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White Balance

In addition to the standard auto white balance, the Coolpix P5100 has five white balance presets (daylight, incandescent, fluorescent, cloudy, and flash) and a manual setting. To set the white balance manually, simply choose the PRE option and a small preview appears; point the camera at a white or gray object and press 'OK'. The manual white balance setting is remembered even if you switch the camera off. In use the auto WB did a good job when shooting in daylight (very occasionally scenes with an unusual expanse of color fooled the system, but this was thankfully rare). Things are a little less impressive in artificial light, often producing a fairly strong cast. As with most compact cameras in most instances it is better to use a WB preset (or manual WB) in such situations.

Incandescent - Auto WB
Red 4.1%, Blue -3.9%
Average
Incandescent - Incandescent preset WB
Red 6.9%, Blue -12.7%
Average
Fluorescent - Auto WB
Red 7.5%, Blue -15.3%
Poor
Fluorescent - Fluorescent preset WB
Red 6.9%, Blue -8.8%
Average

Flash Performance

Flash has always been one of Nikon's strong points and the P5100's built-in flash does a pretty good job in both exposure and color terms, and offers a respectable 0.3 to 8M shooting range (at wideangle with auto ISO). We found the flash to be very reliable in typical shooting conditions (social occasions indoors in low light). There is a tendency to slight under exposure, though this can be fixed very easily in post-processing, and there is a slight warm tone, which is no bad thing if you mostly shoot people. We did not see any blown-out flash shots in our testing - overexposure is considerably more difficult to deal with than the slight underexposure seen here.

The In-Camera Red-Eye Fix (seen on many recent Nikon models) works well - far better than cameras that rely purely on a pre-flash system; the Nikon system actually finds and corrects red-eye using its on-board processor. The only downside to this highly effective red-eye removal system is a rather severe performance hit - with shot-to-shot times stretching to around seven seconds. Of course the big difference between the P5100 and 99% of the other compacts on the market is that you have the option to add a fully dedicated external flash thanks to the inclusion of a hot shoe connection.

Skin tone - SLight warm cast,
very slight underexposure
Color chart - Warm cast,
Good exposure

D-Lighting

The P5100 has Nikon's 'D-Lighting' feature, designed to lighten shadows without affecting the highlights in the image. The effect - basically a form of in-camera contrast masking - is an option after an image has been taken with the results saved as a new file so your original isn't damaged. For high-contrast images the results are pretty impressive (though inevitably they come at a price - slightly higher shadow noise and some lost highlight detail). There is no control over the amount of lighting applied, but it tends to get the balance right, producing natural looking pictures without any tone mapping/high dynamic range creepiness.

Original image
40 mm equiv., 1/165 sec, F2.7
After D-Lighting has been
applied in-camera.

Macro Focus

As with previous Coolpix models the P5100 has a good macro mode, but one that performs at its best in a small region of the zoom (near the wide end), when you can get down as close as 4cm, capturing an area just over 45mm across. Distortion at the closest focus point is fairly low and is eliminated entirely by switching distortion control on. Edge-to-edge sharpness is reasonable. Close focus at the long end of the zoom is less impressive in terms of how close you can get (40cm), but the quality is good. As in many of our tests, we found the P5100 occasionally struggled to focus in macro mode.

Wide macro*1 - 44 x 33mm coverage
89 px/mm (2267 px/in)
Distortion: Very low
Corner softness: Moderate
Equiv. focal length: 35 mm
Mid Zoom macro - 110 x 82 mm coverage
36 px/mm (920 px/in)
Distortion: Very Low
Corner softness: Moderate
Equiv. focal length:123 mm
*1 Wideangle macro shown has distortion control turned on. Click here for the version with distortion control turned off.

Barrel and Pincushion Distortion

The P5000 set new standards for Nikon compact cameras in terms of distortion, with no measurable distortion at the long end of the zoom. The P5100 improves on this because the 1.4% barrel distortion at the wide end carried over from the P5000 can now be corrected for.

Barrel distortion - 1.4% at Wide angle
Equiv. focal length: 35 mm
Pincushion distortion - 0.0% at Telephoto
Equiv. focal length: 123 mm

The P5100 offers a distortion control mode that corrects for the distortion noted above. Some of Nikon's competitors apply a degree of distortion correction 'behind the scenes,' whereas it is an optional setting on the P5100. Turning it on adds to the processing the camera has to do on each image, so continuous shooting, bracketing and BSS modes are unavailable, making it somewhat restrictive. It also makes little difference at the long end of the zoom, which doesn't feature any distortion anyway, but corrects the barrel distortion at the wide-angle end of the lens near-perfectly. Our tests registered 0.1% pincushion distortion, which is within the limits of error of the test. Click here to see the chart. It is particularly useful in Macro mode, allowing undistorted images to be produced at even the closest focusing distance.

Specific Image Quality Issues

A camera with a compact sensor churning out 12 million pixels is unlikely to be a low-light superstar and the real-world photos we took prove this to be the case. At anything above moderate sensitivities the Nikon's output starts to get pretty grainy to an extent that even extensive post processing will struggle to save. To be fair, this is equally true of the other 12MP cameras on the market and the Nikon is fairly restrained with its noise reduction, so detail isn't just smudged away. At low ISO settings, the results are very good, with with the P5100 producing very natural looking colors and generally exposing very well. The images can look a little flat compared with other point-and-shoots because Nikon takes a fairly conservative approach to saturation and sharpening. This is ideal if you want to tweak the images on a computer later and can be boosted through the 'Optimize Image' menu if you want the 'straight-between-the-eyes' impact that other brands tend to offer by default. In fact we were actually very impressed with the natural color and smooth tonality of the images, along with the clean, artefact-free appearance (at the lowest ISO settings) - these are the kind of results SLR users will feel right at home with.

The lens is pretty slow at the long end of the zoom, requiring slow shutter speeds or higher ISO. Thankfully the very effective VR image stabilization system does a good job of helping keep results sharp as the shutter speed drops. Other than that, its performance impressive, with very little in the way of chromatic aberration or fringing. There is a little corner softness but you have to really hunt around for it. Diffraction begins to impact image quality at all but the widest of apertures, with fine detail starting to disappear as soon as the lens is stopped-down to small apertures. Again, this problem is caused by small sensors running into the limits of physics, so is just as much of an issue for other small sensor cameras, particularly those with relatively slow lenses.

Highlight clipping (and exposure issues)

The P5100 generally meters very well, with only the very occasional bit of overexposure in difficult-to-expose scenes with extremes of light and shade. Impressively, this was only the case in two or three of more than 400 images we took during the test of the camera.

35 mm equiv., F5.4 35 mm equiv., F5.4
35 mm equiv., F5.4 35 mm equiv., F5.4

Purple fringing

As mentioned above there is some purple fringing, but you need to look long and hard to find it in 99% of shots - even those taken against the light. Even then it's so mild as to be insignificant. This example comes from a shot in which almost any digital camera would produce fringing.

100% crop 35 mm equiv., F4.8
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