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Has Nikon captured the system compact flag?
Nikon has overhauled its P line of premium compact digital cameras and produced a solid performer. Is the P7000 Nikon's best compact camera yet?
- 10MP CCD sensor
- Higher-resolution LCD monitor
- Excellent image quality at ISO 100
- Optical viewfinder
- Manual exposure and focus control
- Close focus to within an inch of the lens surface at wide-angle setting
- Built-in, effective HDR
- Short shutter lag time
- Long-range optical zoom lens
- 720p HD video
- Image quality deteriorates at higher ISOs due to small sensor
- No AF during video recording
- Heavier, larger than most compact cameras
- Optical finder shows less than 80% of view
The Nikon Coolpix P7000 is the most ambitious Nikon compact digital camera so far. It puts a range of controls, including manual focus and exposure, RAW and JPEG image capture, 720p HD video, and high dynamic range at the user's fingertips. The target buyer of this camera is the photographer who wants DSLR control in a small camera that can deliver class-leading image quality. Does the P7000 deliver on these lofty promises? Does this camera directly challenge other posh point-and-shoots, specifically, the Canon G12 (which is currently over $60 more costly)? I spent several weeks getting to know this intriguing camera and putting it through its paces. Here's what I found...
Spectacular at ISO 100: The Milltown, NJ mill at ISO 100 (and noise reduction turned off) in mid-morning light is tack sharp. If you're shooting RAW, stick to lowest speeds for best results.
In the hands
The P7000 is relatively hefty for a camera that is technically classified as a “compact” but it's still much smaller and lighter than a DSLR. It is the same size and approximate weight as the Canon G12. It has a substantial, well built feel. Knobs turn and click decisively, and are well-placed, and despite its weight (light compared to a DSLR, but heavy compared to most other compacts) it feels balanced and comfortable in my hands. The rubberized front grip and back thumb rest are well-proportioned and provide good purchase for easy single-hand holding (although I recommend always shooting with the camera cradled in your left hand as you hold it with your right).
After a short while it became apparent to me that Nikon engineers put a lot of thought into the placement and purpose of each knob and button in order to make accessing features easily with minimal use of on-screen menus. Given all the controls provided and features offered, it's an impressive accomplishment.
The fun begins on the upper left side of the top plate, where a Quick Menu dial is placed. Spin the dial and press the center button to select ISO settings (ISO 100-3200, with a Hi setting that boosts up to 6400), image quality (you can choose various combinations and resolutions of RAW and JPEG here), white balance (auto and manual versions), shutter speed, aperture and white balance bracketing, a histogram view control, and the customizable My Menu. The My Menu control can be programmed to make it easier and faster to access features that you're interested in. The defaul settings—picture control, D-Lighting, Distortion Control, Metering patterns, Continuous exposure settings, and AF modes—can be reassigned.
The Quick Menu dial puts you just a couple of clicks away from virtually any setting you need, but I wish it reacted a bit faster. There was usually about a half-second's hesitation before the Quick Menu item showed up on the LCD monitor.
Going across the top of the camera there's a full hot shoe, compatible with all shoe-mounted Nikon flash units using Nikon's i-TTL control system. (A cool tip: If you change the Flash Control from its default setting to “Built-In Off” and use a remote Nikon-compatible flash trigger, you have access to wireless off-camera flash.)
Up close and super-sharp: At ISO 100, with shake reduction on and the zoom lens at 200mm (35mm equivalent) image quality for this handheld flower close-up is excellent. I shot this in JPEG mode with moderate noise reduction, and as you can see in the 100% detail below, there's no grain. This would make a fine 11x14 (or even larger) print.
Next up is the Mode dial, which offers the usual PASM modes, plus an auto-everything “Green” setting, movie mode, Scene mode (the camera chooses the most appropriate scene setting for the shooting situation) and three custom modes. To shoot 720p videos, simply move the Mode dial to the movie camera icon.
Finally, past the on/off button (which glows green when activated) and the shutter release (surrounded by the zoom control), is the thumb-operated Exposure Compensation dial, which lets you vary exposure by up to three stops in either direction in 1/3-stop increments. The TV/AV button lets you control whether the command dial or rotary multi selector is used for shutter speed or aperture.
The back of the camera is dominated by a 3-inch, 921k-dot resolution LCD monitor, which I found to be bright and contrasty, and able to display a viewable image in direct sunlight. It beats the G12 in displayed image quality. The small optical viewfinder is claimed to cover 80% of the scene, and I would say that's probably in the ballpark based on my experience with this camera. Alas, this is a typical “squintfinder.” I wish that if Nikon (Canon, too) is to go to the trouble of including an optical viewfinder—a welcome rarity these days—they should develop one with 100% coverage.
Exposure, focus and other settings are navigated via a thumbwheel located just below the on-off button, and rotary multi-selector dial, which surrounds the OK button on the camera back. Both are logically placed and easy to get to, and allow you to navigate either menu items selected via the Quick Menu Dial or through the regular menu.
Flare-free flora: Shooting into early-morning sunlight filtering through a budding tree shows virtually flare-free image, as well as pleasing bokeh (quality of out-of-focus area of photo).
