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*Color accuracy is one of the most important factors in image quality. Inaccurate colors result in ugly, unnatural, or dull photographs. We test color accuracy by photographing an industry standard GretagMacbeth ColorChecker test chart under bright, even studio lights. We compare the colors the camera reproduces with the known colors of the test chart. The ColorChecker chart consists of 24 color tiles, representing colors from all around the color spectrum. The image below shows how well the Nikon P5100’s colors match up to the ideal colors of the test chart. The outside squares show the colors the P5100 reproduces, the inner squares show the ideal colors of the test chart corrected for exposure, and the small inner rectangles show the ideal chart colors under a perfectly even exposure.
The image shows that many of the color tiles are quite accurate, with the exception of several highly saturated colors in the third row. Note also how the light skin tone patch (tile 2) appears redder than it should. This information is shown graphically below. The locations of the ideal chart colors are shown as squares on the color spectrum, while the P5100’s colors are shown as circles. The lines connecting the squares and circles show the extent of the color error for each tile; the longer the line, the worse the color error.
The graph confirms that many of the highly saturated color tiles are undersaturated and shifted by the P5100, especially yellows and blues. However, this may have been done purposely; purpler blues and greener yellows can boost blue skies and green foliage in landscapes. The main problems lie in the greens that are shifted blue and the skin tone that is shifted red. Boosting red in portraits is almost never a flattering effect. Yet overall, the P5100 does a solid job reproducing accurate colors, only showing a couple flaws. The camera does a significantly better job than its predecessor, the Nikon Coolpix P5000.
With the 12-megapixel P5100, Nikon enters the ever-expanding field of 12-megapixel point-and-shoots that lead today’s digital camera megapixel race. We test how well these cameras live up to their specs by photographing an industry standard resolution test chart and varying the focal length and exposure settings. We run the photos through Imatest, which determines resolution in terms of line widths per picture height (lw/ph). These units represent the number of equally-spaced, alternating black and white lines that can fit across the image frame before becoming blurred.
The P5100 was sharpest at ISO 64, f/4.3, and a focal length of 19mm. The camera resolved 1850 lw/ph horizontally with 3.9 percent oversharpening, and 1827 lw/ph vertically with 1.7 percent undersharpening. These are impressive numbers, and show that the P5100 can produce very sharp images without the camera applying significant sharpening. This results in fewer ugly imaging artifacts, and allows users the freedom to sharpen their photos through post-processing, if desired. While the photos are admirably free of artifacts such as jagged edges or "ghosting," the edges of the frame become a little bit blurry and washed out. Yet we’ve seen much worse in other cameras; the P5100 performs very well overall in resolution. It bests the resolution of its predecessor, the Coolpix P5000, but falls short of Canon’s 12-megapixel offerings, the Canon PowerShot G9 and the PowerShot A650 IS.
Noise – Manual ISO*(6.62)
*Image "noise" refers to the small grainy or splotchy patches that often show up in photos taken at high ISO speeds. This noise is an unavoidable byproduct of the digital imaging process, but all cameras handle it slightly differently. By general principle, cameras with more megapixels have higher noise levels because the pixels must be made smaller to fit on the sensor. We test noise levels by photographing our test chart under bright, even studio lights at all ISO speeds a camera offers. We run the photos through Imatest, which measures noise levels in terms of the percentage of image detail the noise obscures.
Despite cramming 12-megapixels onto its sensor, the P5100 keeps noise levels very low from ISO 64 to 400. There is some evidence of noise smoothing at these ISO speeds which lower noise but destroy some image detail. For the most part, however, the camera does a good job lowering noise without significantly blurring detail below ISO 800. At ISO 800 images are strongly smoothed, and at ISO 1600 and 2000 noise levels are very high. Photos taken at ISO 2000 look like they were shot in the middle of a West Saharan sandstorm. Overall, the P5100 handles noise impressively well, especially considering its high megapixel count.
Noise – Auto ISO*(1.93)*
We also test noise levels with cameras set to Auto ISO, under the same bright lights as above. The P5100 chose ISO 400, which is rather high for such bright light. The P5100 doesn’t produce much noise at ISO 400, but the noise smoothing destroys some image detail. Manually set this camera to low ISO speeds in order to utilize its full potential.
**Still Life Sequences
***Click to view the high resolution images
Without accurate white balance, good color accuracy means nothing. Every different type of light source has a slightly different color cast to it, from outdoor shade to indoor tungsten, and cameras must adjust accordingly. We test white balance accuracy by photographing the ColorChecker test chart under four different types of light: flash, fluorescent, outdoor shade, and tungsten. We test the camera’s accuracy using the Auto setting as well as the appropriate white balance presets.
Set to Auto white balance, the P5100 is very accurate in outdoor shade and when using the flash, mediocre under fluorescent light, and poor under tungsten light. In other words, it’s fine to leave the camera on Auto when you’re shooting outside, but use the presets when you’re shooting indoors.
Using the appropriate white balance presets, the P5100 is very accurate in all four types of light. This means that if you’re shooting on Auto white balance and find that your images are taking on an ugly color cast, you can just switch to the appropriate preset and the color cast should disappear.
