Does the new compact camera from Nikon live up to it’s marketing hype as a compact camera with the features of a DSLR?
I recently got my hands on the new point and shoot from Nikon, the Coolpix P7000. Nikon’s Coolpix line of compact cameras has been the frequent target of much criticism over the years, and I have to agree with most of it. After all, I think I’m a better photographer than Ashton Kutcher (no offense)! I know a lot of pro photographers, myself included, who are looking for the ideal “point and shoot” camera. Why? Well, we take vacations, too. We don’t always want to lug that D300 or D700 around with a compliment of lenses– they are heavy to carry and large to pack. The problem is that as a professional, I have grown accustomed to having a certain degree of control over my camera and also a certain level of image quality. This is where most Coolpix offerings have fallen woefully short as compared to the competition. The Nikon P7000 has a number of features that are very appealing to the advanced photographer, including:
- 10MP sensor (reduced from 14MP in the P6000) ISO 100-3200, expandable to ISO 12,800.
- 28-200mm equivalent zoom lens with optical stabilization (VR)
- Large, 3″ high-resolution LCD screen
- M/A/S/P exposure modes in addition to the preset scene modes
- External controls for major features, including EV compensation
- Optical viewfinder with diopter adjustment
- Ability to produce a RAW (NRW-format) file
- Support for external shoe-mount CLS Speedlights
- 720p video recording
On paper, this looks to be an impressive little camera. Let’s see how it works in reality.
Interface and Controls
Most compact cameras offer fairly limited controls over exposure and image settings. Others offer these controls, but they bury them deep within software menus, making them cumbersome to access. For example, if you need to adjust exposure (EV) compensation, who wants to dig into three levels of menus to change a temporary setting? The P7000 solves this problem by providing access to most major exposure settings right from the camera body. There is a large EV compensation dial on the upper right of the camera, and a multi-function dial on the top-left that allows quick menu access to ISO, Image Quality, White Balance, Histogram display, Bracketing, and a “my menu” item that is customizable. Now, when I’m shooting a scene and I need to dial in a little -EV compensation, all I need to do is turn the dial on the top of the camera. When you activate one of these dials, a little amber LED lights up on the top of the camera, telling you that a control is active.
The traditional Nikon command dial is still in the standard position on the back of the camera, but instead of a front command-dial, Nikon has added a wheel on the back of the camera that looks suspiciously like the interface on most Canon cameras. Inside this wheel is a multi-selection button that gives access to flash, timer, and AF settings.
The 3″ LCD has 921,000 dots, putting it in the same class as the LCD’s found on Nikon’s DSLRs. It is easily viewed in bright light, and you can see plenty of detail in your images during review.
Nikon has added a button marked Av/Tv. What? Another Canon feature? This button, by default, simply allows the user to toggle the function of Aperture (Av) and Shutter Speed (Tv, or “time value”) between the command dial and the command wheel. If you prefer using the command dial to change aperture, just press the Av/Tv button and you can do it. Depending on what camera mode you are in, you can also customize the Av/Tv button to control other features, like the built-in ND filter. The front of the camera has a Function (Fn) button that can also be customized by the user to access Image Quality, ISO, WB, Picture Controls, Active D-lighting, or Metering Mode.
The only control that I wish was externalized was flash exposure compensation. I admit, it’s not something most people use all the time, but it was the one control that I wanted to be able to quickly dial in but had to dig through a menu to do it.
The camera has a small, round optical viewfinder that provides 80% frame coverage. There is a diopter adjustment wheel, but it was placed on the left side of the viewfinder, which makes adjusting the diopter focus a little tricky. The LCD monitor has three settings: Show Info mode, Hide Info mode, and off. Users can customize whether they want to overlay live histogram, virtual horizon, and gridlines into either of the active display modes. When the LCD is off, a green LED ring is illuminated around the on/off button, letting you know that the camera is on.
The Nikon P7000 has a 6.0-42.6mm f/2.8-5.6 lens, which equates to roughly a 28-200mm equivalent on a film camera. This is a great focal length range for an all-purpose camera, and a significant improvement from the P6000. The lens has Nikon’s optical VR stabilization, which I have found to work quite well. Since most people will not use the optical viewfinder (it only provides 80% frame coverage), having a stabilized lens is a great feature in a compact camera. The P7000 also incorporates in-body stabilization to add extra stability in low-light conditions.
