Camera Review: Nikon Coolpix P50

If you have less than two bills to drop on a camera, you should seriously consider the Nikon Coolpix P50.

Few will argue that Nikon's DSLRs are among the most esteemed digital cameras available; however, the prevailing sentiment among photo enthusiasts is that the compact Nikon digicams often pale in comparison to their bigger siblings. All that's about to change with the introduction of the shirt-pocket sized Nikon Coolpix P50 ($160, street), an 8.1-megapixel image-making dynamo.

The Coolpix P50 is nearly the size of Nikon's flagship point-and-shoot, the Coolpix P5100, yet has none of the gizmos, fluff, and confounding extras that get in the way of everyday shooting. There are no WiFi features, complex button schemes to learn or even a hot shoe. What you've got instead with the P50 is a stripped-down hotrod of a camera for the casual snapshooter or budget-minded enthusiast.

Sure, you give up some high-end control for the cost, such as RAW capture and full manual exposure, but we're OK with that at this price. Nikon is more than generous with shutter speeds though, having a full range from 8 seconds to 1/1000th of a second available and an ISO range of 64 to 2000. It is clear though that Nikon's intent is to make the P50 a utilitarian image-producing machine.

The P50 fits well in smaller hands and snuggles into a shirt pocket, but measuring 3.8 x 2.6 x 1.8 inches and weighing-in at 5.6 ounces, it will appear a bit bulky and feel weighted.

Even the battery source for the P50 has been simplified, using 2 standard "AA" batteries for power. The conservative feature set also allows the P50 to sip power, having a CIPA rating of 140 shots -- respectable for just 2 cells. Real-life evaluations with the camera however, are more in the range of 200-230 shots using fresh batteries.

Placing the P50 next to the more complex flagship of the Coolpix line, the P5100, is an amazing lesson in making simplicity work very well. It may seem unfair to compare the P50 to the higher-end P5100, yet in many ways, they are similar beasts. Like the P5100, the P50 uses Nikon's EXPEED image processing engine to improve the overall quality of the picture. The P50 also has Nikon's VR image stabilization, yet uses software to achieve this rather than the more complex lens shifting technology incorporated into the P5100. The P50 also features an optical viewfinder and has some limited manual exposure controls. Add to this facial detection, high ISO capability, D-lighting image processing, which can take a lesser image and reprocess it to create a highly improved image, and an optical viewfinder. Still want more? The list of features doesn't stop there either -- try 256-segment matrix metering, in-camera red-eye fix and full motion, VGA quality video that allows you to rack the zoom while recording, and all for a remarkable price of just under $160. Reading all of this, you're more than likely thinking that this doesn't sound like a simple to use point and shoot. Relax. Nikon's designer's have simplified everything.

The P50 has a flat black polycarbonate finish that doesn't show fingerprints and smudges on the body. Ergonomically, we're happy to report that the P50 is nearly identical to the P5100 and is comfortable to hold in your hands. Nikon has also smartly given all control features on the camera a highly visible brushed chrome finish that makes them stand out against the black camera body. All of the buttons are at least as large as those found on the P5100 and in some instances they are significantly larger. An example of this is the power button, which in an unscientific side-by-side comparison appears to be about twice as large on the P50.

One distinct difference in the P50 is the zoom toggle switch, which engages the 3X optical 28-102mm (35mm equivalent) f/2.8-5.6 lens. On the P50, the zoom toggle is located on the back face of the camera and within easy reach of your thumb. This makes for more comfortable and precise control of the lens and is more desirable in comparison to the P5100's zoom toggle that wraps around the shutter release button and is quite tiny in comparison.

The P50 also uses a 2.4-inch (115,000-dot) LCD that doubles as a menu screen. In our field tests, the screen appeared sharp and mostly bright, but noticeably more coarse than comparable screens with higher pixel counts. It was also difficult to see in some situations when strong sunlight was at our back. While many other LCD screens fare similarly in this situation, the P50 seemed to suffer sunlight glare to an extreme. The good news though is that unlike many other cameras in this price range, the P50 has an optical viewfinder that will allow basic composition of the image, even in the brightest and darkest shooting situations. Interestingly though, you don't have to turn the LCD off to use the viewfinder, but doing so eliminates "LCD blinding."

Turning off the LCD screen viewfinder is a simple button push. On the up side, the finder zooms in tandem to the lens racking and gives you an approximate shooting scene. The down side with this system is that it's small and not too friendly to those who wear eyeglasses. There's no dioptor correction either, making it difficult to compose using this finder without glasses. Another complaint is that the optical finder only shows 80% of the image area, making composing the image a hit-or-miss proposition. Parallax is also a concern since the lens making the image is situated differently from the viewfinder. Another item that bothered us was that because of the hand grip located on the right side of the camera, your index finger tends to show in the optical viewfinder, making it difficult to see the scene well enough to compose the image. Again, to be fair to the P50, these are issues that have been encountered with other similar cameras such as the P5100. The lesson here is to use the LCD viewfinder if precise framing is required.

