Nikon’s Millennium Masterpiece

Like col­lect­ing orig­i­nal retro con­soles(?,) syn­th­wave, and coachel­la(?,) shoot­ing on 35mm film is so 2010. (Yes, I’ve indulged in 2018, but you should know by now that I under­stand cool sig­nif­i­cant­ly more than I embody it, espe­cial­ly in these Jaguar-less, e-scoot­er, and e-cig­a­rette-filled times.) This time last year, I spent $500 devel­op­ing film at Portland’s infa­mous Blue Moon Cam­era, which is stuffed with 5 and 6-fig­ure, metic­u­lous­ly-restored Big Name Cam­eras from every con­ceiv­able point through­out film’s his­to­ry along with a hand­ful of gor­geous portable type­writ­ers that cause one to swoon momen­tar­i­ly and ache for the trust fund hip­pie lifestyle. How­ev­er, the most sur­pris­ing truth demon­strat­ed by Hawthorn — my expert guide in the explo­ration of this hob­by — is that pover­ty in the case of cam­era col­lect­ing is actu­al­ly a tremen­dous pos­i­tive. I’d go so far as to deem it a neces­si­ty if one intends to have any fun.

As loud­ly as my Ger­man blood screams for a Leica M-some­thing, there is not a sin­gle defen­si­ble argu­ment for some­one like me (even plus unlim­it­ed funds) to pur­chase one. Though I con­sid­er myself unusu­al­ly adept at pho­tog­ra­phy, and I could tech­ni­cal­ly cite some very sparse pro­fes­sion­al work with images, I’m still severe­ly lack­ing in the train­ing and expe­ri­ence nec­es­sary to be con­sid­ered an author­i­ty. I could trav­el through Europe with an icon­ic Ger­man 35mm expend­ing tremen­dous effort in arrang­ing and arraign­ing its visu­al cap­ture and the prod­ucts would have very lit­tle innate val­ue to any­one else. The same applies to more orig­i­nal sub­ject mat­ter, as well — no result of my oper­a­tion of such a device could ever be rel­e­vant. An inter­est­ed par­ty would always be bet­ter referred to a “real” photographer’s col­lec­tion, archives from his­toric mag­a­zines, or a god­damned stu­dent project. Frankly, any­thing else is a waste of time.

Sun­rise, a tad under­ex­posed with a green-biased white bal­ance.

In order for my demo­graph­ic (ama­teurs, Lomog­ra­phy cus­tomers, Port­land Insta­gram­mers, etc.) to pro­duce work with artis­tic val­ue, we should almost always begin by toss­ing repro­duc­tion com­plete­ly out of the equa­tion. You’re a hob­by­ist — fuck shit up and make some­thing inter­est­ing. It doesn’t take much reflec­tion at all to rec­og­nize that one’s effort is objec­tive­ly deval­ued by attempts to “con­tribute” to aes­thet­ics which have already been tire­less­ly worn-in by online com­mu­ni­ties. You are lit­er­al­ly assur­ing your work will reli­ably and seam­less­ly dis­ap­pear into my Tum­blr feed and ensur­ing that its great­est pos­si­ble achieve­ment will be frag­ment­ed dis­tri­b­u­tion in the midst of visu­al­ly-iden­ti­cal batch­es shared among ded­i­cat­ed aes­thet­ic-cura­tion accounts. As ama­teurs, we have the priv­i­lege of spend­ing our allo­cat­ed pho­to­graph­ic work explor­ing our sub­jects and our equip­ment. Shoot­ing Fash­ion Week trims a min­i­mum of 8 months off the aver­age pho­to pro’s life expectan­cy each year they attend, and wed­ding pho­tog­ra­phers are the most sui­ci­dal entre­pre­neurs in the West­ern world. Do not aspire to die thank­less­ly behind a cam­era with­out sur­pass­ing a six-fig­ure salary for it.

