Camera Review: Nikon Coolpix P5100

Nikon's flagship Coolpix boasts many features from the company's more advanced DSLR line, but its shot-to-shot performance leaves something to be desired.

Camera-Review-Nikon-Coolpix-P5100
Camera-Review-Nikon-Coolpix-P5100

If Charles Dickens were alive today and writing for PopPhoto.com, he might preface his review of the Nikon Coolpix P5100 ($310, street) thusly: "It was the best of cameras, it was the worst of cameras." To its credit, Nikon has added to this flagship of the Coolpix line, a 12.1-megapixel, 3.5x zoom compact camera, some of the slick features developed for its more sophisticated DSLRs. Unfortunately, there are other areas within the P5100's operations that can best be described as a "work in progress."

The P5100 features a 1/1.72" RGB CCD that incorporates Nikon's EXPEED processing system and improved hardware-based facial detection that Nikon claims can identify up to 12 faces in one frame. The EXPEED processing doesn't refer to specific technologies within the P5100, but a digital image processing "concept" that is designed to improve image quality by reducing noise and improving signal-to-noise ratios, even at higher ISO settings.

Another facet of the Nikon image processing is "D-Lighting," which takes backlit and underexposed images and makes them more usable. By selecting the D-lighting option while viewing an image, the camera reprocesses the image and saves a copy of the processed file while leaving the original untouched. This manipulation does have its limitations however, and the quality will never be as good as a well-exposed image, but it can make the difference between trashing the image or hanging it on a wall. The quality of the images made by the P5100 was very favorable when viewed on our computer screen. It's class-competitive, and can hold its own against similar models from other manufacturers.

With a magnesium body, full-featured hotshoe, manual exposure controls, an optical viewfinder, and optical Vibration Reduction (VR), the Coolpix P5100 shares some DNA with Nikon's higher-end DSLR bodies and lenses and adds an incredible amount of flexibility into what a small point and shoot camera is capable of producing, image-wise. The high ISO levels are also equally impressive and record a respectable image at ISO 1600 -- particularly in comparison to many other compacts with high ISO features. The P5100 can also shoot at an even higher 3200 ISO, but at a reduced 5MP resolution. Clearly, this camera is priced for consumers and competes with such models as the Fujifilm FinePix F50fd and other feature-rich cameras.

The lens is an optically stabilized f/2.7-5.3, 35mm-123mm (35mm camera equivalent), 3.5x zoom. Like many of the other features within the 5100, the camera's lens shares a heritage with Nikon's legendary pro-grade equipment by being all optical glass and very sharp. The lens telescopes outward when the power is turned on and retracts back into the camera body when powered down. A lens cover also protects the front element by automatically covering it when the camera is powered off.

The VR lens technology allows slower working shutter speeds while keeping a high level of sharpness in the final image. Nikon does this by attaching individual lens elements to motors that are equipped with sensors that measure movement at a specific point every 1/1000th of a second. If the camera detects motion, elements within the lens move to compensate. This technology generally works best with focal lengths from slightly wide angle to slightly telephoto, which matches the range of the P5100's optical zooming abilities exactly. The advantage of this technology in point and shoot cameras is that it allows lower ISO settings, which allows higher quality images that show less noise.

Unfortunately, VR technology doesn't work well with macro lenses and if you're thinking about buying the P5100 to take advantage of the VR technology while photographing your backyard bugs, you'll be disappointed. The amount of shake introduced in hand-held macro photography is too severe to compensate for, and while you'll have some VR working, it will not be dramatic. The best strategy in macro photography is to still use a tripod. The macro abilities on the P5100 were disappointing and aren't nearly as robust as cameras such as the Canon PowerShot G9 and others in the same category. The camera focuses surprisingly far from the subject and the more telephoto settings had less macro abilities.

Nikon has also designed a series of auxiliary lenses specifically for the P5100. The 0.67x wide-angle converter (WC-E67) and 3.0x tele-converter (TC-E3ED) expand total available focal length for the P5100 to an amazing range of 23.5-369mm. Users also need to be aware that there are specific settings in the menu that must be set in order to use these lens converters properly.

Another lens-centric feature that is thoughtful and useful is the lens (barrel) distortion correction feature. This will correct wide angle lens distortion in camera and save the user the trouble of having to correct these optical flaws in post processing. Similarly to the teleconverter functions, this processing must be turned on in the menu.

