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Nikon Coolpix 5700

Is The Emperor Wearing Any Clothes?

A Hands-On Review

Photographic pundit, editor and weekly columnist for The Luminous Landscape — Mike Johnston recently (July 2002) wrote a two-part article entitled Just Say 'NO' to Digital SLRs! In it he posited that for many people and applications (him, and his among them) the latest generation of digital cameras (digicams) is now an appropriate tool. Taking up the gauntlet I decided to see first hand if Mike’s thesis applied to me.

I’m a fine-art landscape and nature photographer who works primarily in medium format. I also use 35mm for some wildlife work, both film-based and occasionally digital (originally the Canon D30 — currently the D60). And, because of my background as a photojournalist, I also shoot 35mm — mostly Leica M6/M7 — when doing documentary, street and travel photography. Though I’m enthusiastic about DSLRS and medium format digital backs, and believe that I’ll be working mostly digitally within a few years, the bulk of my work is still scanned film. Digital cameras have therefore played a fascinating though minor role in my serious work until now.

Nevertheless, I’ve owned and used a couple of digital point-and-shoots since they first appeared in the mid-90’s. The reason for this is that like most people I occasionally take family snapshots, and digital is a fast, convenient and economical way of doing this. I spend at least 3 months a year at my house in the country, a hundred miles (160Km) from the nearest E6 film processing lab. A digital camera and small inkjet printer are just the ticket for this application.

But, I digress. Mike’s column made me wonder if digicams had now reached the point where they could meet a few of my more serious photographic needs. Since my previous digicam was a 2.5MP point-and-shoot from a couple of years ago it was time to upgrade. One of the latest generation of 5MP cameras with a quality ED lens seemed the way to go. I also wanted a decent maximum aperture and zoom range. The ability to use Compact Flash cards and IBM Microdrives was another must since I have several for use with my D30 and other DSLRs that I test from time to time.

Researching what was on the market I determined that the Nikon Coolpix 5700 came closest to fitting my bill. It had just started shipping worldwide and was the latest and top-of-the-line digicam from venerable camera and lens maker Nikon. One problem was that the camera was so new that there were no reliable reviews online, just technical previews. The two most important questions were— how good was the image quality, and how usable would the camera be for my shooting applications? The only thing to do was to find out for myself.

Price

At about U.S. $1,100 the Nikon 5700 isn’t inexpensive, though it is compared to a Nikon D100 at twice the price (without lens). In fact the lens issue is an important part of the cost equation. The 5700 comes with an 8.8 - 71.2mm f/2.8 - f/4.2 lens. This is equivalent in 35mm terms to a 35 - 280mm lens. Beside the fact that there is no lens of comparable range and speed in the 35mm world, ones that do cover roughly this range are in the $300-$500 price bracket. On a DSLR like the Nikon D100 you won’t get one that goes this wide either because of the 1.5X focal length magnification factor. So, in terms of price competitiveness a Digicam like the 5700 is as much as $1,500 less than a comparable DSLR.

Features and Specs

I’ll neither bore you nor take up space with a spec list. These are available online on various sites that will provide you with as many of the gory details as you can handle. The basics of this camera though are as follows…

• 5MP imaging chip which creates a 7.6MP RAW file.
• 8.9-71.2mm f/2.8-f/4.2 Nikkor ED zoom lens (equivalent to 35mm-280mm)
• Takes Compact Flash cards, including IBM Microdrives
• Electronic Viewfinder as well as swivel rear-panel LCD, both color.
• Magnesium body
• Popup flash
• Able to produce Nikon NEF (RAW) files

Can it Do The Job?

Can a 5MP Digicam do the job? You don’t have to skip to the end to find out my conclusion. The answer is — it very much depends on ones application! I know you’d like me to be more definitive but as you’ll see, whether this camera (and other current digicams as well) should be regarded as a gem or a dog depends very much on the type of shooting that you anticipate doing with it.

My comments below apply specifically to the Nikon 5700, but many of them will apply equally to other current spec digicams. You’ll see that I am critical of the 5700 in a number of areas, but for the most part other cameras of its ilk suffer from similar problems.


Ballonman1 — Toronto, July 2002
Colour rendition and resolution leave little to be desired,
but I missed the ballon seller's upward glance by several seconds
due to the slow zoom, slow autofocus, and long shutter release lag.

The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

The 5700 follows the now very common and popular style of short but fat lens, ergonomic handgrip, and rear panel LCD. Because it has an 8X zoom lens it can’t use an optical viewfinder. But since it isn’t an SLR with a mirror and pentaprism, when you look through the viewfinder you’re in fact looking at a small colour CRT. This is essentially the same as looking through the viewfinder of a video camera, with all of the attendant problems, including low resolution for manual focusing and visibility issues when used in bright sunlight.

There is a swivel LCD on the back that can display the same view as the viewfinder in both record and playback modes. You can choose which one to use at any time with a single button press.

The Good

My most favorable initial impression is the camera’s small size. This camera with its 35 - 280mm equivalent lens will comfortably fit in a jacket pocket. For anyone tired of large and heavy SLRs and lenses the Nikon 5700 and its brethren are a joy. Slip an extra memory card and battery into a pocket and head out for a day’s shooting with a burden that’s measured in ounces, not pounds.

Let’s get the question of image quality out of the way. The Coolpix 5700 produces sharp, clean photographs with very good colour rendition. Its 5MP sensor generates images that can produce high-quality prints on A4 sized paper. All except the most fussy and critical photographer will find little to criticize in this regard, at least when its used at ISO 100. Higher sensitivities produce much nosier images. No, the resolution isn't as good as a Nikon D100 or Canon D60, but considering how much smaller the imaging chip is image quality is remarkably good.

Like all digicams and DSLRs the 5700 uses rechargeable batteries, and like almost all other digital cameras (the Canon D30 and D60 DSLRs being two noticeable exceptions) it doesn’t take a lot of shooting to deplete a battery. Fortunately the 5700’s rechargeable battery is the same shape as a disposable 2CR5 lithium battery and these can be used as well. This, along with an accessory vertical grip that takes 6-AA cells makes this camera one of the few digicams that one can travel with without a charger.


Ballonman1 — Toronto, July 2002
It takes careful composition to avoid messy backgrounds
due to the great depth of field when using a digicam.

The Bad

This camera is a techies dream (or nightmare). I have never used as complicated a camera as this one. Without a good read of the manual it will be very tough for even an experienced photographer to properly utilize the myriad of features available. Even basic operations are non-intuitive. It took me 2 hours to become familiar enough with the 5700 to head out shooting with it the first time, and believe me; I have a fair amount of experience with different cameras.

Part of the problem is that the camera offers a combination of nested screen menus and exterior buttons to make various settings, and it isn’t intuitive which ones are where. One gets used to it, but woe betides the photographer who puts the camera aside for a month or two and then expects to use it comfortably without the manual at hand.

The biggest problem that I have with this camera though relates to operating speed. In other words with its reflexes (no pun intended). Turn-on time is on par with similar cameras; about 4-5 seconds. For anyone used to shooting film this is annoying at best. In situations where one wants to shoot quickly the only alternative it to keep the camera powered up, but this of course negatively impacts the amount of shooting time one gets from a battery charge.

I intensely dislike the electric zoom control. A rocker switch under ones thumb zooms the lens, in the same way as on a vidicam. For someone that’s used to the ability to zoom an SLR lens almost instantly, the lethargic speed and lack of precision of this type of control is a major frustration. It should be said that the 5700 is no better or worse than other similar digicams in this regard — they’re all equally bad in my opinion.

The time needed for the camera to achieve autofocus is also much slower than SLR users will be used to — typically a full second or more from first shutter press to image capture. Even the much-maligned Canon D30 is an autofocus speed demon compared to the Coolpix 5700. Manual focus is possible, but is a kludge at best. Given that an electronic viewfinder is being used, critical manual focus isn’t something one can easily accomplish.

The Ugly

Worse than all of this is the length of time one has to wait between shots. The electronic viewfinder or rear LCD goes blank after the shutter is released and takes a full 5 seconds for the on-screen image to reappear.

The 35mm SLR’s popularity soared in the 1960s when the problem of the instant return mirror was solved. Finally the photographer could see through the shooting lens, immediately after as well as before exposure. The advantage of the rangefinder camera’s continuous viewing had been overcome.

Unfortunately the electronic viewfinder of the Nikon 5700 is a retrograde step. Loosing sight of the subject for 5 full seconds after the moment of exposure is simply unacceptable to me. To make matters worse there’s the buffer problem. There is enough internal memory for a three frame buffer in RAW mode, but once it’s full it can take up to a full minute until the camera can shoot again, because each frame takes roughly 20 seconds to write to the memory card.

These failings will eliminate the 5700 as a viable camera for many photographers. It certainly does for me.

Of course these numbers improve in lower resolution modes, but I shoot almost exclusively in the highest res modes with digital cameras. (If I wanted low quality prints I’d buy an APS camera, shoot 400 speed film, and get prints from the drug store).

Another area where Nikon’s engineers, designers and marketing people fell down was in not providing the lens with a filter thread. That’s right. A $1,000+ camera capable of producing excellent image quality and there’s no straightforward way of attaching a filter. What were they thinking of?

Other Issues and Features

Many digicams force you to switch between shooting and playback modes. The 5700 has both modes but there’s a button on the rear panel marked QUICK which allows a 1/3rd frame review of the just-shot image while still in shooting mode. Press it a second time and the review image becomes full-frame. Nicely done, particularly because a press of the shutter release instantly takes you back to shooting mode.

When playing back frames there is the usual ability to view multiple thumbnails and also to display various shooting data superimposed on the images. I was pleased to see that a histogram is also available. Unfortunately it takes 3 clicks of the Command Wheel to get to it. It should be more easily accessible as for the serious photographer this is a vital piece of infomation. I was pleased to see that Sharpening can be turned completely off, since this is much better done in Photoshop.

Nikon has implemented a feature in the 5700 which I was also pleased to see — 3 separate User Sets that allow you to configure the multitude of settings available under seperate master setting. These can then be easily dialed in at any time. I was displeased though to see that a number of important items like flash mode and ISO setting were not included in these sets, seriously diminishing their usefulness.

The Nikon software provided installed flawlessly on a Windows XP machine. The camera comes with a USB cable, and file transfers this way are efficient, though I prefer to remove the memory card and copy files through a card reader.

Thumbnails are large enough to permit easy review, and RAW (NEF) files can be converted on the fly when brought into Photoshop. Nikon’s accessory NEF conversion program costs an additional $200, but at least what’s provided with the camera does the basic job. Third party programs such as BIBBLE don’t yet support the 5700’s unique NEF format.

The viewfinder diopter adjustment is welcome as is the rubberized eyecup. I also liked the versatile swiveling LCD panel which can face forwards, backwards, up, down or can be reversed completely for screen protection. Some photographers like shooting using these screens but I’ve never seen the attraction, except for when shooting from awkward angles. I still prefer to bring a camera up to my eye when shooting hand-held.

The Issue of Depth of Field

The 5700 like many digicams uses a 2/3rd inch CCD as its imaging chip. This is considerably smaller than a 35mm frame. Even smaller than APS. On the plus side this allows for the use of smaller and lighter lenses. The downside (for me at least) is that these lenses are of very short focal length. “Normal” focal length therefore is about 12.5mm rather than 50mm — a multiplier factor of 4X.

The problem is that a 12.5mm lens has huge depth of field. This makes selective focus highly problematic. Most of the time everything in the frame will be sharp. This is sometimes desirable, but even at the zoom’s longest focal length I find that too much is in focus most of the time.

Conclusion

Whether a photographer can find happiness with the Coolpix 5700 depends in large measure on the type of photography that’s going to be done with it. As I reported earlier — for most people image quality is more than acceptable, so this isn’t where my concerns lie. It’s the operational issues that are the most disconcerting. So let’s look at several shooting applications where one might use such a camera.

For example, this isn’t a very desirable street-shooting camera. Its response times are far too slow. Even when photographing children at play a casual photographer will find that the combination of slow zoom, relatively slow autofocus, and lengthy viewfinder blackout between frames a barrier to catching “the moment”. These slow reflexes also eliminate the 5700 from most wildlife work.