*We’ve seen how the P5100 handles color and noise in bright light, now let’s take a look at how the camera performs in less-than-ideal shooting conditions. We test low light performance by photographing the ColorChecker test chart at light levels of 60, 30, 15, and 5 lux. 60 lux corresponds to the amount of light in a room lit softly by two table lamps, 30 lux approximates a room lit solely by a 40 watt bulb, 15 lux is about the brightness of a room lit by a large television, and 5 lux is very low light and tests the limit of the sensor. All photos are taken at ISO 1600.
The P5100 is able to expose properly at all of the tested light levels. Color accuracy suffers at high ISO speeds in low light, but still stays manageable. Noise levels at ISO 1600 are very high, making your subjects look like they are caught in a blizzard. At light levels below 15 lux, the camera has a very hard time autofocusing properly. Also, the camera must be in Manual mode or Shutter Priority mode at light levels below 15 lux to achieve long enough shutter speeds to properly expose.
We also test image quality for long exposures, this time at ISO 400. The camera can take exposures as long as 8 seconds using either Manual mode or Shutter Priority mode. Colors stay quite accurate at this ISO speed even in low light, and noise levels are impressively low. If you have a tripod and want to use it, this camera allows room for experimentation with long exposures, though we wish they could go even longer than 8 seconds.
*Dynamic range is an important factor of image quality that describes the tonal sensitivity range of a camera. A camera with good dynamic range will be able to discern more shades of gray, allowing it to take better photos in high contrast situations. High contrast scenes are tough for cameras, because they tend to either blow out the highlights or fail to show any detail in dark areas. We test dynamic range by photographing a backlit Stouffer step chart at all ISO speeds. The Stouffer chart is a backlit film consisting of a long row of gray rectangles, varying in tone from brightest white on one end to darkest black on the other. The more rectangles a camera can distinguish, the better its dynamic range.
The P5100 has excellent dynamic range up to ISO 200, but then falls dramatically. At high ISO speeds dynamic range is all but unusable. Dynamic range is closely tied to noise levels, as noise obscures detail in dark areas of images. Keep this camera at low ISO settings as often as possible, especially if you are shooting scenes with high contrast, such as a wedding (white dress and black tux), or a landscape or portrait in bright sunlight. Despite trouble at high ISO speeds, the P5100 does well with dynamic range for a camera with such a high megapixel count.
Speed/Timing – All speed tests were conducted using a Kingston Ultimate 120X 2GB SD Card, with the camera set to highest resolution and best quality, unless otherwise noted.
Startup to First Shot (7.5)
The P5100 takes 2.5 seconds to turn on and fire its first shot.
The P5100 has five different continuous Shooting mode options: Continuous, BSS, Continuous Flash, Multi-shot 16, and Interval Timer Shooting. In Continuous mode, the camera takes 3 shots 1.4 seconds apart, then another 7 shots, each 3.6 seconds apart. This isn’t a particularly great Burst mode, and won’t help much for situations with moments of quick action, such as a little leaguer’s first base hit. In BSS mode, the P5100 takes 10 shots in approximately 10 seconds, but only saves the sharpest one. In Continuous Flash mode, the camera takes three shots 1.6 seconds apart, and fires the flash for each. This is a handy mode for capturing action shots in low light. In Multi-shot 16 mode the camera fires 16 shots in 16 seconds and collages them into one full resolution images. This is a fun mode to play around with, but is limited in its versatility.
*The P5100 has no measurable lag when the shutter is held halfway down and prefocused, but a lag of 0.7 seconds when not prefocused.
*The camera takes 2.5 seconds to process one 4 MB full resolution fine quality photos taken at ISO 130 (the P5100’s Auto ISO is very precise).
Bright Indoor Light – 3000 lux*
We shoot footage of our color charts under bright studio lights set precisely to 3000 lux. Under such bright lights, the P5100 renders colors quite accurately, though color accuracy drifts a bit throughout extended footage. Noise levels are kept quite low in bright light.
Low Light – 30 lux
With the lights dimmed to 30 lux, we record more footage of our color charts. In this situation, the P5100 cannot expose properly, creating extreme color error and very high noise levels. This isn’t a good camera for capturing video of your friends in a dimly lit bar, or your family at a sunset.
We capture footage of our resolution test chart to see how sharp cameras are in Movie mode. The P5100 resolved 246 lw/ph horizontally with 24.2 percent undersharpening, and 308 lw/ph vertically with 14.9 percent undersharpening. These extremely low numbers are actually quite common for digital camera video, which is highly compressed to fit the 640 x 480 pixel size of standard definition video.
We give cameras a break from the lab by bringing them down to the street to record the motion of cars and pedestrians. The P5100 shows several small video problems, including distracting focal length changes when continuously autofocusing, motion moiré, streaky highlights, jerkiness to objects moving off the frame, and abrupt changes in exposure. Aside from these concerns, the video exposes evenly and shows good color. Nikon still has a ways to go before matching Canon’s digital camera video, but the P5100 already shows significant strides from the P5000’s ugly video.
The P5100 has the same optical viewfinder as its predecessor, the P5000. The viewfinder doesn’t protrude any farther than the LCD screen below it, so expect it to pick up some nose grease. The optical viewfinder is small – about a quarter-inch wide – so users will have to squint to see inside the little window. The view looks foggy when looking at bright subjects as there is some glare with the internal glass. The view isn’t very accurate either. Nikon’s specs indicate that it is only 80 percent accurate in both the vertical and horizontal directions – not to mention the visible distortion that causes straight lines to look bowed. They call it a "real image optical viewfinder," but the view isn’t that "real" because of its inaccuracy. When zoomed out, users will capture their subjects and then some because the viewfinder doesn’t see the outer boundaries. The view is shifted though; the image will have more space on the right edge and along the bottom than anticipated. If zoomed in, users risk cutting off the top of their subjects but also record much more along the bottom than expected. Group portraits would look awful; heads chopped off and too much foreground.
