Despite the rapid growth in popularity of compact system cameras over the past few years there still seems to be a ready market for traditional high-end advanced compacts. Most of the major manufacturers have at least one or two models of this type in their range. The yardstick for advanced compacts has always been the Canon G-series; the latest G15 is a formidable camera with a 12.1MP 1/1.7in sensor, although it’s expensive at £550, and it is accompanied in Canon’s ranks by the unique G1 X, with its almost APS-sized 14.3-megapixel sensor, currently selling for around £540.
There are plenty more: Sony has the widely acclaimed RX100, with a large 20.2-megapixel sensor and a price tag of £480. Fujifilm has launched a whole swathe of advanced compacts recently, including the FinePix X10 with a 12-megapixel 1/2.3in sensor at £320, and the similarly-specced but retro-styled FinePix XF1 at £370. Panasonic has its excellent Lumix LX7, with a 1/1.7in 10.1-megapixel sensor at around £380, Olympus has the XZ-2 with a 1/1.7in 12-megapixel sensor priced at £445, while Samsung is fielding the impressive-looking EX2F, with a 12.4-megapixel 1/1.7in sensor and f/1.4 lens, currently selling for around £380. I’m hoping to review the EX2F in a couple of weeks’ time.
Against this competition stands Nikon’s latest entry into this exclusive sector of the market, the new Coolpix P7700. Although Nikon is of course renowned for its superb digital SLRs and extensive range of standard compact and super-zoom cameras, such as the Coolpix P510 that I reviewed recently, it’s not so well known for its advanced compacts. The lineage of the P7700 goes back only as far as the rather disappointing Coolpix P6000, which was launched in 2008. Nonetheless Nikon has learned quickly over the three intervening models, and the P7700 offers a range of features that compares favourably with its main competitors, combined with a well-thought-out control interface that lets keen photographers explore the full range of the camera’s creative versatility.
Design and features
The specification list of the P7700 makes tempting reading. At its core is a 12-megapixel back-illuminated CMOS 1/1.7in sensor, connected to an EXPEED 2 processor, and looking at the world through a very fast f/2–f/4, 7.1x zoom lens equivalent to 28-200mm, with lens-shift image stabilisation. It has a big 3in (7.5cm) fully-articulated monitor, full HD video recording with stereo sound, and raw mode shooting. It also has a wide range of continuous shooting options, including full resolution at 8fps and 2-megapixel images at up to 120fps.
The only feature it lacks, and this is something that is bound to draw condemnation from the traditionalists on the photography forums, is an optical viewfinder. To be fair only a few of its competitors have a viewfinder, specifically the Canon G15 and the Fuji X10, but it is a highly-prized feature for a high-end camera, and with the P7700 being so packed with other features it’s conspicuous by its absence.
The overall design of the camera follows the rangefinder styling common to most advanced compacts. It’s not a camera designed for its aesthetic appeal, but does manage to convey a sense of technical competence that will appeal to keen photographers. The body is mainly metal but with a plastic rear panel, and as expected the build quality is excellent. It’s not a small camera; in fact it’s slightly larger and heavier than the Canon G15, but it feels reassuringly strong and durable, built to withstand years of use. The body shape incorporates a textured front handgrip and a rear thumb grip, providing secure and comfortable handling.
The body of the P7700 is festooned with controls, with ten buttons, three dials, two adjustment wheels and a rotary-bezel D-pad. This would undoubtedly be daunting for a novice user, but for the experienced photographer they provide a comprehensive, versatile and accessible control interface. Like a high-end DSLR it has two adjustment wheels for setting exposure and other parameters, one for the thumb and one just below the shutter button for the forefinger. The controls are well spread out on the camera body, and it never feels cluttered. This does mean that two hands are needed for most of them, but useful ones such as the AE lock button, the exposure compensation dial and both of the user-programmable function buttons are positioned to be within easy reach of the right hand when shooting.
While the P7700 unquestionably has many fine qualities, its overall performance is little better than average. It will start up and take a picture in a little over two seconds, which is pretty quick, and in good light and average conditions the autofocus system operates quickly and accurately. In JPEG Fine mode it has a shot-to-shot time of approximately 1.8 seconds, but in raw and raw plus JPEG mode this goes up to 5.2 seconds. As I mentioned above it has several continuous shooting modes, offering six frames at four or eight frames a second, or 30 frames and one per second. It also has two high-speed shooting modes, offering 60 or 120fps at 1280 x 960 pixel resolution.
The problems start once the light levels drop. Even with the built-in AF assist lamp low-light focusing is very slow, causing the JPEG shot-to-shot time to grow to 3.2 seconds. Focusing is slow but reliable even in total darkness, since the AF assist lamp is exceptionally good and has a range of at least five metres. The pop-up flash is also excellent, with an effective range of over five metres.
Battery duration is very good. The P7700 is powered by a chunky 1030mAh battery for which Nikon claims 330 shots on a full charge, and my results while testing the camera bear this out.
The camera’s video recording mode is also good. It can shoot in full 1080p HD with stereo sound recorded either via the twin internal microphones, or via an external stereo microphone connected via the jack plug. Full optical zoom, aperture and ISO setting can all be changed in video mode. Both video and audio quality are very good, although the built-in mics are rather prone to wind noise when shooting outdoors.
Where the P7700 really shines is its outstanding image quality. As you’ll see in the accompanying sample images the overall level of detail is superb. It may have a lower resolution than some other compact cameras, but the large sensor produces excellent sharpness and contrast, and near perfect colour reproduction. At 100 ISO the images are as smooth, sharp and detailed as any camera of its class, while at higher ISO settings the P7700 is arguably the best in its class, producing good quality pictures at up to 1600 ISO with very little noise. The 3200 and 6400 ISO settings do result in lower quality and more noise, but it is still better than average.
Dynamic range is particularly good. With the Active D-Lighting function switched on it has excellent shadow detail, comparable to an entry-level DSLR, but even with D-Lighting turned off it is still very good, with a wide tonal range and plenty of detail. Shooting in raw mode gives around two stops of extra exposure latitude.
The lens quality is also extremely good. It has a wide f/2 maximum aperture at wide angle, which drops to a still fast f/4 at full zoom. This will help gather that extra a bit of light, which will help you to bump up the shutter speed to counteract camera shake. It does produce some barrel distortion at wide angle, but the edge-to-edge sharpness is excellent even at maximum aperture. There is a small amount of purple fringing around very bright highlights toward the corners of the frame at the wide angle setting, but this is very mild and easily corrected in Photoshop.
The Nikon Coolpix P7700 is certainly one of the two or three best advanced compacts on the market. It’s also one of the more expensive, but you get what you pay for. For experienced photographers it offers a versatile creative tool with image quality that is as good as anything in its class, and is a genuine pleasure to use. If you can live without an optical viewfinder it’s one of the best of its class and well worth considering.
- Image quality
- Build quality
- No viewfinder
- Slow low-light AF
£465 Inc. VAT