Finding a camera equipped with a full set of amateur-friendly exposure controls that's small enough to fit into a jacket pocket is difficult -- there simply aren't that many available, the reason being that most manufacturers' time and energy in the enthusiast segment these days go towards budget dSLRs.
Nikon, which seemingly abandoned those amateur photographers for a few years, has reappeared with the 10-megapixel Coolpix P5000, a compact competitor for the casual-photographer-with-room-to-grow audience currently dominated by the Canon PowerShot A710 IS.
Though only the front of the chassis uses magnesium alloy in its design, the camera feels quite sturdy. Its smallish, rubberised grip and thumb rest make the P5000 quite comfortable for one-handed shooting.
The scored ring surrounding the f/2.7-to-f/5.3, 36mm-to-126mm-equivalent lens comes off so you can screw on optional wide-angle (24mm-to-84mm-equivalent) and telephoto (108mm-to-378mm-equivalent) conversion lenses via an adaptor. A Nikon i-TTL-compatible hot shoe allows for external flashes as well.
With cutting-edge capabilities like face-priority autofocus, optical image stabilisation and full-resolution sensitivity settings as high as ISO 2000 to augment its manual and semimanual exposure options, the P5000 fits some pretty attractive features into its 200g, 98mm by 65mm by 41mm frame.
A few of the P5000's shooting controls -- flash, self-timer, exposure compensation and macro/distance limit focus -- use dedicated buttons for quick access. You can assign another -- ISO sensitivity, image quality, image size, white balance or vibration reduction (VR) -- to the single-function Fn button. The others, plus some important additions such as metering and continuous-shooting, require the always-fun trip into the two-level menus.
Furthermore, though we don't mind putting a few set-them-and-forget-them features in a separate Setup mode, we don't think VR, LCD brightness or format card really fall into that category -- that's the kind of stuff that belongs in the menu system.
Nikon provides 15 program scene modes, plus panorama-assist, interval shooting and a high-ISO program shift mode that automatically chooses from higher sensitivity settings than the standard program exposure. During photo playback you can apply D-Lighting exposure adjustment and add voice memos.
The P5000's shooting speed falls at the bottom of its small pack. The 2-second wake-up-to-first-shot time doesn't hurt, but the 0.9-second shutter lag under optimal conditions, coupled with a 3-second shot-to-shot time, makes it unsuitable for shooting animals and children, along with many other things that move. At least adding flash doesn't increase that time at all.
In dim, low-contrast environments lag jumps to 2.2 seconds. And continuous shooting clocked an anaemic 0.9 frames per second on CNET Labs' tests.
Our field tests bore out those findings. You can autofocus as close as about 40mm with the P5000, but we felt a perceptible pause while waiting for the camera to achieve a lock, regardless of the focus mode. It also seems to take the face-detection algorithms just a fraction too long to operate. Once locked, it tracks small movements pretty well. But if the person's head is tilted or rotated slightly sideways, or the person moves to the edge of the frame, detection rarely works.
That wait for the autofocus does let you catch up on your mirror time. Despite an antireflective coating and bumped up brightness, the P5000's otherwise sharp, bright, 64mm LCD turns into a mirror on cloud-free days. The optical viewfinder is quite good for what it is, but as with all direct-view cameras you can't use it for macro photography.