Nikon Coolpix P5100 Digital Camera Review
Read an expert, independent digital camera review of the Nikon Coolpix P5100 digital camera.
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*Color accuracy is one of the most important factors in image quality. Inaccurate colors result in ugly, unnatural, or dull photographs. We test color accuracy by photographing an industry standard GretagMacbeth ColorChecker test chart under bright, even studio lights. We compare the colors the camera reproduces with the known colors of the test chart. The ColorChecker chart consists of 24 color tiles, representing colors from all around the color spectrum. The image below shows how well the Nikon P5100’s colors match up to the ideal colors of the test chart. The outside squares show the colors the P5100 reproduces, the inner squares show the ideal colors of the test chart corrected for exposure, and the small inner rectangles show the ideal chart colors under a perfectly even exposure.
The image shows that many of the color tiles are quite accurate, with the exception of several highly saturated colors in the third row. Note also how the light skin tone patch (tile 2) appears redder than it should. This information is shown graphically below. The locations of the ideal chart colors are shown as squares on the color spectrum, while the P5100’s colors are shown as circles. The lines connecting the squares and circles show the extent of the color error for each tile; the longer the line, the worse the color error.
The graph confirms that many of the highly saturated color tiles are undersaturated and shifted by the P5100, especially yellows and blues. However, this may have been done purposely; purpler blues and greener yellows can boost blue skies and green foliage in landscapes. The main problems lie in the greens that are shifted blue and the skin tone that is shifted red. Boosting red in portraits is almost never a flattering effect. Yet overall, the P5100 does a solid job reproducing accurate colors, only showing a couple flaws. The camera does a significantly better job than its predecessor, the Nikon Coolpix P5000.
With the 12-megapixel P5100, Nikon enters the ever-expanding field of 12-megapixel point-and-shoots that lead today’s digital camera megapixel race. We test how well these cameras live up to their specs by photographing an industry standard resolution test chart and varying the focal length and exposure settings. We run the photos through Imatest, which determines resolution in terms of line widths per picture height (lw/ph). These units represent the number of equally-spaced, alternating black and white lines that can fit across the image frame before becoming blurred.
The P5100 was sharpest at ISO 64, f/4.3, and a focal length of 19mm. The camera resolved 1850 lw/ph horizontally with 3.9 percent oversharpening, and 1827 lw/ph vertically with 1.7 percent undersharpening. These are impressive numbers, and show that the P5100 can produce very sharp images without the camera applying significant sharpening. This results in fewer ugly imaging artifacts, and allows users the freedom to sharpen their photos through post-processing, if desired. While the photos are admirably free of artifacts such as jagged edges or "ghosting," the edges of the frame become a little bit blurry and washed out. Yet we’ve seen much worse in other cameras; the P5100 performs very well overall in resolution. It bests the resolution of its predecessor, the Coolpix P5000, but falls short of Canon’s 12-megapixel offerings, the Canon PowerShot G9 and the PowerShot A650 IS.
Noise – Manual ISO*(6.62)
*Image "noise" refers to the small grainy or splotchy patches that often show up in photos taken at high ISO speeds. This noise is an unavoidable byproduct of the digital imaging process, but all cameras handle it slightly differently. By general principle, cameras with more megapixels have higher noise levels because the pixels must be made smaller to fit on the sensor. We test noise levels by photographing our test chart under bright, even studio lights at all ISO speeds a camera offers. We run the photos through Imatest, which measures noise levels in terms of the percentage of image detail the noise obscures.
Despite cramming 12-megapixels onto its sensor, the P5100 keeps noise levels very low from ISO 64 to 400. There is some evidence of noise smoothing at these ISO speeds which lower noise but destroy some image detail. For the most part, however, the camera does a good job lowering noise without significantly blurring detail below ISO 800. At ISO 800 images are strongly smoothed, and at ISO 1600 and 2000 noise levels are very high. Photos taken at ISO 2000 look like they were shot in the middle of a West Saharan sandstorm. Overall, the P5100 handles noise impressively well, especially considering its high megapixel count.
Noise – Auto ISO*(1.93)*
We also test noise levels with cameras set to Auto ISO, under the same bright lights as above. The P5100 chose ISO 400, which is rather high for such bright light. The P5100 doesn’t produce much noise at ISO 400, but the noise smoothing destroys some image detail. Manually set this camera to low ISO speeds in order to utilize its full potential.
**Still Life Sequences
***Click to view the high resolution images
Without accurate white balance, good color accuracy means nothing. Every different type of light source has a slightly different color cast to it, from outdoor shade to indoor tungsten, and cameras must adjust accordingly. We test white balance accuracy by photographing the ColorChecker test chart under four different types of light: flash, fluorescent, outdoor shade, and tungsten. We test the camera’s accuracy using the Auto setting as well as the appropriate white balance presets.
Set to Auto white balance, the P5100 is very accurate in outdoor shade and when using the flash, mediocre under fluorescent light, and poor under tungsten light. In other words, it’s fine to leave the camera on Auto when you’re shooting outside, but use the presets when you’re shooting indoors.
Using the appropriate white balance presets, the P5100 is very accurate in all four types of light. This means that if you’re shooting on Auto white balance and find that your images are taking on an ugly color cast, you can just switch to the appropriate preset and the color cast should disappear.
*We’ve seen how the P5100 handles color and noise in bright light, now let’s take a look at how the camera performs in less-than-ideal shooting conditions. We test low light performance by photographing the ColorChecker test chart at light levels of 60, 30, 15, and 5 lux. 60 lux corresponds to the amount of light in a room lit softly by two table lamps, 30 lux approximates a room lit solely by a 40 watt bulb, 15 lux is about the brightness of a room lit by a large television, and 5 lux is very low light and tests the limit of the sensor. All photos are taken at ISO 1600.
The P5100 is able to expose properly at all of the tested light levels. Color accuracy suffers at high ISO speeds in low light, but still stays manageable. Noise levels at ISO 1600 are very high, making your subjects look like they are caught in a blizzard. At light levels below 15 lux, the camera has a very hard time autofocusing properly. Also, the camera must be in Manual mode or Shutter Priority mode at light levels below 15 lux to achieve long enough shutter speeds to properly expose.
We also test image quality for long exposures, this time at ISO 400. The camera can take exposures as long as 8 seconds using either Manual mode or Shutter Priority mode. Colors stay quite accurate at this ISO speed even in low light, and noise levels are impressively low. If you have a tripod and want to use it, this camera allows room for experimentation with long exposures, though we wish they could go even longer than 8 seconds.
*Dynamic range is an important factor of image quality that describes the tonal sensitivity range of a camera. A camera with good dynamic range will be able to discern more shades of gray, allowing it to take better photos in high contrast situations. High contrast scenes are tough for cameras, because they tend to either blow out the highlights or fail to show any detail in dark areas. We test dynamic range by photographing a backlit Stouffer step chart at all ISO speeds. The Stouffer chart is a backlit film consisting of a long row of gray rectangles, varying in tone from brightest white on one end to darkest black on the other. The more rectangles a camera can distinguish, the better its dynamic range.
The P5100 has excellent dynamic range up to ISO 200, but then falls dramatically. At high ISO speeds dynamic range is all but unusable. Dynamic range is closely tied to noise levels, as noise obscures detail in dark areas of images. Keep this camera at low ISO settings as often as possible, especially if you are shooting scenes with high contrast, such as a wedding (white dress and black tux), or a landscape or portrait in bright sunlight. Despite trouble at high ISO speeds, the P5100 does well with dynamic range for a camera with such a high megapixel count.
Speed/Timing – All speed tests were conducted using a Kingston Ultimate 120X 2GB SD Card, with the camera set to highest resolution and best quality, unless otherwise noted.
Startup to First Shot (7.5)
The P5100 takes 2.5 seconds to turn on and fire its first shot.
The P5100 has five different continuous Shooting mode options: Continuous, BSS, Continuous Flash, Multi-shot 16, and Interval Timer Shooting. In Continuous mode, the camera takes 3 shots 1.4 seconds apart, then another 7 shots, each 3.6 seconds apart. This isn’t a particularly great Burst mode, and won’t help much for situations with moments of quick action, such as a little leaguer’s first base hit. In BSS mode, the P5100 takes 10 shots in approximately 10 seconds, but only saves the sharpest one. In Continuous Flash mode, the camera takes three shots 1.6 seconds apart, and fires the flash for each. This is a handy mode for capturing action shots in low light. In Multi-shot 16 mode the camera fires 16 shots in 16 seconds and collages them into one full resolution images. This is a fun mode to play around with, but is limited in its versatility.
*The P5100 has no measurable lag when the shutter is held halfway down and prefocused, but a lag of 0.7 seconds when not prefocused.
*The camera takes 2.5 seconds to process one 4 MB full resolution fine quality photos taken at ISO 130 (the P5100’s Auto ISO is very precise).
Bright Indoor Light – 3000 lux*
We shoot footage of our color charts under bright studio lights set precisely to 3000 lux. Under such bright lights, the P5100 renders colors quite accurately, though color accuracy drifts a bit throughout extended footage. Noise levels are kept quite low in bright light.
Low Light – 30 lux
With the lights dimmed to 30 lux, we record more footage of our color charts. In this situation, the P5100 cannot expose properly, creating extreme color error and very high noise levels. This isn’t a good camera for capturing video of your friends in a dimly lit bar, or your family at a sunset.
We capture footage of our resolution test chart to see how sharp cameras are in Movie mode. The P5100 resolved 246 lw/ph horizontally with 24.2 percent undersharpening, and 308 lw/ph vertically with 14.9 percent undersharpening. These extremely low numbers are actually quite common for digital camera video, which is highly compressed to fit the 640 x 480 pixel size of standard definition video.
We give cameras a break from the lab by bringing them down to the street to record the motion of cars and pedestrians. The P5100 shows several small video problems, including distracting focal length changes when continuously autofocusing, motion moiré, streaky highlights, jerkiness to objects moving off the frame, and abrupt changes in exposure. Aside from these concerns, the video exposes evenly and shows good color. Nikon still has a ways to go before matching Canon’s digital camera video, but the P5100 already shows significant strides from the P5000’s ugly video.
Before you buy the Nikon Coolpix P5100, take a look at these other cameras.
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