Nikon P7800 review

The Nikon Coolpix P7800 is an enthusiast compact with a great control layout and 7.1x lens, but it's not the right camera for everyone.
Photo of Nikon P7800

The Nikon Coolpix P7800 ($549.95) is the latest iteration of the company’s top-end compact camera. The compact retains the 12-megapixel image sensor and 28-200mm f/2-4 zoom lens of its predecessor, the P7700, but it adds a built-in EVF. It’s still missing some features that you’ll find in competing cameras, like the built-in Wi-Fi that Editors’ Choice winners like the Olympus Stylus 1 and Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX100 IIfeature, but its control layout will appeal to D-SLR shooters looking in search of a second, smaller camera. The P7800 has its strengths, including slow motion video recording and a vari-angle display, but it faces stiff competition within its class.

Design and Features
The P7800 is bigger all around than your average compact, but its 3.1-by-4.7-by-2-inch (HWD) frame is not out of line for cameras in this class. It’s on the heavy side at 14.1 ounces, though feels quite solid in the hand. It’s not too far off in size or shape from the Canon PowerShot G16 (3 by 4.3 by 1.6 inches, 12.6 ounces), a similar model from Nikon’s biggest competitor that boasts a zoom lens that isn’t quite as long, but has a slightly wider aperture.

For a long time the Nikon P series packed the longest zoom range in a compact with a 1/1.7-inch image sensor. The P7800 uses the same 28-200mm f/2-4 (35mm equivalent) as the P7700, but the Olympus Stylus 1 has swooped onto the market in the meantime. Its 28-300mm f/2.8 lens doesn’t capture as much light at its widest angle, but it does manage to maintain a constant aperture through its longer zoom range. It’s little bit bigger than the already large P7800 all around, to the point where we classified it as a bridge camera when we reviewed it.

The P7800 is unmatched in its class in terms of physical control. There are buttons and control dials packed into its frame; it’s certainly possible to get good images out of the camera with everything set to automatic, but expert photographers can take control of the P7800′s settings with ease. The Fn1 button, on the front near the handgrip, works in conjunction with the front or rear control dial and the shutter button to perform three programmable functions. The functions that work in conjunction with the dials can be assigned to adjust functions that have multiple settings, including the drive mode, metering pattern, flash power, and ISO. The tasks you can assign to the shutter button combination are a bit more limited; you can set it to take a Raw image if the camera is set to JPG or vice versa, or override custom settings to shoot a single image with automatic ISO, white balance, or the standard Picture Control setting for JPG output.

On the top plate you’ll find a mode dial, an exposure compensation dial (three stops in either direction at third-stop increments), the standard zoom rocker and shutter release, and the Fn2 button. Its programmable functionality largely controls the amount of information shown on the rear display or EVF; it can be set to toggle framing gridlines, a digital level, or a live histogram. It’s got one other function available, which is to enable or disable the built-in neutral density filter. The ND filter cuts out three stops of light, and is useful if you want to shoot at a wide aperture on a bright day, or if you’re interested in capturing a long exposure image.

Rear controls include an AE-L/AF-L button, a flat control wheel with directional presses that adjust the flash, self-timer, focus point, and toggle macro focusing, and the standard menu and image playback controls. Above the LCD you’ll find a button that toggles between the EVF and rear display (there’s also an eye sensor if you prefer to switch automatically), and a button to take you to the Quality/ISO/White Balance menu.

Rather than use the more common overlay menus to adjust these settings, the P7800 opts for a dedicated submenu. It’s got tabs for Quality (letting you select the JPG compression level and toggle Raw capture), ISO , and White Balance. This is also where you can configure automatic exposure bracketing, and set the drive mode, metering pattern, focus area, focus mode, and JPG color output. It’s not as quick to navigate as an overlay menu, and you obviously don’t see the Live View feed when you’re in this menu, but it is organized with a bit more structure. Most of these functions are available from the main menu; you’ll need to go in there to customize control buttons, set the time and date, toggle distortion control, and adjust other settings that you’ll likely not have to access that often.

The rear display is 3 inches in size and packs a 921k-dot resolution. It’s very sharp, and its vari-angle swings out from the body and turns so the screen can be viewed from below, above, or set to face forward; it can also be flipped so that its rear cover faces outward, which is useful when you want to exclusively use the EVF or protect the LCD during transport. There’s no support for touch input like there is on the Olympus Stylus 1, so you’ll be left without the ability to tap on an area of the frame to focus. Like the Stylus 1, the P7800 includes a built-in EVF, but its quality is disappointing. It lacks contrast and sharpness. It was adequate for framing images, but you’ll want to rely on the rear LCD to confirm you’ve nailed the proper focus and exposure when reviewing what you’ve shot. If you prefer a camera with an optical viewfinder, consider the Fujifilm X20—it’s got the best one you’ll find in a compact.

