A Trio of Day-Trippers
A Nikon for All Occasions ... Depending on Your Particular Needs
After spending quality time taking photographs with three of Nikon's current offerings, I was most impressed by how each of them were simultaneously so similar yet so different in the way they go about capturing photographs, not to mention the way each should be approached as a photographic tool.
The three cameras included Nikon's D60, the heir apparent to the popular D40/D40x-series of compact DSLR's; the CoolPix P80, a very compact DSLR-style digicam that sports an enormously broad optical range (28-480mm equivalent) and high-speed burst-rates of up to 13 frames-per-second (f/p/s); and the Nikon CoolPix S600, a solid, pocket-sized point-&-shoot camera.
The Nikon D60, CoolPix P80, and CoolPix S600 are each — within their given parameters — ideal for day-tripping and all-around snap shooting. The image quality they produce under normal lighting and shooting conditions are quite remarkable, and pretty darn good when pushed beyond the call of duty, especially the larger-format D60.
On paper, each of these cameras — physical size aside — appear far more similar than different. Each contains a 10-plus-megapixel CCD sensor that produces image files that open up to a bit over 28.5MB. They each utilize Nikon's EXPEED image processors, and include Nikon image-enhancing technologies such as D-Lighting, Face-Priority AF, In-Camera Red-Eye Fix, ISO-ratings of up to 3200 (and beyond), Vibration Reduction (VR) technology (in-camera in the P80 and S600, in-lens on the D60), and a built-in TTL flash.
Yet each of these cameras proved to be quite different, and while prowling the streets of New York City and not-too-distant countryside, I found myself reaching for one camera over the other, depending upon the subject at hand. The truth is, if I had to choose one of these cameras over the others for an extended trip, I'd have to do some serious pondering before heading out the door. They each have their own individual strengths and weaknesses, yet each does an admirable job in a manner of its own.
It's important to note that while all three of these cameras feature ISO ratings up to 3200 (6400 in the case of the P80), optimal image quality is best captured at each camera's base, or native ISO rating. If sharpness and broad dynamic range are high priorities in your book, then under all but the most extraneous circumstances stick to ISO 100 in the D60 and S600, and ISO 64 in the P80.
As for image quality at the higher ISO ratings, let's just say there's a reason the D60 is the only camera of the three in which you can turn off the Noise Suppression completely, whereas the S600 and P80 always have Noise Control in either 'On' or in Automatic mode. While noise suppression is a useful and effective feature, for smaller-format (point-and-shoot) sensors it's akin to pimple cream on prom night, and there's no way around this little tidbit regardless of manufacturer. That said, the D60 is quite impressive at higher ISO ratings while the grain structure in the CoolPix image files start looking like Fruit Loops when pushed to higher ISO ratings.
The moral of the story is, if you want the very best from your camera — regardless of manufacturer and/or chip size — stick to the slower ISO ratings whenever possible. And use a tripod, especially all you latte-fueled shooters out there.
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The Nikon D60 is the sole DX-format DSLR camera included in this exercise. Though it was the only camera of the bunch that didn't fit in my pocket, it was by far the easiest to use and delivered noticeably better image quality as compared to the S600 and P80, which contain smaller imaging sensors and lack optical viewfinders. But then again, that's the price you pay if you want a camera you can slip into your pocket.
The D60 is a direct descendant of the D40/D40x, and retains most all of the better features and qualities found in its forebears. The D60 contains a 10.2Mp, EXPEED-powered, DX-format CCD and features a wonderfully bright optical viewfinder, which is complemented by an easy to decipher 2.5", 230,000-dot LCD for menu browsing and image playback with zoom editing up to 19x. And despite the advances made in LCD & EFV technologies, there's still nothing like peering through an honest-to-gosh optical viewfinder.
Images can be recorded as 3 levels of JPEG compression (3648 x 2592, 2896 x 1944, & 1936 x 1296), RAW (NEF), or a combination of the two. Nikon's RAW/NEF files can be opened and diddled with in Photoshop or Nikon's Capture NX software, both of which can be purchased separately. ISO levels can be adjusted from a native 100 up to 3200 (Hi1), which even under bright daylight conditions produces images that, slight color speckling aside, are surprisingly good. As can be expected, images derived from the D60's NEF files appear sharper with smoother tonal gradations as compared to JPEG capture.
Unlike the average point-and-shoot, the D60 is fast to respond, and can capture up to 3 fps in burst rates of up to 100 consecutive (JPEG) in a choice of eight shooting modes.
