Design and Handling

The P3 (and the almost identical non-WiFi P4) will be familiar to users of any Coolpix from the last few years; Nikon has found a basic design and layout it likes and is sticking with it. Unusually for what is essentially a souped-up 'point and shoot' model the P3 has dedicated external controls for ISO and White Balance (an idea first seen on the P3's predecessors, the P1 and P2), which along with buttons for flash, macro and self-timer mean there's little need to enter the extensive menu system for most everyday photography. The camera itself is stylish (much more so the an the P2 it replaces) and well built, with an all-aluminum casing that oozes quality (though it does get rather warm during Wi-Fi transfers).


Despite the lack of any real grip I found the P3 handled very well whether shooting with one hand or both. It's well balanced and has just enough weight to feel stable when shooting at arm's length without causing too much strain. The body isn't as slim or as small as some of its ultra-compact competitors, which I found makes the P3 an easier camera to use.

Key body elements

Although much of the P3's power is accessed via it's myriad menus the important everyday stuff (including image quality, white balance, ISO and so on) is easily accessible via external controls. There's an awful lot of features under the P3's hood, and to be honest I'd be surprised if most users ever get near half of it, but I guess it's nice to know it's all there just in case.

The main mode dial sits in the middle of the top of the camera between the shutter release and the small VR button. There are 9 positions on the dial; auto, program, aperture priority, scene, movie, setup, image quality, ISO, white balance and Wi-Fi. It's nice to see white balance and ISO getting their own controls, but I can't help thinking a button would be nicer (so you don't have to turn the mode dial every time you want to change a setting).
The screen is fairly large at 2.5 inches, and with 150,000 pixels it's higher resolution than many of its competitors. We found it to suffer more than we'd like from glare (it's not that bright or contrasty), which is a bit of a problem when shooting outdoors in very bright light given the absence of an optical viewfinder. That said, the times I couldn't make out anything at all on the screen were few and far between.
The P3 has a slightly longer than average zoom lens (3.5x, 36-126mm equiv.), and covers a useful range (though as ever I'd like to see some of the telephoto sacrificed for a slightly wider short end). Maximum aperture varies from F2.7 at the wide end to a less useful F5.3 at the long end, but this is slightly more forgivable than usual thanks to the optical image stabilization, which gives you a couple of stops advantage when shooting hand-held.
The ubiquitous four-way controller is used to navigate the menu system and provides direct access to flash, macro, self-timer and plus AE-Compensation, and is used to change the aperture in Aperture Priority mode. Above the four-way controller is the menu button, below it are the playback and delete buttons.

Controls & Menus

Nikon has been almost continually tinkering with its menu and control system since the first Coolpix, though it seems to have finally settled on something it likes over the last year or so. Although ostensibly a fully automatic camera designed for the 'point and shoot' snap shooter, the Coolpix P3 has a bewildering array of modes, options and features - some of which are not only very useful, but are still fairly unique to Coolpix models. The sheer number of features can be a little daunting at first - the seemingly endless pages of menus and icons mean that a good hour or two with the manual in one hand and the camera in the other will pay dividends when you actually go out and start shooting. Unfortunately for the more seasoned shooter the user interface still has some infuriating quirks that seem designed to maximize the number of key presses needed to change the most basic setting - though moving the white balance and ISO options to the mode dial is an important move in the right direction. To speed things up Nikon has included - hidden away in the setup menu - an option to replace all menus with a single page of icons, which is fine as long as you take the time to learn what the icons mean, but is nowhere near as elegant as, for example, Canon's FUNC menu.

The basic record screen is fairly packed with information. You can't control the amount of info displayed (it's either on or off), but there is a grid option for those of us who struggle with straight horizons. The live histogram can't be just left on all the time - it appears when you press the AE compensation button or when - as here - you're using Aperture Priority mode.
A complaint we've had about Coolpix cameras for many generations now is the long-winded approach to changing things like flash mode. Rather than each press of the flash (or macro) button cycling through the options, it brings up this mini menu, so just turning on macro mode, for example, requires a minimum of three button presses. The three page record menu gives you control over a huge range of basic and advanced shooting options, including metering pattern, burst mode, Best Shot Selector, bracketing, image adjustments, focus mode and noise reduction. Incidentally we'd recommend sticking to center focus (we found the auto area AF to often pick the wrong part of the scene).
As we've come to expect from Coolpix cameras there are lots of scene and advanced scene modes, many of which have several sub-options. Though since these are simply marked 'effect 1' and 'effect 2' it's back to the instruction manual to find out what they actually do. In playback mode you get the usual options for viewing images full screen, with shooting information (shown here), magnified or as 2x2, 3x3 or 4x4 thumbnails.
The two page playback menu has options for managing saved images, producing slide shows, applying Nikon's 'D-Lighting' (contrast masking, to brighten up shadows) and resizing. The setup menu (accessed by turning the main mode dial to SETUP) has basic camera settings such as date and time, welcome screen and card formatting.