Nikon has opted for quality over quantity here, pinning the P7100's resolution at a conservative 10.1 megapixels. Don't let that put you off. Pure pixel counts are rarely the defining factor when it comes to judging a camera -- a fact proved by this chunky, accomplished snapper.
With versatile controls, a sharp lens and a keen price -- you can pick one up for £379 -- it's a winner on every front.
A serious upgrade
The P7100 positively bristles with buttons and dials. Indeed, it's so well endowed in this respect that trips to the menus are comparatively rare. It has the best implementation of exposure compensation we've seen, and a wider than normal range, too. A dial beside the shutter release runs the full gamut of +/-3.0EV (exposure value) in 1/3EV steps, with the effect updated in real-time on the LCD.
At the other end of the body there's a similar dial for accessing the most common shooting options, including quality, ISO and white balance. Each takes you directly to the relevant on-screen control, so you don't need to trawl the menus to find them, while a small button in the centre of the selector quickly steps you into and out of the control for on-the-spot adjustments.
There's a wheel on the front to adjust aperture, and another on the back for shutter speed, which together make the P7100's full manual mode one of the easiest -- and quickest -- you could ever hope to use. If you're looking to step up from a bog-standard compact, these two wheels on their own make the P7100 one of the best choices you can make. Our only criticism of its handling is that the effect of tweaking the aperture isn't displayed in real time on the 3-inch LCD. The only way you'll see how it affects the depth of field is to half-press the shutter to set the focal point.
The LCD itself is articulated, tilting up and down through 180 degrees, so you can hold it above a crowd or down by your feet and still see what's coming through the lens. This is a boon for more creative photographers, and makes up for the woeful optical viewfinder. We won't criticise Nikon for putting to good use what would otherwise have been dead space below the flash hotshoe, but we can't see many users choosing to frame their shots this way. The view is small, suffers from considerable barreling and manages to split the incoming light so that some sharp edges are fringed and unsharp.
The P7100 bears more than a passing similarity to the year-old P7000. They share a common native resolution, a 7.1x zoom equivalent to 28 to 200mm in a 35mm camera, and an aperture range that sets out at f/2.8 wide angle and f/5.6 in full telephoto. The P7000, though, was missing the articulated screen, and ran a slower underlying system overall. So, while the P7100 may look -- on paper at least -- like a fairly conservative upgrade, ambitious photographers should find it more responsive in daily use.
Speed and controls count for nothing if a camera can't shoot good photos. Fortunately that's not something Nikon needs to worry about here. The P7100 holds its own against the very best, with perfectly focused light, bright colours and good crisp edges.
It may only have 10 megapixels under its belt, but it puts them to great use. The skin in the portrait shot below is smooth and accurate, with gentle gradations between areas of very similar tone, and a great level of detail retained in the eyebrows and eyelashes.
Looking closer, there's also significant detail captured in the reflection in the eye, and slight fall-off in the focus either side of the sweet spot on those parts of the image both further from and closer to the lens. This draws the eye back towards the subject thanks to the bright f/3.2 aperture.
Skin tones were very well handled in general, making this camera a great choice for anyone who wants to do mid-range portrait work without stepping up to a dSLR.
Neither could we fault the P7100 on the detail front. Throughout our tests it maintained a consistently high level of performance, rendering fine subject matter with great clarity. When set to macro, it had no trouble getting a steady -- and very quick -- fix on the seed heads below, despite their highly irregular lighting and the bolder background colours that might otherwise have distracted the autofocus system.
Minimum focusing distance in macro mode is just 1cm, which makes it easy to isolate your subject and throw its surroundings out of focus.
It wasn't just in macro mode that it captured such high levels of detail, though. Most of our shooting was conducted at less close quarters, using a mixture of the full auto and aperture priority modes. The results showed remarkably consistent levels of detail at all levels of zoom, and accurately focused tones across the full colour spectrum.
Further, as it has a lower-than-average number of pixels mounted on its sensor, the P7100 produces clean and fairly noise-free images (lacking the variation in brightness caused by the camera's sensor or circuits) as you start to climb up to mid-range sensitivities around ISO 400. The full ISO scale runs from 100 to 3,200 in regular use, but can be pushed to ISO 12,800 to handle particularly challenging conditions. Fortunately this should rarely be necessary as the slowest shutter speed is a full minute in manual mode.
At the same time, the P7100's colour reproduction demonstrated exceptional range. The below shot of an outdoor clock mounted on a roof demonstrates extremes of shadow and highlight, and a wide colour gamut. The Coolpix takes them all in its stride, accurately exposing the brickwork without burning out the white shuttering on the front of the clock, and capturing the richness of both the sky and the overhanging leaves.
It performed particularly well in outdoor countryside shots in general, making best use of the available light to render rich, bucolic scenes. This performance wasn't confined to the traditional green and blue hues, either. The P7100 performed just as well with the warmer autumnal colours, as seen in this closer shot of sycamore leaves. Here, there are sharp contrasts within the tonal range, with those parts of the seed pod directly facing the sun considerably brighter than the bulbous ends, yet the highlights haven't been clipped.
Accurate handling of tricky lighting such as this became a theme throughout our time with the P7100, which took each new challenge in its stride. Even shooting directly towards the setting sun, as in this picture below, wasn't beyond its abilities. We had been prepared to see some fringing around areas of sharp contrast in this shot, most specifically along the edges of trunks and where fine branches hung down over the sky, but there was none.
Further, by knocking up the exposure in post-production we could see that there was plenty of detail in the shadow areas, enabling us to brighten those parts should we choose, without adversely affecting the highlights.
A movie-making pro
Far from being an afterthought, the P7100's movie mode is a good match for its exemplary stills shooting skills, demonstrating bright colours and smooth pans and zooms.
Its native format is 720 pixels, and it has both wind noise reduction and the option of either continuous autofocus or setting a single focal length at the start of your clip. It then uses this throughout, regardless of any reframing.
The advantage of the latter is that it eliminates any chance of mechanical noise on the soundtrack as the lens won't be constantly adjusting to keep your subject crisp. This is important, as the P7100 very clearly picks up noise from the lens motors on its soundtrack. But picking single focus over continuous autofocus means that, as can be seen from the first of our sample scenes below, subjects can appear out of focus.
Fortunately the P7100 has a microphone input, allowing ambitious videographers to achieve a more professional result. If your budget doesn't stretch to external mics, then you should at least switch on the built-in wind noise reduction, which on the P7100 is one of the most effective implementations we have ever used.
The first two scenes of our test movie were shot on windswept marshland, with wind noise reduction active on only the second shot. The difference it makes is easy to hear.
The P7100 is hard to fault and easy to love. It has all the controls you could want on an ambitious, top-end pocket camera and produces great results. Don't be put off by the comparatively low resolution; 10.1 megapixels is plenty, whether you want to shoot poster-size prints or Web graphics, while the 7.1x zoom will minimise the amount of cropping you'll need to do to reposition distant subjects within the frame.
While the price may be enough to make you sit down and weigh up the pros and cons before splashing out, you can rest assured than the former outweigh the latter by far.