Perhaps…it is another Nikon Coolpix underachiever, in certain respects. But I can leave you rest assured it is not a total loss.
Top Command Dial
The main command dial on top of the camera generally controls the exposure engine that the camera will be using to evaluate a scene’s light reading. Like most compact point and shoots there is a green AUTO mode where the camera remains completely in the driver seat when determining exposure. This is a fail-safe for when the user is just starting out with the camera or does not want to worry about setting anything and just take snapshots. Beyond that, you have the standard SLR modes of Program, Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority and full manual. These modes allow for user override and/or for achieving special photographic effects, but are still limited by the point and shoot nature of this camera. Beyond that, Nikon provides their very comprehensive SCENE mode menu which allows the user to dial in more precisely the nature of the photograph about to be taken (fireworks, landscape, night portrait, museum, & panorama assist). These modes really work and Nikon always has the most useful and comprehensive list. However, the slight problem is that there is no override when in one of those modes. The camera engages full control again.
Rounding out the options on the main command dial you have the video clip mode, U1 & U2 customized user modes, Nikon PictureTown upload prompt which can connect via WiFi and send your photos to your user account for sharing. A gimmick in my opinion as it is very slow and drains your battery power. Finally there is the GPS setup menu. Yes, a neat, unique feature of this camera is to read GPS data from where you are shooting and embed it in the image meta-data.
The camera has, in my opinion, just the right amount of exterior buttons. Too few buttons means that the operator needs to dig through menus in order to change settings, thus probably missing the shot about to be taken. The standard controls are accessed on the various positions of the directional pad. Here there is access to the flash controls, self-timer, exposure compensation, and the focusing options. Additional buttons on the exterior include, on either side of the eyepiece, a button that toggles the screen display, and flash pop-up. Along the left-hand side of the large, bright, crisp LCD screen there is a programmable function button, a ‘My Menu’ button, a manual focus button (IMO useless), the playback button, and last the menu access. The display button performs two functions. Press it once, it provides on-screen grid lines which help with composition and leveling; press it a second time and the screen turns off to save battery power. This is recommended if you intend on using the viewfinder for picture-taking purposes. Press it a third time and it recalls the standard shooting screen.
Aperture Priority f/6.9 1/730 Auto ISO chose 800 Manual White Balance
- Viewfinder – small tiny window which suffers from noticeable distortion along the top and bottom regions when at the wider angles. However small and distorted the viewfinder is, it is a godsend in any outdoor or bright light situation.
- 4x wide angle lens
- Pop-up Flash – Useful for red-eye reduction.
- GPS – unique, handy. Great idea. Could never get it to work though. It never found a signal.
- Metal Casing – This is rare these days. Most compact cameras are made out of cheap plastic.
- ‘My Menu’ – Extremely convenient for quickly accessing commonly used menu commands at the touch of a single button.
- Function (Fn) Button – Even more convenient. Program this for the menu item you use the most. I set it for ISO adjustment.
- Optical VR – Light years better and more accurate than electronic VR on the cheaper Nikons (and other brands)
- Hotshoe – Almost seems silly to attach a larger flash on top of a smaller camera, but the Nikon SB-400 is quite compact and will greatly improve your photos.
On-Screen Gridlines assisted in the composition of this image.
Notable Menu Functions
The camera has three separate menus which allow the user to change settings. Shooting, Playback, and Setup menus. Let’s take the Setup menu first. Notable items include a screen brightness adjustment (for bright situations), option for date imprint (which some people may like). There is a menu item for VR ON/OFF. Some might ask, why turn it off? Two reasons: If your battery is low and the shooting situation does not require it, turn it off to conserve battery power; and if you are tripod mounting the camera VR will in fact disrupt the sharpness as it will sense ‘no motion’ and counteract itself. Digital Zoom is something to STAY AWAY FROM. Finally the setup menu allows one to set the parameters for the Fn button and the My Menu button.
The Playback menu enables the user to do a number of processing steps in-camera with the need of a computer. You can down-size files and save as a new file, perform the D-Lighting algorithm to lighten shadows and compress highlights, add a black border to polish the image, and even perform in-camera RAW processing to JPEG – something that has been extremely controversial with respecto this camera. More details on this are in my conclusion section.
