|Secrets of Digital Photography
Nikon 995! Updated 7-25-01
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Many on-line reviews are available to show you the 995 feature by feature.
This isn't that kind of review.
This is my personal take on the new 995 and I've found some things that others missed.
990: Machine of the Year 2000.
995: Machine of the Year 2001?
When Time Magazine named the digital camera as the Machine of the Year, the Nikon 990 was its poster child, for it represented the apex of the digital camera ideal. Capability, depth and price are all embodied well in this camera.
Now you can hardly find them because the warehouses are depleted.
As stores sold out of 990s, the world held its breath. What was happening to the Nikon presence? Nikon shifted gears and accelerated the 995 project. Instead of a mid-summer introduction, they moved it up to late spring. They missed that deadline by only a week in the US...
Now it is being delivered.
The 995 brings a wide array of new stuff:
And retains or improves on all the features of the 990. You go, Nikon.
Available today for a list price of $899 US.
Issues to lay to rest:
Well within the envelope one expects from the 990, there is virtually no difference in the sharpness of the 995's lens. (In the center. Some corner "issues" have shown up, but they are not what you think.) The two cameras I'm putting through their paces here (one of each for comparison) behave within a micro-trice of identical. Except, of course, that you get 33.3% more zoom on the 995. A concern on some of the digital websites raised the idea that the new zoom behaves differently with things like large telescopes and potentially microscopes -- anything that is viewed through an eyepiece. Not so. The 995 behaves identically to the lens on the 990 with all of these. See the image below for a comparison of the two cameras.
Auto Focus seems to be a point better than in the 990. I've had fewer confusing moments with the 995 even when I'm shooting test subjects with both. Nikon isn't claiming an upgrade here, but it feels more positive.
You can shoot flash shots in total darkness with less confusion. The camera politely gives up trying to "see" a subject in the dark and parks the lens at the perfect distance to achieve good focus on appropriately nearby subjects.
Image Quality (With the Version 1.6 Firmware)
It's notably better than the 990 in several ways.
Images appear to have noticeably less noise at ISO 100 (which wasn't much to begin with). I would bet that Nikon has tweaked the chip performance a bit in anticipation of ISO 800. After spending some time with identical exposures of the same outdoor subject as captured with both the 990 and 995, I'm pleased to report that improvements show up all over the image.
Compression also appears to be a notch better at the same settings. Maybe half a notch, but it, too, is noticeable and welcome. This may partly be due to the lowered noise floor of the image gathering process but files consistently showed up a few percent smaller (less noise to compress) than on the 990.
Colorimetry is improved and a Saturation control is provided for you to tweak and play with. If you are shooting extra high chroma subjects like flowers, you may wish to actually reduce the normal chroma by one unit (There are two units of LESS chroma and one of MORE chroma available). Overall, the color finesse in the camera comes closer to my preferences when I tweak an image in Photoshop.
Contrast is just a touch higher. This can burn out strong whites in some extra-bright subjects, especially if you are using the Center Weight meter. Potential remedies include EV-0.3 correction, "Brightness Less" setting, or "Contrast Less" settings for extending the range of highlights. Of these, simply making a temporary EV adjustment works for me. The only place you are likely to notice this is on things that are quite literally full white. White painted objects, swans, and white flowers are vulnerable but common things like clouds and faces are not.
This camera delivers the best looking color, depth, detail and dynamic range of any compact digital camera I've seen. Without bumping its head against things I rankle over such as Too Much Chroma which happens when focus groups (from the marketing side) rather than colorimetry designers (from the truth side) tell the engineers where to target the color. Color tracking is visibly improved into the darker areas on the 995 (look closely at the deep shadow colors in the image above), and this adds to my appreciation of the efforts Nikon's engineers have delivered.
My own tests reveal that the the dynamic range (measured by extremes) are OVER 10 full f/stops. Meaning an extreme tonality capture range in excess of 1000:1 is represented in the image. Others have different means to derive their measure of dynamic range, so don't use mine to compare with other sources.
By my method of comparison, the 990 delivers almost exactly 9 stops of dynamic range or about 500:1. The practical effect of that last stop may seem dramatic but it is really measuring only the very top and bottom detail areas of these images that you would never actually appreciate in an image. In a particular sense, the most important benefit from extending the dynamics shows up in deep shadow detail and the color tracking demonstrates this pretty well.
Red Eye Blues
Flash positioning is now 50% farther from optical center. Instead of 36mm, it is now 54mm. That buys you less red-eye in the critical 4 to 9 foot zone. People farther than 9 feet will still be susceptible to the phenomenon, but the exaggerated complaints from 990 owners will be mostly quieted by the new flash.
