DigitalCameraReview.com
Nikon Coolpix P300 Review
by Jim Keenan -  8/1/2011

While it reached market in the United States in March of 2011, Nikon's compact Coolpix P300 digital has only just now reached us for a review. Once upon a time Nikon chose to segment its compact digital market with letter designations for various groups of cameras: P stood for "performance," S for "style," etc. While the letter designations remain in Nikon's compact lineup, they have not marketed these distinctions as aggressively as they have in the past. However, a quick look at some of the technical details of the P300 should leave no doubt that Nikon was going for performance with the introduction of this camera.

Nikon Coolpix P300


First and foremost, the P300 features a 24 to 100mm zoom lens (35mm equivalent) with a maximum aperture of f/1.8 at the wide end of that zoom - the fastest lens on any Nikon Coolpix camera, ever. At the telephoto end of the f/4.9 maximum aperture, while not blazing fast, it's as speedy as most competitors. The camera also features full 1080p HD video, and its 12.2 megapixel backside illuminated CMOS sensor offers the promise of improved lowlight noise performance over more conventional designs of similar size and resolution.

The EXPEED C2 processing engine is the latest generation of Coolpix technology and the camera offers full manual controls in addition to the obligatory auto and scene shooting options. ISO sensitivity range is 160 to 3200, and the 3.0-inch LCD monitor gives you a good look at things for image composition, capture or review. There's a smile timer that can automatically release the shutter when your subject smiles, face priority autofocus and blink warning that can alert you when the subject may have blinked (and you can consider taking another shot). Throw in optical vibration reduction (VR) and the P300 is beginning to look like a camera that Nikon is not holding much back on in the performance arena.

The P300 packs approximately 90MB of internal memory, and the camera can make use of SD/SDHC/SDXC memory media. Nikon includes a camera strap, rechargeable lithium ion battery and AC charging adapter, USB and A/V cables, CD-ROM software and a printed basic user's manual with each camera.

On paper the P300's technical specifications suggest a camera designed to appeal to both entry-level consumers as well as more advanced users. Let's see if the printed words translate into true performance out in the field.

BUILD AND DESIGN
The P300 follows the classic design for compact digital point and shoots, that is to say a rectangular body with softly rounded edges and about the size of a deck of cards. The fixed base of the zoom lens protrudes about 3/8 of an inch from the front of the camera, but the P300 still transports easily in a shirt pocket. Body construction is of metal and composite materials, and the fit and finish seem in keeping with the camera's price point.

Nikon Coolpix P300

Ergonomics and Controls
There is a small patch of rubberized material on the camera back that serves as a thumb rest and a narrow ridge running about halfway up the front of the camera body on the right side that provides a little bit of a gripping point for the middle finger of the right hand. As with most compact digitals, even users with small hands are able to wrap their fingers around the body in various ways to facilitate their grip. The matte black paint finish has a smooth feel, so using the camera with the provided strap is good insurance against an accidental drop.

Nikon Coolpix P300

Controls are simple and straightforward: the camera top houses the lens zoom control, shutter release button, command dial, power on/off switch, mode dial and pop-up flash. The camera back is largely taken up by the 3.0-inch monitor but also includes the dedicated video capture button, playback button, rotary multi selector, menu and delete buttons. The on/off switch is recessed into the top of the camera to the point where it takes a concerted push to power on or off - you're not likely to turn the camera on or off by accident, but don't be surprised if you find yourself having to push the button more than once to achieve your intended purpose.

Nikon Coolpix P300

Manual shooters may find the P300 a bit frustrating when it comes to trying to change major shooting settings on-the-fly. While the camera has external controls for the self-timer, exposure compensation and macro mode, features such as white balance, single or continuous shooting and ISO sensitivity can only be accessed by internal menu.

Menus and Modes
Menus are simple and intuitive in the automatic and scene shooting modes, and only slightly more expansive when shooting manually. For example, in the full auto mode the user can select image size for stills and video capture along with video focus mode, and not much else. Switch to any of the scene shooting modes and you lose the ability to set image size for stills.

