Digital Camera Chronicles
20 -- Milestone digital cameras -- The Nikon Coolpix 995
(by Conrad H. Blickenstorfer)
If you've been reading my columns in this magazine, you know that I am an ardent fan of Nikon's line of Coolpix digicams. While it was Olympus' milestone and trend-setting DL-300 back in 1998 that ignited my enthusiasm for digital cameras after having played for years with lesser vidcams and other early efforts at digital imaging hardware, and while I occasionally take another digicam on a trip to give it a workout, the Coolpix cameras have always been my main love. I should qualify that statement because it is really the 900 series that I am partial to. The 800 series, i.e. the 800 and the 880 that succeeded it, packed almost all the goodness into a more compact form factor, but somehow I never managed to warm up to them. The 900 series, however, has been a homerun design from the start. I love the two-box design where you can rotate the part that contains the lens by over 270 degrees, thus making it easy to (a) take shots from above your head by holding up the camera, (b) taking discreet shots from the waist level, (c) taking goofy self-portraits of myself and my son sitting on my lap, and (d) always being able to twist the main body into a position that offers the right viewing angle for the LCD.
So, as much as I loved that original Olympus DL-300 (its amazing brilliance established our belief in digital photography back in 1998 and was the primary reason why we launched Digital Camera Magazine), as much as I came to appreciate Sony's Mavicas and subsequent designs that always broke the mould, as much as I was enthralled with Canon's tiny Digital Elph and their awesome G1 (which several of the editors here at DCM consider the best overall compact digicam) and as much as I am fascinated with the often weird and quirky explorations of what's possible and feasible by combining digital imaging and other consumer technologies such as MP3 players, PDAs, and so on, when it comes to digital cameras, a Coolpix 900 series is my first choice.
My original Coolpix 900 did not only take excellent pictures, it also freed me forever from fears that I couldn't rely on a digicam for those once-in-a-lifetime shots. It is still being used by the editor-in-chief of one of DCM's sister publications. The 2.1 megapixel Coolpix 950 took an entirely more businesslike approach to the Coolpix two-box design. For some reason I initially didn't warm up to the 950 the way I had to the 900 with its friendlier look and feel, but then came the 3.3 megapixel Coolpix 990 and it was the camera that had it all (if, that is, you can cope with its proneness to the dreaded "red-eye" syndrome). The 990 became my new digicam of choice and I'd never go on a business trip or a weekend outing without it. Its picture quality is so good that I frequently use it for product shots, and a set of Kodak's latest NiMH batteries seemingly lasts forever.
So now the Coolpix 995 is here. We didn't get it in time for a full review, so I am going to give you my first impressions in this column. Improving a great camera like the 990 wasn't easy and some will wonder what made Nikon release the 995 so quickly after the introduction of the very successful 990. At first sight, the two cameras look alike--same two-box design, same charcoal-gray coloring, same layout and positioning of the controls. Resolution also stays the same at the by now almost standard 3.3 megapixels. A closer look, however, reveals a number of changes. The 995 is half an inch narrower and weighs less (16.4 vs 18.8 ounces with battery). That may not sound like much, but the 995 definitely feels smaller and handier. Gone, however, is the rock-solid feel of the magnesium-bodied 990. The 995's right side is still magnesium, but the lens box is now housed in stout plastic. In order to reduce red-eye, the 995 has a pop-up flash. This means the distance between the lens and the flash is considerably larger than it was with the 990's built-in flash that sat right next to the lens. The 995 has -- hooray! -- a Type II CompactCard slot as opposed to the 990's Type I slot that excluded the use of those thicker mega-capacity Type II memory cards. I tested both the new 1GB and the older 340MG IBM Microdrive in the 995 and both worked fine. Boot-up time (acceptable) and switching from record to play (very fast) are about the same. The 995 lets you zoom in on recorded pictures up to 6X as opposed to 4X on the 995. And speaking of zooms, the 995 has a 4X optical zoom instead of the 3X on the 990, and there is a 1.1 to 4X digital zoom also. The menu structure remains pretty much the same. There are a number of new features that let you squeeze the last ounce out of all that great Nikon technology: Maximum shutter speed is now 1/2,300th of a second, the ISO range goes all the way up to 800, there's a noise reduction setting for low-light conditions, white balance auto-bracketing, and more. Image quality is virtually identical except for a huge reduction in red-eye. With the 995, red-eye is simply no longer an issue.
One thing I do not like about the 995 is that Nikon switched from four standard AAs to their proprietary EN-EL1 rechargeable Li-Ion power pack. From what I can tell it is the same that's used in the Coolpix 880. Battery and battery charger come with the 995, but you'll want a couple of spares at about US$40 a pop. Nikon probably had its reasons for this switch, but I definitely prefer the peace-of-mind that standard AAs bring. I have plenty of rechargeables and I know that I can get AAs absolutely everywhere and that they will still be around ten years from now.
Bottom line, the Nikon Coolpix 995 is an incremental improvement over the already great 990. It has one big plus (virtual elimination of red-eye) and one big minus (the switch to a proprietary battery). If you've always wanted a Coolpix, the 995 will make you happy. If you have a Coolpix 950, the 995 will make you very happy. If you've been leaning towards a competitor because of the 990's dreadful red-eye propensity, that reason is no longer valid. If you already have a 990, it's like deciding whether to trade in a car you really like for this year's model. You get pretty much the same, but if you must have those new features, go for it.