Hands-on: Nikon CoolPix P7000

by valrac4_a3kqdy

The Coolpix P7000 fits into a class called performance compacts. They’re small enough to take everywhere, but have the chops of enthusiast gear, promising to deliver in areas that matter: image quality, flexibility and responsiveness.

Nikon’s Coolpix P7000 has competition on two fronts. First, there are other performance compacts, such as the Canon G12 (these look like two peas in a pod) Canon S95 and Panasonic Lumix LX-5.

Forming a new front are Compact System Cameras like the Olympus E-P2, Panasonic GF2, Samsung NX-100 and Sony NEX-5, which bring a new set of specs to the table. They’re smaller than SLRs but offer SLR-size sensors and interchangeable lenses. They are also more expensive. However, if you want a small, competent camera you may find yourself looking at both classes, which means a much bigger pool of candidates for your short list.

Size and weight

The smallest camera I have for comparison is my own Olympus EP-1. It’s now a year and a half old but still one of the smaller models in this class. With a 17mm pancake lens, the EP-1 weighs roughly 460g, versus the P7000, at 360g. I carry the EP-1 around all day in my jacket pocket, so I’d say the weight difference isn’t critical. Body dimensions are also remarkably similar, although at rest, the P7000’s lens retracts completely into the body, whereas the EP-1’s skinny pancake lens protrudes 2.5 cm.

The overall size/weight advantage goes to P7000 for a couple of reasons, however. When you use a zoom lens with the EP-1 (or any CSC), weight goes up, but more critically, size increases. Even with the modest M.Zuiko 14-42 zoom, you need big pockets, and when you attach a lens that has a comparable telephoto reach of the P7000 (7.1 x zoom, roughly 28-200 mm), you’re way beyond pocket camera territory. Although more recent CSC models have smaller bodies than the EP-1, none have a 200mm telephoto that retracts flush to the body like the P7000’s does.

However, against direct competitors in the performance compact class, it and the Canon G12 are significantly bigger than models like the Panasonic Lumix LX-5 or Canon S95.

Responsiveness

Power up: The P7000 has a very short power-up cycle. If I’m carrying the camera with a wrist strap and hit the power button, by the time I bring it up to shooting position it’s ready.

Viewfinder: The P7000 also includes an optical viewfinder with dioptre adjustment. It’s small and shows only around 80 percent of what the sensor captures. In other words, for critical framing, the high-resolution LCD is essential. However, if you’re accustomed to tracking moving objects with an SLR, using the P7000’s viewfinder approximates that technique better than tracking with an LCD, for which you need to learn a different technique.

Autofocus: SLRs use a phase-detect technology for autofocus, which is significantly faster than the contrast-detect system that point-and-shoots use. Keeping this in mind, the P7000’s AF speed in normal light is reasonably quick and accurate. I don’t see AF responsiveness being an issue in ordinary outdoor shooting. AF speed is good. I compared it to a friend’s Panasonic Lumix ZS7 and they seemed comparable (I didn’t have a Lumix LX-5 at hand, which is a more direct competitor to the P7000).

Of course, the Achilles heel of this technology is performance in dim light or with low contrast subjects. To focus on dark objects some 4-6m away in dim corners of my house, the P7000 took longer and sometimes failed to achieve focus at all.  Even in brightly lit situations, the camera sometimes struggled with low contrast subjects.

Zoom control: With zoom control on the lens barrel (think interchangeable lenses), inputs are direct and response immediate. Like many point and shoots, the P7000 uses a collar around the shutter button with a stubby lever that you push left or right for zoom action. There’s a slight lag between lever action and lens reaction, which makes it hard to precisely frame because it’s too easy to overshoot or undershoot your mark.

Image processing: Compared to the near continuous shot-to-shot performance of SLRs, point and shoots typically have a more leisurely write time, so there is an interval when the camera locks up as it’s processing and writing data. During this interval you can’t take another shot. The P7000’s write performance is okay for JPEGs but it’s not a barnburner — around a second (using the pseudo-scientific one-one-thousand, two-one-thousand measurement method). However, it’s downright disappointing for RAW format files. After you’ve fire the shutter, the camera locks up for around five seconds. In burst mode, you can take five Raw shots, but the camera locks up for around 20 seconds. Burst rate for JPEGs is leisurely, but the camera doesn’t lock up for nearly as long.

A few years ago, we might have tolerated the lag, but in today’s market, this is lame, particularly when you consider the expectations of the performance-oriented photographer this camera is aimed at. Hopefully this can be improved with a firmware update.

Controls

The P7000 is a fine looking instrument. It wears the trappings of pro gear, and its controls look businesslike. It has three dials on the top deck. One is an exposure control dial that has PASM selections along with Scene mode, three user-defined marks, movie mode and a low-light setting. A second rotary dial gives quick access to white balance, ISO, image quality and image bracketing, etc. — although you have to make the adjustments on the onscreen display (there’s no secondary display that SLRs have). The third rotary dial is for exposure compensation, giving you +/- three stops in 1/3 stop increments. I initially thought this was a bit gratuitous, but soon came to appreciate how simple it was to dial in a change, compared to two-button dance with my SLR. But it’s easy to accidentally move the dial.

