Test Drive: Nikon Coolpix 5000 Digital Camera

Eric Grevstad

We’re not sure digital cameras have been around long enough to have a Hall of Fame, but if they have, the twist-o-flex Nikon Coolpix 990/995 – with its swiveling lens to help capture artistic or angled shots – would be a popular nominee. Well, fans of that radical design will be disappointed to learn that the lens of Nikon’s new 5-megapixel camera, the Coolpix 5000, zooms in and out but otherwise resides in the camera body in conventional fashion.

Its LCD monitor, on the other hand, flips, swivels, and pivots, so the 5000 can work from wacky angles just like the 995 — lets you frame a shot even while holding the camera over your head in a crowd or holding it at arm’s length for a self-portrait.

The 1.8-inch, 110,000-pixel LCD fits flush with the back of the camera body, screen facing in, then opens up like a book, then rotates through 270 degrees — so you can flip it over and reclose the unit with the LCD at the rear, as in most digital cameras, or turn it upside down, at which point Nikon’s manual helpfully warns you that its three control buttons’ left-to-right order will be reversed. Who knew Nikon’s engineers were frustrated gymnasts or acrobats?

Contortions aside, the coolest thing about the new Coolpix is its size – not shirt-pocket petite like a growing number of 2- or 3-megapixel cameras, but much more compact than most of its 5-megapixel competitors, at 4.0 by 3.2 by 2.6 inches and 15 ounces with CompactFlash card and battery installed. This makes for somewhat cramped controls, with small, close-together buttons, but makes the 5000 the handiest high-end digicam we’ve seen, with a good-to-grab shape for one-handed (right-handed) operation.

What’s not so small is the Coolpix 5000’s price – officially $1,100, though most dealers seem to be selling it for $1,000 (with discounters, as is usual, taking another C-note or more off that). That’s competitive for a camera with plenty of photo-buff manual controls and 5-megapixel resolution (2,560 by 1,920 pixels, enough for gorgeous 8 by 10-inch prints and maybe even Nikon’s advertised 13 by 10 inches). And you get extras in the box ranging from a lithium-ion battery and recharger to a CompactFlash card that’s merely minimal (32MB) instead of appallingly skimpy as many cameras’ bundled cards are.

But it’s no slam dunk, since the same $1,000 will buy you the Minolta Dimage 7’s arguably better lens (with 7X optical zoom to the Nikon’s modest 3X), or the Sony DSC-F707’s science-fiction night-shooting capability and laser-assisted low-light autofocus. For that matter, slightly less serious photographers might be just as happy to step down to 4 megapixels, where choices range from the convenient CD image storage of Sony’s Mavica MVC-CD400 ($900) to the jaw-dropping value of Toshiba’s PDR-M81 ($500).

Sharp Specs
The 5000 has a 3X Zoom Nikkor lens (f/2.8 to f/4.8, 7.1mm to 24.1mm), equivalent to 28mm to 85mm on a 35mm film camera; holding the telephoto button for a couple of seconds at maximum optical zoom begins a 4X digital zoom.

Normal autofocus is good for anything over 50cm (1 foot, 8 inches), while a macro mode lets you get as close as 2cm (0.8 inch). With the LCD monitor off, the Nikon autofocuses when you press the shutter button halfway; when the monitor is on, autofocus is always running (unless you switch it to shutter mode), making faint chittering noises just like its Coolpix 775 kid brother.

In manual modes, shutter speed can be as fast as 1/2,000 second or as slow as eight seconds, with a few configurations permitting an even quicker 1/4,000 second or “bulb” exposures as long as five minutes. A 3- or 10-second self-timer lets you get into the shot.

Five effective megapixels get you a maximum image size of 2,560 by 1,920 pixels, with other choices including a 3:2 ratio (2,560 by 1,704), UXGA (1,600 by 1,200), SXGA (1,280 by 960), XGA (1,024 by 768), and VGA (640 by 480). A QuickTime movie mode captures up to 60 seconds of 320 by 240-pixel video with audio.

If you opt for “Hi” (uncompressed TIFF) quality, the supplied 32MB CompactFlash card can hold only two full-sized shots; we think most users will be satisfied with the “Fine” (roughly 4:1 compression, some 13 shots on the card) or “Normal” (8:1 or 26 shots) JPEG formats, ignoring the “Basic” (16:1) setting.

Nikon earns kudos for including its EN-EL1 lithium-ion battery and compact recharger. We came close to Nikon’s advertised 100 minutes’ shooting with the LCD monitor almost always on; traditionalists who use the viewfinder (which has a diopter focus adjustment) instead of the monitor could probably eke out two hours.

The battery compartment is on the camera’s bottom; a door on the right side reveals the CompactFlash slot, equipped with a pop-out eject button similar to many notebook PC Card slots’ and officially compatible with IBM’s Microdrive. The USB image-transfer cable and AC adapter connectors are on this side, too, making things rather crowded; a flap covering the audio/video port has the left side to itself. Pro and semipro photographers will be glad to see a hot shoe for external flash units on top; snapshooters will settle for cycling through the built-in flash’s automatic, red-eye reduction, forced off, forced on, and slow sync (low-light portrait) modes.

