Nikon CoolPix P4 VR Digital P&S Camera

Reviewed by: Howard Carson, April 2006
Manufactured by: Nikon USA - Nikon Canada
Requires: Mac OS X or Windows 98 or higher for installation of PictureProject software; compatible with Digital Print Order Format (DPOF) devices
MSRP: $399.95

The Nikon P4 is the latest in a rather good line of Point & Shoot (P&S) models from this well known and highly regarded camera maker. Although Nikon's reputation for dominance in the professional photography business is well known, like its fiercest competitor (Canon), Nikon has also been producing a healthy selection of competitively priced consumer P&S cameras for many years. If you want some sort of guarantee of good quality, it makes sense to start considering a camera from a maker already known for its quality.

The P4 (brand new for 2006) has a number of features which set it apart for both recreational and business use. First and foremost, the camera incorporates Nikon's patented Vibration Reduction (VR) technology built into the lens and image sensor array. While normal picture taking should typically be done with VR turned off (there's a handy quick access button on the top left of the camera body to turn VR on and off easily), as soon as you zoom in to take long shots in poor light and any time you find yourself in an unstable situation (e.g., on a boat, a windy day, an incline, rocky ground, and a thousand other positions), turn on VR and watch the magic happen. Nikon has been offering VR in a number of their high-end professional lenses for several years, but the P4 is one of the few Nikon P&S models which have the feature. There are two VR modes: still—when you're trying to shoot a still subject, and active—when you're panning horizontally to shoot a moving subject. Very handy and very well executed, especially considering the very small optical array in a camera of this size. The whole point of VR is to give you the opportunity to capture shots you might otherwise not attempt, and it works well.

The P4 offers the obligatory movie mode found in most P&S cameras these days. Video quality is good but not spectacular, but usable enough to make you think twice about investing in a separate video camera. The audio quality is the main letdown when shooting outdoors (the slightest breeze will have a seriously negative effect on recording quality). Shooting video indoors is another matter, and in good lighting will provide you with endless amounts of usable footage with a clear audio track.

During the review period we offered the Coolpix P4 to several trades and professionals for use in the field. One of the first to take advantage of our offer was a group of architectural engineers in Toronto. They were in the midst of purchase considerations for new field cameras and leapt at the opportunity to try out the P4. The first positive comment we received from them was related to the camera's built-in Panorama Assist (PA) mode. You'll find PA as one of the selectable presets when you put the P4 into Scene mode. Basically, PA walks you through a series of panoramic shots by displaying a panning direction arrow and an overlay of part of the previous photo, thereby enabling you to lineup the required overlap for the next shot, automatically repeating the process for each successive shot until you press the OK button to end the PA. It's the accurate overlap in each shot which will help your photo stitching software do a perfect job of creating the final panorama. It's a thoughtful feature which works well. Our architects used the PA function repeatedly for a wide variety of shots inside a building slated for reconstruction. The resulting images were perfect for their needs. Nikon has included the PA feature in its P&S models at least since the Coolpix 7600 (which I own) and I've got a nice collection of panoramas shot on vacation and while traveling on business that I wouldn't trade for the world. It's a great feature.

With well over 20 different and distinct shooting modes and scene settings, the Coolpix P4 represents a lot of versatility and can accommodate a wide variety of environments. In fact, the metal camera body seems to be designed to tolerate a bit of abuse. Unbeknownst to us, the review unit rattled around for three days in a tool pouch belonging to our electrician. Fearing the worst when he returned the camera, we were surprised to find that the P4 had survived the ordeal without any visible damage, scrapes, dents, etc., with all features and functions still working properly. That's good news for anyone considering the purchase of one of these things for use on a service truck or elsewhere in the field. The P4 is not water resistant and is not specifically designed for field use by technicians or tradespeople, but with normal care and handling it should do quite well in work situations.

The Coolpix P4 offers a wide variety of convenience features which deal directly with in-camera image processing. In playback mode the D-Lighting function can be used to improve contrast and brightness, and slide shows can be set up for playback in-camera or on a TV via the A/V cable supplied with the P4. Print sets can set up using Digital Print Order Format tagging (DPOF) for use in printers which support it, individual photos can be protected from deletion or alteration, you can add transfer marks to individual photos to identify which ones should be transferred automatically by the Nikon PictureProject software (Mac OS X and Windows) supplied with the camera, and a whole range of manual shooting settings can be tweaked when the camera is in Aperture Priority (A) or Program (P) mode. Movie mode offers settings for three different sizes including 640x480 suitable for TV viewing, and an absolutely delightful Time Lapse setting which we used to capture a flower opening one morning in my back garden. If you want to dazzle relatives and friends with your movie-making prowess, that's one way to do it.

Cons: While we didn't actually drop the camera, we did have a couple of close calls and wished for a grippier surface in place of the smooth, brushed and polished metal body (besides which it's still cold outside during early Spring in upstate New York and southern Ontario). To help hang onto the P4, use the supplied Lanyard—that's what it's for. The tripod mount is not centered under the lens which can cause a bit of extra fiddling when positioning for a portrait shot. Photos taken with VR can appear slightly soft, although the general quality of all the 8.1 megapixel shots we took were very good. VR has specific applications and should be turned off most of the time. The 3.5x zoom is quite good, but we occasionally wished for a bit more range. The On/Off button is tiny and positioned next to the shutter button, which made for couple of surprise shut downs until we got used to the feel of the controls. The zoom control is not as smooth as it should be and occasionally required some back and forth adjustment to get just the right position. The battery life indicator does not appear on the LCD display until the battery is quite low, so we'd really like to see either a continuous indicator or battery check function.

Pros: Fast F2.7-5.3 optics. Built-in Nikon Vibration Reduction (VR) is an absolute joy in situations where you can't stabilize the camera or when you're shooting at full zoom in average or poor light. Though some photos appeared slightly soft with VR, non-VR (standard) shooting modes produced lots and lots of razor sharp photos with accurate colors and realistic saturation. The digital sensor in the P4 is very forgiving and performs well in a wide variety of lighting conditions. The combination of the P4's automatic strobe flash sensor and scene mode presets is also quite refined, providing just the right exposure in some really difficult lighting and shooting conditions. Nikon rates the battery life of the rechargeable EN-EL5 at 200 shots, but we repeatedly got well over 400 shots out of each charge. In one test, I turned on active VR, darkened the room, set the image quality to maximum and proceed to take flash photos one after another. I got bored after the 200th shot (I had to stop at one point because I'd filled up an SD storage card) and I can only conclude that battery life is excellent. The small Nikkor lens and sensor are capable of capturing sharp and remarkably detailed photos, good enough for really large prints up to 16x22 (and even larger depending on the subject matter). Color rendition is quite good with the flash too, providing accuracy in a wide variety of poor lighting conditions. The P4 easily handled outdoor photography in everything from heavy overcast to bright and glaring sunlight, consistently producing balanced results, well focused and properly exposed. In the hands of a building engineer, the camera provided excellent shots of a dank, poorly lit subbasement beneath a building slated for demolition; the built-in flash was powerful enough to provide well lit corners and crawlspaces situated 20 feet from the shooting position. The in-camera zoom feature in playback mode also lets you capture a zoomed crop of anything on the storage card—a great feature and general time saver. The Nikon Coolpix P4 is a delightful camera with broad applications for home, vacation, travel, general technical, and business use. It's easy to use and capable of taking remarkable photos. Highly recommended.

(Ed. Note: I consult regularly with Sean Newell, a professional photographer and an associate at Henry's Cameras in Pickering, Ontario just outside of Toronto. He likes the P4 mainly for its robust family applications, but also because it's a great travel camera whether you're on a business or a pleasure trip. Sean and I recommend purchasing a well padded Lowepro, Tamrac or Crumpler case to carry around any P&S, but especially the P4 with its nice, large LCD screen and guillotine lens guard, both of which should be protected from too many bumps and bangs. Sean also likes the basic manual modes offered by the P4, which allows people who have familiarized themselves with the camera to tweak settings on the fly to get the best possible shot. Inevitably, as Sean has repeatedly reminded me over the years, the best or most expensive camera body and lens combination in the world won't make you a better photographer. Light, composition and a keen eye outshine even the best equipment).

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