White Balance

In addition to the standard auto white balance, the Coolpix 5200 has seven white balance presets (daylight, incandescent, fluorescent 1 and 2, cloudy, shade 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 enter. 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, fluorescent or flash, though shooting in low incandescent light (indoors at night) produced a marked warm (orange) cast (though it is by no means the worst in its class). As with most compact cameras it is always better to use a WB preset in such situations.

Outdoor - Auto WB
Red: -1.1%, Blue +1.3%

Fluorescent - Auto WB
Red: -0.3%, Blue -2.2%
Incandescent - Auto WB
Red: +4.8%, Blue -11%

Flash Performance

The 5200's built-in flash does a pretty good job in both exposure and color terms, and it offers a very respectable 0.3 to 4.5M 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), which is good news given the likelihood the 5200's target audience. Note that the slight underexposure seen in the lab shots below is not really reflected in real life usage (it is unusual to have such a large area of white in the frame). 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.

Skin tone - no color cast, slight underexposure Color chart - no color cast, very slight underexposure

Macro Focus

As with previous Coolpix models the 5200 has an excellent macro mode, but one that only works in a small region of the zoom (near the wide end). Distortion is remarkably low for such a compact camera, and edge-to-edge sharpness excellent. It's nice to see Nikon maintaining its excellent reputation for macro performance even in a 'lifestyle' camera such as this.

Wide macro - 36 x 27mm coverage
71 px/mm (1795 px/in)
Distortion: below average
Corner softness: low
Equiv. focal length: 41 mm
Mid Zoom macro - 52 x 39 mm coverage
49 px/mm (1243 px/in)
Distortion: average
Corner softness: average
Equiv. focal length: 61 mm

Barrel and Pincushion Distortion

As is to be expected on a camera such as this there is some barrel distortion at the wide end of the zoom, though at 1.8% it is unlikely to mar real world shots. There is no measurable distortion at the telephoto end of the zoom.

Barrel distortion - 1.8% at Wide angle
Equiv. focal length: 38 mm
Pincushion distortion - 0.0% at Telephoto
Equiv. focal length: 113 mm

Specific Image Quality Issues

Although power users prefer their digital pictures as unprocessed as possible, the majority of purchasers of point and shoot cameras such as the Coolpix 5200 want bright, vivid pictures straight out of the camera. This is where the Coolpix 5200 may, possibly, disappoint its target market. Using the default settings the results tend to look a bit dull, and lack the punchiness preferred by most casual snappers - it also doesn't help that the default contrast setting is a little too high, which results in very dark shadows. This is compounded by a tendency to underexpose very slightly - great for preserving highlight detail, not so great if you don't have access to, or the skills required of Photoshop or a similar image editing application. This is real pity, because with a quick tweak of levels to brighten the image and correct the contrast, a touch more saturation and a light unsharp masking the 5200's shots polish up beautifully.

Playing with the image parameters in-camera helps a little, but the only way to really get the most out of the 5200 is to get stuck into some post-processing - even the 'auto fix everything' button in most applications will do the job. Once this was the case with all digital cameras, but in 2004 consumers expect bright, punchy shots out of the box, and the Coolpix 5200 simply doesn't deliver them.

Our only other concerns was that it had a tendency to miss focus when shooting at the long end of the zoom (usually caused by not allowing the AF long enough to find it's mark) and the rather heavy JPEG compression used at even the finest quality setting. This is unlikely to cause concern if you're printing up to about 5x7 inches, but for serious enlargements I'd like to see a less compressed (finer quality) setting as an option.

Purple fringing/blooming

Those ED and aspherical elements in the 5200's zoom lens seem to be doing the trick when it comes to controlling chromatic aberration - we found hardly any even in situations normally guaranteed to bring out the dreaded purple fringes. Very occasionally - around foliage shot against a very bright sky - we found a small amount at the edge of the frame, but really nothing worth writing home about. Although common in small, high resolution sensors, we did find the Coolpix 5200 particularly prone to blooming whenever a scene contained very bright highlights - perhaps the reason the camera is designed to err on the side of underexposure. It's only really a problem in very contrasty scenes (bright summer's days), where the limitations of a relatively small dynamic range really start to show.

38 mm equiv., F2.8