Nikon Coolpix P80 Review
The Coolpix P80 is the latest "P"erformance series model from Nikon (as of 5/2008). The P series is a group of digicams aimed towards novice users who appreciate manual controls, and the P80 is right in line with its siblings. With a 10-megapixel imaging sensor, powerful 18x Nikkor optical zoom, Nikon's sensor shift Vibration Reduction, and several other high-end features, this compact super-zoom has a lot to offer. The only thing missing is a flash hot shoe for external speedlites. There's a full Auto mode as well as 10 pre-programmed scene modes, which are perfect for beginners. For the more advanced user, the P80 includes modes like Aperture/Shutter speed priority and full Manual. All of these combined make this a digicam that can be used by anyone, regardless of their photographic experience.
Ergonomics are good. The P80 is well designed, offering a nice comfortable feel in your hands, thanks to the large handgrip on the right hand side. While comfortable, the P80 is also very compact for a super-zoom, allowing you to easily slip it into a medium size camera bag or purse. All of the controls are well positioned across the body, within easy reach of your finger tips. The 2.7-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, even outdoors in the bright sunlight, thanks to its anti-reflective coating. The only negative thing about the display is that it is very prone to collecting fingerprints. The P80 also features a color EVF (Electronic ViewFinder), which is just a tiny 0.24-inch screen inside the eye piece. There's a diopter adjustment, which for those who wear glasses will appreciate. I found the eye piece was not very comfortable. After using it for a few minutes, it became too uncomfortable for me to use and I switched back to the LCD. When shooting in marginal lighting, the live image "gains up" nicely to help with shot composition. Unlike most LCDs, the P80's displays only show about 97% of the captured image.
The most appealing feature of this camera has to be the Nikkor 18x optical zoom lens that covers a focal range of 27 - 486mm (35mm equivalent). I was glad to see that Nikon has played along with other manufacturers, offering a nice wide angle view; unlike many cameras that start at 35mm or so. This affords great scenic landscape shots, and with 486mm of telephoto magnification, you can get up close and personal with your subject, even if you are not within shouting distance. During our testing this lens helped produced sharp results throughout the zoom range. It offers a huge advantage in composing your shots over a typical 3x zoom. The zoom mechanism is smooth and quite, but not continuous. I counted about 21 steps from wide angle to telephoto. While this sounds like plenty for composing your shots, I still did have times where I had to zoom with my feet. When standing at the typical spot for our brick firehouse shot, the zoom would either be too wide or too tight for my liking, hence I had to move. Overall this is a nice lens that complements the P80 nicely. I noticed moderate barrel distortion present at wide angle, and slight pincushioning at the telephoto end. There were also traces of chromatic aberration (purple fringing) present around objects with high contrast, but these were controlled fairly well.
Shooting performance was below average for a camera in this class. Power up to first image captured averaged 2.8 seconds. Shutter lag measured 1/10 of a second when pre-focused and 7-8/10 of a second including autofocus. When shooting in single exposure mode, the shot to shot delay averaged about 1.9 seconds between frames without the use of the flash and slowing to between 2.2 - 3 seconds with the flash, depending on subject distance. You can choose from four sequential shooting modes; Continuous, BSS (Best Shot Selector), Multi- shot 16 and Interval timer shooting. Using Continuous mode, I was able to capture 6 images in 3.8 seconds, about 1.5fps. BSS captured 10 frames in 6.8 seconds, saving only the sharpest or "best" one. Multi-shot 16 captured 16 frames in 11 seconds, then saved them all as a single 5M image. Interval Timer allows you to set the interval between shots (30 seconds - 60 minutes), and will continue to capture images until the shutter release is pressed or the camera runs out of memory (max. of 1800 frames). The P80's LCD viewfinder only briefly displays the last image captured in all continuous modes, making it difficult to follow a moving subject.
The P80 also features a Sports scene mode with four continuous settings to choose from. I used Continuous H, which allowed me to capture 30 images in just 1.8 seconds. This is blazing fast, however the image size is reduced to 3M. However, with 3-megapixels, you can still produce very nice 4x6-inch prints. Overall this is a very nice feature, and if you need to use a burst mode on this model, I recommend Sports mode over the regular Continuous capture settings. I would rather get the shot at a lower resolution, than miss it all together. All of our tests were done using an ATP Pro Max Class6 4GB SDHC card, using 10M/Fine size/quality, Program mode, ISO Auto, flash off, and all other settings at default (unless otherwise noted.) Times may vary depending on lighting conditions, camera settings, media, etc.
One of the most important factors to consider when making a decision on a digicam is image quality, and the P80 won't let you down. I was very pleased with the overall quality from the 10M Fine setting, with the majority of our samples showing accurate exposure with nice color saturation. The only time I saw the camera have some problems was when shooting with the Auto white balance setting under some mixed Florescent light. The WB system tended to produce images that were a bit warm. You can see what I mean by taking a look at our M&M man ISO examples on the Samples page. Noise levels were average, becoming more noticeable as the sensitivity is increased. I was surprised to see some traces in shadow areas, even at ISO 64. However, you can only see this when viewing an image at 100%. The P80 allows you to use ISO settings as high as 2000 at full resolution, or 3200 and 6400 at 3-megapixels. At ISO 2000, image noise is abundant, and due to the heavy noise reduction, there's a lot of detail loss. Overall they look horrible, especially when viewing an image at 100% or in playback on the LCD. I found using either ISO 64 or the Auto setting produced the best results. I especially like the Fixed Auto Range setting, which allows you to set a cut off for Auto mode. You can choose from 64-100, 64-200 or 64-400.
Nikon claims the P80's flash unit can cover up to 28 feet at wide angle with the ISO set to Auto. While mostly using ISO 64 (which will shorten that claimed range), I was able to produce nice close-up and small group portraits with good flash exposure and very natural skin tones. I had no problems capturing portraits from about 8-9 feet away that showed nice flash coverage. While this is an above average unit, do not expect it to illuminate large open rooms (like a gymnasium or church). When shooting our Macro examples, I noticed the flash output was a bit on the strong side, blowing out some of the detail in our candy dish shot. Luckily, there is a flash compensation option in the Record menu that will allow you to tone down the flash's output when shooting close-up objects. The P80's Vibration Reduction feature helps when the flash can not be used, allowing you to capture more images free of camera shake. The Face Priority AF system worked fairly well. It had some troubles when shooting a subject that had a lot of ambient light shining on their face. However, when shooting indoor images of our young children, it found and lock on to their faces quickly, as long as they were looking forward. The P80's Face Detect system is an improvement over past Nikon models, but it's still a bit behind many of the other manufacturers.
There's a wealth of movie recording options to choose from, along with the resolutions: 640x480, 320x240 and 160x120. 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 P80's Vibration Reduction feature can be enabled in movie mode, which will help you capture handheld video that is a bit more steady. You can activate Full-time Autofocus in movie mode too, and thankfully, there was almost no noise generated by the autofocus system. Our movie samples were good, as long as there is plenty of ambient light. We have both an indoor and outdoor example on the samples page. The AF system, did very well at following the very fast RC truck in our outdoor clip. However, our indoor clip shows a ton of noise or grain, making them not very desirable to use or show to family/friends.
Power is supplied by a proprietary EN-EL5 3.7v 1100 mAh Lithium ion battery. Nikon claims you can capture up to 250 shots on a full charge using the CIPA standard testing methods. I found battery life to be good, capturing over 150 samples and concluding many of our other tests (LCD used 100% of the time) on a single charge. Batteries are charged out of the camera with the supplied MH-61 charger; we suggest you pick up at least one extra battery pack and keep it charged and ready if you plan on taking a lot of pictures or are going on vacation.
Bottom line - the Nikon Coolpix P80 is a bit of a mixed bag. While loaded with appealing features like the 18x Nikkor zoom, 2.7-inch LCD, high resolution EVF, Vibration Reduction, High ISO capabilities and great image quality, the slower shooting performance, uncomfortable EVF eye piece, amount of noise in high sensitivity photos and slower Face detection AF system really disappointed us. That said, with a street price of US$399 or less, the P80 is an affordable super-zoom model (about $100 less than many of its competitors) that is sure to capture pleasing images of your friends and family, you just might not capture all of those spontaneous moments.
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