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-aluminium body is small at 89 by 61 by 38mm and 150g, 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 towards the centre 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 51mm (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 half a 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.