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Nikon Coolpix P3 Digital Camera Review
by Ben Stafford -  4/1/2006
Introduction

The Nikon Coolpix P3 was introduced at the end of February of this year. The P3, and it's non-wireless-enabled (wireless-less?) twin, the Coolpix P4 are the latest additions to Nikon's Performance Coolpix line, designated with a "P".

nikon coolpix p3
(view large image)

The 8.1 megapixel Coolpix P3 has a very impressive 2.5 inch LCD and a 3.5x optical zoom. The image quality is top notch, as you would expect from a Nikon. The build quality of the camera is excellent and it has a great set of options for a wide range of users.

Included in the Box

In the box, along with the camera (whew!), you'll find an EN-EL5 lithium-ion battery and charger, USB cable, AV cable, wrist strap, software CD, and user's manual.

Features

Starting at the 10,000 foot view, the Nikon Coolpix shoots at 8.1 megapixels with a 1/1.8 inch sensor. The 3.5x Optical Zoom-Nikkor all glass lens has a 35mm equivalent focal length of 36-126mm. The 2.5" LCD on the P3 is very impressive. Packing in 150K pixels, the LCD is sharp, bright, color correct and fluid. You can adjust the brightness and it does gain up or down depending on lighting conditions.

nikon coolpix p3
(view large image)

The latest cameras from Nikon, including the P3, have the "Nikon Exclusive Feature System" that consists of the In-Camera Red Eye Fix, Face-Priority AF, and D-Lighting. As I'm sure you know what the Red Eye Fix does, I'll skip over that and give a quick explanation of the latter two. Face-Priority AF is activated in the Portrait scene mode. It detects a face in the frame and sets the focus point on that face. The D-Lighting feature allows you to automatically correct lighting issues after you've taken the shot.

Another highlight feature of the P3 is the Vibration Reduction (VR) feature. Vibration Reduction is Nikon's version of image stabilization that is very effective. When the VR is enabled, you can shoot 3 shutter speed stops slower than you would have to without. There are two VR modes on the P3 -- Active and Passive. A Nikon representative explained that Active is most effective for high-frequency vibrations caused my moving cars, trains, etc. The Passive mode can handle "low frequency" movement, like when someone holds the camera in their hands.  Both shots below were taken with a shutter speed of 1/4 second.  The first one was taken with the Vibration Reduction turned off.  The second had VR enabled.

nikon coolpix p3 sample
Vibration Reduction off (view medium image) (view large image)

nikon coolpix p3 sample
Vibration Reduction on (view medium image) (view large image)

The Coolpix P3 is also wireless-enabled and will work on 802.11b and 802.11g networks. For a fuller explanation of the wireless functions, see our review of the Nikon Coolpix P2.

For shooting modes, you have your choice of Automatic, Program Auto, Aperture Priority and Scene modes. Full automatic does everything for you and lets you set the flash mode, focus mode, self-timer (3 sec or 10 sec), and exposure compensation. If you want the next level of control (and access to the Menu), switch the mode dial to "P" for the Program Auto. Here, in addition to what you can control in full automatic, you can set the white balance, ISO, and other settings that you find in the Menu (like metering type, saturation, contrast, etc). The next mode is "A" on the mode dial for aperture priority. The Coolpix P3 allows 10 stops of aperture control, from f/2.8-f/7.6. This mode is really useful when you want more control over your depth of field (see keyboard shots below). The last mode, the Scene mode, lets you choose the scene mode that best matches your scenario, letting the camera decide how to shoot it. Your choices are pretty typical -- Portrait, Sports, Night Portrait, Landscape, Panorama Assist, Night Landscape, Beach/Snow, Sunset, Dusk/Dawn, Fireworks, Backlight, Close Up, Museum, and Copy.


Short depth of field (f/2.7 - focus point on IBM logo) (view medium image) (view large image)


Longer depth of field (f/7.6 - focus point on IBM logo) (view medium image) (view large image)

In addition to using the mode dial to select your shooting mode, Nikon has also decided to use this to access common settings as well (instead of using dedicated buttons like you would find on a digital SLR). There are entries on the mode dial to set image quality/size, ISO, and white balance. Just slide the dial to the setting that you would like to change and then head back to your shooting mode with the new setting (Program Auto and Aperture Priority modes are the only ones that allow you to change white balance and ISO).

While in the Program Auto mode and the Aperture Priority mode, you can access the menu and adjust many settings:

 
Shooting menu as icons                        Shooting menu as text

Other Features/Specs

Design and Build Quality

The Nikon Coolpix P3 is about the size of a thick bi-fold wallet. It's possible to pocket, but it wouldn't really be comfortable there. A little bigger than a lot of cameras on the market, but a nice size for whom I think this camera is made. The person using this camera gets it because they like the wealth of shooting features. These folks also know that they need a camera that is substantial enough to get a nice, stable hand hold. Build quality is excellent -- the camera is solid and doesn't feel cheap. In my opinion, the camera won't win any style awards, but the ergonomics are good and controls are easy to reach.

