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Nikon Coolpix P5100 Review
by Howard Creech -  12/17/2007

For the second half of the twentieth century Nikon was the camera of choice for photojournalists, documentary shooters, and serious amateur photographers. When the digital imaging revolution began, Nikon’s arch-rival Canon embraced the changes in the world of photography while Nikon drug it’s corporate feet a bit. In some important ways, Nikon is still playing catch up.

Nikon Coolpix P5100
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The new Nikon Coolpix P5100 is an update of the popular P5000 and the new flagship of Nikon's compact camera line. Some reviewers have suggested that the P5100 is Nikon’s answer to Canon’s uber-cool G9, but I believe the P5100 was designed to challenge the supremacy of Canon’s very popular “A” series digicams. Like its closest competitor (the Canon Powershot A650 IS), the pocket sized P5100 is meant to be a P&S camera for serious photographers.

NUTS & BOLTS

Sensor

The P5100’s 1/1.72” CCD sensor produces 12.1 megapixel images in 4:3, 3:2, and 16:9 aspect ratios.

Viewfinder/LCD

Unlike many currently available P&S digicams, the P5100 features an optical viewfinder. Optical viewfinders are especially useful when shooting in low/dim or very bright outdoor light. The P5100’s optical viewfinder is tiny, but the view through the tunnel-style eyepiece is sharp, and hue (color) is accurate. The optical viewfinder and the lens are not on the same axis, so parallax error (what you see through the optical viewfinder, up close, won’t be what the camera records) is going to a problem with subjects closer than 4 to 6 feet (1.25 to 2.0 meters).

The P5100’s 2.5 in/6.35 cm (230,000-pixel) LCD screen is a bit shiny surfaced, but screen images are bright, sharp, hue accurate, and fluid. The LCD gains up (brightens) automatically in dim/low light. LCD screen brightness can also be adjusted via the set-up menu. The P5100’s LCD info/status display provides all information the camera’s target audience is likely to need, plus a histogram display and a very useful grid overlay (to help with composition).

Zoom

Nikon has been famous for optics since 1917 and the P5100 doesn’t disappoint in the optical arena – it features an excellent f2.7-f5.3/7.5mm-26.3mm (35mm-123mm equivalent) VR (Vibration Reduction) all glass Nikkor zoom. When the camera is powered up, the zoom telescopes out of the camera body, and when the camera is turned off the lens retracts fully into the camera body (and a built-in lens cover slides into place to protect the zoom's front element). The tiny zoom switch is a bit awkward in use and that makes it more difficult to change zoom settings in precise increments.

The P5100’s zoom is a bit slower in operation than average, but optical performance is noticeably above average. Minimum focusing distance (in macro mode) is 1.6 inches/4.0 centimeters - easily tight enough for striking bugs and flowers shots. Images are hue accurate and slightly oversaturated with virtually no noise in well-lit low ISO scenes. Resolution (sharpness) is very good throughout the zoom's range, but corners are a tiny bit soft. Barrel distortion (straight lines bow out from the center of the frame) at the wide-angle end of the zoom range is slightly above average. Pin-cushion distortion (straight lines bow in toward the center of the frame) at the telephoto end of the zoom's range is completely absent. I didn't notice any vignetting (darkened corners). Chromatic aberration (purple fringing) is very well controlled. The lens barrel trim ring surrounding the zoom can be removed allowing the Nikon Wide Angle Converter (WC-E67) or the Telephoto Converter (TC-E3ED) to be mounted.

Nikon Coolpix P5100 Sample Photos
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The P5100, in macro mode, did a fine job with this very late in the season Buckeye Butterfly (cropped slightly to remove an extraneous detail)

Optical Image Stabilization/Vibration Reduction

The P5100’s Nikkor zoom features a miniaturized version of the VR (Vibration Reduction) optical image stabilization technology used in Nikon’s VR dSLR lenses. The VR system automatically counteracts camera shake by shifting a lens element to compensate for the involuntary movements of the photographer. Camera shake is aggravated by small apertures, long zoom settings, and dim/low lighting. VR allows photographers to shoot at shutter speeds up to three stops slower than would have been possible without Vibration Reducton. For example, if a shutter speed of 1/250th of a second is required to avoid the effects of camera shake (without VR) a digicam with VR can capture a reasonably sharp image of the same subject (everything else being equal) at 1/30th of a second.

