Check out an examination of the photo capabilities of the Nikon Coolpix P300, a high-end compact featuring a bright f1.8 ultrawide-angle lens and manual controls.
These are 100 percent crops from our test scene. When viewed at full size, you can see that even at its lowest ISOs, subjects look a little overprocessed. Though its sensitivity settings run from ISO 160 to ISO 3200, the P300 produces the best results below ISO 400. There are Fixed Range Auto options that will limit you to ISO 160-400 or ISO 160-800, which is nice since, again, this is where the it performs best. Details get pretty soft and smeary above ISO 400, though, so you probably won't want to make large prints or do a lot of heavy cropping. The two highest ISOs--1600 and 3200--should be used sparingly, mainly because there's noticeable color shifting and the noise reduction makes subjects appear smeary. This is really no different than most compact cameras, but if you're expecting more than that you'll likely be disappointed. Otherwise, the P300 turns out very good photos.
One of the big pluses for the P300 is the bright f1.8 aperture available at the wide end. For regular photos, it won't entirely blur out backgrounds, just soften them some. However, it does allow you to use a faster shutter speed and lower ISOs when you have less light.
If you're after a shallow depth of field, you only really get it when shooting close-ups. The P300 can focus as close as 1.2 inches from a subject. This is a 100 percent crop from the inset photo. If you look at it at full size, you'll see some smeary details and artifacts, so you probably won't want to make a large print of a heavily cropped photo. At smaller sizes, the results look very good.
Another perk to the P300 is control over shutter speed and aperture with full manual, aperture-priority, and shutter-speed-priority shooting modes. Apertures go from f1.8 to f8.0 at the wide end and f4.9 to f7.8 at the telephoto end. Shutter speeds go from 1/2,000 second to 8 seconds, though at f1.8 it stops at 1/1,600.
Considering how wide the lens is, Nikon does a solid job of controlling barrel distortion; there's a little on the left side. There's no real signs of pincushioning when the lens is extended (bottom). Center sharpness was very good on my test camera and other than some minor softness in the corners, it was consistent edge to edge.
Colors produced by the P300 are good up to ISO 800--pleasing and vibrant. Exposure is consistently good, too, and if you need some help, Nikon's D-Lighting feature can be used in Playback mode. White balance is overall good; use the manual option when available, though. Also, like most compact cameras, highlights can blow out easily. Nikon's Backlight HDR (high dynamic range) mode can help even things out, though. Here's a larger view if you want to take a closer look.
Buried in the Scene modes is a set of Special Effects options. Here, on the left side, you have Soft, Nostalgic sepia, and High-contrast monochrome. On the right are High key and Low key, which let you brighten or darken tone. Here's a larger view if you want to take a closer look.
The P300 has some Filter Effects you can play with, too, but unlike with other point-and-shoots, they're only available in playback. That means you'll have to shoot first and then hope that your results will look right after you apply the effect. From top left: Cross screen (produces star-like rays from bright subjects), Miniature effect, Painting, and Fish eye. Here's a larger view if you want to take a closer look.