DCRP Review: Nikon Coolpix 950 vs. Olympus C-2000Z
by Jeff Keller [DCRP Creator/Webmaster]
Last revised: Monday, May 31, 1999

The new 2,000,000+ pixel cameras are here, and two of the hottest are the Nikon Coolpix 950 ($999), and the Olympus C-2000Z ($999). I was able to test both of them to see how they compare, and I also tested them against my old Olympus D-600L, to see if the move to 2 Megapixels is really worth it.

The very small C-2000Z on the left, and the Coolpix 950 on the right.

The backside of both cameras.

What's in the Box

The Coolpix 950 includes the camera with lens cap, a canvas carrying case and strap, cables to hook up to your computer, a video-out cable, alkaline batteries (more on this in a bit), and two small manuals. There's a "Getting Started" fold-out, as well a "Pocket Guide" with some basic usage information. If you want the real skinny on this camera, you're going to have to boot up your computer and read the PDF manual, which was on one of the CDs. This turned out to be a real pain; Most people aren't going to print out something that big, and getting to the information is more difficult. To top it off, I think the information in the manual was too basic--they had two lines where more explanation was necessary.

The lens cap is another story: Here you have this small little lens cap, with nowhere to go. It looks like it could fit on the included strap, but it doesn't. I ended up just stuffing the cap in my pocket while the camera was in use. I wish more cameras could have built-in lens covers, like many of the point & shoot 35mm cameras do.

The Olympus C-2000Z comes with the same stuff, with two exceptions: There's no carrying case, and no electronic manuals. Instead, you get a genuine printed manual! I'm not a big fan of the way Olympus lays out the manual (three languages per page!), but the information is all there. The lens cap problem is here too-- I'm not sure where you're supposed to put it.

One nice toy that Olympus throws in the box is a remote control! I enjoyed sitting on the couch taking pictures of myself (what an exciting life I lead!), and this can come in handy if you want yourself in the picture. You can zoom in and out, though if you're in front of the camera, you can't see what effect that has on your photo! I assume its mostly for showing off your photos when the camera is hooked into the television.

Both cameras including 8MB memory cards: CompactFlash for the Coolpix, and SmartMedia for the Olympus. The latter model supports 32MB SmartMedia cards, as well.

One sin that both of these cameras have inside their box is alkaline batteries. I can't think of a better way to frustrate a new user than to have the camera die after 10-15 photos. Well, when you've got that LCD going, it will happen. Seasoned digital camera owners know that rechargeable batteries are the way to go, so why can't more companies include them? Olympus is taking a step in the right direction by including a coupon for a free NiMH battery kit -- but I wish it was in the box! I'm using RadioShack NiMH batteries and they work wonderfully!

Look and Feel

I think users of Olympus' SLR-style cameras are spoiled: For me, both of these cameras was a step down ergonomically.

The Nikon fits well in your hand, but I find it hard to use when you want to change options. For example, if you want to change the quality, you've got to push a button on the back of it, while turning a knob on the front with your index finger. Maybe I'm just not good at it, but it was tough. Even worse, when you want to change the ISO rating, it's a combination of a button on the top, plus that wheel again. I found the zoom buttons in an awkward place as well -- I always liked how Olympus put them up with the shutter release.

Another big complaint is the location of the CompactFlash slot. It's on the bottom, right next to the battery door. The door is a flimsy plastic piece which probably won't last that long. Once you get the door open, getting the card out is more difficult than it should be. On the C-2000Z, the slot is on the right side of the camera, behind a solid door -- and you just push the card once, and out it comes!

I don't like the feel of the C-2000Z for a different reason: It's too small. I know this has been the trend lately (anybody seen the Fuji MX-series cameras?), but it makes using the cameras more difficult. My D-600L may be bulky, but everything is right where it should be. On the C-2000Z, I found it hard to get a good grip on the camera -- there's no good place to put your left hand. I also found the similarity of the power/mode buttons, and the zoom/shutter buttons confusing -- I'd sometimes shut the camera off instead of take a photo! Another ergonomic problem I found was that the four way button that you use for menus and adjusting settings could easily be moved in the wrong direction. For example, while messing with the shutter speed, I'd often change the exposure compensation.

