Nikon Coolpix P4 Review
The P4 is a member of Nikon's Performance series of Coolpix digicams. It is essentially a twin of the Coolpix P3, excluding only its 802.11b/g WiFi (wireless) connectivity feature. The P4's features include an 8-megapixel imager, Nikkor 3.5x optical zoom lens, 2.5-inch LCD and Vibration Reduction. This simple to use point-n-shoot offers various automatic exposure modes for beginners and also features 16 pre-programmed scene modes (several including scene-assist) to help them capture great shots in a wide variety of different shooting conditions. And for those novice users who enjoy taking a little more control over the exposure process, it also includes Aperture priority and manual control of white balance and ISO.
Ergonomics are average. Nikon eliminated the contoured grip of the predecessor P1, making the camera less comfortable to hold. The menu button is located very close to the normal position of your right thumb, although it was never accidentally actuated in normal use. I found the Mode dial offers too little resistance, sometimes partially rotating, resulting in an LCD message, "Warning! Mode dial is not in the proper position." Aside from those issues, the P4's controls were well-positioned, and its menu system logically organized in both text and icon modes. The 2.5-inch color LCD is used for image review, preview, accessing the Menu system and serves as the camera's information display. It worked well in just about every lighting condition, outside in the bright sunlight and indoors at night. The live image "gains up" when shooting in dim lighting and makes composing your shot easy. The color LCD takes up nearly 2/3 of the back, there is no optical viewfinder, so it's good that it functions well in a wide variety of conditions.
The Nikkor 3.5x optical zoom lens covers a versatile focal range of 36 - 126mm (35mm equivalent) and produced sharp results. It has noticeable barrel distortion at wide angle but no pin cushioning at the telephoto end. There was very little chromatic aberration (purple fringing) around objects with high contrast in our sample images. The lens moves smoothly and quietly through its zoom range, but not continuously; I counted 9 steps between wide angle and telephoto, adequate for most shot composition needs. The zoom range is typical for most consumer models, offering a sufficient field of view for landscape and indoor shots, and a telephoto range useful for portraits and to bring your subjects a bit closer.
The P4's shooting performance was average. Power up to first image captured measured just under 4 seconds. Shutter lag measured 2/10 second when pre-focused and 1 second including autofocus, both times including the approx. 1/10 second delay in the live image of the LCD viewfinder. The shot to shot delay averaged about 2.7 seconds between frames without the use of the flash and between 3 and 8 seconds with the flash, depending on subject distance.
There are four Sequential shooting modes to choose from; Continuous, Multi-shot 16, Ultra HS, and 5 shot buffer. Continuous mode was impressive; I was able to capture 4 Large Fine JPEG images in 1.5 seconds; subsequent shots came at 1.4 second intervals and it took about 5 seconds to clear the buffer. Multi-shot 16 mode captures 16 frames in 7.3 seconds and combines them into single 8M/Fine image. Ultra HS changes the image size to TV Normal and snapped 100 frames in just 3 seconds! 5 Shot buffer mode is a bit of a misnomer, saving only 3 8M/Fine images; 5 images are saved only when shooting at less than best size/quality. That said, the P4 captures images continuously at 9/10 second intervals while the shutter button is depressed; only the last 5 images (3 at best quality) captured before you release the shutter button are saved. The P4's LCD viewfinder only briefly displays the last image captured in all continuous modes, making it difficult to follow a moving subject. This can be an issue because the P4 is not equipped with an optical viewfinder. All of our tests were done using a MyFlash Turbo 150X 512MB SD card, using 8M/Fine size/quality, Program mode, welcome screen off, preview off, and all other settings at default (unless otherwise noted.) Times may vary depending on lighting conditions, camera settings, media, etc.
I was pleased with the outdoor image quality results when using its 8-megapixel Fine mode. The our samples were consistently well exposed and adequately sharp with the Auto sharpness setting; the P4 offers additional in-camera sharpness settings of High, Normal, Low and Off. The white balance and exposure system did well under various lighting conditions, producing images with accurate color reproduction and good saturation. Noise levels were acceptable, although shadow noise was detectable even at ISO 50. ISO 400 produced noise throughout the image, with a noticeable loss of fine image detail as well; ISO 400 is quite useable, however, when it means the difference between capturing a blur-free image and not.
Our indoor results were also good. Although the flash has limited range (about 13 feet at Auto ISO), it's adequate for shots in small rooms or portraits of small groups. The autofocus system did well in low light situations, thanks, in part, to the inclusion of an AF-assist lamp. The P4's Vibration Reduction feature helps when the flash can not be used, allowing the capture of fairly consistently blur-free images at shutter speeds about 2 stops slower than the rule of thumb 1/focal-length. When shooting portrait shots, skin tones were very natural and flash exposure was good from a range of about 4 to 6 feet (when using the mid telephoto capabilities of the lens.) The Face-priority focus mode worked well, focusing directly on the subject's face nearly every time. The Red-eye reduction flash mode was effective within its limited range. The P4's D-lighting feature was effective at salvaging underexposed images.
The P4 can record QuickTime video with three image size choices: 640x480, 320x240 and 160x120, all at 30fps. Sound is recorded thanks to the built-in microphone; as a result, the optical zoom can be used to compose movies before recording starts, but not during recording. The Digital zoom can be used, but image quality will be degraded. The P4's Vibration Reduction feature can be enabled in movie mode, helpful as it is hard to hold such a small camera still for long periods when recording video. Although you can activate Full-time Autofocus in movie mode, the noise generated by the autofocus system will ruin the audio track. Overall, I was pleased with our movie samples, with the only drawback being the microphone is very sensitive and will pick up even the slightest gust of wind.
Power is supplied by a tiny and proprietary EN-EL5 3.7v 1100 mAh Lithium ion battery. Nikon claims you can capture up to 200 shots on a full charge using the CIPA standard testing methods; it captured more than 120 images in Normal VR mode and performed some other tests without displaying a low battery warning. Batteries are charged out of the camera with the supplied MH-61 charger; we suggest you pick up at least one extra battery and keep it charged and handy.
Bottom line - Nikon's Coolpix P4 is a capable compact digicam that produces good quality 8-megapixel images and VGA sized movies. Beginners will enjoy its fully automatic and scene assist modes, while intermediate users will be able to get creative with Aperture priority and the range of adjustments available in Programmed auto mode. At a street price of under US$350, it represents a good value, especially considering its 8-megapixel resolution, Vibration Reduction and versatile 36-126mm focal length range. If you like the P4's quality and features but want to reduce cable clutter, consider the Coolpix P3; its photographic features duplicate those of the P4 and it adds 802.11b/g WiFi (wireless) connectivity for just $50 more.
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