Of course, my des­ig­na­tion as a hob­by­ist actu­al­ly pre­vents me from mak­ing such argu­ments with author­i­ty, but I can­not pos­si­bly imag­ine a rea­son to use one’s time to fur­ther estab­lished aes­thet­ic cat­e­gories on the inter­net with the excep­tion of aca­d­e­m­ic study. As always, I would be elat­ed to hear any and all relat­ed thoughts you have via com­ment or email, though we’re going to pro­ceed for the moment as if my word is indis­putable. My par­tic­u­lar “spe­cial­ties:” under­ex­po­sure and fool­ing with white bal­ance. Nei­ther of these seem to appeal much to oth­ers, so I’ll save fur­ther opin­ing on these tech­niques for anoth­er time, but I’ll point out now that both are par­tic­u­lar­ly suit­ed to the dig­i­tal process, specif­i­cal­ly.

But isn’t dig­i­tal­iza­tion the end of art?! By its fun­da­men­tal sys­tem­at­ic nature, is it not doomed to be a flawed endeav­or toward inex­is­tent absolutes which leaves its realm in a val­ley between real and unre­al, where all mag­ic and ethe­re­al­i­ty is ulti­mate­ly extract­ed from expres­sion? These ques­tions con­tin­ue to arise in more and more seg­ments of cur­rent dis­course and more than war­rant an essay, them­selves, but for now, let me offer a more spe­cif­ic coun­ter­ar­gu­ment in the form of col­lect­ing cheap dig­i­tal cam­eras from the oughts.

Since Jan­u­ary, has been curat­ing a very hip cel­e­bra­tion of cheap dig­i­tal point-and-shoots from most­ly young pho­tog­ra­phers on Insta­gram and Tum­blr. Most of the devices exhib­it­ed in the col­lec­tion can be hap­pened upon in thrift stores for $5 or less, or found on ebay for $15–40, yet their images are over­whelm­ing­ly more beau­ti­ful than you may or may not remem­ber. The tech­ni­cal­ly-enthu­si­as­tic observ­er appre­ci­ates their con­ve­nient reminder of some ele­men­tal truths of pho­tog­ra­phy which we have uni­ver­sal­ly been allowed to for­get. Though smart­phones have long since sur­passed the res­o­lu­tion in which these devices shoot by two, three, and four times, 4 megapix­els still out­sizes 1080p screens by no small mar­gin, and with even the most rudi­men­ta­ry con­sid­er­a­tion of light, the per­spec­tives of the digi­cams are no less whole, yet hun­dreds of times more finan­cial­ly acces­si­ble.

Rare: real punks spot­ted in Port­land. A swap meet at The Elks Lodge.

At the very end of the last cen­tu­ry, dig­i­tal cam­eras were still expen­sive, exper­i­men­tal toys for only the most pho­to­graph­i­cal­ly-invest­ed con­sumer, but the present is almost assured­ly the best time there’ll ever be to buy even the most exclu­sive dig­i­tal pho­tog­ra­phy prod­ucts of the time. Hence, Hawthorn’s recent pur­chase: an exam­ple of “the most antic­i­pat­ed eager­ly antic­i­pat­ed dig­i­tal cam­eras of the year 2000,” accord­ing to Phil Askey, founder of the Dig­i­tal Pho­tog­ra­phy Review, which could be bought new for 900 USD — $1,345.94, account­ing for infla­tion — yet for this Nikon COOLPIX E990, she paid only $6 to Good­will, where it’d been donat­ed after lit­tle to no use, I’m con­vinced.  I’m still grate­ful she was will­ing to sur­ren­der it to my clum­sy hands because it is fas­ci­nat­ing from the his­toric, hard­ware, and soft­ware per­spec­tives. I’ll out­line some of its most inter­est­ing aspects, but Askey’s near­ly 20-page-long review is (con­ve­nient­ly) the most com­pre­hen­sive doc­u­ment I’ve ever seen about a sin­gle dig­i­tal cam­era mod­el, and any espe­cial­ly-nerdy read­ers should con­sid­er them­selves referred.

The orig­i­nal dig­i­tal self­ie cam?