A landscape photographer isn’t likely to choose such a camera either. Though it can produce image quality close to that from scanned 35mm film, the lack of ability to easily mount filters is a real impediment, and frankly the camera is a bit toy-like for this application.

So where does it fit into the photographic spectrum? Who is likely to find happiness with the Nikon 5700? Regrettably, not me. I can see using it for set-up snapshots, “Ok everyone, stand close together and smile”. I can also see occasionally using it for casual travel photography. But of course if one is away for more than a day or two then the need for some means of downloading images from memory cards becomes an issue, obviating the benefits of the camera’s small size and weight. I’d use it for this, but likely not often.

In the end this camera and others of its genre currently aren’t for me, and I returned the one that I purchased. Is the Nikon 5700, or any similar digicam the right camera for you? Consider your uses carefully before committing. As appealing as digicams may at first appear, film cameras still have a lot going for them. Finally, most current DSLRs offer all of the advantages of digital with few of the downsides mentioned here. The cost is higher, (though falling rapidly), but the extra expenditure is likely to be worth it for many photographers.

Closing Thoughts

Though it's something of a cliche to say this — photography is ultimately about the images that we as photographers produce, and a camera is simply one of the tools that we use along the path from the eye and brain to the finished print. Image quality is important, to be sure, but a technically impeccable photograph is a waste of paper unless the subject matter is appropriately captured according to the photographer’s intent.

If the camera gets in the way of what the eye and brain perceive, then it is working counter to its primary task. I’m afraid that in their current implementation, at least as exemplified by the Nikon Coolpix 5700, digicams are not yet ready for prime time — at least not for any kind of photography that I currently would use them for.

I began this review my referring to Mike Johnston’s essay — Just Say 'NO' to Digital SLRs! While I have the greatest respect for Mike, I’m afraid that after some time testing and shooting with the Coolpix 5700 my rejoinder has to be — Just Say ‘NO’ to Digicams!

Unrepentant

Since this review was first published a few weeks prior to this footnote, there have been a number of pundits on various forums around the Net who have taken me to task for my critical perspective on the 5700. Some say that I have not been fair, and point out, as one example, that if Fine JPGs are shot instead of RAW files that the length of the viewfinder backouts are minimized. They claim as well that these files are every bit as good as RAW files. (RAW files are worthwhile for reasons other than resolution — but that's another story).

Their point is taken though, but I'm still not won over. This issue is just one where I was underwhelmed by the Nikon 5700, and it doesn't address any of the other issues such as nasty zoom controls and a slow shutter response.

My point is that I measure digicams with the same yardstick as I do any other camera. How efficient and effective a picture taking machine is it for the type of work that I do? That's what I evaluate, though others may see things differently.

Until digicams can be used without having to make excuses for them (and image quality isn't typically one of those issues any longer), I'm going to remain on the other side of the fence. Digital SLRs are just about at the point where they are viable replacements for film-based 35mm cameras in most applications. But in my opinion digicams still have some way to go.


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Concepts: Digital single-lens reflex camera, Digital camera, Camera, Single-lens reflex camera, Nikon, Focal length, Digital photography, Raw image format

Entities: Nikon, IBM, Canon, U.S., digital cameras, Michael Reichmann, Mike, Mike Johnston, me, Coolpix 5700, D100, DSLRs

Tags: cameras, Nikon, digital, digital camera, Compact Flash cards, Nikon D100, latest generation, medium format, lens maker nikon, 35mm, nearest e6 film, format digital backs, Coolpix 5700, decent maximum aperture, Nikkor ED zoom, small inkjet printer, focal length magnification, Nikon NEF, swivel rear-panel lcd, lens issue, current spec digicams, previous digicam, 5mp digicam, top-of-the-line digicam, Digital SLRs, digital point-and-shoots, comparable dslr, venerable camera, Photographic pundit, appropriate tool, Canon D30, Mike Johnston, Luminous Landscape, two-part article, nature photographer, fine-art landscape, minor role, weekly columnist, ilk suffer, family snapshots