Product Review: Nikon Coolpix P7000

November 10, 2010

By Dan Havlik

Nikon doesn’t win any points for originality with the 10.1-megapixel P7000—it closely resembles Canon’s recent G-series cameras—but the company did create a very good compact camera for serious photographers.

If imitation really is the sincerest form of flattery, one should look no further than the Nikon Coolpix P7000. This new flagship compact camera from Nikon bears such a striking resemblance to recent models in Canon’s G-series line, it’s almost uncanny. Not to say this is entirely a bad thing.

Canon’s previous G-series camera, the 10-megapixel G11, received great reviews last year including one from yours truly in the December 2009 issue of PDN. The recent follow-up to that model, the G12, doesn’t change a lot from its predecessor, keeping its 10-megapixel resolution while adding a 720p HD video recording function and a few other bells and whistles. (Look for a full review of the Canon PowerShot G12 in the December 2010 issue of PDN.)

From the distinctive right-sloping shoulder on its all-black body to its bevy of external knobs and buttons for quickly adjusting settings, the Nikon P7000 not only looks a lot like Canon’s G12 and G11, its quite different in appearance from its predecessor, the consumer-styled P6000. The P7000 also adds 720p HD video recording and drops its resolution down to 10.1 megapixels from 13.5 megapixels on the P6000. This is in keeping with a trend by some manufacturers—one which I encourage—to lower the resolution of compact cameras to improve image quality.
Yes, while the 1/1.17-inch CCD image chips in the P7000 and G12 are larger than what’s in most compact cameras on the market, they’re drastically smaller than imaging sensors in digital SLRs, and smaller chips mean smaller pixels which lead to noisier images at high ISOs. (Oh, were Canon or Nikon to put a DSLR-sized APS-C sensor into a compact camera, then we might have something truly special. But maybe that’s for next year’s models?)

Though the P7000 doesn’t have a flip-out, articulating LCD screen like the G12—which is a disappointment—Nikon’s 3-inch display is slightly larger in size. Also, the P7000 has the longer built-in zoom lens, extending all the way to 7x vs. 5x on G12. Both cameras’ lenses have a maximum aperture of f/2.8 which helps in shooting in low light and with blurring the background for portraits, but the P7000’s zoom adds ED glass elements to cut down on chromatic aberrations.

So while at first glance the two cameras may seem like illegitimate twin brothers, delve a little deeper and you’ll find some significant differences between these rivals, both good and bad. Let’s take a look.

While they may look superficially similar, the 12.7-ounce (with battery) Nikon P7000 is actually slightly slimmer and lighter than the G12. The P7000 is also a bit longer than the G12 and feels less hefty. The G12, on the other hand, is built like a small black brick which might make it more durable in the long run.

This is not to say the P7000 is a lightweight. It feels solid in your hand and I found the longer, more slender design easier to hold than the G12. The small rubberized handgrip on the right front of the P7000 gives you a good hold and shooting with the camera feels comfortable and natural.

Another significant change from its predecessor is the abundance of exterior control on the P7000, including access to full manual and Aperture-Priority and Shutter-Priority modes on the mode dial. Best of all is the EV dial on the top right of the camera which lets you quickly change exposure with your thumb. I also liked the Quick Menu Dial on the top left where you can adjust some of the most used settings, such as ISO, bracketing and white balance. I only wish the center button on the dia—which calls up an onscreen menu for adjusting settings—triggered the menu faster. This is one of several times while using the P7000 that I felt the camera was a step slow. More about that later.

Though there’s an optical viewfinder (with diopter control) on the camera, it’s pretty tiny and I prefer composing photos on the nice 3-inch, 921,000-dot LCD screen on back, which has anti-glare coating that helped while shooting outdoors.

What’s most odd about the screen, though, is that it’s slightly raised from the body, making it seem like it should be able to flip out and swivel to help you compose over-the-head and down low shots. As already stated though, the P7000’s screen is firmly fixed in place.

Another somewhat strange—though useful—feature on the P7000 is a button on the back of the camera that has what looks like a Pac-Man symbol on it. That actually triggers the pop-up flash, which while small, has a pretty good range: from a foot to 21 feet on the wide-angle; and two feet to 9 feet and ten inches on the telephoto. There’s also a hotshoe (iTTL) for an external flash, and in-camera wireless flash control with a commander mode. All in all, the P7000 will give pros a lot of the same control they have on their DSLR without excessive digging through menus.

Where the P7000 might frustrate pros is in its overall sluggish performance. Though these types of high-end compact cameras with professional features won’t ever (likely) replace your digital SLR, they’re great for catching discreet, on-the-fly candids of people and places. I used the P7000 at the Medieval Festival in New York City and during the Balloon Fiesta in New Mexico and while the image quality—which I’ll discuss in the next section—was solid, I was frustrated, at times, with how slowly the camera responded.

The P7000 uses Nikon’s new EXPEED 2 image processor and while it did well for tamping down noise at higher ISOs—the camera can shoot at up to ISO 6400 at full resolution—it lagged in operational speed. Though it powers up in less than a second, you really can’t take your first shot until about 3.5 seconds after the P7000 revs up and fully extends its 7x (28-200mm equivalent) lens.

While the menus are bright and clear, I found scrolling through them to be a time-consuming, herky-jerky experience. Good thing there’s so much external control on the P7000 though some adjustments require you hit the Function (Fn) button on the front of the camera which means placing an extra hand in an awkward position.

Shutter response, in my testing, was actually quite good with very little lag—about a quarter of a second—and virtually none when you pre-focused. It took close to a full second to focus, however, in dim conditions with the P7000’s auto assist lamp engaged.

Where I found the camera really struggled was in shot-to-shot performance, with the P7000’s taking about 2.5 seconds to write a Large/Fine JPEG image to the SD card and be ready to fire again. Continuous mode for shooting JPEGs was also not very impressive, with a maximum of 1.36 frames per second capture speed.

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—it was startlingly slow. I averaged over ten seconds between shots in RAW which is unacceptable (unless you’re shooting landscapes). And in terms of image quality, RAW produced the best results.

JPEGs from the P7000 tended to be a bit on the oversaturated side, particularly with Caucasian skintones which came out overly pinkish. This was most evident in the colorful characters I photographed at the Medieval Festival and the faces of attendees at the balloon festival. Overall, the effect might appeal more to consumers than pros since the pumped-up colors leave little room for adjustments in Photoshop. If you plan to shoot JPEGs with this camera, I’d suggest you experiment with the camera’s Neutral setting under Picture Control.

Though I was disappointed with the P7000’s speed and the quality of its JPEGs, the camera’s 7x (28-200mm) lens with VR (Vibration Reduction) image stabilization was extremely versatile and produced generally sharp results. Thanks to Nikon’s ED (Extra-low Dispersion) glass elements in the lens, I noticed few to no chromatic aberrations—what some people call “purple fringing”—in areas of high contrast; a common problem for point-and-shoot cameras.

Aperture range on the P7000 is f/2.8 at the wide angle to f/5.6 at the telephoto. Unsurprisingly I got my best results at f/2.8 especially in low light. If you’re looking for some serious shallow depth of field, though, you won’t get it even at the P7000’s fastest aperture. Like most compacts with fast apertures, the small sensor size will produce only a little beautiful blur—aka bokeh—behind your subject. No, it’s not like having an f/2.8 lens on a DSLR but it’s pretty darn good for a camera this small.

The lens has a neat trick called zoom memory which automatically extends to pre-set focal equivalents—35mm, 50mm, 85mm etc.—just by touching the zoom dial. The catch is you also must be pressing that awkwardly placed Fn button on the front of the camera.

Like other high-end compacts with 1/1.17-inch image sensors, there’s only so much these cameras can do at higher ISOs. With the P7000, I found that the most you’re going to want to push it is ISO 1600 which still gave me dollops of noise in the shadow areas. ISO 3200 and 6400 (Hi 1) were quite noisy while the Low Noise Night Mode on the mode dial which can record as high as ISO 12,800 is for emergencies only since it records images at just 3 megapixels.

I shot very nice HD video clips with the P7000 though the camera can only shoot at up to 720p. Sound quality through the built-in stereo mic was only so-so but there is a 3.5mm stereo microphone jack for attaching something more professional. There’s also a mini HDMI port for playing your movies directly on an HDTV. (But you’ll have to purchase your own cord.)

Other features I liked were the Tone Level Information setting which shows you how much detail you have or lose in the shadows and highlights of an image; the virtual horizon level for help with straightening shots; and the built-in ND (Neutral Density) filter. On the downside, I wish Nikon had kept and improved upon the GPS functionality on the P6000. Instead, they decided to dump GPS altogether on the P7000.

While the design of Nikon’s new flagship Coolpix camera may not be particularly original, the 10.1-megapixel P7000 is a big step forward for Nikon in the advanced compact camera category. After the dismal performance and poor reviews of the P6000 from a few years back, Nikon has clearly decided “if you can’t beat them, join them” and produced a camera with style and features similar to its biggest competitor, Canon. If it’s not quite as good an all-around performer as Canon’s latest G-series models, the Nikon Coolpix P7000 excels in some areas such as its more versatile lens and its robust feature-set. I only wish the P7000 were snappier to use overall and didn’t, occasionally, feel a step behind the action. For Nikon users wondering when, if ever, the company was going to make a quality flagship Coolpix camera that can ably sub for a DSLR in a pinch, the wait is finally over.

Nikon Coolpix P700

 Pros: Nice 7x (28-200mm) lens with ED glass elements and VR optical image stabilization; virtually no shutter lag when you prefocus; good 720p HD mode with stereo audio; excellent external control; camera fits comfortably in your hand.

Cons: Design too closely emulates Canon’s latest G-series cameras; sluggish performance overall; LCD screen doesn’t extend from body; awkwardly placed Function button.

 Price: $499