This article first appeared in HWM Feb 2012.
The Nikon P7100 is a beast of a camera, though unfortunately a category of animal at risk of extinction. The P7100 sits in the class of camera you upgraded to if you wanted a camera better than a compact, but smaller than a DSLR. Of course, that was before mirrorless system cameras came into the picture.
You can tell right away from its size; when compared to a digital compact, the P7100 is a behemoth, close to the smaller mirrorless cameras like the Olympus E-PL3, or the Panasonic GX1. But the sensor is smaller, a 1/1.7-inch CCD similar in size to its main competitor, the 2010 Canon PowerShot G12, and the compact camera-sized PowerShot S100. It still sits comfortably in the hands though, thanks to prominent grips on the front and back.
Because the P7100 is built for the enthusiast photographer, the camera has a rich offering of manual controls laid all over its body. Handling these controls is a mix of ease and frustration, and the whole experience is tinged with inconsistencies. For example, while there are many dedicated physical controls, there is no menu to dictate what you do or do not want to show up on the LCD. Thus you will always have the histogram showing, unless you set the Fn2 button to toggle it on/off. You also don’t have a way to preview your shot with the present settings, so you have no way to gauge how your final shot will look like in manual modes, except by reading the histogram or the exposure meter (in Manual mode).
While the idea of a Quick Menu dial to access controls like white balance and ISO sounds useful, the dial found on the top left behind the flash is small and stiff. It’s also slower to change settings when compared to a digital overlay menu you can find on most digital cameras today (but not on the P7100). The front and back command dials work perfectly, giving you quick control at your fingertips, but the Fn1 button is inexplicably set near the bottom of the front panel, making it hard to find but too easy to accidentally press.
The P7100’s image quality scores higher than its handling - much higher. Photographs are full of detail, scoring a high 1800LPH horizontal and vertical on our resolution test. Colors are punchy and the P7100 keeps image noise down to a minimum, whatever noise can be seen is fine-grained and doesn’t take away detail.
We’re very happy with shooting images up to ISO 800, where there’s a good balance between clarity and noise, and even up to ISO 1600. Beyond that the image gets noticeably smudgy. Radial distortion, both barrel and pincushion, can be observed at the wider and longer focal lengths, and if you don’t want to correct it with editing later on, the P7100 has a useful distortion control feature you can turn on in the menu.
Because of the P7100’s great image quality, we’re happy to recommend it despite its unpolished handling. But the question really isn’t if the P7100 is a good camera (it is), the question is if you should pay a little less and get the Canon S100, which produces the same great quality images in a smaller package, or pay a little more and get an entry-level mirrorless camera with better image quality in a body not much bigger. In the end, it really boils down to what’s comfortable for your pockets - both literally and metaphorically.