Nikon Coolpix P7700

With the abundance of high-end compact cameras flooding the market of late, making a decision on which to buy is all the harder. Nikon’s Coolpix P7700, which updates the good but ultimately outclassed Coolpix P7100, is an overhaul of the company’s high-end series.

With its f/2.0-4.0 maximum aperture, 7.1x optical zoom lens and brand new CMOS sensor, but without the optical viewfinder of its predecessor, can the P7700 withstand the presence of the larger-sensor and smaller-bodied competitors also available on the market?

Choices, choices

When it comes to buying a high-end compact camera, the choices tend to land in one of two categories: those with small bodies and similarly short focal length lenses and those with larger bodies but more extensive focal lengths. The P7700 falls into the latter category thanks to its 28-200mm f/2.0-4.0 equivalent zoom lens.

Then there’s sensor size. A standard compact camera’s 1/2.3-inch sensor is fairly small, whereas the P7700 steps up to a 1/1.7-inch size that’s around 50 per cent larger. It’s not huge though, in particular given the likes of the Fujifilm X10’s 2/3-inch sensor is around 50 per cent larger again, while the Sony RX100’s 1-inch sensor is like two of the X10’s sensor sandwiched side by side (in size terms). Given the Coolpix’s physical body size it looks like a camera that might have a larger sensor at its core, but that’s not the case.

It’s all about compromise. Larger sensors might produce better image quality in low light, or just as a general rule, but the fact is that the lenses required to cover such sensor areas can’t offer as wide aperture settings. Well, theoretically they could do but then they’d be huge, expensive and barely a "compact" any more.

Design

With the above context considered, the P7700’s overhauled design has a lot of positives going for it. It is a bit on the chunky side, as was its predecessor, but the more "rounded" finish is not only slightly smaller than its predecessor, but also altogether less brutish. Compare it to the Canon G-series, for example, and we’re far fonder of the P7700’s softer appearance.

As we touched upon in our initial hands-on, the P7700’s buttons and dials have been repositioned compared to its predecessors, for greater comfort in use. Small adjustments, such as the front thumbwheel sitting at a tilted angle, ensure that everything fits to the fingers like a glove.

To say the P7700 has a few dials would be an understatement. This high-end compact is laden with all manner of dials which ensure that no control is far away.

As well as the mode and exposure compensation dials - the latter complete with an orange activation light to make clear when it’s not set to zero - there’s a function button to the right and a multi-function dial to the left side atop the camera too.

The latter dial comprises ISO, white balance, bracket, quality, picture style and custom "My" options, activated by selecting the relevant option and hitting the dial’s centre button - the one that looks a bit like a lock release, but isn’t. It’s a lot like having multiple function buttons in one place in some respects and that makes it a neat and tidy way of making swift changes.

On the front of the camera is a function button which, just like on the P7100, is in a position much like where a DSLR’s depth of field preview button would be located. A second finger can rest over it at all times and, as it’s programmable in conjunction with the shutter and both front and rear thumbwheels, it can quickly access ISO, white balance, picture style or raw options depending on how the camera is programmed. Or if you don’t want it to do anything, just leave the settings at their default "off" and there will be no accidental adjustments made. It does take a bit of getting used to, as it’s a flail of fingers in use sometimes, but it’s the kind of control that cameras at this level need. We like.

We can safely say that controls are more than successfully dealt with. On the image preview front, however, the P7700’s lack of an optical viewfinder - there’s a hotshoe for a fixed optical viewfinder or flashfun but no accessory port for an electronic one to be attached - may come as a surprise.

It’s part of the reason that the model is smaller, and although we were never fond of the near-and-around 80 per cent field-of-view optical viewfinder, we suspect that high end users would at least like the option of having one that works with the zoom. Nikon’s got rid of something we didn’t love about the predecessor, but to not replace it with something of compensation is a big loss.

Unless, of course, the 3-inch LCD’s vari-angle bracket makes up for it. With a fully versatile system it’s possible to get the screen into all kinds of angles off to the side of the camera. It’s great for waist-level work, although the presence of bright sun may cause some compositional issues.

Premium performer, premium price

But how much does this wedge of high-end wonderment cost? £499 is the initial list price, which we may as well round up to £500. That's right, five hundred quid. It’s not a budget camera by any means.

Fortunately the performance matches up to the price. The P7700’s autofocus is swift as you like, certainly quicker than its predecessors and as good as the competition, and can be set up in seven different area modes: face priority, auto, manual, center (normal), center (wide), subject tracking and target finding.

Although quick, it’s not without some qualms. The manual selection doesn’t work right across the screen, as almost a third of its total area towards the outer edges isn’t selectable and there’s also no AF point size adjustment. The lack of a touchscreen won’t match the likes of Panasonic’s G-series compact system cameras either. Two different categories of camera, yes, but there’s enough overlap with price and performance to consider an interchangeable lens system with a larger sensor - but less significant lens for size purposes - at a similar price.