Other cool features
- Hot-Shoe: The Nikon P7000 has a standard hot-shoe that can support a Nikon Speedlight or even the SU-800 commander unit. Note that only one off-camera group (Group A) is supported by the Coolpix P7000.
- Virtual Horizon: You can access a virtual horizon indicator (just like on the D3!) that is displayed on the camera LCD monitor. The only downside is that the indicator disappears when you hold down the shutter release part-way to lock focus. For tripod shooting, though, this is a welcome feature.
- ND-filter: The Coolpix P7000 has a built-in ND (neutral density) filter that can be deployed manually or automatically. You use this filter to get slower shutter speeds in bright light, as it cuts the light by about 2.5 stops.
- Auto Bracketing: If you like HDR photography, you can set up automatic exposure bracketing with the P7000. Just set the camera to produce 5 shots that are 1-stop apart, and when you click the shutter release once, the camera fires off the entire bracket series in quick succession! You can also bracket WB and ISO settings if you choose.
- Smile-detection timer: Ok, this is mostly a gimmick, but it actually works. Set up the camera timer to shoot a person or group of people, press the shutter release, and the camera won’t fire until someone smiles. While most pros don’t care about such a feature, I tried it and was amazed that it worked.
Performance in the field
I spent a week’s vacation in Mexico with only the Coolpix P7000, and I found it to work well in most situations. Image quality from ISO 100 (base) through 400 was very good, and I got usable images at ISO 800 that would be fine for smaller prints. I was able to process the raw (NRW) files in Nikon Capture NX 2.2.6, which enabled me to get even better quality than I would have shooting in JPEG mode. When shooting NRW files, I found that it took about 4 seconds to save files to a SanDisk Extreme III 30MB/s SD card. JPEGs write to the card in about 2 seconds. It would be nice to see Nikon improve the use of the memory buffer… you can shoot 5 NRWs continuously in about 2 seconds when in bracket mode, but in single-shot mode you have to wait for the shot to write to the card before you can take the next shot.
Autofocusing was relatively fast, and although I could induce hunting, this was usually due to me trying to focus on a low-contrast subject or focusing in macro mode on a subject that was too close to the lens. Note that when you are in macro (close-up) focusing mode, the closest focus settings are at the widest lens zoom settings. At the closest subject distances, I found Manual Focus to be best. Users can select from several autofocus options, including face-priority, full auto, center point, manual point (user selected) and a track-subject mode. You can also select between single-servo and continuous AF. In manual focus mode, you can enable a picture-in-picture view that shows a zoomed view of the focus area. This enables much better focus accuracy in manual mode.
I also tried shooting some video with the Coolpix P7000. The 720p HD quality was more than enough for my needs, and the audio was what I expected from a compact camera. I’m not going to do any production work with this thing, but it is perfectly good for capturing a family outing.
I’m still learning the Coolpix P7000, but I’ve been very happy with my purchase so far. Image quality is very good for a sensor of this size (1/1.7″), even at ISO 400. Noise is fairly well controlled and exists mostly in the luminance channel. While I’m still scratching my head as to why Nikon engineering decided on an entirely different RAW format (NRW) for Coolpix cameras, the fact that I can use Capture NX 2 as my editor means that I can process NRW files alongside NEFs with the same application and workflow that I normally use. That’s a huge advantage for Capture NX 2 users.
When you combine a set of easily-accessed controls with very good image quality (especially at base ISO 100), and a solid 28-200 VR lens, I think you’ll understand why I like this camera. No, it’s not perfect. Raw write times are kind of sluggish and the AF can get lost if you try to focus too close. But as an option for a reliable travel camera that won’t make me yearn for my D700 (at least not totally), the Nikon Coolpix P7000 is quite capable. I enjoyed the 720p video quality and I really think that the auto-bracket feature is excellent. I won’t hesitate to use this camera on family outings and other trips where a DSLR is just not practical.