Flash Mish Mash
Oddly, exterior flash firing completely shuts down by a closed camera flash cover. So you will have to go through the mind-bending exercise of -- get this -- opening the camera flash so you can use the external flash unit. All the more fun when you try to find the repositioned flash control menu item on the second page of the Settings menu so you can shut off the flash unit you just opened. Are you following this?
It is at the top of the second page, seven clicks away from the start of the Settings menu, labeled "Speedlight Opt." It used to be a prominent menu page 2 item in the 990, but now has become the single most distant setting to reach in the entire menu system. Sigh.
The item that disables the camera flash is called "Int Flash Off" and you must set it ON in order to turn the flash OFF. Get it?
"Int Disable (Do or Don't)" didn't seem to be an option, nor did "Set Int Flash (On or Off)" or even "Int Flash: (Go or Kill)", any of which would seem to make more sense, but after you master the idea, you can get the job done.
By the way. All you camera contest winners will be pleased to note that the Rollbar prize you won works just fine with the 995 but the flash unit in its popped-up position touches the knurled knob that holds the Nikon AS-E900 flash hot shoe to the top of the frame. No big deal.
How about using the 995 with the Wireless Infrared Flash Transmitter technique that works so well with the 990? Okay. See that metal bar on the deployed flash in the top picture? It's a clip of sorts that holds the magic filter in place to cause the flash to emit IR only. Here's how you can have one, too.
CF II Capability
There are some potentially viable alternatives to the fragile IBM MicroDrive appearing soon. I don't want to trust my afternoon's work to a device that can fail by being dropped on the floor from hand height, and unfortunately that is the residual legacy of the IBM CF II-size MicroDrive in my mind.
I never met a CompactFlash card I didn't drop. More on this issue as technology evolves.
Plastic Case on Camera Side
Not a problem at all. Since holding the unit by the camera side is done often, the flash unit and its mechanical seat are extra strength to accommodate your grip.
The swivel is now even stronger than before. It doesn't droop with an EagleEye Optic Zoom tele converter on it, and if it were to droop, the new Swivel Limit Switch next to the tripod socket would fix that. Speaking of the swivel, that's where the loop of black nylon twine goes for holding the lens cap when it's off the lens. Quick: Tie a single loop knot in the string after you install it around the swivel. Now you can't lose it.
New Review Control
The Quick Review control near the top of the 995 solves a few neat things. It lets you review your most recent shot, all right, but it also lets you play back pictures without leaving camera mode. At any time, you can press the shutter release half way and be right back to picture taking. Two quick presses of the Quick Review button and you are back to a full screen review of your latest shot.
Ho, ho! By turning the Command Dial, you can select the review page with the histographic display! Now when you review your next shot -- click, click -- that page is the first to come up. If you let the camera fall asleep, the histogram page will be remembered and will be Quick Reviewed to directly, but if you actually shut the camera off or go to a different mode, it will start with the full-frame live image once again.
Zooming into an image that is being reviewed is a good way to check for image quality and detail that you can't see on a full monitor display. Now this feature has been extended, so you get 50% closer to the image. It's a 6X zoom factor, and it's available in all review modes.
[ Bracketing ]
The reworked bracketing control is now a Menu Page 2 idea. "BKT" on the menu gives you instant easy access to 3 or 5 shot brackets spaced 0.3, 0.7 or 1.0 stops apart. Do this in Continuous shot mode and you will have a 5-shot bracket in no time. With the one full stop per shot option you will be ready to make tripod images that can combine with the iNovaFX iDynamicRanger Photoshop Action Filters producing an image with wider dynamic range than film.
A new idea is housed here, too. COLOR WB Bracketing! This shoots a "triple shot" that includes the predictable normal version plus two more. One version is slightly White Balance Warm and the third is slightly White Balance Cool. Best of all--only one shot is actually taken! Three images are laid onto the CF card in Warm, Normal, Cool order, but it doesn't require you to shoot all three.
This feature does something very good for long exposures. With the NR on, any shot 1/15 sec or longer will surreptitiously gather a dark frame of the same duration and use any speckles on that to remove any speckles on the shot. It sounds complicated but it is an in-camera implementation of the iNovaFX iFlawFrame noise reduction filters. It works very well. And it stays out of the way on shots of 1/30 sec and shorter. You can still gather your own dark frame (what I call a Flaw Frame) and use the iNovaFX filter of your choice, but the camera does such a good job of it, I'm going to use the one that's built-in.
The 995 jumps into high gear with ISO 800. As it does, all the grain and color noise you could imagine from such a move are there in the shot. The camera politely warns you about this by picturing the "800" in deep red on the monitor.
Color pictures are quite torn up over this high speed. It's like High Speed Ektachrome met the Sandman. But black and white shots look very cool. Shoot ISO 800 with Contrast Minus and you are into very nice TRI-X -like images.
You will probably want to have a copy of the iChromaDeNoise filter in your full version of Photoshop to help with color images made at ISO 800. Thank goodness this filter is free to all who wish to use it.
