While not for everybody, superzoom cameras are great for people who love taking photos outdoors and at sporting events. They're also perfect for folks who either can't afford--or are too intimidated by--full-blown digital SLRs. Like a DSLR, the 18X Nikon Coolpix P80 ($399) has a powerful lens and manual features aplenty, but it's smaller and easier to use. Add in excellent image quality and burst shooting, and you've got yourself one versatile digicam.
Big Zoom, Small Body
The first thing you'll notice about the P80--after its huge lens housing--is that it's surprisingly lightweight. At 12.9 ounces, it's lighter than the 15.9-ounceCanon PowerShot S5 IS, which has only a 12X lens. The P80 looks like a DSLR, thanks to its chunky shape, rubbery hand grip, and viewfinder, but the lens is shallow given its 18X zoom factor (less than two inches long when turned off). On top you'll find a power button, mode dial, and shutter, with a toggle attached to control the zoom.
We were able to see the bright 2.7-inch LCD even in direct sunlight. Alongside are buttons for menus, playback, displaying onscreen settings, deleting content, and switching between the LCD and viewfinder. The four-way navigation pad doubles as flash, exposure, Macro, and self-timer controls. We had no problem using this control to navigate on-screen menus; exiting menus simply entails pressing, say, the playback or menu button a second time. Compared to the S5 IS, the backside of which is littered with buttons, the P80's layout is simple to master.
The P80's crowded mode dial includes notches for Auto, Programmed Auto, Shutter-priority Auto, Aperture-Priority Auto, Manual, Sports Continuous, Scene, Movie, and Setup. Particularly with three Auto modes, the selection is wide enough to please novices, advanced photogs, and everyone in between. However, the P80's selection of 11 scene modes is fairly small; the $349Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ18, another 18X zoom camera, has 18 scene modes, plus an intelligent scene detector to choose the correct mode automatically.
Excellent Image Quality
Using the zoom toggle produces jerky movement in the lens and makes subtle depth adjustment difficult. That said, this is one powerful zoom. The equivalent of a 27-486mm lens on a 35mm camera, we were able to use it to get full-frame shots of the tops of skyscrapers while standing on the street. Closer to the ground, we could make out the face of a man sitting at the other end of New York City's Bryant Park, which spans about two city blocks.
As a point-and-shoot, the P80 delivered beautiful images with vibrant, accurate colors. Our Macro shots showed plenty of detail, even in shadows, and we love how the Macro icon changes color onscreen to indicate that the lens is close enough to the subject. This camera performed well enough in harshly backlit situations, but we would have liked to see dedicated dynamic range technology, a feature offered by Fujifilm, Panasonic, and Sony, among others. Particularly with a lens this versatile, such a technology designed to bring out highlights and shadow detail would have been useful. Instead, the P80 has a D-Lighting feature, which allows you to enhance the highlights and shadows after you've taken a picture (you can see the before and after side-by-side before selecting OK).
We weren't as impressed with the P80's low-light performance. Taking pictures in a dimly lit room in Auto mode yielded blurry images--even when we sat down to steady the shot (similarly, the FZ18 delivered noisy shots past ISO 800). However, when we switched to Party mode, one of the 11 scene modes, our pictures became sharper but still had that warm, romantic lighting.
Freeze the Action
For the most part, the P80's optical image stabilization and vibration reduction does what it's supposed to: produce sharp shots, even when the subject or photographer's hands are moving. When it came to fast-moving scenes, though, Auto mode didn't cut it; we still noticed a good deal of motion blur. For situations like these, Nikon has Sports Continuous mode, which can take up to 13 frames per second (up to 30 frames) when you manually lower the resolution to 3 megapixels. You can still enjoy this feature at full-resolution; you just won't get as many shots per second.
We took 30 consecutive shots of a man scurrying across the street, trying to avoid oncoming traffic, and ended up with 30 freeze-frames from which to choose. As you shoot, the motion in front of your eyes appears slowed on the screen. Processing 30 shots at 10 MP took 15 seconds; that's not so impressive given that theCasio EX-F1can process 60 shots at 6 MP in the same amount of time--but then again, the EX-F1 costs more than twice as much. Annoyingly, when you view these photos in playback mode, you have to scroll through them one by one. We wish Nikon would do as Casio did with the EX-F1--organize consecutive shots in a single folder so that users can skip past them with one click, not thirty.
Video with (Limited) Zoom
Our VGA video showed fluid movement and accurate sound, but sounded weak in a noisy room, not as good as theKodak EasyShare Z1085 IS, whose HD recording delivers louder sound, even amid noisier environments. You can't use the optical zoom during filming; you have to set the zoom where you want it before you begin recording. However, you can use digital zoom (limited to 2X) while filming, which is still more than many other cameras allow you to do. Moreover, we were pleased with the leverage it gave us, even if it paled in comparison to the 18X range we got in our still shots. Nikon says users can't move the optical zoom in movie mode because this would make the camera hard to hold still while filming.
Speed and Battery Life
The P80 showed decent startup speeds--just 2 seconds to ready itself for its first shot. However, it took 4 seconds between consecutive shots (when not using Sports Continuous mode), which is on the slower end. After a day of shooting close to a hundred pictures, including a few burst batches, the battery was still going strong.
Inside the Nikon Coolpix P80's lightweight body are the ingredients for a versatile camera: a powerful 18X zoom lens, optical image stabilization, lots of manual features, and a highly effective Sports Continuous mode for burst shooting. Its low-light performance and limited zoom in Movie mode are drawbacks, but it's still among the best super-zooms we've tested. If you're past the beginner stage and tend to do a lot of shooting outside, the P80's $399 price tag is worth it.