The P50 has VR image stability that differs from the more expensive P5100. In the P5100, image stability is achieved by having what Nikon describes as an "Angular Velocity Sensor," which detects shake and applies movement using motors that are attached to the glass optics in the lens. The P50 still uses the Angular Velocity Sensor, but rather than having a physical lens element move, calculations are made in the EXPEED processing engine that dampen or eliminate the effects of image shake, which are then corrected in the image file itself. While this will not produce the same quality in comparison to optical VR lenses, it's is an amazingly sophisticated system for a sub-$200 camera. Most comparably priced cameras with "Anti-shake" simply raise the ISO to create a higher shutter speed, which will ultimately reduce the overall image quality by introducing additional noise into the image. Nikon has taken the high-road here and, judging from the samples we shot, it's system appears to work well.

The focus was quick and snappy, with little lag time and dead-on focus and exposure more often than not. Bursting shots was surprisingly good as well, firing off six frames in five seconds, which places the P50 on the fast side of the economical point and shoot category. The P50 was able to shoot continuously for 15 seconds before stopping to write the files, giving you a total of 18 images before the buffer clogs up.

One of the biggest disappointments is that the P50 is weak on macro capabilities and again, like the P5100, seems to get worse with higher focal lengths. Nikon's specs say that the closest macro distance is 5cm, which pales in comparison to other similar cameras by Canon, Fuji and Olympus that can get in as close as 1cm in many cases. This was perhaps the single most distressing flaw in the P50.

When we examined the images shot with the P50, they were zoomed to 200% in Photoshop CS3 before seeing the typical noise and artifacting that's common in point and shoot cameras. It became obvious that the EXPEED processing is much more than a catchy name, and has clearly put Nikon's image processing engine at the head of the pack. Considering the combination of excellent glass, ample megapixels, VR and EXPEED processing, the images produced by the P50 should make some excellent enlargements given a technically correct image file.

Nikon has chosen a somewhat confusing way of choosing scene selection. In Nikon cameras, you have "Modes" and "Scenes." The modes for the P50 are Portrait, Landscape and Night Portrait. Additionally, the dial contains Program, Manual, High ISO and Fully Automatic. This is confusing to the user because there's also a "Scene" selection option that's accessed by pressing the menu button and displays on the LCD screen. The scenes are Sports, Party/Indoor, Beach/Snow, Dusk/Dawn, Night Landscape, Close-up, Museum, Fireworks Show, Copy, Backlight, Panoramic Assist and Voice Recording. It wasn't intuitive or obvious why Nikon chose to segregate the three Mode items and not simply include them in the Scene options. For example, having the "Landscape" as a "Mode" and "Night Landscape" as a "Scene" is difficult to understand. One feature that we liked is that pressing the telephoto end of the zoom toggle while in "Scene" selection will yield a brief but helpful explanation of the selected scene's abilities and uses.

One notable scene that Nikon includes in every camera is the "Panoramic Assist." This allows you to shoot an image, move the camera left or right and see one third of the previously shot image included as a semi-transparent overlay on the LCD screen. It's a wonderful feature for shooting panoramic images and ensures consistently accurate framing that makes stitching the images together on your computer a breeze. The only way that Nikon could improve this system is by having an auto-stitch feature incorporated into the camera, so that when you download the image(s), they are already processed, stitched and ready for viewing. Once you've done all of the post processing and stitching, you can get great big, high quality panos that are ready for printing and framing.

The selection dial also has a setting for video, and the P50 is able to shoot 640x480 pixel VGA resolution video 29.9 frames per second. Additionally, the P50 can shoot half screen (320 pixel) and quarter screen (160 pixel) video for the Web. A nice surprise in Nikon's video features is that unlike similar sub-$200 cameras, the P50 has full optical zooming capabilities while shooting full motion video. Most cameras in this price range require you to stop shooting, change the lens focal length and then start shooting again, but the P50 allows you to continue shooting full motion with sound while you change the focal length of the lens. The zooming action during this recording is completely silent and silky-smooth. The effect, in essence, is similar to that of a much more expensive video camera. The video feature also records mono sound and saves all of it to a Windows AVI file. Unlike some of the recent compacts by Samsung, there's no pausing during a single clip, so every time you stop and start video capture, it writes a new file.

The P50's ability to shoot time-lapse movies at 30 second, 1, 5, 10, 30 and 60 minute intervals between images is another pleasant surprise for a camera in the budget price range. The camera combines these images into a single AVI file (without sound) that can be viewed on your computer or output to a DVD. Nikon doesn't stop there though, because they've also installed monochrome and sepia modes for movie making as well, adding a bit of fun to your frames while adding value to the overall movie options package.

CONCLUSION

In all, the P50 is an excellent performer for the money and in comparison to other economical compact cameras, is a really excellent deal. It is a simple camera that doesn't require a lot of user-defined input to make an image. Its simple appearance is deceptive to the average person, yet the technology packed into this camera is total sophistication. Nikon's genius in the design is to make the end user unaware of this sophistication through the simplicity of its'form and function. If you have less than two bills to drop on a camera, you should seriously consider the Nikon Coolpix P50.

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