Nikon leaps into competition for semi-pro compact cameras. (March 13th, 2011)
When serious photo enthusiasts have desired a pocket-style camera to carry along when the big rigs were too much, there were only a few places they could look for a suitable tool. Canon has had its well-received G-series cameras, Panasonic has come to the game with the LX5, and Samsung has its new EX1. But Nikon is new to the category -- and we'll find out in our review of the Coolpix P7000 if it's viable competition or still too young.
Product Manufacturer: Nikon
- Good low-light shooting.
- Solid 7X lens.
- Optical viewfinder.
- Lots of simple control dials.
- Comfortable in the hand.
- Hot shoe and lens adapter support.
- Reasonably good 720p video.
- Horizon level.
- Occasionally difficult menu system.
- No swivelling LCD.
- Needed to do more to stand out.
- No built-in, wired commander mode.
- Dodgy camera strap.
Design and controls
We've been here before. The P7000 is one of the new breed of retro-styled point and shoot digital cameras that bears a passing resemblance to such 35mm film classics as Leica M-series cameras, as well as recent examples by Contax. Continuing in that classic vein, the P7000 is one of a dwindling number of digicams that still have an optical viewfinder that zooms just as the 6.0mm to 42.6mm lens (a 35mm equivalent of 28 to 200mm) does. This is in addition to the three-inch, non-articulated monitor on the back of the camera.
The build quality is excellent; although it's a compact, its combination of metal, plastic and rubber is reassuring. So is the design, which like its rivals focuses on quick access to common settings. From the top view, left to right, is a Quick Menu dial that controls ISO sensitivity, white balance, image quality, bracketing, histogram and My Menu (user preferences).
A hot shoe is next, with dedicated circuitry for Nikon SB-series strobes. Unfortunately, there is no commander mode as found in the higher-end DSLRs from Nikon, unless you use the Wireless Speedlight Commander SU-800, or the Speedlight SB900 in commander mode. We would have loved the built-in flash on the camera more if it was commander-capable, as are the built-in Speedlights found on the big brother D700, D300s, and D90. That said, it's not in their price classes.
Next is the mode dial, which offers the usual PASM (program, aperture priority, shutter priority, manual) as well as video, full automatic, and a fairly broad choice of three user-controlled settings. The scene setting allows for 18 different shooting situations that are accessed through the menu on the monitor.
To the right, over the mode dial, is the shutter release button with concentric zoom ring the works with your index finger. Directly below it is the camera's on/off button, which blinks green after a period of inactivity. To the right of the shutter release button is the AV/TV button, which controls command dial functions. Directly below that button is an exposure compensation dial that also doubles as the previously mentioned command dial.
The semi-pro nature of the camera gives it a distinct edge for veterans using it as a sidearm. If you are familiar with any of Nikon's DSLR cameras, you'll be up and running in no time with the P7000. On the far left corner is a microphone input for video shooting. The camera back is dominated by a three-inch diagonal monitor and rotary multi-selector dial. We were chuffed over the size and resolution of the monitor, but disappointed that it wasn't of the articulated variety like on the Canon G12. But, unless you have been living under a rock since the days of glass plates negatives, you won't have a problem navigating the by-now standard icons that signify self-timer, electronic flash, macro, menu and trashcan settings.
On both sides of the camera are "big-boy" camera strap lugs for the enclosed Coolpix-branded camera strap. For years now, Nikon has enclosed the worst possible example of a camera strap throughout their line of cameras that offer no grip or security to protect them from accidental dropping. With the enclosed strap, we had numerous situations where it dropped and was only saved by catching in the crook of the arm. We wish Nikon would finally get out of the strap business and enclose a high-quality, secure strap like the Domke Gripper strap or the UPstrap, whose pad is embedded with tiny rubber grippers to prevent a camera from dropping, regardless of the angle.
On the front of the camera is a function button, which allows you to vary the camera's capabilities while pushing the button. A lens ring release button is on the lower right-hand side of the lens to add an optional wide-angle lens converter.
Image quality and in-the-field shooting
Less is more. Like its Canon rival, the G12, which shrunk its pixel count from 14 megapixels to 10, the P7000 has reduced its count from 13.5 megapixels as found in the P6000 to the 10 seen here. The end result is a sensitivity from ISO 100 to 6400 with a cleaner image and less noise, thanks in part to Nikon's Expeed C2 image processor. Video functions on the P7000 allows shooting in 720p, which is all well and good, the P7000's lateness to the arena made us wonder why it wasn't already at 1080p. It's at least competitive with the G12, however, and it will still suffice for many years.
