A smattering of gee-whiz features lifts this compact point-and-shoot model above the busy crowd of highly automated 5-megapixel pocket cameras. A less expensive stablemate of the 7-megapixel , the Nikon Coolpix 5900 shares its sibling's Face-Priority Autofocus, postshot shadow-brightening tool, help features, and blur detection, all of which spice up an otherwise mundane feature set.
Snapshot photographers will like the Coolpix 5900's good image quality, generous assortment of scene modes (five with framing-assist options), and Best Shot mode, which saves only the sharpest image in a series. But the paucity of manual controls reduces the allure for photo enthusiasts, while poor low-light autofocus and an inaccurate optical viewfinder will disappoint photographers of all sorts. Although the Nikon Coolpix 5900's brushed-aluminum body is small at 3.46 by 2.4 by 1.44 inches and 7 ounces, it's well balanced enough for one-handed shooting. The rear zoom rocker fits under your thumb when you poise an index finger over the top-mounted shutter release, but those with large hands may wish the zoom control had been shifted just a tad toward the center of the back panel. The clean top surface hosts a recessed power switch, a power LED, and a knurled mode dial; the other controls cluster around the 2-inch, 114,000-pixel LCD on the back.
The rear controls include a Delete button, a Menu key, a Review button, and a four-way cursor-control pad with a central OK key. There's no info display button; every time you want to turn off the LCD to save power or change the type of data shown, you need to switch the mode dial to Setup, then endure up to a half-dozen key presses to make the change. Such extra work seems to be part of Nikon's design for this camera, which requires numerous keystrokes in the menus to activate continuous-shooting mode and twice that many to change ISO. Lots of other cameras use buttons to activate all these options.
The Nikon Coolpix 5900 provides access to some other functions with the cursor pad--albeit clumsily. For example, pressing right on the pad doesn't activate the self-timer, nor does pressing down select macro mode: each brings up an on/off menu for the respective features. Rather than cycling through flash options, pressing up on the pad produces its own menu of speed-light choices. Pressing right summons an exposure-compensation menu (plus or minus 2EV in 1/3EV increments).
Although the Nikon Coolpix 5900's menus are easy to understand, frequent trips to the system can be annoying because the choices take up multiple pages (the Shooting and Setup menus run three pages each with 14 and 15 options, respectively), and there are no shortcuts to access the option you need. You can replace menus with a page of icons, but then you have to learn what each icon represents. The compact Nikon Coolpix 5900 mostly provides the features you'd expect: a 38mm-to-114mm (35mm-camera equivalent) 3X zoom lens that focuses down to 1.6 inches in macro mode, as well as 256-segment matrix, center-weighted, and spot metering with shutter speeds between 4 seconds and 1/2,000 second and apertures of either f/2.8 or f/4.9. This almost strictly automatic camera has no aperture- or shutter-priority modes, manual exposure, or manual focus.
Dig deeper, though, and you'll find a good selection of moderately cool features. For example, press the OK button while in programmed exposure mode, and you can shift the autofocus zone to any of 99 different positions in a 9-by-11 matrix clustered around the center two-thirds of the image. You can also tell the Nikon Coolpix 5900 to meter from this manually selected focus zone, which provides a modicum of control over spot metering.
Face-Priority Autofocus, introduced with the most recent batch of Nikon point-and-shoots, fixes on human faces to make focusing easier when shooting individual or small-group candids. You can also choose between continuous and single autofocus to accommodate both fast-moving and static subjects.
This model offers bountiful scene modes, with 12 conventional options ranging from Party/Indoor to Night Landscape to Underwater (that last one for use with Nikon's optional underwater housing). Assist modes provide onscreen framing guides for panoramas, landscapes, and several portrait configurations. Special assist options help with sports and night portraits. A three-shot automatic-bracketing option is available for both exposure and white balance, along with tweaks including noise reduction, sharpening, saturation, and contrast.
We also liked the Coolpix 5900's automated postshot lifesavers. The camera can monitor your pictures as they are taken and offer to erase those that it deems blurry--which should be your cue for a reshoot. The Best Shot Selector takes as many as 10 pictures consecutively but saves only the sharpest one. Activate the D-lighting feature, and the camera lightens inky shadows for you and saves the salvaged shot as a new file.
Like its predecessor, the Nikon Coolpix 5900 has an optional five-shot-buffer continuous-shooting option that cranks off photos as long as you keep the shutter release pressed; it retains only the last five pictures you take--an advantage when you don't know the exact timing of a critical moment in an action sequence.
With the camera set to Auto ISO, the built-in speed light provides illumination out to 14.8 feet--a decent range for such a compact model. In addition to the usual preflash, the camera has internal processing that uses built-in search-and-destroy algorithms to snuff out red-eye.
Like the Nikon Coolpix 7900, this model captures smooth 640x480, 30fps minimovies, but it lacks its stablemate's novel movie-mode electronic vibration reduction. The Nikon Coolpix 5900 turned in mostly unimpressive performance figures and a few that were downright horrible. Despite the built-in focus-assist lamp, this camera's autofocus system stumbled under low-contrast lighting, producing shutter-lag times of almost 2 seconds. If you shoot mostly under higher-contrast lighting conditions, you'll be more pleased with this Coolpix's 0.6-second response.
It took 4.48 seconds to awaken the camera from its slumber and take a shot; thereafter, shot-to-shot times were a reasonable 2.04 seconds (4.2 seconds with flash). In continuous-shooting mode, we captured 9 full-resolution photos in 5.18 seconds and were able to snap low-resolution shots until our finger tired. We got 108 640x480-resolution photos in 60 seconds.
Our biggest beef with the viewing system was the tiny optical viewfinder, which made framing images difficult and, with our eyesight, could have benefited from diopter correction. It showed only 75 percent of the frame and suffered from serious parallax errors when shooting close up. The LCD viewfinder, though coarse, is probably a better choice for composing images, as it provides a 100 percent view. It gained up nicely in dim light and was viewable outdoors under all but the brightest conditions. We had few complaints about sharpness with the Nikon Coolpix 5900. It produced generally crisp images, unmarred by excessive JPEG artifacts. Exposures looked good, too, although we noticed a pronounced tendency to clip highlights. Saturation appeared a bit too rich for our taste, but otherwise we found colors quite accurate. However, flesh tones sometimes had a slight magenta cast. Visual noise remained fairly low at the minimum ISO 64 light-sensitivity setting and caused problems at only the ISO 400 top end.
The electronic flash provided good, even coverage--not surprising, given the camera's limited 38mm (35mm-camera equivalent) wide-angle perspective. We were pleased to get good exposures even beyond the rated 15-foot distance, and we found the camera's red-eye prevention effective.