Auto Focus (AF)

The P5100's (single/continuous) Contrast Detection AF system is dependably accurate and relatively quick in good lighting, but it does hunt a bit in dim/low light. The P5100’s AF system is fast enough to capture simple action, but it is not quick enough to freeze really high-speed action. The P5100’s AF system provides the following options: Auto AF (the camera selects one of 9 fixed AF points based on closest subject priority), Manual AF (users can move the AF point to any one of 99 areas in the image frame), Center AF (locks focus on the center of the image frame), and Face Priority AF. Shift the P5100 into Portrait Scene mode and Nikon's Face Priority AF function (which finds and locks focus on faces in the image frame) is automatically activated. In Face Priority AF mode the P5100 will track and continually focus on the nearest face(s) in the frame.

Manual Focus (MF)

Yes – distance/scale with focus confirmation

Flash

The P5100’s tiny built-in multi-mode (Auto, Red-Eye Reduction, Fill Flash, Slow Synch, and Off) flash is surprisingly powerful. Nikon claims the maximum flash range (at the wide-angle end of the zoom) is 26 feet/8 meters, but that seems a bit optimistic. Real World (effective) flash range is probably somewhere between 15 feet and 20 feet. Anything beyond 20 feet/6 meters is going to be a pretty dark unless the subject is shot against a very light colored background with lots of ambient lighting.

The flash is on essentially the same plane as the lens, so red-eye is likely to be an issue, but the P5100’s Nikon's Automatic In-Camera Red Eye Fix eliminates or at least ameliorates most red eye problems (In-Camera Red-Eye Fix is automatically activated in the Redeye Reduction flash mode).

Coverage is noticeably uneven up close (especially in macro mode) due to the offset flash position, but coverage at the telephoto end of the zoom is adequate. Flash-lit shots show a very faint (but consistent) warmish cast.

In addition to the built-in flash, the P5100 sports a dedicated hot shoe, allowing users to mount Nikon SB800, SB600, and SB400 speedlites.

Nikon Coolpix P5100 Sample Photos
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This back-lit still life demonstrates nicely just how good the P5100’s built-in flash actually is

Image File Storage/Memory Media

The P5100 saves images to SD/SDHC/MMC memory cards (Nikon doesn't include a starter card). The P5100 also provides users with 52MB of internal image storage.

Image File Format(s)

JPEG

Connectivity

A/V out and USB 2.0HS out

Power

Battery life is occasionally the Achilles' heel of compact and ultra-compact digital cameras. Due to the obvious constraints of miniaturization, tiny cameras require very small batteries, and those smaller batteries simply don’t have the power depth (battery duration) of larger batteries. The P5100 draws its juice from a diminutive Nikon EN-EL5 Rechargeable Li-ion battery. Nikon claims a fully charged EN-EL5 is good for 240 exposures. I didn’t keep track of exposures, but I used the camera through several heavy half-day outings and never ran out of juice. Three-day weekends, mini-vacations, and longer trips will probably necessitate a nightly re-charge. The included Nikon MH-61 charger needs about 2 hours to fully charge the EN-EL5.

EXPOSURE

The P5100 provides users with a flexible and very user-friendly auto exposure system, including - Auto (point & shoot mode) and Program AE (point & shoot mode with user input) and Scene mode (Face-priority AF, Portrait, Landscape, Sports, Night Portrait, Party/Indoor, Beach/Snow, Sunset, Dusk/Dawn, Night Landscape, Close up, Museum, Fireworks show, Copy, Back Light, Panorama Assist, and Voice Recording).

In all scene modes the P5100's CPU automatically optimizes all exposure parameters (aperture, shutter speed, white balance, sensitivity, etc.) for prevailing lighting conditions and the specific scene genre selected. The P5100 produces dependably accurate automatic exposures in most outdoor lighting, but there is a slight tendency toward over exposure and burnt-out highlights.

Nikon Coolpix P5100 Sample Photos
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Note the lack of detail in this Swan’s plumage - this shot nicely illustrates the P5100’s slight (but consistent) tendency to burn out highlights

The P5100 offers more advanced users a comprehensive range of manual exposure options including: Shutter Priority mode - users select the shutter speed (8 seconds to 1/2000th of a second) and the camera selects the appropriate aperture; in shutter priority mode the P5100 only offers the 1/2000th of a second shutter speed at the wide angle end of the zoom setting – at the telephoto end of the zoom range, the top shutter speed is 1/1000th of a second. Aperture Priority mode - users select the aperture (f2.7 - f7.6 at the wide end of the zoom and f5.3 - f7.3 at the telephoto end of the zoom range) and the camera selects the appropriate shutter speed. Last, but certainly not least, is full Manual mode - users select all exposure parameters.

