Nikon Coolpix P300

Nikon has made a good, but not stellar, compact camera that aims to be a pocket-sized SLR replacement.


8.1
CNET Rating

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CNET Editor

Lexy spent her formative years taking a lot of photos and dreaming in technicolour. Nothing much has changed now she's covering all things photography related for CNET.


This is Nikon's answer to the fast-lens club, made up of cameras that have a wide maximum aperture and are still compact enough to fit in a pocket. Ideal for photographers who want something good to carry around with them when their digital SLR is off-duty, does the P300 have what it takes to compete with the Canon PowerShot S95 and the Panasonic Lumix LX5?

Design and features

Let's get to the most important aspect of this camera first: the lens specifications. With 4.2x optical zoom on board, the P300 opens up to a maximum aperture of f/1.8, closing down to a maximum of f/4.9 at the telephoto end. This makes it both faster and longer than the S95 and the LX5. Behind the lens is a backside-illuminated CMOS sensor at 12.2-megapixels.

Around the back, the configuration is standard Nikon button fare, with a control wheel and four-way direction pad in one. There's also a dedicated record button and playback button too. Next to the controls is a 3-inch LCD screen with a resolution of 920,000-dots.

It's at the top of the camera where things start to get interesting. A small pop-up flash, with the Coolpix insignia on top, can be raised out of the camera body when needed by flicking the switch to its side. You'll also find a stereo microphone here too, while the mode dial has full PASM control as well as an automatic mode, scene mode, night landscape selection and backlight option. There is no space for a custom option on the dial, though. A small shutter button and zoom rocker sit just near the exposure ring control at the top.

It's a nicely designed camera — slightly boxier than the S95 so it's a bit easier to hold in the hand — and it feels well made with its metal finish. It does miss out on the front control wheel like the S95 and, given the huge fixed ring surrounding the lens, we're left wanting some sort of control mechanism there. Unlike the S95 though, the P300's flash arrangement is not obstructed by fingers as the folding design means there's still place for a finger to rest comfortably on top.

The P300 only has two aspect ratios to choose from: standard 4:3 from the full 12MP resolution through to VGA and 16:9 at 9MP. It has a maximum ISO sensitivity of 3200. Autofocus modes include face priority, automatic focus, manual focus, centre focusing, subject tracking and face priority tracking.

Connectivity is provided by a mini HDMI-out and an AV-out at the base of the camera, both of which are used to connect the camera to a computer and to charge the battery.

Compared to

S95 vs P300
Canon PowerShot S95 Nikon Coolpix P300 Olympus XZ-1 Panasonic LX5
10-megapixel CCD sensor (1/1.7-inch) 12.2-megapixel backlit CMOS sensor (1/2.3-inch) 10-megapixel CCD sensor (1/1.63-inch) 10-megapixel CCD sensor (1/1.63-inch)
3-inch, 461,000-dot LCD 3-inch, 920,000-dot LCD 3-inch, 610,000-dot OLED 3-inch, 460,000-dot LCD
3.8x optical zoom, 28mm wide-angle 4.2x optical zoom, 24mm wide-angle 4x optical zoom, 28mm wide-angle 3.8x optical zoom, 24mm wide-angle
HD video (H.264, 720p, 24fps) Full HD video (H.264, 1080p, 30fps) HD video (Motion JPEG, 720p, 30fps) HD video (AVCHD Lite, 720p, 30fps)
Pop-up flash Pop-up flash Pop-up flash Pop-up flash

Performance

General shooting metrics (in seconds)

  • Time to first shot
  • JPEG shot-to-shot time
  • RAW shot-to-shot time
  • Shutter lag
  • Nikon Coolpix P3001.520.6
  • Panasonic Lumix LX52.21.42.60.3
  • Canon PowerShot S952.42.22.50.4

Continuous shooting speed (longer bars indicate better performance)

  • Nikon Coolpix P3005
  • Panasonic Lumix LX52.6
  • Canon PowerShot S951.9

Note that the P300 does not have RAW shooting. It takes 7 shots in continuous shooting mode before pausing to process them. Other continuous shooting modes include best shot selector and multi-shot 16, 60 or 120fps continuous shooting at a reduced resolution (1MP resolution).

Image quality

With a raft of competing cameras delivering on image quality and features, the P300 faces stiff competition, particularly from models like the Canon PowerShot S95.

Colours are bright and vivid on automatic settings and dynamic range is very good for a camera of this class. Unfortunately at full magnification images look rather "crunchy" or over-processed, with some significant blockiness that makes even a standard landscape look almost painterly. We found the P300 delivered optimum results when shooting at anything below ISO 200.

Exposures are on the conservative side — a little underexposed on automatic settings. Fortunately, it's very easy to set exposure manually with the combination of the rear control wheel for aperture and top wheel for shutter speed.

P300 exposure

A shot taken on automatic mode (left) and manual mode (right). As you can see, the image on the left is far too underexposed and the image on the right brings out the detail in the foreground object much better. With spot metering in automatic mode, the camera probably could have coped better. (Credit: CBSi)

Though the P300 underexposes in its automatic mode, it means that it does well in capturing situations where there's a big contrast between light and dark areas. The night landscape mode does a really good job of capturing sharp evening images, though as with the other stills there is a degree of over-processing at full magnification.

Oddly, there seems to be no spot metering available on the P300, just matrix and centre-weighted. Though it may be tempting to leave the P300 on aperture priority at f/1.8 constantly, do be aware that the physical size of the sensor has a direct correlation with depth of field. So, given the size of the P300's sensor, it's not able to achieve the same shallow depth of field as the other cameras in this class at a similar aperture. We'll have a full comparison of the depth of field example with the Olympus XZ-1 soon.

Video quality is without a doubt the best we've seen on a Nikon compact, and its image quality is very good. There's a small degree of fringing visible of contrasty subjects but it's not overbearing on the overall image. Sound quality is decent, too, but as expected there's a fair amount of wind noise to be heard.

Video is available in full 1080p at 15/30fps, 720p at 30/60fps or VGA resolution at 30/60fps.

Image samples

Click each image for full-sized samples from the P300. No post-processing has been done to alter these photos.

Exposure: 1/1250, f/4.9, ISO 160

Exposure: 1/1250, f/2.8, ISO 160

Exposure: 1/100, f/2.8, ISO 160

Exposure: 1/40, f/2, ISO 800

(Credit: CBSi)

Conclusion

Nikon has made a good, but not stellar, compact camera that aims to be a pocket-sized SLR replacement. Unfortunately this camera is just not as good as the current best-in-class, the Canon PowerShot S95, when it comes down to the metrics that matter: image quality.

Photographers who are downsizing from an SLR on its day off will have a big gripe with the P300, which is the lack of RAW capture. Every other camera in this class has it, so we're rather puzzled as to why Nikon left it out. We can only hope that the next iteration (or indeed a firmware update) provides this very important feature — and perhaps a bigger sensor like that found in the P7000 as well.

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