Like its predecessor, the Nikon P5100 has a 2.5-inch LCD screen with 230,000 pixels. The view is nice and smooth thanks to the high resolution and quick refresh rate. This LCD has some of the widest viewing angles we’ve seen. Users can see the LCD whether it is high above the head, held at the hip, or propped to the side. Friends can gather round the P5100 for a slide show and everyone will be able to see.
There is an anti-reflection coating but it isn’t as impressive as the viewing angles. The LCD was still tough to see in sunlight or other strong lighting. The view washed out and took on a purple tint from the coating. The 5-level brightness adjustment can be boosted in the setup menu to help a little, but even at top power the screen’s view is a challenge to see.
The screen is located just below the viewfinder so carrying around a cloth to buff the nose grease off the screen might be a good idea. The viewfinder is horribly inaccurate so the LCD monitor makes a better viewfinder in most cases. However, the LCD’s view still isn’t perfect. As a live viewfinder, it has 97 percent accuracy vertically and horizontally. This won’t bother most users, but could be a major annoyance to photographers who are very particular about cropping. There is some consolation: images are 100 percent accurate in the Playback mode.
The display on the screen can be changed with a touch of the display button on the left. It can turn the screen off, display shooting info with the image, show only basic info, or show only the image without any other info. There is no live histogram while shooting but a histogram can be viewed in the Playback mode.
Overall, the LCD screen is a high-quality component but the slight inaccuracy in the view could be a deal-breaker for some picky consumers – especially among Nikon’s DSLR clientele that this camera targets. Some of the P5100’s competitors, such as the Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ3 and Canon PowerShot G9, offer superior 3-inch monitors with 100 percent accuracy, which may entice these consumers.
*The Nikon Coolpix P5100 has a powerful built-in flash unit along with a hot shoe that is compatible with i-TTL Nikon Speedlight flashes. The flash is located in the upper right corner of the front, so left fingers must be wary or else they may block the flash.
The off-axis placement translates to slightly uneven coverage. Even more noticeable than the off-axis placement is the darker left and right edges. Most digital cameras’ built-in flashes have dark corners, but the P5100 has darkened sides of the frame. The flash can reach from 1 to 26 feet, 2.9 inches when zoomed out and to 13 feet, 1.5 inches when zoomed in.
The light from the flash can be adjusted to be less or more intense in the recording menu. There is a flash exposure compensation option with +/- 2 values in steps of a third. Usually the flash is inaccessible in the Burst mode, but the P5100 has a special continuous flash Burst mode that allows the flash to fire with less intense light at the same pace as the continuous mode – which in our opinion isn’t as fast as it should be. Still, this is much better than the 4 seconds between flashed shots that the camera usually affords.
The Flash mode can be changed by pushing the top of the multi-selector. Auto, on with red-eye reduction, off, on, slow sync, and rear-curtain sync are the flash options.
The Nikon P5100 is compatible with Speedlight SB-400, SB-600, and SB-800 flash accessories with its ISO 518 hot shoe, but it looks funny because those flash units are just about the same size as the camera. Still, when strong light is needed the hot shoe and compatible flash accessories can save the day.
All in all, the Nikon P5100’s built-in flash is a quality component with more versatility than most built-in units on compact digital cameras.
Zoom Lens* (7.25)*
The Nikon Coolpix P5100 has the same Zoom-Nikkor lens as the P5000. The 3.5x optical zoom lens has an optical image stabilization system, which Nikon calls "vibration reduction." This feature can be turned on and off in the setup menu, but it’s best to keep it on so the pictures are less blurry and the videos less bumpy.
Perhaps the 3.5x zoom power used to be impressive but many compact digital cameras currently on the market are offering more impressive zoom ranges. The Panasonic TZ3, for instance, has a 10x optically stabilized zoom lens in a body similar to the P5100. Even the high-end direct competition, the Canon PowerShot G9, has a stabilized 6x optical zoom lens and image stabilization. Nikon lags behind in this area.
The lens is built with seven elements in six groups and measures 7.5-26.3mm, equivalent to 35-123mm in 35mm format. This isn’t very wide when compared to the 28mm Panasonic TZ3, but is the same width as the 35-210mm Canon G9.
The 4x digital zoom can be turned on and off in the setup menu. This should be used sparingly, if at all. In the Movie mode, the optical zoom lens is locked but 2x digital zoom can be used.
The high-end and super-versatile Nikon P5100 is compatible with wide angle and telephoto conversion lenses, which can be purchased from Nikon separately and attached with an adapter ring. This flexibility is nice, but other cameras have built-in lenses that are wider and longer. Is Nikon taking notes?
Design / Layout
Model Design / Appearance* (7.75)
*The Nikon Coolpix P5100 is designed to combine the controls and interface of a DSLR with a compact digital camera’s body. It is supposed to appeal to DSLR owners who don’t want to haul around their equipment to every event. The body is compact but not thin so it doesn’t have the sexy flamboyant look of the Sony T200, for example.
The P5100 keeps function at the forefront; there aren’t many chrome highlights or visual draws, but functional buttons, like the column to the left of the LCD, similar to those on DSLRs. The multi-selector is pulled straight from low-end Coolpix cameras such as the Nikon Coolpix L15, although this is also found on the P5000. The P5100 looks like a "serious" camera; functional, but not ugly.
Size / Portability*(7.0) *
One of the big selling points of the Nikon P5100 is its size. It is more portable than a DSLR, but doesn’t match the flawless handling and superior image quality. The P5100 measures 3.8 x 2.5 x 1.6 inches and weighs 7.1 ounces without the battery and memory card. This isn’t trim enough to cram into a tight pants pocket, but will easily fit into a coat pocket, backpack, purse, or diaper bag.
The camera has chrome neck strap eyelets on each side and comes with a thin strap. The neck strap isn’t very comfortable; too skinny in our opinion. But it’s better than trying to dangle this hefty chunk from a wrist. The camera body is a combination of plastic and metal elements that makes it heftier than it looks.
Handling Ability*(8.25) *
The Nikon P5100 is pretty much unchanged from its predecessor in terms of looks and handling. That’s a good thing in this case: the P5100 and P5000 handle very well for being so compact. The P5100 has a nice hand grip that is defined enough to allow fingers to comfortably wrap around it. The hand grip is coated with a rubber-like material that feels silky and sticky at the same time; it feels great.
On the back of the camera, there is a matching rubber pad where the right thumb rests. The pad is curved slightly so that the top protrudes farther and keeps the thumb in place to support the camera from the back. The Nikon P5100 still isn’t as comfortable as a DSLR – there isn’t a wide base to support – but it’s as close as users will get with a camera this size.
Control Button / Dial Positioning / Size*(7.75)
*The controls on the Nikon Coolpix P5100 are a combination of DSLR and slim camera buttons. The high-end camera has a nice mode dial on the top that is easy to turn with its serrated edges, but wound tight. The jog dial to its right feels a little looser. The presence of a jog dial makes it easy to scroll through exposure adjustments; this feature is pulled straight from DSLRs.
The back of the camera also has a layout similar to DSLRs. There is a column of five buttons to the left of the LCD screen. These buttons are all properly labeled and protrude slightly so they won’t require a huge push from the fingers. On the right side of the back is a cheap multi-selector that was present on the P5000 but also borrowed from cheaper Coolpix cameras like the sub-$200 Nikon L15. The multi-selector has a central OK button and a single ring around it. The ring is flat so there is no tactile feedback about which direction the finger is pushing.
Overall, the camera’s controls are above average. The mode dial makes it easy to start shooting, the jog dial makes it easy to adjust the exposure, and the column of buttons provides easy access points for functions like deletion and display options.
The Nikon Coolpix P5100’s menus look similar to other recent Coolpix digital cameras. They have a gray background with white text. The selected option appears with black text and a yellow background. There are few icons, and those few icons come alongside text. The following is the Recording menu.
The Recording menu is accessed by the designated menu button, but the setup menu has its own position on the mode dial. The interface of the menu looks the same as the recording menu, but the setup menu is much longer with four screens of options.
The Nikon Coolpix P5100 doesn’t have the most intuitive menus. The pages aren’t easy to plow through. For instance, users can’t jump from page two to four. There are no tabs or dividers to facilitate this. The multi-selector is intuitive, but its flat design makes it tougher to navigate.
Ease of Use*(7.0)*
The Nikon Coolpix P5100 is designed for photographers who already know their way around Nikon DSLRs. The controls, handling, and layout are all tailored specifically for this audience. However, just in case someone clueless picks up the P5100, Nikon made it exceptionally easy to use. The mode dial makes it easy to find Shooting modes quickly and the properly labeled buttons and controls make navigation intuitive. There is also a "?" function with the "T" end of the zoom ring that displays brief explanations of Exposure modes and features to dispel any mysteries for beginners.
The Auto mode is the easiest mode to find and use on the Nikon P5100. It is the only green icon on the mode dial, where the rest of the modes are displayed in white. In the Auto mode, the recording menu only accesses image size and quality options. The only other options available are those displayed on the multi-selector: self-timer, flash, exposure compensation, and macro focus.
*People will not buy this camera because of its video capabilities. If searching for a hybrid camera, look elsewhere. The Nikon P5100 has a very basic Movie mode that only performs well in limited situations.
The P5100’s videos look evenly exposed and keep noise fairly low in bright light. Videos in low light are awful. Videos of moving subjects will introduce interesting problems in exposure and autofocus. There is a more detailed analysis in the Testing/Performance section.
The Movie mode offers the following resolutions: 640 x 480, 320 x 240, and 160 x 120-pixels. Only the top resolution has a smooth 30 fps frame rate – the rest of the options only record a very choppy 15 fps. Of note are the two color Movie modes – black & white and sepia – but they record only at lackluster resolution of 320 x 240 pixels at 15 fps. Videos can be recorded up to 4GB at a time.
There is also a time lapse Movie mode that snaps still pictures every 30 seconds or 1, 2, 5, 10, 30, or 60 minutes, and then strings them together into a movie and plays them back at 30 fps.
The only other option in the menu is the autofocus mode, which can be changed from single to full-time. The single mode doesn’t work well when subjects or photographers are moving, so the full-time autofocus is the logical choice in the Movie mode. It works well and is quiet too, a luxury not found on all compact digital cameras’ movie modes.
When users push the shutter release button to start a movie, there is some lag time between when the button is pushed and when the video starts. We thought this was something limited to still images, but unfortunately it is not. And when the button is pushed again to stop recording, there is a strange phenomenon with the audio: it cuts off about a half-second before the video stops. This is disappointing. The P5000 had the same issue. It’s a shame Nikon hasn’t fixed it.
There is 2x digital zoom available in the Movie mode, and the optical zoom lens is locked when recording begins.
Videos can be viewed in the Playback mode. They can be fast forwarded, rewound, stopped, and played, but not edited like on many other digital cameras. The audio is played back as well, but it doesn’t sound very good.
All in all, the Nikon P5100’s Movie mode should be used sparingly. It performs decently in bright light with slowly moving subjects but doesn’t come close to what most Canon digital cameras offer.
Drive / Burst Mode*(6.0)*
The drive mode is in the recording menu with the following options: Single, Continuous, BSS, Continuous flash, Multi-shot 16, and Interval Timer Shooting. The single drive is the default and the slowest as it takes almost 3 seconds between pictures. The Continuous mode isn’t much of an improvement: the camera took three pictures 1.4 seconds apart and then stuttered along and snapped a picture every once in awhile. It sounded like it was working really hard. Poor camera. The BSS option is the "best shot selector" and saves only one picture from a string of images. It automatically selects the picture, which isn’t always the one the photographer would choose. The Continuous Flash mode works well – as well as can be expected with this slow Burst mode. The multi-shot 16 mode doesn’t speed up at all, but takes a string of 16 images and stitches them together into a single 5-megapixel image. The interval timer allows users to set the camera to snap a picture every 30 seconds or 1, 5, 10, 30, or 60 minutes.
The left side of the multi-selector turns on the self-timer, which can delay for 3 or 10 seconds before the picture is taken.
The Playback mode has its own button to the left of the LCD screen. Users can scroll through images one by one with the multi-selector or quickly with the jog dial. The response time is good; pictures appear when they should. However, when a picture first appears it looks soft. It takes about a half-second for the full resolution to process and the picture to look sharp.
When the jog dial is used, part of a virtual dial appears on the right side of the LCD screen. It shows five tiny thumbnails of the images along its edge, and it displays a larger preview of the selected image. There are other cool viewing options too. The function button allows users to view images on a calendar or as a list organized by the date.
Images can be magnified and scrolled around. They can also be manipulated with a few editing options in the Playback menu.
The D-lighting technology is interesting. It was developed by Apical Limited and licensed to Nikon Coolpix digital cameras. It is essentially an automatic exposure fix that performs similarly to Kodak’s Perfect Touch technology.
The slide show feature isn’t anything to get excited about; it is extremely basic. A new feature on the P5100 is the black border effect. This is self-explanatory and not offered on many digital cameras.
Voice memos can be recorded by holding down the OK button in the center of the multi-selector. This records up to 20 seconds at a time, but they cannot be rerecorded so users need to get it right the first time. They can be played back.
Overall, the P5100’s Playback mode has great viewing options and okay editing options. There aren’t a ton of editing effects, but there’s more than enough to satisfy the enthusiast crowd that will probably upload the images to editing software anyway. The high-resolution 2.5-inch LCD screen provides a nice medium to show off pictures, and its wide viewing angles will make it easy for your friends to gather round and watch a slideshow.
Custom Image Presets*(7.5)
*The Nikon Coolpix P5100 has the same Scene modes that are included on its predecessor. There is a scene position on the mode dial that activates the selected Scene mode. To change the mode, the menu button must be pushed. The following modes appear: Portrait, Landscape, Sports, Night Portrait, Party/Indoor, Beach/Snow, Sunset, Dusk/Dawn, Night Landscape, Close Up, Museum, Fireworks Show, Copy, Backlight, and Panorama Assist. Voice recording, image quality, and image size options are also located in the menu.
The menu looks like others on the camera with its dark gray background and yellow highlight to show what is selected. The menu has an interesting feature though: when the "T" portion of the zoom ring is pushed, a sample picture appears along with a brief explanation of how the exposure mode can be used. For example, the Night Landscape mode shows a picture of a cityscape with a moon over it and the explanation reads, "Capture night landscapes with slow shutter speeds. A tripod is recommended." This is a handy feature for beginners and those unsure of a few ambiguous mode titles.
Manual Control Options
There are plenty of manual controls on the Nikon P5100. It has Manual, Aperture Priority, Shutter Speed Priority, and Program modes in addition to its set of automated exposure modes. It has a jog dial that makes it quick and easy to navigate through shutter speeds and apertures, a borrowed feature from DSLRs. This little camera also has the typical manual controls such as white balance and ISO. There are more manual controls outlined in the following sections.
The older Nikon P5000 has a slow auto focus system that causes major lags. This is the camera that people will grow to hate because they will miss so many spontaneous shots. Users push the shutter release button only to wait more than a half-second before the picture is actually taken. This is embarrassing for Nikon’s so-called "Performance Series" digital cameras and a big turn-off for enthusiasts and DSLR owners who want a high-end compact.
The contrast detection autofocus system can focus as close as 1.6 inches in the macro mode and 1 foot normally. When zoomed in, the camera can normally focus from 2 feet, 4 inches. The nine-point autofocus system has several options in the recording menu. It can be set to single or full-time autofocus, and the autofocus area mode can be changed from auto to manual, center, and face priority. The manual mode isn’t to be confused with a manual focus mode: that isn’t included on the P5100. Instead, the manual area focus mode allows users to move a small focus point around the frame to 99 different locations rather than letting the camera choose. There is also an autofocus assist lamp that can be turned on in the menu; it shoots out an orange light when needed. This is handy for shooting in low light, but adds even more lag time to the picture.
The Nikon Coolpix P5100 has improved face detection and plays it differently than on the P5000. The older model could recognize one face at a time and did so slowly, then placed a scary smiley face over the subject’s face obstructing the view. It was also positioned as its own Scene mode and couldn’t be used in any other mode, whereas the face detection on the P5100 can be used just about anywhere as it is found in the recording menu.
The face detection system on the P5100 is superior to Nikon’s face priority of old. The new system can recognize up to 12 faces at a time. It does so quickly, but is also finicky. If more faces appear in the frame, the boxes surrounding the already-recognized faces seem to flash and disappear and rearrange. It doesn’t track very well either. It’s an improvement, but it isn’t the best on the market.
The face detection system is improved on the Nikon P5100, but the overall speed of the autofocus system is unfortunately unchanged. It was slow on the P5000 and it is still slow on the P5100. DSLR owners and picky consumers will be highly disappointed at the response time.
*Manual Focus (0.0)
*Manual focus modes on compact digital cameras are always tedious and flawed so it’s not terribly surprising that the P5100 opted to leave this out. Perhaps Nikon assumed that DSLR owners would only use manual focus on their DSLRs and likely not for their pocket camera; this assumption is likely accurate, but there will always be a situation in which some photographer somewhere will want manual focus on the P5100.
The P5100 pairs its large image sensor with an Expeed image processor, which is not included in the older P5000. The new processor guarantees a better signal to noise ratio, which we put to the test.
The new processor delivers on its promise. The P5100 keeps noise lower than the older P5000 even with more resolution. The noise remains quite low between ISO 64-400, and then increases from there. A chart showing the amount of noise at each manual ISO setting is available in the Testing/Performance section.
Despite the new processor, the options remain the same as those found on the older P5000. Auto, 64, 100, 200, 400, 800, 1600, 2000, and 3200 are available, although the top ISO 3200 setting is only offered at the 5-megapixel image size or less. The automatic ISO setting has a default 64-800 range, but can be truncated to 64-100, 64-200, and 64-400 in the recording menu. This is a new trend among compact digital cameras. The Pentax Optio Z10 allows users to adjust its automatic range from 64-3200.
This Nikon Coolpix P5100 has the exact same white balance options as the P5000. The list isn’t really extensive but it covers the basics: auto, preset manual, daylight, incandescent, fluorescent, cloudy, and flash. Many cameras offer more fluorescent options because of the variety of fluorescent bulbs and some cameras offer a shade white balance setting, but the P5100 keeps its options basic. It does have the manual white balance setting, which is the most important anyway. Measuring the white balance is simple and intuitive, and done in the menu.
The manual setting is the most accurate because it can adjust to any lighting, but if users shy away from it they should keep to this rule: use the auto outside and the presets if shooting indoors. More details on that in the Testing/Performance section.
One of the big draws of the Nikon P5100 is that it allows users so much flexibility with the exposure. Users can manually adjust both the shutter speed and aperture at once or individually with the Manual and Priority modes. In other modes, users have some control over the exposure with the +/- 2 exposure compensation feature that adjusts in increments of 1/3. The exposure compensation can be accessed by pushing the right side of the multi-selector. There is a live view of the brightness changes. In the recording menu, there is an auto bracketing mode that allows users to shoot three images in a short burst at +/- 0.3, +/- 0.7, or +/- 1 EV intervals. If all of this still yields unpleasant results, there is a quick fix in the playback menu called D-lighting. This automatically adjusts the brightness and contrast of images to look more flattering; it works favorably.
This digital camera has a 256-zone metering system that it uses to judge the exposure. It has the same options that were available on its predecessor: matrix, center-weighted, spot, and spot AF area. Most digital cameras have the first three options, but only a handful of cameras have the spot AF area option. This allows users to move the focus point to 99 different points around the frame and sync the metering with it.
Shutter Speed* (7.0)*
The high-end P5100 has a shutter speed range common on compact digital cameras. The mechanical and charge-coupled electronic shutter can flip as fast as 1/2000 of a second and as slow as 8 seconds. It is automatically controlled unless in the Manual or Shutter Speed Priority exposure modes. In these modes, the shutter speeds are shortened even more: users are limited to long exposures of a half-second or less. And when the aperture is opened wider than f/7.3, the fastest shutter speed is limited to 1/1000 of a second. The jog dial control is a comfortable interface to scroll through the options, but the options are often limited on the P5100.
*The P5100 has the same 3.5x optical zoom lens as the P5000 and the same apertures as well. It has a six-blade iris diaphragm that can be controlled manually or automatically. There are Manual and Aperture Priority exposure modes that allow full control over the aperture. The jog dial scrolls through available apertures, and in the Manual mode the right side of the multi-selector allows users to move back and forth from the aperture to the shutter speed and so forth. The aperture opens to a nice and wide f/2.7, letting plenty of light in to hit the image sensor. When the lens is zoomed in, the widest aperture is only f/5.3. Throughout the range, the smallest the aperture can shrink is f/7.3. Most digital cameras apertures shrink to f/8.
Picture Quality / Size Options*(8.0) *
The most visible upgrade from the P5000 is the P5100’s resolution. The older model has 10.1 megapixels but the new one has 12.1 effective megapixels. The image sensor is larger than most at 1/1.72 inches and there is a total of 12.43 megapixels on it. The image quality options can be found at the top of the recording menu: 4000 x 3000, 3264 x 2448, 2592 x 1944, 2048 x 1536, 1600 x 1200, 1280 x 960, 1024 x 768, 640 x 480, 3984 x 2656 (3:2), 3968 x 2232 (16:9), and 2992 x 2992 (1:1). This is more than most photographers will ever use and covers lots of aspect ratios – 4:3, 3:2, 16:9, and 1:1. The 1:1 ratio is a brand new option found on the P5100 and very few other digital cameras.
The P5100 shoots fine, normal, and basic JPEG image files, but no RAW! The P5000 doesn’t shoot RAW either. Perhaps Nikon is counting on the fact that P5100 owners have DSLRs that shoot RAW and wouldn’t care for it on their compact cameras. This may be true, but there will always be a few photographers who want to shoot in RAW no matter what camera or circumstance – and that’s just not possible on the P5100.
Picture Effects Mode*(7.5)*
The P5100 comes with a healthy set of picture effects despite its more serious and Photoshop-savvy target audience. In the recording menu there is a long list of effects including normal, softer, vivid, more vivid, portrait, custom and black & white. These are intended to simulate different types of film much like Canon’s Picture Styles on its DSLRs.
Some of Nikon’s effects can even be customized. Obviously the "custom" option offers more controls than most: users can adjust the contrast, sharpening, and saturation. The black & white effect can also be customized with contrast, sharpening, and a monochrome filter that simulates yellow, orange, red, and green color filters. Users can also choose to record two copies of an image: black & white and color. With this palette of effects, Nikon is approaching its competition and the P5100 makes itself more attractive to less seasoned photographers who value in-camera effects more than software editing programs.
Connectivity / Extras
The Nikon P5100 shares the same Nikon Software Suite as the Nikon S510 series camera. The CD-ROM is equipped with programs such as Nikon Transfer, Apple QuickTime, My Picturetown Utility, ArcSoft PanoramaMaker and Kodak EasyShare Software.
Before beginning installation of these programs users will be directed to a black install menu window with easy to use menu tabs. The options given are: Nikon Standard Install, Custom Install, Link to Nikon, Kodak EasyShare and an Install Quide and Quit button on the bottom of the screen. Total installation time for all five software programs took between 10-15 minutes.
In the Link to Nikon tab, users have the option of connecting directly to Nikon websites where they can view information on and download a free trial of Capture NX, access My Picturetown and User Registration or view other Nikon products and services in the US, Europe and Asia Pacific.
The Nikon Transfer program has basic features and easy to view drop-down menu tabs for options, thumbnails and a transfer queue. The options tab will help users identify the location of their pictures when saved on a computer but it will not allow you to save photos from the camera onto the queue. The camera must also be attached to the computer to view any photos on Nikon Transfer. It will not even allow users to open photos previously saved on your computer. Also, any editing on images must be done using the Kodak EasyShare software.
*Jacks, ports, plugs (6.5)
*The P5100 has a small rubber cover on its right side that hides the single USB/AV-out port. The USB function can be set to PTP or MTP and the AV can be set to NTSC or PAL standard. Next to this rubber cover is a smaller rubber flap that opens so a power adapter can be threaded into the battery compartment.
Direct Print Options (5.5)
Like most other digital cameras, the Nikon P5100 is Pictbridge compatible and connects with the supplied USB cable. Users can create print orders in the playback menu. Users can scroll through and select images to print, but cannot select them all at once like on most digital cameras. Each image can be set to print 0-9 times and the date and info can be added to each if desired.
The P5100 comes with an EN-EL5 rechargeable lithium-ion battery and a charger to revitalize it every once in awhile. The 3.7V, 1,100 mAh battery is thin and has an average battery life of 240 shots per charge. It takes the battery about two hours to recharge in the supplied charger, which also comes with a cable to connect it to the wall. Users who will need the camera on for an extended period of time, such as those who use the interval timer feature, may want to purchase the optional EH-62A AC adapter from Nikon. This fits into the battery compartment and the cable threads through a rubber flap in the right side so it can plug into a standard wall outlet.
Manufacturers are beginning to include more internal memory in digital cameras. This is a positive move because cameras are coming with more resolution. The 12.1-megapixel Nikon P5100 comes with 52MB of internal memory, which sounds very generous when the average camera offers about half that. The P5100’s internal memory can hold nine full-resolution images, so an SD or SDHC card will still be necessary.
Voice Recording* – Hidden near the bottom of the Scene mode menu is the Voice Recording mode, which allows users to record audio for up to five hours. Users can only start and stop the recording. To fast forward and rewind and such, users must access the playback mode. Unfortunately, the audio here is no better than the audio recorded with movies. There is a low-pitched hiss in the background and subjects sound garbled even when they aren’t far away.
The Nikon Coolpix P5100 was released in fall 2007 at the same $399.95 retail price as the P5000 when it came out. This is $100 less than the 12.1-megapixel Canon G9, its closest competitor. The Canon G9’s components are better, but the two cameras have very similar exposure modes and controls and appeal to the same high-end crowd. The Canon G9 also gave a better overall performance in our image quality tests. The Nikon P5100 appears to be the budget option.
Who It’s For
Point-and-Shooters – The P5100 is versatile enough for point-and-shooters to comfortably tinker with, but they won’t fully appreciate all the camera has to offer.
Budget Consumers – At $399, the Nikon P5100 is less expensive than its direct competition, the $499 Canon PowerShot G9. It still isn’t priced to fly off the shelves though.
Gadget Freaks – These consumers will love the flexibility of adding flashes and conversion lenses.
Manual Control Freaks – A slew of manual exposure modes and a loaded palette of manual controls will please this crowd.
Pros / Serious Hobbyists – The P5100 is designed to be a compact camera for DSLR owners. Pros and serious hobbyists wouldn’t use this camera for their work, but would likely use it for toting to the park or family outing where a bulky DSLR would be out of place or a hassle.
Nikon Coolpix P5000 – This 10.1-megapixel digital camera is the predecessor to the P5100 and comes with the same stabilized 3.5x optical zoom lens and 2.5-inch LCD screen. The new model looks exactly like its predecessor with its controls and body. There are few changes: the P5000 has a slightly smaller 1/1.8-inch CCD and an older image processor with an older version of Nikon’s face detection technology. The most important changes come in the performance of the new model though. The P5100 outlegs the P5000 in terms of color, noise, resolution, dynamic range, video performance, and low light (although just barely in low light).
Canon PowerShot G9 – This digital camera is Canon’s version of the high-end compact. The G9 retails for $499 and has 12.1 megapixels, an optically stabilized 6x optical zoom lens, a 3-inch LCD screen, and even a hot shoe for Canon flash accessories. It also has full manual controls and face detection like the P5100. The G9, however, has a convincing edge: it includes RAW file shooting unlike the JPEG-only P5100. The P5100 may have performed well in our round of tests, but the Canon G9 performed even better. The P5100 had lower overall noise and better dynamic range, but the G9 had more accurate colors, finer resolution, better exposure in low light, and superior videos.
Kodak EasyShare Z1275 – This digital camera also has 12.1 megapixels in a fairly unassuming body with similar measurements of 3.5 x 2.5 x 1.2 inches. The Z1275 has manual, priority, and program modes along with full auto and more than a dozen scene modes. There are several manual controls including a 64-1600 ISO range at full resolution, but some shortcuts were taken by Kodak. For instance, the white balance setting cannot be manually set. This camera has a 5x optical zoom lens, 2.5-inch LCD screen, and 64MB of internal memory. It doesn’t have face detection or a hot shoe, and its speed isn’t much improved with a published 0.3-second shutter lag. It does have a 1.7 fps Burst mode and a high-definition 1280 x 720-pixel movie mode that shoots 30 fps. It retails for $229.
Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ3 – The 7.2-megapixel TZ3 may have less resolution but it has much more zoom. It has a 10x optically stabilized zoom lens. Its reach is wider with a 35mm equivalent range of 28-280mm. The TZ3 is one of the best performing compact digital cameras we’ve seen and that goes for pictures and videos. It records 640 x 480 and 848 x 480-pixel videos at 30 fps with much better accuracy. It comes in a body that is about the same size at 1.47 inches thick. It doesn’t have a hot shoe, manual exposure modes, or conversion lens compatibility, but the Panasonic TZ3 is a tempting option with its relatively low $299 retail price.
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-W200 – This 12.1-megapixel point-and-shoot has a Manual mode that allows control over the shutter speed and aperture along with a selection of manual controls like ISO and white balance. The Sony W200 has a stabilized 3x optical zoom lens and a 2.5-inch LCD screen. It also has an optical viewfinder. Its Burst mode is faster than the P5100 at 2 fps, and lasts longer at 100 shots. The W200 has face detection and nine-point autofocus along with perks like HD output and musical slide shows. It has only 31 MB of internal memory, but an attractive $299 retail price.
The Nikon Coolpix P5100 creates the illusion that consumers can have DSLR components and quality in a camera the size of a pocket. It has a 1.6-inch thick body with a decent handgrip, extending 3.5x optical zoom lens, optical image stabilization, a hot shoe, and a full set of manual exposure modes and controls. However, it is missing a key component that DSLRs have: speed.
Speed was also an issue with the old P5000: slow processing time, slow Burst mode, slow shutter lag, slow everything! Despite a new image processor, slowness seems to be the lasting legacy of Nikon’s "Performance Series."
Its speed is most disappointing, but it is otherwise a decent digital camera. Its colors are fairly accurate, it kept noise acceptably low when the ISO is set under 400, and its resolution renders detailed images. The Nikon P5100’s performance is above average, but competitors like the high-end Canon G9 perform even better and do so faster. The P5100 doesn’t have the speed of the G9, but its lower price makes it a fair contender.
Sample Photos*Click on the thumbnails to view full resolution images.*
Specs / Ratings
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