Guided Tour #12: Nikon Coolpix P5100

Take the tour--master your camera

The Nikon legend in miniature

What’s a Guided Tour?

Welcome to the Guided Tour series, an Adorama exclusive. Let us take you on in-depth looks at today’s most popular cameras. Read this through to the end and follows the many tips and techniques that are included and you will be able to easily master this camera.

You can read Guided Tours...

...before you buy. The more you know about the abilities of a camera, the better equipped you are to make a buying decision. Read "Snapshot" for a 1-paragraph product overview, and the field report for our expert impressions. Our Guided Tours offer extensive information....after you buy. You’ve invested in the camera; now you want to learn everything there is to know about it so you can take advantage of all of its capabilities.

How to read a Guided Tour:

If you just want to turn on the camera and start shooting with the camera's default modes, go to the "Using basic features" section.

If you want to explore other features in depth, keep reading!

Nikon Coolpix P5100 At A Glance

Key features

  • Hot shoe for external Nikon Speedlight flash
  • Telephoto and wide-angle adapters extend range
  • Video recording with sound
  • 2.5-inch LCD monitor
  • 35-123mm (35mm equivalent) f/2.7-5.3 optical zoom lens
  • Optical viewfinder with 80% coverage
  • Shutter speeds 8-1/2000 sec
  • Lens stabilization
  • Face recognition

Best suited for

  • Travel/scenics
  • Casual shooting
  • Nature
  • Informal portraits

Accessories (purchased separately)

Not recommended for

  • Extreme weather
  • Low-light photography
  • Action or sports photography

What's in the box

  • Camera
  • Strap
  • USB Cable
  • Audio Video cable
  • Rechargeable Li-ion EN-ELS battery
  • Software CD-ROM
  • Quick start guide
  • User’s Manual
  • Warranty, Registration

Price: Approximately $285


The Nikon Coolpix P5100, the flagship of the Nikon compact camera line, is the lowest-cost "system" compact digital camera currently on the market. It has a hot shoe that can accommodate any Nikon flash, as well as optional wide-angle and tele adapters that extend the zoom range. It is remarkably small and light, but offers extensive control over exposure, focus, image quality and color balance. To keep the cost down, however, RAW file recording and manual focus--features found on other system cameras--are not available here. If you only shoot JPEG-format images and always rely on autofocus, you can save a bundle by buying this camera.

For photographers who do want RAW and such bells and whistles as GPS, be patient: Nikon has just announced the P5100's replacement, the P6000, a 13.5MP camera with all of the P5100's features, and then some. Read our coverage of the P6000 announcement.

Fine details: At ISO 64, the P5100 delivered very good image quality--and a photo that can be printed 11x14 or larger with minimal grain.

Field Report

The Coolpix P5100 is amazingly small and light--the smallest and lightest of the growing "system" compact camera category. Nikon kept the control layout relatively simple--although it will look familiar to anyone who owns a lower-end Nikon DSLR. To do this, Navigating through the basic modes was easy and familiar since Nikon wisely put them all on the Mode dial. Nikon loaded almost all of its advanced features into the menu structure, and has hidden some real gems within. For instance, you can dial up simultaneous black and white and color image capture via the Optimize Image menu item, but you need to burrow down a couple of levels down to find it.

Once you find the treasured functions you're looking for, you can assign it to the Fn button so you call it up in a hurry. I found this to be a helpful feature but it requires some preparation.

Vivid color: I wanted to emphasize the interesting color of these chairs, so I burrowed deep into the menus and ratcheted up the saturation by selecting Extra Vivid.

In the field I found the P5100 to be only moderately responsive. As with so many compact digital cameras, this one pauses for at least a half second before shooting and sometimes longer, and as a result I missed most action shots. This is not a sports camera, although it can handle posed photos and scenics very well.

Up against the wall: This wall shows the lens's pronounced pillow distortion at wide angle setting(left). With distortion control selected, pillow distortion is gone. often do you photograph walls?

Image quality, when shooting at ISO 64-100, was exceptionally sharp with very little grain. Photos taken with this camera in sufficient light at low ISO sensitivity could be enlarged to 11x14 and beyond without fear. But the sensor is a typical small compact camera sensor, and by ISO 400 there was a lot of digital noise, with mottling especially in the shadows. Nikon’s onboard noise reduction helped reduce noise a little.

Hail, hail: There was a rare hailstorm on Long Island, and the P5100 was the camera I had. Closest focus was about 9 inches in tele, but as close as an inch from the front of the lens when shooting wide angle.