In the manual modes a wider variety of user inputs is available: image size, white balance, metering, continuous versus single shot capture, ISO sensitivity, exposure bracketing, autofocus area mode, autofocus mode and flash exposure compensation. What was surprising was the lack of adjustment for sharpness or contrast - the P300 permits adjustment of hue, brightness and vividness - but nothing more. Here's the complete rundown on P300 shooting modes:

Display
The P300 3.0-inch LCD monitor has a 921,000 dot composition and is adjustable for five levels of brightness. If those monitor numbers sound familiar, they are the same size and composition as the monitors on a number of Nikon's top-end DSLRs. The monitor produced a 453 nit peak brightness level and a 755 to 1 contrast ratio in our studio measurements.

Nikon Coolpix P300

While the 453 figure is a bit lower than the 500 we would like as a minimum peak brightness level, the 755:1 contrast ratio is towards the upper end of the desirable range for that value. In practice the P300 monitor was a bit more useful than most compact point-and-shoot cameras in bright outdoor conditions, but could still be difficult under certain light and subject combinations. Monitor coverage is approximately 100%.

PERFORMANCE
The P300 has some interesting hardware and features, but the lack of user adjustments for sharpness and contrast on a camera featuring fully manual shooting modes was a bit of a surprise. Were there any other surprises in store once the shooting began?

Shooting Performance
The P300 starts fairly promptly if you disable the welcome screen - approximately 1.75 seconds to present a focus point with the first shot taken in about 2.5 seconds. Leave the welcome screen enabled and the focus point doesn't appear for over 5 seconds. Single shot to shot times ran approximate 1.75 seconds. Continuous shooting produced seven images in one second, but the camera took almost 6 seconds to write images to the card - a 16GB class 10 (30 MB per second) SDHC. The camera monitor goes blank during continuous shooting which means that tracking a fast moving subject which is largely filling the frame can become problematic even in so brief a time as one second.

Shutter lag and autofocus acquisition times both seemed reasonably quick in the field but returned frankly disappointing figures in the studio. Shutter lag measured out at 0.05 seconds and AF acquisition at 0.43 seconds. AF acquisition time slows noticeably in dim light, even with the AF assist lamp. In good conditions the P300 seems quicker than these figures suggest.

Shutter Lag (press-to-capture, pre-focused)
Camera Time (seconds)
Samsung TL500 0.01
Olympus X-Z1 0.01
Canon PowerShot S95 0.02
Nikon Coolpix P300 0.05

AF Acquisition (press-to-capture, no pre-focus)
Camera Time (seconds)
Canon PowerShot S95 0.36
Samsung TL500 0.43
Nikon Coolpix P300 0.43
Olympus X-Z1 0.45

Continuous Shooting
Camera Frames Framerate*
Nikon Coolpix P300 7 6.9 fps
Olympus X-Z1 2.0 fps
Samsung TL500 1.5 fps
Canon PowerShot S95 0.9 fps

With ISO sensitivity set to auto the P300 flash range is listed as approximately 21 feet at wide-angle and a bit over 8 feet at telephoto. Flash recycle times varied from almost 3 seconds to about 4.25 seconds.

Nikon P300 Sample Image Nikon P300 Sample Image

Battery life for the P300 is listed as 240 shots, and as delivered from the factory the battery must be charged in the camera. Charging time for a fully depleted battery is four hours and the camera is unavailable for image processing or any other functions during this time.

Nikon Coolpix P300

An MH-65 external battery charger is available from Nikon for about $38 and along with a few spare batteries is a wise investment for folks planning to take their P300 on all day shooting sessions. The camera's battery level indicator tends to indicate a full charge for much of the battery's life, then drops rapidly.

Lens Performance
The P300 lens displays a bit of barrel distortion at the wide end of the zoom, but looks fairly distortion-free at telephoto. Here's that barrel cropping up in a couple of shots with straight lines near the edges of the frame.

Nikon P300 Sample Image

Nikon P300 Sample Image

There is chromic aberration (purple fringing) to be found in some high contrast boundary areas at both ends of the zoom, with the wide end displaying this defect to a larger degree. In severe cases and with close scrutiny enlargements of as little as 100% may show the defect at the wide end; 200 to 300% enlargements are generally necessary to bring the problem to light with telephoto shots.

Edges and corners of the frame appear a bit soft at wide-angle; the telephoto end is far less soft at the edges and corners and fairly uniformly sharp across the frame. The camera can focus as close as 1.2-inches in macro mode with the lens set for wide angle.

Video Quality
The 1080 HD video image quality of the P300 is fairly good for a compact point-and-shoot. Maximum clip length is 4GB or 29 minutes; actual playback and recording times may vary depending on the particular shooting mode chosen, but in no event will exceed the 4GB/29 minute ceiling. Nikon recommends a class 6 or higher memory card for video capture. Zoom is available during video capture, but the camera will record zooming noises along with handling and stabilization noises (if enabled) and wind noise. Sound is recorded in stereo. Tracking of moving subjects with the camera set for full-time autofocus was fairly good.

Download Sample Video

Video capture may be initiated by one touch of the dedicated video capture button from any shooting mode; there is an approximately 2 second blackout of the monitor before video capture commences. Because the camera is equipped with a CMOS sensor the possibility of rolling shutter effect exists. The user's manual reports that subjects moving rapidly across the screen during video capture may appear skewed; rapid panning of the camera may also result in the entire image frame being skewed. In practice, rolling shutter effect appeared to be fairly well controlled in the P300 - there is some present with extremely fast panning, but overall this defect seems relatively benign.

Image Quality
Default still image quality out of the P300 is good for a compact point-and-shoot, with fairly accurate color and generally pleasant sharpness. That's a good thing with regard to sharpness, because as we've already seen the P300 has no internal modifications available in this arena. The View NX2 software provided with the camera has image sharpening tools included, but it's always nice to be able to have the images coming out of the camera as close as possible to the finished product. If you find the default images lacking in sharpness or contrast, one in-camera fix might be to shoot your images in landscape mode. Here are two shots at the beach - the first in auto mode and the second in landscape. The contrast, saturation and sharpening all look better to me in the landscape shot (but your mileage may vary).

Nikon P300 Sample Image
Auto

Nikon P300 Sample Image
Landscape

The P300 lacks a formal color palette that is typically found in compact digitals with manual shooting modes. Here's a look at the default color mode, landscape scene mode, and the high key and monochrome options from the special effects mode in the scene menu.

Nikon P300 Sample Image
Default
Nikon P300 Sample Image
Landscape
Nikon P300 Sample Image
High Key
Nikon P300 Sample Image
Monochrome

The P300's backlight shooting mode offers users four ways to capture images: you can use flash to illuminate the front side of the subject for a single capture or set any of three levels of high dynamic range for multiple captures which the camera then combines into a single shot. Here's the flash shot along with HDR levels 1, 2, and 3 (three being the strongest).

Nikon P300 Sample Image
Flash
Nikon P300 Sample Image
HDR 1
Nikon P300 Sample Image
HDR 2
Nikon P300 Sample Image
HDR 3

The P300 also has Nikon's D - Lighting tool in its playback menu, but in this case D - Lighting consists of a single automated setting. The supplied View NX2 software offers a slider adjustment for D - Lighting and a much wider range of adjustment. Here's an original shot of the rotunda at the nearby Mission San Luis Ray along with in camera and View NX2 D - Lighting versions.

Nikon P300 Sample Image
Original
Nikon P300 Sample Image
In-camera D-Lighting
Nikon P300 Sample Image
View NX2 D-Lighting

Auto white balance was used to capture all the images in this review and did a pretty good job in most lighting conditions. The P300 shot a little warm under incandescent lighting but was more accurate than most compact digitals I've reviewed in this regard. In addition to auto there are preset manual (custom), daylight, incandescent, fluorescent, cloudy and flash options when shooting in manual modes only.

Nikon P300 Sample Image
Auto White Balance, 5500k fluorescent light

Matrix metering is the default exposure calculation setting for the P300 and was used for all the images found in this review. Matrix did an overall good job in most lighting conditions but at times would lose highlights in high contrast situations. A center-weighted metering option is also available for the manual shooting modes.

