Nikon Coolpix P5100 Overview
by Mike Pasini
Review Date: 02/19/08
The Nikon Coolpix P5100 couples a sensor resolution of 12 megapixels to a Nikkor-branded 3.5x optical zoom lens with optical image stabilization. The Nikon 5100 offers up a 2.5 inches LCD display with a higher-than-average 230,000 pixel resolution, as well as an optical viewfinder -- an increasingly rare option these days, and one that's useful in difficult lighting conditions or when you need to economize on battery life.
For the enthusiast, the Nikon P5100 offers full program, shutter, aperture, and manual exposure modes as well as 15 scene modes appreciated by less experienced photographers. Hi-ISO and movie modes are also provided. Adding to the Nikon P5100's versatility is its compatibility with add-on lens converters, such as Nikon's telephoto and wide-angle lens converters.
The Coolpix P5100 features a quality-crafted body made of solid magnesium alloy, and the body features a quality finish with a comfortable grip covered in grid-pattern rubber. The built-in accessory shoe adds support for Nikon Speedlights and advanced i-TTL flash control.
The Nikon P5100 derives its power from a lithium-ion battery, and images are stored on SDHC/SD/MMC cards, plus 52MB of built-in memory.
The Nikon Coolpix P5100 ships in September 2007, priced at about US$400.
Nikon P5100 User Report
by Mike Pasini
Intro. "Yes," we wrote in our bleary-eyed report after a night on the town with the P5100, "it focuses faster than the P5000." Nikon had invited us to Ruby Skye to see the current line-up for ourselves. The dark environs of the club showed off both high ISO and autofocus assist performance. A tough act.
We liked the P5000 when we saw it as a concept at CES early this year and we loved much about it when we reviewed it in July. It was about the most comfortable digicam we'd ever used. Attractive to look at with just a few easy-to-remember buttons and the best menu system we've seen.
But it had some problems. Autofocus lag and image quality were both issues. We even asked Nikon (pleaded really) for an explanation and a promise of a firmware update. No dice.
Instead, Nikon has released the P5100.
The body is identical except for less chrome trim. That's worth some applause right there. It's one of the most attractive and yet comfortable digital cameras ever conceived. Its serious demeanor insists it's a rangefinder, not another plastic point-and-shoot digital camera. Indeed, it's magnesium alloy, not plastic; and it feels like a glove with its leather-like rubber wrapped around a real grip.
The Nikon P5100 is also a good deal smaller than it looks, rivaling subcompacts in height and width, although it's too thick to fight in that weight class. It will, however, fit in a shirt pocket. And that's a big plus.
Inside, there are a few changes from the P5000. It has more megapixels with a larger sensor, for one (that's rare). You now have 12 megapixels instead of 10, and a new die size that affects the zoom lens slightly, too, which now ranges from 35mm to 123mm (35mm equivalent) compared to the P5000's 36-126mm range. They've also included an update to Nikon's Expeed digital image processing engine that "reproduces the finest details and subtlest tones with precision and clarity, even when taking advantage of sensitivity settings as high as ISO 3,200," according to the company.
And, simply put, it feels faster in normal use than the P5000. Again it came down to focusing mode, with a twist. But more on that later.
Design. One thing almost everyone who's handled the P5100 agrees on is how well designed the body is. The grip is substantial and wrapped in a textured rubber that's a pleasure to hold. There's a matching thumb pad on the back, so you have no question about how to hold this machine.
In addition to the high resolution 2.5-inch LCD with 230,000 pixels, there's an optical viewfinder (with no diopter adjustment, however) that shows about 81 percent of the captured image, slightly off-center. The LCD was usable in bright sunlight, by a hair. It features an anti-reflection coating on its shiny surface. There's no live histogram, but you do get grid lines on one of the three display options.
There are only five buttons along the left side of the LCD: a programmable Function button, a Display button, the Playback button, the Menu button, and the Trash button. On the other side of the LCD is the four-way navigator and OK button. The Up arrow handles Flash mode, Right handles EV, Down shows Focusing modes, including Macro, and Left is the Self-Timer. If you've used any digicam before, you'll feel right at home immediately.
On top, it gets interesting. The Command dial, which you usually only find on a dSLR, helps you scroll through menu options. I really like Command dials and prefer them to free-wheeling navigator dials. This one is big and easy to find on the back right edge just above your thumb.
The Power button is small but efficient, and the Shutter button, sitting on the sloped front of the grip, is right where your index finger expects to find it. It's surrounded by the Zoom lever, which is also well-located on such a small digital camera.