Outside controls

Nikon wisely put all of the most basic, snapshooter friendly controls on the surface, and the more obscure options on LCD-accessable menus. Let's look at those controls now.

Top Panel

Moving from left to right, we start with the hot shoe--a rarity on compact digital cameras but a welcome feature because it lets you mount an external flash. A bigger flash throws a more powerful beam, lighting up scenes that would be way too dark using the P5100's wimpy onboard flash. You can use the Nikon Speedlight SB-400, SB-600, SB-800 Speedlights. Remove the hot shoe protective cover, attach the flash to the hot shoe and the flash and camera will automatically set the exposure. Sorry, no off-camera wireless flash operation.

To the right of the flash is the Mode Dial; turn it to switch from AUTO (basic snapshot shooting) to P (program), Tv (shutter priority, which lets you choose the shutter speed), Av (aperture priority, which lets you choose the aperture setting), M (manual, which lets you choose both aperture and shutter speed), setup (use with Menu button to change camera operation preferences), Movie mode, scene modes, Hi ISO (boosts light sensitivity to reduce camera shake in low light), and Anti-Shake setting (which reduces blur via vibration reduction and best scene mode).

The scene mode is worth an in-depth look. This setting lets you access the camera's 16 special Scene modes. In each mode, the camera automatically chooses optimal combinations of shutter speed, aperture, color balance and overall image quality settings, flash settings, ISO and more based on the specific type of scene selected. The scenes are: Portrait, landscape, sports, night portrait, party/indoor, beach/snow, sunset, dusk/dawn, night landscape, close up, museum, fireworks show, copy, backlight, panorama assist, voice recording. Go here to learn more about each of these scene modes.

The shutter release button is the most forward of the array of controls on the right hand side, and is surrounded by the tele/wide angle zoom ring. The tiny on-off button is right behind it, followed by the thumb-controlled Command dial. You'll use the command dial to navigate through menu items and adjust a wide assortment of settings.

Back of camera

There are two clusters of controls on the back of the camera. The first is a line of buttons that goes down the left side, just to the left of the 2.5-inch LCD monitor. The second is on the right, a four-way toggle switch called the Multi Selector and an OK button in the middle.

The at the top of the line of buttons on the left side is the Fn (Function) button, which can be programmed to operate one frequently used camera feature (details in Menus and Modes section). The default is ISO: With the Fn button pressed, use the Command dial to change light sensitivity.

Next is the Monitor button, which controls what you see on the LCD when in shooting mode. The default shows shooting mode, resolution and image quality, shutter speed and aperture, ISO, vibration reduction, number of photos left on card, scene mode, flash status, and other info depending on mode dial settings.

The Preview button previews photos and videos you've shot. Cool factor here: Spin the command dial while in Preview and preview images show up in a semicircular array, kind of like an old View-Master.

Hint: Some reviewers claim the P5100 lacks a histogram view, but it ain’t so! It’s just a bit hard to find: After you've taken a picture, hit the Preview button. Then press the Monitor button until you see a smaller preview photo above its histogram! Hit the Monitor button again to get basic exposure info. The histogram will give you precise information that tells you if your exposure’s accurate. Go here to learn about histograms.

Menu displays the many options available within the camera, which we'll look at in depth in the next section. Menu items are navigated via the four-way multi selector and the command dial.

The Trash button is used to erase images or files.

Now we move on to the other side of the LCD monitor and take a closer look at the multi selector.

The multi selector controls flash, self-timer, exposure control, and macro. It also works with the menu and other controls as a navigation pointer. Move up or down using the top and bottom of the control, and burrow deeper into the menu by pressing on the right. Confirm settings by hitting the center "OK" button.

Flash selects auto flash (camera determines if flash is needed) red-eye reduction (via pre-flash), off (flash always off), fill flash (flash always on), slow sync (best for low-light flash when you want background details), and rear-curtain sync (creates a more natural feeling of movement).

Macro enables the lens to focus up close. When in its wide-angle setting, the lens focuses to around an inch away but its closest focus is approximately a foot when zoomed out.

Exposure compensation adjusts the brightness of the photo. Use this in situations where you know the light meter will be misled. For instance, if you're shooting at the beach, choose +2.0 to lighten the picture, since the meter will be forced to underexpose by the bright sand. (Or, simply choose the beach scene mode).

Left side

The left side of the camera has no controls, but it does have a small speaker for audio files and signals.

