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Overall handling and operation

The P300 handles and performs in line with what we've come to expect from this class of compact. With its ample external controls, changing settings is quick and easy. The build quality is solid and the size is comfortable to handle. The rubber thumb grip on the back is small but makes a difference, and even though the lens protrudes slightly when the P300 is turned off, the camera is small enough to fit in your pocket or purse.

In general, the P300 is quite responsive. Startup is quick (with the welcome screen disabled) and takes about 1 second including the required 'long press' (compared to just over 5 seconds with the welcome screen enabled). Switching between menus and even browsing through photos in playback mode is fast. One of the most useful features of the camera is the ability to begin recording video from any shooting mode you are in. There is no need to switch to modes on the dial; just hit the record button and you're shooting video.

The 4x zoom lens is quite fast on the wide end at f/1.8. However, when fully zoomed it becomes a much slower f/4.9. The 24mm equivalent focal length is fantastic for shooting landscapes and indoor group shots while 100mm, although it lacks the reach of some of the P300's superzoom peers, is enough of a telephoto to isolate reasonably distant details (and 100mm equivalent is a nice focal length for portraits).

The P300's 24mm wideangle setting is ideal for landscape shots. The P300's maximum telephoto performance at the long end of the zoom is 100mm, while not providing as much reach as some of the P300's competitors, is long enough to isolate reasonably distant details.

Specific handling issues

In our tests we have found that the P300 is a competent performer in most respects, and an agreeable companion when out shooting. There are some problems though, which make using the P300 less pleasant than it could be. These issues do not detract substantially from the usability of the camera but they are worth noting.

In program mode, when using the camera's control dials to shift exposure settings it is (of course) possible to scroll past the allowed range for that shot. This by itself is not an issue - you wouldn't expect the control dial to physically stop working if you try to select an option beyond the camera's maximum shutter speed, for example. However, if you 'run on' a little past the maximum shutter speed, and then decide to scroll backwards to decrease it, nothing will happen until you've 'rewound' those extra clicks. At this point, the exposure values begin to change again. Up to ten 'extra' clicks and you must rewind the dial by the precise number that you 'overran' - if you overrun by more than ten clicks, you must rewind by ten before the camera will respond. Not a major problem, but maddening nonetheless.

In our opinion, one of Nikon's most serious oversights in the P300 is the lack of a live histogram in Manual shooting mode. Nikon for some reason has decided to make the live histogram only viewable when adjusting the exposure compensation. It is possible to adjust exposure compensation in P,A and S modes. When doing so, the the exposure compensation is simulated on the screen along with the histogram. However, (obviously) the exposure compensation function isn't available in manual mode and as a consequence neither is the live histogram. The current exposure is shown on a +/-2EV scale on the left side of the screen when in M mode, but a live histogram linked to exposure, or exposure simulation of the live view image would be far more useful.

The Easy panorama mode, while useful, consistently fails to complete a full pan even in optimal conditions. The issue is more obvious in low light conditions but can still happen even with a bright scene. Keeping a smooth steady motion is very crucial to ensure a complete panorama. If at all possible it would be best to use a tripod with a panning head.

When powering on the P300 we have found the placement and size of the power button to be a bit troublesome. The button is small and placed in between to larger controls that makes it hard to reach, especially if you are wearing gloves. This issue is compounded by the fact that to turn the camera off/on requires deliberately holding down the power button for a fraction of a second. While this can help to prevent accidental power up while in a pocket it can be quite annoying when you are scrambling to get a quick shot. Interestingly though, the P300 can be turned off by only quickly tapping the power button.

Finally, whilst some key shooting settings, such as drive mode and exposure compensation, get dedicated control points, ISO and WB are relegated to the P300's menu system. None of the P300's buttons can be configured to give access to these settings, and the camera lacks a 'quick' menu. In our opinion this is a serious oversight, and means that adjusting both WB and ISO sensitivity settings is slower and more awkward than it needs to be.

Performance

Overall performance

In most real-world shooting situations the Coolpix P300 performs admirably. The quick start up gets you shooting within a couple of seconds and the various shooting modes allows you to perfect the shot more than you would be able to on more entry level compacts. Even with the smaller sensor (compared to the S95 and XZ-1) the camera produces good quality images even in low lighting situations. Although the depth of field effect is quite reduced and is not very dramatic, even when shooting at low apertures.

There are 5 drive mode options that allow for some interesting high speed photography that might come in handy for shooting sports. Some of the resolution limitations that the camera enforces may however change how you feel about the usefulness of these modes.

Continuous Shooting

The P300 has 5 continuous shooting modes. The standard continuous shooting mode allows for 8 frames per second at the full resolution which is actually quite impressive for a compact. There are also other high speed modes that allow you to shoot up to 120fps in a reduced resolution. Best Shot Selector utilizes the P300's fast shutter speed but is not a true high speed mode as it only returns one image after choosing the best of 10. Multi-shot 16 also only creates one image with 16 frames, each frame on the image only occupying 640 x 480 pixels. Continuous 120fps and 60fps are both true high speed continuous shooting modes; each will capture a maximum of 60 frames at a reduced resolution of 1280 x 960.

Continuous: • 8 FPS
• 4000 x 3000
• Max. 7 Frames
BSS (Best Shot Selector): Captures 10 pictures in quick succession and compares them to find the best single shot
Multi-shot 16 • Takes 16 pictures (at 2560 x 1920 pixels) at 30fps
• All 16 images are saved as a single file
Continuous H: 120 fps / 60 fps • 120 fps or 60 fps (the minimum shutter speed is limited to either 1/125 sec or 1/60 sec respectively)
• Max. 60 frames
• Resolution set at 1280 x 960

Shooting at 120fps gives you many frames to choose from, even with very fast motion. Images are limited to 1 MP but the results can still be usable for the web.

The animation on the left comprises 20 frames and 0.16 seconds of real time.

Autofocus

The autofocus on the P300 is not particularly quick but is fast enough in most circumstances. For subjects at least 1-2 meters away from the camera the center AF is quite accurate. Even while shooting in macro mode it performs well, reliably finding a focus down to the minimum focal distance of 3cm.

Besides the standard center AF and manual AF there are also object and face tracking options that help to keep certain people or subjects in focus even when in motion. Once you have selected a subject the P300 keeps focus priority on it as it moves throughout the scene. However, when half-pressing the shutter to take the shot, the tracking stops which leaves a moment in which the subject can move without the camera re-focusing. This can be a real problem when tracking a subject that is moving either towards or away from the camera. In the time between focussing and image capture the subject may have moved to a different focal plane causing it to be out of focus. With the P300 having such a large depth of field at most of its focal lengths this may not be noticeable, unless the subject is fairly close.

The P300 also includes two face detection modes (Face priority and Face priority tracking). In face priority mode the camera will give focus priority to any faces that it finds in the scene. When it finds multiple faces it will give focus to the most prominent face nearest the center of the scene. Face priority tracking will track a single pre-determined face chosen before the shot is taken by centering on the face and selecting 'OK'. The focus will remain on that face even if other faces move about the shot. The P300 does a good job at recognizing and tracking faces but can sometimes become confused if a person leaves and re-enters the frame.

Image stabilization

Vibration reduction on the P300 performs fairly well when shooting at the telephoto end. The system employs an intelligent lens-shift compensation system that only reduces vibration in the stationary axis. This means when panning horizontally to track a moving subject, vibration reduction is only be applied to the vertical axis. With a maximum optical zoom of 4x, the amplification of camera shake in most cases is minimal and can be avoided with an increased shutter speed alone. Although in low light, higher shutter speeds or increased ISO may not be possible or even desirable, in which case vibration reduction can be quite helpful.

1/20sec, f/7.8, ISO 160, Vibration reduction on 1/20sec, f/7.8, ISO 160, Vibration reduction off
100% crop 100% crop

Nikon's vibration reduction does a good job mitigating blur from camera shake when shooting in-hand, especially in low light. Even though a higher ISO setting can help reduce blurring it can also introduce a fair amount of noise. With the exception for very long exposures (2 seconds and above) we're confident in saying that vibration reduction can safely be left on all the time allowing you to maintain lower ISO settings while keeping shutter speeds at an acceptable rate for shooting without a tripod.

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