DigitalCameraReview.com
Nikon Coolpix P80 Review
by J. Keenan -  6/29/2008

When digital imaging first came into being as a viable consumer technology, I was firmly ensconced in the "death before digital" camp. At some point curiosity got the better of me and a Sony Mavica F717 came on board, followed later by a Nikon Coolpix 5400. Considering that I had a closet full of Nikkor lenses for my three film SLRs, going DSLR was a no-brainer, but even so, the compact digital still held some allure as a light and easily portable alternative. Around 2004 Nikon introduced the Coolpix 8800, and it seemed the perfect compact camera: a magnesium-alloy body, stabilized 10x ED glass zoom lens covering the 35 to 350mm range, and JPEG and RAW shooting options. Shutter lag proved disappointingly slow, but even with that most noticeable wart, the 8800 remained my favorite Nikon compact until the Nikon Coolpix P80 arrived.

Nikon Coolpix P80


Right out of the box for our "First Impressions" piece the P80 looked promising: image and color quality are good and Nikon has left out the pokey shutter of the 8800. Several weeks have passed and the P80 has been exposed to a more extensive shooting profile – has it been able to sustain those initial high hopes? Read on and find out.

FEATURES OVERVIEW
FORM, FIT, AND FEEL
PERFORMANCE
IMAGE QUALITY
CONCLUSIONS
SPECIFICATIONS

FEATURES OVERVIEW

The P80 features a current-generation EXPEED processor and 10 megapixel sensor, but the star of the show has to be the 18X optically stabilized zoom lens that covers the 35mm equivalent focal range of 27 to 486mm. Here's what that big focal range can do in the real world:

Nikon Coolpix P80
Wide Angle
Nikon Coolpix P80
Telephoto

There's also a 2.7-inch LCD monitor and viewfinder, full manual controls to complement the automatic and scene shooting options, automatic in-camera red-eye fix, face detection technology, and the handy D-Lighting shadow/highlight adjustment tool. D-Lighting, which can be applied post-shot, adjusts shadows and highlights, producing a more balanced, pleasing image in high-contrast situations, especially. Here's an example of D-Lighting at work:

Nikon Coolpix P80
Original
Nikon Coolpix P80
With D-Lighting

ISO sensitivities range from 64 to 6400 (with 3200 and 6400 at a much reduced resolution). The camera has about 50MB of internal memory and accepts SD/SDHC memory media. Nikon includes a battery and charger, camera strap, lens cap and cord, USB and A/V cables, user's manual, quick start guide, and CD/ROM software with each camera.

There are eight primary shooting modes:

For a detailed listing of specifications and features, please refer to the specifications table found at the bottom of the review.


FORM, FIT, AND FEEL

The P80 is laid out in the "mini DSLR" configuration that seems to be in vogue with most ultrazooms right now.

Styling and Build Quality

The camera is compact and light as far as super zooms go – Nikon claims it's the most compact of any ultrazoom with an 18x lens as of March 18, 2008.

Nikon Coolpix P80

The plastics used in construction of the body are fairly plain, but the camera seems well built otherwise.

Nikon Coolpix P80

The P80 won't fit in a shirt pocket, but a coat pocket or small purse/fannypack is more than enough.

Ergonomics and Interface

Given the camera's compact size, it's no surprise the little finger of my right hand has nothing to do or hold on to during shooting sessions. However, the ring and forefingers have a deeply sculpted handgrip of tacky material to curl around and grip, and the index finger falls naturally to the shutter button.

Nikon Coolpix P80

At the back of the camera, a patch of tacky material is positioned perfectly for a thumb rest. Controls are well spaced, but changes to major shooting settings such as ISO, white balance, image quality, etc., required going to the internal menu, which proved readily accessible and quite intuitive.

Display/Viewfinder

The 2.7-inch LCD monitor is composed of around 230,000 dots and is adjustable for five settings of brightness. It can be difficult to use in bright outdoor conditions, particularly if smudged. The monitor offers about 97 percent coverage in shooting mode, and 100 percent for playback.

Nikon Coolpix P80

The P80's electronic viewfinder features a diopter for eyesight adjustment, and 97 percent shooting coverage/100 percent playback coverage. A dedicated button on the back of the P80 provides for switching between the two display options.


PERFORMANCE

The P80 produced mixed results in the performance arena, primarily in the speed with which it performed certain functions.

Timings and Shutter Lag

You won't win any quick draw contests with the P80 – it takes about two seconds for the camera to power up using the monitor (and a snail-like six seconds if you're using the viewfinder), and acquisition of focus in good lighting conditions takes about 0.8 seconds. Single shot-to-shot times (shoot, write, re-acquire focus, shoot) ran about three seconds with both a standard SanDisk card and a San Disk Extreme III.

The P80 offers a continuous shooting capability by means of the "sport continuous" mode, and there are four shooting rates available: 1.1 fps for nine shots at full resolution and normal image quality, and 4, 6, or 13 fps for 30 shots at 3 megapixel resolution and normal quality. You can specify basic or fine quality as well, and while the shooting rate remains the same you'll get fewer shots with fine and more with basic quality levels before the buffer becomes saturated.

Shooting in the full resolution continuous mode can be challenging because there's a split second blackout (both monitor and viewfinder) between shots, and tracking moving subjects becomes somewhat of an exercise in anticipation of where they'll be next. The high-speed modes have minimal to no blackout. Whether using full-res or high-speed, continuous shooting applies focus and exposure from the initial shot of any sequence to all subsequent shots in the sequence

Continuous shooting modes can also be accessed via internal menu in P, A, S, and M modes – the 1.1 fps continuous rate is available, as are best shot selector, multi-shot 16, and interval shooting options.

Shooting in continuous mode (fine quality images) with the Extreme III produced six shots in 6.3 seconds before the buffer paused to make some room. The same six shots took about 6.45 seconds with the standard card. After the camera paused for the buffer, another shot could be taken in 2.2 seconds using both the standard and Extreme III cards: the P80 doesn't seem to wait to entirely clear the buffer at the full resolution rate before becoming shootable again – it lets you go as soon as there's room in the buffer. If you go to any of the high speed modes (4, 6, 13 fps) and fill the buffer, however, the camera won't shoot again until the buffer clears completely. This took about eight seconds with either the standard or Extreme III cards.

Shutter lag was pretty good – averaging around 0.05 to 0.06 seconds. The P80 throws you a curve with the shutter, though, in that it seems slower than it actually proves to be when you check it with a timer. When you go full-press on the shutter, the camera starts making the capture, and then produces the shutter sound – it's that delay between the press and the sound that seems to trick the senses into thinking things aren't progressing as quickly as they actually are.

Lens and Zoom

The P80 lens features a maximum aperture range of f/2.8 to 4.5, making it fairly fast across the board.

Nikon Coolpix P80

To look at it another way, Nikon's stabilized 500mm lens for its SLR/DSLR cameras has a maximum aperture of f/4, so the 486mm equivalent of the P80 doesn't give up too much speed to its big brother (which can be yours for only about $7500 more than a complete P80).

Nikon Coolpix P80

Auto Focus

There are face priority, auto, manual, and center AF area modes available, and my preference was for center since it allowed me to designate the point of focus in any particular image. AF times tended to fall into the 0.8 second range in good light at both wide and telephoto settings, but the telephoto end would sometimes need a second or third half-press to correctly acquire. It almost seemed as if the lens at telephoto was covering such a small area that using the single center point would sometimes not produce enough contrast for the AF to lock. The auto option seemed to diminish this tendency, since it allowed the camera to hunt across the screen for an area in which to acquire focus. If you're shooting a general scene where point of focus doesn't need to be precise, auto AF area mode might be the way to go.

The camera has an LED AF assist illuminator to help with dim light, but AF times predictably lengthen under those circumstances, particularly with the lens zoomed towards the telephoto end of the spectrum. The AF assist illuminator has a maximum effective range of about 9.5 feet at wide angle, and just over six feet at telephoto.

Flash

The P80 flash range is listed as 28 feet at wide angle, and 18 feet at telephoto. Flash performance was good, producing accurate colors in images.

Nikon Coolpix P80

Recycle times seemed to be in the two to four second range with partial discharges, and as long as seven to eight seconds with full discharges. The difficulty in timing the cycles more precisely arises because the camera doesn't display an ongoing status light for the flash – you get an indicator of flash status with a half-press of the shutter button, but if the status indicates "charging" (a blinking light) and you keep the shutter half pushed, the camera won't update the "charging" status until you release the shutter and go back to another half push.

Nikon Coolpix P80

 

Image Stabilization

Optical image stabilization (Nikon calls it VR – Vibration Reduction) is on by default for still images but may be disabled via internal menu, which is recommended if the camera is mounted on a tripod. VR in Nikon lenses is typically credited with as much as a three-stop improvement in shooting speed, but Nikon doesn't specifically address this issue with the P80's supporting documents.

Traditionally, the term "optical image stabilization" has tended to describe systems where lens elements are moved to counter camera movement and help produce sharper images. By contrast, "mechanical stabilization" is the term generally applied to systems that move the camera sensor to achieve the same result. Nikon calls the system in the P80 "optical," but in the days leading up to the camera's introduction there was conflicting information on the Nikon Japan and USA websites: Japan mentioned "sensor shift" stabilization while the USA site said "optical," which now appears to be the official description on both sites.

