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Nikon Coolpix P100 Digital Camera Review

by The Review CrewMay 30, 2010

The Nikon Coolpix P100 is capable of doing some extraordinary things. It’s chock-full of shooting options centered on a high-speed CMOS sensor married with a 26x megazoom lens. Things like high-speed photo and video shooting, fun modes and settings for near endless experimentation, and 1080p HD-quality movie recording are all here. The P100 is also well-designed with easily managed controls once you spend some quality time with the extensive manual (it’s paper, too). However, for all its strengths, the camera’s photos (and video for that matter) just aren’t that good. And for the money, that’s going to be tough for a lot of people to get past. Of course, there are plenty of people who can overlook its imperfections in exchange for the heaps of wow factor the P100 packs. Which one are you?

The P100 is an overhaul inside and out of the P90. The changes include an extension of the zoom range out to 26x (just in case you were still having trouble seeing into your neighbor’s house or their neighbor’s house). Instead of the P90’s 12-megapixel CCD sensor, the P100 uses a backside-illuminated (BSI) 10-megapixel CMOS sensor. This sensor improves shooting speed and helps reduce noise in low-light photos. It also allows Nikon to add a few specialty shooting modes that are discussed farther down.

The feel is overall very nice and amazingly compact considering the lens and all that the camera can do. The grip is deep and comfortable, the body is well-balanced, and the lens barrel gives you ample space to hold and steady the camera with your left hand. Though you really don’t want to use a zoom like that without a support, the camera does have sensor-shift image stabilization that Nikon calls Optical VR. Though it’s difficult to hold the camera still with the zoom fully extended, the stabilization does an excellent job of minimizing blur, and when combined with Nikon’s Best Shot Selector you have a better than average chance of getting a sharp shot of a still subject while holding the camera. BSS is a high-speed shooting setting that takes up to 10 shots while the shutter release is pressed and saves only the sharpest shot.

There’s a decent electronic viewfinder and a vari-angle LCD for framing up your shots. The LCD pulls out from the body and can be tilted up or down, but it does not swing out horizontally from the body. Like all LCDs and EVFs, the screen blanks out for a second once you’ve taken a shot, but it’s reasonably fast to recover.

The controls are comfortably placed and responsive. On top are the Mode dial, power button, and shutter release with zoom ring. To the left of the EVF is a button for moving from viewing information on the LCD or EVF and a diopter adjustment dial. To its right is a Display button for changing what info is viewed on the displays and a movie record button with a switch for picking what type of video you want to shoot (regular or high speed). A horizontal dial above the thumb rest lets you quickly change shutter speed and aperture settings as well as zip through images and videos in playback. The rest of the controls are pretty standard: Playback, Menu, and Delete buttons and a round directional pad with an OK button at its center. The pad is used for navigating menus (which look sharper than those on older Coolpix models), adjusting timer, flash, focus, and exposure compensation settings, and searching through your photos and movies.

The battery compartment and card slot are under a door on the bottom. The battery life isn’t great for this camera and using the wall adapter takes about 3 hours to fully charge the battery from zero. Outputs are under a cover on the body’s left side. There’s a Mini-HDMI and a USB/AV port. There’s no accessory shoe for an add-on flash, limiting you to the onboard pop-up one. It doesn’t automatically rise when needed; it remains off until you push a button on the left side of the camera. It’s adequately powerful and there are flash exposure compensation settings available.

On the short list of notably absent features is raw support (which seems silly to leave out on this model) and automatic picture orientation, something that can be found on cameras at a fraction of the P100’s cost and abilities.

The shooting options are plentiful on the P100 making it much more than a point-and-shoot megazoom. (Just take a look through the chart above and you’ll get a hint of what’s available.) There are full manual and semimanual options with shutter speeds from 8 seconds to 1/2,000 second, and an aperture range of 10 steps of 1/3 exposure value. There are of course a bunch of scene modes, auto scene recognition, subject tracking autofocus for moving subjects, and a single spot on the Mode dial for a group of user-selected settings.

Owing to the high-speed abilities of the BSI CMOS you get four specialty shooting modes. The P100 can do a continuous burst at up to 10 frames per second. Or you can choose a Sports Continuous mode that can capture up to 25, 2-megapixel images at 60 frames per second or up to 60, 1-megapixel shots at 120fps. The P100 also has a Backlit Scene HDR (high dynamic range) option that’ll combine several shots of the same scene to get a single image with a broad range of tonal detail. Lastly, there’s a Night Landscape mode that works similarly, merging several shots using fast shutter speeds allowing you to take clearer low-light handheld shots. (See the slideshow in this review for photo examples.)

