Image is Everything

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Progress is almost never as fast or as satisfying as we'd like it to be. The state of digital consumer cameras is a good case in point: they're still playing catch-up to good old-fashioned `analog' film cameras. I wrote something to that effect in this space two years ago, but, tireless technobeliever that I am, expected then that today's digital models would have eclipsed their 20th-century counterparts. Well, the wait is not quite over yet.

Not that digital cameras don't come within a hair's breadth by now. Take the Nikon Coolpix 990, one of the first consumer cameras to offer a resolution of more than 3 million pixels. Since its introduction earlier this year, retailers have barely been able to keep the 990 stocked, despite its ambitious price of $1,000. The instant popularity of the camera, its dumb surfer-dude name notwithstanding, is easy to explain: the resolution, the advanced metering system and the magnesium housing that says tool, not toy, all play a role. Judging from its Swiss Army knife capabilities, and the professional-quality photos that anyone with a good eye and a bit of picture-taking experience can get from the Coolpix, this is no lowly point-and-shoot. I used the camera for two months in all kinds of conditions, and can sum up my experiences with a resounding, "It's great, if only . . ."

Let's see. If only it came with better photo-editing software than the spectacularly misnomered "Great Photo" program, which slows my PowerMac to a crawl where Photoshop zips merrily along. If only it didn't go through four alkalines in less than an hour and a half (tip: buy at least two sets of rechargeables and keep 'em handy at all times). If only it had a flash shoe so you wouldn't have to use the built-in flash, which yields mostly substandard pictures when light conditions are less than ideal. If only there wasn't a half-second lag between the time you press the shutter button and the moment the picture is actually taken - a delay that means you can't capture a fleeting gesture or facial expression (making this camera a terrible choice for photojournalists). And if only Nikon hadn't included just a 16 Mb memory card (good for one high-res picture, or twenty `normal' ones). Such miserliness forces you to go out and plunk down an extra few hundred dollars for a 96 or 128 Mb card.

And yet, and yet . . . 99 percent of the time (hence the model name 990, perhaps), the camera is a joy to use. I'm loath to send it back. It is reliable. It has just the right heft and feel to it (though if you're looking for something to slip into a pocket, keep looking). It has a built-in macro mode to die for - you can get to within one inch of your subject and capture detail that seems to extend almost to the molecular level. The Coolpix easily and instantly lets you delete pictures you don't want. It offers optional telephoto, wide-angle and fisheye lenses, enhancing versatility beyond anything the competition can currently match. The 990 is a complete solution for leisure shooters and pros alike.

All in all, it's a pretty picture, if you can live with the handful of drawbacks.

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