The Mode dial is where the action is, and like any serious camera there's plenty of it. Setup mode sits alone, so you don't have to twist your way through a stack of menus to get to it. The comforting green Auto mode stands between the specialty modes of Anti-Shake, Hi ISO, Scene, and Movie modes. On the other side of Auto are the Programmed Auto, Shutter Priority, Aperture Priority and Manual modes.
At the far left end of the top panel is the covered hot shoe. There are contacts there for Nikon's intelligent strobes, so you can do more with this hot shoe than many others.
And underneath where the battery/memory card compartment is, the metal tripod socket is right in the middle.
The Nikon P5100 dares you to call it a point-and-shoot. It's a serious design, well conceived, well implemented. It's going to remind a lot of people of those rangefinders invented to use movie film that were all we had before SLRs were invented.
What doesn't come across in most pictures of it is just how compact the Nikon P5100 really is. It wasn't so heavy in my shirt pocket that I had to bend over or yank my collar back. You don't have to sling the Nikon P5100 over your shoulder to take it somewhere.
Despite its similarity to the P5000, you can instantly tell the two apart. The silver highlights of the P5000 are almost all black on the Nikon P5100, with only a gray or chrome ring left in tribute. The lens itself is black with one gray ring and the lens ring that removes to attach the adapter for converter lenses is now black, too, with a chrome accent. The Mode dial and command dial are both black, the Mode dial with a chrome accent. And the formerly silver buttons and navigator on the back are all now black. The strap eyelets are still chrome, though.
That move to black helps reduce the Nikon P5100 body's reflectance when you are shooting through glass or trying to capture highlight polished surfaces. That's why you don't find chrome on pro gear.
A less obvious pleasure of the Nikon P5100 is the menu system. It's not only an attractive grayscale scheme with yellow/white highlights that never confuses you, it also remembers where it was. If you were adjusting Focus Mode, then the next time you press Menu, you're at the Focus Mode settings. That turns the Menu button into a pseudo function button, saving a lot a fiddling around to make a simple adjustment.
I also like the option to use either a text-based list or an icon-based display of the Nikon P5100's menu options. I prefer text by nature (you had no idea, I'm sure) but the advantage of an icon display is that everything fits on one screen. And you still have a text label for the sometimes mysterious icons, so you aren't really giving anything up.
Performance. The pressing question about the Nikon P5100 is how well it performs, especially in comparison to the P5000.
On this score, we have some hard numbers from the lab. And we have some personal impressions from both the lab and myself. Let's look at the numbers first.
The lab numbers on startup time are wildly divergent, but they don't reflect my experience with the two cameras. Instead, they seem to reflect different startup settings, in which the Welcome screen has not been disabled. When you disable it in the Setup menu, the Nikon P5100 starts up quickly, despite the telescoping zoom lens. And it shuts down just as quickly, too, unlike the P5000, which took a bit longer to shut down.
Combined wide angle and telephoto autofocus lag is quite a bit faster on the Nikon P5100, confirming Nikon's claims for the camera. It measured 0.91 second on the P5000, and now measures 0.68 second for full autofocus at wide angle. Telephoto is 0.93 second on the P5000, and 0.75 on the Nikon P5100. Both averages are a little higher than most of the numbers we collected, because the Nikon P5100 randomly took as long as 1.04 seconds to focus, instead of 0.625.
Cycle time is about the same, as is flash cycle time. Download speed was a bit slower, among the slowest USB 2.0 speeds we've seen.
LCD size, optical zoom range, and weight are identical.
The lab guys also noted image corruption shooting in Continuous shutter mode at small image sizes despite using different SD cards. I used my own SanDisk Ultra II 1.0GB card to shoot with the Nikon P5100 because it doubles as a USB card, making my life easier. I reformatted the card before I started shooting and shot at a variety of image sizes before trying to reproduce the problem. My 640x480 shots taken in Continuous mode were not corrupt.
Out in the real world I did experience some hard-to-fathom failures to find focus. The Nikon P5100 offers four focus modes: Face priority (apparently improved over the P5000), Area mode (Auto), Manual, and Center. I stuck with Area mode, which seemed to do better than Center. But it was frustrating seeing the Nikon P5100 rack right by focus on something like the Logitech NuLOOQ (at right) and complain it couldn't find focus.
That was a rare experience and it can happen with any contrast-detection focus system. What mattered more to me was how quickly the Nikon P5100 could find focus on a confusing scene. Could I steal a shot every now and then?
Yes, I could. I could whip the Nikon P5100 up to eye level, frame the scene with the Zoom lever and press the Shutter button without worrying about or waiting for focus. And that was with Auto Focus mode set to Single rather than Full-time. It pays to fiddle with your settings to optimize performance for your shooting style.
