Operation and controls

In the past Nikon has been berated for unfriendly, over-complex operation on even its most basic 'point and shoot' models. The latest cameras are a marked improvement on earlier generations, and the Coolpix 5200 has perhaps the most user-friendly interface (which it shares with the Coolpix 3200 and 4200 models) yet seen on a Nikon, though it is not without its own annoying foibles. Control layout, however, is exemplary, with the majority of the most important controls falling easily to hand, and none of the fancy joysticks, tiny buttons or other irritations that commonly plague ultra compact models. Rather than trying to outdo the latest miniature cellphones in complexity and finger gymnastics the emphasis here is on function, meaning the Coolpix 5200 may not look as space-age as some of its competitors, but it's a good deal more practical.

Rear of camera

The majority of the 5200's main controls are found on the rear of the camera, with all the most commonly accessed photographic controls (flash mode, AE compensation, macro mode and self-timer) grouped together within thumb's reach directly below the shutter release. Below the LCD screen are three buttons - one switches to and from playback mode, one is used to delete images, in the middle is the main menu button (for activating on-screen menus). If you press and hold down the play button when the camera is turned off it powers up directly into play mode, without extending the lens (though since it takes nearly as long as turning it on in record mode and switching, there seems little point...)

Top of camera

The top of the camera is home to the main power button, which is recessed to ensure you don't accidentally turn the camera on when it is sitting in the bottom of your bag. Next to this is the chrome shutter release, which has a nice positive feel, with a distinct half press 'stop', and the main mode dial. Again the design is such that you can change modes with your thumb when using the camera with one hand. Nice.

Display and menus

This is a typical record mode live view with basic information displayed around the edge of the screen (you can turn most of this off if you wish). Half-press the shutter release and the camera will calculate exposure (AE) and focus (AF) indicating the AF area used, and warning if there is a possibility of camera shake (exposure information is not shown).
The 5200 normally automatically selects one of five focus points, but you can manually select an off-center focus point yourself from 99 positions within the central 60% of the frame. The only flaw in the 5200's otherwise excellent user interface is the unnecessarily complicated method used for the basic photographic controls (flash, macro etc) that have their own buttons. Press the flash button and, rather than the usual cycling through options with each press, a small menu appears on-screen. You then have to use the arrow keys to change the setting, then press the enter button to confirm the change. That's three button presses just to turn on the macro mode - or turn it off again. Why? Who knows.
Pressing the menu button in standard (auto) record mode brings up a five page menu system offering control over image quality/size, metering mode, white balance, burst mode, image parameters (sharpness, contrast, saturation), focus mode and best shot selector, bracketing and noise reduction. Turning the mode dial to scene and pressing the menu button allows you to select one of 11 scene modes, including panorama assist mode, which shows a ghosted portion of the last picture taken overlaid on the preview image. The only other thing you can change in scene mode is the image quality and size.
The four 'scene-assist' modes - first seen on the Coolpix 3200 - take the hand-holding concept even further. Each offers several basic alternatives. In scene-assist mode (the shot above shows the portrait assist mode) framing guides appear. These are not only used to make sure you frame correctly, but also to set the focus and AE points.
Here's a typical screen from playback mode - much like every other Coolpix camera for the last few years. You can turn this information off using the setup menu Pressing the right zoom key lets you enlarge images up to 6x for a closer look. The left zoom key brings up thumbnails - one press gives you 4 (2x2), a second press gives you 9 (3x3).
Press the enter key in playback mode and you can see more information - including a histogram - and the settings used. Unfortunately you'll have to open the files on your PC and examine the EXIF data if you want any exposure information. Pressing the menu button in the playback mode brings up three pages of options covering printing, viewing slide shows, deleting/protecting, resizing and copying from the internal memory to the SD card.