Sunday, November 6, 2011

Nikon P300: Cheap Enthusiast Compact Camera


Choosing a digital camera is easy.  Choosing an inexpensive but good digital camera is a bit more challenging.  Each camera touts its own fancy-sounding features, some of which are just gimmicks, making it hard to pick out cameras that have the features that really matter to us photographers, at a reasonable price.I was looking for a camera that had these qualities:
- low noise for a compact camera
- zoom with a wide angle (28mm or wider)
- PASM, decent controls
- flash exposure compensation
- scene mode for my wife
- decent video capability (at least 720p, preferably with continuous autofocus and optical zoom).
- no serious problems
- around $250.
Based on those criteria, I chose the Nikon P300.  Hit the jump for a review.


My wife was looking for a compact camera and within our limited budget, I picked the Nikon P300 for the reasons I posted here.  On paper, the P300 seems to have many of the strengths of the Canon S95 and even some of the new features of the Canon S100 at a substantially lower cost.  More importantly it had all the important features I absolutely needed:
- low noise: was almost the same as the class leaders
- wide angle: as wide as 24mm
- PASM, decent controls: yup.  It even has two dials.
- flash exposure compensation: yes.
- scene mode for my wife: yup.
- decent video capability: 1080p in stereo with continuous AF and optical zoom. Super slow motion also available.
- no serious problems: none that I could find.
- around $250: yup.
I went ahead and ordered the P300, and received it a couple of weeks ago.  Here are my impressions, broken into a few categories: basics, controls, shooting, video, strobist use, image quality.  Finally, I close with some comments on what it's like to shoot with this camera compared to a DSLR.


BASICS


  • Extremely light.  Other people have said it but it still surprised me.  The camera seems half as light as my phone.  It actually isn't (the P300 is 189g with battery and SD card vs. 137g for the iPhone) but it still feels unreal. 
  • The build quality itself seems ok, though almost all parts seem to be made of plastic.
  • The size is about right - on the large end of "pocketable."  Thicker than the usual slim compact camera.
  • Battery life is acceptable.  Just enough to last me a whole day of shooting with moderate use of flash and videos.  The battery life meter is not very reliable. It appears 'full' for about 90% of its life, when suddenly it will appear half depleted then fully depleted within a few minutes.
  • An external charger is optional.  Would have been nice if Nikon included it.  Without an external charger you have to use the camera to charge the battery.
CONTROLS

  • The menus and buttons are very responsive.  This is something that I've taken for granted but it is an issue with some cameras such as the Nikon P7000, so it's worth mentioning here.
  • Controls and interface are intuitive (at least for me, a Nikon DSLR user). I haven't had much need to look at the manual, except for special automated functions I'm not familiar with.
  • Some often-used functions are buried in the menus, including ISO, flash exposure compensation, and video resolution and frame rate.  However, there is a quick menu access to "vividness" and "hue".  Argh.
  • Deleting images takes several button presses.  This is somewhat annoying.


