Camera Review: Nikon Coolpix P7700

December 21, 2012

By Dan Havlik

It’s taken Nikon three tries to make a decent, high-end compact camera but with the Coolpix P7700, they seem to have finally done it. The problem is, the rest of the imaging world has already moved on from this type of camera.

Flagship compacts with better-than-average, built-in lenses and higher quality image sensors have been popular since Nikon’s main rival, Canon, launched the well-regarded PowerShot G-series line back in the early 2000s. Canon G-series cameras have been well liked by photographers looking for a quality, portable back-up camera for when they don’t want to use their digital SLR; Canon Gs have come to dominate the market for the last decade.

In 2010, Nikon responded with the Coolpix P7000, a camera that looked so similar to Canon’s G12, it was uncanny. In terms of performance however, the 10-megapixel P7000 seriously lagged its rival, with a slow overall operating speed that made the camera frustrating to use. Things improved with Nikon’s follow-up to that model, the P7100, but shot-to-shot times, particularly when shooting RAW images, were still annoyingly slow.

Now comes the P7700, which increases the resolution of its 1/1.7-inch, backside illuminated CMOS image sensor to 12.2 megapixels while offering a brand new lens with better specs: a 7.1x (28-200mm equivalent) zoom with a maximum aperture of f/2 at the wide end and f/4 at telephoto. And, for a change, the P7700 has a different look than Canon’s latest G-series cameras, with a more rectangular design and a fully articulating, 3-inch, left-hinged, vari-angle LCD screen on back. (The previous model’s LCD only tilted out from the camera body.)

On the downside, Nikon’s done away with the optical viewfinder on this camera, so you’ll have to compose all your shots via the flip-out display. On the plus side, they’ve finally added full 1080p, HD video shooting on the P7700 and a stereo mic jack, for a better overall video experience.

While all these features are nice upgrades, they’re not exactly revolutionary. Canon, for its part, has already released the PowerShot G1 X, which uses a large, 1.5-inch, 14.3-megapixel CMOS sensor that was a dynamite performer in low light at high ISOs during our testing. (Check out our review of the G1 X from the May 2012 issue of PDN.)

Meanwhile, Sony has introduced both the slim, 20.2-megapixel Cyber-shot RX100, which uses a 1-inch sensor (TIME named the RX100 an “invention of the year” for 2012), and the RX1, a compact system camera, which, for the first time, boasts a 24.3-megapixel, full-frame CMOS sensor. Now that’s what I call revolutionary!

Having said all that, the Nikon P7700 has enough improvements and new features that it should certainly be considered by Nikon fans looking for a solid portable camera. Here’s more of what I thought of this new flagship Coolpix camera.

New Look
The first thing you’ll notice about the P7700, if you’re familiar with the previous two models, is that it appears that the top of the camera has been lopped off. This is not merely an esthetic choice, though I do like the simpler, more rectangular shape of the P7700 compared to its predecessors. The camera’s new, bigger, brighter lens takes up extra space, so instead of making the camera top heavy by stacking the optical viewfinder above the larger lens, Nikon decided to get rid of the top section of the camera altogether, which housed the optical viewfinder.

Some photographers clearly will not like this choice by Nikon. Personally though, I’m not particularly upset. While optical viewfinders help out when shooting in bright light, they’re so tiny on compact cameras and their accuracy when shooting with a 7x zoom lens is so spotty, I tend not to use them at all.

The P7700’s squared off design also makes it more portable and less susceptible to getting snagged in your bag. Overall, the camera looks and feels solid, with a comfortable, rubberized handgrip and a professional black-matte magnesium alloy body. Another side product of having a bigger, faster built-in zoom lens, is that there are no built-in shutters that automatically cover the lens when it’s powered down. The unappealing but inevitable alternative is that the P7700 now has a small lens cap that’s easy to lose track of. The other side effect is more accidental smudging on the front glass element. Bring a lens cloth.

Like its predecessors, the P7700 has plenty of external control, including dials on the top deck to switch it into manual mode and to adjust exposure compensation. The Quick Menu Dial returns on the camera’s top left shoulder, letting you quickly adjust some of the most used settings, such as ISO, bracketing and white balance. It’s a nice feature but the dial turns a little too freely and feels imprecise.