There’s no Wi-Fi or GPS built in to the P7800, but either can be added. There’s an accessory port on the left side of the camera that supports the GP-1A GPS Unit ($312), and the WU-1a Wireless Mobile Adapterslides into the proprietary USB port that’s on the right side. We reviewed the WU-1a and were a bit underwhelmed; if you’re interested in sending images from the P7800 directly to your smartphone, consider using an Eye-Fi Mobicard instead—it’s easy to configure and won’t jut out of the camera when in use.

Performance and Conclusions
The P7800′s 1.8-second start-up time isn’t out of line with similar cameras, although it is just a beat slower to focus than the best we’ve seen, requiring about 0.15-second to do so in ample light and 1.9 seconds in dim light. It can also lag a bit when trying to focus close in macro mode. Burst shooting at 8.3fps is possible with the drive mode set to Continuous High, but you’re limited to 8 shots at that speed. Depending on the file format you’re shooting, the time to write all of those images to a SanDisk 95MBps memory card varies—14.4 seconds for Raw+JPG, 12.4 seconds for Raw, and 5.4 seconds for JPG. There’s also a delay between how quickly you can take shots in succession in Single mode; it’s less than what we experienced with the P7700, and thankfully the P7800 doesn’t completely lock up between shots like its predecessor did. The P7800 manages to start a bit faster than the original version of the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX100, which required 2.2 seconds to do so. The RX100 is quicker to focus, doing so almost instantly, but its 10fps burst rate is limited as well—it captures 10 photos and stops.

I used Imatest to check the optical performance of the P7800′s 28-200mm lens. Aside from some distortion (which can be removed automatically when shooting JPGs), I had few complaints. At 28mm f/2 it scores 1,983 lines per picture height on our center-weighted sharpness test. That’s better than the 1,800 lines we require to call a photo sharp, but there is some softness at the outer edges and corners of the frame. At f/2 they resolve a mere 927 lines; stopping down improves them steadily. They peak at 1,305 lines at f/5.6, but the center loses some resolution there due to diffraction, bringing the average score down to 1,832 lines. Even with some loss of resolution, shooting at f/5.6 when required doesn’t detract too much from images, but if you narrow to the minimum f/8 aperture there is noticeable loss of quality at every tested focal length.

At 65mm the maximum aperture narrows to f/3.2, but the lens is quite sharp (2,253 lines) on average with edges that approach 2,000 lines. Performance is better at f/4 (2,294 lines), but does drop off a bit at f/5.6 (2,014 lines) and at f/8 (1,628 lines). At 100mm f/3.5 we see 2,250 lines on the test, with just a modest bump to 2,298 lines at f/4. Again, there’s some loss of sharpness at f/5.6 (1,933 lines) and f/8 (1,568 lines). At the maximum 200mm focal length the lens resolves 2,001 lines at f/4, but suffers at f/5.6 (1,672 lines) and f/8 (1,298 lines). The Canon G16 didn’t score quite as well on our sharpness test, but its lens does have a wider f/1.8-2.8 aperture; its edges are better at 28mm, but lag behind the P7800 when zoomed, and it suffers from similar loss of resolution due to diffraction at f/5.6 and f/8.

There’s about 2.7 percent barrel distortion at the 28mm setting. That’s extreme enough that straight lines noticeably curve outward. In-camera distortion correction can compensate for it when shooting JPGs, and it’s relatively easy to remove from Raw images if you use a workflow application like Lightroom that offers distortion correction. Distortion is not as extreme at other focal lengths, but is of the pincushion variety—which causes lines to curve in rather than out. At 65mm there’s 1.4 percent, at 100mm there’s 1 percent, and at 200mm there’s 1.2 percent.

Imatest also checks photos for noise, which appears as grain and detracts from detail at higher ISO settings. When shooting JPG the P7800 keep noise below 1.5 percent through ISO 400, increasing to 1.8 percent at ISO 800. This is a little high, but not unreasonable, for a 12-megapixel 1/1.7-inch image sensor. I took a close look at photos from our ISO test sequence on a calibrated NEC MultiSync PA271W display. Detail is good at ISO 800, but there is some smudging of fine lines at ISO 1600. At ISO 3200 images are muddy; it and the Hi1 (ISO 6400) setting should be avoided when shooting JPG. If you opt to work in Raw you have a bit more leeway; Raw photos are detailed, albeit quite grainy, at ISO 3200, and show less noise and excellent detail at ISO 1600 and below. The P7800′s sensor size lags behind the pocket camera with the best noise control, the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX100 II. It uses a 1-inch 20-megapixel sensor, and controls JPG noise through ISO 12800, but uses some aggressive noise reduction to do so—we recommend keeping the Sony at ISO 3200 or below if possible. In practical terms that’s a 2-stop advantage over the P7800, and remember that images from the Sony pack nearly twice the pixels, which gives it a distinct advantage when cropping or printing.

Video is recorded in QuickTime format up to 1080p30, 720p60, or 480p120 quality—the latter two formats can be used for slow motion video. Footage is crisp and clear, though there is some evidence of the rolling shutter effect at 30fps during quick pans. When set to AF-F (Full-Time Focus) the P7800 isn’t overly speedy with refocusing, but changes are pleasantly smooth and steady. The sound of the lens moving in and out is audible on the audio track, but an external mic input is available for serious videographers. The slow motion features set the P7800 apart from the crowd, but if you’re interested in shooting at standard speed and really want the best quality, consider spending a lot more money and reaching for the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX10.

In addition to the mic input (on the left side of the camera) there’s a port for the GPS (also on the left), and a mini HDMI output and USB port on the right. The hot shoe is compatible with Nikon strobes, and the P7800 can act as a commander for off-camera flashes. It supports the standard SD, SDHC, and SDXC memory card formats, and includes an external battery charger; the EN-EL14 battery pack is used by some other Nikon cameras, including the D3300 and Df, which makes the P7800 appealing for Nikon SLR owners who wish to share batteries and flashes among a few different cameras.

The Nikon Coolpix P7800 is a good camera for enthusiasts who prefer to be able to exert manual, physical control over shooting settings. Its lens is quite sharp and its video features are better than some other large-sensor compacts, though we were surprised to see that its JPG output suffered from both noise and loss of detail when pushed beyond ISO 800. But you can push the camera further if you shoot in Raw. Even so, the P7800 can’t go toe-to-toe with our Editors’ Choice enthusiast compact, the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX100 II when it comes to high ISO shooting, but opting for the RX100 II will cost you an extra $200 for the camera, and the Sony accessory EVF costs an additional $450, close to the price of the P7800 by itself.

The EVF is a sticking point—I’m glad Nikon included one, but I wish it was of better quality. The Olympus Stylus 1 has an EVF that’s worlds better than the one in the P7800, and that camera has a few other things going for it including a longer zoom lens and Wi-Fi. If you don’t mind a larger body it’s a solid alternative, albeit at a higher price. The Canon G16 and Fujifilm X20 are most similar in shape to the P7800; both feature optical viewfinders and shorter, but wider aperture, lenses. The enthusiast compact market is crowded, and different takes on this class of camera will appeal to different photographers. The P7800 is by no means a perfect compact, but even with its weakness and quirks it’s the right choice for some shutterbugs, especially those who have felt at home with models dating back to the original P7000.

Specifications
Dimensions 3.1 x 4.7 x 2 inches
Interface Ports Proprietary, mini HDMI, Mic
Sensor Type CMOS
Megapixels 12 MP
Battery Type Supported Lithium Ion
Recycle time 0.12 seconds
LCD dots 921000
LCD size 3 inches
Touch Screen No
Media Format Secure Digital, Secure Digital High Capacity, Secure Digital Extended Capacity
Maximum ISO 6400
Type Compact
GPS No
Optical Zoom 7.1 x
Boot time 1.8 seconds
35-mm Equivalent (Wide) 28 mm
Weight 14.1 oz
Waterproof Depth (Mfr. Rated) 0 feet
Video Resolution 720p, 1080p, 480p
Lines Per Picture Height 1983
LCD Aspect Ratio 4
Image Stabilization Optical
35-mm Equivalent (Telephoto) 200 mm
Shutter Lag 0.15 seconds
Sensor Size 1/1.7" (7.6 x 5.7mm) mm
Viewfinder Type EVF

Verdict
The Nikon Coolpix P7800 is an enthusiast compact with a great control layout and 7.1x lens, but it's not the right camera for everyone.
Published under license from Ziff Davis, Inc., New York, All rights reserved.
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