Nikon Coolpix P100: Versatile Megazoom Is Easy to Use, But Not Always Sharp
At a Glance
The 10.3-megapixel Nikon Coolpix P100 ($400 as of 9/5/2010) is the rare camera that's as easy to use as it is versatile, thanks to a powerful 26X-optical-zoom lens and an intuitive control layout that offers access to full manual controls as well as scene modes.
A tiltable LCD screen and 1080p high-definition video recording also add to its creative flexibility, making it a solid fixed-lens option for someone who wants to shoot everything under the sun.
Lens and Features
From a wide angle of 26mm to a 678mm zoom, the P100's lens covers about as much ground as possible for a fixed-lens camera. At full telephoto, the P100 benefits from very effective stabilization, making it possible to take sharp images while holding the camera by hand. At the other extreme, the camera's macro feature lets you get within an inch of your subject and capture a good shot; this is a model that doesn't skimp at either end of its optical range.
Its diversity doesn't end there, thanks to an ample number of shooting modes that are accessed with ease via the top-mounted control dial. The dial has 11 options available: Manual, Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, Programmed, Auto, Sports Continuous (offering 10 frames per second at 10 megapixels), Scene Auto Selector, Smart Portrait, Subject Tracking, a customizable User Setting option, and Scene mode selections. The Scene menu has 17 options, including an in-camera high-dynamic-range (HDR) mode that combines shots of the same scene captured at different exposure settings to create a detailed image in tricky, shadowy settings. ISO settings range from a low of 160 to a high of 3200, but noise starts creeping into shots at ISO 800 and higher. Unlike other point-and-shoot cameras with advanced settings, the P100 doesn't offer the ability to shoot RAW; you're limited to JPEG images.
One of my favorite features in the P100 is its 3-inch-diagonal LCD screen, which tilts to make awkward angles easier to view while composing and shooting a photo. By pulling the screen outward and adjusting it upward and downward, you don't need to lie on the ground or climb a ladder to frame odd-angle shots. Tilting the screen can help its visibility in the bright sun, and an eye-level electronic viewfinder can also help with that scenario.
Image and Video Performance
In the PCWorld Labs' subjective evaluations for image and video quality, the Coolpix P100 produced sample images that scored exceptionally well in exposure quality and color accuracy. In fact, the Coolpix P100 matched the exposure and color scores of the Canon PowerShot S90, our top-rated point-and-shoot camera of 2010, thus far.
However, the Coolpix P100 produced images that were less sharp and showed more visible distortion than most point-and-shoot cameras we've tested this year, and both of those scores can probably be attributed to the versatility of its long-zoom lens. Barrel distortion was noticeable at its wide-angle end, and images did appear a bit soft. The P100 earned a score of Superior for both exposure quality and color--among the best scores we've seen this year--while sharpness and distortion levels turned in less-impressive scores of Poor and Fair, respectively, when compared to the output of other point-and-shoot cameras of 2010.
Click on any of our sample images at left to see them at full size.
The P100's high-def movie recording with stereo sound is a nice draw, but primarily on paper. The camera has the ability to shoot 1080p movies at 30 frames per second (saved as MPEG-4 files), and it includes a HDMI output for easy playback on an HDTV or computer. Video quality was a bit of a weak spot, however, especially in low-light situations. While footage was decent in our bright indoor lighting test, the P100 wasn't nearly as effective in low light. It earned scores of Fair for video quality and Good for audio capture through its on-board mics.
Here are sample videos shot in bright indoor lighting and in low light with the Coolpix P100; select "1080p" from the drop-down menu on the lower right side of the player to see each clip at its highest resolution.
Battery life is a bit short of the 300-plus shot average we've seen on many cameras; the Coolpix P100 has a CIPA rating of 250 shots per charge of its lithium ion battery (rechargeable).
Design and Durability
Nikon has done a good job in making the P100's laundry list of features exceptionally easy to use. The camera fits well in your hands, and the buttons are spaced nicely for your fingers, allowing for smooth operation. Navigating through the camera options is made simple with an easy-to-use four-way directional pad, menu, and scroll dial. You start and stop high-definition video recording with a dedicated button.
The body of the camera is a bit bulky, but it feels good in the hand, and there's plenty of traction thanks to a textured rubber grip for your fingers. At 17 ounces, the camera is fairly lightweight, but the plastic build could be prone to wear and tear over time. The pop-up flash, in particular, is a bit fragile and could be susceptible to snapping off.
With its wide-angle-to-telephoto range, good macro performance, a full bank of shooting modes, and user-friendly operation, the Nikon Coolpix P100 is hard to beat in terms of versatility. The adjustable LCD screen makes it easier to get the hard angles. This camera satisfies the needs of a beginner looking for an all-purpose shooter, but the lack of RAW shooting and its disappointing performance in the areas of distortion and sharpness make it a harder sell for advanced photographers.