Pros: Excellent image quality
Full exposure range
Good battery life
Bulky and heavy for a P&S digicam
720p HD video
Every fall and winter most of the major camera manufacturers sponsor booths at electronics industry trade shows to spotlight their new products. Nikon recently introduced several new digital cameras and one of the most interesting was the Coolpix P7100. Canon has held the number one spot in the high-end P&S digicam wars since the introduction of the G1 in 2000, but last year’s Nikon P7000 was designed specifically to end Canon’s dominance of that high-end P&S digicam marketing niche. Unfortunately for Nikon, the P7000 didn’t quite measure up to the challenge. While the P7000 was competitive with the G12 in terms of image/video quality, it was noticeably slower in operation than the G12 and its menu system was unnecessarily complex. After poor reviews and fairly dismal sales temporarily sank Nikon’s hopes to unseat the G12 and take over the number one spot, their product development folks returned the P7000 to the drawing board. The result of that re-engineering project is the new improved Nikon Coolpix P7100. Here’s a brief comparison of the G12 and P7100.
Resolution: 10.1 megapixels (both cameras)
Zoom: G12 - f2.8 - f4.5/28mm -140mm (equivalent) IS zoom
P7100 - f2.8 - f5.6/28mm - 200mm (equivalent) IS zoom
LCD: G12 - 2.8 inch (460k) Vari-Angle LCD screen
P7100 - 3.0 inch (920k) flip-out LCD screen
Optical Viewfinder: Yes (both cameras)
Exposure: Comprehensive selection of exposure options (both cameras)
HD Video: 1280x720p @24 fps (both cameras)
RAW: Yes (both cameras)
Weight: G12 - 357 grams (12.5 ounces) with battery and SD card
P7100 - 395 grams (13.9 ounces) with battery and SD card
Price: G12 - $450.00
P7100 - $400.00
NUTS & BOLTS
Unlike most currently available point-and-shoots the P7100 provides an optical viewfinder. Coverage is approximately 80% and there is a diopter adjustment for those who wear glasses. The optical viewfinder is a nice to have 'retro' feature and the G12 has one, but most modern shooters will eschew the 80% coverage of the optical viewfinder in favor of the 100% coverage of the LCD screen.
The P7100 features a large 3.0-inch LCD with four times the 230k-dot resolution that was the industry standard just a few of years ago and double the resolution of the G12. The P7100's wide-viewing angle 3.0 inchTFTLCD is super sharp (920,000 pixels), bright, hue accurate, and fluid - the info display provides all the information this camera's target audience is likely to need. The monitor gains up (automatically increases brightness) in dim lighting and brightness can also be adjusted to each individual shooters preferences. The P7100's anti-glare/anti-reflection coating (applied to both sides of the LCD's protective cover) is noticeably better than average for digicams in this class. Finally, the P7100's LCD flips/folds out, which is useful when shooting macro or high-angle (above the heads of the crowd) shots, but the LCD doesn't swivel like the G12’s.
When the P7100 is powered up - the zoom lens automatically extends from the camera body and when the camera is powered down, the zoom automatically retracts into the camera body and a built in iris-style lens cover closes over it to protect the front element. The P7100's f/2.8-5.6 6.0-46.6mm (28-200mm equivalent) Nikkor zoom makes this P&S digicam almost ideal for a broad variety of photographic applications - including shooting group photos in tight indoor venues, capturing expansive landscapes, snapping colorful travel pictures of exotic locales, nailing not too distant wildlife, shooting youth sports like a pro, and getting in-your-face macro shots of bugs and flowers.
Corners are a bit soft (at maximum aperture) at the wide angle end of the zoom, but they are appreciably sharper with smaller apertures and at the telephoto end of the range. The P7100's f/2.8 maximum aperture is a full stop slower than the f/1.8 maximum aperture of the Samsung TL500 and more than half a stop slower than the f/2.0 maximum aperture of the Canon S100, but it is exactly the same as the G12's f/2.8 maximum aperture - fast enough for almost anything this camera's target audience is likely to shoot outdoors and quick enough for indoor shooting if the ambient light levels are reasonable.
Zoom operation is fast, smooth, and fairly quiet, but this lens exhibits very minor barrel distortion (straight lines bow out from the center) at the wide-angle end of the zoom range. Pincushion distortion (straight lines bow in toward the center of the frame) at the telephoto end of the zoom range is essentially absent. Chromatic aberration (purple fringing) is visible, especially in high contrast color transition areas, but the P7100 manages it nicely. Bottom line - the P7100's 7x zoom is impressively good - equal (or marginally superior) to the G12's optics.
