Retro Review: 23 years later, Nikon’s swivel-design Coolpix 950 remains fun and impressive: Digital Photography Review

Retro camera enthusiasts will be pleased to see that Gordon Laing of Cameralabs is back with a new Retro Review, this time focused on the Nikon Coolpix 950. It’s been a good time for retro Nikon fans lately, as Laing’s last Retro Review was for the flagship Nikon D1 DSLR. The Coolpix 950 launched the same year as the D1, 1999, although the two cameras are, unsurprisingly, very different from each other.

While the Nikon D1 sported industry-leading technology, the much more affordable Coolpix 950 was nonetheless extremely popular. In our Coolpix 950 review, Phil Askey wrote, ‘Since the story broke back in mid-February, the Nikon Coolpix 950 (referred to as the 950 from now onwards) has generated a fever which has gripped the digital photography world on the Internet, firstly with its announcement and the rush from the major websites to publish as much information as possible.

Read our Coolpix 950 review from 1999

To the newsgroups buzzing with rumors and specifications to resellers pre-selling hundreds of units.’ What made the camera such a hot commodity? The earlier Coolpix 900S (E910 in Japan) had been successful and showcased what digital cameras were capable of. The 950’s eye-catching swivel-body design didn’t hurt, either.

Nikon Coolpix 950

Of the split-body concept, Laing writes, ‘One year earlier, the original silver-colored COOLPIX 900 introduced the split-body concept with the lens, sensor, viewfinder and flash in the left half, leaving the screen, controls, batteries and grip in the right. You’d hold the right half, while twisting the imaging portion through just over 270 degrees, allowing you to shoot comfortably at high or low angles or even face backwards for selfies.’ The design wasn’t unique, especially at the time, with cameras from Minolta, Ricoh, Casio, JVC and Sony selling similar split-body cameras. However, the performance of earlier Coolpix models, the 950’s new features, and the functional design helped the Coolpix 950 make a splash in ’99.

The Coolpix 950 was built on the foundation laid by the 900, but the design concept was improved by a more professional-looking black body with red accents, much like Nikon’s high-end film cameras. The magnesium body delivered rounder corners and a more ergonomic grip. ‘They’re subtle adjustments, but add up to a camera that looks and feels less like an electronic toy and more like a more serious camera for professional use,’ Laing writes. Even 23 years later, the 950’s design holds up, and the twisting mechanism ‘remains an ergonomic triumph.’ It’s a level of physical interaction modern digital cameras don’t offer, even with their fancy tilting touchscreens.

Not every aspect of the design is perfect. While the four AA batteries for power is fine, the fact that a tripod mount blocks the battery and card (Type-I Compact Flash) slots is frustrating. This was remedied in the later Coolpix 990. Menu navigation is okay, although again, the Coolpix 990 and 995 offered improvements through a tactile wheel for better control.

Image credit: Gordon Laing / Cameralabs

If the design and usability holds up more than two decades later, what of the image quality? The Coolpix 950 sports a half-inch type 2.1MP CCD image sensor. The resulting images are 1600×1200 pixels. You could shoot JPEG images at various qualities, plus uncompressed full-res TIFF files, but these are 8MB per file and will fill a typical card in 1999 in a photo or two. The ISO ranges from 80 to 400 and you can shoot at 1.5 frames per second.

The Coolpix 950 could focus as close as 2cm, delivering impressive macro capabilities. Image credit: Gordon Laing / Cameralabs

Paired with the 2.1MP sensor is a 3x optical zoom with an equivalent focal length range of 38-115mm. The max aperture ranges from F2.6 to 4. Laing notes that the lens’s most impressive feature is its close focusing distance of just 2cm, which is possible about midway through the zoom range. This allowed for impressive macro shooting. You could also use the camera to scan film with an optional ES-E28 adapter. Unfortunately, the macro mode and self-timer are in the same menu position, so you can’t use both simultaneously. Optional lens adapters provide more flexibility, allowing users to increase or decrease the field of view. You can even use a fisheye adapter to increase the field of view to 183 degrees.

Image credit: Gordon Laing / Cameralabs

While the Coolpix 950 was quickly supplanted by the Coolpix 990 and 995 models, it remains the camera that helped transform affordable digital cameras from toys to tools. While more buttoned-up than prior digital cameras, the 950 looks to still be mighty fun to use, even today. To read Laing’s full impressions of the Coolpix 950, visit Cameralabs. There you’ll also find many more sample images to enjoy. If you’d like to see more videos, visit Dino Bytes by Gordon Laing on YouTube. Finally, to read coverage of more of Laing’s Retro Reviews, click here.

All images courtesy of Gordon Laing and used with permission

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