The P5000 offers the standard combination of semimanual and scene program exposure one would expect on a midrange camera. In addition to the Vibration Reduction and Hi ISO Best Shot modes, you can also turn each on individually.
Design and Features
You've got to squint a little when looking for a camera equipped with a full set of amateur-friendly exposure controls that's small enough to fit into a jacket pocket; there simply aren't that many available, since most manufacturers' time and energy in the enthusiast segment these days go toward budget dSLRs. Nikon, which seemingly abandoned those amateur photographers for a few years, has reappeared with the 10-megapixel Coolpix P5000, a compact competitor for the snapshooter-with-room-to-grow audience currently dominated by the Canon PowerShot A710 IS.
With cutting-edge capabilities like face-priority autofocus, optical image stabilisation, and full-resolution sensitivity settings as high as ISO 2000 to augment its manual and semimanual exposure options, the P5000 fits some mighty attractive features into its 200 grams, 65mm by 9mm by 41 mm (WHD) frame. Though only the front of the chassis uses magnesium alloy in its design, the camera feels quite sturdy. Its smallish, rubberised grip and thumb rest make the P5000 quite comfortable for one-handed shooting.
The scored ring surrounding the f/2.7-to-f/5.3, 36mm-to-126mm-equivalent lens comes off so you can screw on optional wide-angle (24mm-to-84mm-equivalent) and telephoto (108mm-to-378mm-equivalent) conversion lenses via an adapter. A Nikon i-TTL-compatible hot shoe allows for external flashes as well.
The focus, flash, exposure compensation, and self-timer options are pulled up via quick-access buttons on the four-way-plus-OK navigation switch.
A few of the P5000's shooting controls -- flash, self-timer, exposure compensation, and macro/distance limit focus -- use dedicated buttons for quick access. You can assign another -- ISO sensitivity, image quality, image size, white balance, or vibration reduction (VR) -- to the single-function Fn button. The others, plus some important additions such as metering and continuous-shooting, require the always-fun trip into the two-level menus. Furthermore, though we don't mind putting a few set-them-and-forget-them features in a separate Setup mode, we don't think VR, LCD brightness, or format card really fall into that category; that's the kind of stuff that belongs in the menu system. Nikon provides 15 program scene modes, plus panorama-assist, interval shooting, and a high-ISO program shift mode that automatically chooses from higher sensitivity settings than the standard program exposure. During photo playback you can apply D-Lighting exposure adjustment and add voice memos.
The P5000's shooting speed falls at the bottom of its small pack. The 2-second wake-up-to-first-shot time doesn't hurt, but the 0.9-second shutter lag under optimal conditions coupled with a 3-second shot-to-shot time makes it unsuitable for shooting animals and children, along with many other things that move. At least adding flash doesn't increase that time at all. In dim, low-contrast environments lag jumps to 2.2 seconds. And continuous shooting clocked an anemic 0.9 frames per second on CNET Labs' tests.
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Our field tests bore out those findings. You can autofocus as close as about 1.5 inches with the P5000, but we felt a perceptible pause while waiting for the camera to achieve a lock, regardless of the focus mode. It also seems to take the face-detection algorithms just a bit too long to operate. Once locked, it tracks small movements pretty well. But if the person's head is tilted or rotated slightly sideways, or the person moves to the edge of the frame, detection rarely works. That wait for the autofocus does let you catch up on your mirror time. Despite an antireflective coating and bumped up brightness, the P5000's otherwise sharp, bright, 2.5-inch LCD turns into a mirror on cloud-free days. The optical viewfinder is quite good for what it is, but as with all direct-view cameras you can't use it for macro photography.
Though the P5000 performed poorly on several levels, you can't blame much of it on the lens. VR works extremely well, and in practice bought us close to three stops beyond what reciprocal math dictates; at best, we obtained a sharp shot at 1/4 second that would typically require 1/30 second. Additionally, the lens maintains very good edge-to-edge sharpness and shows minimal chromatic aberration (fringing). Keep in mind, however, that it trades off zoom range; it's much easier to produce a better optical system if you keep the range of focal lengths limited, as Nikon does with its 3.5x zoom. The lens does show a surprising amount of barrel distortion at the wide end given its rather narrow 36mm-minimum focal length.
Ranking high on the annoyance meter, Nikon limits the Fn quick-access button to a single, user-selectable option: it can pull up options for ISO sensitivity, image quality, image size, white balance or Vibration Reduction.
When it comes to image noise, the P5000 fares well in some respects and abysmally in others. It can shoot some usable photos up to ISO 2000, depending upon subject matter, though to play it safe for sharpness and artifacts we suggest staying below ISO 800. But across the various ISO settings, colour consistency flies out the window. Check out the sample images to see what we mean.
That's too bad, because otherwise the P5000 produces very good photos, with excellent exposure, neutral white balance (though the preset renders a little pinkish under tungsten lights), appropriate saturation, and properly selected flash output levels. Though we've seen better, its 640x480, 30fps movie capture will also serve to preserve those embarrassing moments on YouTube forever. It supports only digital zoom in movie capture mode, however.
Poor performance really drags down the Nikon Coolpix P5000, and unless you absolutely need a hot shoe for an external flash, it's hard to recommend when compared to the less expensive, zippier Canon PowerShot A710 IS, with its faster and longer 6x zoom lens.