Review: Nikon Coolpix P7700 features improved performance and excellent image quality
Advanced compact cameras combine small size with big features, and are ideal for photographers who want manual controls in a fairly pocketable package. They don’t have all the bells and whistles of a DSLR, and their lenses won’t give you the reach of a megazoom, but advanced compacts offer the perfect balance between portability and features.
Fitting neatly into the advanced compact category is the Nikon Coolpix P7700, and while it’s a little larger than some of its competitors, it also has a 7.1X zoom lens with a more-than-respectable reach of 28-200mm (35mm equivalent). Similar in many ways to its predecessor, the P7100, this new model brings several important updates. Among them is a 12-megapixel CMOS sensor and, therefore, the ability to capture full 1920 by 1080 HD video. Other upgrades include better performance, a faster lens, and a fully articulated LCD.
Hardware and design
The P7700 is larger than many of its counterparts, measuring 2.8 by 4.7 by 2.0 inches and weighing 13.9 ounces fully loaded. It’s too big for shirt and pants pockets, but you can stow it in larger jacket and coat pockets. Its larger size means that you don’t need small hands to operate the camera. The P7700 is solidly built and comfortable to hold thanks to its grip and its small thumb rest.
As digital cameras have evolved over the past decade, and LCD screens have increased in size and resolution as camera bodies have shrunk in size, it’s increasingly rare to find models with optical viewfinders. Although the P7100 was one of those rare cameras, Nikon eliminated the viewfinder on the P7700 so that it could incorporate a faster lens without increasing the camera’s size. It’s a fair trade-off given that the P7700’s high-resolution (920,000-dot), 3-inch LCD is bright and clear, and works well under almost all lighting conditions. Nikon also upgraded the LCD from the P7100’s tiltable design to a fully articulated screen for easy shooting from any angle. The LCD folds into the camera body for protection, which is a great benefit. Just keep in mind that the P7700 won’t power up unless the LCD is in an open position.
The P7700 doesn’t lack for external controls, with an array of dials and buttons scattered across the camera body. It gives quick and easy access to so many of the camera’s features and functions that, after initial setup, the main internal menu won’t get much use. Instead of a button to call up a quick menu, the P7700 sports a Quick Menu dial, positioned behind the pop-up flash. Just turn the dial to access Quality, ISO, White Balance, Bracket, Custom Picture Control, or Picture Style, press the center button, and adjust the settings on screen. The first couple of times I used it, I thought it was awkward and time-consuming. Soon, however, I realized that it’s actually more convenient since you can go directly to the setting you want to adjust.
Likewise, you adjust exposure compensation via a dial, conveniently positioned on the right top panel, rather than a button. You can customize two Fn (function) buttons to access a variety of features. Things get a little complicated with the Fn1 button (on the front of the camera body) since its function depends on whether you press the shutter button, rotate the command dial, or rotate the selector dial while depressing Fn1. Fortunately, pressing the Fn1 button on its own displays a list of settings associated with each dual-control operation.
Other controls are pretty standard. You get a mode dial, an on/off button, a shutter/zoom combo, forward and rear control dials, a display button (to cycle through monitor display options), and an AE/AF lock button. Also present are playback, menu, and delete buttons, plus a four-way controller to access flash, autofocus point selection, focus (AF, macro, manual), and self-timer/remote/smile timer.
The camera comes with a rechargeable battery and quick charger, a neck strap, USB and A/V cables, a lens cap, and a printed quick-start guide. As is becoming more and more common, the full instruction manual is available on one of the two bundled CD-ROMs. Nikon ViewNX2 software for Windows and Mac is provided on the second disc.
The battery delivers about 330 shots per charge. Compatible with SD/SDHC/SDXC cards, the P7700 also has enough internal memory to hold about 14 high-resolution JPEGs.
Optional accessories include any of Nikon’s Speedlights, a GPS component, a wireless remote, a remote release cord, a stereo microphone, and several filters, among them a circular polarizer (the P7700 also has a built-in neutral density filter). You’ll need an HDMI cable to hook up the camera to your HDTV.
Features and shooting modes
As expected of an advanced compact camera, the P7700 offers a full complement of manual and semi-manual exposure modes. For no-brainer shooting, automatic exposure and a long list of scene modes will do the trick.
