DPInterface Nikon Coolpix P4 Review
Brad Soo - June 18th, 2006

When Nikon's first two P-series cameras were launched, they were good but not very stylish. The new Nikon P3 and P4 do away with the P1 and P2's "bulky" look and feature a silky metal casing. The P3 is higher-end than the P4 surprisingly and the difference between the two is the built-in WiFi feature. So the P4 I'm reviewing now doesn't have WiFi... but it does share the P3's other features like 8 megapixels, a 3.5X stabilized zoom lens, a 2.5 inch LCD and aperture control. Having high resolution, a stabilized zoom lens and limited manual control, some of us have high hopes for this little camera.

Size and Weight

Find out how small the P4 is:

(175.1)  99.0 x 54.4 x 21.7 mm (145 g) - Canon PowerShot SD430 Wireless Digital ELPH`
(173.3)  90.4 x 56.5 x 26.4 mm (165 g) - Canon PowerShot SD700 IS Digital ELPH*
(171.2)  89.0 x 58.5 x 23.7 mm (130 g) - Casio Exilim Z850
(177.2)  92.7 x 56.7 x 27.8 mm (155 g) - Fujifilm FinePix F30
(196.1)  104.7 x 60.6 x 30.8 mm (170 g) - Fujifilm FinePix F650
(183.6)  96.0 x 62.0 x 25.6 mm (170 g) - HP Photosmart R927
(192.0)  103.0 x 63.0 x 26.0 mm (125 g) - Kodak EasyShare One 6MP`
(184.0)  92.0 x 61.0 x 31.0 mm (170 g) - Nikon Coolpix P3/P4*` (WiFi for P3 only)
(181.5)  100.5 x 60.0 x 21.0 mm (140 g) - Nikon Coolpix S6`
(170.2)  94.0 x 50.8 x 25.4 mm (132 g) - Panasonic Lumix FX01*
(166.0)  88.5 x 54.5 x 23.0 mm (125 g) - Pentax Optio A10*
(174.8)  95.0 x 56.5 x 23.3 mm (139 g) - Sony Cyber-shot T30*
(179.6)  94.2 x 60.6 x 24.8 mm (161 g) - Sony Cyber-shot W100

* Optical image stabilization
` WiFi

The Nikon Coolpix P4 is one of the mid-sized cameras out there - it's bigger than your average Canon Digital ELPH but smaller than cameras like the Kodak EasyShare One. The P4 is pocketable only in bigger pockets.

Open up the Box

The Nikon Coolpix P4 has your average digital camera bundle:

  • Rechargeable EN-EL5 lithium-ion battery
  • Battery charger
  • Wrist strap
  • USB cable
  • A/V cable
  • CD-ROM

Storage and Power

My recommendation for a good memory card to start out with would be a 1 GB SD card. The Nikon P4 includes 23 MB of internal memory which is useful to store your favorite photos. A high speed SD does not make much of a difference in performance.

150 shots - Canon PowerShot SD430 Wireless Digital ELPH
240 shots - Canon PowerShot SD700 IS Digital ELPH
440 shots - Casio Exilim Z850
580 shots - Fujifilm FinePix F30
150 shots - Fujifilm FinePix F650
200 shots - HP Photosmart R927
135 shots - Kodak EasyShare One 6MP
200 shots - Nikon Coolpix P3/P4
200 shots - Nikon Coolpix S6
320 shots - Panasonic Lumix FX01
150 shots - Pentax Optio A10
420 shots - Sony Cyber-shot T30
360 shots - Sony Cyber-shot W100

The Nikon Coolpix P4 has the same battery life rating as the P3, which is a below average 200 shots per charge (CIPA Standard). In a shootout I did between the P3 and P4 - taking the same photos at the same time, offloading them (P3: WiFi, P4: USB) and repeating until the batteries went flat - the Coolpix P4 got around 210 shots with some flash usage thrown in while the P3 obviously got less shots (around 180) due to the WiFi transfers. The workaround to this is getting an extra battery which costs around $30.

 

Extras

There's nothing for the P4 except an AC adapter.

Camera Tour

The Nikon Coolpix P4 features an all metal body with the except at the tripod mount and battery door. The high-quality smooth exterior and fairly similar button layout sometimes makes me think I'm using the SD550 Digital ELPH.

