CoolPix E7600 - Quest for a pocket cam

Version 1.4, © 2006 by Dale Cotton, all rights reserved

Update (June 06): I still feel the 7600 is an excellent little second camera for the money. However, having learned the value of having a camera with me at all times, I've upgraded once again to the Panasonic LX1.

One of the dreams of many a passionate photographer is to own a digital camera small enough to fit in a pocket, yet capable enough to create usable pictures. The concept is to have - in addition to one's "serious" kit - a camera one can slip into a pocket and carry everywhere, so no unexpected photo op goes un-captured. We're talking F/8 and be there; where "there" could be anything from a downtown street to a birthday party. Handheld, of course, but also my prejudice is for existing light and against flash.

My shopping/wish list includes

  • small size
  • low cost
  • reasonably rugged construction
  • optical finder, usable LCD
  • acceptable image quality
  • reasonable responsiveness (shutter lag, focus speed, and shot-to-shot times)
  • usable exposure controls
  • reasonably wide angle zoom range
  • no-flash low light capability

This is the vision I had a year ago when I bought first the Fuji F10 then the Fuji E550 without satisfaction. However, hope springs eternal and tired of missing potential keepers I hit the review sites once again to see if anything had changed. This time - after making doubly sure I could return it if needed - I opted to try the Nikon Coolpix E7600, on sale locally at a price that was hard to resist.

Fig. 1: E7600 relaxing after a hard day's jumping through hoops

Physical characteristics

This has got to be the smallest camera since the Minox, yet it has both an optical finder (however meagre) and an LCD. It's brick-like shape with no fragile protrusions, presumably built out of high-impact plastic, suggests it can withstand a bit of handling. Many of the competing pocket cams have a metal body, but that comes at a correspondingly higher price. So the 7600 meets my first four requirements right off the top.

While the LCD may be "only" a two incher, it's bright, reasonably detailed, and has a surface texture that does a very good job of diffusing glare.

One niggle: the mode dial spins too freely - when I take the camera out of my pocket the mode dial is never set where I left it and as often as not is between options.

Ratings on a scale of 0 to 3:

  • small size
  • low cost
  • rugged construction
  • optical finder, usable LCD

Lens

The disappointingly non-wide 38mm to 114mm (35mm equiv.) zoom range seems almost inescapable in a small camera. My understanding is that going wider results in an unacceptable loss of corner resolution and an unacceptable increase in barrel distortion - already too great at the 7600's 38mm. The f/2.8 - f/4.9 max apertures are not numbers a handholder smiles at the sight of. The single ED (extra dispersion) element inside proves to provide only limited protection against flare.

  • wide angle zoom range

Exposure controls

Pressing the power button (which brings the camera to readiness in 2 seconds) and taking a quick tour of the menus confirms what I already knew from reviews, namely that the 7600 has exactly the same set of exposure controls available on the Kodak Brownie-style box camera I used as a child ... namely, none.

Now, my normal mode of working is spot meter plus full manual, so it is hard to imagine anything more frustrating than a camera that has just two apertures and offers control over neither, that displays neither aperture nor shutter readings either before or after exposure, that has exposure compensation but buried in the menu system, etc. With this camera you can choose between ISO 50 program mode with exposure comp. or you can choose between dozens of cutsey handholding scene modes - end of story.

Normally, this sort of stone-walling would be an immediate show-stopper for any serious photographer, but let's think a moment about what a pocket camera is supposed to do. What you want is a camera that you have tucked away in a pocket then whip out when an unexpected and usually highly transient composition presents itself. In such a situation you rarely have time to ponder apertures and shutters or fine-tune your point of focus; you're lucky if you even have time to frame the subject. So a camera that is smart enough to handle both exposure and focus automatically is exactly what you want. It's just that experience has taught us that automatic systems fail in direct proportion to the desirability of the shot.

Torture Test 1: Bright Light

Fig 2: unedited exposure test (no exp. comp.)

Fortunately, when I got the 7600 home from the store there was still plenty of high contrast daylight available, so I popped in a pair of AAs and proceeded to put it through torture test #1. Amazingly, I was unable to get it to blow a single non-specular highlight no matter what combination of full sun on white and dark objects in inky shadow I threw at it, such as Fig 2. In fact, the only contrast test I've got it to fail to date is one that seems to give the computer in every camera fits - anything resembling a wall in shadow taking up at least half the scene and sky the rest. This is guaranteed to result in white skies using the eval metering of any camera I've ever tried. A second astonishment: every picture, no matter how contrasty the light, was beautifully contrast-balanced out of the camera. IOW, Nikon's oft-praised 256 segment matrix metering comes through once again.

Torture Test 2: Low Light

As the sun set on my first day with the 7600, it also boded to set on my hopes that I wouldn't have to return it the next day. This is when I discovered that in full auto (the green icon on the mode dial) the camera wouldn't budge from ISO 50 even in a dark room lit by a single candle. (And to determine the ISO used for a shot you have to examine the EXIF data on your home computer.) Even the cleverness of Nikon's Best Shot Selector doesn't help when you're trying to handhold a 5 ounce camera set to f/4.9 and ISO 50 at twilight. Of course, as mentioned, the 7600 is bursting at the seams with every cutsey scene assist known to mankind. Surely the Sunset, or Dusk/Dawn, or Night Landscape, or Museum setting would budget this infernal thing off ISO 50?

Not a chance.

Thus, I went to bed that night prepared to face a disappointed sales clerk with a camera return the next day. However, my subconscious had been busy as I slept; I woke up with an interesting idea: an exposure at ISO 50 with -2 stops exposure compensation trickles in the same number of photons to the imager as an exposure at ISO 200 with 0 compensation. Unfortunately, a few dawn test shots before heading off to work showed that the noise resulting from this kludge makes my teenage son's house parties sound like a church with the collection plate being passed around in comparison.

Fig 3: Experimenting on the morning commute

But while trying to take a grab shot out of the commuter train window, a glimmer of inspiration pierced my morning fog. The running person icon representing Sports Assist mode didn't immediately suggest ISO control; but in fact the higher the ISO the shorter the exposure and the shorter the exposure the less motion blur. And, amazingly, that proved to be the answer. Combined with a rangefinder's lack of mirror and shutter slap, the paltry ISO 200 of the 7600's Sports Assist proved just adequate to permit blur-free exposures handheld in light levels low enough that 800 ISO film in an SLR would have been iffy. Further experimentation showed that the Party/Indoor option under the Scene setting on the mode dial also permits low ISOs. The downside is that Party turns the flash on each and every time you choose it, forcing you to de-select it. The difference between the two is that Sports Assist produces a dim image in dim light while Party/Indoor boosts the exposure.

Tips: when using Sports Assist as your exposure mode, choose Spectator mode from the menu for normal autofocus and Sports for continuous.

To prevent blur use the optical finder in low light when shutter speeds are long. Holding the camera against your face provides more stability than holding it out in front of your face.

Also: practice pressing the shutter release. Because the 7600 is so light the force from your index finger is going to push the whole camera downward; this needs to be balanced by a corresponding push upward from your thumb.

  • no-flash low light capability
  • exposure controls

Torture Test 3: Moving subjects

Fig 4: Poetry in motion?

Here the review sites provide all the info you really need: shutter lag and shot-to-shot times for this camera are acceptable to track a scrambling toddler but probably not a seagull winging in to make the kill on a discarded candy wrapper. The other issue is focus speed and accuracy - something I'm not competent to pass judgement on. From my limited experience as a non-sports and non-wildlife photographer, my impression using the 7600 is that it's neither better nor worse at handling moving subjects than is the norm for small cameras. The real question is whether you can get the shot when your subject is in motion; but I'm too new at this to be able to certifiably distinguish between my limitations and the camera's.