SHOOTING
24mm
  • I find the focal length range very useful.  At the wide end, the lens is equivalent to 24mm.  I did not find myself wanting a wider focal length (but if Nikon wants to make it even wider next time, that would be great!).  On the tele end, I found it long enough most of the time.
  • Focusing speed is slower than a DSLR but is acceptable.  In normal conditions it's not an issue.  It's only when it gets dim that it becomes noticeable.  In fairly dark conditions, it can struggle to acquire focus even with an AF assist light.  I noticed also that it is easier to focus when using the wide angle than tele (presumably because of the larger aperture at the wide end).
  • I have no complaints about focusing accuaracy.  However, in Auto mode (where the camer chooses the focus point), the camera sometimes seems to have some difficulty picking out the intended subject from the background.  The camera chooses a correct focus point about half the time, unless I purposely put the subject near the center, acquire focus, then re-compose.  The P300 does have face priority focus which works better and picks out faces relatively well.
  • The automatic and semi-automatic exposure modes give me an exposure that is usually close to what I intended, but the camera tends to select slow shutter speeds instead of shooting at higher ISOs.
  • ISO display.  By default, Auto ISO is active.  However, one problem when Auto ISO is active is that the ISO isn't displayed.
  • Live histogram.  A live histogram (luminance only) shows up when you're adjusting exposure compensation in P, A or S.  The live histogram is reasonably representative of the histogram of the actual shot (assuming flash is not used).  However, there is no live histogram in manual mode, which I found weird.
  • Manual mode.  The manual mode is so-so to use.  On the plus side, I had no difficulty getting used to changing the shutter speed or aperture using the P300's dials.  The light meter was also easy enough to see.  On the down side, the only metering modes are matrix and center, which defeats using the manual mode for the zone system.  Spot metering would have made the manual mode much more useful.
  • Night Landscape mode.  One of the automatic features of the P300 that I appreciate is a night-shooting mode.  What this does is to take several photos then combine them (albeit slightly cropped).  I'm not sure what the P300 exactly does when it "combines" the images but for parts of the photo that don't move, the image does look clean and not so blurry even without a tripod.
  • HDR Backlighting mode.  I haven't tried this yet but it appears to function like the iPhone HDR shooting mode.  The camera takes a couple of shots and combines them to capture a wider dynamic range of highlights and shadows.
  • Panorama mode.  The P300 has two panorama modes.  In the Easy mode, you press the shutter then move the camera around you, either in 180 degrees or 360 degrees.  The problem with this mode is that it doesn't really know how far you've turned, so I find it very difficult to reach 180 degrees or 360 degrees.  Instead, the recording usually stops well short of the angle selected.  The part that does get recorded looks ok though.
  • The P300 has another panorama mode that facilitates stitching a panorama using the supplied Panorama Maker 5 or other software.  In this mode, you take a shot of the scene then the edge of the scene you took is shown on the side as a translucent image which helps you align the next image.  When you take that image, it is again shown as a translucent image to facilitate alignment of the next shot and so on.
IMAGE QUALITY

  • Let's start with the bad news.  The image quality is ok for small prints but for prints larger than 8x12 for example, the image is not very detailed.  Even at the base ISO setting of 160, tiny details look smudged.  Although the nominal resolution is 12mp, it holds far less detail than my 10mp d300.
  • The other limitation to the P300 is that it only does JPEGs not raw.  That means that you have less latitude to adjust white balance (for correction or creative purposes). Usually I find the white balance to be slightly on the warm side.  I don't mind though.
  • With respect to color and contrast, straight out of the camera, the images look a bit flat. I prefer to add a +1 to the Vividness setting for a little punch. Vividness +2 is also ok though the skin tones look unnaturally orange.  If you have Lightroom it's easy enough to apply a medium contrast tone curve or a customized tone curve to add a bit of punch.

Straight out of the camera image:
straight out of the camera

Edited with Lightroom 3:
With minor edits in Lightroom
Those are the most significant limits I can think of.  The good news is that if you don't pixel peep, the image from a P300 can be made to look similar to that of a DSLR in terms of color and contrast.  If I print a 4x6 image from the P300 and a similar one from a D300, I have difficulty distinguishing the images.  At 8x12, I can spot the difference readily if I pay attention to very tiny details but might easily overlook the differences if the P300 image were mixed with D300 shots.  For a non-photographer like my wife, she cannot tell the difference while looking at an 8x12, even when I tell her what to look for.

Below are two files so you can compare for yourself.  I took shots of a nearly identical scene with identical lighting using the P300 and the D300. I then tweaked the images slightly in Lightroom: I first applied a medium contrast tone curve to the P300 image (by default the tone curve is linear).  I also adjusted the D300's color temperature to make it a bit warmer.  Note that this is NOT a scientific comparison - I took these comparison shots on a whim so there are many differences between the two that make the comparison non-scientific.  For one thing, the exposures are very different.  I used 1600 ISO with the D300 whereas the P300 chose an ISO of 320.  Shutter speed of the D300 is 1/100 while the P300 is at 1/30 increasing the chance of blur.  Nonetheless, if you want, you can print a 4x6 and 8x12 for comparison:

P300 sample (click to download).


