DigitalCameraReview.com
Nikon Coolpix P100 Review
by Jim Keenan -  3/16/2010

Barely a year after introducing the Coolpix P90 superzoom, Nikon is back with another "performance series" big-lens model, the Coolpix P100. Where the P90 (which remains on Nikon's website as of this writing) featured a 24x optical zoom spanning the 26-624mm focal range (35mm film equivalent), the P100 goes to 26x and 26-678mm.

Nikon Coolpix P100


Here's what that focal range looks like:

Nikon Coolpix P100
Wide Angle

Nikon Coolpix P100
Telephoto

The big end of the telephoto can get you close to critters and other subjects that might not ordinarily hang around to let you get in range (or when conditions don't allow you to physically approach) with a standard compact digital. The lizard was on the other side of a fence and Mr. and Mrs. Mallard were back for their fourth or fifth annual spring visit to our backyard pool.

Nikon Coolpix P100

Nikon Coolpix P100

The Nikon Coolpix P100 also gets a drop in resolution to 10.3 megapixels (versus 12.1 megapixels in the P90) on a slightly larger 1/2.3-inch (vs. 1/2.33-inch) sensor. Pixel fans tempted to write off the P100 for lower resolution need to hang in there a bit longer; there's more to the P100 than a little more lens and a little less resolution. The slightly larger sensor is a new backside illumination (BSI) CMOS type and the P100 is the first Nikon Coolpix to incorporate that device. Very generally, BSI involves placing the light sensor for each pixel on the back side of the entire sensor wafer instead of the front side along with other circuitry. Isolating the sensors from the circuitry reportedly increases sensor efficiency (signal to noise ratios) since less light is scattered before reaching the image sensor. Nikon's EXPEED processing technology is onboard as well.

Nikon Coolpix P100

Nikon Coolpix P100

Other improvements to the P100 include doubling resolution on the 3.0-inch LCD monitor to 460,000 dots, a continuous shooting rate of up to 10 frames per second (fps) at full resolution - but sadly for only a portion of that second for still images - and 1080p HD video at 30 fps. There is about 43MB of internal memory and the camera uses SD/SDHC memory media (but is not compatible with MultiMedia Cards). Nikon includes a battery and charger, USB and A/V cables, camera strap, lens cap, and CD-ROM software with each camera.

With the new sensor and lowered resolution suggesting improved noise performance over its P90 sibling, the P100 is off to a good start, at least on paper. Let's see how things go once the shooting begins.


BUILD AND DESIGN
The Nikon P100 follows the virtually standard industry script for the ultrazoom class and is configured as a mini DSLR. Nikon P90 owners will be hard-pressed to tell the two apart; the P100's only
external differences from the earlier model are a stereo microphone atop the viewfinder housing and a movie record button on the camera back. It has a composite body with some strategically positioned tacky material in the handgrip and thumb rest areas. Materials, fit, and finish are typical for the class and price point.

Ergonomics and Controls
The deeply sculpted handgrip portion of the body leaves space from the lens barrel for average size fingers, but folks with big hands may find it snug. The index finger falls naturally to the shutter button and lens zoom control, and spacing/positioning of other controls is unlikely to promote inadvertent activations. The overall control layout is simple and straightforward.

Nikon Coolpix P100 Nikon Coolpix P100

Menus and Modes
There are four major menus accessed via the menu button: shooting, movie, playback and setup. If there aren't images or video captured on either the camera's internal memory or memory media, the playback menu is unavailable. The shooting menu includes settings for most image quality issues (size, white balance, ISO sensitivity), along with camera settings like exposure bracketing, continuous or single shooting rates, noise reduction, AF area and focus modes. The distortion control and active D-lighting features are also located in the shooting menu, and we'll discuss those more depth later in the review.

Like other cameras of this class, shooting modes have a heavy emphasis on automatic and pre-programmed scene modes. Aperture, shutter, program auto and manual exposure options favored by more experienced users are also in the mix. Additionally, the P100 has a few interesting modes you don't see often: subject tracking, sport continuous and backlit scene HDR.

Display/Viewfinder
The 3.0-inch LCD monitor has been upgraded to a 460,000 dot composition and is adjustable for five levels of brightness. It can be articulated to about 160 degrees of motion along its horizontal axis when positioned away the camera body. At times, the monitor was difficult to use in bright outdoor conditions for image capture or review depending on sun location and reflections. But the ability to move the monitor helped minimize these occasions. Coverage is about 97% for image capture and 100% for playback.
Nikon Coolpix P100 Nikon Coolpix P100

The electronic viewfinder has 230,000 dot composition and offers diopter adjustment for eyesight variations. Coverage is about 97% for capture and 100% for playback.