But what you shoot matters too. I held onto the Nikon P5100 long enough to take it to a two-year-old's birthday party. The first thing I did was set Auto Focus to Face Priority.
That was interesting. The Nikon P5100 turned into a different beast. It often failed to find a face (there were a lot of people, few of them actually looking at the camera), so focusing took a bit longer. But it also seemed to take a while to process the image after I took the shot. I'd often fire the shutter and drop the camera only to see the Nikon P5100 still not return to live mode. That happened with the Coolpix S51c, too.
Still, I never felt I missed a shot. The Nikon P5100 was responsive.
Modes. A serious digicam should have Programmed Auto, Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, and Manual modes. And the Nikon P5100, like its predecessor, does.
Of course, they aren't worth much if they don't themselves offer any options. But on the Nikon P5100, you have room to play. This is where the command dial really shines. Simply stretch your thumb off the thumb pad to dial in the setting you want.
In Aperture Priority mode, the aperture ranges depend on the focal length. At wide angle, the aperture ranges from f/2.7 to f/7.6, while at telephoto it ranges from f/5.3 to f/7.3.
In Shutter Priority mode, the shutter speed ranges from 1/2 to 1/1,000 second in whole stops (1/15, 1/30, 1/60, 1/125, etc.).
In Manual mode, of course, you get your pick of both options through those ranges. You use the EV command (the Right arrow) to switch between shutter speed and aperture. An exposure dial above them indicates over and under exposure.
And Programmed Auto lets you select different combinations of shutter speed and aperture that resolve to the same exposure value. Specialty modes include: Anti-Shake, Hi ISO, Scene, and Movie.
Anti-Shake mode cranks up the Nikon P5100 to minimize camera shake, helpful when shooting at full telephoto in natural light. It turns on Vibration Reduction (Nikon's lens shift image stabilization technology), Best Shot Selection is set (saving the sharpest one of up to five images shot at once), and ISO is set to 1,600. Shutter speed is set faster than Auto would set it under the same lighting conditions. Flash is disabled as well.
Hi ISO just lets the Auto ISO extend up to ISO 1,600.
The 15 Scene modes include: Portrait, Landscape, Sports, Night Portrait, Party/Indoor, Beach/Snow, Sunset, Dusk/Dawn, Night Landscape, Close Up, Museum, Fireworks Show, Copy, Backlight, and Panorama Assist.
I used Night Lightscape to shoot some homes lit up with Christmas decorations and was pleased to see the various colored bulbs rendered accurately.
You can also record voice memos with the Nikon P5100, a very handy function.
Movie mode offers seven options:
- TV movie: 640x480 pixels at 30 frames per second
- TV movie: 640x480 at 15 fps
- Small size: 320x240 at 15 fps
- Smaller size: 160x120 at 15 fps
- Time-lapse movie: 640x480 at 30 fps interval shooting
- Sepia movie: 320x240 at 15 fps in sepia
- B&W movie: 320x240 at 15 fps in black and white
A 256MB card can record a 3 minute, 40 second high quality movie. You can record as long as you have free space. The maximum size for a movie file, however, is 4GB.
You can use digital zoom while shooting a movie. It was smooth, but you can't vary the speed of the zoom. Audio recording is monaural.
Accessories. One of the delights of choosing Nikon is the Nikon system. You aren't just buying a camera, you're buying a photographic system that can be extended in ways you may not be able to imagine at the time of purchase. Wireless flash. Macro photography tools like bellows and reversing rings.
The Nikon P5100 taps into that system several ways. Two that matter are the hot shoe for flash illumination and the lens adapter for converter lenses.
Hot shoe. The Nikon P5100's hot shoe sports several contacts, not just the firing pin. So the Coolpix P5100 can talk to Nikon's SB-400, SB-600, and SB-800 speedlights.
I mounted an SB-800 on the Nikon P5100 and watched as Nikon's iTTL mode took over, reading the ISO setting from the camera, power zooming along with the lens, and indicating the usable working range as I changed the camera's settings.
The strobe power was controlled by the camera, too, shutting down when the camera powered down. Nikon says that exposure with external flash units is controlled by a "sensor flash system," which seems to function like a through-the-lens sensor. Many digicams have a flash sensor that just measures the total amount of light being reflected back toward the camera. They can't adjust for changing subject content as you zoom in on a scene.
You can't use the built-in flash to command the external flash wirelessly and there's neither a PC sync connector nor one of Nikon's proprietary Coolpix flash cable connectors to move the flash off camera. You can, however, disable the internal flash when an external flash is connected.
