The Nikon Coolpix P50 is modelled on the P5100, the top model in the Coolpix range. We tested it to see if a stripped-down 8.1-megapixel version of such a top-end camera is worth having, especially considering its price.
The P50 has an old-fashioned, boxy feel. The chunky grip for your right hand, complete with rubberised panel, is helpful, but we're not sure about the overall chunky design. We appreciate that not every camera has to be a 'style' model, competing to be the thinnest for five minutes. But to make a camera as wilfully bland as this seems strange.
An indent in the front and a silver plate for the shutter release are all that pass for stylistic flourishes. The mode wheel, buttons and awful zoom rocker are so chunky they seem as though they're designed for a child. If this camera came in red or yellow rather than black or silver it would look like a toy.
There's something toy-like about the screen too, as it measures a distinctly subpar 2.4 inches. Unusually, you do also get an optical viewfinder, although it could be closer to the lens, so you won't be able to see the whole of your image. You also don't get to see your settings through the viewfinder.
The optical viewfinder, oversized buttons and undersized screen lend the Nikon Coolpix P50 a toy-like quality.
We are impressed with the satisfyingly wide 28mm wide-angle Nikkor lens, which allows you to fit more into your screen.
The P50 is powered by good old-fashioned AA-size batteries and records to SD and SDHC cards.
The P50 is pretty short on features, but if it offers a parameter for alteration it gives you plenty of choice. There are the usual range of 15 scene modes and five different movie modes available. You do get more colour options than the average: softer, vivid, more vivid, portrait, monochrome and custom modes. The custom mode allows you to alter contrast, sharpening and saturation.
There's a decent amount of manual control available. Programmed auto mode gives you 13 increments of exposure compensation. Manual exposure mode provides full control over both the aperture and shutter speed settings. Shutter speeds range from 8 seconds to 1/1,000 second in 15 increments, although you only get two aperture options. ISO speeds go up to 2,000.
We do like the time-lapse feature, which allows you to set the interval between automatically taken pictures from 30 seconds to a minute.
Image stabilisation is electronic rather than optical, which we find disappointing in a camera this size. If there's room for optical stabilisation in the Coolpix S200, there should be room in the P50.
The generally underwhelming character of the P50 doesn't extend to its picture quality. The wealth of tweakable options means that you have enormous control over your images for a compact. With only a minimal amount of tinkering, we were capturing decent pictures in no time. The wide-angle 28mm lens shows no signs of distortion, and there's hardly any trace of purple fringing.
This crop from our lab test shot at speed ISO 800 shows noise handled well, with relatively little loss of detail.
Detail is reasonably crisp, although there is some softening around the edges. The autofocus is quick and capable. There is a tendency to underexpose while indoors, but getting to know the exposure compensation controls quickly takes care of that. It's worth getting to know the white balance options as well, as indoors lighting can occasionally fox the automatic WB selection.
We're impressed with how well the P50 deals with noise. Although pictures taken at ISO 800 have a gritty feel, it isn't the rainbow-coloured pebbledashing we'd expect at this sensitivity level. Normal service is resumed at ISO 1,600, where pictures are basically unsusable unless your standards are very low, and at ISO 3,200, image quality is laughable. As a bonus, the P50 manages to do this well on noise without obtrusive noise reduction smearing the detail.
It's hard to get excited about the Nikon Coolpix P50. It's not small enough, fast enough or sexy enough, and lacks a decent screen or image stabilisation. Nonetheless, it does put you firmly in the picture-taking driving seat and is more than capable of taking some great photos. If that sounds appealing, the Coolpix P5100 or Canon PowerShot G9 are more expensive, but are much cleverer, faster and sexier. Still, if you're not bothered about features, the P50 is a capable, if unassuming, snapper for its price.