Another problem I had with the C-2000Z is that it's not friendly to those of us with glasses-- I found my glasses smacking into the LCD display when I was trying to use the viewfinder, thus rendering that feature almost useless. I'm looking forward to Olympus' upcoming SLR-style 2 Mpixel camera, which hopefully will have the look and feel of the D-600L that I love so much.

Those complaints aside, both cameras feel solid -- the Nikon a little more so, with it's magnesium body. The Olympus camera has a nice aluminum casing, as well.

Using the Coolpix 950

On the top of the camera, you get a rotating switch which puts the Coolpix into one of its three modes: Auto, Manual, and Play.

Auto mode (A-REC) is just like any other point & shoot camera. You aim, depress the button halfway (where it locks exposure and focus), and then press the rest of the way and it takes the picture. There aren't a lot of things you can change in this mode.

However, Manual mode (M-REC) has the features that digicam users have been begging for since the beginning of time. Manual focus? Got it. ISO sensitivity? Yep, got that too.

You can choose an aperture-priority or shutter-priority mode as well -- you pick either aperture or shutter speed, and the camera picks the other. For aperture-priority mode, you have a range of F3.9 to F11. For shutter-priority, you can go from 1/500 sec to 8 seconds (!). I'm going to have to try out a really long exposure, to see how it comes out.

As I hinted at before, changing these settings feels awkward. You've got to press one of the buttons on the top (or on the back), and mess with the wheel on the front. I wish there was an easier way.

The Coolpix also has a superb macro mode, in which you can take photos as close as 2cm! Obviously, this requires a tripod, unless you have really steady hands, which I do not.

So once you've picked all your settings, it's time to take pictures. This is where some of the Coolpix's neat features stand out.

The first thing that impressed me was that it's fast -- real fast. Unlike the old D-600L, this thing is ready to go again in less than 2 seconds.

The camera has a number of continuous shooting features that I enjoyed: One just keeps shooting until it runs out of space in the memory buffer. This can end up being a lot of photos, depending on the quality settings. There's also a VGA mode that does the same thing, just as the lower resolution size. One of my favorites is the "16 Photo" collage, where the camera will take 16 in a row, then put them in a 4x4 collage! Neat!

Another related feature is Best Shot Selector (BSS) -- here, the camera keeps firing as long as you have the button down, and then it decides which one has the most detail, and that's the one that's saved on the card! If you're doing macro photos, or you have a shaky subject (or hands for that matter), then this feature is convenient!

Another cool feature is that you can preview a photo before it's written to the card but hitting a pause button. You can decide if it's worthy or not, and either keep it, or delete it. If I know I took a bad picture (e.g. somebody walked right through it), I can kill it right away and try again.

There are many levels of quality to choose from: Super XGA (1600x1200), XGA (1024x768), and VGA (640x480). Each of those has Fine, Normal, and Basic modes, which vary in compression levels. You can also take an uncompressed TIFF if you desire, but I had a really hard time seeing the difference between that and a SXGA/Fine photo.

You can also change the ISO sensitivity, though the documentation is really unclear about what the units are. You can do default (ISO 80), ISO 100, and then it jumps to +1.0 and +2.0. I can only assume that's ISO 200 and 400, respectively. The results are noticable, as you will see below.

Both the Nikon and Olympus cameras support an external flash. They also have 2.5X digital zoom, in addition to their 3X optical zoom. You can also hook them up to your TV, which becomes your LCD screen.