Interesting and useful options in the shooting menu include Picture Control settings to optimize the in-camera JPEG processing engine to render images suitable to the content of image. For example Portrait & Vivid modes process the colors and contrast of an image differently for a pleasing effect on the particular image content. Following this there are options for shooting RAW+JPG, or just RAW or any JPG quality. Options for flash compensation, auto-focusing modes, Auto ISO, and even an interval timer are all found in the shooting menu. An interval timer is quite interesting and is found very rarely in compact cameras. Every now and then, Nikon has put it in their smaller cameras. It enables an automatic shutter actuation for over a specified interval. This allows for the ability to set the camera up in a single spot and collect multiple images of a scene over time and then combine all of the images in a motion JPG or short Quicktime video clip. It’s quite neat. I did not have a chance to do a good one with the P6000, but I have done it with the D200, D300, & D3 cameras in the past with their built-in intervalometers.
Continuous Auto-Focus was used to track him while walking toward me. Good thing he walked slowly.
Handling of the camera was quite ergonomic and user friendly just like any Nikon SLR camera is. It has a nice hand grip around the front, rubberized pads for non-slippage and the metal casing just makes it feel as if the camera is worth the $499 retail price it is. Setting both ISo and White Balance are quite intuitive. I programmed the Fn button to call up the ISO menu and it is very interesting how it configures the Auto ISO functions. The user has an option of Auto, Auto ISO 200, and Auto ISO 400, giving the shooter the option as to where to cap the Auto ISO parameter so as to not unwieldingly generate image noise, as all compacts do once they hit 800 ISO. Of course the user can also select a specific ISO from the list of choices up to an effective sensitivity of 3200 which produces annoyingly noisey images. Noise is well-controlled at ISOs up to 800. Beyond that, chromatic noise becomes visible and objectionable even in 4x6in prints and on computer monitor. Luminance noise does not seem to be problem until 1600 ISO. See the sample below to analyze the noise characteristics. You can click it to bring up a larger image for observation. I chose the subject based on three factors: a white background which will show color speckling, the color and tonality of the apple which will show blotchiness and a lack of smooth color transition at higher ISOs, and finally it was partially a test of white balance as well, as Auto White Balance tends to suffer at higher ISO settings.
The My Menu was configured with White Balance, Flash Compensation, Metering Mode, Focus Mode, Distortion Fix, and Image Quality. Instead of digging through the menu, I now only had to press the ‘My Menu’ button and spin the dial to the option I wanted then click OK. Manual White Balance is simple to set just like it is on the Panasonic LX-3 and the Canon G10. It’s actually easier to set a custom white balance on the point and shoots then it is the SLRs sometimes it seems. You click the manual white balance button, point the lens at something ‘white’ then click the OK button. It reads the scene and registers the color temperature.
The Distortion Control function is quite interesting. It only works when you’re shooting JPG, but nonetheless it does correct for a considerable amount of barrel distortion & edge curvature. Now, don’t think I go around shooting brick walls all day, because I don’t. It just so happens that they are exceptionally good test subjects for lens distortion. See the example below & click to enlarge.
Well, a pop-up flash is better than a flash that is just built into the front panel of the camera. The extra distance of the flash from the lens will slightly decrease the chance of red-eye and may provide a bit more range than your convential built-in flash. I attempted to use the flash diffuser I manufactured for use with the Panasonic LX-3, but unfortunately it would not properly fit over the flash head…and I had no further desire to make another. Undoubtedly it would help even out flash exposure and make it more pleasing, however. On the flash menu, Nikon provides all flash modes without having to dig deeper into the back menu, for example enabling slow-sync flash. Nikon even gives the user access to rear-sync flash on the flash button menu. How unusual! Is it even effective on a camera of this nature?
Shots taken in Macro Focusing Mode
Quite pleased with the detail rendering in both images.
Image Quality Discussion
13.5 megapixels…what an amazing feat accomplished by the engineers at Nikon. We’ve got plenty of resolution here! If only they could now invent a use for so many megapixels in a point & shoot, or design a lens that can handle that number of pixels, or lastly, put in a larger sensor to safely accomodate that number of pixels without generating more noise than a room filled with 8 crying babies. Have the manufacturers lost sight, or not realized that images from 5 and 6 megapixels cameras of 3 years ago looked better at higher ISOs??..and still produced perfectly acceptable 8×10 prints which is typically the largest an average consumer will print anyway?
Image quality is excellent up to ISO 400. Up to 800, it is very good. Once you hit 1600 and above, image quality is just unacceptable. Additionally, dimly-lit indoors photographs, no matter how low the ISO still look awful and noisy due to long exposure noise or odd-colored light sources not being rendered probably – even if you have engaged manual white balance! I’m hesistant to post all of the incredibly bad indoors images taken with the P6000 in fear of Nikon slapping on a lawsuit for bad press. On a brighter note the image quality and color rendition of outdoor photos are acceptable and for the most part very nice. Of course I always shoot in RAW format when I can and with this camera it was no exception, even though there is a bit of controversy over this new Nikon RAW file format – .NRW. See below a JPG straight out of camera, and a RAW file processed via Adobe Lightroom 2.2. If you are knowledgeable in reading histograms, it is simple to tell which file is better, and contains a broader range of exposure data. By the way, there is also a visual difference between the images as well. Click to enlarge.
‘Cons’ & Conclusions
As much as I am a loyal Nikon SLR user, I cannot say that I have ever used a Coolpix model that I have been completely satisfied with. Many have come close, such as the Coolpix 8400. This camera had a real working lens diapragm which enabled actual depth of field adjustment by changing the lens’ f/stop. Even though the P6000 camera and so many other advanced point and shoots have ‘Aperture Priority Mode’ the lenses don’t have diaphragms so you’re not actually changing a damn thing!
I was extremely disappointed, as noted earlier, about the indoor performance of the camera. Auto-focusing was unacceptably slow. To tell you the honest truth, I don’t even think it was ‘quick’ when outdoors in decent lighting either. I don’t understand, but there just seems to be too great of a technological gap between the Coolpix Series and Nikon’s DSLR series. Image quality and camera performance are night and day. What saved this camera from getting a really bad review from me was its ability to shoot in RAW. By capturing all the shooting data, it provided me with better options to control white balance, image sharpening, and noise reduction myself in image processing to my own liking rather leaving it to the camera to decide. But, there is a funny thing about the P6000 RAW file format. It is not the standard Nikon .NEF format used in all past cameras and all current Nikon DSLRs. With the P6000 they introduced an .NRW format which (until recently) is only compatible with a Microsoft Windows RAW processor that isn’t even available yet. Nikon’s own Capture software cannot even interpret this camera’s RAW data. Also, based on the originals plans, this file format would only be readable on a Windows-based operating system. Why did Nikon do this? Who knows! Why does Nikon do any of their stupid marketing antics, such as their ridiculous instant rebate programs, and their latest price increases which were done merely ‘to stabilize product pricing in response to the shake-up of the world economy’. Does Nikon have some special partnering with Microsoft? Perhaps.
Good thing Thomas Knoll and the rest of our friends at Adobe were able to reverse engineer the file format and allow Lightroom 2 to read and process the odd file format. This was only done recently within the past two months, even though the camera has been available for 6 months or so now. I decided this is why the Playback menu of the camera has a RAW processing option – so you can shoot RAW and have the camera spit out custom-rendered JPGs! I tried it, and the parameters were very weak. You can adjusts sharpness, contrast, exposure, saturation, and yea… I think that’s it.
Finally, I was disappointed with the inability to use the GPS system. I turned it on, synchronized location and time, but after that the only message I ever saw was ‘Searching for satellite’ and none of the images had any GPS data stored in them. So, either my location is a dead-zone or the GPS device inside the camera is quite weak.
My final comments on the camera are that for $499 you can certainly do better. If the GPS function is mandatory for you, then it is an interesting choice. If you do a lot of indoor photography – STAY AWAY! If you do a lot of travel or hiking photography – the camera’s controls are easy to navigate, it has a well-ranged lens with good lens quality and if you have the ability to take advantage of the low ISO performance of the camera then you will be fine and very pleased with the results, as I am pleased with the sample shots shown on this page.
This camera is not recommended for photographing any type of subject that is moving.