The D60 offers choice of seven pre-set color balance settings (including Auto) as well as the ability to set Kelvin ratings manually. There's also the option of White Balance bracketing if you want to keep yourself covered. Exposures too can be bracketed in 1/3-stop intervals. There's an Image Optimization mode which enables you to adjust the color saturation, hue, and sharpness/softness levels, along with Nikon's D-Lighting, which keeps shadow and highlight details within optimal print and viewing levels.
The D60's autofocus system can be set for Dynamic AF for general use, or to focus on the closest object, depending on your needs. For metering you have a choice of Nikon's 3D Color Matrix, Center-weighted, or Spot metering, all of which are deadly accurate. The camera's pop-up i-TTL Speedlight, which is quite handy for opening up shadows and curing "raccoon eyes" on sunny days, can be adjusted plus-or-minus 1-stop in 1/3rd increments. If you need higher levels of flash output, you can also attach any of Nikon's current SB-series TTL Speedlights to the D60's hot-shoe.
A common bugaboo of cameras with interchangeable lenses is renegade dust, which can cause much dismay when lodged smack dab in the middle of all of your pictures. As a preventive measure, the D60 employs an Active Dust Control system with Airflow Control that sonically jiggles dust bunnies off of the imaging sensor each time you power down.
If you're stuck or confused along the way, the D60 also features an advanced "HELP" menu that appears on the camera's rear LCD, offering tips and suggestions in large, easy-to-read text and icons on how to best complement your current shooting needs.
Our test camera was equipped with a Nikon DX Nikkor 18-55/3.5~5.6G VR AF-S lens, which has the field-of-view of a 28-82.5mm lens on a full-frame "35." Though I often wished the lens had a longer throw than 55mm, it was nonetheless quite responsive and sharp. Unlike previous non-VR kit lenses from Nikon, the new version can be hand-held at shutter-speeds several stops slower than normally recommended, or in the case of the 18-55 VR kit lens, comparable to a prime lens with a maximum aperture of f/1.4.
As with all slower (f/3.5~5.6-ish) optics, focusing begins getting sluggish as the light levels drop off. As an easy work-around to this problem, switch to manual focus and use the illuminated focus confirmation "dot," located in the lower left-hand side of the viewfinder, to verify your focus. As a bonus, shooting in Manual mode all but eliminates shutter-lag issues, most noticeably when shooting in low-light conditions.
The Nikon D60 not only captures images, it also performs advanced image enhancements in the form of RedEye Correction, D-Lighting (for highlight and shadow detail control), Image Overlay (for combining elements of individual images together), Monochrome (including Sepia, and Cyanotype), Quick Retouch, Cross-star, and Color Intensifier filtering.
A key consideration for choosing the D60 over the CoolPix S600, P80, or any other point-and-shoot digicam is lens interchangeability. In addition to the D60 kit we tested, the D60 is also available as a 2-lens kit, which includes both the Nikkor 18-55mm VR lens as well as a DX Nikkor 55-200/4~5.6G ED AF-S VR. Together, this lightweight 2-lens combo enables a combined focal range equivalent to 28 to 350mm on a 35mm camera, which should prove to be more than enough for serious amateurs, weekend warriors, and soccer Moms and Dads. The D60 is also compatible with a large selection of Nikkor DX and AF-S lenses.
As with each of the Nikons tested for this article, the D60 records images onto SD and SDHC memory cards, and is powered by a lithium ion battery, which seemingly never dies.
Nikon D60 Picture Gallery
At first sight, the Nikon CoolPix P80 is a somewhat austere-looking, unassuming compact camera. Built around a 10.1Mp (1/2.33") CCD, the first clue something's going on is the white stenciling on the side of the lens barrel, which reads '18x Optical Zoom Wide.' Specifically, the P80 packs an image-stabilized (VR) zoom lens with a field of view of a 27 – 486mm zoom on a full-frame 35, with focusing down to 1cm from the front element. At the wide end the lens has a maximum aperture of f/2.8 and a respectable f/4.5 at the telephoto end. Pincushion and barrel distortion, common at the wide-angle side of lenses in this class, are kept in check electronically using the Distortion Control feature.
The second, unstenciled, clue there's something special about the CoolPix P80 is its ability to shoot at 13 f/p/s in burst-rates of up to 30 frames, which is quite perky for a camera that sells for under $400. There's also a 16-Shot option, which captures 16 consecutive exposures on a single frame. Got your attention yet?
Considering its impressive list of abilities, the P80 is contained in an extremely compact, 12.9 oz package. A Nikon EXPEED image processor renders your JPEG's (which can be set to 8 levels of compression) in a choice of eleven scene modes to best match each lighting scenario. Aside from stills, the P80 can also shoot TV-quality video with sound. As with most all current Nikon digicams, the CoolPix P80 includes many Nikon-based technologies including D-Lighting, In-Camera RedEye Fix, and Face Priority focusing, which can detect up to 12 faces within a scene.
