Belt soft case (there was one with the 950...)
  • Anti-reflective coating on the LCD (that plastic cover is still shinny)
  • Histogram mode in image review / record mode - histogram only available in playback
  • Supplied rechargeable batteries and charger