Of course, you can always mask the built-in flash so it doesn't shine on the subject, and use the indirect light from it to fire an external flash as a slave. You do need a smart slave trigger, though, to avoid firing the remote flash on the P5100's initial metering flash, rather than the exposure itself.
The SB-800 manual coyly explains that when connected to a Coolpix hot shoe, the flash output level is controlled "by detecting signals from the camera to determine when to start and stop firing." In my tests, it worked very well, my only regret was I couldn't easily fire the SB-800 off the camera. Nikon does make an iTTL-compatible hot-shoe extension cable for use with their flashes, but I didn't have access to one. But using the SB-800 with the included diffuser, I got some of the best flash shots I've ever seen from a digital camera.
You can see two in the P5100 gallery -- a shot of a bookshelf and, right next to it, a carved figure. The P5100's light was diffused by the included diffuser and bounced from the ceiling, which accounts for the position of the shadow in the second image. Shadows are generally a lot softer and there's no possibility of red-eye with this setup. And it's easy to carry and shoot with an external flash mounted on the camera.
Converter Lenses. When I reviewed the P5000, I badgered Nikon for a lens adapter. They graciously included the new wide angle converter. I used that and the old wide angle converter and the TC-3 telephoto converter I use with my old Coolpix 990. They worked even better on the P5100.
While I prefer seeing the distortion a wide angle view presents, the Nikon Coolpix P5100 can correct that -- something worth thinking about if you shoot interiors a lot, where distortion can be disturbing. To see the effect of the correction for yourself, take a look at the two P5100's gallery shots of a brick patio. The second shot enables the correction and it does an excellent job straightening out the lines.
With the teleconverter, distortion isn't an issue. Finding focus was troublesome, though. And the hardware itself is something less than unobtrusive. Especially when you consider you're getting no more than roughly a 10x zoom. But at least you're getting a 10x zoom with true optical image stabilization.
I didn't have an adapter (or time to get one) when the P5100 was here, but the converter lenses not only give the P5100 a Model T appearance, they're great ways to stretch your photographic vision.
Storage and Battery. The proprietary, 3.7 volt, 1,100 mAh, EN-EL5 lithium-ion battery rates about 240 shots. The charger is a compact unit but does require a cord (rather than folding plugs). An AC adapter is also available as an option, which plugs into the right side of the camera.
The P5100, like all Nikon digicams, offers three levels of JPEG compression: Fine, Normal, and Basic. Normal really is sufficient for most work, although the gallery shots are shot in Fine just to show the least manipulation. There is no Raw mode on the P5100.
A 256MB card will hold 42 highest-resolution images (4,000 x 3,000 pixels) at the least compression.
Image Quality. The most important aspect of a camera, however, is its image quality. And with a new 12-megapixel sensor, we start our evaluation from scratch.
We did wonder, however, if this was the same CCD sensor showing up in a rash of other recent 12-megapixel cameras. It hardly matters, though, because without a Raw mode, you only see what Nikon has manipulated post-capture using its Expeed technology.
So what do you see?
Well, I was glad not to see the flare I saw in the P5000's hydrant shot. The Nikon P5100's hydrant shot is pretty well contained. Highlights still have detail if shadows are pretty plugged up, but there's no flare. Unfortunately, flare does appear in the orchid shot at left, appearing as a halo around the backlit petals. You can also see it in the Still Life Shot, especially above the Samuel Smith bottle's label.
Color is good from the Nikon P5100, though. The red fire box really is leaning toward yellow rather than blue and the P5100 got that even though the sun was burning right at it. I was particularly pleased with how well the Nikon P5100 held the color in the orchid shot.
I took a series of ISO 1,600 shots under very low light and got very noisy images. Here I've reproduced a 100 percent crop showing the original image and the same crop after processing with Imagenomics Noiseware using the default setting.
In Auto ISO mode, the P5100 restricts itself to values below ISO 800, preferring ISO 64. If you attach a Speedlight, ISO is restricted to ISO 400 and below. In Manual mode, it's actually locked at ISO 64. There are also three fixed ranges you can choose in Programmed Auto, Shutter Priority, or Aperture Priority modes. They include ISO 64-100, ISO 64-200, and ISO 64-400.
If you find yourself (as I do) fiddling with ISO as much as the camera does, you can assign the command to the Function button and use the Command dial to select any value up to 3,200. The arrow keys mysteriously don't work with the Function key, so remember to use the Command dial.
Macro performance was very good, although you're restricted to the wide-angle end of the range. You can zoom a bit there to compose, but you don't have much elbow room.