There are three programmable buttons. The Fn button is on the front. It’s easy to find and push when the camera is in shooting position. It can be programmed for one touch access to such functions include raw image format, ISO and white balance. Unfortunately adjustments within each are limited (another candidate for a firmware revision?). The Av/Tv button (hey, that’s Canon-speak) just east of the shutter can be set to toggle between Av and Tv modes, or to switch on or off various display features such as histograms, digital level or grid lines. The AE-L/AF-L button can be set for auto exposure lock or autofocus lock or both.

Nikon was a frontrunner in high-resolution LCDs and the P7000 carries a gorgeous 921K dot display. The menu system is divided into three tabs — shooting, playback and setup.

Image quality

Image quality is one area where cameras from all manufacturers continue to improve, so it would be a shock to discover that a camera didn’t produce clean images. I found the P7000’s JPEG images were remarkable throughout the sensitivity range (the P7000 goes to ISO 3200, and the Hi1 setting bumps that to ISO6400). Comparing RAW and Fine JPEG images, you can see the effects of in-camera noise reduction.

The JPEG images are very pleasing up to ISO1600. At that point you start to see the gentle tonal gradations being replaced by a bit of clumping, which gives smooth surfaces a mottled appearance. But even at ISO3200, it looks pretty good. At Hi1, the image shows noticeable degradation, but nothing near as objectionable as the severe clumps of artefacts that screamed “digital” a few years ago. And remember — we’re talking about ISO6400 in a point and shoot!

With raw files, coloured confetti is obvious from about ISO800 if you pixel peep, but raw file noise reduction is becoming easier and better, so I don’t see that as an issue. But the in-camera noise reduction is very good, so I’d be inclined to shoot JPEGs with this camera (given the performance drag of Raw processing).

Note: The P7000 doesn’t use the same raw format as Nikon’s SLRs. I used SilkyPix 4 to evaluate the NRW files because Adobe had not not yet updated the Camera Raw utility in Photoshop or Lightroom to include this format.

Conclusions

High Points

  • Camera aesthetics and construction: looks and feels like a fine instrument
  • Zoom range: with 28-200 mm at your fingertips, you won’t often miss lens interchangeability — plus a wide angle auxiliary lens is available.
  • Image quality: at web resolution or for small prints, even highest ISO settings are usable. In-camera noise reduction at high ISO creates usable, aesthetically pleasing JPEGS.
  • Class-leading 921K dot LCD display

Needs improvement

  • RAW capture is too slow for a performance-oriented camera
  • AF performance in some conditions
  • Zoom control is imprecise

Nikon CoolPix P7000 Camera Specifications

  • SRP: under $500 (current street is around $470)
  • Resolution: 10.1 megapixels
  • Image sensor: 1/1.7-in. RGB CCD, 10.39 total megapixels
  • Lens: 7.1x zoom Nikkor lens
  • Focal length: 6.0-42.6mm (35mm format equivalent to 28-200mm)
  • Minimum aperture: f/2.8-5.6
  • Lens construction: 11 elements in 9 groups (2 ED glass element, 4 aspherical lens elements)
  • Focus range (from lens): Approx. 50 cm (1 ft. 8 in.) to infinity (at wide-angle setting), approx. 80 cm (2 ft. 7 in.) to infinity (at telephoto setting), Macro mode: approx. 2 cm (0.8 in.) to infinity (at wide-angle setting)
  • Vibration Reduction (VR): Lens-shift type, Lens-shift type + electronic type
  • ISO sensitivity: ISO 100, 200, 400, 800, 1600, 3200, Hi 1 (ISO 6400), Auto modes, Low noise night mode (ISO 400 to 12800)
  • LCD monitor: 7.5 cm (3-in.), approx. 921k-dot
  • Image formats: JPEG, Raw (NRW, not NEF like Nikon SLRs), Raw+JPEG
  • Storage: SD/SDHC/SDXC memory card plus approx 80 MB built-in memory
  • Video: HD 720p (1,280 x 720/24 fps); VGA (640 x 480/30 fps) QVGA (320 x 240/30 fps)
  • Video recording format: MOV (H.264 video, PCM mono audio)
  • Programmed features: Face-priority (several modes); skin softening; smile timer (detects up to three smiling faces); in-camera red eye correction; AF tracking lock; 18 Scene modes
  • Power: Rechargeable Li-ion Battery EN-EL14 (74 v 1030 mAh), AC Adapter EH-5a (option)
  • Number of shots per charge:Approx. 350 frames with EN-EL14
  • Dimensions (width x height x depth)             Approx. 114.2 x 77.0 x 44.8 mm/4.5 x 3.0 x 1.8 in. (excluding projections)
  • Weight: 360 g/12.7 oz. (including battery and SD memory card)

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