Nikon's current flagship in the digital ultrazoom class is the recently available Coolpix P90, with a 24x optical zoom spanning the 26 to 624mm (35mm equivalent) focal range.
There's mechanical image stabilization for still captures and electronic for movies, a 12.1 megapixel sensor, Nikon's EXPEED processing technology and full manual controls in addition to the usual automatic and scene-specific shooting options. The 3.0 inch LCD monitor is articulated and can rotate through 135 degrees of motion.
Face detection and automatic shooting of smiling faces is available, along with a blink-proof option that takes two shots of smiling faces and then selects one in which the subject's eyes are open. High speed continuous shooting is available at reduced resolution, along with Nikon's D-Lighting feature (as an in-camera setting or in the playback menu for post processing) to enhance brightness and contrast, expanding the camera's apparent dynamic range.
Folks who are considering an ultrazoom and have studied the market might say that there are a bunch of cameras out there that offer similar features, and they'd be right. Technology marches on and it seems everyone is offering face detection this and smile detection that, so for me the critical factors tend to be performance-based: does it focus quickly, shoot quickly, produce good quality images and have ISO performance that at least compares favorably with the norms for the class? Time to pull the P90 out of the box and find out.
BUILD AND DESIGN
The P90 follows the current trend in ultrazoom design, resembling a mini DSLR in size and basic control layout. The matte black composite body features a narrow band of metal on the lens barrel and appears well built. There is a bit of play in the lens both stored and across the range of focal lengths to fully extended (telephoto), but the small shake associated with this is less than I found in the Olympus SP-590 (and as with the Olympus does not appear to impact image quality).
The camera accepts SD memory media (Nikon has tested and approved cards from SanDisk, Panasonic, Toshiba and Lexar) and has about 47MB of internal memory. Nikon includes a lithium ion battery and charger, USB and AV cables, lens cap and attachment cord, neck strap and CD-ROM software with each camera.
Ergonomics and Controls
The body has a deeply sculpted handgrip with a nicely tacky rubber-like material that wraps around it - another patch of the same material covers the thumb rest area on the camera back. There is good clearance between the grip and the lens barrel, but folks with really large fingers may find a bit of a tight squeeze. The shooting finger falls naturally onto the shutter button and control placement will insure that any accidental activations are few and far between.
The control layout is straightforward and logical, with the on-off, shutter button, lens zoom control and mode dial located atop the camera body near the shooting finger and the command dial, monitor, display, delete, menu and playback buttons on the camera back and mostly easily accessible by the shooting thumb.
While most cameras that extend the lens on power up will send a lens cap flying, the P90 detects the presence of the lens cap and instead of deploying the lens gives you a "lens error" message directing you to shut off the camera, remove the lens cap and try again.
Menus and Modes
Menu selection in the P90 was simple and intuitive - a push of the menu button brings up available menus which can then be scrolled to display and select specific items. Post processing tools include D-Lighting, quick retouch, rotate image, small picture, black border and others. Automatic in-camera red eye correction is employed whenever flash with "red eye reduction" is selected, but there is no post-processing tool for any red eye that slips past the automatic feature.
Shooting modes are typical for this class of camera:
The 3.0 inch monitor is of about 230,000 dot composition and adjustable for five steps of brightness. This monitor proved to be one of the better ones I've encountered on a compact digital in bright outdoor conditions for image composition and capture - if the standard position wasn't workable, tilting the monitor almost always helped. I still prefer viewfinders, but if you have to go with a monitor this one is at or near the top of the list.
And speaking of viewfinders, the P90's 0.24 inch model is also about 230,000 dot composition with a diopter adjustment for various eyesight levels. Both monitor and viewfinder offer about 97% coverage in capture mode and about 100% in playback mode.
The Nikon Coolpix P90 arrived at my house barely 48 hours before the wife and I started the drive to Alaska and back that will find us on the road for some 35 days. With all the last minute "make sure we haven't forgotten anything" going on I barely had time to make the product shots and take a few captures with the P90 before it disappeared into the bag. But some things I saw from the camera in that brief shoot were enough to get me excited about taking this ultrazoom up north. There's a lot of shooting yet to be done before the final verdict on the P90 can be rendered, but things are looking promising.
The P90 powers up fairly quickly, presenting a focus point in about 1.75 seconds. I was able to get off a single shot in about 2.75 seconds from power up. Single shot-to-shot times ran about 2.0 seconds (shoot, write, reacquire focus and shoot). The camera took 14 full resolution shots in about 10.0 seconds for an approximately 1.4 fps rate - focus, exposure and WB are set for the first shot of the sequence and applied to all subsequent shots. As mentioned earlier, up to 15 fps is available at 3 megapixel resolution with the continuous sport shooting mode.