The Nikon Coolpix P4 has a 36 - 126 mm 3.5X zoom lens. Unlike the one on the P1, the lens here is image stabilized with a lens-shift type stabilizer, what Nikon labels as Vibration Reduction (VR). Optical image stabilizers like the one here help reduce blur caused by slight hand shake - it doesn't freeze subject movement neither does it help if you're swinging your hands around! The aperture range here is f2.7 - f5.3 which is what you'll find on typically all cameras like this.

Below the lens is a microphone for audio clips and sound while recording movies. Going up and there's an AF-assist/self-timer lamp and a flash. The flash range is average with a rating of 40 cm to 4 m at wide-angle and 40 cm to 2 m at telephoto.

The Nikon Coolpix P4 has a standard 2.5 inch LCD on the back with only 150,000 pixels - Some cameras do worse with less than half of that (but those cameras are cheap) while competitors around the P4's price range have 230,000 pixel LCDs. The LCD has good low-light visibility and outdoor visibility on par with competitors. There's no optical viewfinder here but I don't mind with an LCD this big.

The top right of the Coolpix P4's back has a zoom controller. Hitting the "T"elephoto button in the menus brings up a help screen. Go down a little and there's a MENU button and flash charge indicator. I'll have some fancy screenshots later on in the review so hang on there.

The 5-way controller does menu navigation and quick access to these functions:

  • Up - Flash setting (Auto, auto with red-eye reduction, flash on, slow-sync, off)
  • Down - Focus setting (Auto, infinity, macro, 2 m)
  • Left - Self-timer (Off, 3 seconds, 10 seconds)
  • Right - Exposure compensation (2 in 1/3-step increments)
  • Center - OK/Auto transfer (via USB)/Toggle LCD info

The 2 m focus attempts to increase AF speed by focusing on things past that distance. The last two buttons are for entering playback and deleting photos (in playback). It seems like a waste that the "delete" button has no purpose while shooting.

Over here, things are spread out across the top of the P4. On the left, there's a Vibration Reduction (VR) button which toggles the optical image stabilization system around a few modes - I'll have more on this later. Skipping past the mode dial, we have a shutter button and power button on the right. A little LED lights up when the camera is on.

Now, back to the mode dial:

  • Auto
  • Program
  • Aperture priority (10 steps from f2.8 - f7.3)
  • Scene mode position
  • Movie mode
  • Setup
  • Image quality
  • ISO sensitivity
  • White balance

The little gap between the Auto and White balance spots is filled in with "WiFi" on the WiFi-enabled P3. The mode dial here on the Coolpix P4 can still turn a full 360 though.

Hitting the exposure compensation button in program mode lets you select a different shutter speed + aperture combination based on the latter.

On the sides, there's a speaker and A/V Out + USB port.

Down here, there's an off-center tripod mount and battery/SD compartment. The door here is plastic and can be bent easily.

Shooting

We'll start with how informative the Coolpix P4's shooting screen is. It shows all the essential bits of information, including full exposure info. There's no live histogram unless you're tweaking exposure settings.

You can select one of the Nikon Coolpix P4's many image resolutions which include 8 megapixels (with a 3:2 option), 5 megapixels, 3 megapixels, 1 megapixel and VGA plus three compression options - Fine, Basic and Normal. I'd recommend using the 8 megapixel setting with Basic compression for everyday shooting.

While the Nikon Coolpix P4 has displays the menu in a list, you can also view them by icons as well. In the menu, the P4 has more manual options for you to change:

  • White balance (Auto, custom, daylight, incandescent, fluorescent 1 & 2, cloudy, shade, flash)
  • Metering method (Matrix, center-weighted, spot, spot AF); spot AF follows the AF point around
  • Drive (Single-shot, continuous, multi-shot 16, ultra high-speed, 5-shot buffer, time lapse shooting)
  • Best Shot Selector BSS - Shoots up to 10 photos and selects the best one
  • Bracketing (Off, exposure, white balance)
  • Contrast (Auto, normal, high, low)
  • Sharpening (Auto, normal, high, low, off)
  • Saturation (2 in 1-step increments)
  • ISO (Auto, 50, 100, 200, 400)
  • Image quality
  • Image resolution
  • AF point (Auto, manual, center)
  • AF mode (Single, continuous)
  • Fixed aperture - Attempts to get the closest value to the aperture selected when you zoom [ie. f2.7 becomes f5.3 after zooming to telephoto due to the lens]
  • Noise reduction - When using long exposures

The exposure bracketing feature takes 3 shots - one with your settings and the other two over and underexposed by 1/2 step. White balance bracketing does the same thing except one shot will be "cooler" and the other "warmer".

Manual AF point is not manual focus; instead, you get to move the AF point around the frame which is useful when your camera is on a fixed place like a tripod.

The Nikon Coolpix P4 has 2 optical image stabilization modes - VR Normal and VR Active. Normal mode is for your everyday handheld photos while Active is for very shaky conditions, such as telephoto or very low-light shooting. Wanna see how well the image stabilization system works? Take a look:

 

Both shots were taken handheld using a shutter speed value of 2 seconds. The left shot was taken with image stabilization off and the other with it on, set to VR Active.

The Nikon Coolpix P4 has a 4 cm macro mode along with lots of scene modes. The scene modes here include portrait (optional Face AF), night portrait, landscape, night landscape, sunset, dusk/dawn, fireworks, close-up, party/indoor, panorama, beach/snow, backlight, museum, copy and sports.

Recording

The Nikon Coolpix P4 can take VGA movies with sound at 30 FPS till the memory card fills up. You can select other movie sizes (VGA, QVGA, QQVGA) which record at 30 FPS as well. Using the time-lapse movie feature, you can take up to 1800 frames (between 30 seconds to 1 hour) and make a silent 30 FPS movie. A 2 GB Secure Digital card holds about 26 minutes of video with sound at the highest resolution.

You can make optical image stabilization active and choose the autofocus mode used to record movies: single (fixed) and continuous (always focusing). I would recommend using single autofocus as the microphone records the tiny autofocus buzzing sounds. There is also digital zoom while recording.

Video quality was good while audio quality was inconsistent and below average.

Performance

The Nikon Coolpix P4 starts up in an okay 2 seconds with the welcome screen turned off; the not-instant power on time is caused mostly be the rather "slow-moving" lens. The P4 normally takes about 1/3 second to focus at wide-angle and 1/2 at telephoto. Low-light focusing can take a lengthy one second or more.

Shutter lag is not very noticeable at both wide-angle and telephoto as well as outdoors and low-light. Shot-to-shot speed was a below average 1 shot every 2.8 seconds, longer if the flash is used. I was disappointed that the camera was unusable when clearing its buffer as the usual "busy... wait for buffer to clear" screen appears every time I want to do something after a shot. Flash recharge time using a fully charged battery took 12 seconds. The camera zooms from wide-angle to telephoto in 2 seconds.

The Nikon Coolpix P4 has several continuous shooting modes - all of which are quite disappointing. The standard mode does 5 shots at 2 FPS, Multi-shot 16 takes 16 tiny photos (204 x 153) and puts them into one 8 megapixel collage, Ultra High-speed does 100 VGA shots at 30 FPS while the 5-shot buffer mode keeps taking photos at 1.2 FPS (apparently always focusing) and saves the last 5 shots taken.

The Nikon Coolpix P4 powers off in 1.6 seconds after hitting the power button.

Image Quality

It's time to see how the Coolpix P4 does in image quality (I have no idea about the crazy shutter speed values so don't ask):


ISO 50 (f3.9, 1/111 sec)


ISO 100 (f3.9, 1/215 sec)


ISO 200 (f4.3, 1/384 sec)


ISO 400 (f5.4, 1/483 sec)

ISO 50 and ISO 100 look fairly similar with little noise. At ISO 200, noise goes up but maintains itself at an acceptable level. ISO 400 shots are still okay with post-processing noise reduction. Overall noise levels were fairly low for an 8 megapixel camera, even at ISO 400 - so was chromatic aberration (color fringing).

Barrel distortion is not very noticeable while pincushion distortion is not. Colors accuracy was average and there was some red-eye. Default settings used by the camera should be enough to satisfy most but they can be tweaked as well.

The Nikon Coolpix P4 produces very good photos, but there's no ISO 800 option here!

Photo gallery

Visit the Nikon Coolpix P4 photo gallery.

