BUILD AND DESIGN
The G12 and the P7100 not only share very similar specifications, both are chunky and relatively heavy point-and-shoots. The G12 weighs in at 357 grams (12.5 ounces) with battery and SD card while the P7100 weighs in at 395 grams (13.9 ounces) with battery and SD card – so neither is actually pocketable and neither is particularly compact, either.
The P7100 is an attractively understated and fairly inconspicuous compact camera – a well designed, precision built and robustly constructed imaging tool that was obviously designed for photography enthusiasts. The P7100 will function nicely as an auto-mode digicam, but it is really aimed at more serious shooters. The camera looks and feels unapologetically practical and utilitarian, so it doesn’t seem strange that this camera would be built to old-school standards. The metal alloy body feels substantial and well constructed. Weather seals and dust-proofing appear to be consistently first rate.
Everything on the camera appears to have been engineered to stand the test of time with the possible exception of the plastic cover over the battery/memory card compartment. In my opinion the P7100 is tough enough to go just about anywhere – including extreme environments.
Ergonomics and Controls
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. The most glaring omission in the P7100’s amzingly good control array is the absence of a one touch video capture button. Most digicams with a one touch video capture 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 The P7100 eschews this logical ergonomic placement in favor of the now outdated “set the mode dial to video and push to shutter button to start/stop” video capture method. There is room for a one-touch video stop/start button (directly under the exposure compensation dial) and hopefully Nikon will add that control to the P7200.
That single, and minor design misstep is somewhat ameliorated by the P7100’s handgrip – it is a small and fairly shallow grip, but that is more than consumers get with most P&S digicams. 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.
Most point-and-shoots 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 dial on the camera’s top deck that permits immediate adjustments (to incrementally lighten or darken the image) in any shooting mode except full manual. Most digicams bury the exposure compensation function in the menu somewhere or allow indirect access via the compass switch, both of which 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 dial which they can then turn either right (plus) or left (minus) until the lighting is balanced. This is a brilliant design that puts much more 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 their exposure compensation control on the left end of the top deck – which means that the dial 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 from the composition – much better ergonomics. In fact, I like the way Nikon put the P7100’s Quick Menu dial in exactly the same spot on the top deck where the G12 locates the Exposure Compensation dial – much better ergonomics. Here’s another example of the P7100’s dedication to user input – in review mode shooters can crop (using the zoom control 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. In addition Nikon also enlarged the rear command dial and added a new sub-command dial on front of the camera – for adjusting aperture, shutter speed, and other settings.
Menus and Modes
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
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. The P7100’s wide-viewing angle 3.0 inch TFT LCD is super sharp (920,000 pixels), bright, hue accurate, and fluid and 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.
The DCR test lab objectively measures LCD peak brightness and contrast ratios to assist our readers in making more informed digital camera purchasing decisions. A decent LCD contrast ratio should fall somewhere between 500:1 and 800:1. An LCD with a contrast ratio within that range should be bright enough to use the LCD screen for framing and composition in outdoor lighting and it should also provide a better sense of real world colors and contrast than would an LCD screen with a lower contrast ratio. The P7100 puts the needle off the scale with a 1011:1 contrast ratio. Peak brightness for the P7100 (the panel’s output of an all-white screen at full brightness) is 354 nits and on the dark (black level luminance) side the measurement is 0.35 nits – for reference, anything higher than 500 nits is bright enough to be easily seen even under bright outdoor light. The P7100’s default info display provides all the data this camera’s advanced-amateur target audience is likely to need.