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Handling / Performance

Overall Handling

The P7100 is one of the chunkiest compact cameras available, and notable by its generous number of external control points. A substantial hand grip makes it very comfortable to hold though, and the new front-mounted command dial is well-positioned for operation with the right index or middle finger.

Like its predecessor, the P7100 is a solid camera that feels great in the hand. However, the price you pay for such a powerful zoom and such a substantial grip is bulk. The P7100, like the Canon PowerShot G12 is considerably less 'compact' than competitive models like the Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX5, especially as regards to its height.

This isn't necessarily a bad thing though - most of the key shooting settings can be accessed using dedicated control points, and the twin command dials make for almost DLSR-like ergonomics, which certainly encourages manual control over your photography. Also, we don't want to overplay the size aspect - the P7100 is still smaller than a typical Micro Four Thirds or Sony NEX-series interchangeable lens camera with standard zoom, and of course with the P7100 you get a 28-200mm (equivalent) lens.

Thankfully, Nikon has made genuine improvements to the P7100's speed and operational ergonomics compared to the P7000. With that camera, everything from summoning a menu to changing an option using the quick menu dial could be a struggle, but the P7100 feels much faster and more responsive. In fact, our experience of using the P7100 has shown that in general, its operational speed is much closer to the impressively snappy P300 than to its predecessor. Shooting in .NRW raw mode still slows it down, but the P7100's processor is significantly more capable.

Dials

The P7100 features three dials - front and rear 'command' dials and a third which is integral to the rear 4-way controller. After using the camera extensively we're far from convinced that the camera needs this many dials, since in any given exposure mode, at least one of them serves no function whatsoever. The two command dials can be swapped via a custom setting (i.e. you can make the rear command dial the 'main' dial and the front the 'sub' if you wish).

In manual and aperture priority exposure modes the front (or 'main') command dial sets the aperture value. In shutter priority and program modes it has no function.
The rear (or 'sub') command dial sets shutter speed value in manual and shutter priority modes. In program mode it shifts exposure in 1/3EV increments but it has no function in aperture priority mode.
In manual and shutter priority exposure modes the secondary rear dial doubles with the rear command dial to control shutter speed. It has no function in aperture priority or program exposure modes.
The P7100 has a dedicated exposure compensation dial on its top plate. It is quite easy to move this dial inadvertently. An LED illuminates whenever the dial is set to anything besides 0, but it's easy to miss. In manual exposure mode, exposure compensation is not applied, and the LED does not light.

Fn Buttons

As well as a generous complement of dials and control points the P7100 also features two customizable 'Fn' buttons, which between them provide access to an impressive amount of functionality.

An interesting quirk of the Fn2 button is that it can be used to activate all four of its assignable functions simultaneously. This control can be assigned one of four functions (Virtual horizon, Histogram, Grid and ND filter), allowing you to quickly enable or disable the selected option. However, say you've set it to activate the on-screen virtual horizon, but you decide you want to view a live histogram. If you re-assign the Fn2 button while the virtual horizon is displayed and then return to shooting mode and press the button, you'll get your live histogram but the virtual horizon will still be displayed. This can be a bit annoying because it allows the live view screen to become very cluttered, but on the plus side it does let you display multiple composition/exposure aids at the same time.

The Fn1 button can be customized in two ways. It can be set to activate a function when pressed in combination with the shutter release, and it can also work in concert with the rear control dial. You can see a complete breakdown of all the possible permutations in the table below.
Fn2 acts in a more conventional way, and can be assigned to four 4 functions with a single press. Although the button can only be assigned to one function at a time, it is possible to activate all four simultaneously.

The P7100's Fn2 button can be assigned to toggle on and off any one of four options. Depending on how you assign it, you can get all four to be active at the same time.

Function Button Assignable functions
Fn1 (with shutter release) • One-touch NRW (Raw) + JPEG (normal)
• One-touch Auto ISO
• One-touch Auto white balance
• One-touch Standard Picture Control
Fn1 (with rear command dial) • Manual Focus adjustment*
• Metering mode
• Continuous advance
• Flash exposure compensation
• Active D-Lighting
• Manual flash level
Fn2 • Virtual Horizon
• View/hide histograms
• View/hide framing grid
• Activate/deactivate ND filter

* Note that although this function claims to provide access to manual focus using the rear command dial, in fact it appears to do something quite different. After extensive investigation, the only thing that this function actually does, as far as we can tell, is to allow you to use the front (main) control dial to control manual focus when you're already in manual focus mode. We're chalking this up as a bug, but since manual focus is barely useable anyway, it's not a serious one.

Quick menu dial

Like the P7000, the P7100 features a 'quick menu dial' on the top of the camera, for direct access to frequently-used shooting settings like white balance, ISO and picture styles. It's quite a nice feature that we would like to see adopted on more cameras.

The 'quick menu' is activated by either changing modes on the dial or by pressing the button in the center.
The primary adjustments like ISO sensitivity and quality can be made quickly by using the rear control dial. More specific options like image size and color modes are available from the quick menu as well.

The My menu option is also quite a useful feature to have available on the quick menu dial, allowing you quick access to a customized menu with all of the features that you use most. Customization of the available menu options is done from the main setting menu.

Speaking of customization, although the P7100's automatic ISO sensitivity function tends towards the same conservatism that we complained about in our review of the Nikon 1 V1 and J1 you can at least define a minimum shutter speed. This helps to avoid the issue of the camera setting dangerously slow shutter speeds in favour of low ISO settings for less noise. This is far from a perfect solution (the P7100 has a wide-ranging zoom lens, and a 'safe' minimum shutter speed means something very different at 28mm equivalent than 200mm) but it is at least a degree of control.

Performance

The P7100 is a quicker and more usable camera than the P7000, but when compared to its nearest competitor the Canon G12, the P7100 still lags behind a bit in JPEG shooting speed. It is marginally faster though when it comes to shooting Raw files, although it has the same annoying trait of locking up completely when images are being written to the card.

Interestingly, the P7100 is capable of capturing images at a higher frame rate when shooting in Raw or Raw + JPEG than when shooting in JPEG alone. What seems to be happening is that, when shooting in Raw mode, the P7100 will fill its internal buffer memory, which allows it to record faster for a limited amount of frames. However this then requires 'down time' to write to the card, during which the camera is unusable (~8 sec). In contrast, in JPEG mode the camera 'throttles back' the continuous shooting speed to a rate at which it can shoot and write to card for as long as you care to keep the shutter button depressed.

  Nikon P7100 Nikon P7000 Canon G12
JPEG 1.15 fps
(unlimited frames)
1.2 fps
(unlimited frames)
2 fps
(unlimited frames)
Raw 1.4 fps
(Max 5 frames)
1.8 fps
(Max 5 frames)
1.2 fps
(unlimited frames)
Raw + JPEG 1.4 fps
(Max 5 frames)
1.8 fps
(Max 5 frames)
1 fps
(unlimited frames)

Compared to other compact cameras in this price range like the Canon PowerShot S100, Fujifilm X10 and Panasonic LX5 the P7100's standard continuous shooting speed is in the same ballpark. However, the LX5, X10 and S100 all offer speedier dedicated continuous shooting modes of 5, 9.1 and 12 fps respectively.

Autofocus

The autofocus system on the P7100 functions well in good lighting conditions and is capable of finding a good focus point consistently. In low-light conditions however the P7100 is not as quick, as we'd expect. However, thanks to the built-in AF assist lamp it will almost always find focus as long as the subject has sufficient contrast (and is close enough to be adequately illuminated).

AF Example 100% Crop

This sort of scene, where the foreground elements are small, and ranged against a cluttered background - is a tricky target for AF. As you can see though the P7100 was able to find a good focus on the grass in the front, without getting confused by all the (similar-colored) contrasty scene elements in the background.

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Comments

WillieG

"several commentators, including ourselves, remarked on its uncanny resemblance to the Canon Powershot G-series."

I've heard this before. All these reviewers must be very young. This camera looks like a rangefinder. It has the distinctive shape of rangefinders since the 50's. The Canon, also, looks like a rangefinder. It could be said the Canon G-Series looks like the Nikon SP from '57. There is little difference in them all.

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