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DCRP Review: Nikon Coolpix P3
by Jeff Keller, DCRP Founder/Editor
Originally posted: May 17, 2006
Last Updated: March 26, 2008

The Nikon Coolpix P3 ($449) is a midrange digital camera offering an 8 Megapixel CCD, 3.5X optical zoom lens, optical image stabilization, an 2.5" LCD display, limited manual controls, and Wi-Fi functionality. The P3 shares the spotlight with its twin, the Coolpix P4, which is the same camera except that it's lacking the Wi-Fi feature. The P3's Wi-Fi system lets you transfer photos directly to your computer as soon as you take them. Through Nikon's optional Wireless Printer Adapter you can do the same for prints, as well.

Ready to learn more about this stylish, wireless camera? Our review starts right now!

What's in the Box?

The Coolpix P3 has an average bundle. Inside the box you'll find:

Last year Nikon started building memory into their cameras instead of putting a memory card in the box. On the 2006 P-series models Nikon has bumped the internal memory from 16MB to 23MB, which still isn't enough for an 8 Megapixel camera. So, you'll need to buy a memory card along with the camera -- the P3 uses the Secure Digital format -- and I suggest 1GB card as a good starter size. While Nikon doesn't say anything about needing a high speed memory card, I did notice a bit of an improvement in performance when using one, so it may be worth the extra bucks to get one (just don't go overboard).

The Coolpix P3 uses the familiar EN-EL5 lithium-ion battery for power. This battery packs 4.1 Wh into its plastic shell, which isn't bad. Here's how that translates into battery life:

Camera Battery life, LCD on
(CIPA standard)
Battery used for test
Canon PowerShot SD430* 150 shots NB-4L
Canon PowerShot A540 360 shots 2500 mAh NiMH
Fuji FinePix V10 170 shots NP-20
HP Photosmart R817 200 shots R07
Kodak EasyShare One (6MP)* 135 shots KLIC-7001
Nikon Coolpix P3*/P4 200 shots EN-EL5
Nikon Coolpix S6* 200 shots EN-EL8
Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX01 320 shots CGA-S005
Panasonic Lumix DMC-LZ5 390 shots Unknown NiMH

* Supports Wi-Fi
Battery life numbers are provided by the manufacturer

This list is pretty short because I only included small cameras with lenses greater than 3X or those with Wi-Fi functionality. The P3's numbers are more-or-less average, though I have a feeling that those numbers drop considerably if you turn on Wi-Fi.

The EN-EL5 is actually pretty cheap for a proprietary battery, selling for $20 a pop. The downside to batteries like this one is that you can't use off-the-shelf batteries when your rechargeables get low.

When it's time to charge the battery just pop it into the included charger. It takes about two hours to fully charge the EN-EL5. This isn't my favorite kind of charger which plugs directly into the wall -- you must use a power cable.

Like all compact cameras, the Coolpix P3 has a built-in lens cove so there's no lens cap to deal with.

There aren't too many accessories available for the P3. The most interested one is the PD-10 wireless print adapter, which lets you send photos to any PictBridge-enabled printer using Wi-Fi. It's worth mentioning that Canon includes such a similar accessory with their SD430 wireless camera. Other accessories include an AC adapter and soft carrying case.

Nikon includes version 1.6 of their PictureProject software with the Coolpix P3. The interface is reminiscent of Apple's iPhoto, and I found the software to be responsive and stable. The default view can be seen above, and it's your standard thumbnail setup.

A view showing exposure info is also available. Double-clicking on an image brings up the image edit window:

Here you can adjust things like brightness, color, and sharpness. You can also straighten images or use Nikon's D-Lighting feature to brighten up dark areas of your photos. Auto image enhancement and redeye removal features are also available.

You can also use PictureProject to e-mail or print your photos, and you can burn them to a CD as well.

