DigitalCameraReview.com
On Assignment: Nikon Coolpix P100 in the People's Republic of China
by Jim Keenan -  5/12/2010

If you're off to an exotic vacation spot you may or may not return to, you want to be sure to get photos in case this becomes your only visit. If you're from the school of thought that "any shot is a good shot," then just drop a 5x compact digital into a shirt pocket and stop reading this article. But if you're thinking, "since this may be my only visit to the country, I'd like to have some camera versatility in capturing images from the trip," then an entry-level compact may not quite fit the bill. However, with modern air travel, particularly on an airplane with limited or no overhead bin space, you need to be able to carry the camera(s) and lens(es) that no one in their right mind will send in checked luggage, and fit them into a compact space.

If you're packing a DSLR, zoom is probably going to be your best friend. Depending on how much versatility you have in mind, you might get by with one body and a lens like Nikon's VR18-200. For some extra telephoto punch, you could go with a two lens quiver, and take 18-70 and VR80-400 zooms instead.

With the 1.5x crop factor on Nikon DX (APS-C) sensor cameras, this combination gets you a focal range from 27 to 600mm in 35mm film equivalents, but no stabilization in the 18-70 lens. Or you could just take Nikon's new P100 superzoom and get a 26 to 678mm focal range in addition to stabilization in a significantly smaller and lighter package. We're doing both.

My China DSLR outfit consisted of a Nikon D3 body, 16mm fisheye, 14-24, 24-70 and VR70-200 zooms. Because the D3 has a full frame sensor, I can shoot from 14 to 200mm, depending on the lens. But I'm giving up 478mm to the P100 on the telephoto end in exchange for 11mm at wide angle. And the size differential for the equipment speaks for itself (without even getting into the matter of weight) - here's my DSLR load next to the P100.

Our plane is loaded and it's time to fly - next stop Beijing, China.


IN THE FIELD
If you happen to get a window seat, your trip begins as soon as the plane takes off. The P100 takes up so little space that slipping it into the seatback ahead of you is a good idea. Because we departed from San Francisco in moderate rain, I left it in my carry-on, stored in the overhead bin. A couple minutes out we flew into a break in the clouds and there was the Golden Gate Bridge, framed in the opening. Plenty of time for some great shots if the camera was at hand, but not enough time to get it out of the bag. Lesson learned, and the P100 rode the rest of the way to China in the seatback.

Our route took us up the west coast of the U.S. and Canada, over the Inside Passage and southern Alaska. Eventually we left the clouds behind and were treated to stunning vistas of snow-capped mountains. In addition to its compact size, the P100's 3.0-inch monitor makes it easy to compose and shoot from an airplane window, even through at least two layers of window glass and plastic.

Auto focus acquisition was quick and the excellent shutter lag made capture a breeze. I like to include a bit of wing or engine in shots to give some perspective, but the long lens on the P100 allows you to zoom in and delete any airplane structure if you want. Here are some examples from over Alaska and Siberia:

Once on the ground in Beijing, we were presented with a mixed bag of lighting conditions, most of them bad. There was cloud/fog/haze during most of the trip, so visibility was reduced and shots with any portion of open cloudy-bright sky tended to be high contrast, thus being an exposure metering challenge. Here's a shot of a column at the Ming Dynasty tomb complex outside Beijing that illustrates the problem; the bright sky results in an underexposed shot using my preferred aperture priority shooting mode. The same shot post-processed with Nikon Capture NX2 software D-Lighting provided a more pleasing alternative.


Original


Post-processed

But you don't have to use a separate platform and software to fix shots from the P100 since its playback menu has "quick retouch" and "d-lighting" options that can work wonders in-camera. As an added bonus, using either option results in a new image being created and retained along with the original, unaltered capture. Here are before and after flash shots at a silk factory and available light at the Ming complex using in-camera fixes.


Original

In-camera post-processed

Original
Nikon P100 Test Images
In-camera post-processed

Good AF and shutter lag notwithstanding, it's the range of the P100's zoom lens that makes it such a compelling choice for a "one-size-fits-all" type of camera. Two shots at the Ming complex from the same spot:

Nikon P100 Test Images
Wide angle
Nikon P100 Test Images
Telephoto

And two more from one of the older sections of Beijing:

Nikon P100 Test Images

Nikon P100 Test Images

We drove past the Bird's Nest (track and field stadium) and Water Cube (swimming and diving) facilities from the 2008 Summer Olympics, but had to shoot on the run through bus windows since we couldn't stop nearby. On top of that, it was early on a gray and misty morning, but the P100 acquired AF quickly and the hybrid stabilization successfully helped get a passable picture despite lousy light and a bouncing, moving platform.

