Nikon Coolpix P90 digital camera

The P90 takes on the typical format for superzoom models, with the large lens housing and viewfinder sitting to the right and a fairly chunky hand grip over to the right, with all the controls being pretty much reachable with the thumb or forefinger of the right hand.

The P90 is surprisingly light - lighter than it looks - and this is likely to appeal to the sort of person looking at a superzoom camera, wanting to avoid the size and weight that a DSLR with a large zoom lens would entail.

The back features a 3-inch flip-out LCD display, more on which later, and a fairly typical four-way controller centred around an OK button. Playback, menu and delete buttons reside here, while a display button will clear information off the screen and a button will let you switch between the LCD display and the electronic viewfinder. There is also a thumb dial that will let you change various settings and navigate menus.

The top features a pop-up flash over the lens, with the main mode dial giving you the normal auto, program, shutter or aperture priority, user and scene settings, as well as video. The control ring for the 24x optical zoom sits around the shutter button.

At first we weren't sure about the flip-out screen, which you can't reverse to protect it, or flip out to the side like you can with many models. However, once you start using it, you'll find it's actually very useful. You can take overhead shots with the screen tilted down, giving you enough range to take shots comfortably, without straining your neck at a ridiculous angle.

Equally, flipping the screen horizontally means you easily take low level shots without having to get on your belly. This is great for setting up self timer shots too, as you can position the camera on a tripod or table and look down to see what you are doing, rather than getting involved in all that crouching and kneeling.

Whilst on the topic of self timer, there is a small foot on the front of the lens housing which means the camera doesn't get overbalanced when the lens is out - a small detail but incredibly practical.

The screen is large and bright, and at 230k dots is sharp enough for previewing your images. There is an anti-reflection coating which works fairly well, but can give a yellow cast over images when in bright conditions.

Above the screen the electronic viewfinder suffers the same problems they almost all do - it is fairly uncomfortable to use with a hard plastic surround rather than the soft rubber you'd find on a DSLR, but it does have a dioptre adjustor. It also lacks the detail you get on the screen with everything looking rather grainy and dark.

The menus themselves are pretty typical Nikon fare and easy to navigate with options never being too far away. The buttons and dials also give you control over most basic options too, except perhaps ISO and white balance which lurk in the menu one step down.

Startup is a little slow and it will be over 3 seconds before you get your first shot off here. Zooming is fairly fast though, moving from the (not very) wide angle of 26mm, up to the maximum optical zoom of 624mm (35mm equiv.). There is an additional digital zoom, but you have to ask why when you have such optical range at your disposal with questionable results at the far end as it is.

White balance in the auto setting is actually pretty reasonable, and we were surprised to have spent a day shooting without really thinking about white balance. You do get custom options, as well as all the usual presets, including a flash setting.

Metering too was pretty good, with advanced options for centre-weighted or spot metering and so on. Exposure overall was good especially outdoors, only struggling with some tricky skies. Exposure compensation can be found on the four-way control on the back, with additional flash exposure control and auto bracketing options hiding away in the menus, but not available in all shooting modes.

Noise was something that blighted the previous incarnation of this camera, the P80, and you'll find that noise is still an issue here. Control of the flash is part of the problem, as left to its own devices, the camera will bump the ISO to take a low light shot, as it can't pop the flash. To get flash control you need to manually pop-up the flash, which then gives you your options.

Surprisingly the flash controls don't have labels, only icons, so you'll need to look up the fact that you have the option of slow sync or rear curtain sync as well as the normal choices. It can be a little confusing as popping the flash doesn't always mean it will fire, as auto mode will often result in ISO cranking rather than flash firing. There is no hot shoe either, so your flash options are limited.

Noise becomes a problem very quickly in low light or indoor shooting which gives quite a shock when compared with some great outdoor shots. In our tests, noise was a problem at ISO 400, with 800 and above being poor, even if you only want to use images online. The top settings of ISO 3200 and 6400 drop the sensor down to 3-megapixels, but still only produce mush. Thankfully there is a setting to lock down the auto ISO selection (64-100 to 64-400), but you'll have to venture out of the auto mode to engage this.

So onto that zoom. We've already said it is pretty fast, but sometimes we found it was too fast. If you are using the zoom to frame your picture without moving, you might want to reconsider (if practical) or even crop in on the detail back at your PC, as we found that getting slight adjustments was a bit tricky.

Whilst we found that the wide and mid range zoom gained some nice results, the far end is fraught with problems. The onboard Vibration Reduction can't really do anything for wobble; the only thing that will make it an option is a tripod and using the 2sec self timer to isolate shake from pressing the button.

Even with a tripod, however, you'll find that the results are not great. Quality really does drop off rapidly losing detail and contrast introducing a lot of noise, whilst being blighted by purple fringing around edges. The resultant images don't look sharp and don't look natural. Ok, you might be able to use them online, but they don't stand up to scrutiny as they get larger.

There is also noticeable barrel distortion on the wide end of the lens, which is countered by the distortion correction option, but something to watch out for.

Image capture is something of a double-edged sword. Press the shutter button and your image is quickly captured, but there is a noticeable delay as this is buffered to the card. Switch into the sports mode (which incidentally limits you to 3-megapixels) and you have access to the high speed shooting mode, capturing 15 frames a second up to 45 frames whilst you hold down the button. Again, once you have captured your action, you have to watch the egg timer for a while as all these images are written to the card.

Battery life is reasonable but not great, and we were getting battery warnings after at 150 shots, with plenty of zooming and previewing. If you are planning a day out, best take a second battery just in case.

Verdict

We got some great results without too much tinkering at the wider ends of the lens, with good sharp images and natural colour reproduction. The tilting screen is highly effective making it possible to grab great perspective shots without the normal hassle. You'll also find many of your normal compact camera niceties here, like blink detection and face auto focus.

If you want to avoid the size and weight (and potentially cost) of a DSLR, then a superzoom offers you a range of options you might never get near in a compact. But things feel like they have gone too far here, with the headline features not delivering the results you'd want.

If your main reason for buying the camera is to use the zoom, you'd be better off with an entry-level DSLR and telephoto lens and bearing the extra cost, as the results will be much more compelling.


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