I sup­pose we should expect Nikon’s incred­i­bly thor­ough doc­u­men­ta­tion archive from all hard­ware com­pa­nies: search Google for “Nikon COOLPIX 990 Man­u­al,” and the first result is The Nikon Guide to Dig­i­tal Pho­tog­ra­phy with the COOLPIX 990 Dig­i­tal Cam­era straight from Nikon’s own CDN. Of course, I’ve still mir­rored it for futureproofing’s sake despite their dili­gence because it’s noth­ing less than spec­tac­u­lar in user man­u­al terms with its bespoke bul­lets and rain­bow gra­di­ent ban­ners, and yes, Nikon should be applaud­ed for invest­ing so much care in such an obscure doc­u­ment. Let’s back up, though, and rely on Nikon’s own prod­uct page for some basic spec­i­fi­ca­tions. The device shoots 3.2 mil­lion “Effec­tive Pix­els” — one of many odd­ball phras­ings, as far as my mem­o­ry serves. Trans­lat­ed, the 990 uses a 3.34 megapix­el sen­sor behind an 8–24mm Nikkor lens offer­ing 3X opti­cal zoom. Return­ing to Phil’s review, we find more con­ven­tion­al lan­guage, com­par­isons with pre­ced­ing and com­pet­ing prod­ucts, and the rev­e­la­tion that this cam­era was announced on my 6th birth­day!

In usu­al Nikon fash­ion the 990 was announced in uni­son glob­al­ly on the 27th Jan­u­ary 2000 at 8 AM Tokyo Time. The look was famil­iar if a lit­tle restyled, most sig­nif­i­cant was the increase in res­o­lu­tion to 3.34 megapix­els (2048 x 1536) and the addi­tion of some neat new fea­tures and a sigh of relief from 950 own­ers due to solu­tions to some long term Coolpix gripes. Adding to some con­fu­sion (and still) is the fact that the US mod­els fea­ture a purple/blue insert in the rub­berised hand grip and non-US mod­els (Europe / Asia) fea­ture a red insert.

Phil Askey, Dig­i­tal Pho­tog­ra­phy Review

Nei­ther Hawthorn nor myself had ever seen a device even remote­ly like the 990, which is by far the best rea­son to make a pur­chase in this hob­by. True to its bizarre appear­ance, the incon­gru­en­cies of its oper­a­tion are numer­ous, but it is undoubt­ed­ly the most phys­i­cal­ly-dense image cap­tur­ing device I have ever han­dled. With four AA bat­ter­ies onboard, it weighs exact­ly half a kilo­gram, which I’ve found just below the accept­able lim­it for gen­er­al car­ry on a sin­gle hand. Actu­al­ly snap­ping pho­tographs one-hand­ed yields less motion blur than you’d expect in ade­quate light, but one is not afford­ed enough time by the hard­ware to be so unnec­es­sar­i­ly lack­adaisi­cal — some images can take up to 10 sec­onds to fin­ish sav­ing on its first-gen­er­a­tion Com­pact­Flash card, depend­ing on one’s image Qual­i­ty selec­tion as detailed in page 5 of Phil’s review. Bewil­der­ing­ly, this set­ting is at the mer­cy of the camera’s sen­sors and algo­rithms when shoot­ing in Auto­mat­ic mode — per­haps in the pur­suit of size effi­cien­cy, con­sid­er­ing PC stor­age lim­i­ta­tions of the time.

The camera’s con­trols are its most famil­iar­ly rec­og­niz­able expe­ri­ence in for­mat terms, though their action sur­pass­es that of any oth­er such but­tons and seg­ment­ed rotary selec­tors I can remem­ber using. With­out excep­tion, they’re incred­i­bly robust — one quick­ly notices and appre­ci­ates the com­plete lack of design com­pro­mis­es or mass-mar­ket ide­ol­o­gy in the 990’s inter­face. Unex­pect­ed­ly, its real-world rugged­ness appears to match these tac­tile sen­sa­tions: I dropped my 990 some four feet on rough asphalt last week whilst exit­ing an over­packed C-Class to zero appar­ent effect, and I can’t seem to stop bump­ing its metal­lic body into ver­ti­cal sup­ports on the bus, yet its behav­ior has not appeared to change. That is, trau­ma has not yet changed the fre­quen­cy of the bugs, but they are fair­ly fre­quent, as one should expect from such a unique, ear­ly dig­i­tal lux­u­ry good.

The most imme­di­ate­ly notice­able and severe incon­ve­nience in the use of this 18-year-old device is its rabid con­sump­tion of bat­tery cells. So far, my expe­ri­ence sug­gests that four bar­gain AAs in par­al­lel are con­sumed by snap­ping no more than rough­ly 40 images, though a com­bi­na­tion of CMOS short cir­cuit sus­pi­cions and a few months of idle stor­age have led me to fresh­en the lot at least four times. Hon­est­ly though, it would be absolute­ly flab­ber­gast­ing if such an out-of-seg­ment nov­el­ty man­aged DC pow­er with any sane com­pe­tence, and its user man­u­al does explic­it­ly sug­gest remov­ing the bat­ter­ies before extend­ed stor­age.