Nikon P100 Test Images Nikon P100 Test Images

I had the P100 set to the hybrid stabilization setting during the whole trip, and while a tripod or monopod is still a good idea if you're going to be shooting a lot of long telephoto, all the shots in this review were hand held. I had a tripod and monopod available but never used them since large crowds made tripod use impractical and I was getting good results in daylight with hand holding. Here are existing light shots at the silk factory; the fastest was 1/30th second, the slowest 1/11th.

Nikon P100 Test Images Nikon P100 Test Images
Nikon P100 Test Images Nikon P100 Test Images

At the Great Wall, the P100 was in its element. From any particular spot, I could vary lens length and create a variety of looks, including both horizontal and vertical compositions.

Nikon P100 Test Images

Nikon P100 Test Images Nikon P100 Test Images

Nikon P100 Test Images

And wide angle allowed me to take in a good portion of the wall to illustrate the size of the structure, even with the haze and fog.

Nikon P100 Test Images Nikon P100 Test Images

From the Great Wall we moved to the Imperial Tombs of the Ming Dynasty, including the Sacred Way, a long avenue lined with stone carvings of animals and warriors. There are four of each animal, two standing and two in repose. The standing animals are on duty, waiting for their relief by the animals at rest.

Nikon P100 Test Images Nikon P100 Test Images

It was here that the P100's China duty came to an abrupt end. While not shirt pocket portable, the P100 stowed nicely in the side pocket of the jacket I wore to ward off the early morning cold. Shortly after taking the animal shots, I was pulling the camera back out of the pocket when it slipped from my grasp and fell onto the stone walkway.

The camera powered up (with a few grinding noises that hadn't been present before the drop), and while it still metered accurately, one peek through the viewfinder showed the lens (or an element) had been knocked askew. Here's the view that greeted me, and the same shot cropped to a 12 x 8-inch size (at 263 dots per inch). The image quality isn't up to pre-drop standards, but the camera could have soldiered on with careful composition and subsequent cropping and saved the trip if no other camera was available.

Nikon P100 Test Images
Original (with damaged camera)
Nikon P100 Test Images
Cropped

While we're discussing image quality, I had managed to complete a couple of direct comparisons between the P100 and my D3 (with the 24-70) before the drop. Here are two shots of the Bird's Nest and two more of a guardian lion at the tombs.

Nikon P100 Test Images
Bird's Nest, Nikon D3
Nikon P100 Test Images
Bird's Nest, Nikon Coolpix P100
Nikon P100 Test Images
Statue, Nikon D3

Statue, Nikon Coolpix P100

If you don't see a lot of difference with a casual inspection at the smaller sizes, you're not alone; 100% enlargements should make the identification easier. In each case, the first shot is the D3. But the point is that depending on just how big you plan to print and the conditions under which you make your images, the P100 can turn in a very credible performance when compared to a world-class DSLR.

Finally, here's a grab bag of P100 shots from the trip.
Nikon P100 Test Images
Nikon P100 Test Images
Nikon P100 Test Images Nikon P100 Test Images


CONCLUSIONS
First, I apologize to Nikon U.S.A. for dropping the P100. I was enjoying the camera and looking forward to using it for the remainder of the trip. Even though I had to take the camera out of service after three days on tour, in that short time, it reinforced my feeling that the superzoom, as a class, is the ultimate compact digital.

Small and light, the P100 is basically an afterthought when it comes to storage and carrying. Yet it offers a tremendous stabilized focal range, good AF and shutter performance, and with its backside illuminated sensor, better-than-average ISO performance. I'd still take a tripod or monopod if extensive long telephoto shooting is in play, but the truth is that I had both in China, but didn't use either of them. The P100 and a monopod would be an interesting combination on a safari-type vacation where animals are close by.

Finally, folks who don't have a DSLR can save a lot of space and weight by going the superzoom route. Folks with a DSLR who only shoot JPEG can do the same. I'm a NEF (RAW) guy, so you likely won't catch me on holiday without my DSLR until there's a superzoom with a RAW capability. And perhaps not even then - old habits die hard.

But consider this: if I'd left that unused tripod and monopod home, left out a couple extra shirts, that third pair of underwear, washed clothes more frequently and didn't bring back gifts for friends, I could have done this trip with just the P100 in a carry-on bag. That's some (Chinese) food for thought.