The Nikon Coolpix P300 looks to fill a gap towards the top end of the compact camera market that hasn’t been occupied with a worthy Coolpix model to date. Enter the Nikon Coolpix P300: a small, 12.2-megapixel compact with a 24-100mm F/1.8-4.9 image stabilised lens.
For a long time the high-end compact market has been dominated by Canon’s hold - with models such as the recent PowerShot S95. At a glance, the Nikon P300 is almost a visual carbon copy: it’s roughly the same size, shape and of a similar layout. Although this is seemingly the “inspiration” of the P300’s birth, it would be wrong to assume the two models as direct competitors. Alike though they may appear, but on the inside the P300 doesn’t quite match up to its competitive Canon model. Why? It’s all down to sensor size: the Nikon P300 has a 1/2.33 inch sensor, smaller than the 1/1.7 inch one found in the Canon S95.
A series of other features may also find those seeking truly high-end control looking elsewhere: there’s no manual focus capability, no hotshoe for an external viewfinder and no RAW capture option either. However, step down a notch in product positioning and the P300 is a tough cookie in the enthusiast sector. Look for the likes of the Samsung WB2000 and there’s a more immediate comparison in terms of control and layout as well as price sensibility.
When the P300 gets it right it really delivers. The top mode dial means immediate selection of shooting modes is a breeze and the twin thumbwheel-like controls (thumbwheel on top; rotational d-pad on the rear) make setting up manual shooting equally as simple. Aperture and Shutter Priority meet Program Auto and full Manual modes, plus Auto, Easy Panorama and Scene settings, in addition to both Backlighting and Night Landscape on the mode dial itself.
There are few controls on the rear and, although there’s a one-touch movie button, there’s no Function (Fn) button to be found anywhere on the body for quick adjustment of settings. As few settings show on the camera’s screen itself this feels like a drawback - even more standard compacts have on-screen quick menus to dash between ISO, metering setup and the like (including other Nikon Coolpix cameras). While those physical mode dials and thumbwheels are certainly on point, the P300 could really do with that extra user-assignable button for yet more control.
Design-wise the camera may look a tad “boxy”, though its small, trim size will easily slip into a bag or pocket to be carried anywhere - and that’s one of the prime features of a camera such as this. On the rear is a 3-inch, 920K-dot LCD screen that’s of a good resolution, though no viewfinder is built in or available for the camera. This may pose an issue in bright sunlight where the screen’s visibility may be reduced due to reflections or fingerprinting on the screen itself. This is a common feature for any compact, however, not just the P300.
I must have control
Put the P300 to use and its autofocus ability is one of the stronger areas that offers an abundance of options: Face Priority; Auto (9 area); Manual (99 user-selectable points); Center; Subject Tracking; and Face Priority Tracking. Focus is generally swift, though lower light can throw up issues from time to time. The biggest drawback is how centrally the focus area is arranged, as it leaves borders around the edge of the image that are “no go areas” as far as focusing is concerned.
Pop the P300 into macro mode and prepare to be impressed yet more: it’s able to focus as close as 3cm from the lens when at its widest-angle setting. Add to that the F/1.8 aperture and it’s possible to get some close-up, shallow depth of field shots that look top drawer indeed. The F/1.8-4.9 lens is clearly one of the camera’s top specs and, in this department, does provide a very similar specification to the Canon S95.
Burst mode is another high-flying specification too. Capable of shooting at 8fps (though only up to a total of 7 frames per burst) at full resolution, you can expect to capture unfolding action in a flash. However, autofocus won’t keep up with a burst as it’s a single-point of acquired focus. This may pose issues due to no manual focus control, meaning fast subjects speeding by may be gone before focus is achieved and the burst of shots reeled off.
Then, of course, the Coolpix P300 has a 1080p HD movie mode that puts another big tick in the box. At the full high-def resolution the cameras captures MOV files at 30fps for smooth playback. There are other options for 720p capture at 60fps or even 1080p at 15fps for varied playback too.
The Nikon Coolpix P300 produces reasonable images, but the 1/2.33 sensor is the same size as that found in an average compact camera. On the upside the wiring has been moved to the back of the sensor’s construction to make for a better and more direct light path, so this does, in part, help take image quality up a notch. However, against the truly premium high quality compacts such as the Canon S95 or Panasonic LX5, the Nikon P300 can’t quite compete at such a level.
With the ability to shoot images from ISO 160-3200, there’s an avoidance of super-high ISO settings just for the sake of it. Instead the majority of options provide useable images, though above ISO 400 quality does take a bit of a dip. As processing becomes more aggressive to counter image noise, so softness prevails - above ISO 800 things lack the detail that you need for more critical shots.
The bottom line is this: if you want the best image quality from a compact then you need to look towards a higher-spec range to a larger sensor model and should anticipate paying around £400. For the £300 (RRP) that the Coolpix P300 costs it’s a different league and should be considered as such. Images are fine but, excluding the F/1.8 aperture, a lot of other compacts will easily achieve comparable image quality for even less cash.
If you buy the Nikon Coolpix P300 thinking that it can’t get any better then you may be disappointed. Good though the camera is, it’s not quite up there with the larger-sensor (and better image quality) competitors such as the Canon PowerShot S95.
However the P300 gets a lot right: good autofocus and control, a great layout that’s optimum for manual controls and a decent point-and-shoot movie mode. There may be no manual focusing, no RAW capture, no hotshoe for expanding into a wider system and image quality that’s only fair (and that’s being rather generous in description), but that all epitomises the sort of level the P300 sits at.
If you’ve got £250-300 to spend on a compact (rather than the £400 asking prices of the bigger boys) and want one with a wide aperture and full manual controls for greater overall control then the P300 would certainly make a decent choice.