Things are pretty simple in Play Mode. The camera comes up with a low resolution version of the photo that is going to be on the LCD, and then redraws it with a higher res version. I'm not sure if I liked this, or just a black screen while you wait, but it did allow me to jump to the picture I wanted pretty quickly. Deleting photos is pretty easy, too. You can delete one photo at a time, all photos, or you can select the ones that you want. You can set up folders and organize your photos; You can lock certain photos so they can't get deleted, and you can even hide photos (hmmm....).

Something else that I liked, though I'm not sure how useful it really is, is the ability to zoom into your photos on the LCD, and move around the image! Things always seem to look better on the LCD, anyway.

I've been pretty positive so far, but there are a few more negatives to report. Whenever you turn on the camera, the lens is always in the full telephoto position (that's zoomed all the way in). Most people don't take photos at the full zoom, so you always have to back out a bit. Another complaint is that the menu navigation is difficult. There's no easy way to move back up a level, and the organization of the menus is a bit weird.

Despite the dismal documentation, and a few quirks, I love my Coolpix 950. It takes great photos (though they seem a little grainy at times, especially on cloudy days), has a fantastic macro mode, lots of rapid-fire tricks, and is very fast in operation. It faces some pretty tough competition from Olympus though...

Using the Olympus C-2000Z

On the top of the camera, there's a similar switch to the one on the Nikon, which lets you choose which mode you want. I've already complained about how similar the buttons are, and now you can see for yourself:

The shutter release button is on the top right, with the mode/power button below it.

The modes you can choose from are a little different here. There's a setup mode, a Play mode (marked with a strange arrow in a box), program (auto) mode, aperture-priority, and shutter-priority mode.

On the Nikon, as soon as you turn the mode switch, the camera comes on. Here, you have to depress the power button. And if you've left your lens cap on, it will come flying off!

The three record modes are very similar, with just a few differences. In aperture-priority mode, you have a range of F2.0 - F11. And, in shutter-priority mode, you can go from 1/2 sec to 1/800 sec.

The fast shutter speeds really impressed me -- I took the camera out of autofocus mode (I set it at infinity), set the speed to 1/500, and was snapping away at race cars shooting by at high speeds, without any blurring (see the gallery for some evidence). I realize now that the Nikon can do this too, but I haven't had the chance to test that yet.

You don't have as many resolution/quality options here: It's SHQ, HQ, and SHQ. The first two are 1600x1200, and the latter can be 1024x768 or 640x480. You can also do uncompressed TIFFs, if you desire.

I also liked how you could adjust exposure compensation easily, using the four way switch on the back of the camera. You can see the results on the LCD in real time. On the Coolpix, you have to do the button + wheel combo that I've been complaining about. My only complaint is that while adjusting shutter or aperture, you can accidentally change the exposure compensation setting.

I also found the C-2000Z's LCD to be a bit easier to see in daylight, unlike the Coolpix's, which disappears as soon as you go outside. Things like this are why I can never recommend a camera without an optical viewfinder too!

The Olympus camera has a nice feature for taking Panoramic photos (though only if you're using an Olympus-branded SmartMedia card). First, like on the Coolpix, it locks the exposure and focus based on the first photo. But this camera goes a step further, by putting rectangular boxes on the left and right sides of the LCD. If you're taking a photo in a clockwise direction, you just make sure that whatever was in the right box ends up in the left box! It doesn't work miracles, but it should help you get better results.

You can also adjust the ISO on this camera, and it makes a lot more sense: 100, 200, or 400. One thing that really bothers me is that no matter what you choose, if you're in Program (auto) mode, it will still choose the ISO setting on its own. What if you want to shoot at ISO 200, but don't want to mess with the aperture or shutter settings? Regardless, you can FINALLY take those night shots you've always wanted to take, without the focus problems that plague the D-600L!

The C-2000Z lacks a few of the features that I really liked on the Coolpix 950: You still have a continuous shooting mode, but the collage and best shot selector are gone. (You could make your own collage of course). Also gone is the ability to check a photo before it's written to the memory card.

Another thing that bothers me is the use of SmartMedia. I wonder how much longer some companies will stay loyal to the format, which currently tops out at 32MB. CompactFlash cards are currently shipping in 96MB sizes. One nice thing that SM can do that CF cannot, is use the FlashPath floppy disk adapter, though a card reader will end that problem.

Finally, I found the response to be a little slower. The time between photos was slightly slower than the Coolpix, and the zoom response and speed was a tad slow.

Play mode is very similar to that of the Coolpix: You can view thumbnails, zoom into your pictures as much as 3X, and do slideshows. It also displays the ISO, shutter, and aperture settings on the LCD, which I found helpful. One thing you can NOT do is delete selected photos, which turns out to be a pain when you have to do one at a time.

While I don't care for the size of this camera (too small!) and the placement of the buttons, I'm impressed with the quality of its photos, especially night and action shots. The LCD quality is superior to that of the Nikon, as well. I do miss some of the features of the Coolpix (BSS especially), but you can survive without them, with perhaps the exception of deleting more than one photo (without having to delete them all).

So... which one?!?

This is a really tough call. I will confess that I spent more time yelling at the Olympus (yes, I was talking to my camera), either because I accidentally shut it off instead of taking a picture, or that it was taking an ISO 400 photo even though I set it to 200. The only thing I complain about a lot on the Coolpix is that the zoom defaults to telephoto.

Both of them need to work on their lens cap problems, for sure. Nikon needs to learn how to make a good manual, and put it in ONE document instead of three, and Olympus should try having one language per page!

These are cameras you need to play with yourself -- look at the comparison photos below, as well as the galleries; Go to the store and take some pictures. Read our user reviews. Then decide for yourself, because I can't even make up my mind!

A Quick Photo Comparison

I ran some simple tests to see how the cameras stacked up in various areas. Be sure to check out the photo galleries for each camera, whose links are below, to see a lot more examples. In some cases, I brought in my "old" Olympus D-600L to see just how much better these new 2.1 Mpixel cameras really are. Note that all photos were taken in "automatic" mode, at the highest quality possible.

Be sure to blow up the thumbnails to take a closer look!

The macro test (too close to call??)

From the left: C-2000Z, Coolpix 950. All identical lighting conditions, using "auto" setting. The D-600L wasn't a competitor here, so I took it out. (These photos were re-shot 5/31/99)

The flower test

Clockwise, from left: D-600L, C-2000Z, CP 950.

I've gotta give the color edge to Olympus here.. they just seem richer..

The cat test

Clockwise, from above: C-2000Z, CP 950, D-600L.

I'm going to vote for the Coolpix on this one. The C-2000Z image seems a bit grainy to me, and maybe a little washed out (this could be from the skylight above though).

The CP950 shows detail quite well, and the D-600L really washes out on the left.

Unlike flowers and pepper shakers, Pete here doesn't like to sit still.

The Low Light Test

I didn't even put the D-600L in this one, since it has proven to me over the years that it just can't cut it in low light situations. I need to redo the Olympus shots, since it's rather finicky about letting you change the ISO setting in "P" mode -- it won't. Even if you change the setting to 200 ISO, it will still take it in whatever it thinks is best. Your only alternative is using the S/A modes. So I'll try again.

These were taken on a tripod, by the way. And those lights you see in the sky are airplanes on approach to San Francisco Int'l.

(I may reshoot these, again, later this week..)

Coolpix 950 C-2000Z

Default: ISO 80

ISO 100 (note -- these were taken at a later time than the Coolpix's photos were. But you can see the improvement as you mess with the ISO settings)

+1.0 (ISO 160)

ISO 200

+2.0 (ISO 320 - The manual is so vague!)

ISO 400

This one is ISO 400, taken earlier in the evening, at the same time the Coolpix photos were taken. It was shot in Program (auto) mode.

More photos in our photo galleries

Check out my Coolpix 950 and Olympus C-2000Z galleries. I'll continue to add to them as I take them with me to various places!

Jeff welcomes your comments or questions. Send them to jakeller@pair.com.

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