A Review of the
Nikon Coolpix 990
by Chris Mason
Digital photography has always been such a natural for my company. My wife, the artist (www.joart.ai), and I, the photographer and technician, run a design and advertising shop on Anguilla, British West Indies. For our webpage and print design work, we need high quality pictures, and we need them quickly. There's no slide processing here, so that's not an option. Yet, even though we are very high-tech, for the past two years I have resorted to shooting negative film with my trusted Canon T90 setup and processing the film at a local “1 hour” shop. I scan the negatives with an HP Photosmart, and spend a few hours colour correcting and removing fingerprints and scratches with Photoshop.
Despite having such a good reason to go digital, I’ve never seen anything on the market within my budget that could produce the quality I needed. I had to be able to use the shots in a glossy magazine, and I had to have a range of lenses to cover my assignments. A lot of my shoots are of properties for the rental market (www.mycaribbean.com), and my Canon 24mm and 19mm lenses have covered my needs well. But, I also have to shoot people, products, and some glamour.
In June, I read a review of the Nikon Coolpix 990 and realized that this camera could handle most if not all of our requirements, so I bought one and took it on vacation. One of the smartest things I did was to buy the wide-angle and fisheye attachment lenses, as well as a 96MB flashcard and reader. I’m a lens snob, so I have always been wary of attachment lenses, but Nikon has a great name in the field of optics, and I knew the camera couldn’t do what I needed without them.
Integrating the camera into our work brought its own advantages. Rental villas constitute the bulk of our shoots. Jo Anne and I work as a team, art director and photographer. A typical shoot will take about four hours in which we shoot about six setups.
Because of the limitations of shooting film, we have always used a very large “fudge factor,” varying the lighting, and bracketing each side of the light meter’s readings by a couple of stops. I have had many sleepless nights hoping the shots I needed were on the film, and that the client liked them. Weekends and holidays the processing shop is not open, and on many occasions we have had to wait a couple of days before seeing the results.
The digital camera has changed all that. Because of our current setup, we can get the shots we need, show them to the client, get their approval, and move on to the next setup immediately.
Although the camera has a decent monitor on the back, it also has a very cool video output, which is adjustable between PAL and NTSC (European and American TV standards). Did I mention we were also in the video business? Well, we are, and have a selection of video monitors available. Our screen of choice has been a 9” Sony Trinitron connected to the camera while it sits on a tripod.
On indoor shots, we are always using a mixture of White Lightning studio flash units and a couple of slave battery units; I have to take a picture to see the results on the monitor. By setting the camera to the lowest quality, VGA-basic, and taking a shot, the setup can be viewed immediately. A few adjustments, a consultation with the client, another few adjustments, and we are ready for the final shot. I don’t use the highest setting on the camera - which produces a 9MB TIFF file - the full resolution JPEG file is perfect for my needs. With the camera adjusted to that resolution, I bracket two or three shots and break down for the next one.
On outdoor shots, where the monitor is not practical because of the extreme light level in the Caribbean, we leave the video monitor indoors and check our work before moving on. I have plans to construct a decent “Hoodman” type of monitor shroud so we can use it in the sun. I’ve ordered the Hoodman for the 990.
Among the most impressive features of the camera, from a professional point of view, is the control it allows. Digital cameras have always seemed to be mired in the “point & shoot” genre, designed to remove all creative flexibility in an effort to ensure that the clumsiest, half-blind tourist would go home with a recognizable image. While the 990 caters to that market with its automatic setting, on its manual setting, there are controls for every feature. With five white balance settings as well as auto, flash power, and monitor brightness, the camera is easy to customize. The auto white balance has produced images so accurate I have never needed to colour balance in Photoshop.
The most important control for me is the ability to set the aperture and shutter as I would with a film camera. I have always shot ISO 100 film, and the 990 can be set up as ISO 100 to 400. I leave it on 100 and find that my Minolta flash meter pretty much agrees with the settings on the camera. Although changing the settings is a little more fiddly than a full-sized SLR, it’s not bad. The camera has four metering modes, including spot, but I have not been happy with the results using the built-in metering. I suspect that the high levels of infrared present outdoors, in the Caribbean, are causing the camera to underexpose. I also suspect that the camera is looking at the brightest point in the subject matter, and trying to keep within its range.
