Using the Nikon Coolpix A for macro photography

The Nikon Coolpix A is one of the new category of compact cameras with a big sensor to match the picture quality of DSLRs. It’s a very stylish camera, not as sleek as its rival the Ricoh GR, as it has a slightly more boxy shape and the lens mount protrudes further, but it’s nevertheless a lovely camera and perfectly pocketable.

The controls on the back of the Nikon Coolpix A should be familiar to any users of Nikon DSLRs.

The Coolpix A has an APS-C-sized sensor which is as big as those in best-selling DSLRs. Nikon has used one of its 23.6mm x 15.6 mm DX sensors for this compact camera which makes a perfect partner for the sharp and fast f2.8 28mm lens.

One of the main differences between the Coolpix A and the Ricoh GR has been the cost as the Nikon was priced at over £900 initially and the Ricoh at around £600. However, the Nikon street price has since fallen and the difference has narrowed considerably.

Great lenses on compacts are often let down by tiny sensors which fail to do justice to the resolving power of the lens. The 16-megapixel sensor in the Coolpix A is basically the same as in Nikon’s D7000 DSLR but without the low-pass filter, which means the compact camera can outshoot the DSLR in terms of sharpness.

The main rival to the Coolpix A is the Ricoh GR which was launched just after the Nikon model. I have written an article about shooting macro photography with the Ricoh GR and in that article I praised the GR V’s exemplary layout of controls.

The Coolpix A doesn’t quite reach the standard of the Ricoh in terms of controls as the Nikon’s shooting mode dial on top of the camera is not lockable and although it has a good clickable movement which means it’s not easily shifted, it can still be knocked off the set mode in a pocket or bag.

Also on the top plate are the on/off lever and a wheel for setting aperture or shutter speed, depending on which mode you choose. If you choose manual mode, this wheel will set shutter speed while the aperture is controlled by the dial on the back.

It’s a bit more traditional than the Ricoh on the back of the camera, with a total of nine buttons and the set-up will be very familiar to Nikon DSLR users. As well as the menu button, there are also dedicated buttons for exposure compensation, ISO, playback, a button for zooming in on a picture and one for zooming out, display information, delete picture(s) as well as the all important OK button.

The Coolpix A and the Ricoh GR both have three-inch LCD screens, measured diagonally, but the Nikon takes up more space as it has a black border which displays information outside the picture although the sequence number of the picture is displayed on the top right of the picture. It’s a bit of a waste and might have been of more use if a wider format was available. The Ricoh screen is higher-resolution and also has a black border under the picture but displays information both in this border and along the top of the picture.

The Coolpix A shines by comparison with the Ricoh GR when it comes to setting auto, manual or macro focus. Manual focus on the Ricoh is a nightmare of selecting a menu option and then holding down a button while using a dial. You need a lot of patience to use it. Setting for macro focus on the Ricoh is easy enough, it’s just a question of pressing the top part above the menu control on the back. The macro setting also stays in operation if you turn the camera off, so you can just start up again in macro. However, I often find myself checking on this by pressing the macro function again and then, of course, having to turn it on again. It’s not bad but it does have its faults.

The Coolpix A simply has a switch on the side where you can choose auto focus, macro focus or manual focus. It’s a well engineered switch and I haven’t had any problems with it shifting to another mode in a bag.

Focusing manually with the Coolpix A is light years ahead of the Ricoh as the extra protrusion on the Nikon lens mount is accounted for by an excellent focusing ring. It’s not perfect but it works well and quickly, so manual focus is a viable option with the Coolpix A. Manual focus will take you down to 0.3ft, which is the same as the closest macro focusing distance of 10cm (4ins), so you could do your macro photography in manual if you were so inclined.

If, however, you turn off the camera in manual focus and start up again in manual focus mode, the focus will be set at the default of infinity rather than 0.3ft or whatever distance you had set when the camera was turned off.

Macro photography is the main theme of this article and I should point out here that neither the Coolpix A nor the Ricoh GR is capable of the scientific definition of macro photography, which would be 1:1 reproduction or higher, that is life-size or greater. For that sort of photography, you really need a DSLR and a dedicated macro lens.

I found the Coolpix A auto-focusing to be fast in good light, although with some hunting on occasions, particularly with flowers moving in the wind. The sharpness of the in-focus areas can’t be faulted and the quality of the bokeh (out-of-focus areas) is also excellent. The camera produces big, high-resolution files, up to 64Mb for a Tiff saved from a Jpeg.

The colours sparkled out of the camera and there was little post-processing work done apart from setting white points and cropping some pics slightly to focus on the main subject.

I found the Nikon Coolpix A to be a superb, brilliantly portable camera which is well suited to all types of photography and capable of producing some great macro work.

You can read my review of the Ricoh GR for macro photography here.