The 28-200 mm zoom carries a variable aperture from 2.8 to 5.6. That's roughly a seven times zoom range and wide enough to allow for both macros and some deliberate shallow depth of field effects when sufficiently close. As you might hope for in a camera in this class, the P7000 also has hardware image stabilization, which will let you hold the camera steadier as the lighting becomes more challenging. We were largely impressed with the camera's light reception, where it could capture an urban landscape at night without excessive noise or blown-out city lights.
The P7000 is equipped with Nikon's smart portrait system, and with it comes face detection, skin softening, and a smile timer; we suspect most of the target market for the P7000 will never use these, but they're useful if you still end up snapping a large number of tourist photos. The smile timer watches for smiling faces before shooting the picture and a blink warning to tell you when uncle Fred had his eyes closed. Another slicker feature, especially useful for photographers who suffer from lopsidedness after carrying camera bags for years and years, is a virtual horizon indicator which lets said photog know when the camera is sloping away from the true horizon line. It came in handy several times during our test, and it's something that even some entry DSLRs still lack.
The quick menu dial on the camera's upper left hand bout allows for fine-tuning and quick changes between settings. Or so the P7000 manual states. In reality, it requires you to dig deeper into the menu's path to change an item, when what you really want to do is shoot a picture. It's one of the few drawbacks in day-to-day shooting that we noticed.
The camera feels really good in your hand, and Nikon designers should be proud of their ergonomic prowess. If their counterparts in the software department could up their game, we'd really be talking. Basic shooting functions on the P7000 are solid with controls placed logically and falling right where fingers would touch them. Continuous shooting speeds topped out at 1.36 frames per second, which would be less than adequate if you were trying to photograph a fast-moving object or even a fast-moving child. It is adequate, however, for portraits and other general photography; we caught some fast-moving players at a Miami Heat game, helped by relatively good shutter speeds, if also some high ISO that introduced noise and a loss of detail.
While the P7000 is not the quickest piece of hardware on the track, it is still a prime performer. In short, image quality is superb due to a combination of Nikon optics, sensor quality and good genes. With ED (Nikon's Extra Low Dispersion) glass making up a portion of the optical path, sharpness is better than most. If you are used to Nikon's full size DSLR cameras, you might be disappointed by the seeming preponderance of red/magenta in some of the images, though. Easily corrected in Photoshop or iPhoto, it's a minor issue that some may not even notice.
And of course, the 28-200mm effective range means it's more useful than the G12 in distance conditions: we could shoot a photo of the opposite end of the street where a G12 would have stopped roughly two thirds of the way through. Sharpness is good throughout most of the range, but softness does invariably creep in when a user opts to extend to the interpolated (digital zoom) length of 300mm.
Video quality is good with a minimal amount of the "leaning tower of Jell-o" syndrome. But it does suffer from the same malady that causes jittery videos in almost every other camera with a large monitor used as the primary viewfinder: namely, the need to hold the camera at arm's length triggers shakes while trying to pan with a subject during video imaging. There is no way video will be sharp or vibration-free with the current group of vibration reduction systems, although here it was usable.
Nikon's changes in the P7000 have transformed the top of the Coolpix range and given it credibility. The cleaner output, 7X lens and general attention to control are all great improvements over the P6000 introduced just last year. If you're weighing it against the G12 or LX5, it's a potentially more flexible camera, especially if the alternative for similar range would be either a step down (to an amateur superzoom) or an expensive step up (to a mirrorless interchangeable or a DSLR).
As good as it is, it might not be enough. Besting its competition in some categories, it tends to take a step backwards in others. The fixed-in-place screen, occasionally obtuse menu system, and general lack of significant advancements beyond the rest of the pack make it difficult to stand out. With versions of the benchmark Canon G12 available for nearly the past eight years starting with the G7, we're surprised at some of the P7000's shortcomings; Nikon had time to see what worked and what didn't.
Still, for what's effectively a first generation camera, the P7000 is a good entry and still a reliable option. If you're a Nikon loyalist, this is certainly your ideal compact camera. But if it's strictly a luxury or you're upgrading from an earlier camera in a similar class, you may want to see what the P7000's sequel brings.