Nikon Coolpix P7100 Review
Usability - How easy is it to use?
Broadly speaking, the Nikon Coolpix P7100 is a very well-designed camera. It wears its advanced features on the outside, with loads of buttons and dials, making using those features efficient and enjoyable to use. At the same time, the automatic mode (P) and scene modes are just as easy to use as with any point-and-shoot camera. While the camera is being used, the P7100 displays visual cues to show what is happening.
Despite being one of the larger compacts, its back is covered with buttons except for a rubber-coated area to secure your thumb. This is complemented by a small rubber grip at the front of the camera. This digital camera is easy to hold securely with one hand. At 395g it has a confidence-inspiring weight without feeling heavy. Nikon provides a neck-strap which is attached by eyelets on either side of the camera but one can easily use a wrist-strap instead. Given its size, the P7100 will certainly not fit most pant pockets.
The top panel holds, from left-to-right, the quick-menu dial-and-button, the hot-shoe, the mode-dial, the power-button, the shutter-release surrounded by the zoom controller, the exposure-compensation dial and the small customizable Fn2 button. Both EC and quick-menu dial are designed to be operated from the back, so they protrude slightly. They have good click-stops and are not likely to be changed accidentally.
The quick-menu dial has a designed introduced years ago by Konica-Minolta and not seen much since. It is operated by first rotating it to a desired parameter and then pressing the button in its center to activate the menu for that parameter. This is faster than scrolling through menus looking for an option. It would be much better, as in the original implementation, to have a heads-up view to change parameters directly without loosing the image preview.
Skipping over the standard hot-shoe, we arrive at the mode-dial which works just as expected. The camera changes modes rapidly and there are click-stops that make it impossible to unintentionally turn it. Note the presence of a Movie-Mode position which makes recording videos much more usable than on most of recent digital cameras. Next is a small power-button which is level with the top camera surface. It lights up for a short period when powering on and then flashes when sleep mode automatically engages after a delay of inactivity.
The shutter-release has some resistance to the touch and goes smoothly to the halfway point. The full-press is a hair deeper, making taking the shot after pre-focusing very quick. The rotating zoom controller surrounding the shutter is quick and responsive. It normally moves the lens between fine-steps. Optionally, one can hold on the the Fn1 button at the front of the camera, and have the zoom jump through a set of predefined steps taken from traditional 35mm camera prime lenses. Not only is there little point to this, it is rather awkward to use these controls together.
Further right is the exposure-compensation dial. It dials EC in 1/3 EV steps and works in most camera modes except for a few Scene ones. Thankfully it does work in Panorama-Assist mode. When this dial is positioned anywhere other than zero, a small orange light turns on to remind the user that exposure-compensation is in effect. This is simply a great design. The only limitation is that 1/2 EV stops are not available on this camera since the dial has hard clicks for 1/3 EV increments.
The last button on top of the camera is the Fn2 button. Nikon offers 4 functions for this button: Virtual horizon, Toggle histogram, Toggle grid and Built-in ND-filter. The standard Virtual HorizonNikon's term for a 1-axis digital-level is intrusive to view a subject but that can be changed for a more compact view. The truly interesting option here is the 3-stop ND filter which is valuable to experiment with photographs showing motion-blur.
The front of the camera is comparatively bare. The most important item there is the front vertically-mounted control-dial. There is also an autofocus assist-lamp, two tiny holes which form the stereo microphone, an IR receptor, an optical tunnel viewfinder and two buttons. The optical viewfinder zooms along with the lens which is impressive considering its 7X range. Less impressive is its rather poor 64% coverage, so we would reserve it for emergencies or when you want to pretend to be taking a picture so that no one bothers you.
The unmarked button is used to release a ring around the lens barrel. Removing the ring reveals a bayonet thread used to attach the optional wide-angle adapter which gives a 21mm-equivalent field-of-view. The other button is marked Fn1. Its functionality when used with the shutter-release is quite odd. Basically, when pressed while also pressing the shutter, the Fn1 button temporarily resets one parameter. This can be ISO sensitivity, White-balance and Picture-Control. It can also toggle the file-format between JPEG and RAW. On the P7100, unlike its predecessor, it can be used with the top control-dials as well. This gives access to Manual Focus, Metering, Continuous Drive, Flash Exposure-Compensation, Active D-Lighting and Manual Flash-Level. This is exactly the suggestion we wrote in the Nikon P7000 review last year!