Hands-on photographers will want to explore some of the P7700’s more advanced options, including distortion control, active D-Lighting, three customizable user shooting modes, and the ability to fine-tune white balance or to select a color temperature instead of a preset. In addition to the built-in neutral density filter, it has a virtual level to help keep horizons straight and even. Raw shooting is possible too, as are white balance and exposure bracketing. A separate Picture Control menu with Standard, Neutral, Vivid, Monochromes, and two custom modes allows users to adjust sharpness, contrast, and saturation for each option.
On the easy-shooting side, scene modes automatically select the “best” settings for different scenarios, such as portrait, landscape, sports, beach, snow, food, and pet. Special scene modes include panorama and 3D. The scene names are pretty descriptive on their own, but you can view a more extensive on-screen description by moving the zoom lever to the telephoto position.
Creative effects such as cross-processing, monochrome, selective color, high key, low key, and sepia are available in a separate shooting mode. The P7700 is at its best when you’re taking advantage of the camera’s manual options, but in the end it has plenty of features for everyone.
Nikon's P-series hasn’t been known for great performance, and the P7700 still isn’t the fastest camera in its class, but overall speed has improved. Startup is pretty zippy, and the camera offers much faster high-resolution continuous shooting than its predecessor’s 1.2 frames per second. The P7700 can zip along at up to 8 frames per second for a total of six images. Low and medium speed continuous-shooting modes are also available, as are Nikon’s Best Shot Selector (the camera takes a series of ten images and selects the best one) and Interval Timer Shooting, which is great for taking a series of shots and then putting them together in a stop-motion video. A multishot mode takes a series of 16 images at about 30 fps and places them, like a contact sheet, in a single photo.
Autofocus is most responsive when you have plenty of light and good contrast between subjects, which isn’t surprising. In low light, the P7700’s AF is a little slower but is helped along by its AF illuminator light.
Shot-to-shot time is about average, but the camera seemed ready to shoot whenever I needed it to. However, writing a continuous batch of images can slow things down, so be sure to use the highest-speed SD/SDHC/SDXC card available.
Now built around a CMOS sensor, the P7700 can capture full HD video at 1920 by 1280 and 30 fps. Lower-resolution (1280 by 720) and standard-definition (640 by 480) settings, both of which are recorded at 30 fps, are also available, all with stereo sound. The camera takes video in MPEG-4 AVC H.264 (.MOV) format. High-speed movie modes produce slow-motion clips at 60 fps or 120 fps, or go twice the normal speed at 15 fps; none of the high-speed movie modes record sound, however.
For some reason, the P7700 doesn’t have a dedicated movie button. Instead, you have to use the mode dial and shutter button. The Movie Custom Setting mode provides the most control, with options for exposure mode (aperture priority auto, manual exposure, or special effects), custom picture control, AF mode (single or full-time), the built-in ND filter, and wind-noise reduction, but you’ll have to set these items before you start shooting. The zoom, which is fairly slow moving and quiet, doesn’t work in the custom movie mode, but it does work in standard movie mode. The latter mode offers limited user settings, though: single or full-time AF, plus wind filter on or off. Either way, the P7700 produces good video. Exposures in daylight are generally accurate, as are colors.
The P7700’s strong suit may be its image quality. Under most conditions, the camera produced nicely saturated but natural-looking colors with crisp, clean details. Exposures were, more often than not, accurate with only the occasional hint of overexposure. Dynamic range is better than expected—even without Nikon’s D-Lighting—when shooting high-contrast scenes.
Thanks to the new, faster lens and the P7700’s effective VR (vibration reduction) image stabilization, you can set ISO lower than expected. But when you need a higher ISO to get a faster shutter speed, the P7700 offers an ISO range from 80 to 3200, with Hi 1 (6400) as an option. Post-processed raw files, of course, provide the best control over image noise, but I was comfortable shooting JPEGs up to ISO 1600 and, when necessary (and for smaller prints or online), at ISO 3200.
Although similar in many ways to its predecessor, the P7700 is a solid update. While you lose the P7100’s optical viewfinder, you gain a faster lens and a CMOS sensor that provides several benefits, including the ability to capture full HD video. Throw improved performance and excellent image quality into the mix and, while not perfect, the P7700 does a good job across the board.
Photos by Theano Nikitas. All rights reserved.