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Overall Image Quality / Specifics

Overall the P300 performs well in most lighting situations. Judging by our numerous test shots the AWB is usually spot on in natural lighting situations and is generally good in tungsten and fluorescent light as well. Images are reasonably sharp from edge to edge and evenly exposed in most shots. Skies and foliage are reproduced quite pleasantly with vivid and punchy colors. AWB produces a somewhat warm image in tungsten light that is not at all unpleasing, but for portraits it may be better to use the tungsten white balance for a more neutral image. The P300 handles many low light situations quite well, providing fairly smooth images even at 800 ISO and 1600 ISO. However, strong noise reduction tends to remove some of the finer details.

F/1.8 - Depth of field control

Nikon claims that with the fast f/1.8 lens comes an increased control over depth of field (DOF). It is important to note, however, that even though the P300's lens has an impressively fast maximum aperture for a camera in its class, the sensor in the P300 is relatively small, at 1/2.3". Regardless of aperture, we would not expect a a great deal of depth of field control in camera with a sensor of this size, and in fact, to see any real benefit in terms of subject isolation, it is necessary to shoot at very close focussing distances.

1/60 sec, f/1.8, ISO 160 100% crop from background
1/30 sec, f/2.8, ISO 160 100% crop from background
1/10 sec, f/8, ISO 160 100% crop from background

The examples above were shot at 24mm (equivalent) at f/1.8, f/2.8 and f/8. The P300's maximum aperture setting at 24mm is f/1.8, and its minimum is f/8. We chose f/2.8 because it represents a more 'standard' maximum aperture, of the sort that we'd expect to find on an average point and shoot compact camera. The photographs were taken at the P300's minimum standard (i.e., macro mode not engaged) focussing distance of around 17cm (roughly 6 inches). Focus is set on the 'Crew Only' sign, and the 100% crops are taken from an area roughly 5m further back.

As you can see, in this situation, shooting at f/1.8 gives backgrounds that are substantially more blurry than f/8. At longer focussing distances though, the background blur at f/1.8 is much reduced until with subjects more than 1m away from the camera, there is very little significant difference in background blur at different aperture settings. Even in the example above, shot in a situation designed to minimise depth f field, the difference between the background blur at f/1.8 and f/2.8 is fairly subtle, making Nikon's claim that the P300's maximum aperture provides 'minimal depth of field' look more than a little ambiguous (if not outright misleading).

Low light performance / High ISO noise reduction

The P300 performs fairly well in many low lighting conditions across the ISO range. Image quality at ISO 3200 is a step above what what we would expect from an average point and shoot but compared to cameras with larger sensors visible noise levels (and consequently the smoothing effects of noise reduction) are relatively high. This only becomes obvious at close inspection though, and the quality is certainly good enough for screen display or letter-sized prints.

The genuine advantage of having a lens with a maximum aperture of f/1.8 (compared to a camera limited to f/2.8 for example) are that it allows you shoot at a higher shutter speed and / or lower ISO settings than you would otherwise be limited to.

ISO 400, f/1.8, 1/10 sec 100% crop

Even in the very dim candle light of the scene above, thanks to its fast aperture at the wide end of the zoom, the P300 has produced a well exposed image at ISO 400. If the widest aperture available had been f/2.8 I would have had no choice but to use a slower shutter speed (risking camera shake), or a higher ISO (risking a noisier final image).

At its highest ISO settings the P300's noise reduction and sharpening algorithms are fairly aggressive, which can take the edge off fine detail when files are viewed at 100% as illustrated below. Still, at small print sizes or for the web, these shots are perfectly usable. High contrast detail is well preserved and midtones are reasonably smooth.

ISO 800, 1/10 sec., f/5.5 100% crop
ISO 1600, 1/320 sec, f/3.5 100% crop

Movie mode

One of the features that separates the P300 from many compact cameras at this price point is the ability to shoot full 1080p video at 30fps. Nikon has included stereo microphones on the top of the camera which again is unusual in this class. The microphones do a reasonably good job of recording sound, but it also have a tendency to pick up wind noise and handling sounds. Unlike the Nikon P7000 the P300 does not have an external microphone input. Rolling shutter ('jello cam') effect can be seen in some situations but the P300 is no worse in this respect than most compact cameras. Optical zoom is available during video recording but is fairly slow compared to zooming when shooting stills to reduce motor noise that would be otherwise picked up by the inbuilt microphones.

Very little customization is available in video mode, and it is only possible to select resolution and autofocus mode. The P300 cannot be manually focussed while recording video, but there are two autofocus options: 'Single AF' and 'Full-time AF'. Full-time AF does a reasonably good job of tracking moving subjects when shooting video, but single AF is useful for static subjects and for occasions when you don't want the camera to refocus while recording. Nikon has also included an AE lock that can be activated by pressing right on the select wheel on the four-way controller during recording. Video files are saved as .MOV encoded in H.264/MPEG-4 AVC which allows easy uploading to video sharing sites as well as burning to DVD. Unfortunately there is no in-camera editing option.

There are three high speed movie options that allow you to create smooth slow motion playback that are suitable for sports or high speed action. Audio is not recorded when shooting in high speed modes.

HS 120 fps • Records at 120 fps
• Playback will be approx. 4x slower than normal
• Resolution is set at 640 x 480
• Max record time 7 mins 15 sec (playback time: 29 mins)
HS 60 fps • Records at 60 fps
• Playback will be approx. 2x slower than normal
• Resolution is set at 1280 x 720
• Max record time is 14 min 30 sec (playback time: 29 mins)
HS 15 fps • Records at 15 fps
• Playback will be approx. 2x faster than normal
• Resolution is set at 1920 x 1080
• Max record time is 29 mins (playback time: 14 min 30 sec)

Sample video 1

This video was taken hand-held propped up on a railing for support. The microphone does a good job of picking up the high frequencies of the running water as well as the faint bird chirps in the background. The high speed movement of the water is captured well without much motion blur and limited artifacting.

1920 x 1080 30 fps, MPEG-4 .MOV file, 18 sec. 41.38 MB Click here to download original .MOV file

Sample video 2

The following shot was taken hand-held, full zoomed to 100mm with vibration reduction enabled. Even in the light breeze the microphone is saturated with wind noise which covers up much of the ambient sound. Unfortunately P300 does not have an external microphone input like its big brother, the P7000.

1920 x 1080 30 fps, MPEG-4 .MOV file, 20 sec. 44.32 MB Click here to download original .MOV file

Sample video 3

This video demonstrates the high speed 120fps video capture capability of the P300. When shooting in this mode, the resolution is limited to 640 x 480 pixels and audio recording is disabled. When played back at 30fps, motion recorded in the clip is played back at 25% original speed.

640 x 480 30 fps, MPEG-4 .MOV file, 16 sec. 5.38 MB Click here to download original .MOV file

Resolution

What we want to show here is how well the camera is able to resolve the detail in our standard test chart compared to the theoretical maximum resolution of the sensor, which for the charts we shoot is easy to work out - it's simply the number of vertical pixels (the chart shows the number of single lines per picture height, the theoretical limit is 1 line per pixel, so the Nyquist limit of the P300's sensor is 3000 lines per picture height). Beyond this limit (when talking about line pairs usually referred to as the Nyquist frequency) the sensor cannot faithfully record image detail and aliasing occurs.

Images are of our standard resolution chart which provides for measurement of resolution up to 4000 LPH (Lines Per Picture Height). A value of 20 equates to 2000 lines per picture height.

The chart is shot at a full range of apertures and the sharpest image selected. Exposure compensation set to deliver approximately 80% luminance in the white areas.
Vertical resolution (100% crop) Horizontal resolution (100% crop)

Without RAW functionality on the P300 we are left with only JPEGs to evaluate resolution. As you can see, the P300 ceases to be able to resolve the nine lines of our standard test chart at around 2200 line pairs - well before the Nyquist limit of 3000. This is partly due to the P300's somewhat over-aggressive noise reduction, which masks fine detail even at the lowest ISO settings. The halos around the figures in this image illustrate the P300's tendency to oversharpen what detail remains.
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