There is also "electronic VR" (eVR) for use with movie modes other than time lapse, but Nikon doesn't say much about this VR either. However, in reviewing the Nikon S210 a few months ago, I also came across eVR. DCR.com editor David Rasnake had to go directly to Nikon on that one, and here's what he found:

"Nikon's ‘eVR' applies specific movement data to image processing algorithms during processing to turn blurred images into beautifully clear results." Or, as David explains in language even I can understand, "Basically, it's using a gyro (like a traditional mechanical system) to get motion data, and then applying a sharpening algorithm to compensate."

I'd bet the eVR in the P80 is something similar.

Battery Life

Nikon rates the P80's rechargeable lithium-ion battery for about 250 shots, and that's in the ballpark with the performance I observed.

Nikon Coolpix P80

Since a fully depleted P80 battery takes about two hours to fully charge, you'll want to have a spare or two on hand for all-day shooting sessions.


IMAGE QUALITY

Image quality is one of the P80's stronger points.

Nikon Coolpix P80 Nikon Coolpix P80
Nikon Coolpix P80 Nikon Coolpix P80

Default images out of the P80 were good, with accurate color and generally pleasing sharpness, particularly if you were able to fill the frame with the subject. The automatic and scene shooting options allow anyone to pick up the camera and just shoot with the expectation of getting back nice images with most subjects, yet the camera offers a nice range of image adjustments to users who are able to make use of the manual shooting modes (P, A, S, M).

Exposure, Processing and Color

When I shot the P80 briefly for the "First Impressions" piece, surf shots under cloudy conditions looked promising in that detail in the white water portions of the waves seemed to be retained better than in earlier cameras. With more extensive shooting in sunlit conditions, the camera seems to behave more like earlier (and most) cameras, tending to lose highlights in the admittedly difficult bright and high contrast white water/dark water shots. The camera does a better job with more evenly lit and average subjects/scenes.

The EXPEED processor seems to have improved the dynamic range of the new Nikon DSLRs, but I can't say the same for the P80 – it looks more traditional in performance in this regard. Fortunately, the P80's manual controls allow the user to overcome high contrast problems: in the photos that follow, the boat was shot in "sports" scene mode and lost highlights in the bow wave and wake; the surfer was shot in aperture priority with one stop underexposure.

Nikon Coolpix P80
Sports scene preset
Nikon Coolpix P80
Aperture Priority mode

While the camera offers very little leeway for user inputs during auto and any of the scene shooting modes, there is a nice range of adjustments available for users shooting in P, A, S, or M modes. These include image color, contrast, saturation and sharpness as well as an option to shoot simultaneous color and black and white images. If you don't like the default images out of the P80, there's a pretty good chance you can come up with a combination of settings to produce images that suit your fancy if you're willing to use the manual control modes.

Here are shots using the Normal (default) color mode, then Vivid, and More Vivid.

Nikon Coolpix P80
Normal
Nikon Coolpix P80
Vivid
Nikon Coolpix P80
More Vivid

Next, Normal color mode again, along with Normal with enhanced saturation, Normal with high contrast, Normal with high sharpening, and finally Normal with all three values at maximum.

Nikon Coolpix P80
Normal
Nikon Coolpix P80
Normal, maximum saturation
Nikon Coolpix P80
Normal, maximum contrast
Nikon Coolpix P80
Normal, maximum sharpening
Nikon Coolpix P80
Normal, maximum saturation, contrast, and sharpening

Finally, here's the simultaneous B&W/color option.

Nikon Coolpix P80 Nikon Coolpix P80

White Balance

Auto white balance was used for the majority of shots in this review and worked well with flash, cloudy and direct sunlight; predictably, auto shot quite warm with incandescent light. Daylight, cloudy, flash and incandescent settings were also quite accurate in their specific roles, and the P80 allows for a custom WB setting as well.

Lens Faults

There is some barrel distortion (straight lines bow out from center of image) present at the wide end of the lens, and a slight bit of pincushioning at the telephoto end. The pincushioning is fairly difficult to notice unless the shot happens to be of an ocean horizon or some other frame-wide line, and even then the curvature is slight. Chromatic aberration (purple fringing) is present at the telephoto end, but is generally fairly minor and primarily of concern with large images or severe cropping. There is some slight edge and corner softness to the lens that can be easily overlooked in most images, and overall performance is good, especially considering the focal range provided.

The P80 has a "distortion control" feature that causes "distortion at frame peripheries" to be "corrected." Here are shots of the wall that illustrate some barrel distortion without and with distortion control applied.

Nikon Coolpix P80
Wide-Angle, Distortion Correction Off
Nikon Coolpix P80
Wide-Angle, Distortion Correction On

Sensitivity and Noise

The P80 has a full resolution ISO range of 64 to 2000, with ISO 3200 and 6400 available as 3 megapixel captures.

