The P3 has six white balance presets (direct sunlight, incandescent, fluorescent, cloudy, shade and flash) in addition to the default automatic setting and a manual (custom) white balance option. In our tests the auto white balance struggled with dim artificial light (like most cameras), producing a strong cast. We also found that the auto white balance system occasionally failed in daylight, with two almost identical shots taken within seconds of each other producing visibly different colors (something it's difficult to assess on-screen). I found myself using the preset white balance settings (particularly to warm up shots on hot days) more than I would normally when testing a compact camera, but to be fair the problems are fairly mild, and don't affect the majority of shots.
|Auto White Balance||Fluo (FL1) Preset||Auto White Balance||Incandescent preset|
|Fluorescent light - Auto white balance poor,
Preset white balance average
|Incandescent light - Auto white balance poor,
Preset white balance average
Ever since the earliest Coolpixes Nikon has offered excellent macro capabilities, a tradition continued by the P3. As is common the closest focus is only available at the wide end of the zoom, where you can down to a shooting distance of 4cm (capturing an area around 3.5cm across) - by no means class-leading, but more than adequate for most casual snap shooters. At the long end of the zoom you can't focus as close, but you can still capture a fairly small area (just over 11cm across). In both cases is some corner softness, but distortion is fairly low.
Resolution is on a par with the better cameras in this class, though the results are a lot cleaner (and somewhat softer) than many of the other 8MP compacts. As you move towards the very highest frequencies there is a very small amount of moiré visible, but overall there's little to complain about here.
|Click here for the full resolution test chart||
resolution 1650 LPH
resolution 1700 LPH
Distortion and other image quality issues
The P3 exhibits moderately high distortion at the wide end of the zoom - 1.4% barrel distortion (click here for test chart), but it's nothing to worry about . On a more positive note there is no measurable distortion at all at telephoto end (click here for test chart).
Taken as a whole my impression of the output of the Coolpix P3 - after close examination of the 600 or so shots taken for the gallery - was that of a slightly mixed bag. As noted in the studio tests the images are soft (getting close to being 'very soft'), but there is plenty of detail, which can be easily sharpened up in post-processing (or by simply turning up the in-camera sharpness setting). Colors are generally accurate (unless the white balance goes wrong - see above), subtle and a touch under saturated for the average point-and-shoot user (though perfect for those who like to do some image editing on the PC). In fact, as noted elsewhere, the default settings produce the kind of clean, slightly soft, slightly flat images that DLSR users will be very familiar with, and that are perfect for post-processing, but lack the immediate punchy appeal of the typical consumer compact camera. There is very little evidence of chromatic aberration or purple fringing.
Although I have no complaints about the P3's output (if you want punchier 'straight to print' results out of camera you can always tweak the in-camera settings, or buy a Sony, Canon or Fuji), I feel a little less forgiving when it comes to the 'photographic' side of things. The P3 is by no means a foolproof 'point and shoot' camera - it's metering and focus systems are far from infallible and in inexpert hands it will produce an unacceptable number of images that are too bright or too dark and / or focused on the wrong part of the scene.
Turning off the auto area focus helps a great deal with the focus issues (area focus tries to be clever, but as with most cameras - of any brand - it tends to go for the nearest thing in the frame, often leaving the main subject out of focus). The exposure problems can only be avoided by using focus lock or AE compensation - something experienced photographers will do without thinking, but the typical 'point and shoot' user may struggle to grasp.
Using the default settings we found the P3 to (maybe 10% of the time) overexpose outdoor scenes, though after a few weeks of using the camera I found it easy to anticipate and correct by careful use of pre focusing (which also locks the exposure). Still, it's not acceptable in a camera of this type. We also found occasional underexposure, though this was rarer.
|36mm equiv., F4.3||36mm equiv., F2.7|
At lower ISO settings (80-200) the P3 has similar measurable noise to the other cameras in this class, and like its competitors it's fairly low - mainly down to the combined effect of noise reduction and the inherent softness of the P3's default settings. At ISO 200 noise starts to become obvious if you sharpen the images enough to give them some 'pop'. ISO 400 is a little measurably noisier than most other 8MP cameras, but to be honest the difference in real terms - visually - is neither here nor there; it's simply that Nikon is applying slightly less powerful noise reduction at the same time as keeping sharpening low. I wasn't very impressed with ISO 400 at all - not only does it look noisy (especially so in low light), but there's not much detail either.
|ISO 80||ISO 100||ISO 200||ISO 400|
Indicated ISO sensitivity is on the horizontal axis of this graph, standard deviation of luminosity is on the vertical axis.
As the graph shows, noise is fairly low - and fairly consistent up to ISO 200, but jumps sharply at ISO 400. I'd like to see lower chroma noise, but this is about all we can expect from this sensor.