One thing I'm fairly confident is a camera weakness is focus problems I'm experiencing with continuous autofocus in low light.

  • responsiveness

Image Quality 1: Resolution

Again, we have the review sites, such as dpreview.com, to give us the scoop on the 7600's 7.1 megapixels. They say and my own results say that the 7600 resolves nearly as much detail as a 6 megapixel dSLR. That's very good news, especially in a pocket camera.

Image Quality 2: Colour

Fig 5: accurate but pleasing colour

As astounding as this may seem, the 7600 on auto white balance is giving me some of the best colour I've yet got out of a compact digital camera. "Best" not referring to some hypothetical absolute standard, but a combination of accuracy and pleasing to my personal tastes. White balance is a huge part of the equation; setting WB manually on the 7600 is easy enough, but the results I've had so far rarely differ from just leaving the camera on auto, and when they do they are still usually pleasing to the eye.

Fig 6: accurate but pleasing colour

Another aspect of colour handling is saturation. Notice the subtle, pleasing pastels in Figs 5 and 6. Many digital cameras do the Velvia thing of pumping up the saturation for mass market appeal - the visual equivalent of a sugary soft drink. Others err on the side of desaturation as if dull colour is intrinsically more accurate than true colour. What I'm finding with the 7600 (and I assume Nikon in general) is that I can take a picture out my window in auto WB, print it without editing, take the print back to the window, and not be able to see any difference in hue (or brightness) between print and original. The only limitation to that would be out of gamut colours, given the small sRGB colour space the camera employs.

Image Quality 3: Noise

Noise is the reason the 7600's engineering team capped its ISO at 200 and attempted to foist ISO 50 off on us for nearly every shot. You can see that noise is far from absent in the ISO 200 shot in Fig 4 above. I happen to be one of those weirdos who get all artsy over grainy film, so I assume I'm more tolerant than most of the coloured chaos that's part of the 9 mil CCD package, but any more than I'm seeing at ISO 200 would be too much even for me.

  • JPEG image quality

Wrap-up

Fig 7: 06-CP0209. Always at hand

So where does all the above leave us? The 7600, like just about every pocket camera available other than Fuji, is built around whichever of Sony's postage stamp imagers had the highest pixel count at the time of production. The camera's deck of cards form factor is achieved at the cost of huge numbers of sacrifices and compromises. Worse: its designers envisaged its primary market as the complete computer novice and stuffed it full of handholding fluff.

As an only camera for a non-tyro, the 7600 might well be taken for a joke. As a second camera - the entire purpose of which is to be small enough and unobtrusive enough to be accessible 24/7/365 - compromise and limitation are inevitable. The only question is whether the compromises and limitations are ones you can live with. Here's my grading once again:

  • small size
  • low cost
  • rugged construction
  • optical finder, usable LCD
  • JPEG image quality
  • responsiveness
  • exposure controls
  • wide angle zoom range
  • no-flash low light capability

Take a pass on the 7600 if either wide angle or no-flash, low light hand-holding are critical. Otherwise, if you can get a good close-out price on one or find one used, you certainly won't be disappointed with image quality and you may find its father-knows-best operation gets you usable exposures acceptably often. For myself, if I wanted to shell out an extra $100 on a second camera I'd take a closer look at the Casio Z850; if low light were my most important criterion I'd hold out for the Fuji F30; but given the price the 7600 offers excellent image quality and a set of functional compromises I can ... just barely ;) ... live with. The important thing for me is that I've already added a dozen portfolio-grade prints to my collection using the 7600 and had only one potential keeper compromised by its limitations (autofocus in low light).

Another option is the CoolPix 7900 - looks just like the 7600 but is more expensive and has more features. Some highlights: ISO up to 400 and user selectable; control over image parameters including sharpening, contrast, and saturation; exposure and white balance bracketing.