While we're on the subject of shooting rates, the P90 has a "Best Shot Selector" continuous shooting setting that can come in handy when hand-holding the camera with the lens toward the telephoto end of the zoom. BSS takes up to 10 shots (at about the 1.4fps rate) and then selects and saves only the sharpest one.
Camera shake is a major culprit in impacting image sharpness and even stabilization can only do so much - it's not easy to hand-hold any camera steady with a 600mm lens focal length, even a light and compact ultrazoom. Veteran DSLR shooters will often shoot a burst of moving subjects or subjects in conditions where lens shake may be a problem as a means to get at least one sharp shot - BSS lets you do the same and even saves you the work of picking the good one.
Shutter Lag (press-to-capture, pre-focused)
|Kodak EasyShare Z980
|Nikon Coolpix P90
|Olympus SP-590 UZ||0.03|
|Canon PowerShot SX200 IS||0.03|
|Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS3||0.05|
AF Acquisition (press-to-capture, no pre-focus)
|Canon PowerShot SX200 IS||0.48|
|Nikon Coolpix P90
|Olympus SP-590 UZ
|Kodak EasyShare Z980||0.61|
|Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS3||0.68|
|Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS3
|Nikon Coolpix P90
|Kodak EasyShare Z980
|Olympus SP-590 UZ
|Canon PowerShot SX200 IS
* Note: Continuous shooting framerates are based on the camera's fastest full-resolution JPEG continuous shooting mode, using the fastest media type available (300x CF, SDHC, etc.). "Frames" notes the number of captures recorded per burst before the camera stops/slows to clear the buffer.
Press to capture and shutter lag times are good, 0.56 seconds and 0.03 seconds respectively. Focus acquisition was very good with the P90 in good conditions, even at the telephoto end. Performance in dim conditions was average compared to other cameras in this class that I've reviewed - there is a focus assist lamp with a range of 13 feet at wide angle and about 7 feet at telephoto.
Flash performance was good overall, although precise recycle times are a bit hard to measure - the P90 displays the flash recycle status as a blinking red dot for recharging and a solid red dot for fully charged, but you have to go half push on the shutter button to display the dot. If you catch the camera recharging (blinking dot) and hold the half push to wait for the dot to go solid and signify the flash is recharged, the dot will blink as long as you hold the half push. You have to release the half push and initiate another to check the status of the recharge cycle.
In moderate lighting conditions at wide angle the flash was ready again as soon as the camera had displayed the image and returned to the shooting screen - about three seconds. Full discharges seem to take up to six seconds to replenish, and the camera will not allow you to take another shot with flash enabled until the recharge is complete. The flash can range out to 26 feet at auto ISO.
Nikon rates battery life for the Coolpix P90 at 200 shots using CIPA (Camera and Imaging Products Association) standards that usually produce pretty accurate results in my experience (the CIPA standards include normal image quality, zoom adjustment with each shot and flash every other shot).
Recharge time on a depleted P90 battery is two hours, so this camera is a good candidate for one or two backup batteries for all day shooting sessions, particularly if you use the monitor for composition. The camera has a full time auto focus feature that may be enabled, but its use results in a steady battery drain and so should only be employed when the default single AF mode does not produce desired results.
The Coolpix P90 lens ranges from a fast f/2.8 maximum aperture at wide angle to f/5 at telephoto - numbers that it shares with the other longest zoom competitors in the class. Here's what the 24x zoom range covers in the real world:
There is some softness in the edges and corners of the lens at both the wide and telephoto ends, some barrel distortion (straight lines bow out from center of image) at wide angle and just a bit of pincushion distortion (straight lines bow in toward center of image) at telephoto.
The camera has a distortion control (DC) setting that may be enabled to correct "distortion at frame peripheries caused by the characteristics of the lens." Nikon advises that enabling distortion control reduces the size of the frame; on these two shots with and without DC the uncontrolled shot came out at 5.43MB while DC enabled produced a 5.20MB file.
Distortion Control On
Distortion Control Off
Chromatic aberration (purple fringing) was present and seemed better controlled at the wide end of the zoom, although sharp analysis of the shots could reveal fringing at 100% enlargements in some cases. The P90 produced some real clunkers at telephoto - the long shot of the eagle in the fir tree shows a lot of purple even at small sizes if you look somewhat critically - and at 100% the effect is obvious. The fir tree shot is admittedly a worst case scenario from a chromatic aberration standpoint, with a relatively dark forested scene being shot against a bright sky background and multitudes of light/dark boundaries with the sky and individual needles on the tree.
Another eagle in a tree against the sky produced similar results in the thinner needle sections of the tree, but on this shot the P90's 12 megapixel sensor comes into play and helps improve the image through cropping - the cropped shot produced a 235 dot per inch file which will still produce a good printed photo while leaving out a good chunk of the purple.
The lens can focus as close as 0.4 inches in macro mode and 5.6 feet at telephoto, which provides a surprising close up ability from afar. The two shots that follow each have the look of a macro shot, but the rose was taken at the telephoto minimum focus distance.
The Nikon Coolpix P90's 640x480 30fps video produced generally good results - the camera microphone is sensitive and will pick up almost any ambient noise, including wind. While the user's manual does not state it, the electronic vibration reduction (stabilization) that may be enabled with video is probably similar to that employed in other Nikon compacts - a gyro or motion sensor detects camera shake and in-camera processing is applied to the images to compensate.
Default images out of the P90 were generally pleasing with regard to color and sharpness; there are vivid and more vivid settings that increase saturation, contrast and sharpness, and the P90 did a good job keeping skin tones in check in these two settings. Softer, sepia and B&W settings are also available.
Back in the shooting performance section I mentioned camera shake being an image killer - here's a brief example of why I'd suggest folks shooting an ultrazoom at the telephoto end a lot consider a lightweight monopod to help steady the shots. These two shots were made with identical camera settings, but one was hand held and the other on a monopod. I took all the time I needed to get a sure hold on both shots before making the capture.
At small sizes both images look pretty good and hard to tell apart, but if you go to 100% enlargement the small details in the monopod shot are clearer. If you don't make prints larger than a postcard or only send stuff on the internet, either way will work - if you get the shot of a lifetime and want it really big, the monopod gives you a better chance for the best quality. The shots in this review are a mix of hand held and monopod.
Auto white balance worked well on most light sources, but predictably shot warm under incandescent light.
Auto White Balance, 3200K Incandescent Light
The Coolpix P90 offers Nikon's matrix metering as the default, with center-weighted, spot and spot AF options available for exposure calculation. Matrix works well in normally lit conditions and usually does pretty well in high contrast scenes, preserving highlights in most cases. The P90 pretty consistently lost highlights in high contrast shots in the manual and program auto modes, but did well in the auto mode.
Normally lit shots were good across the board. Since I really don't like to use auto because it lets the camera determine ISO sensitivity, I'd be very tempted to dial in a bit of underexposure for shooting in manual or program auto modes with the P90 based on what I've seen. Here's a high contrast shot in program auto and again with .3EV underexposure set in the camera.
The P90 breaks no new ground in ISO sensitivity performance, but holds its own against the other members of the class.
ISO 64, 100% crop
ISO 100, 100% crop
ISO 200, 100% crop
ISO 400, 100% crop
ISO 800, 100% crop
ISO 1600, 100% crop
Both 64 and 100 ISO are good and hard to tell apart, with 200 showing a bit of noise but still pretty clean. By 400 ISO performance is slipping a bit more, but to my eye it might be just a tiny bit better than most other cameras in the class. If it is better, it's slight, and not enough to be a deal breaker if you like another product better.
ISO 800 is going downhill noticeably and there's a dramatic deterioration between 800 and 1600. At small sizes, images at all these sensitivities don't look too bad - all in all, a typical ISO performance for cameras of this class.
There are 3200 and 6400 ISO sensitivities available at 3 megapixel resolution, but these are settings of last resort.
Additional Sample Images
Nikon's latest entry in the ultrazoom class is a capable instrument that can stand toe-to-toe with its competitors in most categories. AF acquisition time, shutter lag, image quality, color and ISO performance are all on a par with the other guys. Well, image quality is on a par, up to a point. Our demo P90 produced noticeable chromatic aberration on some telephoto shots under admittedly horrendous conditions. It would have been nice to be able to shoot some other ultrazooms under the same conditions for comparison, but based on this shoot and my experience with other ultrazooms, the Coolpix P90 did a bit worse than average in this particular area.
That's the major blemish that I see with this camera. It seems to lose highlights a bit more than most compact Nikons I've shot in matrix metering mode, but that's an easy situation to adjust. Battery life is on the low side at 200 shots, so backups are a must.
That's about the extent of the bad news with the Coolpix P90. The AF performance in good conditions combined with the minimal shutter lag makes it a responsive camera and perhaps the best suited to try and capture moving subjects in single shot full resolution captures of any ultrazoom I've tested. Overall performance doesn't distance it from the crowd, but it definitely makes buying decisions harder by providing another good performer in the ultrazoom ranks.