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Packed with features, is it the ideal travel camera?
Nikon has revamped its P90 and re-launched it as the P100 with a longer, 26X optical zoom lens, a new sensor, and a sleek new body. Has Nikon hit a grand slam with this superzoom?
Size and weight or image quality? That's a key question that is especially relevant when deciding on a camera for travel photography. For the professional photographer, there's no question that a camera with at least an APS-sized sensor is needed to get the kind of image quality that will make a good impression in print. But what about casual snapshooters and even enthusiasts who would be happy if the end result was a decent-looking 4x6 or 5x7-inch print? That's where superzoom compact cameras like the Nikon Coolpix P100, with its versatile 26x zoom lens, come into play.
The CoolPix P100 boasts a zoom range of 26-678mm, a wide aperture of f/2.8, HD video recording capabilities, and backside illumination CMOS sensor technology, which promises better image quality and less noise. The P100 is the first Nikon compact camera with a CMOS sensor. With a ½.3 inch sensor, a typical camera would produce grainy images from ISO 400 up, but Nikon, has pulled back on pixel density, dropping from 12MP in the predecessor P90 to 10MP, which they say improves overall image quality in low light and higher ISOs. We'll look at image quality on the P100 and see if its new technology lives up to its claims.
Nikon has crammed a lot of technology and features into the P100, including sophisticated auto scene selection modes, smile and face detection, subject tracking and customized settings, all in a fairly simple-to-use interface. Let's take a closer look.
In the hands
The P100 is small and light, well-balanced and easy to hold, thanks to the generously-proportioned, rubberized grip. A rubberized thumb rest leaves enough room for my average-sized thumb without accidentally pressing any buttons. Controls are decent sized, logically placed, and easily accessed with the thumb and forefinger.
The 3-inch, 460,000 dot LCD monitor articulates, and can be positioned so you can shoot facing down, up, or any angle in between. The monitor performed admirably, and I was able to fairly comfortably view images in bright sunlight. The electronic viewfinder, on the other hand, specs in at only 230,000 dots, and the image is somewhat grainy, even in bright light.
Charging the camera is a bit awkward: Keep the battery in the camera, and plug the camera into the charger unit using the USB attachment. It takes about three hours to fully charge the battery. The problem is that while the battery is being charged, you can't use the camera. It would be nice if Nikon included a separate charger so users could charge a second battery while the camera was being used. In my field test, the battery lasted about 230 shots—falling short of the somewhat anemic CIPA rating of 250 photos—before it unceremoniously crapped out.
Zooming is not precise or consistent, and if you just want to zoom from 26mm to, say, 35mm, there's no way to do that with precision. It's hit or miss. There is a digital zoom option which I recommend turning off. By the time you reach full telephoto extension (628mm 35mm equivelent), you'll be producing marginal images anyway, and image quality degrades rapidly when magnifying them via digital zoom.
At 26mm, images are sharp and as you can see here, the camera handles shadow details well for a reasonable dynamic range.
At full zoom (the 35mm equivalent of 628mm), even when mounted on a tripod or with vibration reduction turned on (as in this shot) there is an overall softness to the images which you can see even in this full-frame image. My suggestion: For sharper images, don't zoom all the way out.
Crammed with features
The P100 is positively crammed with features designed to help snapshooters and hobbyists get better shots in very specific (and common) situations. Some highlights:
Subject tracking: Select a subject by centering it the frame and pressing the OK button. The camera then keeps focus and prioritizes exposure on the subject as it moves through the frame. This can be great when shooting kids or sports. Both move fast.
Smart Portrait: This makes taking pictures of smiling faces a cinch. In addition to face detection, Smart Portrait applies a softening function so human skin appears smoother, and the shutter is released automatically when a smiling face is detected. The shutter is released five times in rapid succession, and the image with the most smiles (if it's a group) is automatically selected.
Blink Proof (a smart portrait option): Again, the shutter goes off five times in rapid sequence, and the one where the subjects' eyes are wide open is automatically selected.
Auto Scene Mode: The camera automatically chooses one of the dozens of scene modes based on the light and composition. You can also select scenes manually: Portrait, landscape, night portrait, party/indoor, beach/snow, sunset, dusk/dawn, night landscape, close-up, food, museum, fireworks show, copy, backlight, backlit scene HDR, and Panorama assist.
Sport continuous shooting: Shoots 1- or 2MP images at as fast as 120 or 60 frames per second. There's even a mode which captures 16 small sequential images in a single frame in less than a second.
16 frame rapid sequence mode captures Mets pitcher Mike Pelfrey's motion and puts them on a single frame. A fun feature that you'll use on rare occasions.
Pre-shooting cache: works with Sport continuous shooting, starts taking 2MP pictures when you press the shutter down halfway for at least half a second, at up to 15 fps.
