Night photographer Lance Keimig takes you on a journey to the Aurora Borealis and helps you from start to finish, beginning with preparation for cold, Icelandic weather and finishing up with exposure...
Suppose that you're eating at an outdoor cafe and see an interesting picture
materializing. Pull your Nikon Coolpix 995 out of its case (the camera is too
large to fit in a pocket). Remove the lens cap. Twist the body so that the
optical and digital viewfinders are both facing you. Turn the camera dial from
Off to "A" (careful not to turn the same switch all the way to "arrow" or the
camera will be in playback mode and incapable of taking a picture). Press the
shutter release. Nine seconds later, the camera will take a photo.
You had some previous experience with digital cameras and you knew that you'd
want to show this magnum opus to your friends at the table. So you held the
shutter release down in order to hold the photo on the camera's monitor. No such
luck. The picture disappears. What you were supposed to do was, within a couple
of seconds of exposure, use your other hand to press the flash mode button to
keep the picture on the monitor. Alternatively you could have pressed the focus
mode button to discard the photo immediately. Not that it really matters.
Assuming it was a sunny day that lured you outside, you won't be able to view the
image on the Nikon 995's LCD. It isn't multicoated against reflection.
Consider your buddy with his 35mm film point and shoot, perhaps a venerable
old Yashica T4. He whips it out of his shirt pocket (typical P&S cameras are
7 ounces with battery; the Nikon 995 weighs 16 ounces). The camera is already
prepared with the lens pointing forward, the viewfinder pointing backward, and
the shutter release on top; no need to twist. He turns it on and the lens cover
retracts automatically. Point and shoot cameras have been excoriated for shutter
lag but even the worst will autofocus, compute exposure, and release within less
than one second. What about creative control? Your buddy can lock the focus by
pointing the camera at an off-center subject and pressing the shutter release
halfway down. You can't (unless you're willing to go through a bunch of menus on
the 995). Your buddy has central area metering and exposure lock, again
accessible via holding the shutter release halfway down. Can you do this with
your 995? Sure but be prepared to read the manual. A few times. If your buddy has
color negative film loaded in his point and shoot, he has at least 10 bits of
dynamic range and maybe more like 12. This means that his film has a chance of
capturing detail in both the highlights and shadows of a contrasty scene. The
resulting negative may be tough to print but the information is there. With your
Nikon 995 you have 8 bits of dynamic range. Unless it is a cloudy day, large
parts of your picture will probably end up pure white or pure black.
Your friend is crushing you photographically. He has a better tool for most
purposes with a vastly simpler user interface. You're thumbing through the
178-page manual that you carry with you at all times (it isn't on
www.nikonusa.com). He is thinking about photography.
What's good about the Nikon Coolpix 995? If you're willing to immobilize your
subject(s), leaf through the owner's manual, and perform a few experiments, the
camera can handle many specialized photographic situations that would otherwise
require a much more expensive digital camera or a film-based camera system. The
995 accepts IBM Microdrives. You can pop in a 1 GB drive and take 1000 pictures
before reloading. The 995 offers useful macro capabilities, e.g., the ability to
fill the frame with an object less than one inch (25mm) long. The 995 can be
manually focussed. The 995 accepts an extensive range of supplementary lenses,
from wideangles and fisheyes to long telephotos. The 995 can average multiple
images for high-quality photography on a tripod at night.
The Nikon Coolpix 995 is a
3-megapixel chunky point and shoot camera, creating 8-bit JPEGs that are
2048x1536 pixels in size. The lens is equivalent to a 38-152mm zoom lens on a
35mm camera. This is a normal to telephoto range, suitable for portraits and
isolating details within scenes. For wide angle photography you would have to
purchase an adaptor lens and frame all of your images through the LCD
The optical viewfinder
offers adequate eye relief for eyeglass wearers but does not accurately represent
what is being captured by the sensor. The viewfinder zooms with the lens but only
shows about 85% of the image being recorded. Be prepared for some surprise
elements in your compositions (see the shoe in the beach photo at right, for
Standard sensitivity is equivalent to ISO 100 but can be manually set to
200,400, or 800 as well. The "Auto Sensitivity" function performed poorly,
leaving the camera with the lens wide open and at a shutter speed of 1/30th
rather than upping the film speed to 200 or 400. Image quality suffers at ISO
400, as you can see from the image below.
The built-in flash has a guide number of 32 at ISO 100 and the camera can
control modern Nikon system flashes (SB-28/28DX/26/26/25/24/22/22s).
Gallery of User Interface Horrors
Let's first consider
user interface problems that arise in the camera's idiot mode. The first problem
is that it isn't clear how to engage idiot mode. A Nikon N65 film SLR's mode dial
contains a bunch of black and white symbols and pictographs. It also contains a
big green camera icon, labeled with the word "Auto". Other Nikon film SLRs have
dials with settings labeled "simple" and "advanced". With the Coolpix 995 the
option to go for idiot mode is not distinguished by color, is not separated from
the on/off switch, and is not separated from the "playback mode".
Suppose that a new user of the 995 has somehow managed to get into idiot mode.
Our novice is trying to take a picture in a home living room. It is a bit dark
and the camera would really like to use flash. How is this communicate to the
photographer? Via a flashing red light next to the viewfinder. Knowing that
something must be wrong, the photographer refers to the big LCD monitor on the
back, where reams of text often appear. Do the words "Please slide the switch on
top of the viewfinder/lens twisty to pop up the flash" appear on the screen? No.
Nothing does. Our photographer is supposed to refer to the 178-page manual if he
or she wants to know what this flashing means.
What about a sophisticated photographer? This person has turned the camera's
off/auto/manual/playback dial to "manual". By default, manual mode is actually
fully automatic as far as exposure and focus are concerned. Our photographer
presses menu. There are actually three menus from which to choose. There is
Shooting Menu 1, Shooting Menu 2, and Setup. These are selected by picking tabs
on the far left of the screen. It isn't clear what distinguishes the two shooting
menus and why it isn't simply one longer menu like the two-screen setup menu.
Suppose our photographer selects Shooting Menu 1. Each item is indicated by a
cryptic icon. Because nobody could possibly figure out what these mean, as one
rolls the cursor over the icon a text explanation reads out on top of the screen.
The fourth item is "Best Shot Selector" (BSS). The menu prints out enough text to
let the photographer turn this on and off but not enough to explain what BSS is.
For that, our photographer must refer to page 102 of the manual. Given that our
photographer has paid for $900 of computer hardware that includes a bit-map
display, why can't the menu system offer a help option for each item? In the case
of BSS this would say "Useful for macro and in low light. Holding the shutter
release continuously will result in up to 10 images being taken and only the
sharpest being written out to the flash card." That's about 175 bytes of
About halfway through the design process, the engineers at Nikon must have
realized that they had no clue how the camera's controls should be laid out. So
they provide extra menu user interface to let the photographer finish the job!
The mode and exposure compensation buttons on top of the camera, near the shutter
release, are labeled "mode" and "+/-". With the main switch set to "A", they do
nothing. You'd think a message would appear on the LCD saying "To activate these
buttons, switch to M" but in fact nothing happens at all. In M, the mode button,
in combination with the thumb dial, let's you switch among the usual
shutter-priority, aperture-priority, manual, and program automation for exposure.
The exposure compensation button, again in conjunction with the thumb dial, makes
the image darker or lighter. These buttons are also labeled "func. 1" and "func.
2". If you wade through enough menus you can set func. 1, for example, to scroll
among mountain, macro, and self-timer modes, thus duplicating a dedicated button
for this purpose on the back of the camera. You could also set func. 1 to
duplicate the flash mode button on the camera back. func. 2 can be similarly set.
Have some fun by setting these, handing the camera to a friend, and demanding
that he or she engage aperture-priority exposure or +1 stop exposure
Like the woman at the Catskills resort who complained that the food was
terrible and also that the portions were too small, let's close this section with
a complaint about how slow the 995 is. It is slow to wake up. By default, the
camera will go to sleep after 30 seconds to save power. Waking up to take or view
a picture takes an agonizing second or two. If you're accustomed to a film camera
or a high-end digital SLR, this will drive you crazy.
The Nikon Coopix 995
comes with two bundled software applications. Both are image cataloging programs
rather than image editing programs (i.e., you'll still have to buy Adobe
PhotoShop or Microsoft PictureIt!). One is called "Nikon View 4" and the other is
"Cumulus", a third-party image database management system. After installing all
the software onto a Windows 2000 laptop, it was a pleasant surprise to find that
Nikon View woke up upon the insertion of a flash card into the laptop's PC Card
slot. A small window popped up inviting me to transfer the contents of the flash
card onto the computer. I accepted the invitation, the images were copied, and
the pop-up disappeared.
Where were my pictures? I started Nikon View 4 from the Start menu. The
application came up, festooned with fancy 3D icons. No images. No folders. The
Open command was greyed out on the File menu. After 5 minutes of clicking around,
I still couldn't find the images. The help command in the application does not
bring up the user's manual for the application; that comes in a PDF file on a
separate CD-ROM (no, it isn't available on www.nikonusa.com).
Using the Microsoft operating system tools, I was able to find the images.
They were under a subdirectory in the Nikon View 4 folder. I started Cumulus, the
bundled database application. After a few minutes, I was able to create a
"catalog" and import the folder containing the images from the 128 Mbyte flash
card. The computer chugged away for a few minutes, presumably spending most of
its time generating thumbnails. After 61 images had been imported, a dialog box
came up. The monster database of 61 pictures was at the limit of the version
provided free by Nikon. Would I like to visit Canto Software's Web site and pay
for an upgrade? Given that (1) this is database software that uses a proprietary
format, and (2) Canto Software doesn't publish Cumulus's documentation on the
Web, it seemed wiser to trash the application.
Back to Nikon View 4. Perhaps it would work better on a different computer. I
put the disk into a desktop computer: "This software is not compatible with your
operating system [Windows NT]".
Back to the laptop. This time I tried (1) starting Nikon View 4 first, and (2)
connecting the camera up via the USB cable. At first there was a reassuring
dialog box about "New Hardware Found, Nikon 995". Then an error message about
multiple devices not being supported. Then "Your computer must be restarted". I
waited for Windows 2000 to reboot. The same little Image Transfer pop-up appeared
upon reboot. I rolled the mouse over the obscure icons long enough to figure out
which one was "Exit". I brought up Nikon View 4. There is a Transfer command on
the File menu but it was greyed out. No images. Unplugging the USB cable from the
back of the computer and plugging it back in resulted in a tree showing up in the
"Select Folder" area. At the top of the tree was "Card reader" (actually the
camera). Underneath was a folder entitled "100NIKON". Clicking on the folder
resulted in thumbnails showing up in the main window. All of the vertically
exposed images were incorrectedly oriented. However, one nice thing was that the
camera settings were available in a third window.
There is no "Select All" option from Edit but with some mousing and scrolling
I was able to select all the images from the folder. This caused the Transfer
option on the File menu to become active. I transferred the images again. I was
never asked for a folder name. No new folders showed up on any menu. It seems
that Nikon View 4 is only useful for feeding images into a third-party database
application. And the third-party application bundled with the 995 is only good
for 61 images. And Cumulus stores images in a proprietary format that will make
them tough to retrieve and process programmatically.
I gave up on the Nikon software and started up a year-old version of Canon's
Zoom Browser EX software. I clicked the right mouse button and selected the "New
Folder" option. I inserted the flash card in the laptop's PC card slot. It showed
up in the Canon Browser as the E: drive. I doubled click on that and the
thumbnails appeared. I clicked "Select All" and then dragged the mouse into the
new folder. The images were transferred, albeit without camera setting
Batteries and Power Management
Nikon supplies a rechargeable
Li-ion battery with the Coolpix 995. Nikon rates this for 110 minutes of use with
the LCD monitor engaged. In practice the battery was just beginning to fade after
about 70 pictures taken over four days. One great thing about this camera is that
the battery compartment will take a standard 2CR5 disposable lithium battery as
an alternative to the rechargeable battery. So you can carry a lightweight spare
or, in a pinch, buy a battery at any drugstore. The battery cannot be charged in
the camera. You'll be traveling with a separate charger and cable.
The camera's clock is supposed to run on an internal rechargeable battery that
draws power from the Li-ion battery. In practice this proved not to work. Despite
the camera having been fitted with a fully charged Li-ion battery for several
days, the internal clock lost its setting when the main battery was removed
overnight for charging. When the clock isn't set, the Nikon 995 goes into
"mid-1980s VCR user interface mode". Instead of the words "Please press the menu
button to set date and time" appearing on the LCD screen, a tiny cryptic icon
flashes continuously. If you have good eyesight and a good imagination, you may
surmise that this icon represents a clock. Actually setting the date and time
requires persisting through several main screens of menus and scrolling through
many irrelevant options before finally getting to the date/time screen.
In the image above right, note how the camera seems to have focussed on the
steel support for the boat canopy, rather than the boat captain. It really was
beyond my capabilities to keep the camera set for single-shot autofocus.
Watch white balance carefully. The image at left below shows what happens when
you take pictures indoors and leave everything on auto. Not too accurate, eh?
Auto White Balance
Manually set to Incandescent
When doing macro photography, make sure that you get the remote release for
the 995. You'll probably want to be focussing manually, using a tripod, and
having the aperture set to the minimum (for maximum depth of field). Unless
you're using electronic flash, this implies a slow shutter speed and the risk of
camera shake from your finger on the body's shutter release. With a standard SLR
you could address this problem by engaging the self-timer. Unfortunately, on the
Nikon 995 the same button that engages the self-timer is also used to select
manual focus. It is therefore tricky to keep the camera in "manual
focus/self-timer" mode simultaneously.
Here are some examples, playing around with house plants. Aperture was set to
f/9.8 (the minimum). Camera was in aperture-priority autoexposure mode with no
exposure compensation, resulting in shutter speeds of around 1/2 second. White
balance was set to incandescent. Lighting was from some low-voltage track lights.
Focus was set manually by looking at the LCD monitor. The camera was on a tripod
and the shutter release pressed manually, though carefully. The four images below
were collected from a total set of 5 (i.e., it was pretty easy to get the desired
If you want to carry a camera at all times in your pocket or purse, look at a
smaller camera, such as the Canon Digital Elph series or the Kyocera/Yashica
Finecam S3. For flash photography with a clunky point and shoot, pick up a camera
with a hotshoe (e.g.,
Canon G1). For
photography of fast-changing scenes, get a more responsive single-lens reflex
digital camera such as the
Canon D30, or one of the
www.nikontechusa.com is Nikon's
tech support site. They offer manuals and firmware updates for some Nikon digital
cameras, but not, as of the date of this review, for the 995.
www.nikon-euro.com is Nikon's
European tech support site. They have a much more up-to-date set of
manuals for Nikon digital cameras, including 995 manuals as of the review date
(August 3, 2001).
A digital camera consists of
a lens to form an image
an image sensor to record the image
an electronic flash (typically)
some fast memory (RAM)
some slow but persistent memory (flash card or Microdrive)
some software in the camera
some software on a PC
a bit-map display
some buttons for user interface
As photographers, we want high quality and, above all, stability in
the software and user interface of digital cameras. In the film world, the user
interface of cameras has been extremely stable. A Nikon F3 is exactly like a
Nikon F and both are reasonably similar to a Nikon F5. A Leica M6 can be
immediately used by someone who bought a Leica M3 in the 1950s. All of the Canon
EOS bodies made over 15 years function similarly. As far as post-exposure image
processing, most of use filing system that remain unchanged for decades.
Technology improvements have been gradual. We adopt them by buying a new lens or
putting new film behind our old lenses. Our user interface changes very seldom
and very slightly.
In the digital photography world, however, if we want to take advantage of the
march of technology, we are forced into learning new software and interfaces
every year. Many of these new interfaces are built by people who haven't any
experience writing software.
In the world of the personal computer, the split of software and hardware has
resulted in users being able to adopt technology improvements without learning
new user interfaces. The latest Microsoft Windows operating system (XP; the next
rev in the Windows NT/2000 family) runs on desktops, laptops, and Palm-like
devices. You can get the fastest processor, the best display, the biggest hard
drive, from a competitive group of hardware vendors without adopting any of their
idiosyncratic ideas about user interface. Windows and applications layered on top
of Windows can be difficult to learn but at least you only have to learn things
Basically what the world needs is a standard operating system for cameras
coupled to a standard PC-based software for image database, manipulation, and
publishing. The camera operating system would be flexible enough to deal with
hardware that contained lens zoom rings versus lens zoom push buttons. Companies
like Nikon and Canon would concentrate on pushing the state of the art in image
quality, image stabilization, weatherproofing, and control placement. They'd get
out of the software and user interface design business. A company called
www.flashpoint.com) tried to
do something like this in the late 1990s. The idea was probably a bit too
early--most digital cameras were still being bought by gadget freaks--and the
execution was poor (i.e., the FlashPoint operating system wasn't significantly
better than code written in-house by Canon, Olympus, et al). But in my opinion
this is where the industry will end up in 2010.