While there are many photographers who will bemoan the deletion of the optical viewfinder on the P7700, the 3-inch, vari-angle LCD screen, which boasts a very good resolution of 921,000 dots, is a nice alternative. Unlike the previous model that had its vari-angle screen on a hinge that only tilted back and away from the camera body, the P7700’s display tilts and swivels to the side, allowing you to adjust it in a variety of angles for more composition options.

Despite losing the optical viewfinder, the overall build and design of the P7700 feels more solid and serious than its P-series Coolpix predecessors.

The previous two cameras in this line, particularly the P7000, were plagued with performance issues, which could make shooting with them a frustrating experience. While the P7100 was an improvement with its overall operational speed ramped up considerably from the previous camera, it still suffered from slow shot-to-shot times, particularly when shooting RAW images.

The good news is the P7700 is noticeably faster shot-to-shot when shooting Large/Fine JPEGs, taking about a second between snaps to be ready to shoot again. I shot with this camera during the annual New York Comic Con event at the Javits Center and while it was a largely successful experience—I got lots of wacky portraits of Comic Con attendees in full costume—the P7700 often took an extra split-second to lock-in focus under the dodgy convention center lights. This was most annoying because it caused me to miss some colorful candid shots and while the lighting wasn’t terrific, the P7700 should have done better.

It’s also still glacially slow when shooting in the camera’s RAW mode, which uses a proprietary NRW format that is somewhat reduced in size compared to the NEF format in Nikon’s DSLRs. I averaged about eight seconds between shots in RAW. That’s a one-second improvement from the P7100 but still unacceptable.

Part of this might be due to the fact that the P7700 still uses Nikon’s EXPEED C2 image processor, which first appeared in 2010. While the camera can technically shoot at eight frames per second in its Continuous mode, it can only capture six frames before its buffer clogs up and it must pause for five seconds before it can shoot again.

Image Quality
In terms of image quality, I’d put the Nikon P7700 on par with the previous model but with a bit more detail thanks to the slight uptick in resolution. The faster lens in the P7700—the maximum aperture on the previous model was f/2.8—did make a difference in my image results, letting me shoot when there was less available light and helping to create more background blur in my portraits.

But because of the small, 1/1.7-inch size of the P7700’s sensor—which is bigger than what is in most compacts but nowhere near what you’d find in even an entry-level DSLR—the camera’s bokeh, even when shot at f/2, was not particularly dramatic.

For a camera with its sensor size, the P7700 did a decent job in low light with manageable image noise at up to ISO 1600. Like the previous model though, ISO 3200 and 6400 (Hi 1) produced images that were rather noisy and should be used sparingly. Interestingly, the Low Noise Night Mode on the previous model, which could shoot at up to ISO 12800 but at a drastically reduced resolution, is not available on the P7700. Good thing too since we found it produced only mixed results.

I was happy that Nikon has given the P7700 a full 1080p HD video mode (at 30p) and my movie results were quite good, particularly when I attached a stereo microphone to the 3.5mm jack for better sound. Again, this is not going to replace shooting 1080p with a full-frame DSLR, such as the Canon 5D Mark III or Nikon D600, but it produced very usable results for most basic video projects.

The Bottom Line
No, the Nikon P7700 is not going to knock your socks off when stacked up against something like the Canon G1 X and its large, nearly DSLR-sized sensor but that camera is $300 more expensive and considerably bulkier than this new flagship Coolpix model. All of which shows how far these high-end compacts have come. Judged on its own merits, the P7700 is the top-of-the-line portable camera Nikon should have released a few years ago, with good image quality; a nice 7x zoom lens with a maximum f/2 aperture; a sweet, side-swiveling, 3-inch LCD screen; a full 1080p HD video mode; and a design that is attractive, functional and more original than previous P-series models. The P7700 is also a faster performer, all-around, than its predecessors even while using an older processor that had trouble, at times, quickly pushing through larger images. (In particular, the P7700 was still slow in processing RAW files.) Overall though, I generally enjoyed shooting with the P7700. Is it the first camera I’d buy if I were shopping for a high-quality compact? Probably not, but it would certainly be in the running.

Pros: Simpler, more original camera design; faster to use overall; nice, new 7x zoom lens with maximum f/2 aperture at the wide end; finally offers full 1080p HD video shooting; gorgeous, high-resolution, side-swiveling, 3-inch LCD screen

Cons: Still has some performance issues particularly when shooting RAW images; mediocre focus performance in bad lighting; no optical viewfinder; average low-light performance for a camera in this class

Price: $499;

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