In the field
The P7000 handled easily and if you are used to operating a camera via knobs and dials rather than by pushing “chicklet” buttons, it has a comfortable feel. If, on the other hand, you expect a shirt-pocketable, lightweight camera, this may be unacceptably bulky. All dials turned easily and clicked into place with purpose. The location of the thumbwheel in the camera back (rather than a forefinger-operated front wheel) meant I couldn't simultaneously turn it and the multi-selector dial—a minor inconvenience that's overshadowed by an otherwise clear, logical design.
When I pressed the On button the camera sprang into action in less than half a second. Autofocus was quick and decisive, except if the subject was dark or low-contrast. Even then, focus was attained within half a second. When autofocus was disabled, shutter release was almost instantaneous. When in manual focus an enlarged center detail pops up on the LCD to enable better focusing.
Speaking of the LCD monitor: At 920k dot resolution it delivers a clear, sharp, contrasty image and is fairly visible in direct sunlight. Its resolution is twice that of the Canon G12 so the advantage here goes to Nikon.
The 7x optical zoom lens, which stretches out to 200mm (35mm equivalent) performed admirably, with pleasing Bokeh while flare was well-controlled. In macro mode it focused as close as about an inch from the surface of the lens at the widest angle, but still provides respectable magnification when zoomed out. Focus is a bit less certain when shooting in “flower” mode at full zoom and I recommend shooting at a bit less than full tele setting when working up close.
Video operation was straightforward. While the camera will not focus while shooting a video (pretty standard for a compact camera) it will zoom during recording. Simply press the shutter release to start/stop video recording. And—good news for serious videographers—there is an external microphone jack so you can record higher-quality sound than what you can get with the on-camera mic.
Primo Program: While the P7000 gives you full manual control if you want it, its multipattern metering nailed this tricky exposure when I shot in Program mode.
According to its DxO test results (see below) the P7000 can provide acceptable image quality at ISO 100 and 200, but falls short at higher speeds, when shooting RAW files. However, when shooting JPEGs with the camera's internal noise-reduction on, I was able to shoot acceptable, if not spectacular, 11x14-inch prints at up to ISO 800. Prints made from ISO 400 JPEGs looked quite nice. Internal HDR improved the almost-11-stop range and worked well when shooting scenics.
HDR demo: Somebody left figs on a bench in a local nature preserve, hoping to feed the deer. I cranked the camera's HDR up to its highest setting and successfully captured the wide range of light in this shot, from the shadowy foreground details to the sun-drenched foliage in the background.
Lab test results (Provided by DxOMark):
Maximum ISO for acceptable image quality (digital noise): 200
Maximum ISO for acceptable dynamic range: 200
Color depth: Very Good (19.1 bits on a scale of 1-25)
Overall image quality: Fair (39 on a scale of 1-100)
Dynamic range: Good (Up to 10.8 stops)
When compared head to head, the Nikon P7000 and Canon G12 sensor test results were similar, with the Canon showing a slight edge in all measurements, but that difference is so minor that the cameras are, for all practical purposes, in a dead heat. The camera's native dynamic range is good, but as expected with a small-sensor camera, image quality goes south dramatically at higher ISO settings. Not recommended for low-light, high-ISO photography, but the P7000 delivered pleasing results when set at ISO 100 or 200.
High ISO image quality samples
In this 100% detail at ISO 400 shooting JPEG with noise reduction on, label is legible and there is very little noise.
At ISO 800, there is a bit more noise, but it's not objectionable...yet.
By ISO 1600, noise is too high to read the label, and overall image quality is unacceptable for most print sizes.
At ISO 3200, fugettaboutit!
Shot from about one inch away: While you can focus to within an inch of the surface of the lens in macro mode, this is limited to the lens's widest setting. This is a limitation that's typical of compact digital cameras that offer a super-close-up setting. Be careful not to block your light sources with yourself or the camera when working at this almost-macro setting, and be aware of the background!
Conclusion and Recommendation
With the overhaul that resulted in the P7000, Nikon has finally produced a true premium-quality compact digital camera. It's fast, controls are logically thought-out and have an authoritative feel that anyone with a DSLR or was weaned on film cameras will appreciate. Dig deep and you will find extensive control and customization (there are 3 custom modes that let you place your favorite combination of settings at your fingertips).
Any degree of control, from auto everything to all-manual operation, is possible; off-camera microphones such as the Rode Video Mic and Nikon sytem flash units like the SB700 can be easily added, making the P7000 part of a system, but the 7x zoom lens should give you enough of a range for travel and vacation shots while close focus is impressive. If the 28mm (equivalent) wide setting isn't enough, the WC-E75A auxiliary lens and UR-E22 adapter will turn it into a 21mm equivalent lens. Image quality will not rival a DSLR at higher speeds, but at ISO 100 will give larger sensor cameras a run for their money. And the shutter release is fast and responsive, even when in auto-everything modes.
Sure, at around $450 it's pricier than other compact digital cameras, but it is a solid camera built for serious photography and as a compact back-up to a big rig, or for an enthusiast who doesn't want to carry around a DSLR, the Nikon P7000 is well worth serious consideration. And to answer the questions I posed at the beginning of this article, in my opinion the P7000 is a huge improvement over its predecessors, competes very respectably against the Canon G12 (Canon has a slight edge in the video department, but the Nikon has a better LCD monitor) and, indeed, is the best system compact digital camera Nikon has produced so far.