The P7700’s close-up focus is very impressive too. It falls into "close-range only" and "macro close-up" options which each deal with "close and closer" respectively. And we’re talking touching-the-lens close when at its widest 28mm equivalent setting.

However if a subject is too close and one of these macro settings hasn’t been selected via the menu then the autofocus system will merely flash a red square to the centre of the screen - it never suggests that the subject is too close, however, which is a bit of a nuisance. It can work in reverse too: leave the camera in a macro mode and using it at normal distances won’t be possible until it’s set back to the standard AF option.

Burst shooting is also faster than its predecessor, though it’s still not a true standout feature. The continuous high burst can capture six JPEG frames in around one second (8fps is the quoted speed) before filling the buffer, and while it is possible to also do this with raw files there’s a 20-25 second "freeze" after where the camera cannot be used to any degree (it just displays the saving image on the rear screen). The full time autofocus (AF-F) mode also won't work at this pace, and even when single shooting continuous focus isn't all that.

If you fancy getting even more high end then the P7700 also introduces a commander mode to control external flash via Nikon’s Creative Lighting System. We didn’t have any spare ‘guns to test this in full, but the option offers control over one off-camera Speedlite. This could be particularly useful for shooting with the camera in the right hand, flash held off camera to the left without any rig set up to snap cool portraits, for example. Strobists take note too: use the P7700's electronic shutter and you're free to explore sync speeds far faster than mechanical shutter cameras can offer - up to 1/2000th of s second. Perfect for making heavily flash-lit shots even in daylight. Nice, eh?

Quality that cuts it?

We’re happy to finally see a CMOS sensor in the P-series range, but the 1/1.7-inch sensor size is the same old trick, one that’s been bettered by other manufacturers of late.

On the whole we’re rather impressed with the P7700’s 12-megapixel image quality. It’s the lens’s sharpness that takes it to great places and the sensor is able to resolve a great level of detail at the lower ISO settings.

But that’s not to rule out the higher ISO settings either. The ISO 80-3200 range isn’t trying to show off by offering six digit figures, but the range that is there is, to some degree, useable throughout.

Just take a glance at the close-up flower shot (shown further up the page), shown here cropped to 100 per cent size. Plenty of detail at ISO 80 that’s for sure and excellent shallow depth of field too.

Image noise, and the processing that tries to squash its visible appearance, does quickly become noticeable from ISO 400 and upwards, but it’s slight rather than interfering and the lens and sensor combo still resolve plenty of detail.

In fact even ISO 3200 - despite plenty more noise and muted colours - holds enough sharpness to be of use. It’s great for black and white shooting (monotone is available in camera) where the effect adds to the feel of the picture, despite some slight "watercolour" like processing artefacts in some detail areas. Check out the two pence coin above, that's the sort of noise that's revealed in darker shadow areas.

The one main problem we do have? The camera’s bokeh effect just isn't as luscious as that of, say, the Olympus XZ-1 and, furthermore, can get downright ugly where overexposure is apparent. Take a look at the blown highlights of the tree line in the background below, it’s a bit "pop art" for our tastes, so be careful what you shoot and how for the best results.

That blip ignored though and there’s a lot of good to say about the Nikon Coolpix P7700. Exposure is on point in all kinds of situations, there's the added control of noise reduction severity (from low through to normal and up to high), while extras such as a neutral density (ND) filter make the f/2.0-4.0 aperture more available to use in daylight. It’s the most capable Nikon compact camera to date.

Verdict

The Nikon P7700 looks and performs every part the high-end camera; it’s far better in almost every area than its predecessor, although the lack of a viewfinder (or ability to add one that works in conjunction with the zoom) is perplexing.

This Coolpix isn’t shy of controls either. Buttons and dials not only come aplenty, but they’re intuitive and easy to use, which puts control firmly in the user’s hands.

Strobist heads will also love the high flash sync speed thanks to Nikon's Creative Lighting System and electronic shutter combination.

The 28-200mm f/2.0-4.0 equivalent lens is sharp and the latest 12-megapixel, 1/1.7-inch CMOS sensor is a good match to pair it with. Image quality is great given the sensor size, but the bokeh effect at wider apertures can be a bit too much for some scenes.

Overall we’re impressed and the P7700 is certainly the most capable Coolpix we’ve seen to date. However it is on the chunky side and the strength of its near competitors undercut not only this Coolpix’s £500 asking price but also its overall abilities in many cases too.

Considered against the forthcoming Canon PowerShot G15 though - which, by the way, will cost £50 more at £550 - and it looks as though Nikon has made a very closely matched competitor, albeit one without a viewfinder.



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