You will also be using the PP software for most of the wireless functions on the P3. The first thing you need to do before you can go wireless is set up a profile for your 802.11b/g network. To do this you attach the camera to your computer via the USB cable. Just fill out the form you see above and the settings will be sent to the camera. You can also set up a profile for any printer attached to your PC. The Coolpix P3 supports 64 and 128-bit WEP encryption, and you can connect directly to a computer or to an existing network.


You can view the photos on your camera wirelessly

Once the camera is on the network you can transfer files to your PC with ease (more on this later). While you can see what photos are on the camera from your PC, the camera itself cannot be controlled (like the Canon SD430). One especially cool feature is the ability to add photos to a slideshow as they are taken, which might be interesting for parties or wedding receptions.

The documentation included with the Coolpix P3 is about average. You get a fold-out Quick Start guide to get you going, plus a full printed manual for more details. While the manual is complete, it could definitely use a little more user friendliness.

Look and Feel

The Coolpix P3 is a compact (but not tiny) camera made mostly of metal. It feels very solid, save for a very cheap-looking plastic door over the battery and memory card compartment. The camera is easy to hold and operate with one hand, though I wish that the shutter release was a bit larger.

Now here's a look at how the P3 compares to the competition in terms of size and weight:

Camera Dimensions (W x H x D, excluding protrusions) Volume (bulk) Mass (empty)
Canon PowerShot A540 3.6 x 2.5 x 1.7 in. 15.3 cu in. 180 g
Canon PowerShot SD430* 3.9 x 2.1 x 0.9 in. 7.4 cu in. 130 g
Fuji FinePix V10 3.3 x 2.5 x 0.9 in. 7.4 cu in. 156 g
HP Photosmart R817 3.6 x 2.2 x 1.2 in. 9.5 cu in. 160 g
Kodak EasyShare One (6MP)* 4.1 x 2.5 x 1.0 in. 10.3 cu in. 224 g
Nikon Coolpix P3*/P4 3.6 x 2.4 x 1.2 in. 10.4 cu in. 170 g
Nikon Coolpix S6* 3.7 x 2.4 x 0.8 in. 7.1 cu in. 140 g
Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX01 3.7 x 2.0 x 1.0 in. 7.4 cu in. 132 g
Panasonic Lumix DMC-LZ5 3.9 x 2.4 x 1.8 in. 16.9 cu in. 186 g
Samsung Digimax L55W 3.9 x 2.2 x 1.1 in. 9.4 cu in. 169 g
* Supports Wi-Fi

The Coolpix P3 is fairly average sized for a camera with a 3X-4X zoom. As Wi-Fi cameras go it's actually the largest one out there. But don't freak out, the P3 is still small enough for most pockets.

Enough numbers, let's start our tour of the camera now!

The Coolpix P3 has the same F2.7-5.3, 3.5X optical zoom lens as its predecessors, the P1 and P2. This lens has a focal range of 7.5 - 26.3 mm, which is equivalent to 36 - 126 mm. The lens is not threaded.

Inside the lens is an optical image stabilization system, which Nikon calls Vibration Reduction. OIS systems like this help reduce the effects of "camera shake", allowing you to use slower shutter speeds than you could otherwise. The VR system works in the same way that other lens-based stabilization systems do. Sensors inside the camera detect motion, and the VR system responds by shifting a lens element to counter it. How well does it work?

1/4 sec exposure, VR off 1/4 sec exposure, VR on

As you can see, the VR system allows you to take sharp pictures at shutter speeds that before weren't usable without a tripod. Now image stabilization won't work for 1 second exposures or anything like that, and it can't stop a moving subject, but it certainly helps a bunch. If you want another example of how well the VR system works, check out this sample movie.

Getting back to the tour now... to the lower-left of the lens is the microphone. Above the lens is the built-in flash, which has a relatively average working range of 0.4 - 4.0 m at wide-angle and 0.4 - 2.0 m at telephoto. You cannot attach an external flash to the Coolpix P3.

The last thing to see on the front of the camera is the AF-assist lamp. This LED-based lamp fires when the camera is trying to focus in low light situations. This same lamp is also used as the visual countdown for the self-timer.