The P100 has robust movie options, especially compared with past Coolpix models. Regular movies can be recorded at HD quality; 1080p at 12 or 14Mbps and 720p at 9Mbps, though it is variable bit rate, so more motion means larger files. There are settings for VGA and QVGA, too. All are at approximately 30 frames per second. You get full use of the zoom while recording, a choice of single autofocus that locks when you start recording or continuous AF, and electronic stabilization. Be warned, though, that you will hear the zoom and if you plan to use the zoom during recording, you’ll want to switch to the continuous AF, which makes near-constant audible chatter. It’s not exactly quick to focus, either. The stereo mic on top does a decent job and there’s a wind filter you can turn on, too.

In addition to the regular movie mode is the high-speed mode with four options, the fastest being 240fps at a resolution of 320×240 pixels. Then there’s 120fps at 640×480 pixels and 60fps at 1,280×720. Those all result in slow-motion movies with maximum recording times of 10 seconds each for 240fps and 120fps (that’s 80 seconds in playback) and 30 seconds max for 60fps, which stretches out to 1 minute in playback. There’s a 15fps option with a resolution of 1,920×1,080 pixels, but records at twice the speed of a normal movie. There’s a maximum recording time of 2 minutes giving you 1 minute of video. No sound is recorded in these modes and you don’t have use of the zoom.

Megazooms are notoriously slow when it comes to shooting performance, but the P100 is exceptionally fast for the category. From powering on to first shot is 1.8 seconds with an average shot-to-shot time of 1.4 seconds; using the flash doubles that time. Shutter lag is fairly low at 0.4 second in bright light and 0.6 in dim. And again, thanks to the fast CMOS sensor, the P100’s continuous burst mode is capable of 11.8fps, which is actually faster than Nikon’s stated speed of 10fps. Like all compact camera’s that sport this type of burst mode, once you release the shutter you’re waiting several seconds for the camera to catch up and store the images to the memory card.

Nikon Coolpix P100
The P100’s photo quality, though decent for a point-and-shoot camera, is no doubt going to let down anyone expecting higher-caliber photos because of its price and design. Megazoom cameras generally take soft, somewhat hazy photos and this one’s no different. The lowest ISO is 160 and things aren’t really sharp there; start adding in more noise reduction as you go up in ISO and subjects only get softer. Plus, subjects have a decidedly digital, processed appearance. Photos are OK at ISO 400, but they start getting yellow blotches to them. The P100 can be locked to use ISO 160 to 200 or ISO 160 to 400; I strongly recommend using the former when you’re in bright conditions. The results above ISO 400 just aren’t good for much beyond small prints and Web use. Every user is different, though, and seeing what this camera is capable of, some people will just be thrilled with what they are able to capture and more forgiving of the results.

Typical of wide-angle long-zoom lenses, the P100’s exhibits some barrel distortion at its widest position and pincushioning when the lens is fully extended. Nikon includes a Distortion Correction option that can be turned on or off in P, S, A, and M modes. Also, though it’s bad with most megazoom cameras, the chromatic aberration (purple/blue fringing) is terrible with the P100, especially when the lens is zoomed out.

Colors were not accurate in our tests, particularly reds and blues. In my test shots, however, everything turned out bright and reasonably natural looking. Exposure was generally good, though highlights are prone to blooming and clipping. On the other hand, there are plenty of options for adjusting and improving the results.

Video quality is OK, on par with a pocket video camera. Those with hopes of the P100 replacing a full-fledge HD camcorder will likely be unsatisfied with the results.

The Nikon Coolpix P100 is one of those cameras that consumers will love for all that it can do or hate because one of those things isn’t taking superb photos. If it was going to be someone’s primary camera, I would say pass. Those interested in experimentation and want a lot of settings to play with, and a really long lens, but aren’t as concerned about getting the best quality photos and video in return, will likely be thrilled.

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The Review Crew
The Review Crew is a group of beat editors, writers, and consultants that have been working together for years. They know just about everything about everything collectively and have published their collective work under the Review Crew brand moniker for almost 20 years.

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