PERFORMANCE
The U.S. Navy's Los Angeles class attack submarines are known as "688" boats, but the final 23 hulls had improved noise and combat capabilities so that they are referred to as the "688i" (for improved) class. Maybe Nikon should have named the P100 the "P90i" since the camera provided some pleasant improvements over its look-alike predecessor in many areas.

Shooting Performance
Start-up time for the P100 ran about 1.75 seconds to display a focus icon, with a first shot going off in about 2.6 seconds.
Single shot-to-shot times were one of the few areas that the P100 didn't do better than the P90: 2.75 second times were about 0.75 second slower than the older camera. Shutter lag was an excellent 0.01 seconds and AF acquisition time was also speedier at 0.44 seconds in good conditions. The P100 has an AF assist illuminator with a range of about 32 feet at wide angle and 11 feet at telephoto, and the camera did a decent job of acquiring focus in dim light. Overall, it has very good shutter and AF performance; the P100 focuses quickly and takes the shot with your direction.

Shutter Lag (press-to-capture, pre-focused)

Camera Time (seconds)
Nikon Coolpix P100 0.01
Canon PowerShot SX20 IS 0.02
Casio Exilim EX-FH20 0.02
Olympus SP-590 UZ 0.03

AF Acquisition (press-to-capture, no pre-focus)

Camera Time (seconds)
Canon PowerShot SX20 IS 0.4
Nikon Coolpix P100 0.44
Olympus SP-590 UZ 0.57
Casio Exilim EX-FH20 0.59

Continuous Shooting

Camera Frames Framerate*
Casio Exilim EX-FH20 40 30 fps†
Nikon Coolpix P100 6 11.3 fps
Olympus SP-590 UZ 4 1.2 fps
Canon PowerShot SX20 IS 1.1 fps

* 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.

† Note: The Casio Exilim FH20 has no continuous shooting capabilities at full resolution (9 megapixels). It is, however, capable of shooting at 30 fps at a slightly reduced 8 megapixels. Given this relatively high resolution, we have included the FH20's continuous shooting numbers in our comparison.

Continuous high speed shooting came to more than 11 fps, better than promised by Nikon, but with the caveat that you only get about a half second (6 frames) at this speed before the buffer gets full. Continuous low speed can capture "up to" 200 images at about 2.8 fps with normal image quality; I gave up at 35 with the camera still going strong.

The P100 offers what Nikon calls a "5-way VR image stabilization system" (VR being "vibration reduction"):

Let's look closer at these options and see what each can do for us. Optical is good to have, one of the classic means to stabilize images. Hybrid is OK too, and according to Nikon, its eVR system ".... applies specific movement data to image processing algorithms during processing to turn blurred images into beautifully clear results." Or, as former DCR.com editor David Rasnake once explained 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."

However, motion detection is not on the list of methods I'd like to use. The camera is free to ramp up ISO, so noise levels can come into play in a fashion I'm not willing to accept.

High ISO sensitivity is largely the same issue due to noise concerns, but there are ways around it. BSS is another positive since it functions in the P, A, S, M modes where the user controls most aspects of image capture.

The best part of the P100's stabilization system is that Nikon gives the user the means to enable some, all or none of the features. Optical, hybrid or neither can be selected for still image capture, and eVR can be enabled or disabled for movies. Motion detection may be enabled or disabled, and the user can set any ISO when shooting in P, A, S or M modes. BSS is another option where the user retains input over ISO sensitivity.

Nikon rates the P100 flash for a range of up to 32 feet at wide angle and a bit over 8 at telephoto, but the distances were achieved with ISO set to auto; setting a fixed ISO in lower sensitivities that promote better noise performance will cut into those distances. The flash must be deployed manually and flash settings cannot be adjusted with the flash in the closed position. Nikon doesn't list a flash recycle time, but shots made in moderate light with a fully charged battery recycled in the high 3 to low 4 second range while shots designed to produce a full discharge (f/8, telephoto in a pitch black garage) took about 5.5 to 6 seconds. Exact timings are hard to determine because the flash indicator is only displayed with a half-push of the shutter button and will continue to display the status as long as the half push is held. Color using the flash as primary illumination was accurate with auto white balance (WB), but surprisingly shot a bit warm with WB set to "flash".

Nikon P100 Test Images
Auto White Balance
Nikon P100 Test Images
Flash White Balance

Battery life for the P100 is rated for 250 shots using the typically
accurate CIPA standards. The rating was obtained with a temperature of 73 degrees Farenheit, so performance will drop as the temperature does. Carry a couple extra batteries for all day shoots. The P100's EN-EL5 lithium-ion battery takes about three and a half hours to fully charge since the AC adapter provided with the camera charges it in the camera. A good investment is Nikon's MH-61 charger (about $22 at reputable online vendors), which charges the battery out of the camera with the added bonus of offering a two-hour recharge time.