The 990 had 1/1000 sec as a top shutter speed. The 995 has 1/2000 as a top shutter speed when using Manual Exposure or Shutter Priority modes. But push the camera by setting it to shoot at ISO 800 and you may find that you are seeing shutter speeds as high as 1/2325 sec!
A lot of people were enraged by Nikon's abandonment of the AA battery power that all the previous Coolpix 9xx cameras used. Crikey, some even threatened to go over to Some Other Neighbor's Yard until they found out that smaller, lighter power packs were sweeping the industry and those neighbors have had their own designs of power pack for ages.
Nikon's adoption of the EN-EL1 rechargeable Lithium power pack can be seen as a Good Thing. If you cross your eyes the right way.
1. First off, they are light.
The BIGGEST advantage to these new cells is this:
Get stuck in the boonies without power? It could happen, and not many drugstores carry the single use 2CR5 batteries ($10 each at Radio Shack and sometimes as low as $4~5) that you can use in place of the EN-EL1s, so maybe you just have to get used to the idea of planning ahead.
In truth, the number of times I've had to resort to Alkaline AA power for my 990 could be counted on my thumbs, so I don't think I'm going to miss the drugstore power option. But your mileage may vary. My advice: Get two extra. They charge in a couple of hours* and while they're not cheap ($40 apiece**?), the charger that came free with the camera may be the last one you will ever need.
*Chargers that are being delivered with cameras outside the USA are not quite so fast: Remember that they charge 80% full in 1/2 the time...
**Some sources seem to have the EN-EL1s at a better price...
Flash: This Just In:
See the unusual new emergency power alternative from iNovaLabs! Would you believe a cheap, easy, available Thingamabob could save your camera from DBS, Dead Battery Syndrome? Check it out.
Nikon is still wrestling with the Firmware. Far from trivial, this is the machine-language Operating System that is at the core of the computer nature of this digital beast.
The camera was released in Canada, Europe and Australia with Firmware Version 1.1 and quickly ran into some unexpected "issues". With the swivel rotated to the rear--a point at which the image on the monitor flips vertically turning the monitor into a "mirror" image, perfect for self-portraits--images could degrade and freeze.
By the time the camera was released into the US market, Nikon had installed Firmware Version 1.6. Who knows what bugs, failures, issues or problems were solved (or not) in Versions 1.2, 1.3, 1.4, and 1.5. Still, Firmware 1.6 is not perfect.
White Unbalance: The Auto White balance appears to be of limited range compared to previous 9xx series cameras. It doesn't compensate for incandescent lighting as well and sometimes produces very red-gold results under these lights, unlike its CP990 and CP950 predecessors. You won't notice the effect shooting outdoors or with flash, but until a replacement firmware version fixes this, you may have to set incandescent and fluorescent white balance by the menu selection or by performing a manual white balance.
Firmware 1.7 fixes the above grumble. On July 23, 2002, Nikon Europe posted a Firmware Version 1.7 Upgrade that deals with this issue. Now the 995 has good response to incandescent lighting when used in Auto White Balance mode and full Automatic Exposure modes.
Both Windows and Macintosh versions are immediately available. More details to follow.
Fish flakes: The fish! Egad. The fisheye image that enjoys the slightly wider setting of the zoom lens on the 990 -- in order to catch the full circle of the fisheye lens -- is GONE! The lens is still there, but the slight extra zoom tweak is missing on the 995. Now my lens cuts off the TOP of the fisheye circle instead of the bottom when it is in full wide zoom. Can this be a "feature" of the 995 or is my individual camera just off a bit?
Folder flap: There is a tiny bug (call it an undocumented feature?) in the capture of one of the image modes. See if this shows up on your camera. Shoot VGA Basic images into a freshly formatted card. The camera tells you it has room for 234 shots on the included 16megabyte CF card, but my camera won't do it. It gets to 210, 223... but that's not the bug. Part way through the collection cycle, it creates a new folder and starts numbering the images from 0001. Is there a limit of just 200 images within any given folder? If so, how come?
Shutter shut-down: In Shutter priority mode one sets the shutter speed manually and the camera adjusts the Iris. That's how it is supposed to work. But if you adjust the shutter speed to the new 1/2000 sec setting, things fall apart. The iris will move from wide open to 1-2/3 stops DARKER. At wide angle this jumps from f/2.6 to f/4.7!!!
We eagerly look forward to Firmware Version 1.7 in hopes that Nikon is able to resolve these major and minor bugs. (6-30-01)
Flash Wide? Not with the WC-E63. It's just too big to work well with the pop-up flash design. The pop-up flash sits back of the swivel's mid-line so it tends to throw a shadow of the big '63 into the shot. But if you were clever enough to get a WC-E24 (same coverage with a bit more barrel distortion), you are in business.