HANDS ON

Another inherited trait that the P5100 shares with its more sophisticated brethren in the Nikon line is great ergonomics and wonderful rubber grip areas that suck your hand onto the camera and keep them there, slip free. The P5100 is comfortable to hold and if there is a complaint, it would be that the zoom toggle is a bit smallish and the shutter release button is a little close to the palm of your hand. In holding the camera, your index finger will actually span across the shutter release. In order to make an image, you to have to reach back to depress the shutter. The movement was great enough that it was noticeably uncomfortable.

When viewing the back of the camera while holding it, you'll see that the left hand thumb lays precisely over a row of buttons that also resemble those featured on Nikon's higher-end DSLR models. These buttons handle function, viewing, menus, and image deletions and are located next to the 2.5-inch (230,000 pixel) LCD screen, but not so much so that the screen is encroached by your thumb. The fixed-position screen is somewhat shiny, yet doesn't show a significant amount of glare when viewing images, which are bright, sharp, have accurate color, and are viewable from almost any angle.

Looking down onto the top of the camera shows the DSLR-like program selection dial, hotshoe, and a function wheel that allows a viewer to scroll through images and menu items viewed on the LCD screen. Each is easy to reach and large enough to make using them ultra-simple to operate. Upon closer examination of the dial, you'll notice that the P5100 has four shooting modes -- Manual, Automatic, Program, and Shutter Priority mode. The dial also has a camera setup mode, video mode, high ISO mode and scene mode, which contains 15 different scene options and voice recording. The scene modes range from face-priority auto focus to night portraits, sunsets and snow. Generally, these scenes are useful and there's not a tremendous amount of overlapping scene functionality.

USING ACCESSORY FLASH UNITS WITH THE NIKON COOLPIX P5100

One of the Nikon Coolpix P5100's most useful features is the hotshoe mount located on the top left corner of the camera. The mount is identical to those found on Nikon's DSLR cameras and can accept and use the same i-TTL flash units with full functionality. During evaluation, we placed a Speedlight SB-800 onto the camera and used it with great success. Of course, the flash itself was bigger than the camera body and was awkward to shoot with, but it worked well and produced some very fine results -- particularly since we have the ability to modify aperture and shutter speeds while using the TTL flash. Using this feature in conjunction with Nikon's SC-29 off-camera TTL cable will allow you to shoot with a high degree of control in off-camera lighting situations. This ability is, in our opinion, a truly wonderful option for a camera in this price range.

MANUAL EXPOSURE MODES

Along with the hotshoe is a full manual exposure mode that allows you to choose both shutter and aperture settings. The system works, but is difficult to navigate and use. It is frustrating when you have a navigation button that toggles back and forth between manual exposure settings and unrelated functions, such as flash options or switching between portrait focus, landscape focus and macro focus. This is the main issue with the manual exposure mode in the P5100. Nikon would have been prudent to follow the designs of some of their competitors and assign distinct buttons that are dedicated to exposure control. Pentax did this many years ago with the shutter speed settings on the ME Super and it was a system that worked very well. Even with the navigation issues in the manual exposure mode, the ability to control flash, shutter speed and aperture in a compact camera is wonderful and in theory, this is great, but the practical side needs work.

When you use manual exposure in compact point and shoot cameras, you'll notice that the aperture settings seem limited and will generally top-out at f/8. The reason for this is more Newtonian than Dickensian -- the apertures with these small lenses begin to experience diffraction at settings below f/8 and as a result, the sharpness of the image suffers. Additionally, the actual focal length of these lenses is so short that f/8 will almost always give you enough depth-of-field for even the most demanding landscape images, so to go beyond f/8 in essence is pointless and unnecessary.

OPTICAL VIEWFINDER VERSUS LCD VIEWFINDER

One of the most frustrating situations photographers run into when using an LCD viewfinder are those really dark rooms or bright days when the sun is directly overhead. Nikon has addressed this problem by incorporating an optical viewfinder into the Coolpix P5100. However, because the finder and the lens are positioned differently, there are some parallax concerns and what you see in the viewfinder isn't composed exactly as the final image. Another issue with the finder is that it's very small and sometimes difficult to see through. There is also no diopter adjustment available for the viewfinder and users who wear glasses will have difficulties using this feature.

Another issue that we noticed is that there appears to be a significant amount of image cropping in the viewfinder in comparison to what's shown on the LCD screen. Nikon states that it shows 80% of the image area, but this seems quite generous when the camera is mounted on a tripod and you're viewing the identical composition in the optical and LCD viewfinders. The lesson here is that when framing is critical, use the LCD viewfinder for the most accurate composition of your images.

