Is the P Justified?
What is it?
The Nikon P300 appears to be Nikon's response to the Canon S95 and Panasonic LX-5. Small like the Canon, fast lens like the Panasonic. With a 12mp 1/2.3" BSI CMOS sensor and a 24-100mm (equivalent) f/1.8-4.9 zoom optically-stabilized lens, the P300 fits a pocket but has enough spec-cred to catch many serious shooter's attention.
Backing up the basics Nikon threw in 1080P/30 video, full PASM control, a metal body, a 3" 920k dot fixed LCD, exposure bracketing, a crude HDR function, and a panorama assist. One relatively unique ability is that it can shoot a half second of small JPEGs at 120 fps (good luck getting the timing right, though there is a VGA-sized movie option for 120 fps). There's also a BSS ability (find best of 10 consecutive shots). There is no raw, no Active D-Lighting, indeed, very little else. The function set is basic but reasonable.
The camera comes in black only for US$329 or less.
How's it Handle?
A small raised rubber bump suffices for a front grip on this slipperly metal body. It's better than nothing, but it's not optimal. Unfortunately, the position of the bump probably precludes any of the premade, user-installable rubber grips.
In terms of controls, Nikon stuck to the basics. We've got a mode dial (with LCD help while setting) that has the basics (PASM, Scene, Movie, a couple of common scenes). The dial is relatively stiff and doesn't extend over the back edge, so it's a little harder to dislodge than some of the other compact cameras' dials, a good start. There's a rear command dial much like the DSLRs, another nice touch. In manual exposure mode, the command dial handles the shutter speed (again with LCD help while setting), while the direction pad dial controls aperture (also with LCD help).
Since I mentioned that LCD help, let me state this: Nikon got that right. It's the right flavor of helpful and its a very nice visible overlay (you can still see the scene through it, though I wish the timeout on it was slightly quicker). The menu system is Nikon's usual heirarchy-style, but since there aren't a tremendous number of things to set, it's very subdued for a Nikon. That makes getting to what you want to set fairly quick, which is a good thing, becuase we don't have a quick menu type option on this camera.
Like many compacts, the direction pad is overloaded with additional functions, including exposure compensation. Only give other buttons exist (record movie, playback, menu, delete, and OK). There are no assignable buttons, which is a bit of a shame: the camera could have used one. It could have also used a visible histogram while shooting, a big omission for me (it will present histograms on playback, and it presents a histogram when setting exposure compensation).
A couple of oddities happen with settings. If you set f/1.8 at 24mm and zoom to 100mm you get f/4.9 as expected. Now zoom back out to 24mm and the lens is at...wait for it...f/2.5. What? Also, if in Flexible Program mode you dial past what can be set (i.e. dial three clicks past f/1.8, which leaves you at f/1.8 obviously), you have to undial the extra clicks to get back (i.e. dial three clicks where f/1.8 doesn't change before you get to f/2). Someone was asleep at the wheel programming these things.
The stereo microphones are on the top plate of the camera, and the on/off button is just behind the shutter release and not indented enough--you'll end up accidentally turning the camera off from time to time, I'll bet.
How's it Perform?
Let's get one thing out of the way: this isn't a P7000. None of the oddities in use I found with the P7000 are present here. Focus was fast and sure, with no "can't shoot through glass" hesitation or other issue. There's none of the on-screen lag the P7000 had, either. So, Nikon, please take the P300 design engineers and assign them to the P7000 followups! (But pay attention to that guy who was programming the wheel.)
The trend in batteries in small cameras continues: small batteries. The P300 barely breeched 200 shots for me in my first session with it, slightly better after I got to know the camera more, but never close to 300, which for me is a kind of a desired minimum. As usual, grab extra batteries. But. The charger Nikon supplies with the camera doesn't charge batteries directly, it plugs into the camera and charges the battery in camera. Yuck. So you end up having to spring for a separate charger, too, to go with those extra batteries you'll be sucking down with regularity.
Now, about that lens. At f/1.8 maximum aperture, it sounds great. Only it doesn't stay near f/1.8 as you zoom. By the time you get to the telephoto range we've got the usual slow lens (f/4.9 in this instance). So if you think you're using this camera for low light, you're doing so at 24mm only. This is in contrast to, oh, say the Olympus XZ-1 or Panasonic LX-5, which keep a tighter aperture range through the zoom. The lens itself seems reasonably good. It's not as good as some higher priced compact cameras, but it also is no slouch.
Which brings us to image quality. What's that mom? If I don't have anything nice to say... Okay, got it.
The P300's image quality is a result of its sensor. A 1/2.3" sensor is 4.6 x 6.2mm, or 28 square millimeters of light capture area. The higher end compacts are using sensors that are 5.7 x 7.6mm, or 43 square millimeters. So we've basically lost one-third the light collection area (though if the small sensor is BSI and the larger one not, we'll get some of that back). Of course we're going to have more noise. Unfortunately, Nikon has given us no control over noise reduction, nor has it given us raw output to massage ourselves. All things considered, the P300 does pretty well for what it's equipped with. Better than expected. But if you're a pixel peeper, get ready for some rough, crude, noise-impacted edges. Not the end of the world for a compact camera, but it's just one of the things that puts the P300 outside the realm of choices for a truly serious shooter who might want to print aggressively large from a small camera. The P300 just might not cut it for low light shots printed big. It's better than I expected though, and better than many of its direct competitors.
||A full P300 image taken at base ISO in very low light and high contrast conditions.
||A 100% sample from just below the center of the frame. Overall noise production is decent, though it gets visible in the darkest areas. Note the edges of the top bar: there's a roughness to them that isn't there in real life.
Video quality is good. Rolling shutter is a bit more controlled than in some other compacts I've seen, though it is still present.
I really wanted to like the P300. Right size, fast 24mm lens, no frills and gimmicks, good price. But it's not a compact I tend to reach for in practice. The small things all start adding up: very small sensor, no raw, rapid loss of aperture while zooming, small battery, the list seems to go on a bit too much.
The sad thing is that some of the design decisions and the firmware implementation on the P300 is better than the P7000. The JPEG output is less "false" than many other cameras with 1/2.3" sensors. So we now have two "professional" (P) series Coolpix models that look compelling on paper, but neither of which totally delivers the goods. I can't really recommend the P300 over a Canon S95 or Panasonic LX-5 as a pocket camera, which give you access to raw, and in the case of the LX-5 have a faster lens at the long end. The P300 doesn't play in the league of the bigger cameras, either (G12, XZ-1, TL500).
I suppose if you wanted to give a reasonably straight forward semi-sophisticated camera to a not-so-serious shooting spouse or child, the P300 fits that bill fine.
||Just the basics. Missing raw.
||Performs as you'd expect from a small sensor. Better than many 1/2.3".
||Other cameras give you more.
Ratings last updated: 8/2/2011