On the back of the Coolpix P3 is a large 2.5" LCD display. Nikon didn't skimp on the resolution here, packing 150,000 pixels into the screen (some competitors have 50% fewer pixels). As you'd expect, the screen is nice and sharp -- and bright too. Outdoor visibility was good, and in low light the screen brightens automatically so it's still easy to see.

As you can see, there's no optical viewfinder on the Coolpix P3. That may or may not be a problem -- it depends on your needs. Some people love'em, others don't care. All I know is that they sure come in handy sometimes, and I refuse to buy a camera without one.

Now let's take a look at all those buttons to the right of the LCD. At the top is the zoom controller, which moves the lens from wide-angle to telephoto in 1.4 seconds. I counted nine steps in the 3.5X zoom range. One thing I don't like about the P3 is how the digital zoom feature can't be turned off.

Next we have the Menu button, with the four-way controller below that. The four-way controller is used for menu navigation, selecting manual settings, and also for:

The final two buttons on the back of camera are for entering playback mode or deleting a photo.

There are three more buttons plus the mode dial on top of the P3.

The button on the far left lets you select what Vibration Reduction mode you want to use. Normal VR mode is for everyday shooting. Active VR mode is for when camera shake is severe, like when you're shooting from a moving vehicle, according to Nikon. Finally, you can turn the whole thing off, which you'll want to do when the camera is on a tripod.

Next up is the mode dial, which has quite a few options. They include:

Option Function
Auto mode Fully automatic, most camera settings locked up
Program mode Automatic shooting, but with access to all menu options. A Flexible Program feature lets you choose from several aperture/shutter speed combinations
Aperture priority mode You choose the aperture, camera picks appropriate shutter speed. Range is F2.7 - F7.3
Scene mode You pick the situation and the camera uses the appropriate settings. Choose from portrait (with and without Face AF), party/indoor, night portrait, landscape, panorama assist, night landscape, beach/snow. sunset, dusk/dawn, fireworks show, back light, close-up, museum, copy, sports
Movie mode More on this later
Setup More on this later
Image quality Quickly adjust these options, which I'll list later in the review
ISO [sensitivity]
White balance
Wireless functions Easy transfer, shooting date, marked images, selected images, shoot & transfer, PC mode, wireless printing; see below

As you can see, the Coolpix P3 has limited manual exposure controls. Why Nikon didn't go for the full nine yards and put in shutter priority and full manual modes is beyond me. There are plenty of scene modes on the camera, and many of them have "effects" which you can select. The P3 has Nikon's Face AF system which can actually detect faces in the frame, so they'll always be in focus.

Wireless profile selection (you can have up to three) The wireless menu

I already told you how to set up the wireless functions on the P3 and now I'm going to show you how to use them. The first thing you need to do is to turn the mode dial to the Wireless position. Next you'll choose a profile for the network or printer to which you wish to connect. Once you're on the network you can choose from the following options:

The final two things to see on the top of the camera are the power and shutter release buttons. I think the latter is too small, but that's just my opinion.

I apologize for some of these photos of the P3: these mirror-plated cameras don't take kindly to product photography.

Anyhow, the only things to see here are the Wi-Fi module (at the top) and the speaker. A blue light blinks as the camera is connecting to a network, and it remains on once connected.

On the other side of the camera you'll find a single I/O port which is used for both USB and A/V out. The port is covered by a plastic cover. The Coolpix P3 does not support the USB 2.0 High Speed protocol.

The lens is at the full telephoto position here, by the way.

On the bottom of the camera you'll find a plastic tripod mount plus the battery and memory card compartment. The compartment is protected by a pretty flimsy plastic door. You should be able to swap memory cards while the camera is on a tripod.

The included EN-EL5 battery is shown at right.

Using the Nikon Coolpix P3

Record Mode

It takes about 2 seconds for the Coolpix P3 to start up, which is about average. Do note that you may need to turn off the welcome screen in order to get that time.


Although there's no live histogram when shooting, you can get one by adjusting the exposure compensation

Autofocus times were above average on the P3. Typically it took between 0.3 and 0.5 seconds for the camera to lock focus, with slightly longer delays at the telephoto end of the lens. I wasn't terribly thrilled with the low light focusing abilities of the P3, despite having an AF-assist lamp.

Shutter lag was minimal at fast shutter speeds and barely noticeable at slower shutter speeds.

Shot-to-shot speeds were average, with a delay of a little over two seconds before you can take another picture.

You can delete a photo after you take it by pressing the "delete photo" button on the back of the camera. Strangely enough the P3 lacks the "blur warning" feature that Nikon was touting in 2005.

There are quite a few image quality options on the Coolpix P3. They include:

Resolution Quality # images on 23MB built-in memory # images on 1GB SD card (optional)
8M
3264 x 2448
Fine 6 240
Normal 12 480
Basic 23 940
3:2 ratio
3264 x 2176
Fine 6 380
Normal 13 540
Basic 26 1060
5M
2592 x 1944
Fine 9 380
Normal 18 760
Basic 36 1480
3M
2048 x 1536
Fine 15 600
Normal 29 1180
Basic 56 2240
PC Screen
1024 x 768
Fine 56 2240
Normal 104 4060
Basic 181 6760
TV Screen
640 x 480
Fine 128 5060
Normal 217 8700
Basic 331 12180

There's no support for the RAW or TIFF image formats on the Coolpix P3, nor would I expect there to be.

Images are named DSCN####.JPG, where # = 0001 - 9999. The file numbering is maintained even if you replace and/or format memory cards.

Now, onto the menus!

The Coolpix P3 has a pretty standard menu system. There are two ways to display the menu items: by text or by icon. For each of the menu items you can press the "zoom in" button to get a description of what that item does. Now here's a look at all the items in the shooting menu:

Hopefully I explained most of those items pretty well. I do want to talk about the various continuous shooting options, though. In the continuous mode the Coolpix P3 took four shots in a row at 1.7 frames/second. The LCD blacked out briefly between shots, though you should be able to track a moving subject anyway. The Multi-shot 16 feature takes 16 shots in a row at the same frame rate and compiles them into a single collage-style image. The Ultra HS mode takes up to 100 VGA-sized photos in a row at 30 frames/second and stores them in a separate folder. In the five-shot buffer mode the camera will keep shooting at a sluggish 0.9 frames/second and the last five photos that were taken before you released the shutter release will be saved.

The interval timer shooting feature lets you do time-lapse photography with your P3. You can take up to 1800 shots at an interval of your choosing (as long as it's 30 seconds or 5/10/30/60 minutes). The optional AC adapter is recommended for this feature.

There are two types of bracketing on the Coolpix P3. In exposure bracketing mode the camera will take three shots, each with a different exposure value (-0.5EV, 0EV, +0.5EV). WB bracketing works in the same way: three photos are taken with varying white balance settings (normal WB, bluish cast, reddish cast).

The next menu to talk about is the setup menu, which you access with the mode dial. The options here include:

Well that's it for menus, let's continue with the photo tests now.

The Coolpix P3 did a great job with our usual macro test subject. The figurine is nice and sharp, and colors are accurate. The camera had no trouble with my studio lamps -- gotta love that manual white balance.

Nikon cameras have always let you get close to your subject, and the P3 is no exception. When the macro mode is in the right position (the macro flower will turn green on the LCD) you can be just 4 cm away.

Since there's no way to manually set the shutter speed on the P3 you'll need to use the night landscape mode for shots like this. The downside to doing this is that the camera boosts the ISO sensitivity automatically, which increases noise levels considerably. As you can see, the shot above is quite noisy, which a fair amount of detail lost. Purple fringing was not a problem, though. All-in-all, this probably isn't the best choice for night scene shooters.

Since I can't control the shutter speed I cannot do the usual night scene ISO test. I do, however, have the studio ISO test a few paragraphs down.

There's moderate barrel distortion at the wide end of the P3's 3.5X optical zoom lens. If you want to see what this does to your real world photos, have a look at the bending buildings in either of these photos.

The test chart shows a bit of vignetting (dark corners), and I saw a tiny bit of it in my real world photos as well. I didn't find corner softness to be an issue, though.

The Coolpix P3 has a two-stage redeye reduction system. The camera first uses preflashes to shrink your subject's pupils, and if it still detects redeye the camera removes it with software. Unfortunately, neither of those systems got rid of the redeye in my test.

Here's that ISO test I promised you. This scene is taken under my 600W quartz studio lamps, like most of the test shots in this section. The crops below are good for quick comparisons but be sure to view the full size images to inspect other areas of the scene.


ISO 50

ISO 100

ISO 200


ISO 400

There's only a slight increase in noise from ISO 50 to ISO 200. Things are still very clean at ISO 200, and you should be able to make good-sized prints at that setting. Noise becomes much more noticeable at ISO 400 -- the P3 isn't nearly as clean as the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-W100 (another modern 8MP camera) was at this setting. Still, with a little cleanup, you can still make 4 x 6 inch prints at that sensitivity.

Overall the photo quality on the Coolpix P3 was very good. It generally took well-exposed photos (it underexposed a few shots) with accurate colors and minimal purple fringing. Noise levels are reasonable given the resolution of the camera. My only real complaint is that photos are a bit soft straight out of the camera. If you agree you can turn up the sharpness a bit in the shooting menu.

Don't just take my word for it, though. Have a look at our photo gallery, printing the photos if you'd like, and then decide if the P3's photo quality meets your expectations.

Movie Mode

The Coolpix P3 has a very nice movie mode that appears to have a rather annoying bug. But first, the details. You can record video at 640 x 480 (30 frames/second) until the memory card is full. It takes just 16 seconds to fill up the internal memory, so you'll want a large memory card for longer movies. A 1GB card holds about 12 minutes worth. Nikon recommends a high speed memory card for this movie quality.

A way to fit more movie on your memory card is to reduce the resolution. You can choose from 320 x 240 or 160 x 120, both of which have a frame rate of 30 fps.

A time lapse movie feature is also available. This is just like the still time lapse feature that I described earlier, except that the images end up as a VGA-sized silent movie.

You can choose between single and continuous autofocus while in movie mode. I would probably use single AF as the microphone may pick up the focusing sounds otherwise. You cannot use the optical zoom during filming -- the digital zoom does work though. Naturally, the vibration reduction feature can be used in movie mode.

And now, the bug. As you'll see in the sample movie below, the sound cuts out before the end of the movie. I was able to reproduce this problem using the built-in memory or a memory card. Let's hope Nikon can fix this one with a firmware update.

Here's a sample movie for you, taken at the VGA setting. Enjoy:


Click to play movie (13.9 MB, 640 x 480, QuickTime format)
Can't view them? Download QuickTime
.

Playback Mode

The Coolpix P3 has a pretty standard playback mode. Basic features such as slide shows, DPOF print marking, image protection, voice captions (up to 20 seconds worth), thumbnail mode, and zoom and scroll are all here. This last feature lets you enlarge your photo by as much as ten times so you can make sure everything's in focus. I don't like how the camera jumps from one area of the photo to another, though (it's not smooth scrolling like on most other cameras).

As you'd expect in 2006 the P3 is PictBridge-enabled. You can send photos directly to a printer without touching a USB cable using the built-in Wi-Fi.

While the P3 supports in-camera resizing and cropping, I can't seem to find a way to rotate images. A copy function lets you move photos from the internal memory to a memory card and vice versa.

Nikon's D-Lighting feature can be found in playback mode. This brightens up the dark areas of your photos at the expense of a little extra noise. See:


Before D-Lighting


After D-Lighting

You can do the same thing in the PictureProject software, by the way.

