Nikon Coolpix P100 bridge camera
Superzoom with 1080p video – nice
Review It's a Nikon; that name is certainly not tarnished with a reputation for cheap and nasty cameras. Even your friend who doesn't own a camera knows Nikons are a pure photographic mainstay. So for Nikon to make a £300 camera with all the features that an active hobbyist would need – well, it's a tall order.
Nikon's Coolpix P100: lower pixel count, but a new style sensor
With the Coolpix P100 we have a long optical zoom, an unfashionable drop in megapixels to 10.3, due in no small part to the increasingly fashionable use of a backlight illuminated CMOS sensor – a design that, apparently, allows a more direct light path to the image sensor. We also have HD video at 1080p for the first time on a Nikon compact camera. Every manufacturer seems to have models for every pocket, and here is Nikon's offering, giving you a long reach in a compact.
The P100 feels pretty lightweight, and can be conceivably kept in the bag that someone else carries, or a large overcoat pocket, though you may attract the wrong crowd. It is just a little too big to be something you don't notice you have. But having said that, it is aimed squarely at people who want to go out and shoot in the great outdoors.
This camera shines when you can use it on distant subjects in bright light and you have something to rest on, or against. Such is the magnification, that slight movements become pronounced. The image stabilisation makes a reasonable attempt overcoming these issues, but you really should be thinking of higher than 1/125th sec here.
With a decent wide angle and a serious telephoto lens there is no reason not to get great stills and footage with this camera’s 4.6-120mm lens. It’s equivalent to 35mm camera zoom of 26 to 678mm. Going from f/2.8-5 there’s quite a range of maximum stops in the zoom. On top of that, there’s a 4x digital zoom option too, if you must.
Simple layout but, alas, no quick button for shortcuts
In use, the zoom control switch feels particularly flabby and imprecise – taking too long to respond. Before you know it you are at the maximum again, as it's just too vague in its adjustments, particularly in the digital zoom range. Moreover, with this camera taking a couple of seconds to start, and then to zoom – well, the moment would probably have been lost. And better not leave the lens cap on before starting up, as you'll be forced to start it up again with it off. I appreciate that this impressive lens needs protecting, yet, I still found myself making that mistake over and over again.
Let's get the video out of the way. Sonically, it's suprisingly good. The stereo mic up top does a very competent job of capturing chat 10 feet in front. Obviously, you'll get some zoom and focusing noise, if you do these things whilst recording. Alternatively, stay still or cut away.
Stereo mics on the top are pretty good, but prone to internal noise when focusing
The P100 does what DSLR hybrid HD cams can't do, namely, record 1080p for the full 29mins rather than say, the 12mins that the Canon EOS 5D MkII achieves. That 29mins being an EU taxation limit before the device is classed as something else. The P100 does this by recordings H264 files as MOV's at a reduced bit rate – 14Mbps as opposed to around 40Mbps of the Canon 5D MkII.
This is actually a big selling point over the DSLR hybrids, as most users will not be concerned about bit rates, as long as it looks OK eight feet from their flatscreen TV. It is as HD as the public are expecting to experience it at the moment. Everything is compressed, and we know that. As such, expectations are met.
I recorded two 28m 59 secs recordings of a concert (with constant red lighting and a fair bit of movement). Unfortunately one of them the audio is out by almost exactly 1 sec – i.e. 30 frames, but that appears to have been a one-off glitch, as all other files managed to be bang on. Fortunately, the timing issue was easily rectified within a video editing application.
The P100 also enables recording still sequences at 240 frames per sec at a much-reduced resolution of 320 x 240 for 10 seconds. It’s great fun and might make for some very silly slow motion moments. There are also 120fps (640 x 480) and 60fps (1280 x 720) alternative rates.
Fast shooting options up to 240 frames in 10 second bursts
Unfortunately these are even numbers corresponding to the biggest market; namely NTSC in the US. So getting any footage onto a UK DVD, is going to be challenging. Video is recorded as H264 MPEG4 at 29.97fps. I understand it is a global product, but a PAL version would have been nice. If you are playing back through your TV it does have the option to output a PAL signal. But that involves you turning up at other people's houses with the camera to playback.
The ISO is well thought out with strict ranges that the camera will adhere to: plus you get standard manual selection of 160, 200, 400, 800, 1600, 3200. Auto gives you ISO 160 to 800. High ISO Sensitivity auto takes you from 160 to 1600. There is also a fixed range auto offering ISO 160-200 and ISO 160-400. With this option you are better keeping it on the latter to minimise the opportunities for noisy pics.
The articulating back offers greater versatility in tight spots
That said, the P100 does well past ISO 800, but really you do need light with a lens that might be closed down to f5. Alas, lots of functions like ISO have to be accessed from the menus numerous key presses to make changes. I think to save time and frustration you’d gravitate towards the auto ISO option and hope the best settings are used. Indeed, this is one area where I think it would have been better to have a button for quick mode changing.
I did like the Bracketting feature where it will take 3 shots of varying under and over exposure. Also I liked the idea of follow sports mode – though not nearly quick enough with objects coming towards you. In fact, the hit rate in general isn't that great with the autofocus. Pretty simple compositions seemed to take it just off what is acceptable, even when relying on the excellent rear screen.
Variable positioning is ideal for video shoots
Speaking of which, the articulating screen is superb for viewing low angle, getting down really low for super macro shots or tilting down to get the over the heads shot in a crowd. You just have to remember that you have it! It packs away so neatly.
I thought the White Balance selection was excellent too especially with it offering three types of fluorescent adjustments. If you are willing to get it out of Auto, here it can give you some true looking overrides. Ideal for when you know you are in mixed lighting and you don't want it to go changing hunting half way through some sequences.
The menus are simple and well laid out, here you discover that the camera has a few more surprises in store. Distortion Correction helps with Pincushioning of the lens at the wide end, but this not automatically on as it ever so slightly dents the performance, apparently. A speed issue, no doubt.
Compact all-rounder, but certainly not the fastest gun
There’s also an interval timer (time-lapse) to take up to 600 photos at a set intervals of 30 seconds, right up to 10mins. Other options include Nikons high dynamic range (HDR) enhancements and multi shot collages for nightime scenes. If you are willing to dig around in the manual there is plenty to experiment with.
The best features are undoubtedly the lens and the screen. The P100 fits the bill if you need a long zoom to get things that are far away and a device just about small enough for the missus’s bag. Still, unless you’re prepared to put up with some grain, you’re going to be limited to bright interiors or thin clouds. Otherwise you might be carrying some sort of monopod/tripod, as it’s not really swift enough to capture things just happening in front of you.
If shots are planned and you have some moments to get the camera in the right setting, excellent results can happen, but the lack of response from the zoom and the metering in some situations may frustrate some. At the other end, the excellent wide angle is very welcome, and combined the P100 has a range perfect for every situation. The video though being HD is difficult to manipulate once off the SD card, but playback from the camera to the TV may suffice for many. The screen may well sell this one.
If you are that serious about taking great photos with the sort of time and effort it requires to get great nightscapes and the like in front of you, I think maybe you should save up and get a decent DSLR. Having said that, spending time with the Coolpix P100 camera should have whetted your appetite and hopefully not put you off the idea with its dubious hit rate in its program modes.
James Cumpsty is a professional photographer and videographer working in the music industry.
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