Of course, with both of these wide angle lens converters, you will only get perfect, no-barrel-distortion images after running Panorama Tools, iNovaFX iBC Filters or some other anti-barrel distortion utility in your digital darkroom.
Good idea: Camera flash with the TC-E2 is a delight. This tele converter does not get in the way. And with the 152mm long tele, you now have a 304mm lens. Suddenly the TC-E2 has become even MORE valuable.
One small detail. Any converter is in FRONT of the flash tube and some of the light from the flash will bounce off the body of the converter into the flash sensor. It's that light dot in the top picture, right near the flash tube. Any bounce-back light there will cause the sensor to think that enough light has fallen on the subject. You may need to open the Menu S > Speedlight Opt. > Variable Power > +2.0 item to adjust for distant subjects.
Or coat your converter with black velvet, but that's another story...
Grip gripe: Is it me or what? The Coolpix 9xx wrist strap doesn't exist yet. Nikon keeps shoveling that same hard-fabric, itchy, scratchy neck strap into every box since the 900 and there they stay. Let's all send our neck straps back to Nikon along with a polite note requesting the WRIST strap instead. Maybe a black version of the cute strap the new 775 comes with? What a dream that one is!
In my experience, this is a WRIST strap camera, not a necklace pendant. The two-point attachment on the 995 already has me designing back-of-hand straps and easy to grasp loops both large and small. You can play too. Get some 1/4-inch soft nylon strapping from any sports store that sells mountaineering, scuba or hiking supplies. Sports Chalet has some for $0.25 per yard. And I use it on all my Nikons in lieu of their stiff-strap neck doo-hickeys. Nikon. Two words: WRIST STRAP!
Which brings up an iNovaFX point:
If you already have the "Mastering Nikon Compact Digital Cameras" eBook, the vast majority of iNovaFX Photoshop Action filters that were prepared for the Nikon 990 will work just fine with the 995. To my pleasant surprise this includes the barrel distortion correction filters. You won't need most of the iCrAb filters, though, because the lens on the 995 shows much less chromatic aberration. Nice bonus, that. iCrAb filtration for the fisheye lens will still be useful.
New color correction filters (iCC series) are being prepared for those instances in which the camera was set to the wrong white balance. With the new, improved colorimetry of the 995, the previous filters will still work, but they won't be as accurate. The new ones will ship and/or email with the 995 chapter upgrade version of the eBook later this summer.
Note: They're in Version 3.0 right now.
Everybody wants to know, "should I trade in my 990/950 for a 995?" and there is no answer for that other than the one you will have after you hold it in your hands for a few minutes. Jumping ahead, I would suggest keeping your 990/950 as a back-up camera rather than trying to get its depreciated value back--it's worth more that way.
But if you are new to digital photography, rest assured that there is no other camera this size that has all these features and all these refinements. No other camera has the optical power of the Nikon 9xx series. From fisheye to long telephoto, your equivalent range in 35mm camera terms runs from 8mm to 456mm focal length, and the camera focuses under an inch from the lens in macro mode.
The only things that would mitigate against getting it now are the remaining issues of auto white balance, Shutter priority mode, the fisheye circle cut-off and the very minor VGA folder shot limit. Certainly you could wait until you hear of Nikon's fixing these issues in their next Firmware update (something you can install in the convenience of your own home or office) and as soon as it becomes a non-issue, we will let you know on this page.
The big lenses and larger bodies of other cameras do one thing to you: they make you re-evaluate whether or not you will take the camera with you today and have it at the ready at a moment's notice. Any small camera that can fit conveniently in a belt pouch will have a photographic advantage over any camera that makes you say, "Naa. Too bulky for now..."
You can't take pictures with a camera that's back in your house, hotel room, luggage or office. The single greatest thing that will develop your photographic skills is experience in taking pictures, not simply owning the camera.
You can use it in Auto Record mode at first and know that it has all the depth of features you could grow into right up to full-manual exposure, focus, contrast adjustment, saturation adjustment, white balance adjustment, image size selection, superb compression results, converter optics and about thirty other features I leave you to master for yourself or acquire from the Nikon eBook.
I had been thinking of this camera as a minor evolutionary step up. Now I'm not so sure. I think that the incremental improvement to image quality, zoom, flash, noise reduction, ISO, quick review, speed, price and power deserve a greater place in my regard than the 995 moniker portends. This is easily 8/10ths of an upgrade, not just a half-upgrade over the previous world-class Machine of the Year.
I give it two thumbs (and two big toes) up. Highly recommended for anybody seriously interested in high quality compact digital cameras. It is the sort of instrument that will teach you things for months and months.
At some future time you will replace it with some camera that hasn't even been designed yet, but today it will extend your reach and bring you images that you will always treasure.
Special thanks to Steve of steves-digicams.com for the use of the 995 + MicroDrive image.
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