Group test: Canon Powershot S95, Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX5, Nikon Coolpix P7000
AF/Metering/White BalanceIn terms of performance, the P7000 is a mixed bag. On the positive side, we have no problem at all with its metering and AWB systems, most of which are very capable. The metering system's only vice is a tendency to slight underexposure in especially bright conditions, when the subject is dark and/or small in the frame. This is far from a major issue and can be fixed in a moment using the convenient exposure compensation dial. This is assuming that you can see the LCD clearly - we'd recommend activating the live histogram in bright conditions.
The live histogram works well in PAS modes, but is completely useless in manual mode, where it simply shows the brightness of the live view image, which in no way connected to the eventual exposure. The only guide to exposure in manual mode is the small over/underexposure scale on the left of the screen (and/or trial and error).
Exposure simulation aside, even in poor light, the P7000 can be relied upon to get exposure right, and unlike some earlier P-series cameras, images taken with flash on the P7000 are pleasantly bright without burning out skintones. Active D-Lighting is handy in exceptionally contrasty conditions, and at low ISO settings the penalty in critical image quality is very slight. At higher ISO settings however, the appearance of noise can be accentuated in shadow and midtone areas.
On to white balance, and like the Canon S95, the P7000's AWB system is very capable in direct sunlight to the extent that when shooting outdoors under even lighting, we found ourselves sticking with AWB for the sake of an easy life. Where the AWB system falls down - again, like the Canon S95 - is in shade, where it tends to deliver a rather cool color cast. This cast is particularly obvious in scenes which are mostly in shadow but contain some sunlit areas.
Under artificial light the P7000 performs more or less as we would expect. Images shot under tungsten light are somewhat warm, and images shot under fluorescent light can display a slight green tint, but in general, neither cast is offensive. As always, if you want to take complete control over white balance, you should play around with the presets or shoot in RAW mode (see example below).
Before its recent firmware update, the P7000 suffered from occasional AF failures. from time to time, its AF system appeared simply to give up, regardless of focal length or lighting conditions. Most of the time the P7000 found its target accurately and quickly, but every now and then it just refused to focus for no apparent reason. Yet reinitiating AF with another half-press of the shutter button almost always brought it back to life.
However, the recent firmware V1.1 claims to fix this issue, and we are happy to report that we have experienced no AF reliability issues during our testing with firmware V1.1. We found keeping the P7000's AF set to 'face detection' is most convenient for day to day shooting, but for complete control, it is possible to manually place the AF point. Like the Canon S95 and Panasonic LX5, the P7000 also has an AF tracking mode, which is handy for off-center compositions and for dealing with (slow) moving subjects as they cross the frame.
Continuous Shooting/Operational Speed
We've already mentioned that operational speed is the P7000's achilles heel, and sadly, despite all the positives - the effective, well thought-out ergonomics, reliable metering and white balance, and versatile lens, the P7000 is our least favorite of these three cameras to actually take pictures with. This is largely because of the time it takes to perform even the most basic tasks. After spending a little while with the camera, it is impossible to escape the conclusion that its processor is simply not powerful enough.
A wait of almost 2 seconds to return to shooting mode from a menu screen is too long. A pause of more than a second to scroll from one image to the next in review mode (histogram view) is also too long. Likewise the camera's unpredictable response to control inputs; sometimes the P7000 responds to a single click of one of the two control wheels, and sometimes it doesn't. 'Button lag' where the camera always seems to be one step behind whatever you just asked it to do is a depressing feature of older digicams and some current budget models, but we didn't expect to see it in a $500 high-end compact. Unfortunately it is a feature of the P7000, and that is very disappointing.
As far as its write speed and continuous shooting are concerned, the P7000's recent firmware upgrade has made a huge difference to performance. Set to JPEG mode, the P7000 was (and still is) pleasantly fast and responsive, but with the original firmware V1.0, the P7000 took between 5-7 seconds to process a single RAW file, even with a fast card. With firmware V1.1, this delay has been reduced considerably, to more like 1.8 seconds for a single RAW file, and a mere 9 seconds for a burst of 5 (with a Lexar Extreme III SDHC card). With a more standard SD card, (we also used a generic class 6 SDHC) the P7000 is much less impressive, and RAW write speeds drop to between 5-7 seconds for a single file, and up to 30 for a burst of 5. Investing in a fast memory card is always a good idea, but it is essential if you intend to shoot .NRW files with the P7000.
Looking at the size of the P7000's .NRW RAW files, it is no surprise that with firmware V1.0 (and even V1.1, with slower cards) write times are so long. An average file size of 15MB+ seems very high given that it shares a sensor with the Canon S95, which outputs significantly smaller RAW files (approx 12MB) at 12 bits per pixel. This suggests that the P7000 is writing 16 bits per pixel which - if true - is a little puzzling, given that the net result is much larger files for little if any increase in image quality.
Set to JPEG mode, the P7000 is positively sprightly. The P7000 locks up for a mere 1.3 seconds (approximately) after capturing a JPEG (fine) image, and can manage 29 images at approximately 2fps in a burst. Write time (the amount of time before the card access light goes out) is around 45 seconds, and recovery time (i.e. the amount of time before you can take another shot after a long burst) is less than 2 seconds. This sort of performance is much more in line with what we'd expect from a camera of this type, despite the relatively large JPEG files (on average at least 2MB larger on disk than equivalent shots from the S95).
The P7000's large body gives it room for a large battery - in this case the 7.7Wh EN-EL14. We have no complaints about the P7000's battery life, and in our experience of shooting with the camera, Nikon's claim of 300+ shots from a fully charged battery seems accurate. We'd always recommend making sure that the battery is freshly charged before a long day's shooting, but we didn't have the unpleasant experience whilst using the P7000 (as we did with the Canon Powershot S95) of the battery suddenly dying with little or no warning.
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