Nikon Coolpix P5000 digital camera review

The very compact Coolpix P5000 is just the type of camera you expect from Nikon, perched, as this one is, between the lower end point-n-shoot Coolpix models and the companies higher specified budget DSLRs such as the D40 and 40x. This is a camera that offers a level of control similar to that of the latter but in the formers package.

The small body has a pronounced handgrip to the right side on which we find the shutter release, its surrounding lens zoom control and a control wheel that allows adjustment of settings such as apertures and shutter speeds.

A small on/off button joins forces with this pairing while to its left on the top plate a large mode dial for selecting, yep! The camera modes, such as the cameras 16-scene modes that include an excellent Face Priority AF system – it finds and tracks faces within the frame. Portrait, Landscape and sports modes are there too, as you’d expect, but, there’s also a Night Landscape mode, Back Light setting and a Panorama Assist, image-stitching mode among others.

Finally, also on the top plate, there’s a hot shoe for accessory flash on the top plate, which is an excellent touch; it provides a level of creativity and light control (with an accessory flashgun) not often found on such small cameras and is a good indication of this camera’s leaning to wards the more enthusiast user.

The back plate is relaxed in terms of controls: it is dominated by a nice, 2.5-inch colour screen down the left side of which, are five buttons for display toggle, playback, menu access, deletion and an “Fn” or function button. The last item can be assigned particular control elements such as quick access to ISO settings, Image quality or size, White Balance and the excellent lens shift Vibration Reduction system. A spin of the control dial selects your chosen item.

A four-way jog controller (or Multi Selector as Nikon calls it) allows control of the flash (auto, redeye reduction, off, forced, night-flash and, interestingly, rear curtain synch flash), three and 10-second self-timer, exposure compensation – to +/-2EV – and focusing modes. These include macro, infinity (landscape), focus limit setting, (only in the manual control settings, more on which in a moment) and of course the auto focus.

A disappointingly blurry optical viewfinder completes the ensemble; it lacks any form of dioptre adjustment but does have a good eye relief distance, so spectacle wearer take note but you’re left with a tunnel like view and one that’s distinctly fuzzy, particularly at the edges.

Magnesium alloy build makes the machine light in weight but feel very strong, while SD/MMC storage and a nicely compact rechargeable lithium-ion battery pack slot home under a plastic flap on the base.

Manual control includes Program, Aperture and Shutter priority and full Manual control, this last item allows you to tailor control of picture taking to your shots or your creative preferences and gives you the full creative control. Menu options are also enhances in the manual shooting options allowing access to powerful setting such as Image Optimisation modes. Menu’s are limited or paired down ion the all auto or scene modes, where the camera takes over the creative chores for you.

In the Optimisation menu, the camera provides additional, built-in processing systems to, well, optimise images for, say, more vivid colour, portraits, black and white capture or a softer “look”. Auto bracketing is in there too –the camera will shoot a set of three images in set steps (+/-1EV, 0.7EV or 0.3EV) to help get a range of exposures without altering camera settings for each shot.

Other “high-end” controls include flash exposure compensation and adjustment of the AF area mode. This tailors the AF system to automatically select the "correct" AF zone for the subject or there’s manual control or, again, you can set the centre AF zone to work alone.

In terms of performance, the first chinks in the P5000’s Magnesium alloy armour start to appear. It’s fast start up and very low shutter lag attributes are let down by an otherwise surprisingly sluggish AF performance. AF is, well, tardy at best and image data writing (in the top, Fine setting particularly) is slow, even to the 21MB of internal memory. Incidentally, this is enough space for three shots at the Fine setting. This data writing sluggishness is largely due to the massive 10-megapixel images it’s eating through and shows up most when shooting in burst mode where it managed (just about) 4.5-shots in 10-seconds. The AF’s sluggishness remains a mystery and a frustratingly irksome one at that.

Another disappointment is the lack of a RAW capture mode, which, at least in terms of the more enthusiast target market, would have iced the cake a little. However, there are other bright spots. Metering is comprehensive and very accurate and the Nikon flash metering is its usual brilliant self; the P5000 flash exposures are simply superb.

Focusing, while slow, is nevertheless accurate when it finally gets there and once used to the focus lag, it did not let me down. Colour and white balance performance are both excellent with the default “Normal” mode for colour producing pleasing, naturally rendered images.

White balance performance is excellent too, the auto mode performs well and alongside the usual presets for cloudy, tungsten and fluorescent and sun, a very easy to use custom preset provides a fast way to tailor white balance no matter what the lighting.

But now we encounter another chink in that alloy armour: image noise. This, very disappointingly, starts at the lowest ISO 64 setting and it’s downhill from there I’m afraid, due largely to the problems associated with packing so many tiny pixels onto a small sensor.

Up to ISO 400, noise is almost acceptable but worse than on many similar compacts I’ve looked at, particularly at ISO 100 and 200. However, my daylight shots at ISO 64 and 100 (some shown here) look fine and in practice will be good for prints up to 10 x 8-inches.

However, over ISO 800 things get very bad, ISO 1600 unusable and at ISO 3200, not only do you get a drop to 5-megapixels but images are pretty much pointless. The noise processing (at any ISO) helped retain colour balance (which also skews as noise get worse) but it stripped detail from my shots.

Overall, then, use this camera at ISO 400 or below with the very excellent optical image stabilisation (VR) switched on and you’ll be happy. Anything else and you’re bumping up against the limitations of a camera with far to many pixels for the size of sensor.

Verdict

A cracking package in terms of handling, controls and features that is capable of nice images at lower ISOs, but sluggish AF presented real problems with noise issues also leaving a nasty taste in the mouth.