With a 10.1 MP sensor of the 1/2.33" size, high ISO performance didn't figure to be out of the ordinary in the P80, but the full sized images looked quite good up to ISO 800, and a quick glance at 1600 and 2000 didn't seem to have them falling too far behind – certainly usable ISO levels if you only need a postcard or 4x6 print and flash is not an option

Crops brought things back into perspective – 64 and 100 are virtually indistinguishable, but things are getting noisier at 200 and 400, and the deterioration accelerates at 800 and again at 1600. Overall, I'd judge the P80 to be about average in the noise department – not a bad thing, but if only Nikon had seen fit to put in a 1/1.6" sensor...

Nikon Coolpix P80
ISO 64
Nikon Coolpix P80
ISO 64, 100% crop
Nikon Coolpix P80
ISO 100
Nikon Coolpix P80
ISO 100, 100% crop
Nikon Coolpix P80
ISO 200
Nikon Coolpix P80
ISO 200, 100% crop
Nikon Coolpix P80
ISO 400
Nikon Coolpix P80
ISO 400, 100% crop
Nikon Coolpix P80
ISO 800
Nikon Coolpix P80
ISO 800, 100% crop
Nikon Coolpix P80
ISO 1600
Nikon Coolpix P80
ISO 1600, 100% crop
Nikon Coolpix P80
ISO 2000
Nikon Coolpix P80
ISO 2000, 100% crop

With so many auto shooting modes that take ISO control out of the user's hands, the manual modes are the way to go if you hope to optimize image quality by staying in the ISO 64 to 100 sensitivity area that is clearly the P80's best performing range.

While we didn't shoot the low resolution ISO sensitivities in the studio, here are "real world" shots at 3200, 6400 and 64 ISO for comparison purposes.

Nikon Coolpix P80
ISO 64
Nikon Coolpix P80
ISO 3200
Nikon Coolpix P80
ISO 6400

Additional Sample Images

Nikon Coolpix P80 Nikon Coolpix P80
Nikon Coolpix P80 Nikon Coolpix P80
Nikon Coolpix P80 Nikon Coolpix P80

CONCLUSIONS

After a brief shooting period with it, the P80 moved to the top spot on my list of favorite Nikon compacts. After some three additional weeks, the P80 still holds down the top spot, but it's not the runaway champion I'd hoped it would be. And in the world of competition with other brands, the P80 established itself as a basically sound ultrazoom, but didn't distinguish itself as the "must have" camera in the class.


Image and color quality are good, as is shutter lag, but AF acquisition times are average at best. ISO performance is typical for most cameras in the class. Continuous shooting rates at full resolution are typical; speedy rates are only available at reduced image sizes. Flash recycle times look to be average to slightly below average for the class.

Camera size and weight are excellent – the P80 will fit (carefully) into a pants pocket, then come out and give the user a 27 to 486mm focal range. That range and the decent shutter response, good image quality and ability to customize camera settings to impact image quality tip the scales in the P80's favor in my book, despite the sometimes iffy AF performance. It's a solid if unspectacular performer, but worthy of consideration if there's a new ultrazoom in your future.

Pros:

Cons:


SPECIFICATIONS: Nikon Coolpix P80

Sensor 10.1 megapixel, 1/2.33" CCD
Lens/Zoom 18x (27-486mm) zoom, f/2.8-4.5
LCD/Viewfinder 2.7", 230K-dot TFT LCD
Sensitivity ISO 64-6400
Shutter Speed Not Specified
Shooting Modes Program, Shutter Priority, Aperture Priority, Manual, Auto, Scene, Movie
Scene Presets Portrait, Night Portrait, Sports, Landscape, Party, Beach/Snow, Sunset, Dusk/Dawn, Night Landscape, Museum, Fireworks Show
White Balance Settings Fluorescent, Incandescent, Flash, White Balance Preset, Auto, Daylight, Cloudy
Metering Modes Not Specified
Focus Modes Face-Priority AF, Multi-Area AF, Contrast AF
Drive Modes Normal, Burst
Flash Modes Slow sync, Red-eye reduction, Redeye reduction with slow sync, Flash cancel/ flash off, Auto, Auto with red-eye reduction, Anytime flash
Self Timer Settings
10 seconds, 2 seconds, Off
Memory Formats SD, SDHC
Internal Memory
50 MB
File Formats JPEG, AVI
Max. Image Size 3648x2736
Max. Video Size
640x480, 30 fps
Zoom During Video No
Battery Rechargeable lithium-ion, 250 shots
Connections USB 2.0, AV output, DC input
Additional Features Vibration Reduction optical image stabilization, D-Lighting, Time Lapse Movie, In-Camera Red-Eye Fix