By default the Coolpix P3 doesn't tell you much about your photos. Press the "ok" button on the four-way controller and you'll get the screen on the right, complete with histogram.

The cameras move through photos at an average pace, showing a low resolution image instantly, with the higher resolution image arriving about a second later.

How Does it Compare?

The Nikon Coolpix P3 is a compact 8 Megapixel camera that offers image stabilization and Wi-FI connectivity in a compact package. While it has its share of flaws, the P3 is certainly worth a look.

The P3 is a compact (but not tiny) metal camera with a 3.5X optical zoom lens and a 2.5" LCD display. The camera is well put together for the most part, though the plastic door over the memory card and battery compartment is especially flimsy. While having a little extra zoom is nice, the big story here is Nikon's Vibration Reduction (VR) system, which reduces the effects of camera shake, allowing you to use slower shutter speeds than you could otherwise. As you saw earlier in the review, the VR system is effective for both still and movie recording. The camera's LCD is big, bright, and sharp -- and visible in low light conditions. Nikon unfortunately left out an optical viewfinder on the P3.

The Coolpix P3 has a mix of automatic and manual modes. For beginners there's a full auto mode and many scene modes, including a rather elaborate one that actually detects faces. The P3 has its share of manual controls as well, including those for aperture and white balance. Unfortunately there's no shutter priority mode or a manual focus feature. Either nice shooting features include white balance bracketing, manual focus point selection, and a time-lapse mode. The P3's movie mode is nice, but there was a problem with the sound cutting out prematurely on my test camera (even with a high speed SD card).

The other big feature on the P3 (besides the VR system) is its built-in support for 802.11b/g wireless networks. You can send photos to and from your computer or printer, but that's about it. You can't control the camera from your computer (like on the Canon SD430), nor can you upload or e-mail your photos to the Internet. In addition, the wireless printer adapter is optional on the P3 and standard on the SD430. Still, for transferring photos, the Wi-Fi features on the P3 were pretty painless, and I enjoyed playing with that feature.

Camera performance was average in most areas, with decent but unremarkable startup, focus, and shutter lag numbers. Shot-to-shot speeds, battery life, and the P3's continuous shooting mode were average as well. While the camera has an AF-assist lamp, I was frustrated with the difficulties I had getting the camera to focus in low light situations.

Thankfully the Coolpix took very good quality photos. They were generally well-exposed, with accurate colors and low purple fringing. Things were a bit soft for my taste, though, and redeye was a problem. Noise levels were reasonable given the resolution of the camera, and you should be able to make 8 x 10's all the way up to ISO 200.

And now, a few final complaints. The P3 doesn't support the USB 2.0 High Speed standard, which is pretty sad for a midrange camera in 2006. I wasn't a fan of the plastic tripod mount either, and the 23MB of built-in memory is rather skimpy given the resolution of the camera.

Overall I liked, but didn't love, the Coolpix P3. Still, if you want a portable, high resolution camera with image stabilization and Wi-Fi then definitely check it out. If you like what the P3 has to offer but don't care about Wi-Fi then you can save a few bucks by buying the Coolpix P4 instead.

What I liked:

What I didn't care for:

If you're interested in a Wi-Fi-enabled camera, the only ones available are the Canon PowerShot SD430 Digital ELPH, Kodak EasyShare One (6MP), and the ultra-slim Nikon Coolpix S6. If you don't need Wi-Fi then please search our Reviews & Info database to find a camera that meets your needs!

As always, I recommend a trip down to your local reseller to try out the Coolpix P3 and its competitors before you buy!

Photo Gallery

See how the photos turned out in our photo gallery!

Want another opinion?

Read more reviews at Steve's Digicams and CNET.

Feedback & Discussion

If you have a question about this review, please send them to Jeff. Due to my limited resources, please do not e-mail me asking for a personal recommendation or for technical support.

To discuss this review with other DCRP readers, please visit our forums.

 

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