Large sensors are in vogue at the moment, with full-frame devices creeping down to enthusiast-centric DSLRs such as the Canon EOS 6D and Nikon D600 and APS-C format chips appearing in the Fuji X100S and Sigma DP1, and now the Nikon Coolpix A. There's even now a compact camera, the Sony RX1, with a full-frame sensor - though its price is on a par with the likes of the Canon EOS 5D Mark III and Nikon D800.
Priced at £999.99 / AU$1,298 / US$1,099.95, the Nikon Coolpix A could even be considered an "affordable" alternative to the Sony RX1, which retails for around £2,600 / AU$3,000 / US$2,800.
Like the Fuji X100 and Fuji X100S, the Nikon Coolpix A features an APS-C sized sensor. In fact, it's the very same 16.2 megapixel device as can be found in the Nikon D7000, the company's mid-level enthusiast DSLR.
The camera also features the same Expeed 2 processing engine, which should mean that it produces images of a very similar quality to the DSLR.
However, one key feature could enable the Nikon A to top the Nikon D7000 for image quality. Nikon has removed the optical low pass filter from the sensor, and this should mean the camera manages to record more detail, or at least sharper fine details.
It does mean that there's an increased risk of moiré patterning, but Nikon believes that this shouldn't be too much of an issue for the intended users of the camera, who would prefer the higher detail results.
The camera features a fixed 18.5mm lens with a maximum aperture of f/2.8. In 35mm terms this focal length is equivalent to 28mm, making it particularly useful for street, documentary and landscape photography.
Sensitivity may be set in the native range of ISO 100-6400, with up to ISO 25,600 being available if the expansion settings are enabled.
Active D-Lighting, Nikon's dynamic range optimisation system found in its DSLRs, is also available, with four levels being available from Low to Extra High, as well as an automatic option.
Build quality and handling
In the same way that it's hard to believe that Sony has managed to fit a full-frame sensor into the RX1, the small size of the Nikon Coolpix A comes as a pleasant surprise, bearing in mind that it houses a DX or APS-C format sensor.
The Nikon A is smaller than the Nikon P7700, one of the company's other premium offerings. In fact, the sleek exterior of the camera makes it one of the more pocketable options in the premium market, large sensor or not. It's perhaps not quite jeans pocketable, but it's certainly jacket pocketable, and a very flexible option.
Constructed from magnesium and aluminium alloy, the Nikon Coolpix A remains nevertheless very light, and won't add too much bulk to a kit bag. Yet it feels solid and weighty enough to give it the air of high quality that its price tag suggests.
There's no hand grip on the camera, but a small strip on the front lends it extra purchase, especially when shooting one-handed. Anyone used to a Nikon DSLR will be familiar with the menu layout and controls of the Nikon Coolpix A, which has been based around the design of the cameras higher up in the range.
A mode dial on the top of the camera can be used for quickly switching between the various shooting modes on offer, including fully automatic, fully manual and semi-automatic modes such as aperture priority.
Handily, there's also room here for a couple of user-defined groups of settings, which is useful if you often find yourself shooting in any given situation, such as low-light. This dial doesn't have a lock, but it has a reasonable degree of resistance and doesn't seem prone to being knocked out of position too easily.
Sadly the same cannot be said of the power switch. This surrounds the shutter button, and there were several occasions during this test that we withdrew the camera from a jacket pocket or bag to discover that the camera was switched on.
This could lead to the battery flattening earlier than anticipated, but our main concern is that the camera may be damaged if it is powered up and the lens cannot extend properly because it is confined within a bag.
Another feature that's likely to be appreciated by the more advanced photographer is the customisable Function buttons on the front and back of the Nikon Coolpix A. The small button on the front can be found near the lens and can be set to a number of different parameters, including ISO and switching between raw and JPEG format shooting.
On the top of the camera, within easy reach of the thumb, is a small dial that can be used to alter shutter speed, or in combination with one of the other buttons, such as ISO or exposure compensation. At the back of the camera is a dial for altering aperture, when in aperture priority mode. Like the rest of the Nikon Coolpix A, these dials feel well made and are responsive.
A small switch on the side of the Nikon A enables you to select the focus mode. Here you have the option to choose standard automatic focusing, macro focusing or manual focusing.
When in manual focusing mode, a ring around the lens is used to fine-tune focus. You can also magnify the scene for critical focusing using a button on the back of the camera.
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Unlike many compact cameras, the Nikon Coolpix A's manual focusing system works well. The lens ring lacks the friction of a DSLR lens's focusing ring, but there's enough to work with.
The 3-inch 921,000-dot LCD screen on the back of the camera also provides enough detail for you to be sure that the subject is sharp - although we found the magnified view more or less essential.
It would be nice if the lens ring could be used to adjust other settings when it's not being used for manual focusing. It could, for instance, be used for altering aperture, like on the Sony RX100, but sadly that's not possible with the Nikon A.
To change the autofocus point, you first need to hit the OK button at the back of the camera, and then scroll around the screen using the directional keypad. This can be a little bit of a long-winded process, and if you're keen to capture fast moments, it might be easier to set the AF point to the centre of the frame and focus and recompose.
It would have been nice if Nikon had chosen to incorporate a touchscreen here, since this would have made changing the AF points much quicker, and would better suit the quick street photographer that this camera is clearly aimed at. It would also have given it a point of difference from the Fuji X100S and Sony RX1.