Playback

In playback, the Nikon Coolpix P4 can playback stills and movies (With sound) as well as do all this: Protect image, print marking, sound memo, slideshow, crop and resize. The Nikon Coolpix P4 does not have the fancy slideshow feature that the S6 has. You can also magnify still photos by 10x and take a look around using the 4 arrow buttons.

The Nikon Coolpix P4 also allows post-processing using D-Lighting (brighten). A copy function allows for transferring between the memory card and internal memory.

The Nikon Coolpix P4 shows complete information, including aperture and shutter speed values as well as a histogram.

Appeal to the crowds

Who's the $399 Nikon Coolpix P4 for? Check out the target audience rating:

Penny pinchers - Retailing at around the same price as the Nikon Coolpix P3, the P4 is not a very good deal. The Nikon Coolpix P3 has the extra WiFi feature which the P4 doesn't. The Canon SD430 Wireless is another WiFi camera but if you don't need WiFi, then there are many other cameras out there which retail for less.

Digital camera newbies/beginners - The Nikon P4 has some advanced features as well as a simple auto mode. But these beginners will be left with a bad impression due to slow performance and bad battery life.

Everyday shooters - The Nikon Coolpix P4 has lots of scene modes and aperture control but its slow operation and below average battery life may bother some.

Advanced amateurs/enthusiasts - While the Nikon Coolpix P4 has aperture control, it has no other settings to tweak.

Professional photographers - The Nikon Coolpix P4 is a mid-sized camera with aperture control but come on, give these photographers a break from their bulky digital SLRs. The very compact Casio Z850 might be their pick and it has close to full manual controls too.

Upgraders - The Nikon Coolpix P4 is a cool upgrade to the Nikon XX00 (ie 5600, 7900, etc) series but then again, those people could be going for the D50 digital SLR.

Users jumping ship - Those who are using other camera brands should have no trouble upgrading though Fujifilm, Olympus and Sony camera owners who are jumping ship need to get SD cards.

 

Conclusion

The Nikon Coolpix P4 has some 8 megapixels in a CCD behind its 3.5X optically image stabilized lens as well as a 2.5 inch LCD on its back.

The Coolpix P4 has good build quality except the plastic piece over the battery/card slots and tripod mount. The camera has a good lens, 8 megapixels and produces very good photos too. With low noise (for 8 megapixels) and low levels of chromatic aberration, the P4 still has no high sensitivity option.

Speaking of which, you may need extra batteries for extended shooting with the Coolpix P4 due to its below average battery life. And this is one camera not for low-light shooting - featuring a so-so flash, poor dark condition focusing and not even ISO 800.

Despite the limited manual controls, over aperture that is (among other things), there's still no full manual mode or shutter speed control here. There's no live histogram either. Thankfully for the new user, a wagon full of scene modes and built-in camera help are available.

The Nikon Coolpix P4 along with its WiFi-enabled sibling, the P3, are both for casual shooting and you're at the camera's mercy in action shots since both have slow performance. That's probably one of the reasons Nikon included a time lapse shooting feature - the Coolpix P4 is not for action or low-light shooting! And for a last rambling, the P4 currently sells for the same price as the P3. I wouldn't recommend the Nikon Coolpix P4 as there are other (better) cameras worth your time.

Camera rating upon 10 (more about this): [Category: Mid-sized]

  • 8.0 - Body/Exterior
  • 6.5 - Bundle, batteries and memory
  • 7.5 - Lens
  • 6.0 - Feature set
  • 7.0 - Controls and operation
  • 5.0 - Performance
  • 8.0 - Image quality
  • 6.9 - Overall rating

What's hot:

  • 3.5x zoom lens with optical image stabilization
  • 2.5 inch LCD with average resolution and visibility
  • Good build quality
  • Aperture control and some other changeable settings
  • User-friendly; many scene modes and built-in help
  • Interval shooting feature can be useful
  • Nice VGA movie recording at 30 FPS
  • Above average, good image quality

What's not:

  • Below average battery life
  • Not for low-light; average flash, poor AF in the dark, no ISO 800
  • Slow performance in almost all aspects, small buffer
  • No control over shutter speed, no live histogram either
  • Plastic compartment door and tripod mount
  • WiFi enabled Nikon P3 retails at around same price

Recommended Accessories

  • 1 GB Secure Digital card
  • Extra rechargeable EN-EL5 lithium-ion battery

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