Nikon Coolpix P80
10.1MP | 27-486mm (18X) ZOOM | $340/£290

The Coolpix P80 is Nikon's first attempt at a DSLR-like compact camera since the Coolpix 8800 back in 2004, since when the lenses have got a lot bigger, the cameras a lot smaller and - crucially - the prices a lot lower. The camera slots into the premium series of Nikon's Coolpix range (the 'P' denotes Professional, apparently), and offers the 18x zoom range that has very quickly gone from being unthinkable to almost an entry requirement for membership of this segment. Thankfully, it follows the competition by starting that enormous zoom range at a really useful 27mm and, with a relatively bright F2.8-4.5 maximum aperture range, it's still pretty useable at the long end of things. Overall there's little in the specifications to help distinguish it in this fiercely-fought market, but there's still the possibility that Nikon's processing and metering know-how will allow the P80 to stand out.

  • 10.1 effective Megapixels
  • 27-486mm equiv lens with 18x optical zoom
  • 2.7 inch LCD with 230,000 dots resolution
  • Electronic Viewfinder with 97% Field of View
  • Optical Image Stabilizer
  • ISO sensitivity up to 6400
  • Face Detection AF, In-Camera Red-Eye Fix and D-Lighting
  • 11 scene modes including Sports Continuous Scene Mode
  • Program, Shutter-Priority, Aperture-Priority and Manual Exposure Modes
  • Expeed processing
  • Optional accessories available
  • Battery life: 250 shots

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The P80 is a good looking little camera that, understandably for a manufacturer renowned for its DSLRs, resembles a DSLR very closely indeed. It's an almost all-black affair with just the outside lip of the lens featuring a subtle silver ring. The lens itself very closely resembles the 18x zooms fitted to the Fujifilm S8100, S8000 and Olympus SP 560-UZ, and we'd be surprised if the lenses didn't all come from the same factory. Unlike those cameras, however, the Nikon P80 uses a Lithium-ion rechargeable battery (as do the Panasonic and Sony in this group); this helps keep the weight down but, in this instance, has a devastating impact on battery life.

It's a camera that fits in the hand well and certainly looks the part. That low-key black design with restrained silver flourishes looks smart and stylish in a low-key way. The P80 is the only camera in this test to feature a DSLR-like control dial, which helps to make it one of the easiest cameras to use in its manual and semi-manual modes. However, it retains the frustrating Coolpix quirk by which some menus can be navigated using the four-way controller or the dial but others respond only to the dial. The setup menu is accessed via the mode dial - a clever way of de-cluttering the main menu by removing the options you only change occasionally.

Key Features

The P80 is an oddly proportioned creature - the wide, tub-like lens barrel dwarfs the small body, flash and grip. This impression is reinforced when the long, thin lens starts to extend. This is also the case with many of the cameras here (particularly the Olympus and Fujis with their similar lens), but it's a less good-looking camera when it's powered-up.
The lens extends once the camera is switched on and, at the long end of the zoom, nearly doubles the depth of the camera. It means the camera does a fair job of remaining compact when turned off, without compromising its impressive reach.
The mode dial is pleasantly uncluttered - it's got the traditional P,A,S and M modes, an Auto mode, scene modes, video and setup. Moving the setup menu to the mode dial helps keep the main menu free from features that you only occasionally use (which can only be a good thing).
The back of the camera has all the buttons you'd expect to find - a four-way controller, Menu, Play and Delete. The electronic viewfinder is flanked by buttons that change the display mode and choose between electronic viewfinder and rear LCD. We found it hard to hold the P80 without accidentally pressing the buttons on the four way controller, but you do eventually get used to the rather cramped thumb rest.
As we say, the Nikon's lens is an awful lot like the lens we've seen on a couple of cameras before. This is no bad thing, however, as those lenses performed well. It's also worth contemplating the weight and cost that would be required to achieve F/4.5 and 486mm equivalent on a DSLR.
Most settings that you would tend to leave alone are placed in the Setup menu, which means that neither this, nor the main menu, run to more than three pages.

Image quality and performance

The Nikon P80 is by no means a sluggish camera, but in this comparison it is placed towards the slower end of the spectrum. Start-up is rather slow; it takes 3.3 sec before you can your first shot after switching the camera on. Shot-to-shot time is 2.6 sec, this increases to 2.9 sec with flash use and, due to the pre-flash, to 6.2 sec when anti-red-eye is activated as well. The shutter lag is very short though.

With approximately 0.6 sec at wide angle and almost 1.0 sec focus time at the tele end of the zoom the P80's AF can't keep up with the quickest competitors in this test. I can mostly find a lock in relatively low light levels but when it gets too dark it simply gives up. In review mode the speed of image browsing and magnification is about average. When you flick between images the camera shows a slightly pixilated preview before the high-res version is displayed.

The Nikon's metering is some of the best we've seen in this test, with it doing a good job of rendering the scenes accurately. This is fortunate since the small chip has fairly limited dynamic range, meaning that bright regions and features tend to be represented as featureless white. The P80 does about as well as can be expected in this respect, though the small sensors in this class of camera mean it there are limitations to what it can achieve. The fine detail rendition is aggressively smoothed-over by noise reduction at all ISO settings, meaning the images are not as sharp or detailed as those from a DSLR would be (the P80's sensor is less than a tenth the size of Nikon's consumer-level DSLRs). The only thing that detracts from images in a way that would be visible in prints is rather unreliable focusing at the long end of the zoom (this didn't seem to be a problem at shorter focal lengths).

The video capabilities of the P80, both in terms of specifications and output quality are fairly unexciting. It can record VGA movies at 30fps in the Motion JPEG format, taking up around 1.1MB/sec. The videos themselves are fairly smooth but not particularly detailed. The camera can only use its digital zoom while recording movies and is also limited to electronic image stabilization, which frankly isn't up to the job of stabilizing a 386mm equivalent lens.

At a pixel level the P80 produces output that puts it right in the middle of this group alongside the Fujifilm S8100fd. Low ISO output is slightly soft (though not enough to impact on a standard sized print), whilst high ISO output is noisy and has very unpleasant artifacts. Color and metering, on the other hand, are excellent, but look closely and you'll find chromatic aberration (fringing) along high contrast edges. The biggest problem is sharpness at the long end of the zoom: focus at full telephoto is woefully unreliable and the image stabilization doesn't seem to do a great deal.


Unlike its hugely successful digital SLR division, Nikon's Coolpix range has little to distinguish itself from the mass of competing models in the market, and seems to survive purely on the cachet that the Nikon brand carries in the photographic world. The P80 is a typical Coolpix: it offers much, looks pretty and boasts an enticing feature set, but ultimately falls down when you actually come to use it. As with the other 'mid ground' cameras in this group the P80 isn't a terrible camera, it's just not that good. It's slow, the focus at the long end of the zoom is unreliable, the image stabilization unimpressive and the output distinctly average.

The P80 does, of course, have a few saving graces: the presence of a control dial makes it work a lot more like an SLR, and it is capable of good results as long as you avoid the long end of the zoom and higher ISO settings, but ultimately that's not enough to lift it above the competition.

  • We like: Solid feature set, small and lightweight body, control dial, excellent metering and appealing color

  • We don't like: Unreliable focus at long end of zoom, poor battery life, slightly soft output, poor high ISO performance