Secrets of Digital Photography / 5 Megapixel Cameras
Joy! 5-25-04



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Well dust me off and cover me with surprise. It's a teeny weeny Nikon that is cuter than a kitten yet captures tiger-size pictures. It isn't the most capable Nikon on the block, but it wins the award for being the most Go Anywhere, Any Time Nikon. After years of watching Canon bring out model after model of tiny purse and pocket cameras, the Nikon designers have said, okay, I'll see your bet and raise you a 5200.

There are compromises in its design to cut corners and simplify its operation. In fact, every corner on its entire body has been cut--rounded actually--to make it slip in and out of pockets and purses without ever causing a snag.

Where would you like to take your Nikon today? With the diminutive, simplified Coolpix 5200, the answer is, "anywhere you can carry a pocket." I guess that leaves out nudist colonies, unless portable pockets are optional. A wrist strap is included with the 5200, though.

In the picture above, the 5200 sits atop the Coolpix 950, the first of the really cool Coolpix line (the CP900 was not cool enough) and I used to carry that camera in a tux coat pocket. Obviously the coolest Coolpix in the photo is on top, and I no longer have to look like I'm packing heat. Besides the smaller camera shoots a picture with 264% of the larger camera's pixels.

Anyhow, this 5.1-megapixel, metal bodied, quick-starting, iPod-size, 3:1 zoom, f/2.8-4.9, fast-focusing, SD card-toting, card-free operating, easy to use, 5-ounce, feature-laden, 15-scene mode, movie-capturing, instant-downloading, macro-grabbing, battery-sipping, 3 fps-shooting, flash-blasting, self-capping, people-pleasing micro camera is sweet to the max and delivers 2592 x 1944 pixel images that compete with the best of them. Say that ten times real fast.

  • Yes, it turns on in one second.
  • Yes, it displays menus in ten languages.
  • Yes, it shows a world map with animated time zones during setup.
  • Yes, it has BSS. There is no BS in BSS.
  • Yes, it has contrast and saturation controls.
  • Yes, sharpening is selectable.
  • Yes, auto bracketing for exposure and white balance are available.
  • Yes, it has focus assist lighting for totally dark situations.
  • Yes, it has 3M, 2M, PC (1024 x 768) and VGA frame sizes selectable.
  • Yes, it gets a lot of mileage out of a very small battery.
  • Yes, it has EV+/- adjustments.
  • Yes, it has a self-timer.
  • Yes, it shoots macro.
  • Yes, it shoots without a memory card. Or with.
  • Yes, you can transfer images from internal to card memory, either way.
  • Yes, the monitor is exceptionally high resolution.
  • Yes, you can power the monitor off to save battery life.
  • Yes, you can shoot 3M to save memory space without losing noticeable quality.
  • Yes, it shoots continuous frames faster than previous Nikons.
  • Yes, it collects sound with its movies.
  • Yes, the movies can be quarter, half or full VGA size at 30 fps.
  • Yes, it has a transflective monitor that works in strong sunlight.
  • Yes, it has an ergonomic menu system.
  • Yes, it's so small you can hide it under an iPod.
  • Yes, the metal shell feels cool to the touch.
  • Yes, it feels good in your hand.
  • Yes, it goes into standby sleep after an interval you set.
  • Yes, the flash is good for about fifteen feet. (ISO 200 wide zoom)
  • Yes, it will overlay a faint grid to help your composition.
  • Yes, it will overlay graphic guides for portrait and people pix.
  • Yes, you can zoom into review shots for a 600% view.
  • Yes, you can crop a new shot out of the review image.
  • Yes, it shows a playback histogram.
  • Yes, you can add voice notes easily.
  • Yes, you can generate a "small pic" from any shot.
  • Yes, it caps itself as it turns off.
  • Yes, you could take it anywhere in just about any pocket.

No, it doesn't set f-stop and shutter speed manually. In fact, you never get to see what those settings were until you review the image in your computer, later.

No, it doesn't have external flash capabilities. The flash is multi-pulse for anti-red-eye and an internal red-eye reduction system detects any residual red-eye and erases it from your shot before storing the picture! I am not making this up.

No, you're not prevented from taking bad shots with it, but it does go the extra mile to provide composition overlays for portraits, two-shots, landscape horizons, verticals, panoramics and night portraits. I just can't get over that anti-red-eye thing, though. What a great idea.

No, you don't need to insert an SD card to use the camera. Whazzat? It shoots to its internal memory (12 MB) unless you plug in an SD card. So when your card fills up, take it out of the camera and use the internal. Or when you first unpack it and tire of looking for the media card, as I did, just start taking pictures.

No, it doesn't capture 3:2 frames. With 2592, 2048, 1600, 1024 and 640 pixel wide frame options available, you can save storage space by shooting smaller images. Especially when using the internal memory cache.

If 4x6 prints are your realistic result, consider shooting 2M shots (1600 x 1200) at Basic compression. The resulting 266 ppi print won't let you see compression artifacts (too tiny if visible at all) and the internal memory says it will let you catch up to 38 shots. But it lies.

Nikon is always conservative with these numbers; I got 52 images (above) puttering around the garden while testing the idea on a cloudy day. Here's one now:


2M @ Basic compression scaled down. No artifacts here. Hmm. I wonder what it would look like if a 100% scale slice were examined up close? Something like this:

Remember: this Stadiosa shot was captured using Nikon's BASIC compression setting. and this shot is still not smacking me in the eyeballs with compression artifacts. You can print these smaller frames out at 160 perfect pixels per inch (pppi) and not perceive artifacts or image softness on the page. And at that scale, you'd have an 8x10 print.

Don't get me wrong; detectable artifacts ARE THERE, but shrinking the picture down to 2m (62% of original capture size) mushes things together so well that artifacts get lost in the shuffle.

Shooting full size frames brings the compression artifacts out, because they tend to clump around any noise in the image.

Here's a crop from another image captured at 5M (full size) and at this scale, the print would be around 29 inches wide (assuming your monitor shows about 90 ppi).

Full scale images show more noise in shadow areas, but overall, detail is quite good. Bonus: near zero purple fringe on contrasty subjects.

No, it doesn't weigh anything. You can carry this one around in a shirt pocket--but don't do that unless the pocket locks closed with a button or Velcro. If you're like me, things fall out of shirt pockets every time you bend over.

Say, that's what they forgot; a clip to keep it anchored to your shirt! Kidding. Forget the shirt thing; you don't want six ounces in a breast pocket. But at 6 ounces including battery, this is one light bit of cargo in your cargo pants. I tend to forget I'm wearing the camera, too.

Guys: inner coat or jacket pocket. Ladies: purse.

No, it isn't as small as an iPod. It's thicker but smaller in the other dimensions. You can hide the camera UNDER a current generation iPod. Roll your mouse over that iPod and see what you can find. Peekaboo.

No, it doesn't zoom during movie shots except with a steppy digital effect.

All of the movies (160, 320 and full frame 640 pixels wide) are a full 30 frames per second. They look smooth as can be. And movie mode works in Macro, too.

No, the 5200 isn't the King Of Macro. At full wide (green zone) the shooting distance is just over 1.5 inches (38mm), but the shots are impressive. Those Statice flowers at right are little itsy bitsy things.

No, the optical viewfinder isn't full image area. Nikon says it covers 75% of the frame; I say it's more like 55% and not well centered in my review unit. Think of it as a direction finder rather than as a critical view and framing tool. With the transflective monitor, shots in sunlight can be critically framed, but for fast moving situations, the optical finder may suit you better if you allow for the actual framing. Anything you see in the viewfinder will indeed be on the frame, along with a huge border of extra subject matter.

No, you can't turn digital zoom off. But it does politely wait at the optical zoom limit for 1.5 seconds before plunging into image-compromising digizoom territory. Not to worry. If you shoot smaller frames, the digital zoom effect can be under-zoomed to still maintain quality. See the crop from the full frame, above.

No, the tripod screw isn't metal. No, that isn't a problem. Years ago, the tripod screw on the 950 was plastic and Nikon stocked up on bunches of replacement parts, anticipating that people would strip them frequently. But it just didn't happen. Several other models have followed this trend and it has never turned out to be an issue. Which is not to say, "Go ahead and over-torque the puppy," but with nominal tightening, the socket will take it.

No, there isn't a rubberized grip for your fingers, but the shape of the body makes it easy to hold. No, the strap attach point won't work with a large key ring for a Finger Strap, so you'll probably want to use the provided wrist strap.

No, it doesn't cost much. The lowest I've seen from a reputable US source is in the $420 range. Get out your Google.

No, you don't have to have Photoshop to enjoy this camera. But it would help. Photoshop Elements and the 5200 go together like catsup and French fries. Although the camera is small, simplified and decidedly aimed at the broad consumer market, the included software will get you started. Of course, if you have a Mac, iPhoto instantly recognizes the camera, so no additional software may be needed. And if you do happen to have Photoshop, you're going to swear this camera was much more expensive.

Do I like it? You bet. It's more camera in a less-camera package than any other 5-megger I've seen and it is very capable. Physical packaging is superb. Most of its image qualities are fine (detail, colorimetry). Most operations are fast, intuitive and easy to understand. Nikon has gone out of its way to improve and streamline menu functions with their recent cameras and it's appreciated.

Side Note: Nikon also makes a 4-megapixel version of this same package called the CP4200. It shoots a 2272 x 1704 pixel maximum frame and costs a hundred dollars less. The choice, as ever, is yours.

Very good, Mr. Nikon; You get an A. I wish we had this on the recent China Shootout. My wife's eyes lit up when I passed it to her like I'd just handed her a puppy, and if it had been available in time for that trip, there probably would have been many more pictures of me.

How do I really feel about it? Did I mention that it fits in a pocket?



Read the news from the digital camera testers:

DPReview (Askey): Click here.
Steve's Digicams: Click
Imaging Resource: Click
(more to come)

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