Image Stabilization (IS)
The P7100's Vibration Reduction (optical image stabilization) system reduces blur by quickly and precisely shifting a lens element in the zoom to compensate for involuntary camera movement. Typically, IS systems allow users to shoot at shutter speeds up to three EV (exposure values) slower than would have been possible without Image stabilization. Keeping a lens with a focal length range from wide angle to moderate telephoto steady (without a tripod) poses some impressive challenges, but the P7100's VR system does a dependably good job.
Auto Focus (AF)
The P7100 features a redesigned TTL Contrast Detection 99-point Auto/Manual selection AF system providing four AF modes: Multi-pointAF, 1-point AF (center spot, normal, or wide), Subject tracking AF, and Face detection AF. In all exposure modes, the camera analyzes the scene in front of the lens and then calculates camera-to-subject distance to determine which AF point is closest to the primary subject (closest subject priority) and then locks focus on that AF point. The P7100's Center Spot AF mode is a good choice for traditional landscapes and informal portraits and an even better option for street shooting, because serious photographers don't want the camera deciding which face in the crowd to focus on.
The P7100's pop-up flash, like those found on most P&S digicams provides an adequate range of artificial lighting options including: Auto, Auto with red-eye reduction, Fill flash, Manual (1/64th power), Slow sync, Rear curtain sync, and flash exposure compensation at +/- 2EV in 1/3EV increments. The P7100's tiny built-in flash unit is powerful enough for fairly tight indoor portraits or for fill-flash, but not much else. The P7100 also provides a flash hot shoe which permits any of Nikon's current External Speedlights to be mounted with full i-TTL compatibility.
The P7100 draws its power from a Nikon rechargeable EN-EL14 Li-ion Battery. Nikon claims that a fully charged EN-EL14 is good for 350 exposures or almost three hours of video. Based on my experiences with the camera those numbers seem relatively accurate. The included charger needs about two hours to fully charge the EN-EL14. The Nikon Coolpix P7100 supports SD, SDHC, and the SDXC format memory cards and provides approximately 94MB of internal memory.
The Coolpix P7100 features a comprehensive one-tab version of Nikon's standard digicam menu system. The P7100's menu system provides an inclusive listing of all user options, but it is a long list - although it is logical and fairly easy to navigate. However, the P7100 has a full complement of buttons, knobs, switches, and dials making most shooting parameters directly accessible without having to revert to the menu system.
The P7100 provides a comprehensive selection of shooting modes including:
Auto: Just point and shoot - no user input.
Scene (Smart Auto): Automatic scene recognition program that instantly compares what's in front of the lens with an on-board image database and then matches that information with the subject's distance from the camera, white balance, contrast, dynamic range, lighting and color (just before the image is recorded) to determine the best scene mode for that specific shooting situation. No user input except for flash on/off. Program: Auto exposure with limited user input (sensitivity, white balance, exposure compensation, flash, etc.).
Aperture priority: Users select the aperture and the camera selects an appropriate shutter speed.
Shutter priority: Users select shutter speed and the camera selects an appropriate aperture.
Manual: Users select all exposure parameters.
Low Noise Night: Reduced resolution Night Shot mode.
Effects: Monochrome, etc.
User Settings: 1, 2, & 3 - user saved settings/preferences can be linked to these three mode dial positions.
Movie: The P7100 records HD video at a maximum resolution of 1280 x 720p at 24fps. Default audio is stereo, but the P7100 also allows for the use of an external microphone.
CONTROLS, DESIGN, ENGINEERING, BUILD QUALITY, & ERGONOMICS
The G12 and the P7100 not only have very similar specifications, they also feature very similar designs. Both are chunky and relatively heavy P&S digicams. Both cameras have very similar ergonomics and both are obviously marketed to photography enthusiasts. The Nikon Coolpix P7100 bears a striking resemblance to its predecessor, but it has actually evolved into something quite different. Nikon kept the P7000's chunky body, the 10.1-megapixel (1/1.7-inch) CCD image sensor, the 3.0 inch (920,000 pixel) LCD (which now flips out), and the 7x (28mm-200mm equivalent) f/2.8 zoom of the P7000, but made numerous internal changes that punched up operating speed, cut shutter lag by about 35 per cent, and improved auto focusing speed and accuracy – the P7000’s menu system was also redesigned to be more logical and easier to navigate. The P7100 will function nicely as an auto-mode P&S digicam, but it is really aimed at more serious shooters.
The P7100 is an attractively understated, well designed, precision built and robustly constructed imaging tool that was obviously re-designed by photographers, for photographers. The P7100’s handgrip is small and fairly shallow, but it is a handgrip and that is more than consumers get with most P&S digicams. The metal alloy body feels substantial and well constructed and fits nicely in the hands. Weather seals and dust-proofing appear to be first rate. Everything on the camera appears to have been engineered to endure busy modern lifestyles. The P7100 looks and feels unapologetically practical and utilitarian, so it doesn't seem strange that it would be built to old-school standards. In my opinion the P7100 is tough enough to go just about anywhere - including extreme environments.