Right side A flip-out door reveals a USB port, which lets you connect the camera to a computer for image transfers, or to a printer to make prints.


In addition to a standard tripod screw socket, there is a door on the bottom plate that, when opened, reveals compartments for the battery and the SD or SDHC card.


Above the lens and to the left is a small round window that is the source for the autofocus aid beam. In low light, it projects a green pattern so the lens can more easily focus. Almost directly above the lens is the window for the optical viewfinder; the flash is on the right.

Surrounding the lens is a ring which can be removed so you can attach the accessory tele extender and wide-angle adapters.

Menus and modes

Now we delve into the P5100’s more advanced options. Point-and-shooters can stop reading here, but if you’re ready to reap the exciting visual rewards provided by this camera’s extensive image-capture and operational flexibility, keep reading!Shooting Menu

Image quality selects compression ratio: Fine (1:4), normal (1:8), or basic (1:16). The higher the ratio, the smaller the image but also the poorer the image quality.

Image size lets you adjust the dimensions of the recorded image, in pixels. The default setting is for the largest image size, 4000x3000 pixels. At smaller sizes, you can fit more photos on a memory card, but will be more limited as to how large you can print them.

You can also change the aspect ratio to 3:2 (the dimensions of a traditional 35mm film negative and a 4x6-inch print) or 1:1 (square). The default, 4:3, will produce 4x5-inch prints without any cropping.

Tip: You can reduce image size to as little as 1600x1200 and still be able to make photo-quality 4x5 prints, but if you want to make enlargements of at least 8x10, choose the largest image size.

Optimize image lets you adjust saturation, contrast and sharpness. Softer is recommended if you expect to manipulate the image later on the computer; vivid is good for capturing scenery, and more vivid is good for high-contrast color scenes such as fall foliage. Portrait is recommended for portrait photos. Custom lets you choose the degree of saturation, contrast and sharpness, while black and white is a good way to capture magical monochrome.

Buried in the black-and-white settings are some neat controls. Select the Black and white option and then "Custom" and you will have additional menu items--contrast control, sharpness, and Monochrome filter. The latter accesses the effects of having yellow, orange, red, or green optical filters over the lens. (Learn more about how this effect works here.)

White balance controls the color cast of the image. In most circumstances, the default--Auto White Balance--will do the trick. However, this control allows you to fine-tune for specific lighting conditions.

ISO Sensitivity adjusts the camera's sensitivity to light, from ISO 64-3200. Be careful here: Due to the small sensor size, images recorded at ISO 400 or higher can produce large, annoying grain, or digital noise, that can ruin a photo. The higher the ISO setting, the worse the grain.

Tip: I recommend using the Fixed Range Auto setting and limit the auto ISO range to ISO 64-200. The camera will automatically set the ISO based on the nature of the scene, but its only ISO choices will be 64, 100, and 200.

Metering lets you choose between Matrix metering (best for general shooting), center-weighted and spot (which meters just the center of the image. Spot AF area, which is only active if you have spot AF turned on, will spot-meter only the area that the automatic spot AF focuses on.

Continuous determines how many shots the camera shoots at a time, and how quickly. The default is single-shot, but you can choose continuous for one frame-per-second shooting, up to five photos in a row, while you press the shutter release continuously. BSS (best shot selector) shoots up to 10 images in sequence and the camera selects the one with the least camera shake. Continuous flash sets off three flash photos in a row in rapid succession. However, since the camera chooses a high ISO for this mode, we don't recommend it due to image quality problems. Multi-shot 16 lets the camera shoot 16 pictures in a row at a lower resolution, one photo per second. Interval timer shooting lets the camera shoot up to 1800 frames at pre-selected time increments. A great way to document a flower blooming!

Auto Bracketing varies exposure over a sequence of 3 or more photos. This gives you a variety of exposures and is useful in tricky exposure situations where you may not be certain which exposure is correct. The amount of difference between the exposures can be set from +/- 1/3 stop to two stops. The default setting is "off."

AF area mode controls where the camera focuses, and accesses the popular Face Priority feature. The first option in this menu item, Face Priority detects when up to nine faces are in a scene and chooses ideal focus, exposure and other camera settings so as many faces as possible are well exposed. Auto (the default) lets the camera automatically choose the focus point from a grid of nine possible places on the image. Manual lets you choose one of the nine focus points, and Center fixes the focus point in the center of the image.

