Posh compact cameras have more competition than ever. What did Nikon do to its flagship compact to keep it at the head of the pack?
It's been a while since I've visited Nikon's premium compact camera line; in fact, my last review was of the P7000, two generations ago, back when the camera had an optical viewfinder and a lower-resolution 10MP sensor. Last year Nikon made the camera smaller and lighter and upped pixel density to 12MP, but at the cost of an eye-level finder. The P7700 had a cool hi-res flip-out LCD monitor, but the little squintfinder was gone, and there was grumbling among the fans of this line of cameras. Nikon listened, and with the recent launch of the Nikon P7800, the eye-level viewfinder has been reimagined, returning as a digital rather than an optical affair. Nikon has done this right, and this is very good news.
Three advantages of an electronic viewfinder over an optical one:
1. You see the whole image: The P7800's EVF shows 100% of the image; the optical viewfinder that was on all P7000-series models through the P7600 only showed around 70% of what the lens was taking in. Want to see the whole image? You had to look at it on the LCD.
2. You can see clearly in bright sunlight: As good and sharp as the LCD monitor is, the image is hard to make out in bright sunlight; in fact, the smudges on the surface obscure the image when directly lit. So, put the camera up to your eye, and you'll see the same image bright and clear in the EVF, and you can preview images you've just shot. You can't do that with an optical finder.
3. Lots of info! All of the information that appears on the LCD, from shutter speed and aperture to mode selection, focus confirm, battery status and so on, appear in the EVF. Optical finders tended to show no or very little info.
So, Nikon made the P7800 a bit larger than the P7700 and put in the much more functional EVF; the rest of the P7800's features, from the 12 megapixel, 1/1.7-inch sensor to the rotating flip-out LCD monitor, remain virtually identical to those of the P7700.
While the eye-level finder is great, an advantage of the P7800's nifty flip LCD screen is I was able to compose this shot pointing the camera straight up without straining my neck. I'm glad to see they managed to keep it while making room for an EVF. (Photos by Mason Resnick)
Nikon P7800 Key Features
- 12 megapixel, 1/1.7-inch backside-illuminated CMOS sensor
- Claimed faster autofocus
- 7.1x optical f/2-4 zoom lens covers 28-200mm (35mm equivalent)
- Full manual exposure control as well as aperture- and shutter-priority and program modes
- 19 scene modes
- 1080- HD video
- HDMI Mini Connector
- External microphone jack
- Hot shoe; compatible with Nikon Speedlight system
- Pop-up flash
In The Hands
The Nikon Coolpix P7800 is solidly-built. It's a bit bigger and heavier than a typical stand-alone compact camera, but part of that is due to the sophisticated 28-200mm (35mm equivalent) zoom lens, which starts out at a fast, low-light-happy f/2.0.
A true system compact, the P7800 is compatible with Nikon's TTL electronic flash system and can be put in Commander mode to operate multiple flashes wirelessly A ring at the base of the lens can be removed and wide-angle and telephoto adapters can be easily added to supplement the lens's 7.1x zoom range.
A true system compact, the P7800 is compatible with Nikon's wireless speedlight system. You can either attach any Nikon flash, such as the compact Nikon SB-400, directly to the camera via the hotshoe, or you can control multiple flashes wirelessly via the Nikon SU-800 Wireless Speedlight Commander. A screw-in lenshood allows you to use 58mm filters such as the Pro Optic 58mm Circular Polarizer, which you may already have if you own a DSLR.
With the lens set to the widest focal length I was able to focus to within an inch (closest focus distance increases as you zoom in), which allowed me to capture some interesting perspectives. To get something similar to this with a DSLR, you'd need a wide angle lens and a reversal ring!
In The Field
I found the Nikon Coolpix P7800 to be easy to use, and used the eye-level EVF almost exclusively. In fact, I kept the LCD facing the camera most of the time, and only used it when shooting ground-level or other perspectives that would have required me to otherwise contort.
The P7800 is very customizable. There are 3 custom settings, so you can choose, for example, all manual for U1, creative Black and White (a very cool effects filter) for U2, and so on. I enjoyed playing with the creative Black and White, which included a solarization mode; an effect I used to struggle with in the darkroom is now available instantly! Thanks Nikon for adding this filter.
You can achieve a solarization-like effect in one of the Nikon P7800's in-camera Effects modes, Creative Monochrome. There are several variations including high and low grain, and you can control the intensity of the effect.
Most users will likely keep the camera in the "Green" auto-everything mode, but DSLR users will feel comfortable with the familiar, semi-DSLR-like control set. Autofocus, while not the fastest in its class, was reliable and decisive in most situations and once focus was attained images were impressively sharp. It's definitely an improvement over previous models, but there's still room for improvement if you are shooting active subjects.
There is a thumb and forefinger dial atop the camera that control aperture and shutter speed in manual exposure mode, and you can just as easily make adjustments in Aperture and Shutter-priority modes. Manual focus is not as precise; the center portion of the image is enlarged and you use your thumb to spin the back-of-camera control wheel to change focus. There are no footage indicators but you can see when the subject is in focus.
Overall I found the P7800s performance to be comparable to previous P-series compacts but the addition of an EVF enhances its desirability considerably.
I shot the above street scene on 7th Avenue in New York at ISO 80 and 200mm (equivalent) using the EVF to compose. As you can see in the 100 percent detail image below, there's no noticeable noise.
Image Quality Test Results (Courtesy DxOMark)
Overall score: 54 out of 100
Color depth 21.2 bits
Dynamic range 11.7 EV
Low light ISO 200
Both in the lab and in the field, the Nikon P7800 produced excellent images at ISO 200 and below, although image quality degraded steadily after that. Fortunately, the lens is faster than typical and will gain you an extra stop in low light. Optimal image quality at ISO 80 and 100 showed no evidence of digital noise. Compared to its predecessors, the P7800's image quality was virtually identical to that of the P7700 (not a surprise; they use the same sensor) but considerably better than the P7100 and earlier in all aspects of image quality.
I used the flip-out LCD screen to shoot this street shot in New York. The camera has a faster focus acquisition and shorter lag time than previous Nikon compacts, although there's still room for improvement.
Conclusion and recommendation
The eye-level EVF is a welcome addition that answers the biggest objection that consumers had against the Nikon P7700 so kudos to Nikon for listening and making an important improvement. I think experienced photographers intent on photographing nature and travel will be very pleased with this camera and I highly recommend it as a smaller, lighter alternative to a DSLR. The Nikon P7800 is available now from Adorama for $546.95