Once our clumsy fingers got the USB cable plugged in, the Coolpix was recognized by Windows XP as a storage device for drag-and-drop image uploads with no driver software required (although the supplied Nikon View 4 software lets you perform a few tricks such as downsizing high-resolution images to wallpaper or Web-publishing size during transfer).

Your finger and thumb easily find the shutter and zoom buttons, respectively, and a happily simple, two-position switch flips between shooting and playback modes with no other choices to confuse you. As with many digicams, the zoom button lets you get ever-zoomier closeups or four- or nine-tile thumbnail views of images during playback on the LCD monitor, and a four-way compass button on the rear helps you navigate menus.

Past that, we must say, the 5000’s controls can be daunting or confusing for casual photographers, and give even enthusiasts a bit of a learning curve. The on/off switch is a dinky, balky ring around the shutter button, and lots of functions involve pressing a button that does one thing by itself and another when held while you twist a command dial, which the camera’s tight size makes like playing Twister with your fingertips. For example, the “size” button actually rotates through the image-quality choices, with “size” plus the command dial rotating through sizes or resolutions.

But casual photographers aren’t going to use the Coolpix 5000; while it has an autofocus, auto-exposure mode (called “Set A”) that works fine for snapshots and even pretty well for macro closeups, we found that mode’s exposure and white balance choices unimpressive for indoor portraits. N

No, the folks who can spend a grand for a digital camera will happily tweak scores of settings and appreciate being able to flip between three customizable, saved combinations thereof (“Sets 1, 2, and 3”) — in which the control buttons get decidedly more useful, such as letting you assign the function of your choice to a shortcut button so you can, say, change white balance without going through the normal menu.

The Optimal Shot
Frankly, space forbids detailing every manual control in the 5000’s bag of tricks. Naturally, you’ll find a choice of shutter or aperture priority exposure, or fully manual selection of both; the ability to lock in a specific focus distance; and 100, 200, 400, or 800 ISO sensitivity, with a noise-reduction option for the latter settings.

Manual exposure compensation spans from -2.0EV to +2.0 in 1/3 increments, just as white balance options include auto, sunny, cloudy, incandescent, fluorescent, and speedlight plus the must-have preset (selecting a white object as a reference) and even the option to nudge the selected setting toward a slightly redder or bluer cast.

You can adjust both image sharpening and color saturation or vividness (or take black-and-white pictures), and tweak brightness and contrast in the camera or apply a “normal” filter for images you’ll be touching up on your PC later. Metering options include traditional spot (center) metering, 256-point matrix metering, and a center-weighted compromise between the two, plus spot metering linked to spot focus (your choice of four additional focus areas surrounding the center of the image).

Auto bracketing is a boon, and the Coolpix 5000 takes it beyond the call of duty with exposure bracketing that takes three or five shots with 0.3, 0.7, or 1.0EV increments — plus white balance bracketing that takes three shots including one above and below the current white balance menu setting.

An even bigger boon for slow-shutter shots with no tripod is Nikon’s trademark “best shot selection,” which takes up to 10 flashless photos while you hold the shutter button down, compares them, and saves the sharpest to the CompactFlash card. A ballyhooed “clear image” mode promises even fancier merger of a trio of exposures, but it more than triples capture time, works only for 1,280 by 960 or smaller shots, and frankly didn’t make much difference to our eyes.

Finally, in addition to stills and QuickTime movies, you can explore several continuous or burst shooting modes – a maximum of three full-sized or high-speed sequence of many SXGA or smaller shots at 3 frames per second; up to eight shots at 1.5 fps; a sequence of 16 VGA images saved as one stop-motion collage; or up to 100 small (320 by 240) frames captured at full TV speed (30 fps).

We expected the combination of 5-megapixel resolution and such extensive artistic controls to deliver great shots – and it did, with a special shout-out for indoor closeups and the invaluable best shot selection. Even images that weren’t as razor-sharp as we’d hoped yielded spectacular prints when we resized them from 2,560 by 1,920 to lower resolutions with Paint Shop Pro.

On the other hand, our final verdict ultimately reflects a sort of vague, “it’s great, but for a thousand bucks, it had better be” hesitation: Perhaps the super-duper sensor is mismatched with a merely good lens, or perhaps we were cranky to get no more than 3X zoom in this price range, but we found ourselves musing that many shots ultimately didn’t look any better than those from 4-megapixel cameras we’ve liked.

With its compact, take-it-anywhere size and angle-peeping swiveling screen, paired with impressively flexible manual controls and helpful assists like exposure bracketing, the Coolpix 5000 is the most convenient 5-megapixel digital camera around. But years from now, we doubt it’ll be in the Hall of Fame.

Nikon USA, Inc.;www.nikonusa.com

Price: $1,100

Small Business Computing Staff
Small Business Computing Staff
Small Business Computing addresses the technology needs of small businesses, which are defined as businesses with fewer than 500 employees and/or less than $7 million in annual sales.

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