Tip: Auto is a great mode when it works, frustratingly slow or inaccurate when it doesn’t. I found myself turning this feature off. Although it's old school, Center focus may be the fastest and most accurate way to shoot in the long run. Simply point at what you want in focus, hold the shutter release halfway down, then recompose and press the shutter release the rest of the way down to take the picture.

Autofocus mode chooses when the camera focuses. In Single AF, the camera focuses when you press the shutter release halfway down. In Continuous, the lens is constantly focusing when the camera is turned on.

Hint: Single AF extends battery life.

Flash exp. Comp. adjusts flash output. You can change flash brightness by up to five stops--overexposing by up to three stops or underexposing by up to two stops. If you're using an external flash, this will control the external flash's output.

Flash control can disable the built-in flash if you have an external flash attached. In the default Auto setting, the built-in flash fires whether or not there's an external flash attached to the camera.

Fixed aperture prevents the aperture setting from changing as you zoom the lens. Normally, as you zoom in, the aperture size decreases.

Noise reduction controls in-camera processing designed to reduce the amount of digital noise in long exposures taken in subdued light. In Auto (the default) noise reduction will only take place if the camera detects low light. In On, noise reduction will take place in all slow exposures of ¼ sec or slower.

Converter sets the camera for use with either the wide angle or telephoto converter lenses, which screw onto the front of the camera over the lens.

User setting controls two customized sets of camera settings for specific uses or to match the user's shooting habits. Assign settings to one or the other set by simply going through the controls and hitting User Setting. The settings will be automatically saved.

Reset user setting reverts all camera settings to their defaults.

Distortion control uses internal software to compensate for optical pillow distortion that is produced by the lens at its wide angle setting. It works!

Tip: Use Distortion control when photographing architecture or other kinds of grids (see sample in Field Report).

Playback menuItems in the Playback menu are related to printing, adjusting or otherwise managing image files in the camera's on-board storage or in the memory card.

D-Lighting automatically creates a copy of the selected picture with shadow areas lightened in order to show more detail.

Print set selects photos you wish to print on a compatible printer.

Slide Show plays back your stored images as an automated slide show.

Delete removes photos. Since there's a delete button on the camera, this function is redundant.

Protect prevents designated photos from being deleted.

Hide image renders selected images invisible during playback.

Small pic creates a smaller copy of a selected photo.

Copy moves image files between internal memory and SD card.

Black border creates a black border around your selected photo.

Set Up

The set-up menu, which you access by turning the mode dial to Setup, sets preferences for the camera's basic functions. Most of these are "set 'em and forget 'em" settings.

Menus lets you choose between a list (the default) and icons. The advantage of icons is you can see more functions on screen at once--but you have to know what the symbols mean.

Welcome screen sets what you see on the LCD when you turn on the camera. I disabled the welcome screen altogether.

Date, big surprise, sets the date and time zone.

Brightness adjusts the brightness of the LCD monitor. The default middle setting is fine.

Date imprint lets you add the date and optionally date and time to a photo.

Vibration reduction turns VR on or off. I suggest you leave it on.

AF assist enables the camera to project a focus aid beam when there isn't enough light. If you disable it, the camera may not be able to focus accurately in low light.

Digital zoom turns on the digital zoom, which enlarges existing pixels to give the illusion of zoom. Because this may cause deterioration of image quality, I recommend not using this feature.

Sound settings adjusts the sound levels for the shutter release and camera beeps. If you want to hear the shutter but don't need to hear a beep every time you press a function or navigation button, turn on the shutter sound and turn Button Sound off.

Auto off automatically turns the camera off after a predetermined amount of idle time, which can be varied from 30 seconds to 30 minutes.

Format card reformats the memory card. It’s a good practice to reformat your card once you’ve transferred the files onto your computer or mass storage device! But be sure careful: Reformatting will erase all images stored on the card.

Language lets you change the menu language. The 23 languages include Danish, German, French, Spanish, Norwegian, Russian, Japanese, Chinese, Korean and Hindi. The default is English.

Video mode chooses between NTSC, which is the North American standard format, and PAL, which is the format for most other countries.

FUNC button lets you assign one of the camera's settings to the Fn button on the back of the camera.

Tip: Assign your "User Setting" to the Fn button for even faster access to your customized functions.

Reset all resets all camera functions to their default setting.

Firmware version tells you which version of the firmware, which runs the inner workings of the camera, is currently in use. Nikon may occasionally update the camera's firmware to fix operational problems or enhance its features. Go to the Adorama News Desk (or add it to your RSS reader) to stay up to date on any Nikon firmware updates.

© 2008 Adorama Camera, Inc.


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