Nikon Coolpix P100 Review
How Does it Compare?
The Nikon Coolpix P100 is one of those cameras that sounds absolutely perfect when you read the spec sheet. It has a 26X zoom lens with a great focal range, image stabilization, a back-illuminated CMOS sensor, super-fast continuous shooting, lots of auto and manual controls, an articulating high resolution LCD, and a Full HD movie mode. But what good is any of that if the camera doesn't take decent quality pictures? That is where the P100 falls apart, and there are some bothersome design and interface issues that further reduce its appeal. Thus, unless you really need that Full HD movie mode, then I'd probably pass on the Coolpix P100 and find a super zoom camera with better photo quality.
The Coolpix P100 is a fairly large, SLR-style super zoom camera. The body is made out of plastic, though it feels pretty solid in most areas. The grip is large and made of a rubber-like material, so it's easy to hold the camera securely. Nikon didn't go too overboard with buttons on the camera, though this means that you'll spend a lot of time in the camera's menu system trying to get at things like ISO sensitivity. The P100 features a 26X optical zoom lens that I'm pretty sure is used on two other currently shipping super zoom cameras. This lens has a fantastic focal range of 26 - 676 mm, which covers any shooting situation that you may encounter. Naturally, you'll need an image stabilizer to go with that big lens, and the P100 uses a sensor-shift mechanism that does its job well (and there's a "hybrid" mode which adds electronic shake reduction for better performance). On the back of the P100 is a 3-inch LCD that pulls away from the camera body and tilts up or down. This allows you to have the camera above or below you, and anywhere in between. The LCD has a resolution of 460,000 pixels -- twice that of its predecessor -- plus good outdoor and low light visibility. I did find that images on the LCD often looked greatly overexposed, when in reality they were fine. The P100 also features a 0.24", 230,000 pixel electronic viewfinder. I found the EVF sharpness to be lacking, and low light viewing wasn't nearly as good as the main LCD.
The P100 is packed with features that should make about everyone happy (at least in theory). Point-and-shoot features include an auto scene selection mode (as well as a separate auto mode, for some reason), plenty of scene modes, face, smile, and blink detection, and help screens for most menu options. Enthusiasts will appreciate the manual exposure, white balance, and focus controls, but will probably be turned off by the lack of RAW support. The P100's back-illuminated CMOS sensor allows it to perform a lot of neat tricks, some better than others. A "backlit scene HDR" mode noticeably cuts down on highlight clipping by seamlessly combining three exposures into one. Less useful is the night landscape scene mode, which combines something like six exposures into a single image that's low on detail. The camera can also shoot continuously at very high speeds, but I'm getting ahead of myself. Perhaps the biggest benefit of this CMOS sensor is that it allows the camera to record videos at 1080p -- yes, 1920 x 1080, at 30 frames/second. Sound is recorded in stereo, you can zoom in and out all you want (though the lens moves too quickly and is not precise enough), and the camera can focus continuously. The bad news is that you can't use the image stabilizer (the electronic VR feature is a poor substitute) and that wind noise is easily picked up by the microphone -- even with the wind filter on. The P100 can also record at very high frame rates -- up to 240 fps -- allowing for some pretty cool slow-motion videos (albeit at lower resolutions).
Camera performance was mixed. The Coolpix P100 starts up quickly for a super zoom camera, taking 1.3 seconds. The camera focuses at an average pace in most situations, and focuses accurately (though a bit slowly) in low light. Shutter lag was not an issue, and shot-to-shot delays were fairly brief. As I mentioned, the P100 can shoot continuously at very high speeds. At full resolution, you can take up to 6 photos in a row at 10 frames/second, though the image on the LCD freezes after the first shot (not that it really matters at that speed). A slower, 2.5 fps mode is better suited for tracking a moving subject, since the screen doesn't freeze, and the buffer takes much longer to fill. If you want to shoot even faster, then head over to Sport Continuous mode, which can take pictures as fast as 120 frames/second (though the buffer fills up in 1/2 second). As with the high speed movie mode, you have to lower the resolution considerably in order to take photos at these frame rates. One performance-related area in which the P100 needs some help is with regard to battery life: it's well below average in the super zoom class.
Photo quality is perhaps the biggest disappointment on the Coolpix P100. To be frank, I'm yet to be wowed by the back-illuminated CMOS sensor that's been making the rounds lately. Sure, it's slightly better at high ISOs on some cameras (though not the P100) than cameras with traditional CCDs, but there's way too much noise and other artifacting at the base ISO for my taste. Fine details end up smudged, and things like the sky appear mottled -- again, at ISO 160. Those making small prints probably won't notice any of this until they get to ISO 800, but simply put, other cameras do a better job than this Coolpix when it comes to noise and detail. On the exposure front, the camera did overexpose occasionally (and the LCD doesn't help matters there), and it clips highlights like most of its competitors (the HDR feature helps get around this, though). Color was accurate in most situations, though under the artificial lights in my studio it was really lousy -- especially the red tones. The lens has a fair amount of barrel distortion, though you can turn on a correction feature to take care of that. You can expect to see some mild vignetting (dark corners), as well. One problem the P100 thankfully didn't have was redeye -- yay!
I've got a few more things to mention before I wrap things up, and I'm sure you've heard them before. The distance guide in manual focus mode isn't very useful, as it just shows the relative position between macro and infinity. You can't access the memory card while the camera is on a tripod. And finally, the battery must be charged in-camera, which may not be desirable to some folks.
As a point-and-shoot, small print camera/camcorder, the Coolpix P100 is good, but not great. As an enthusiast camera, it disappoints, mainly due to its mediocre photo quality, lack of RAW support, and menu-centric user interface. While the final decision on the Coolpix P100 falls to you, I personally would consider something else.
- "Okay" photo quality for small prints in normal lighting
- Huge 26X zoom lens with great 26 - 676 mm focal range
- Sensor-shift image stabilization
- Articulating, high resolution 3-inch LCD display (though see issues below)
- Full manual controls
- Auto Scene Selector mode, plus plenty of other scenes you can choose yourself
- Super-fast continuous shooting, though you're limited to 6 shots at full resolution (the low speed mode is no slouch, though); can shoot even faster at 1 and 2 Megapixel resolutions
- Full HD movie mode records at 1920 x 1080 (30 fps) with stereo sound, use of optical zoom and continuous AF
- Can also record high speed movies for cool slow-motion effects, though resolution is reduced
- Redeye not a problem
- HDR feature reduces blown highlights
- Help screens for most menu items; decent manual by digital camera standards
- Face, smile, and blink detection
- HDMI output
What I didn't care for:
- Photos are heavy on noise and noise reduction, even at base ISOs; this smudges fine details and mottles low contrast areas
- Occasional overexposure and highlight clipping
- Poor color accuracy (especially reds) in artificial lighting
- No significant improvement at high sensitivities compared to super zooms with traditional CCDs
- Images often appear overexposed on LCD, when they're fine in reality
- EVF not terribly sharp; low light viewing isn't great, either
- No RAW format support
- Electronic image stabilization only in movie mode
- Zoom movement not very precise; manual focus guide doesn't show actual focus distance numbers
- Lack of direct buttons or shortcut menu means lots of trips to the main menu system
- Below average battery life; in-camera battery charging not for everyone
- Can't access memory card when camera is on tripod
Some other super zoom cameras that you'll want to consider include the Canon PowerShot SX20 IS, Casio Exilim EX-FH25, Fuji FinePix S2550HD, Kodak EasyShare Z981, Olympus SP-800UZ, Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ35, Pentax X90, and the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-HX1.
As always, I recommend heading to your local camera or electronics store to try out the Coolpix P100 and its competitors before you buy!
Check out our gallery to see how the Coolpix P100's photo quality looks!