On the top of the camera, you'll fine the button that toggles through the VR modes (off, Active, Passive), the mode dial, the power button and shutter release. The slightly recessed power button keeps it protected from accidental bumps.

nikon coolpix p3
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The lens of the camera has a built-in cover. Also on the front of the camera, you'll see the flash and the focus assist lamp that helps the camera focus in low light conditions. There is no optical viewfinder on this camera.

On the back of the camera, you'll see the nice 2.5 inch LCD. A horizontally oriented zoom rocker switch provides control over the zoom while capturing and reviewing images. Just below the zoom rocker is the Menu button that provides access to camera settings while in Program Auto, Aperture Priority; to scene modes while in Scene mode, and playback options while you are reviewing images. A 5 way directional pad provides easy access to flash modes, timer modes, focus modes, and exposure compensation. While in Aperture Priority, a click in the "right" direction displays a menu for changing the aperture. At the bottom, there is a button to toggle between playback mode and capture mode; and a delete button.

nikon coolpix p3
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The bottom of the camera has a tripod mount and the access door for the lithium-ion rechargeable battery and SD memory card slot.

nikon coolpix p3
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The right side of the camera (as you're looking towards the back of the camera) has the access door for the USB/AV jack and a place to attach the wriststrap.

The only things on the left side of the camera are the speaker and the WiFi status indicator.

Image Quality and Performance

The Nikon Coolpix P3 is a nice little camera. It offers a lot of advanced features that are very effective and top notch. Usability was good, speed of operation was adequate, focus performance was excellent and zoom performance was excellent. The battery life is my only real complaint with the camera, but I expected so-so performance in a small camera with image stabilization.

Many of the features that make this an "advanced" camera were very handy. I imagine that most people who own this camera will just stay in Program Auto mode. If you need a quick adjustment to exposure or white balance, it's very easy to get to. Since Nikon couldn't very well load up the back of the camera with buttons dedicated to a particular function, they decided to put it on the mode dial. To adjust white balance, ISO, or image quality, it's a simple turn of the dial. If you don't like the dial, you can activate the camera menu with the Menu button.

Another feature that I liked was the ability to set the focus point manually. When the Manual AF area option is enabled, you can use the directional pad to choose your focus point.

Nikon's Vibration Reduction system is very effective. Allowing you to shoot with shutter speeds 3 stops slower than you would normally need. The biggest benefit to this is that you can minimize the use of flash for indoor shots. The natural light always looks better. However, if you have moving subjects, you'll still get blur since your shutter speed is slower.

The zoom performance was good. The camera moved through the zoom range quickly, but also slowly enough to allow good control over the framing.

nikon coolpix p3 sample
Wide angle (view large image)

nikon coolpix p3 sample
Full optical zoom (3.5x) (view large image)

Focus lock was achieved quickly in most cases. The only time that I had difficulty achieving focus was on close range subjects (< 2 feet away) at the full telephoto end of the zoom range. In most cases, this was resolved by turning on the Macro focus mode.

Battery life was not terribly impressive, but still adequate. I did get under 200 shots before the camera shut itself down. Different camera modes will drain the batteries at different levels. If you use Vibration Reduction more, or turn on Continuous AF, you will drain the batteries more quickly.

The Coolpix P3 controlled noise very well. ISO 50, 100, and 200 showed very little noise. At ISO 400, noise was noticeable on the computer screen, but would go unnoticed in even an 8x10 print.

I was very impressed with the image quality. Skin tones looked good and weren't too warm. Exposure was consistently good with the Auto settings and if you don't like them, you can always use the easy-to-access exposure compensation to adjust it to your liking. (By the way, it's important that *you* like the images that are produced by this camera, since the image "quality" can be very subjective.) Chromatic aberration was very well controlled in the high contrast areas in which it's normally seen.

Other Sample Images

nikon coolpix p3 sample
Flash performance was good (view medium image) (view large image)

nikon coolpix p3 sample
Good detail - you could count the blades of grass (view medium image) (view large image)


Macro - closeup of teak table (view medium image) (view large image)


Low or non-existent chromatic aberration in high-contrast areas (view medium image) (view large image)

Conclusion

The Nikon Coolpix P3 is a high-quality 8 megapixel camera targeted at the photographer who wants a bit more control over their shots. Its sister, the Coolpix P4, is identical except that it doesn't have WiFi capability.

Nikon has managed to provide easy access to camera settings by using the mode dial to change ISO, white balance, etc. Keeping them on the mode dial prevents the camera from getting too "buttony" and losing the ease of use for people who want to have simple operation.

My favorite features are the 2.5 inch LCD and the Vibration Reduction. The LCD sports a whopping 150K pixels to provide an accurate representation of the shot. The Vibration Reduction allows for more shots without blur in the available light (without having to resort to using the flash).

The Nikon Coolpix P3 (and P4) is a good choice for people looking to upgrade from their first digital camera and get a camera with more features. It would also make a great choice as a second camera to a more experienced photographer who doesn't want to carry their digital SLR with them.

Pros

Cons