Another of my requirements for a digital camera was that it would work with studio flash. The 990 made this easy. I use the built-in flash to trigger slave flash units. Although not powerful enough to add to the White Lighting, it is bright enough to trigger the other flash units. I also have the Nikon external speedlight adapter on order, with a flash bracket by Versa-tec.
Almost all of the properties we shoot feature wonderful views of the ocean. Combining the indoor scene with the view through the window is a requirement of most shoots. This is a lot more difficult than it sounds. Outdoor exposures are F32 at 1/60, the normal camera sync speed. I bought the Canon T90 because it featured a 1/250 sync speed, which brought the aperture down to F16, or F11 if we overexposed outdoors by one stop. The surprising feature of the 990 is that it has no sync speed because of its electronic shutter. I can set the shutter and aperture to any combination and it will work.
My studio flash units have 1/300 duration, so there is a limit to how fast I can set the shutter, and the range of apertures is very limited on the camera, so it's not a perfect solution.
Remember those attachment lenses? The wide-angle has turned out to be a wonderful piece of glass, I use it on most of the indoor shots. A step-up ring is on order to allow me to use my collection of promist and polarizer filters, and to attach my Cokin filter system.
The fisheye is so much fun, it’s a true 180 degree lens, which produces a circular image. Very bizarre! It has given me a new product for my website customers, spherical panoramas. These wild images allow the prospective client to look around a room as if they were in it. (www.photo.ai/pans/hadalli.html).
For some shots I still use film. The 990 is not as responsive as a film camera, though, there is a very definite delay when you press the shutter button. Because the camera has to compress and save the image, the cycle time is about five seconds, much too long for action shots. When I need longer lenses I return to my Canon.
On the other hand, the 990 has the most amazing macro ability. I took a shot of “chinaberries” after a rainstorm, they are only an eighth of an inch across, but they are huge in this shot.
It's amusing to watch the clients do a double take when they see all our equipment being hauled in to the location, then this little pocket camera is placed on top of the tripod. We’ve been able to shoot in the morning, and hand the client a dozen 8 x 10 images in the afternoon. The flash card reader stays attached to our scanning workstation and appears as a drive on the network, the pictures are available moments after we walk in the door from a shoot, saving me two to three hours of scanning and retouching.
There are a few things I would change - if Nikon were to ask me. In our environment, small apertures would be useful. I find the metering inaccurate. When the flash is turned on, it only flashes if the camera feels it’s needed. I would like it to fire anyway, if the camera is being used on manual.
I’d love to be able to preview the image without saving it. Currently it will save unless I go through many buttons to erase it. It would be nice to set it up so that pressing the shutter release would shoot an image to the monitor, but not save it.
It would also be nice if the viewfinder image was a little more accurate. Now, the cropped image is very different from the actual image. In fact, it would be a lot nicer if the camera was a SLR.
Battery consumption is very high, but I think that's a limitation of the technology. I have been using NiMH batteries and chargers from the people at www.greenbatteries.com who are wonderful to deal with. I get a couple of hours out of each set.
An x-sync terminal is a must. Why do camera manufacturers think their puny expensive flash units are everything we will ever need? It would be so nice to be able to wire my studio flash units to the camera directly.
The external video monitor has all the settings displayed on it just like the camera’s monitor. Why? There’s no need for it. To turn it off, one has to turn it off on the camera - which is a pain. It would be far better to be able to connect the camera to a computer and see the image on the computer - a live connection would be great.
The software in the camera is wonderful. Forget the computer software, it’s terrible.
This camera has loads of mainly functional features, more than I could ever fit into an article, and it takes quite an effort to learn them all.
I’m truly in love with my little Coolpix.
All in all, the Coolpix 990 is a great
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