The P7100's user interface is logical and uncomplicated - all buttons and controls are clearly marked, sensibly placed and easily accessed by right handed shooters. Here’s an example – most P&S digicams permit only limited user input into the exposure process – the P7100 takes the single most important exposure control that P&S users have, the exposure compensation function, and links it to a dedicated knob on the camera’s top deck that permits immediate adjustments (to incrementally lighten or darken images) in every shooting mode except manual. Most digicams bury the exposure compensation function in the menu somewhere or allow indirect access via the compass switch - both methods are time consuming and distracting. With the P7100 users can view their composition and if they have a problem with the ambient lighting - their right thumb falls directly on the exposure compensation knob which they can then turn either right (plus) or left (minus) until the lighting is balanced. This is a brilliant design that puts control in the hands of the user. Some folks will say that this idea was stolen from the G12 and its predecessors, but Canon put the exposure compensation dial on the left end of the top deck – which means that the control must be accessed by the shooter’s left hand or the camera must be shifted, altering the composition at least momentarily – the P7100 locates this control on the same end of the top deck as the mode dial and shutter button/zoom control – meaning the control can be used (by right handed shooters) without shifting attention from the composition of the image.
Here’s another example of the P7100’s dedication to user input – in review mode shooters can crop (using the zoom tab and the compass switch) and then save the cropped version of that image (just as it appears on the LCD screen) by simply pushing the menu button and then selecting yes. The most glaring omission in the P7100's very good control array is the absence of a one touch video button. Most digicams with a one touch video button place this control in the upper right corner of the camera's back deck since that placement allows the camera user to simply push the video start/stop button with their right thumb. The P7100 eschews this logical ergonomic placement in favor of the now outdated "set the mode dial to video and push to shutter button to start video and then push the shutter button again to stop recording” method. There is room for a one-touch video stop/start button (directly under the exposure compensation dial) so it is something of a mystery as to why Nikon didn’t avail itself of this more logical placement opportunity – since they were re-designing the camera anyway. The P7100's shutter button is fairly large and surrounded by a standard back-and-forth zoom tab. While the zoom tab is small, zooming from wide-angle to telephoto and back is smooth, easy, and fairly precise.
In the Field/Handling & Operation
After hauling around a 35mm kit with two Nikon SLR bodies, several lenses, and a full sized Bogen tripod for many years I’ve come to appreciate P&S digicams since they provide a nice balance of ease of use and decent performance coupled with compact size and lower weight. A friend recently asked me to help her purchase her first digital camera. She had taken a basic B&W photography class in high school and then an introductory photography class in college, but she’d never really had the opportunity to pursue photography seriously after her student days were over. She had tried out her daughter’s Nikon D5000 so she knew she didn’t want a DSLR, but she also knew that she didn’t want an auto mode only ultra-compact digicam either. She had decided on the Canon G12 - based on a couple of reviews that she had read and she asked me to accompany her to our local big box electronics store to purchase the camera. The deal was that I would get to review the camera and she would get to come along on a couple of my outings with the camera for some one on one digital photography instruction with her new camera. When we got to the store they were out of G12’s. I’ve used both the G12 and the P7100, so when I told her that I actually liked the P7100 more than the G12 she asked to see it and fell in love with the camera as soon as the clerk handed it to her.
She bought the P7100 (and a compact tripod) and we took the camera back to her house where we went over the quick start guide while the battery was charging. After the battery was charged we headed for nearby Iroquois Park. At the top of the park is a small prairie preserve (about 3 acres) with a swampy area along one side. We wandered around the tiny prairie for about an hour. One of us would spot something interesting and then we would both shoot it, with her going first each time. We would then compare her picture with my picture of the same subject. I pointed out to her that static subjects that are worthy of a photograph, are generally worthy of several (shot from different perspectives and with different framing). It took just over an hour to teach her that the two most important considerations when deciding how to compose a picture are perspective and framing.
For our second outing with the P7100 we took the camera first to the Douglas Loop farmer’s market and then to theBardstown Roadfarmer’s market, just down the street. She brought her new P7100 and I had a Nikon S9300 that I was testing for another website. The S9300 is an auto mode only P&S digicam with an 18x zoom and we switched cameras back and forth so she could try the S9300 a couple of times so she could try out another camera. On this outing I taught her how to determine whether to frame an image as a vertical or a horizontal composition (based on physical continuity and negative space), how to focus on the background first (to determine whether it will detract from or add to the impact of the composition), and how to utilize ambient lighting to your advantage. After about an hour at theDouglasloop farmer’s market we hiked the two blocks down to theBardstown Roadfarmer’s market where I let her do a loop of the event by herself so she could shoot the things that interested her without any influence or interference from me. I did a loop in the other direction and when we met up again we took both cameras to a shady spot and compared pictures. She got one really nice perfectly exposed shot of a basket of red tomatoes surrounded by a pile of green cucumbers which she had framed vertically with a dark background. We stopped at Walgreen’s on the way home and ordered an 8x10 of her Farmer’s Market still life.
For our third outing with the P7100 we took the camera first to the Americana Festival (a World food and music festival put on each year by Louisville’s immigrant community) where we tried Cuban style fried plantains and Guatemalan style tamales and shot pictures of adults and children in colorful national costumes. After we had exhausted the possibilities at the American Festival we drove downtown for the Butchertown Art Fair, a slightly funky annual celebration of local arts and crafts. We spent a couple of hours wandering around shooting environmental portraits of some of the more colorful characters in attendance, buying a couple of loaves of homemade Banana Nut bread, and swinging briefly by the Extreme Park to try a couple of videos of skateboarders in action before calling it day and heading for home.
The P7100's 1280 x 720p at 24 fps HD movie mode mmight cause concern for some potential purchasers, but the G12 doesn’t feature 1080p video either. While the P7100 may not produce at the highest currently available HD video resolution, its HD video output is adequate.
I was consistently impressed with the P7100's highly nuanced image quality throughout my test of the camera. Colors (Nikon default color interpolation) are bright and hue accurate, but much closer to neutral than those from the G12. Canon and many other OEMs pander to casual photographers who like visibly over-saturated colors. Most casual shooters don't consider minor color intensity variations as faults, but serious photographers want more accurate colors. Super intense colors can actually detract from the impact of some images, giving an almost surreal or “plasticky” look.
During the course of our tests I was repeatedly impressed with the color accuracy of the P7100. The P7100's colors don't jump out at you, rather they contribute nicely to the overall impact of the image without exaggerating the role of color in the composition. Finally, the P7100's exposure accuracy (in any shooting mode) is amazing. My friend and I both used the camera a broad range of subjects and as long as the images were shot outdoors (in decent light) the P7100 nailed the proper exposure every time. Under decent outdoor lighting the P7100 consistently produces properly exposed, sharply focused, highly detailed, and almost noise-free images. The P7100 consistently produces the best images I've seen from any camera in this class.
White Balance (WB)
The P7100 provides users with a comprehensive selection of white balance options, including Auto, Daylight, Cloudy, Incandescent, Fluorescent (FL1), Fluorescent (FL2), Fluorescent (FL3), Flash, Manual (Kelvin adjusted) and custom 1, 2, &3. The P7100's auto WB system does a remarkably good job in essentially all outdoor shooting scenarios.
The P7100 provides a comprehensive range of sensitivity options, including auto and user-set options for ISO 100 to ISO 6400. In addition the P7100 offers users more control over sensitivity than most of its competitors including High ISO sensitivity auto (ISO 100 to 1600), Fixed range auto (ISO 100 to 200, ISO 100 to 400, etc.), and Low noise night mode (ISO 400 to 12800). ISO 100 images show bright near neutral colors, noticeably better than average contrast, and very low noise levels. ISO 200 images also look very good, but with a tiny bit less pop.
At the ISO 400 setting noise levels are noticeably higher and there's a (barely) perceptible loss of minor detail, but the images are actually quite good - looking more like the ISO 200 images from many cheaper P&S digicams than ISO 400 images. Higher sensitivity settings (ISO 800 and up) show flat colors, reduced contrast, more image noise, and fuzzier details.
The G12 was faster in every category than the P7000, but the P7100 is essentially a different camera than its predecessor. AF acquisition times for the P7100 (0.19 seconds) and G12 (0.50 seconds) show the new improved P7100 is almost a third of a second faster than the G12 in acquiring the target and locking focus. Regarding shutter lag, Nikon says the P7100 is measurably faster (0.200 milliseconds versus 0.310 milliseconds) than the P7000. The P7100 is competitive with any camera in its class - fast enough to function nicely as a general purpose camera and more than quick enough to capture the decisive moment. Shot-to-shot times (JPEG) are between 1 and 2 seconds.
There is one thing upon which photographers can depend - digital camera choices will continue to proliferate relentlessly. However, careful research (and a friend who is a photographer) can help you find the camera that is just right for you. Today's high-end P&S digicams are capable of consistently delivering near pro quality images and enlargements (up to 8 x 10 inches) are indistinguishable from images shot with entry level DSLRs like the Canon T3 or CSCs like the Panasonic GF3. My friend loves her new camera and it shows; her pictures from our final camera testing adventure were much better than those she shot on our first outing.