There is a lot going on at the back. A round button is used to release the built-in popup flash. When the flash is up it does nothing. We would still suggest to Nikon to make it apply flash-compensation when used with one of the control-dials. Push the flash down to bring it back in. The unmarked circular dial next to the viewfinder applies diopter-correction. A small lamp above it shows when AF is locked or the flash is charging. Below these is a large 3" LCD which is very sharp and has 920K pixels. It refreshed quickly enough and has an anti-reflective coating to improve visibility. In bright light, it does get more difficult to see than others we have seen and that is probably why the optical viewfinder is there. There are two major criticism with the LCD, first it only shows 96% coverage which is below its competition's 100% coverage. Second, the display is not exposure-priority. Dialing in EC alters the histogram as it should but not changing exposure parameters like aperture and shutter-speed. Worst is that the live-histogram is computed on the incorrect LCD display, so even in cases of severe under-exposure you would not know it. Neither the histogram or LCD view is updated when these parameters are changed. We really hope Nikon can correct this via firmware update.
To the right of the LCD, the P7100 counts no less than 6 buttons and 2 dials. Both dials are used to modify parameters or scroll through menu options. The upper dial is easily reachable without shifting your grip of the camera. This is not the case with the lower dial due to its position. Below the upper dial is the AE-L/AF-L button which works when held down. Directly to the left of the upper-dial is the display button which cycles the LCD through full-info, no-info or off modes. In both full-info and no-info modes, setup options can toggle the appearance of the virtual horizon, the live-histogram or the framing-grip.
There is also a standard button which enters and exits playback mode. The camera is almost shooting-priority so tapping the shutter-release goes back to shooting mode except on confirmation dialogs. Jumping over the 4-way controller is the rear IR receptor, just above the Menu button. No explanation needed for the menu button. Also near the bottom of the camera is the Delete button. It works in playback mode and in still mode where it prompts to delete the last shot taken.
The central piece is the combined lower-dial and 4-way controller. This particular control provides access to quite a few options in addition to navigating menus and changing exposure-parameters. The Up direction changes the flash mode when the flash is actually up. In this case the options are: Auto, Auto with Redeye reduction, Fill-flash, Manual flash, Slow-sync and Rear-sync. In manual-flash mode, the power can be set between 1/64th and full power. Note that the camera menu can disable the camera from using the built-in flash. In this case, the flash mode of an external-flash can be set between Auto, Auto with Redeye, Off, Fill, Slow-Sync or Rear-Sync. This digital camera is smart enough to skip over the options not supported by the add-on flash.
The right direction controls focus point-selection. You can choose from Face-Detect, Auto, Manual, Center and Subject-Tracking. In Manual mode, you can move the focus point to 99 positions using the directional buttons. For Center, 3 sizes are available: wide, normal and spot. The down direction controls the focus range. You can select between Normal, Macro, Infinity and Manual. The Infinity option locks the focus to infinity. This is useful for shooting landscapes in very low-light or when shooting from a moving vehicle when the camera cannot focus normally. Manual focus lets you set the distance using the up and down arrows. The camera makes it easier to select a distance by magnifying the center of the frame, although we did not find that view sharp enough to set focus with sufficient accuracy. One neat feature here is that the manual focus can be primed using the right away which causes autofocus to set the initial focus distance.
Only the left direction is missing. That one is used for the self-timer. There are actually seven options there. Two are regular timers at 2s and 10s, respectively. By default, timers reset after each use. Luckily, a setup option can correct this, making shooting from a tripod much more pleasant. The same timers are available for use with the optional infrared remote, plus an option of immediate release using the remote. Lastly one can set the self-timer off or enable the smile-timer. The smile-timer takes a picture automatically when someone smiling is detected.
The bottom of the camera features a metal tripod mount. It is not inline with the center of the lens or the camera center. A sturdy door covers the battery and memory-card compartment. As one would expect from this type of camera, the entire body actually feels quite solid. There are plastic flaps on both sides of the camera. One covers the microphone input jack, the other the connectors for HDMI and combined USB & A/V output.
Overall, this Coolpix features one of the most usable manual controls among compact digital cameras. Although potential improvements were pointed out, the only serious usability issue is the inaccuracy of the display in terms of exposure, histogram and coverage. It is also disappointing to see one of the very few digital cameras with three control-dials underuse them like the P7100. In most modes, one or two dials are unused while they could provide an even more efficient and direct interface.
Nikon P7100 Facts
|10 Megapixels Fixed Lens||ISO 100-6400|
|7.1X Wide Optical Zoom||Shutter 1/4000-60s|
|Built-in Stabilization||Full manual controls, including Manual Focus|
|1 Axis Digital Level||Custom white-balance with 2 axis fine-tuning|
|1.2 FPS Drive, 90 Images||Spot-Metering|
|1280x720 @ 24 FPS Video Recording||Hot-Shoe|
|3" LCD 920K Pixels||Stereo audio input|
|Secure Digital Extended Capacity|
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