Lens Performance
The P100's 26x zoom ranges in speed from a fast f/2.8 at wide angle to fairly fast f/5 at telephoto; more importantly, that f/5 telephoto aperture is as fast or faster than about every competitor with a 20x or longer zoom (save the Olympus SP-565UZ at f/4.5).

There is light falloff in the corners at wide angle, and corners are a bit soft. Wave (moustache) distortion is present, but chromic aberration (purple fringing) is near absent. Like the P90, the P100 has a "distortion control" (DC) setting that may be enabled to "correct the peripheral distortion that occurs due to the intrinsic characteristics of lenses." Enabling DC reduces the size of the frame; here are shots at wide angle with and without DC enabled. But the effect is relatively slight considering the improvement. The wide angle shot without DC is about one block wider than the shot with DC enabled.

Nikon P100 Test Images
Wide Angle, no distortion control
Nikon P100 Test Images
Wide Angle with distortion control

At telephoto, edges and corners are a little soft and there's light falloff in the corners as well. When we shot the P90 for its review last July, chromic aberration (purple fringing) was sometimes a major problem. The P100 improved dramatically on that front; you can see a little at 200 and 300% magnifications, but it takes some close scrutiny to spot problems at the 100% enlargement size where the P90's faults jumped off the page. The lens also shows some pincushion distortion, but DC handles this nicely as well.

Nikon P100 Test Images
Telephoto, no distortion control
Nikon P100 Test Images
Telephoto with distortion control

 

The lens can focus as close as 0.4 inches for macro work. Here's a couple of desert wildflowers in macro mode.

Nikon P100 Test Images Nikon P100 Test Images

Video Quality

Video quality with the P100 at its default value of HD 1080p is good. Because the camera uses a CMOS sensor, the possibility of rolling shutter effect exists and could result in distortion of vertical objects when panning the camera, or in the case of objects moving across the frame rapidly, like trains or cars, according to Nikon. In terms of panning, unless speed and motion were unrealistically high to try and propagate the effect, the P100 did quite well with regard to rolling shutter. The P100's manual also warns of the possibility of banding appearing in videos shot under fluorescent, mercury vapor or sodium lamps, as well as after images left by bright light sources if the camera is panned.

There are two autofocus options for video recording: single AF (the default), which locks focus based on the center of the screen when the movie record button is pushed, and full-time AF. The camera may be zoomed during recording but will not focus while doing it. Once zooming is complete the camera will re-focus if in full-time AF mode; depending on the amount of zoom this can range from a second or two to maybe five seconds or more in my experience. The camera may record full-time AF and zooming noises, and the microphone is susceptible to wind noise. There is a wind noise reduction setting, but recording of other sounds are impacted as well if enabled.

You can record video using either the monitor or viewfinder, but in either case there is a two second delay from the time you push the movie record button to when you start recording. The screen goes blank when the button is pushed, comes back on and then recording begins. The delay makes capturing short clips difficult if you're trying to anticipate action in your subject. The easiest way to go seems to be recording a bunch and then editing them later. Maximum recording length for any movie is 29 minutes, assuming sufficient memory exists.

For both video and still capture, if you shoot a lot at the telephoto end of the zoom, a tripod or monopod is a big help with keeping the camera steady. The closer you get to that 678mm end, the more any slight movement of the camera can impact image quality, and movement is particularly noticeable in movies. Nikon recommends vibration reduction be disabled for still images when the P100 is mounted on a tripod, but makes no mention of doing the same for eVR with movies.

Image Quality
Default images out of the P100 were generally color accurate and pleasing, but a little soft for my eye. There are sharpening, saturation and contrast adjustments available in P, A, S and M shooting modes, and I settled on a +1 setting for sharpness. The P100's "optimize image" sub-menu in the main shooting menu offers a range of color settings and monochrome options. Here are some color options, black & white (B&W), and B&W with yellow and red in-camera filters applied.

Nikon P100 Test Images
Normal
Nikon P100 Test Images
Softer
Nikon P100 Test Images
Vivid
Nikon P100 Test Images
More Vivid
Nikon P100 Test Images
Portrait
Nikon P100 Test Images
Black and White
Nikon P100 Test Images
Black and White with yellow filter
Nikon P100 Test Images
Black and White with red filter

Other image enhancement features include D-lighting. The P100 has two versions of D-lighting: active D-lighting that can be enabled to impact images as they are captured by the camera, and one that can be applied in-camera as a post-processing option in the playback menu. The mission shots that follow illustrate aperture priority with active D-lighting disabled, and then enabled at the low, normal and high levels.

Nikon P100 Test Images
Aperture Priority, no active D-lighting
Nikon P100 Test Images
Low active D-lighting
Nikon P100 Test Images
Normal active D-lighting
Nikon P100 Test Images
High active D-lighting

This desert sunflower macro shot was deliberately underexposed 1 EV, then post processed in-camera at the low, normal and high levels.

Nikon P100 Test Images
Original, -1 EV
Nikon P100 Test Images
Low D-lighting
Nikon P100 Test Images
Normal D-lighting
Nikon P100 Test Images
High D-lighting

In its scene menu, the P100 has a backlit scene HDR (high dynamic range) mode "suitable for shooting landscapes with high contrast between light and dark." The mode shoots a number of pictures at high speed, processes the first with active D-lighting and overlays the rest to create a HDR image that is then merged in-camera with the D-lighting image to create the final image. Here's the original mission shot and the same using backlit scene HDR, then another original and its backlit scene HDR version.

Nikon P100 Test Images
Original, aperture priority
Nikon P100 Test Images
Backlit scene HDR
Nikon P100 Test Images
Original, aperture priority
Nikon P100 Test Images
Backlit scene HDR

I shot auto WB for most of the images in this review and got largely accurate color. The P100 shot a bit warm in the studio under incandescent lights, but is much improved in this regard over the P90.

Nikon P100 Test Images
Auto White Balance, 3200k incandescent light

Matrix metering (default) was the method of choice for virtually all images in this review. As with the P90, the P100 seemed to lose highlights more than most other Nikon compacts when shot in the A and S modes, but exposure compensation can fix that fairly easily. Center-weighted, spot and spot AF area options are also available.

I was hoping for improved ISO noise performance with the P100 versus the P90, and the P100 certainly delivered. ISO 160 and 200 are clean and hard to tell apart. There's a bit of noise creeping in at 400 and a bit more at 800, but both are still not bad.

Nikon P100 Test Images
ISO 160
Nikon P100 Test Images
ISO 160, 100% crop
Nikon P100 Test Images
ISO 200
Nikon P100 Test Images
ISO 200, 100% crop
Nikon P100 Test Images
ISO 400
Nikon P100 Test Images
ISO 400, 100% crop
Nikon P100 Test Images
ISO 800
Nikon P100 Test Images
ISO 800, 100% crop
Nikon P100 Test Images
ISO 1600
Nikon P100 Test Images
ISO 1600, 100% crop
Nikon P100 Test Images
ISO 3200
Nikon P100 Test Images
ISO 3200, 100% crop

Even 1600, which is noticeably worse than 800, is still relatively OK. The big hit comes in the jump from 1600 to 3200; 3200 is best left to the "when all else fails" category. Comparing the P100 to the P90, I'd say the P100 has about 1 to perhaps 1.3-1.5 EV better ISO noise performance than the P90 from 400 on up.

Additional Sample Images
Nikon P100 Test Images Nikon P100 Test Images
Nikon P100 Test Images Nikon P100 Test Images
Nikon P100 Test Images Nikon P100 Test Images

CONCLUSION
I was surprised to see Nikon back in the market with another superzoom announced exactly one year after the P90. At least until I realized that Sony has had a compact digital with a BSI sensor on the market since September 2009. Or that Fuji was announcing a new 30x superzoom with BSI the same day as Nikon's BSI-equipped P100. Right now, BSI is perhaps the next big deal in digital imaging technology.

The P100 is definitely the current big deal in Nikon's Coolpix performance line. It's a camera that surpasses the P90 (a good performer in its own right) in so many ways. Shutter lag and AF performance are faster. The really nasty chromic aberration that popped up in certain P90 telephoto shots is a dim memory. High ISO noise performance is noticeably better and 1080p HD video is on board, along with some speedy continuous shooting options and other specialized image enhancers that owe their existence, at least in part, to BSI technology. The 3.0-inch monitor now boasts twice the resolution of the P90, and the lens has a little extra "tele" on the telephoto end of the zoom.


There's an annoying brief lag and monitor/viewfinder blackout between pushing the movie record button and the actual onset of recording. The need to recharge the battery in the camera (unless you opt to pick up a dedicated charger) is a pain. Beyond that, I haven't found much to gripe about with the P100. Good thing, too, since the camera and I aren't parting company just yet. We're off to China for 11 days in April - and if the P100 keeps impressing me maybe my next Nikon won't be a D400 after all.

Pros:

Cons: