When Nikon released the CoolPix P7000 last year, there was much discussion about its eerie resemblance to the Canon G12. The Canon Powershot G12 has been the top dog in the high-end point-and-shoot market since the introduction of the original G1 in late 2000, but Nikon's P7000 was meant to end Canon's dominance of this upper tier market niche.
The P7000 was purpose-designed to compete with Canon's G12. The two cameras offered remarkably similar ergonomics, optical viewfinders, near identical specifications, and both were clearly designed for photo enthusiasts. Unfortunately for Nikon, the P7000 didn't quite measure up to the challenge. While the P7000 was easily competitive with the G12 in terms of image quality, but it was noticeably slower in operation than the G12 and its menu system was unnecessarily complex. Nikon dropped the ball when they introduced the "not ready for prime time" P7000 and their chagrinned marketing and product development folks were obliged to return the P7000 to the drawing board. The result of that re-engineering project is the new improved Coolpix P7100.
The Nikon Coolpix P7100 may bear a striking resemblance to its predecessor, but it has evolved into something quite different. Nikon kept the P7000's chunky body shell, the 10.1-megapixel (1/1.7-inch) CCD image sensor, the 3.0 inch (920,000 pixel) LCD (which now flips out), and the 7x (28mm-200mm equivalent) f/2.8 zoom of the P7000, but made numerous internal changes that punched up operating speed and improved auto focusing speed and accuracy. Is the new improved P7100 really competitive with the G12? Yes, it is.
BUILD AND DESIGN
The G12 and the P7100 not only share very similar specifications, both are chunky and relatively heavy point-and-shoots. The G12 weighs in at 357 grams (12.5 ounces) with battery and SD card while the P7100 weighs in at 395 grams (13.9 ounces) with battery and SD card - so neither is actually pocketable and neither is particularly compact, either.
The P7100 is an attractively understated and fairly inconspicuous compact camera - a well designed, precision built and robustly constructed imaging tool that was obviously designed for photography enthusiasts. The P7100 will function nicely as an auto-mode digicam, but it is really aimed at more serious shooters. The camera looks and feels unapologetically practical and utilitarian, so it doesn't seem strange that this camera would be built to old-school standards. The metal alloy body feels substantial and well constructed. Weather seals and dust-proofing appear to be consistently first rate.
Everything on the camera appears to have been engineered to stand the test of time with the possible exception of the plastic cover over the battery/memory card compartment. In my opinion the P7100 is tough enough to go just about anywhere - including extreme environments.
Ergonomics and Controls
The P7100's user interface is logical and uncomplicated - all buttons and controls are clearly marked, sensibly placed and easily accessed by right handed shooters. The most glaring omission in the P7100's amzingly good control array is the absence of a one touch video capture button. Most digicams with a one touch video capture button place this control in the upper right corner of the camera's back deck since that placement allows the camera user to simply push the video start/stop button with their right thumb. The P7100 eschews this logical ergonomic placement in favor of the now outdated "set the mode dial to video and push to shutter button to start/stop" video capture method. There is room for a one-touch video stop/start button (directly under the exposure compensation dial) and hopefully Nikon will add that control to the P7200.
That single, and minor design misstep is somewhat ameliorated by the P7100's handgrip - it is a small and fairly shallow grip, but that is more than consumers get with most P&S digicams. The P7100's shutter button is fairly large and surrounded by a standard back-and-forth zoom tab. While the zoom tab is small, zooming from wide-angle to telephoto and back is smooth, easy, and fairly precise.
Most point-and-shoots permit only limited user input into the exposure process - the P7100 takes the single most important exposure control that P&S users have, the exposure compensation function, and links it to a dedicated dial on the camera's top deck that permits immediate adjustments (to incrementally lighten or darken the image) in any shooting mode except full manual. Most digicams bury the exposure compensation function in the menu somewhere or allow indirect access via the compass switch, both of which are time consuming and distracting.
With the P7100, users can view their composition and if they have a problem with the ambient lighting - their right thumb falls directly on the exposure compensation dial which they can then turn either right (plus) or left (minus) until the lighting is balanced. This is a brilliant design that puts much more control in the hands of the user - some folks will say that this idea was stolen from the G12 and its predecessors, but Canon put their exposure compensation control on the left end of the top deck - which means that the dial must be accessed by the shooter's left hand or the camera must be shifted, altering the composition - at least momentarily.
The P7100 locates this control on the same end of the top deck as the mode dial and shutter button/zoom control - meaning the control can be used (by right handed shooters) without shifting from the composition - much better ergonomics. In fact, I like the way Nikon put the P7100's Quick Menu dial in exactly the same spot on the top deck where the G12 locates the Exposure Compensation dial - much better ergonomics. Here's another example of the P7100's dedication to user input - in review mode shooters can crop (using the zoom control tab and the compass switch) and then save the cropped version of that image (just as it appears on the LCD screen) by simply pushing the menu button and then selecting yes. In addition Nikon also enlarged the rear command dial and added a new sub-command dial on front of the camera - for adjusting aperture, shutter speed, and other settings.
Menus and Modes
The Coolpix P7100 features a comprehensive one-tab version of Nikon's standard digicam menu system. The P7100's menu system provides an inclusive listing of all user options, but it is a long list - although it is logical and fairly easy to navigate. However, the P7100 has a full complement of buttons, knobs, switches, and dials making most shooting parameters directly accessible without having to revert to the menu system.
The P7100 provides a comprehensive selection of shooting modes including:
Unlike most currently available point-and-shoots the P7100 provides an optical viewfinder. Coverage is approximately 80% and there is a diopter adjustment for those who wear glasses. The optical viewfinder is a nice to have 'retro' feature (and the G12 has one), but most modern shooters will eschew the 80% coverage of the optical viewfinder in favor of the 100% coverage of the LCD screen.
The P7100 features a large 3.0-inch LCD with four times the 230k-dot resolution that was the industry standard just a few of years ago. The P7100's wide-viewing angle 3.0 inch TFT LCD is super sharp (920,000 pixels), bright, hue accurate, and fluid and the info display provides all the information this camera's target audience is likely to need. The monitor gains up (automatically increases brightness) in dim lighting and brightness can also be adjusted to each individual shooters preferences. The P7100's anti-glare/anti-reflection coating (applied to both sides of the LCD's protective cover) is noticeably better than average for digicams in this class. Finally, the P7100's LCD flips/folds out, which is useful when shooting macro or high-angle (above the heads of the crowd) shots, but the LCD doesn't swivel.
The DCR test lab objectively measures LCD peak brightness and contrast ratios to assist our readers in making more informed digital camera purchasing decisions. A decent LCD contrast ratio should fall somewhere between 500:1 and 800:1. An LCD with a contrast ratio within that range should be bright enough to use the LCD screen for framing and composition in outdoor lighting and it should also provide a better sense of real world colors and contrast than would an LCD screen with a lower contrast ratio. The P7100 puts the needle off the scale with a 1011:1 contrast ratio. Peak brightness for the P7100 (the panel's output of an all-white screen at full brightness) is 354 nits and on the dark (black level luminance) side the measurement is 0.35 nits - for reference, anything higher than 500 nits is bright enough to be easily seen even under bright outdoor light. The P7100's default info display provides all the data this camera's advanced-amateur target audience is likely to need.
One of the major complaints leveled against the P7000 was its slow auto focus. Coupled with slow shot-to-shot and write to card times, the P7000's exposure process was pretty sluggish. Nikon claims that the new improved P7100 is substantially faster across the board than the P7000 was.
Performance and Image Quality should always be the primary critical criteria when assessing digital camera performance. The G12 was faster in every category than the P7000, but the P7100 is essentially a different camera than its predecessor. AF acquisition times for the P7100 (0.19 seconds) and G12 (0.50 seconds) show the new improved P7100 is a full half a second faster than the G12 in acquiring the target and locking focus. As regarding shutter lag, Nikon says the P7100 is measurably faster (0.200 milliseconds versus 0.310 milliseconds) than the P7000.
AF Acquisition (press-to-capture, no pre-focus)
Nikon Coolpix P7100
Sony Cyber-shot TX100
Canon PowerShot S100
Sony Cyber-shot TX100
Canon PowerShot S100
Nikon Coolpix P7100
*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.
The P7100 is competitive with any camera in its class. When you design a camera with a 7x zoom some operational speed must be sacrificed (particularly at longer focal length settings) because a longer lens will move and focus more slowly than a shorter lens. The P7100 is fast enough to function nicely as a general purpose camera and more than quick enough to capture the decisive moment. Shot-to-shot times (JPEG) are between 1 and 2 seconds.
When the P7100 is powered up - the zoom lens automatically extends from the camera body and when the camera is powered down, the zoom automatically retracts into the camera body and a built in iris-style lens cover closes over it to protect the front element. The P7100's f/2.8-5.6 6.0-46.6mm (28-200mm equivalent) Nikkor zoom makes this P&S digicam almost ideal for a broad variety of photographic applications - including shooting group photos in tight indoor venues, capturing expansive landscapes, snapping colorful travel pictures of exotic locales, nailing not too distant wildlife, shooting youth sports like a pro, and getting in-your-face macro shots of bugs and flowers.
Corners are a bit soft (at maximum aperture) at the wide angle end of the zoom, but they are appreciably sharper with smaller apertures and at the telephoto end of the range. The P7100's f/2.8 maximum aperture is a full stop slower than the f/1.8 maximum aperture of the Samsung TL500 and more than half a stop slower than the f/2.0 maximum aperture of the Canon S100, but it is exactly the same as the G12's f/2.8 maximum aperture - fast enough for almost anything this camera's target audience is likely to shoot outdoors and quick enough for indoor shooting if the ambient light levels are reasonable.
Zoom operation is fast, smooth, and fairly quiet, but this lens exhibits very minor barrel distortion (straight lines bow out from the center) at the wide-angle end of the zoom range. Pincushion distortion (straight lines bow in toward the center of the frame) at the telephoto end of the zoom range is essentially absent. Chromatic aberration (purple fringing) is visible, especially in high contrast color transition areas, but the P7100 manages it nicely. Bottom line - the P7100's 7x zoom is impressively good - equal (or marginally superior) to the G12's optics.
The P7100's Vibration Reduction (optical image stabilization) system reduces blur by quickly and precisely shifting a lens element in the zoom to compensate for involuntary camera movement. Typically, IS systems allow users to shoot at shutter speeds up to three EV (exposure values) slower than would have been possible without Image stabilization. Keeping a lens with a focal length range from wide angle to moderate telephoto steady (without a tripod) poses some impressive challenges, but the P7100's VR system does a dependably good job.
The P7100 features a redesigned TTL Contrast Detection 99-point Auto/Manual selection AF system providing four AF modes: Multi-point AF, 1-point AF (center spot, normal, or wide), Subject tracking AF, and Face detection AF. In all exposure modes, the camera analyzes the scene in front of the lens and then calculates camera-to-subject distance to determine which AF point is closest to the primary subject (closest subject priority) and then locks focus on that AF point. The P7100's Center Spot AF mode is a good choice for traditional landscapes and informal portraits and an even better option for street shooting, because serious photographers don't want the camera deciding which face in the crowd to focus on.
The P7100's pop-up flash, like those found on most P&S digicams provides an adequate range of artificial lighting options including: Auto, Auto with red-eye reduction, Fill flash, Manual (1/64th power), Slow sync, Rear curtain sync, and Flash exposure compensation at +/- 2EV in 1/3 EV increments. The P7100's tiny built-in flash unit is powerful enough for fairly tight indoor portraits or for fill-flash, but not much else. The P7100 also provides a flash hot shoe which permits any of Nikon's current External Speedlights to be mounted with full i-TTL compatibility.
The P7100 draws its power from a Nikon rechargeable EN-EL14 Li-ion Battery. Nikon claims that a fully charged EN-EL14 is good for 350 exposures or almost three hours of video. Based on my experiences with the camera those numbers seem relatively accurate. The included charger needs about two hours to fully charge the EN-EL14. The Nikon Coolpix P7100 supports SD, SDHC, and the SDXC format memory cards and provides approximately 94MB of internal memory.
The P7100's 1280 x 720p at 24 fps HD movie mode may cause concern for some potential purchasers, but several of the smaller G12 competitors feature 1080p video modes - for those who insist on maximum resolution HD video. While the P7100 may not produce at the highest currently available HD video resolution, its video output is very nice - capable of competing with some dedicated video cameras. The video clip that accompanies this review (downloadable below) was shot on a cold and slightly overcast January afternoon at the lake at Cave Hill Cemetery. The clip is sharply focused, properly exposed, movement is fluid (smooth - not jerky), and the colors are vibrant - check out the iridescent green necks of some of the ducks. The sample video shows the P7100 to be competitive (in the video department) with its primary competition, the G12.
Download Sample Video
I was consistently impressed with the P7100's highly nuanced image quality throughout my test of the camera. Colors (Nikon default color interpolation) are bright and hue accurate, but much closer to neutral than those from the G12. Canon and many other OEMs pander to casual photographers who like visibly over-saturated colors. Most casual shooters don't consider minor color intensity variations as faults, but serious photographers want more accurate colors. Super intense colors can actually detract from the impact of some images, giving an almost surreal look.
During the course of my tests I was repeatedly impressed with the color accuracy of the P7100. Check out the sample images and you'll see what I mean. The P7100's colors don't jump out at you, rather they contribute nicely to the overall impact of the image without exaggerating the role of color in the composition. Finally, the P7100's exposure accuracy (in any shooting mode) is amazing. I used the camera extensively and with a broad range of subjects and as long as the images were shot outdoors (in decent light) the P7100 nailed the proper exposure every time.
I didn't have even one image that looked over-exposed (burnt out highlights) or under-exposed (dark with dense shadow areas) out of the between 200 - 300 images I shot with the P7100.
Under decent outdoor lighting the P7100 consistently produces properly exposed, sharply focused, highly detailed, and almost noise-free images. The P7100 consistently produces the best images I've seen from any camera in this class.
The P7100 provides users with a comprehensive selection of white balance options, including Auto, Daylight, Cloudy, Incandescent, Fluorescent (FL1), Fluorescent (FL2), Fluorescent (FL3), Flash, Manual (Kelvin adjusted) and custom 1, 2, &3. The P7100's auto WB system does a remarkably good job in essentially all outdoor shooting scenarios.
Auto White Balance, 5500k fluorescent light
The P7100 provides a comprehensive range of sensitivity options, including auto and user-set options for ISO 100 to ISO 6400. In addition the P7100 offers users more control over sensitivity than most of its competitors including High ISO sensitivity auto (ISO 100 to 1600), Fixed range auto (ISO 100 to 200, ISO 100 to 400, etc.), and Low noise night mode (ISO 400 to 12800). ISO 100 images show bright near neutral colors, noticeably better than average contrast, and very low noise levels. ISO 200 images also look very good, but with a tiny bit less pop.
ISO 100, 100% crop
ISO 200, 100% crop
ISO 400, 100% crop
ISO 800, 100% crop
ISO 1600, 100% crop
ISO 3200, 100% crop
At the ISO 400 setting noise levels are noticeably higher and there's a (barely) perceptible loss of minor detail, but the images are actually quite good - looking more like the ISO 200 images from many cheaper P&S digicams than ISO 400 images. Higher sensitivity settings (ISO 800 and up) show flat colors, reduced contrast, more image noise, and fuzzier details.
Additional Sample Images
The P7100 is not particularly compact, especially when compared to cameras like the LX5, the TL500, or the S100, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. Larger cameras provide a more stable shooting platform than smaller cameras. The P7100's impressively logical control array allows most primary functions/settings to be accessed directly - I only rarely needed to delve into the menu system. Based on my experiences with the P7100 it appears that Nikon has actually made significant improvements in operational speed and function ergonomics over the P7000.
Canon's "G" series compacts have been the top dog in the P&S digicam game for more than a decade. Excluding the new big-sensor GX1, the "G" PowerShot series is getting a little long in the tooth and is now facing some really stiff competition from the Panasonic LX5, Olympus XZ-1, Samsung TL500 and the new Nikon P7100. Today's upper tier point-and-shoot digital cameras are capable of consistently delivering near pro quality images and enlargements (up to 8 x 10 inches) from top tier point-and-shoots are essentially indistinguishable from images of the same size shot with entry level DSLRs like the Canon T3 or CSCs like the Panasonic GF3.
I don't believe there can be any doubt that the P7100 was designed specifically to compete with the G12. I suspect that Nikon's product development folks reverse engineered a G12 and then applied everything they'd learned to the new P7100. The two cameras are remarkably similar in design, weight, features, and functionality/usability. In my opinion the P7100 is the (slightly) better camera. The P7100 has a bit more reach at the long end of the zoom and the P7100's controls are more logical in their placement than those of the G12.
Either the Canon G12 or the Nikon P7100 will fit the bill nicely for advanced amateur shooters. The two cameras are more similar than they are different - in fact the two cameras are so similar that it's almost uncanny. Both are heavyweights, both have optical viewfinders, they cost the about same amount, and they both produce first rate 10 megapixel images. Potential purchasers will have to decide between the two cameras based on subtler criteria like zoom range, LCD resolution/LCD functionality, and the subjective "feel" of the two cameras. The good news is that the high-end compact class is now noticeably more crowded than it used to be and that's a good thing for consumers.