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Conclusion - Pros

  • Fast lens on the wide end of the zoom (f/1.8)
  • Very wide 24mm equiv. is great for landscape and indoor shots
  • AF illuminator effective in low light
  • Relatively simple operational ergonomics provide high level of manual control
  • USB charging is convenient (but makes it awkward to keep a second battery charged)
  • Good quality HD video footage (plus stereo inbuilt microphone)
  • AE lock in video is very useful in inconsistent lighting situations.

Conclusion - Cons

  • No 'quick' menu for commonly-accessed shooting settings
  • No control over noise reduction/sharpening
  • At 100%, even low ISO images look 'crunchy' due to noise reduction and sharpening
  • No direct access to ISO or White Balance (you have to go through the menu system)
  • No RAW capture option
  • Four-way controller and combined control dial is easy to 'mash' accidentally.
  • f/1.8 looks impressive at the long end but lens slows quickly to f/4.9 at 100mm
  • f/1.8 aperture at 24mm provides little benefit in terms of background blur (but is useful in low light)
  • No live histogram in Manual mode

Overall conclusion

The market for high-end compact cameras with a small form factor is booming at the moment, which is evidenced in the rash of new releases in 2010-2011. We're certain that, purely because of its styling, a lot of consumers will regard the P300 as a cut-price alternative to cameras like the Canon Powershot S95 and Panasonic Lumix LX5.

In ergonomic terms, these cameras are its natural peers. Like them it features a metal body shell, high-quality LCD screen and full manual control, via twin control dials. Equally the P300 offers a (relatively) fast zoom lens with a modest range. Where it differs is in its smaller sensor, lack of RAW mode, and comparative dearth of customization. In these respects, and indeed in terms of its cost, the P300 is actually closer to more traditional 'point and shoot' compact cameras like those found in Canon's venerable ELPH/IXUS range.

What the P300 does, it generally does very well. It's back-side illuminated 12MP CMOS sensor is capable of producing useable images across its entire ISO range, and even at its maximum ISO setting of 3200 images from the P300 are perfectly acceptable for small prints or web/screen display. The downside, of course, is that in order to take advantage of the f/1.8 setting, you must shoot at 24mm (equivalent).

Of arguably more use than the fast f/1.8 aperture at 24mm is the focal length itself. 24m (equivalent) is a perfect focal length for interiors and landscapes, and usefully wider than 28mm - more so than the bare 4mm difference might suggest. In an ideal world, we'd like the P300 to have a RAW capture mode and expanded customization (and thereby the S95 to have some real competition), but naturally, this would push the P300 up a class (and up in cost).

Image Quality

The P300's BSI (back side illuminated) CMOS sensor does pretty well in most shooting conditions and in normal use, image quality compares well to those of its peers with similar-sized sensors. Up to ISO 800 images are reasonably smooth (albeit thanks in part to noise reduction) and even 1600 and 3200 are perfectly usable as long as you manage your expectations. Crucially, in everyday use the P300 produces print-friendly, well-metered, punchy images. Bright skies are deep blue and foliage retains its lush green color.

Being limited to JPEG capture though means that you have no choice but to put up with Nikon's slightly aggressive noise reduction and sharpening settings. Even at its base ISO setting of ISO 160, fine detail has a somewhat 'crunchy' appearance, which looks distinctly 'digital'. At normal print sizes images from the P300 look great, but its a shame that it isn't possible to fine-tune either noise reduction or sharpening.

That said, we're impressed by the P300's performance in poor light, at high ISO settings. The maximum aperture of f/1.8 (at 24mm) is useful in this regard, since it facilitates the use of either a slightly faster shutter speed or a lower ISO setting than would otherwise be possible. As for Nikon's other claim - that the f/1.8 setting allows significant control over depth of field - this is true only at very close focussing distances and (of course) only with the lens set to 24mm. Even then, the effect on background blur of shooting at f/1.8 compared to f/2.8 is subtle.

In terms of its video image quality, the P300 is capable without being outstanding. 1080p video capture is good to see in a camera at this pricepoint, and although it offers almost no customization, video footage is smooth and detailed. The P300's inbuilt microphone isn't great, but unlike many of its peers, it does provide stereo sound.

Handling

The P300 is something of a mixed bag in terms of handling. Its compact dimensions, along with a rubber thumb pad and front grip make it easy and comfortable to hold in a single hand. Its metal body is solid and well constructed, and most of the controls have a good, positive feel. The only exception is the combined four-way controller and rear control dial, which can be a little awkward. We found that when rotating the dial it is quite easy to accidentally press down on the controller, and vis-versa.

The P300's 3in LCD screen is bright and contrasty, and the high resolution means that it is possible to accurately review your images for focus and exposure on the camera, without needing to take a closer look on a computer. You can never have too much screen resolution in our opinion, and the experience of viewing images on the P300's LCD is essentially the same as that of using the screens on Nikon's current range of DSLRs, which is impressive for a compact camera at this price point.

As a point and shoot camera, the P300 excels, but things become a little less satisfying when you want to take more manual control. The P300's ample external controls make it quick and easy to change shooting modes and exposure values, but it isn't all roses. Both dials can be slow to respond to inputs, the command dial on the top of the P300 is not used as much as we would like, and apart from shutter speed and program line adjustments, the majority of exposure adjustments are made on the less positive rear control dial. The behaviour of the dials isn't customizable, so if you'd rather use the top dial for controlling aperture in aperture priority mode, for example, you're out of luck. Speaking of customization, the P300 has very little to offer on this score, and in this respect, it is far more limiting than certain of its higher-end peers (such as the Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX5) and its 'big brother' the Coolpix P7000.

A more serious frustration, and one that we simply don't understand, is the P300's lack of any sort of quick menu. This wouldn't matter so much if ISO and white balance were accessible using external buttons, but they're not. It is easier, in fact, to access the P300's hue/saturation control (via the exposure compensation button) than ISO, and this simply makes no sense to us at all.

The final word

Based on styling and operation alone it might seem that Nikon intends the P300 to compete against the Canon S95, and in many ways it deports itself very well. It does, however, have some key deficiencies that cannot be ignored. The lack of RAW mode will immediately turn off some enthusiasts, and the small 1/2.3in sensor cannot produce equivalent image quality to the likes of the S95, Olympus XZ-1 or Panasonic Lumix LX5. Nor can the P300 compete with these cameras in terms of versatility. The P300 offers minimal customization, and no control over key image processing parameters such as noise reduction or sharpening, for example.

Overall then, the P300 is a satisfying compact camera, but contrary to appearance, it is not the direct competitor for the S95 that we'd hoped (and initially assumed) it might be. However, what it does, it does very well. If you want full manual control in a lightweight, well-constructed (and relatively inexpensive) body, and you like the idea of twin control dials but don't care about being limited to JPEG capture, you will probably love the P300.

If, however, you want the best possible image quality, genuine control over depth of field, and the ability to customize your camera, we'd recommend spending a bit more money and taking a look at the cameras in last year's enthusiast compact group test as well as the Olympus XZ-1 and Samsung TL500. The P300 might look a lot like them, but it just doesn't quite match up. Whether or not you care about the smaller sensor, dearth of custom options and lack of RAW depends on your priorities as a photographer, but we suspect that a lot of enthusiasts will share our disappointment that Nikon hasn't taken the opportunity with the P300 to create a true S95/XZ-1/LX5 competitor.

Nikon Coolpix P300
Category: Premium Enthusiast Compact Camera
Build quality
Ergonomics & handling
Features
Exposure and focus accuracy
Image quality (jpeg)
Flash performance
Low light / high ISO performance
Optics
Performance (speed)
Movie / video mode
Value
PoorExcellent
Good for
Those who don't need RAW capability but want a compact with a good deal of manual control.
Not so good for
Critical photography or images to be used for large prints.
Overall score
70%
The P300 is a decent compact that provides a good number of manual shooting controls that place this camera a step above other point and shoots. Unfortunately the absence of RAW capability and over-processing at base ISO prevent this camera from achieving its potential.

Scoring is relative only to the other cameras in the same category.

Click here to learn about the changes to our scoring system and what these numbers mean.

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