Lens distortion was pretty well contained, but this is only a 3.5x zoom, after all. Telephoto showed no measurable distortion while wide angle exhibited only a moderate barrel distortion. Chromatic aberration was rather low at wide angle and disappeared at telephoto.
The lens was relatively sharp, though, exceeding 1,650 lines of resolution both horizontally and vertically. You can actually see clear rules past 1,800 lines with some color artifacts from the JPEG compression.
This is all borne out by our Still Life shot where you can see detail in the white cloth under the dark coffee cup and the mosaic pattern in the dark vinegar label.
Appraisal. So it does indeed seem that the Nikon P5100 improves on the P5000 in terms of shutter response. Face Priority autofocus isn't quite as quick as others we've used, however. I enjoyed using this camera to take more contemplative shots, but the Nikon P5100 didn't seem too hip at a party, thinking a bit too much after each shot. Still, I was happy with the Nikon P5100.
Based on its size and resolution, the sensor in the Nikon Coolpix P5100 appears to be the same as the one in the Canon PowerShot A650 we just reviewed. Though Canon and Nikon's approaches to noise control and sharpening are different, as we expected the performance was similar. The Canon's 6x lens appears to be a little sharper overall, with a little less flare, and great corner sharpness, but the Nikon P5100 handles our Multi Target shot much better, delivering smooth lines where the Canon has trouble properly aliasing in places. Both are worthy competitors, though, and you can easily trade off between the two depending on whether you want a smaller package with a lithium-ion battery and a flash hot shoe with the Nikon P5100, or a longer zoom with AA batteries, faster autofocus and a swivel screen with the Canon A650 IS. Both have image stabilization and a full set of auto and manual exposure modes, optional accessories, and take great shots, so take your pick.
- 12.1-megapixel sensor
- 3.51x optical zoom (35-123mm 35mm equivalent)
- 4x digital zoom with Crop restriction to maintain image quality
- Optical viewfinder
- 2.5-inch LCD with 230,000 pixels and anti-reflection coating
- ISO sensitivity from 64 to 3,200
- Max Aperture: f/2.7
- SDHC/SD memory card support
- Custom lithium-ion battery provides 240 shots
- Optical Vibration Reduction image stabilization
- Telephoto and wide angel converters with adapter
- Hot shoe for i-TTL compatible Nikon speedlights
- D-Lighting, In-Camera Red-Eye Fix, Face Priority AF
- 1/1.72-inch CCD
- Macro close-up mode from 1.6 inches (4cm) to infinity
- Auto ISO from 64 to 800
- 52MB internal memory
- Text or Icon interface options with context-sensitive Help
- 15 Scene modes: Portrait, Landscape, Sports, Night Portrait, Party/Indoor, Beach/Snow, Sunset, Dusk/Dawn, Night Landscape, Close Up, Museum, Fireworks Show, Copy, Backlight, and Panorama Assist
- Interval timer
- Voice memo recording
- Magnesium body
In the Box
The Nikon Coolpix P5100 ships with the following items in the box:
- Nikon Coolpix P5100 body
- Accessory shoe cover
- EN-EL5 Rechargeable Li-ion Battery
- MH-61 Battery Charger
- UC-E6 USB Cable
- EG-CP14 Audio Video Cable
- AN-CP16 Strap
- Software Suite CD-ROM
- Large capacity SD/SDHC memory card. These days, 1-2 GB is a good tradeoff between cost and capacity.
- Small camera case like the P Series cases for outdoor and in-bag protection
- EH-62A AC Adapter
- WC-E67 Wide-angle Converter
- TC-E3ED Telephoto Converter
- UR-E20 Adapter Ring
- SB-400 Speedlight, SB-600 Speedlight, SB-800 Speedlight
My P5000 review concludes, "If its autofocus were just a bit faster, it'd be a hands-down winner." By that standard, the Nikon P5100 is a hands-down winner.
But then, I cheated. I preferred using Spot autofocus and half-pressing the Shutter button. That made it simple for the Nikon P5100 to find focus (or for me to realize it couldn't and therefore move my focus point to something clear, fix the focus, recompose, and shoot).
The Nikon P5100 also seems to take its time processing images, which can be disturbing in a setting where there's a lot going on. I almost wished there were a six-megapixel version of this camera to get enough detail and more speed.
But take the Nikon P5100 on a walk and it really shines. Size is one of the Nikon Coolpix P5100's strongest arguments. Packing this much photographic control and quality into such a light and compact form is an unusual achievement, and enough to call the Nikon P5100 a Dave's Pick.