It’s no secret that a huge incen­tive for #ishoot­film Insta­gram­mers is being seen using a film cam­era. Bring­ing the Minol­ta Weath­er­mat­ic-A to a house show in Port­land guar­an­teed me the supe­ri­or con­ver­sa­tion piece, but the bear­er of a more tra­di­tion­al SLR or 35mm point-and-shoot is a uni­ver­sal mag­net for intox­i­cat­ed hip­ster curios­i­ty and com­plete­ly unre­al­is­tic future “pho­to­shoot” pro­pos­als. This dynam­ic is an old cliché, but expo­nen­tial­ly-sky­rock­et­ing smart­phone adop­tion has in recent years made just about any ded­i­cat­ed image cap­tur­ing device a sim­i­lar­ly-atten­tion-grab­bing acces­so­ry, so the most super­fi­cial pho­tog­ra­phers are not exempt from our col­lec­tive oblig­a­tion to fur­ther Digi­cam Love as the final relief from the film obses­sive trend after its obnox­ious­ly-extend­ed rumi­na­tion. Of course, this Nikon was sure­ly received as a vain, dork­i­ly-dis­rup­tive com­pan­ion even amidst its peak pop­u­lar­i­ty, so its expect­ed effect shall for­ev­er remain pri­mar­i­ly reac­tions in vari­a­tions of what the hell is that thing?

What the hell, indeed. I’m not pre­cise­ly sure who was sup­posed to buy this cam­era new (or who actu­al­ly did,) but I can’t imag­ine any­one buy­ing a hypo­thet­i­cal­ly-equiv­a­lent, stur­di­ly built mar­ket-top­ping cam­era with such light­heart­ed nuances ever again, and that’s sad­den­ing. Why, exact­ly, did taste­ful­ly-placed rain­bow-reflec­tive logos and Zenon, Girl of the 21st Cen­tu­ry-esque accents have to dis­ap­pear from top-end con­sumer-mar­ket­ed cam­eras? Was 9/11 real­ly that bad? And what about triple excla­ma­tion points fol­low­ing all-caps are you sure? prompts in the soft­ware, or metic­u­lous­ly-designed user man­u­als? There is absolute­ly no rea­son why this one Nikon prod­uct is the most extreme excep­tion I’ve ever found in this regard instead of a poten­tial pio­neer of a more sin­cere­ly joy­ful norm.

Should the unlike­ly new own­er of a COOLPIX 990 hap­pen to have sought out this piece for actu­al ref­er­ence, I do have at least one essen­tial nugget of advice not found any­where in the afore­linked ref­er­ences: your first task should be to reset all set­tings (Menu 2 ⇥ RESET ALL) and then to imme­di­ate­ly change the AF mode from ‘CONTINUOUS’ to ‘SINGLE (Menu 2 ⇥ FOCUS OPTIONS ⇥ Auto-Focus Mode ⇥ Sin­gle AF,) dis­abling the lens’ default, unset­tling mis­sion to con­stant­ly refo­cus, which has vir­tu­al­ly zero appli­ca­tions for a cam­era of this sort apart from the most elec­tro­mag­net­i­cal­ly-mali­cious (or per­haps masochis­tic) user’s desire to con­sume the world’s bat­ter­ies. In a bizarrely lucky encounter with an out­let mall cam­era store employ­ee, Hawthorn and I were giv­en the cor­rect Com­pact­Flash card for the COOLPIX after spot­ting it sit­ting alone on the counter. What­ev­er deity of elec­tron­ics hard­ware is respon­si­ble for this impos­si­ble event has my thanks, for the search for such a card had returned lit­tle results, up to that point. Find­ing the cor­rect cable to trans­fer pho­tos direct­ly from the 990 to a PC is sim­i­lar­ly dif­fi­cult. Either my repeat­ed search­es relat­ing to this cam­era mod­el were par­tic­u­lar­ly influ­en­tial upon sub­se­quent results, or the UC-E1 stan­dard was used only on this Nikon prod­uct — the first Ama­zon list­ing on Google names the mod­el in its title. How­ev­er, giv­en its reviews, I would instead sug­gest using any CF-read­ing dig­i­tal device you prob­a­bly have around with a more tra­di­tion­al out­put of your choos­ing (audio recorder, DSLR, etc) as a sub­sti­tute card read­er instead of both­er­ing with a direct con­nec­tion. While this requires an addi­tion­al step and your care not to refor­mat the card from your cho­sen device, it’s prob­a­bly safer than indulging the nov­el­ty of a vir­tu­al­ly-unused IO for­mat.