Very light or very dark subjects can often fool digital camera light metering systems into underexposing or overexposing images. The P5100’s Exposure Compensation function allows users to incrementally adjust exposure over a 4 EV range (+/-2 EV in 1/3 EV increments) to compensate for difficult lighting - by quickly and easily lightening or darkening images.

The P5100’s Auto Exposure Bracketing (AEB) mode allows users to capture three images with one press of the shutter button, each at a slightly different exposure setting. One image slightly over the base exposure setting, one image at the camera selected base exposure setting, and one image slightly under the base exposure setting – almost guaranteeing at least one correct exposurer.

Users can also opt for BSS (Best Shot Selector) which automatically selects and saves the sharpest shot from a sequence of 10 exposures, the Hi ISO mode (which automatically increases the sensitivity), or the Anti-Shake mode (which automatically increases sensitivity and boosts shutter speed to counter camera shake).

Movie Mode

The P5100 provides an adequate movie mode – users can record video clips (with monaural audio) at 640x480 @ 30 fps and several lower resolution/slower frame rate options. Some “prosumer” style digicams provide the option to record in HD at a 16:9 aspect ratio for a perfect fit with wide screen monitors – but not the P5100. The zoom is locked at the first frame. WB and Sensitivity are (automatically) set to Auto, and metering is set to Matrix metering. Maximum file size is 4GB.

The P5100 also provides a voice-notation mode so users can add audio notes to their still pictures or use the camera as a digital voice recorder (maximum recording time is 5 hours).

Metering

The P5100 provides three light metering options; the default mode is Nikon's famous 256-segment (multi-pattern) matrix metering. The P5100's Matrix metering mode assesses 256 separate areas in the image frame and then selects the optimum aperture/shutter speed combination. Matrix metering is consistent, accurate, and dependable in most lighting, but like most compact P&S digicams, the P5100 has some dynamic range issues – because the diminutive 1/1.72” CCD can’t capture the full tonal (from pure white to deep black) range. The Matrix Metering system’s evaluative/default metering system is calibrated to preserve shadow detail at the expense of highlight detail, and that built-in exposure bias results in occasional clipping (burnt out highlights).

More advanced users can opt for Center-Weighted Averaging, Spot metering, or Spot AF metering. Center-weighted metering biases exposure on the central area of the image frame (great for landscape and travel images where the subject is likely to be centered). Spot metering reads only a tiny portion of the image at the center of the frame (allowing users to bias exposure on the single most important element in the composition). Spot AF metering is essentially the same as Spot metering, except that the metering spot is linked to the active AF point – to ensure that both focus and exposure are based on the most important element in the composition.

Nikon Coolpix P5100 Sample Photos
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This brightly lit Eliot Porter style intimate landscape shows the P5100’s tendency to clip (overexpose) highlights – note the lack of detail and totally burnt out area of tree trunk at the center-right edge of the image, but the rest of the image is properly exposed

White Balance (WB)

The P5100 provides an adequate selection of WB options. In addition to the regular auto white balance, the P5100 also provides user selected WB pre-sets for daylight, incandescent, fluorescent, cloudy, flash, and a manual setting. The manual WB setting is remembered even after the camera is powered down. The P5100’s WB system is dependably hue accurate, even in tricky lighting.

Nikon Coolpix P5100 Sample Photos
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This auto WB shot of my wife’s collection basket filled with autumn leaves, seed pods, etc. on a bed of Lamb’s Ear nicely illustrates the P5100’s dependably accurate white balance

Sensitivity

The P5100's Sensitivity range is more than adequate for the camera's target audience – TTL Auto plus user selected settings for ISO 64, 100, 200, 400, 800, 1600, and 2000. ISO 3200 is also available, but only at 5 megapixels. Noise in outdoor shots (captured in good light at lower ISO values) is minimal, but noise rises noticeably in higher ISO shots.

In-Camera Image Adjustment

The P5100’s Optimize Image option permits users to adjust sharpness, color, and contrast over a fairly broad range: Sharpening (Auto, Normal, Low, Medium Low, and Medium High), Color Saturation (Auto, Normal, Moderate, Enhanced, and B&W), and Contrast (Auto, Normal, Low, Medium Low, and Medium High).

The P5100’s Exposure Compensation mode permits users to subtly lighten or darken exposures over a 4 EV range (+ /-2 EV) in 1/3 EV increments to compensate for difficult lighting and subject/background reflectance/non-reflectance issues or to compensate for environmental exposure variables.

