Digital cameras were new and exciting in the 1990s, but resolution and image quality didn’t yet compare to film. Nikon’s Coolpix digital line finally delivered good image quality with the Coolpix 900 and 900s, but resolution was still paltry at 1.25 megapixels. Photographers eagerly anticipated the Nikon Coolpix 950, for it would bump that up to 2.11 megapixels, enough to make prints up to 16×20 inches. It was 1999, and the point-and-shoot digital camera had finally arrived.
You could buy all sorts of strange-looking digital cameras in the 1990s as form factor was not yet settled. With the Coolpix 900 and 950, Nikon was trying out a body in two segments. You twisted the lens segment forward to take pictures, and up to slip the camera into your coat pocket.
The Coolpix 950 packs a ½-inch, 2.11-megapixel CCD sensor set behind a 38-115mm (equivalent) f/2.6-4 Zoom Nikkor lens. Its shutter operates from from 1/750 second up to 8 seconds. The 950 offers programmed, aperture-priority, and shutter-priority autoexposure modes, but no manual exposure mode. It operates at ISO 80 by default, but you can also set it to ISO 100, 160, and 320. It focuses automatically by default, but you can set it to focus manually across a range of preset distances starting from four inches. You can frame your images using the viewfinder or the two-inch LCD on the back. The 950 stores images on a Compact Flash (CF) card. Four AA batteries power the 950.
A small LCD on the top of the 950 counts down the number of images left to store on the CF card. It also shows the battery charge level and the selected modes for autofocus, flash, image resolution, focus, and metering. Buttons atop the camera set the flash and focus modes, as well as turn on the self-timer.
The 950 offers four flash modes: automatic, red eye reduction, always on, and slow synchronized. That last mode is for poorly lit backgrounds, especially at night. There’s an onboard flash as well as a port to connect an external flash (but there’s no shoe to mount it). The 950 also offers landscape, normal, and macro focusing modes. Macro mode focuses from 2 centimeters! The 950 defaults to 256-segment matrix metering, but you can also choose center-weighted or spot metering.
The switch atop the camera lets you choose A-REC and M-REC picture-taking modes, as well as the image-playback mode. A-REC is the simplest way to make images with the 950: select it, and the camera chooses most settings for you. M-REC gives you more control over settings via expanded in-camera menus.
You can set the 950 to save your images at three resolutions: full (1,600×1,200 pixels), XGA (1,024×768 pixels), or VGA (640×480 pixels), all at 300 pixels per inch. You can also choose among several JPEG compression levels with decreasing image compression: Basic, Normal, and Fine. In M-REC mode you can also select Hi image quality, which saves images as uncompressed TIFFs. You make these selections by holding down the Qual button and turning the dial on the front below the shutter button.
The bottom of the LCD shows you the aperture and shutter speed, the exposure mode, and the number of images remaining on the CF card.
The Coolpix 950 weighs about 12 ounces — heavy enough for you to notice, but not so heavy as to be fatiguing to carry.
The 950 manual doesn’t say how large of a CF card the camera accepts. Some Internet photo forums said that the 950 was designed for CF cards up to either 96 or 128 megabytes, but works with CF cards of any capacity. If you insert an unformatted CF card into your 950, the LCD gives you the option to format it. You can also format your CF card on a computer, but be sure to use the FAT (a.k.a. FAT-16) file system.
I bought a 2 GB CF card to use with my 950, as well as a USB CF card reader to connect to my computer. When I tried to format my card in the camera, the 950 said the format was successful, yet the camera wouldn’t save any images to the card. One forum thread I saw claims that the 950 can’t format CF cards larger than 128 MB. I reformatted the card in my computer, and then it worked fine in the 950.
By the way: I review mostly film cameras on this site, but I have reviewed several digital cameras too. I use my Canon PowerShot S95 a lot; review here. See also my reviews of the Canon PowerShot S80 (here), the Kodak EasyShare Z730 (here), the Kodak EasyShare C613 (here), a Sony FD Mavica MDC-FD87 (here), a Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H55 (here), and the Pentax K10D DSLR (here).
I took the Coolpix 950 to the local farmers market one Saturday morning. I shot the camera using the A REC mode, at full resolution with normal compression.
You make an image with the 950 in the standard way: frame the shot, press the shutter button down halfway to focus and set exposure, then press it the rest of the way to make the image. The camera beeps to tell you the shutter has opened and closed. It takes several seconds for the camera to write the image to the CF card, so be patient before making the next image.
The 950 focuses fast, but zooms slowly. After making and saving an image, the 950 wouldn’t let me zoom immediately. There must have been some other function the camera needed to finish performing first, but I never figured out what it was.
The 950 doesn’t handle mixed lighting well. I shot this threesome under a tree’s shade with a full-sun day raging behind them and got a blown background and a little ghosting. Do I detect a little purple fringing as well?
Once again, the bright background is blown in favor of reasonable exposure in the shadows.
In this shot the 950 delivered considerable lens flare. The sun was off to my left.
The LCD washes out easily in the sun. You can change the LCD’s brightness in the menus, which probably helps, but I just used the viewfinder instead. It’s small but bright. Unfortunately, it shows you noticeably less than what the lens sees.
Here’s a photo I made in macro mode, of the ash tree in my front yard.
You can take a selfie with the 950! Just twist the lens so it’s pointing at you, and frame yourself in the LCD. You’ll be upside down, but that’s easy enough to fix in any photo editor and in most photo viewers. You’ll need to zoom out to fit yourself in the frame. This image plainly shows the barrel distortion this lens delivers at its wide end. The more you zoom in, the more this distortion goes away.
Shadow detail is often poor. When I try to enhance shadows in Photoshop I usually find there’s not enough data there to improve the image. Even in this image of my car, I couldn’t brighten up the side and front wheel at all; there just isn’t data there for it.
To see more from this camera, check out my Nikon Coolpix 950 gallery.
When you consider that the Nikon Coolpix 950 is from digital photography’s infancy, it’s hard to dispute that this camera performed beautifully for its time. It’s an acceptable performer even today.
1999 was a critical year in digital imaging: it was also in 1999 that Nikon released the D1 DSLR. There had been DSLRs before it, but the D1 was a landmark camera that led the way. All DSLRs since followed the D1 idiom. Really, in 1999 Nikon brought digital imaging’s infancy to a close, and began the transition away from film photography to digital photography as the primary way images are made.