D300 sample (click to download).


Here's another pair for comparison.  Without looking at the filename or EXIF and without zooming in, can you tell which was shot with the P300 and which one was shot with a D300?


In terms of noise, I prefer to keep it at ISO 400 or lower if possible.  800 is ok with me although details start getting lost.  At 1600, the image looks smudged but usable.  ISO 3200 is not great but is somewhat tolerable if you have no better alternative.  Here's a sample of the 3200, with further adjustments in Lightroom:
Shot with the P300 at 3200 ISO, with noise reduction (and desaturation of purple chroma noise) via Lightroom 3.
1400 ISO straight out of the camera - no adjustments except resizing to 1600px.

VIDEO
  • It is very easy and convenient to record videos thanks to the dedicated video recording button.  No need to switch shooting modes or anything.
  • For normal scenes, the video quality is good enough that I don't miss my Canon HD camcorder.  The P300 even has optical zoom and full-time autofocus during video.  The audio is not great but is acceptable.  Finally, the P300 has an AE-lock during video that can keep the exposure constant.
  • I also like the slow-motion video modes.  The slow-mo videos look cool.  Too bad you can't switch to slow-mo on the fly (instead you have to go through the menus).
  • The only thing that prevents the video from being a perfect substitute for a dedicated camcorder is its performance in dim lighting.  There are a couple of things that make the video mode less useful in dim conditions.  First, unlike many camcorders, there is no slow shutter mode (for extra dark conditions such as filming fireworks).  Second, there is no video light (on my Casio Exilim EX-V7, the flash assist could be used as a video light).


STROBIST USE
Off-camera flash triggered optically with the P300
One of the reasons I chose the P300 over other compact cameras such as the Canon SD4000 is the prospect of using it with an off-camera flash.  I'll make it brief - it *is* possible to use this with off-camera flash but this is *not* a good camera for strobist use.

Yes, off-camera flash use is possible via optical sync.  The popup fires only in TTL but at least there's a flash exposure compensation up to -2.0 FEC.  If your external flash has a digital optical slave (i.e. one that can ignore TTL preflashes, such as the YN560) or is a Nikon flash with an SU-4 mode (such as the SB-900, SB-800 or SB-700), then you can indeed use manual off-camera flash with the P300.

Even with the ability to reduce flash exposure compensation (FEC), however the on-camera flash produces noticeable shadows when the subjects are near walls.  I also find that even with a -2.0 FEC adjustment, the flash still tends to be fairly bright.
I took this shot with a P300.  The popup flash was on TTL -2.0 FEC but the shadow of the flash is still visible.
The other problem is that the lens has a variable aperture throughout the zoom range (f/1.8 at 24mm or f/4.9 at 100mm).  Given that your external flash can only be used in manual or auto mode (not TTL), then you may have to keep adjusting the power whenever you zoom.

If your priority is to get a camera that will seriously be able to shoot strobist style, I would instead recommend getting a camera with a hotshoe or a PC sync port.  It will be more expensive but you won't have to mess with the optical sync.  I would also look for a camera with a lens that has an aperture that doesn't change as much as you zoom (e.g. Fuji X10, Olympus XZ-1, Lumix LX-5, Samsung EX-1). Alternatively, you can buy a compatible external flash to allow TTL operation.

SMALL CAMERAS VS. DSLRs

When we got the P300, I viewed it as little more than a fancy point-and-shoot, not a real tool for photography.  How could it hold a candle to my DSLRs?  My Nikon D70 costs less (when bought used from ebay) and has better features than this.  I would say that if someone is looking for a DSLR substitute, they would indeed be sorely disappointed with the limitations of these small cameras.  Detail, sensor noise and depth of field control are just some ways that a DSLR handily beats these small cameras.  There is just no comparison.

And IMO, that's the point.  After shooting with the P300 for a while, I see it simply as a completely different tool, not meant to replace a DSLR.  It's like using a DSLR is similar to oil painting, while these small cameras are similar to using watercolors.  You get far less detail and far less control but that's irrelevant - it's just a different kind of photography, imho.

I think I'm also beginning to understand what Neil and Zack have been saying about the appeal of small cameras like the X100 and this P300.  It felt relaxing (mentally and physically) not to have to haul around a bag full of camera gear.  I can imagine it's like being a professional speechwriter.  Although you can compose beautiful prose, sometimes you just want to communicate casually and not be forced into thinking about the world-changing ramifications of your work.  At the same time the P300 has most of the controls I need to create the image that I want, which leaves me to think more about the photo itself and less about the gear.

So if you're looking for a cheaper way to have a DSLR or DSLR-like features, this is NOT the way to go.  This is not a substitute for a DSLR and I would argue that no compact camera can ever replace a DSLR, now or in the future.  Get a used DSLR instead.  I got my Nikon D70 for $200 on ebay.

If you're looking for a smaller DSLR substitute, this is probably not the camera for you either.  You may instead want to check out the mirrorless cameras, which tend to be smaller than DSLRs.

If you're looking for a small AND cheap DSLR substitute, then check out the entry-level mirrorless cameras.  You won't have the best controls and will miss some features (e.g. wireless flash) but it is possible to get in the game for around the same cost as a high-end compact:
  • Olympus E-PL1 with 14-42 ($379).  4/3 sensor (2x crop).
  • Sony NEX-3 with 18-55 ($461). APS-C sensor (1.5x crop).
  • Sony NEX-C3 with 18-55 ($599).  APS-C sensor (1.5x crop).
If you want a camera that you can bring anywhere and shoot discreetly whenever you feel inspired to do so, and you would like to be more concerned about composition, color, capturing the moment, and beautiful light from available light sources than about maximizing sharpness and capturing the most minute details, then a compact camera may be right for you.  In that regard the P300 fulfills that role for around $250.

The biggest drawbacks of the P300 compared to more expensive enthusiast cameras are: slower lens (on the telephoto end), no raw mode, and no hotshoe.
DSLRs and compact cameras: simply different ways of shooting

OTHER HIGH-END/ENTHUSIAST COMPACT CAMERAS UNDER $600:
Unless otherwise noted, all of these compact cameras have full manual controls, low noise (for a compact camera), raw mode, wide angle, image stabilization, a hotshoe and 720p video or better.  They are all under $600 (the approximate cost of entry-level DSLRs).  I did not include interchangeable lens cameras due to the significant difference in size.  The prices shown here are subject to change.
  • Canon S95 ($336). 28-105mm f/2-4.9. No hotshoe.
  • Nikon P7000 ($339).  28-200mm f/2.8-5.6.  Much cheaper than P7100, can use an external flash as commander.  Optical viewfinder. Disadvantages: slow menu, raw takes 4-5 seconds (cured with firmware 1.1).  Some samples have a lens cover that does not fully open.
  • Samsung EX1/TL500 ($354).  24mm-72mm f/1.8-2.4.  OLED screen. Articulating screen.  Disadvantages: limited video (640x480 @ 30fps).
  • Lumix LX-5 ($369). 24-90mm f/2-3.3.  Manual video controls available. Disadvantages: fiddly lens cap. Poor weather sealing on some samples.
  • Canon S100 ($429). 24-120mm f/2-5.9. High-speed burst. Slow-mo video. No hotshoe.
  • Nikon P7100 ($499). 28-200mm, f/2.8-5.6.  Can use an external flash as commander. Optical viewfinder. Fixed P7000 defects, has articulating LCD.
  • Canon G12 ($499). 28-140mm f/2.8-4.5. ISO dial. Articulating LCD. Optical viewfinder.
  • Olympus XZ-1 ($499). 28-112, f/1.8-2.5 (!). OLED screen. Built-in wireless flash commander (!). Disadvantages: no AE-L button, strong noise reduction on JPEGs.
  • Fuji X10 ($599). Equivalent to 28-112mm, f/2-2.8. Fuji EXR sensor.
  • Sigma DP2S ($639). 41mm f/2.8. APS-C sensor (1.5x crop).  Disadvantage: limited focal length.

MORE P300 SAMPLES
Meanwhile here are a few more samples from the P300.