The Nikon P5100 offers a variety of control options for the novice to advanced user who's looking for a go-anywhere camera. Sleekly designed, with a comfortable grip and a durable magnesium body in a cool black finish, this camera sure looks nice; but the question is whether or not its performance lives up to its appearance. My conclusion? When it comes to digital camera performance, timing can be everything, and the sluggish and slow functioning of the P5100 spoils what would have otherwise been an extremely successful point and shoot.
Don't get me wrong. There are things about the P5100 that I loved as soon as I took it out of the box. Compact and easy to hold, it's got a nice solid feel and a reasonable layout that makes sense. I didn't need the manual to instantly start browsing my way through the controls. For the most part, like other Coolpix models, it feels (and is) intuitively designed and user-friendly.
It's also packed with a variety of features that are sure to impress users who want a bit more from their camera. 12 megapixel resolution, 3200 ISO, lens-shift Vibration Reduction, a viewfinder, and a good amount of manual control are all impressive features that should have put this camera above the "average" curve in its price bracket. Unfortunately, the pleasure ends as soon as you start to shoot. I'm just as surprised as you probably are.
When I first turned on the P5100, I set it to Auto mode and aimed it at a chair about four feet away from me. Plenty of sunshine in the room, and well within focus range, I pushed the shutter button, and nothing happened.
Well, something happened, but it didn't involve a photo being taken. Instead, the lens made a whirring noise and the auto focus bracket started to hunt. And hunt. No photo. I tried again, pushing halfway to lock focus, and still nothing. I thought at first that I was doing something wrong, but this wasn't a user error; it was just a lack of responsiveness and capability in the auto focus. I did eventually get it to lock focus, but even that process was a slow one; it took about a second from the time I pushed the button to the time the focus was able to lock.
Keep in mind that this was in a brightly-lit room; the problem only worsens in low light situations. My first thought was that this camera would be wholly inappropriate for any sort of moving subject, particularly a fast-moving one. I decided to test my own theory, and let's just say I got a lot of pictures of the back end of my cat (who doesn't, incidentally, qualify as a "fast moving" subject in anyone's book).
Auto focus isn't the only area where the camera's speed was a disappointment. Recovery time between photos is slow, even for well-lit, non-flash shots. Basic indoor low-light shots cause the screen to black out for several seconds, similar to the way many cameras act in "night shot" mode. In other words, I've shot photos in complete darkness where the camera took as long to recover as the P5100 takes to recover in a lamp-lit room.
Even the buttons and menus are sluggish; pushing, for example, the Playback button results in a moment of wait time before your photos come up, and even then each photo takes a moment to work its way into focus on the screen before you're allowed to scroll past it. Maneuvering the menus on this camera reminded me of what it was like when I had my last computer virus; you find yourself holding your breath and pushing buttons carefully, trying not to go faster than your equipment can handle.
Considering how prepared I was to like the P5100, its performance was a true letdown. There are so many good things about this camera. Color reproduction, if slightly bland, is nice (it can also be punched up beautifully by changing the camera to the "Vivid" setting under Image Optimization). High ISOs perform better than I expected, as does the Vibration Reduction; (unfortunately, most low-light shots were ruined nonetheless due to the fact that I'd always end up moving the camera before the image was done shooting because it took so long to respond and recover).
The manual control options are fun to use and offer a good dose of creative control. The Macro function works beautifully and is a lot more successful than that of many other cameras I've used. The variety of Scene modes and options offered by the P5100 should have come together to make it into a truly outstanding camera. Unfortunately, the sluggish and quirky performance keeps me from getting behind this one. I expected better from Nikon.