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Conclusion - Pros

  • Very compact and pocketable
  • Excellent handling for a small camera
  • Solid build and excellent fit / finish
  • Good resolution and decent edge-to-edge consistency
  • Realistic natural color, subtle processing, excellent tonality for a compact
  • Extensive system support - optional add-on lenses and flashguns
  • iTTL flash hot shoe
  • Optical image stabilization works well, even at very slow shutter speeds
  • Very good distortion control, especially for macro
  • Excellent output quality at lowest ISO settings - though default settings need post-processing
  • Best Shot Selector helps produce good shots in tricky situations
  • Command dial and custom function button give quick access to settings
  • Optical viewfinder
  • In-Camera Red-Eye Fix works, but is slow
  • D-Lighting function
  • Excellent flash performance
  • Very keen pricing

Conclusion - Cons

  • User interface somewhere between 'quirky' and 'frustrating'
  • Very slow focus and rather sluggish performance overall
  • Frustrating manual control mode
  • Poor performance above ISO 200, ISO 3200 pointless
  • Unimpressive burst mode
  • Default settings produce images lacking 'punch' (of course you may see this as a Pro, not a Con)
  • Screen can be difficult to see in bright light, occasional blooming of preview image
  • Sound cuts out before the end of movie clips
  • No in-camera video editing capability
  • Even the finest quality JPEG is still quite heavily compressed and no raw mode
  • Lens range (35-123mm) not the most versatile - would be nice if it started wider
  • Lens fairly dark (f/5.3) at the long end of the zoom
  • No live histogram, no raw mode

Overall conclusion

Like the P5000 before it, with the P5100 Nikon has taken a different approach to creating 'photographers' compact' camera to that taken by Canon with its G9. The Nikon more closely resembles the form and cost of other compacts, so won't be too daunting to users wanting to get more involved in the photographic process without taking on the weight, size, cost or initial complexity of the G9 - or an SLR.

The noisy images (and unimpressive noise reduction) at anything significantly above base ISO are to be expected from a camera built around such a small sensor, but there's no good reason why the P5100's control system needs to be so awkward. Inconsistent use of the control wheel and a lack of clear reporting of relevant information back to the user make the P5100 more frustrating than it needs to be. It's hard to escape the feeling that Nikon has borrowed the interface from its other compacts and tried to find uses for the control wheel and function button, rather than designing a new control system around them.

For example, in manual mode, we’d expect to select an aperture or shutter speed then fine-tune the other value. Instead, because the P5100 only changes shutter speed in whole stops, fine tuning can only be done with the aperture, turning manual mode into a slightly more time-consuming shutter priority mode. Frustratingly, in all other shooting modes, the camera will change shutter speed in fractions of stops (although it still reports only whole stops, making it impossible to get a clear understanding of what settings it’s using). These foibles, which limit the degree of control a user can usefully have, are unacceptable in a camera purporting to offer full manual control.

Flash performance is very good but its usefulness is hampered by the P5100's slow and unreliable focusing in low light, limiting its use in all but the best-lit social situations. And, unfortunately, this isn't something that would be rectified by adding an external flash.

All of which is a shame, because there's much to like about the P5100 and the images it produces. It's a good-looking, well built camera with top-notch ergonomics that applies useful features such as distortion control and vibration reduction in a way that improves your images. As a point-and-shoot, it is above average in almost every respect, bar focus speed. Overall it meters well and produces very little in the way of chromatic aberration or fringing, it produces subtle, natural colors and impressed us with its 'SLR like' JPEG output, free from the 'over polishing' so frequently applied by other cameras. Its default settings err on the side of caution in a way that leaves options open for those users who wish to tweak their images when they get home - and you can get far more immediately appealing results by turning up the sharpness and saturation settings (though what we'd really like would be a RAW mode).

Ultimately, for us, the P5100 was a disappointment, but not a surprise. Like Canon's G9 reviewed last week, Nikon essentially turned a blind eye to the only issues anyone really had with the P5000 - the sluggish performance and the rather counterintuitive control interface - and instead took the all too familiar route of bunging even more pixels onto a sensor already creaking under the strain when it had 10 million. So not only don't they fix the issues, to add insult to injury they actually reduce the quality of the high ISO output and call it an 'upgrade' (bangs head on wall). Sure there's a couple of nice new features, and sure the low ISO output is still excellent, but the feeling that this was a missed opportunity is simply unavoidable.

And so, once again Nikon has produced a compact capable of excellent results in the right conditions, but one that cannot ever be described as an 'all rounder' (just try using it indoors in low light and you'll discover why). It's a superb walk around camera for the landscape photographer (and has unusually 'purist-friendly' output) and it manages to fit an awful lot into a very small body, but it is disappointingly far from the camera it could have been.

  • Ideal for: Learning about photography, use with external flash, travel, shooting stationary objects
  • Not ideal for: Shooting anything fast, social snapping in low light
Detail Rating (out of 10)
Build quality 9.0
Ergonomics & handling 6.5
Features 8.0
Image quality 7.5
Optics 8.0
Performance (speed) 6.0
Value 8.5

Recommended

Highly Recommended

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