One bonus for the viewfinder though is that it does zoom in-and-out in conjunction with the lens, which helps to anticipate the framing in the final image. Much of this difference may deal with ensuring that the image area shown in the finder is recorded in the final image because of parallax differences. Other cameras deal with this same situation though and don't constrict the viewpoint as severely as Nikon does with the P5100. Even with these shortfalls, Nikon has realized that this is a useful feature and preferable to many in comparison to viewing the scene solely on an LCD screen. Another nuisance with using the viewfinder is that if I place my hands onto the grip, I tend to see my right hand index finger blocking a significant portion

VIDEO MODE

The P5100 also shoots VGA quality video with a resolution of 640X480 pixels at a rate of 30 frames per second. One nice feature of this mode is the ability to zoom in and out while recording video. Another goodie is that the lens' VR technology acts as a "steadycam" when shooting video. While it doesn't clear up all motion, it reduces it significantly. The P5100 also has a host of different shooting modes for video as well, ranging in Full 640x480 stereo sound to one-quarter sized 160-pixel width movies for the Web. Surprisingly, the P5100 also has an option for black and white movies and sepia-toned flicks as well.

WHAT'S NOT TO LIKE?

So, with all of this good stuff incorporated into the 5100, you're more than likely asking yourself "What's not to like?" The answer to that would be performance. The camera is sluggish at best and tortoise-like at worst. The P5100's shot times are typical. What slows the camera down is the focus. The camera will track to and fro for the proper distance and seems to have real difficulties adjusting the focus to the proper setting. The result is that it can take many seconds to compose, focus and finally shoot the image. In using the camera, ten seconds was not unusual to complete these tasks with the longest being the focus. Once the camera is dialed in and focused, the burst rate is typical at about 1 shot per second.

The focusing was incredibly slow and clumsy, and we missed more than a few shots because the image simply wouldn't focus. Most cameras in this class are "one chip" cameras, meaning that they have a main processing chip that's responsible for all of the camera functions, including shooting the image and processing it after the exposure. When using the camera I had to wonder if a camera with all of these abilities would be more responsive with multiple chip sets. Between shooting, VR monitoring, processing and facial detection, you'd have to assume that that's one busy chip inside the P5100! Of course, adding another chip would increase the cost, but the trade off in features and control, plus the performance boost would more than justify the additional expense.

Another issue that's akin to performance is that of battery life. We were surprised to see that the P5100 was able to shoot a mere 240 images on a full charge using CIPA standards. This is 10 shots less than the P5000 and significantly less than some competing models. We assume though that because the camera does so much with image processing, optical VR technology, optical zooming on the viewfinder, and all of the other features, that it takes a significantly greater amount of power to make all of this work, and therein lies the difference.

It doesn't make sense either to have a camera that's got such great exposure and lighting control, yet only allows you to shoot JPEG images and not RAW files. If you're going to give us the keys to the car, make sure it has all four wheels too! RAW should be a given with the EXPEED processing and all of tools provided within the camera, yet sadly, it's not.

If Nikon really wants to make radical improvements to the P5100, they'll make it larger as well. The features within the camera are wonderful, and Nikon deserves a pat on the back for being so thoughtful in many aspects of the design. The simple truth though is that the camera is too small for the available feature set and if it had more "room" for these features, it would give the engineers some wiggle room to improve toggle switch size and viewfinder issues. It really is a cool little camera, and it's exciting to see cameras in this class get beefed up to a point that allows the user to decide if they want total control over the image creation process or the fully automatic options.

If you're shooting landscapes and still studio type images and you want a lot of control over all areas, by all means, buy a P5100. But, if shooting landscapes and stationary objects aren't your gig, and you get aggravated because you've missed a shot of your child running to first base because the camera won't focus, the P5100 will be a lesson in patience.

SPECS

98 x 64.5 x 41 mm (3.9 x 2.5 x 1.6 in.) excluding lens projection
Approx. 200 g (7.1 oz.) excluding battery and SD memory card
52MB of internal memory
SD Card removable memory
In the Box:
Coolpix P5100 camera
Strap
USB Cable
Audio/Video cable
Rechargeable EN-EL5 Li-ion battery
Battery Charger MH-61
Software CD
Quick Start Manual
User's Manual
Warranty and Registration Card

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