Nikon’s nifty D-Lighting function can be enabled (post exposure) to enhance shadow detail and lighten darker areas in underexposed images or shots with too much backlighting. The D-lighting copy of the image is saved as a separate image.

DESIGN, CONTROLS, & ERGONOMICS

While the P5100’s basic design, features, and technical specifications may evoke obvious comparisons to Canon's “A” Series digicams, this little Coolpix bears only a vague resemblance to its primary competitor, the Canon Powershot A650 IS.

Nikon Coolpix P5100
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Nikon Coolpix P5100
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The P5100 is an attractive digicam with a traditional “retro” look. It’s compact enough to drop in a jacket pocket or a small purse. The P5100’s magnesium alloy body is lightweight and impressively robust. Ergonomics are good with all controls logically placed and easily accessed. The small rubberized handgrip provides a secure and comfortable hold. My only complaint (ergonomically) is the tiny rocker switch for the zoom – it’s somewhat fiddly and that makes precise zooming more difficult than it should be. Ease of use is impressive: even rank beginners and technophobes will quickly be able to shoot good pictures with the P5100.

Nikon Coolpix P5100
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Nikon Coolpix P5100
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PERFORMANCE

Image Quality

The majority of compact and ultra-compact P&S digicams produce color that is more highly saturated (more intense) than the actual colors seen in the original scene, but the P5100 is an exception. The P5100’s images are closer to neutral (as the colors actually appeared in the original scene) than average, but with hard default contrast. The P5100's color is accurate.

Images are generally very good (up to ISO 400) with impressive sharpness and nicely rendered shadow detail with bright, hue accurate, relatively neutral colors and lots of pop (although some very minor pattern noise is visible). ISO 64-100 images are excellent with very good detail and virtually no noise. ISO 200 images are surprisingly good, essentially the same as lower ISO images. Noise levels rise noticeably at ISO 400 – images are a starting to get a bit flat and some fine detail is lost. Images at ISO 800, 1600, and 2000 images are very noisy and a bit soft looking, but useable in non-critical applications. I didn’t try the ISO 3200 setting.

Indoors, at night, and in dim lighting, image quality is a different story – shots made in dim/low light at higher sensitivities tend to be grainy and flat with murky shadow areas and a complete (or near complete) loss of low contrast detail in hair, fur, feathers, and foliage. P&S digicams as a class don’t do their best work in low light, so this fault isn't unique to the P5100.

Timing/Shutter Lag

The P5100 is slightly slower than average in two key performance areas – auto focus and shutter lag. The P5100’s shutter lag can seem painfully slow (as much as 1 second in decent lighting and even more in dim/low light), which pretty much precludes any serious action shooting. Auto focus times are noticeably slower than average from scratch (up to 1 second from the initial shutter push until focus lock is achieved) even in good light. Shot to shot timing is also slow. Overall, the Nikon Coolpix P5100 is a poor choice for action shooters.

Nikon Coolpix P5100 Sample Photos
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Even with Image Stabilization the P5100’s AF system was too slow to allow me to capture a sharply focused shot of this BMX biker at the peak action moment

A Few Concerns

The P5100’s most egregious shortcoming is its slow performance. Other areas of concern are its tendency to burn out highlights and its poor low light performance.

Who is this Camera best suited for?

The P5100 is a good choice for casual users, weight/size conscious travelers, and those who will be shooting primarily static subjects in outdoor settings.

Conclusions

I was a bit disappointed with the Nikon Coolpix P5100. The camera was obviously designed to compete in a specific digital camera class – hi-res, feature-rich, and capable P&S digicams for photography enthusiasts. The P5100 is very user friendly and it consistently delivers good static images. It's an excellent choice for casual photographers who want a camera that's compact enough to drop in a pocket and take along everywhere they go, tough enough to stand up to the rigors of modern life, and cheap enough to be competitive. The P5100’s tough as nails magnesium alloy body, nifty rubber clad hand-grip, logical control array, optical viewfinder, hot shoe for i-TTL Nikon Speedlights, and superb ergonomics make this camera an outstanding camera choice for casual shooters, but it’s slowness, tendency to clip highlights, and noisy high ISO shots/poor low light performance will hurt its reputation with photography enthusiasts. The P5100’s price and features are clearly competitive with the Canon Powershot A650 IS, but its performance just as clearly isn’t.

Pros:

Cons: