The Nikon P5100 is the 12.1-megapixel flagship camera in the Coolpix range. 'P' stands for 'performance' on this, the highest-specced camera in the range, packing SLR-style features and controls into a compact frame for less than £300. We tested to see if this was the best of both worlds, or neither fish nor fowl.
The P5100's SLR-styled body is made from magnesium alloy. The black retro looks are designed to associate the highly specced P5100 with dSLRs and gives the illusion in pictures that it's bigger than it really is. This is very much a compact camera, smaller than most bridge or superzoom cameras but with a wealth of features.
SLR-esque features include an optical viewfinder, although it only has about 80 per cent coverage. A control wheel adjusts some settings, although it takes some getting used to. A configurable function button gives access to your favourite settings. A hotshoe sits up top, although we noted that it isn't hard to find external flashes that are heavier than the camera. Despite its size, the P5100 has a chunky, textured and easy-to-grip feel.
The 1/1.72-inch CCD sensor is bigger than the typical compact, but the 64mm (2.5-inch) screen and 3.5x zoom -- equivalent to 35-123mm -- are fairly average.
The lens is compatible with various converter lenses that improve wide-angle and telephoto reach.
The built-in flash is pleasingly brisk. A nifty continuous flash feature lets you shoot full speed ahead without having to wait for the flash to recharge. Built into the lens is optical lens shift image stabilisation, which is even better than sensor-shifting vibration reduction, especially when shooting video.
The P5100 makes use of a number of processing features, which take care of image issues in-camera thanks to its Expeed processor. The 'D-Lighting' feature is designed to identify and lighten shadows to bring out detail in just the darker areas, rather than lightening the whole image. The adjusted image is non-destructively saved as a separate file to the original.
Another excellent processing feature is optional distortion control, taking care of distortion at the wide end. It doesn't allow you to use continuous shooting, bracketing and BSS modes, however. Red-eye reduction is also available.
Speed is an issue for the P5100. The autofocus feels slow, sometimes struggling to find a subject, and not just in low light. This means moving subjects are a problem, although you could use the continuous mode and pick the best shot from a sequence. Continuous mode isn't the fastest, though, managing 0.7 frames per second at maximum quality with a SanDisk Extreme III SD card. The buffer fills up too quickly to capture a long sequence of shots.
There's also more shutter lag than we'd expect from such a high-end compact. All of this means the P5100 may not be the camera for you if you are planning on photographing sports or any active subjects.
Once subjects have been persuaded to keep still, image quality is impressive. Colours are strong. Portraits are given a warmth by the flash and the red-eye reduction system is excellent, although it does slow processing down even further. Automatic white balance does a good job, although it's worth using presets indoors. We liked the results of the D-Lighting feature, although noticed a slight increase in noise in darker tones.
Image noise is more of an issue than we'd like. Every compact suffers from noise above ISO 200 or 400, and the P5100's larger than average sensor is still afflicted because of its high 12-megapixel resolution. Still, noise reduction, sharpening and other fixes are unobtrusive and purple fringing is near non-existent.
The similarly-designed Canon PowerShot G9 goes a step further, offering raw mode, but the P5100 at least scores by offering neutral, natural images with processing applied intelligently and subtly at a very reasonable £260.
It's also worth remembering that most image issues can be tweaked by the P5100's wealth of manual controls. The P5100 is great for anyone looking for better images and more control over shooting than a compact camera would usually allow.Edited by Jason Jenkins
Additional editing by Jon Squire