“U” (User Setting) mode saves your most frequently-used P/S/A/M modes as custom pre-sets. This can also include combinations of image quality, white balance, ISO, AF area and metering area modes, for instance.
The camera started up within a second, which is nice and fast. Autofocus speed was dependent on how far out the lens was zoomed; at the wider settings it was reasonably fast, with less than ¼ sec lag time. At the maximum telephoto setting, it usually needed about a second to search. Accuracy was better as well in wider settings. Compared to other point-and-shoot cameras, this was a slightly better than average performance, and is an improvement over many previous Nikon compacts, which were notorious for long lag times.
With such a long-ranging zoom, effective image stabilization is especially important. Fortunately, I found the P100's image stabilization to be quite good, and even after drinking a couple of cups of coffee (which can make me shakier than usual) I was able to get moderately shake-free images at the full optical telephoto setting under cloudy skies. Indoors, I found image stabilization to be reliable at the wide-angle settings but I wouldn't recommend using the telephoto settings indoors unless you have the ISO pumped way up (which causes its own set of problems, as you'll see when I discuss image quality).
The P100's short lag time allowed me to grab spontaneous moments such as this one in Citi Field's food court.
I was not able to get subject tracking to work properly. As with some of the camera's features, this mode's operation was somewhat convoluted, and required some quality time with the manual. Even when following those instructions, however, I couldn't get the camera to track a moving subject.
Rapid-sequence shooting is an area where the P100 excels. Press the shutter release down in High Speed Burst mode and it will quickly shoot off a sequence of 1- or 2 megapixel shots, silently. In one variation, it fills the frame with 16 smaller images, shot fractions of a second apart, a cool feature that you may use a few times. This was great when photographing New York Mets pitcher Mike Pelfrey throwing to the Chicago Cubs.
The P100's image quality, while marginally better than some compact cameras, fell short of the raised expectations that came from Nikon's deplyoment of a back-illuminated CMOS sensor. Even at ISO 160, the camera's lowest sensitivity, I saw evidence of noise reduction supressing digital noise, although I have to say that the image quality at ISO 400 was about the same as it was a 160, and for most snapshooters, that should be fine, even when making 8x10 prints. Most enthusiasts, however, will be disappointed. At ISO 800, noise becomes more noticeable (despite the fact that the noise supression is hard at work by now). By ISO 1600, fine detail is blurred by the anti-noise software to the point where information is lost.
At ISO 160, the P100's lowest ISO setting, at full frame: Good contrast, wide color gamut, but some highlights are easily blown out. 100 percent detail, below, shows sharp results.
At ISO 400, noise reduction is pretty effective, and image quality is not far off from ISO 160 (see detail, below.
By ISO 800 (full frame above), you can see the effect of noise reduction trying to smooth out digital noise, but it also starts to smudge details in 100 percent detail, below.
Strikes out at ISO 3200: You can even see the graininess on screen. The 100 percent blow-up, belowm looks like an impressionist painting, with details obscured by the grain and the smoothing attempts by the noise reduction software.
There is a fair amount of pillow distortion at the widest focal length which disappears by the time the lens is zoomed out a bit. I found that there was some chromatic distortion at all focal lengths, with red/purple fringing becoming more pronounced towards the corners of the image at all focal lengths and most apertures. The camera had a respectable dynamic range, and D-Range expands it even further by lightening shadow details. Highlights, however, tended to blow out somewhat, even with D-Range on.
As is typical with superzoom lenses, optical compromises become very apparent at the long end of the telephoto range. I found images to be soft all around at 628mm, but photos were reasonably sharp at the middle of the zoom range. This may be due, in part to the fact that even the strongest anti-shake technology won't do a perfect job at such a long focal length with handheld images, but I found the softness was also evident when I took pictures with the camera mounted on a sturdy tripod. My recommendation? Don't shoot with the lens zoomed all the way out.
The P100's 26x zoom range is impressive and makes it a very attractive option if you are looking for a small, lightweight camera for general picture-taking and travel photography. Some users might be disappointed by the image quality above ISO 200, and the lack of RAW recording. If you fall into this category, I suggest considering the Nikon D5000 DSLR instead; it's somewhat larger, but has interchangeable lenses and outstanding image quality, especially at the higher ISO settings. If you want to stick with a zoom-lens semi-compact with RAW, consider the Canon G11 (although you won't get the superzoom flexibility).
If you are stepping up from a smaller compact with a limited zoom range and would be satisfied with 4x6-inch prints (and perhaps the occasional 8x10), and shoot a lot of video, I think this would be a very good camera for you. It packs a lot of features and zoom range into a small package. It is sleek, records beautiful HD videos, and is responsive starting up and is reasonably responsive with autofocus. Stay away from the longest end of the telephoto range (good advice for any superzoom camera), keep the camera set at ISO 400 or lower, and you should be pleased with the results.