The COOLPIX is sur­pris­ing­ly capa­ble snap­ping the low-light, low-expo­sure pho­tographs I’ve come to enjoy tak­ing. I’m rel­a­tive­ly alone in treat­ing under­ex­po­sure as a legit­i­mate pho­to­graph­ic tech­nique (as far as I know,) but I’ve exper­i­ment­ed enough to know that coax­ing a mir­ror­less dig­i­tal cam­era to refrain from com­pen­sat­ing for my min­i­mal expo­sure set­tings with post-processed ampli­fi­ca­tion is often a pain in the ass, and point-and-shoots tend to lim­it my abil­i­ty to lie to the camera’s white bal­ance ref­er­ence. Find­ing these set­tings in the 990’s ear­ly menus took way less effort than I’ve expe­ri­enced in the past. Its mal­leable Man­u­al Mode is just as cus­tomiz­able as I’ll ever need and its ful­ly Auto­mat­ic Mode’s nan­nies are far more man­age­able than any I’ve found on mod­ern DSLRs like the Canon 7D.

Con­sid­er­ing these qual­i­ties and the COOLPIX 990’s one-of-a-kind design, I can declare it the ide­al device for me, but’s rejec­tion of my two sub­mis­sions tak­en with it may indi­cate that it is 100% unfit and unwel­come from any sort of uni­form move­ment in pho­tog­ra­phy. Then again, my pho­tog­ra­phy could very well just be bad and dumb. Either way, I’m a moth­er­fuck­ing hob­by­ist and I can enjoy embar­rass­ing myself with­out care. I plan to expand upon what I’ve shot so far with a series called Port­land Off­bal­ance.

◎ Appar­ent­ly, I am a “waste­ful per­son” because of my habit of indulging myself in depre­ci­at­ed lux­u­ry goods. The 1980s were wild, sure, but in the late 1990s, we no longer need­ed cocaine for our mania because his­to­ry was over! We were going to shed our bonds with every­thing old (includ­ing our government’s 20th cen­tu­ry atroc­i­ties,) hyper-polar­ize our sum­mer palettes, and entire­ly for­get the Berlin walls of the world so that we’d be free to com­plete­ly reimag­ine our­selves for the enchant­i­ng dream tech­nol­o­gy of the new mil­len­ni­um. Every­thing was going to be dif­fer­ent, and it was def­i­nite­ly the best time to be alive. Then, the Sep­tem­ber 11th attacks and the Bush Era’s reces­sion remind­ed us how depen­dent America’s body had become on its old ways and old addic­tions, and our tem­po­rary blind­ness to our­selves from flash­es of neo­prene green grad­u­al­ly left our vision infi­nite­ly many gra­di­ents of the truth. The cow­ard­ly among us either fled back to the 80s to nurse their van­i­ty, or con­tin­ued on anoth­er route toward that dark­en­ing tech­no­log­i­cal ‘dream’ as a com­plete sub­sti­tute for their very lives. I say, it’s time to stop sulk­ing and start sur­round­ing our­selves with a lot more of that 90s enthu­si­asm for the future (with­out the designed igno­rance of the past, of course.) Again, if not for any rea­son but fru­gal­i­ty. In 2018, you can live like a turn-of-the-cen­tu­ry oli­garch for ten­thed sums: buy your­self a Rolls-Royce lim­ou­sine for $15,000 and a bushel of VHS tapes at 25 cents a pop. Glut­tonize; waste every­thing! There is some sat­is­fac­tion to be had in acquir­ing “lux­u­ry” items cheap­ly because it sus­tains an illu­sion of excess with­in which you are pow­er­ful in your apa­thy toward pos­ses­sions of great pres­tige and crafts­man­ship. Crash the car! Lose the watch! Who cares! It was just six­ty bucks, right?