While the cameras we used to compare with the P300 with regards to shutter lag, focus acquisition time and continuous shooting rates were the Canon S95, Olympus XZ-1, and Samsung TL500, it may not be a fair comparison when we move on to the subject of ISO noise performance. The P300 lists for $330 while the other three all go for $400 or more; furthermore, the comparable cameras all sport large sensors in the 1/1.7 or 1/1.63 inch size range (and 10 megapixel resolution) while the P300 crams 12 megapixels on a much smaller 1/2.3 inch sensor. But whether the P300 is a direct competitor for those other cameras or not, it appears that the backside illuminated sensor is doing a fairly decent job of noise performance considering its resolution.

ISO 160 and 200 sensitivities are virtually impossible to tell apart; 400 ISO is close enough to 200 in performance that it takes some concerted pixel peeping to pick up a bit of noise beginning to surface. ISO 800 is fairly easily distinguishable from 400 as noise levels increase a bit and fine details begin to be lost, but overall this sensitivity looks to be still fairly usable for large prints.

Nikon P300 Sample Image
ISO 160
Nikon P300 Sample Image
ISO 160, 100% crop

Nikon P300 Sample Image
ISO 200

Nikon P300 Sample Image
ISO 200, 100% crop
Nikon P300 Sample Image
ISO 400
Nikon P300 Sample Image
ISO 400, 100% crop
Nikon P300 Sample Image
ISO 800
Nikon P300 Sample Image
ISO 800, 100% crop
Nikon P300 Sample Image
ISO 1600
Nikon P300 Sample Image
ISO 1600, 100% crop
Nikon P300 Sample Image
ISO 3200
Nikon P300 Sample Image
ISO 3200, 100% crop

There is a definite noise increase in the jump from 800 to 1600 ISO and fine details continue to suffer as a consequence, but for small images and Internet activity, 1600 is a viable sensitivity if necessary. Finally, the jump to 3200 ISO brings with it a healthy increase of noise, a healthy decrease in fine details and the strong impression that it is best left for those situations where you have to capture the image; and 3200 is the only way to do it. Considering the large sensors and reduced resolution of the comparable cameras, I think the P300 holds its own at 160 and 200 ISO, matches up fairly well at 400 and isn't too far off at 800 before falling behind in the higher sensitivities.

Nikon P300 Sample Image Nikon P300 Sample Image
Nikon P300 Sample Image Nikon P300 Sample Image
Nikon P300 Sample Image Nikon P300 Sample Image

CONCLUSIONS
Looking at the specifications for the P300 it becomes fairly obvious why the camera earned a "P" (for performance) designation from Nikon. The inclusion of the backside illuminated sensor is a promising technology in the field of noise reduction; manual shooting controls are generally found on cameras catering to more serious shooters; full 1080 HD video is still relatively rare on compact digital point and shoots and the f/1.8 maximum aperture at the wide end of the 4.2x zoom lens makes this the fastest lens to appear on any Coolpix camera to date. Initial shooting in the field revealed what seemed to be quick focus acquisition times and a shutter with minimal lag. Still image quality seemed good; video quality fairly good.

After shooting the camera a while longer, a bit of the bloom has come off the rose. Shutter lag and focus acquisition times that initially seemed quick have measured out to be average. There is no RAW capability and the design of the camera controls require users to resort to internal menus to change shooting settings such as ISO, white balance and continuous versus single shooting modes.


There are no provisions for changing sharpness or contrast settings in the camera. Battery charging is accomplished in camera and a fully depleted battery takes four hours to recharge. Combine this with a 240 shot battery life and one could wonder why Nikon didn't include an external battery charger as standard equipment.

Still image quality remains good, video is fairly good and no matter what the stopwatch says, the camera feels pretty quick when shooting in good conditions. ISO noise performance appears to be a bit better than cameras with similar size and resolution conventional sensors. Overall, despite its flaws, the P300 is worth a serious look by anyone contemplating the purchase of a normal zoom compact digital.

Pros:

Cons: