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You are hereHome > Digital Camera Reviews > Nikon Coolpix P3


Nikon Coolpix P3 VR Wi-Fi Review

Review Date: March 22, 2006

Category: Beginner to Serious Amateur

Nikon Coolpix P3 


The Nikon Coolpix P3 is a digital camera targeted to beginner and serious amateur photographers. It has 8.1 megapixel resolution on a 1/1.8 in. CCD image sensor, and a 7.5-26.3mm (36-126mm, 35 mm equivalent) 3.5x optical Zoom-Nikkor lens, with a maximum aperture of F2.7(W)-F5.3(T), and minimum aperture of F7.6.

We find the overall image quality of the Nikon P3 to be good to very good, though we'd prefer images to retain more details.

3.5x Optical Zoom
Wide-angle 36mm Telephoto 126mm
Wide-angle 7.5mm
(36mm, 35mm equivalent)
Telephoto 26.3mm
(126mm, 35mm equivalent)

The Nikon P3 has a 3.5x optical Zoom-Nikkor lens. In the above pictures, we show the coverage for 36mm, and then 126mm. It takes about 2 sec. to zoom from wide-angle to telephoto (I counted 8 steps).

The camera is choke-full of practical features to help you get the best picture possible. Besides Auto mode and easy-to-use Scene Modes, the Nikon P3 also has Programmed Auto and Aperture-Priority mode.

Programmed Auto mode is a more flexible Auto mode and allows you to choose some of the most important exposure settings, such as ISO, exposure compensation and metering mode. Program Shift works in conjunction with Programmed Auto mode and allows you to shift the aperture/shutter speed combinations in tandem while still keeping the correct exposure.

Aperture-Priority mode is like Programmed Auto mode but also allows you to select (fix) the desired aperture, and let the camera select the appropriate shutter speed. However, as you are aware, aperture usually changes as you zoom. So Nikon has also provided a Fixed Aperture feature that will keep the aperture (in Aperture Priority mode) as close as possible to the one you've set when you zoom (works only for aperture range: f/5 to f/7.3). Unlike many digital cameras with "electronic" apertures, the Nikon P3 has a Six-blade hexagonal iris diaphragm with 10 possible settings (in 1/3EV increments).

The camera also provides a live histogram, exposure compensation (with Auto Bracketing), manual White Balance (with WB Bracketing), manual AF Area mode (and corresponding Spot AF area metering). Shutter speed ranges from 2-1/2,000 sec. in all modes, except in Fireworks and Night Landscape scene modes where slow shutter speeds of 4 and 8 sec. are also available. Note, however, that you won't be able to select any exposure settings in these scene modes.

7.5mm, Programmed Auto, Multi-Pattern
1.12 sec., F2.7, +0.7EV, ISO 50, Preset WB (manual)

Macro can be as close as 4 cm (1.6 in.). The AF indicator dot and AF frame turn green to indicate successful focus; a blinking red AF indicator dot and blinking AF frame indicate focus has not successfully locked.

AF is fast and works very well even in low-light. In extreme low-light, the AF Illuminator automatically (if you've set it on in the menu) kicks in to help achieve focus. One thing we've noticed is that the AF Illuminator is placed quite high in relation to the lens and is not able to light up a subject at close macro range, so you might have some problem achieving focus lock in very close macro range in low-light.

Best Shot Selector (Menu - BSS - ON) works by taking 10 shots in a row (as long as you keep your finger pressed on the shutter release button) and then discarding all except the one that comes out the sharpest. Very cool feature!

The Nikon P3 provides three AF modes: Auto selects the subject with the most contrast out of 11 AF areas; Manual (AF area) allows you to select from 99 AF areas; and Center-focus area.

Manual AF Area Mode Off-Center Focusing

Manual AF area helps tremendously for off-center subjects, especially in macro photography. Once you set this option in the menu, it stays out of the way until you call for it. Nikon has implemented a very intuitive way to do that: anytime you wish to invoke manual AF area mode, simply press the OK button and use the arrow keys to move the AF area around the screen to one of 99 possible positions. When you're done, press OK to set it at its new position. Some cameras make you go thru hoops to do what the Nikon P3 does so elegantly. What more, Manual AF area is nicely complemented with Spot AF area metering mode.

As you can notice in the picture above right, the 4 angle brackets denote the extent of the selectable area and so these 99 AF areas unfortunately do not go to the edge of the screen.

Metering Modes

There are four metering modes: Matrix (Multi-Pattern), Center-weighted, Spot and Spot AF area. The latter is interesting because it will meter at the spot that you have manually moved the AF area to on the screen. Makes sense!

Face-Priority AF
Face-Priority AF Face-Priority AF Face-Priority AF
Blinking smily face Face found AF locks and tracks face

In addition to Auto AF and Manual area AF, Face-Priority AF is available in Portrait scene mode. You use the blinking smily face displayed on screen as a guide. When the subject's face becomes the same size as the smily face, the camera recognizes it and frames with a double yellow border. If the camera detects multiple faces, the closest will be framed with a double border, the rest by a single border. The camera can recognize up to 3 faces. Once a face is locked on, the camera will even track it as you move to recompose.

This face recognition capacity is, of course, limited depending on the shooting condition. Bottom line: it works but it's not perfect: the subject must be facing the camera; also, the camera may not be able to detect faces that look away from the camera, are partially hidden by sunglasses or other obstructions, or faces that take too much or too little of the frame.

White Balance Indoors
AWB Preset WB
AWB Preset WB

As the above two pictures show, the auto white balance (AWB) indoors under artificial light is not accurate. Fortunately, the Nikon P3 allows WB to be set manually via the Menu: Preset WB allows us to correct the colours to real white. AWB works well in natural light.

ISO ComparisonsISO 50
ISO 50
ISO 100 ISO 200 ISO 400
ISO 100 ISO 200 ISO 400

You can set the ISO on the Nikon P3 from 50 to 400. The 100% crops above (area delimited by the white square) demonstrate that noise at ISO 50 and 100 are under control. Noise starts to be visible at ISO 200 but is usable. At ISO 400, the presence of noise takes the form of coloured splotches.

Chromatic Aberrations
7.5mm, Aperture-Priority, Multi-Pattern
1/6.9 sec., F4.8, ISO 50, Auto WB

CA is minimal to non-existent in everyday shots. In the high contrast shot above, the corner delimited by the red square at middle, and reproduced at 100% crop at bottom right, shows no purple fringing.

Long Shutter Speed
Long Exposure
7.5mm, Aperture-Priority, Multi-Pattern, 2 sec., F2.7, ISO 50
Preset (manual) WB, Macro, Self-timer 10 sec., Tripod Used, 100% Crop

The Nikon P3's slowest shutter speed only goes down to 2 sec. in AUTO, P and A modes. Generally, with CCD image sensors, noise usually becomes more prominent at slow shutter speeds.

We take a low-light indoors shot. Light is from two of those special "natural light" fluorescent bulbs on the ceiling. To obtain a long exposure, I place Bamm-Bamm under my desk in the shadows. I obtain focus lock easily since the Nikon P3 has an AF Assist Illuminator. The noise reduction works well. Since 2 sec. exposure is really not long enough and there is no way to manually select a slower shutter speed, the picture is a bit underexposed.

Same picture as above with D-Lighting applied in Picture Project

And that is where another unique feature of the Nikon digital cameras comes into play: D-Lighting control allows you to "rescue" images that come out too dark. You can do that in camera (a copy of the picture is made) or later in PictureProject. There are three levels of brightness that you can apply in PictureProject (in camera, the camera makes that decision for you): Low, Normal and High. We choose "Low" and the result is above. Pretty impressive, eh?

Exposure Compensation and Histogram

You can view a live histogram by pressing the RIGHT ARROW key. At the same time, Exposure Compensation is automatically invoked. Again, this makes great sense because you would want to adjust the exposure compensation if you decide the histogram is indicating over- or under-exposure. No need to press another button, you are already in exposure compensation mode!

VR Off
7.5mm, Programmed Auto, Partial metering
1/2sec., F2.7, ISO 50, Handheld, 100% Crop

7.5mm, Programmed Auto, Partial metering
1/2sec., F2.7, ISO 50, Handheld, 100% Crop

Nikon has now included its lens shift Vibration Reduction (VR) technology developed for its digital SLR lenses into the P3 lens. VR is Nikon speak for lens image stabilization, the true kind, where a lens element shifts to counteract tiny camera movements that can cause blurred images. When tuned on, VR allows you to handhold the camera at slower shutter speeds than you would normally be able to without suffering from camera shake (with resultant blurred images). As the two above images show, the VR technology in the P3 is very effective.

The Nikon Coolpix P3 delivers good to very good image quality and its many practical features allow you to face challenging photographic situations with confidence.

The pictures in the Nikon Coolpix P3 Photo Gallery page provide a good sample of what the camera is capable of. I have provided samples at 800x600 pixels (compressed to Quality 60/100 in Photoshop Elements) as well as the 3264x2448 pixels original size (click on the image for the original version).

You can safely assume that most macro shots and slow shutter speed shots required the use of a tripod. Any image that is adjusted for levels in Photoshop has "_adjusted" appended to the file name (though the original sized image is, of course, not adjusted).

I have defaulted the image size to 800x600 pixels. For those who have their monitor resolution set to 1024x728 pixels, everything should snugly fit and you should not have to scroll to see the whole image. If your monitor is set to 800x600 pixels resolution, start the slide show and then scroll to the right to position the image within your screen width. Then, press F11 (if you are using Internet Explorer) to switch to full screen mode, and the image should fill your screen nicely. Press F11 again at any time to switch your monitor display back to normal mode.

To return to this page from the Photo Gallery, click on the animated graphics of the camera.

Please open and download the original size version only if you need to and only once to your hard drive -- and save me some precious bandwidth. Thanks!


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