The Optimize Image feature allows you to convert your color images into B&W images, with variations, while preserving and saving the original color image file.
You have two choices for composing images and viewing your results. A large, 2.7" TFT LCD with 170° viewing coverage permits a bright image with pertinent imaging data displayed along its perimeter. Under average and lower viewing conditions it does a fine job and is easy to work with. Under bright sunlit skies however, be prepared to do some creative hand-cupping. Alternatively, this might be a good time to invest in a third-party pop-out screen. If horizon lines are problematic for you when composing images from arm's length on a small screen, a handy electronic grid screen can be activated to help level things out.
Your other option for composing and editing your photographs is the P80's electronic viewfinder (EVF), which due to its smallish (0.5") size and lower resolving power, can be difficult to look through under dim or contrasty lighting conditions. It's also rather underwhelming in the fine-focusing department.
Interestingly enough, for critical focusing the P80's Manual Focus override proved to be quite effective. While viewing the image on the screen, you shift the focus brackets around the image field using the toggle-wheel that sits adjacent to the LCD. As you do this, whatever falls between the brackets comes into focus - with confirmation - making it possible to capture sharp pictures even when shooting at wider apertures.
It should be noted that life in the fast burst-rate lane comes at a price. While the CoolPix P80 does a fine job capturing fine detail and wide tonal ranges at ISO 64-100 and highest resolution settings, it suffers when shooting in the higher-speed modes. When you set the P80 to 13 fps the resolution automatically drops down to 3Mp (from a maximum of 10Mp) along with a bump to ISO 640 to 1600, which greatly affects the integrity of the image sharpness, overall tonality, and increases graininess. If you want to maintain a higher level of image quality and maintain faster-than-normal burst-rates, the P80 can also be set to capture images at a slower, yet still still-impressive 4 or 6 fps, at full resolution, at an ISO range of 64 to 800.
If there's anything I would wish for on the P80 it would have to be a lens shade of sorts, as the front element is rather vulnerable to stray light and sharp objects. Unfortunately there aren't even filter threads engraved into the front lens barrel, so be prepared to block stray sunlight with your left hand when shooting outdoors on brighter days.
The Nikon CoolPix P80 accepts SD and SDHC memory cards, has about 50MB of built-in memory to keep you covered when the card fills up, and is powered by a rechargeable lithium-ion battery, which is good for a few hundred exposures.
Nikon CoolPix P80 Picture Gallery
Nikon's CoolPix S600 is currently one of the smallest pocket rockets available with the field-of-view equivalence of a 28mm lens. Utilizing an EXPEED-powered 10Mp CCD, the CoolPix S600 is clad in a sturdy, warm-toned brushed aluminum casing.
The camera's 4x, 5.0–20mm (28-112mm equivalent) zoom lens has an effective f-stop range of f/2.7 to f/5.6, and tucks neatly away into the camera body when not in use. Aside from wide panorama to short telephoto imagery, the S600 can also snag close-up images of subjects less than an inch away from the front lens element. And yes, the CoolPix S600 is has VR technology for curbing the shakes.
A bright, easy-to-read, rear-mounted 2.7" TFT LCD is the sole method of composing and editing image files, with large text fonts and easy-to-decipher icons for illustrating the capture and editing menus. (Note: Under bright, sunny skies, be prepared to cup your hands around the LCD, or alternatively, attach a Hoodman folding LCD viewing shade over the screen.)
Accessing and using the camera Menus and Mode Selector are straightforward and can be easily figured out without having to crack open the User's Guide.
Like many pocket-sized digicams in the 8 to 10Mp class, the CoolPix S600 is designed to take sharp, full-toned pictures without the annoyance of having a "heavy" camera tugging on your shoulder all day. Shooting with the S600 is akin to holding up the viewfinder of an old smaller-format Graflex or other reflex camera with a ground glass. The difference is the image on the Nikon is brighter and right-side up, as opposed to up-side down and backwards. All you have to do is click the shutter button.
The Nikon CoolPix S600 captures JPEG files in 14 Scene Modes and 6 White Balance settings, using either Color Matrix or Center-weighted metering. Continuous shooting is limited to one frame per second, but remember folks, we're talking about 28MB files from a tiny camera that weighs in at only 4.6 ounces. And yes, the CoolPix 600 also shoots lovely video clips.
As for memory, the CoolPix S600 accepts SD/SDHC memory cards, and contains about 45MB of built-in storage. The Nikon Coolpix S600 is powered by a rechargeable lithium-ion battery, which is good for several hundred exposures.
Nikon CoolPix S600 Photo Gallery
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