There are two Auto modes on this camera. One is Nikon's Scene Auto Selector, located under the Scene modes. It adjusts settings appropriately based on six common scene types. If the scene doesn't match any of those, it defaults to a general-use Auto. Then there is a regular Auto mode, which locks all settings except resolution for an easy point-and-shoot experience.
There are 16 other scene modes like Landscape and Portrait as well as a Pet Portrait mode, five film effects like high-contrast monochrome and sepia, and two panorama modes: Easy and Panorama Assist. The latter uses a ghost image on the screen to help you line up your successive photos. The former just requires you to press the shutter and pan the camera horizontally or vertically to create a panorama in camera. These modes generally don't handle movement well, so they're best used on scenery without movement.
Like most cameras with BSI CMOS sensors, the P300 has multishot modes for improving low-light photos of landscapes and portraits. At a single press of the shutter release, the camera takes several photos and then combines them to reduce blur from hand shake and reduce noise and correct exposure. However, because of the nature of how these images are produced, these modes cannot be used with moving subjects. There is a Backlight HDR (high dynamic range) mode, too, that combines photos taken at different exposures to help bring out highlight and shadow detail or for artistic effect.
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 and the results are some of the best you'll get from this camera as long as you have plenty of light. If you like to do a lot of macro photography, the P300 can be a lot of fun.
The P300's shooting performance is a bit mixed. From off to first shot takes just 1 second. Shutter lag--how quickly a camera captures an image after the shutter-release button is pressed--is 0.5 second in bright lighting and 0.7 second in low lighting. While that doesn't sound like much, it's noticeable if you're trying to do street photography or shooting active kids or pets. Shot-to-shot times averaged 1.6 seconds without flash and 1.7 seconds with flash; the latter is great, the former is merely good, but typical of a point-and-shoot. The camera does have a full-resolution continuous shooting option, which captures up to seven shots at 8 frames per second; it averaged 6.6fps in our lab tests. The P300 also has 60fps and 120fps bursts; both capture up to 60 1-megapixel frames at a press of the shutter release. There's a substantial wait while the camera stores all those photos, but if you're trying to capture a specific moment in time, this is your best bet with this camera. Also, with all of these burst options, the focus, exposure, and white balance are set with the first photo. If you have a fast-moving subject, like someone running, there's a good chance only the first photo will be in focus.
Possibly part of the reason the P300 gets labeled an enthusiast compact is its design and that it's a P-series model, which are Nikon's advanced Coolpix cameras. It is a very buttoned-down-looking camera, boxy and black with nothing more than a small grip on front and the Nikon name in silver. Its metal body gives it a sturdy feel as does its weight; it's a bit heavier than a typical point-and-shoot of its size. That's likely due to the large lens and the bright and high-contrast, ultrahigh-resolution 3-inch LCD.
The P300's menus and controls are no different from those of a majority of Nikon's other Coolpix cameras--uncomplicated and easy to pick up quickly. There are no direct controls for things like ISO and white balance; even a single customizable button would be a welcome addition. Shutter speeds are controlled with a horizontal thumb dial on top, and apertures are changed with the "Rotary Multi Selector" on back, which can be used for menu and playback navigation and has an underlying control pad for controlling flash, exposure compensation (as well as hue and vividness), macro, and self-timer.
The P300 is powered by a lithium ion rechargeable pack that is rated for 240 shots. This was supported in our testing, but keep in mind that using the zoom a lot, keeping the LCD on its brightest setting, or using the movie and burst-shooting modes will drain the battery faster. The battery is charged in the camera by connecting via USB to a computer or the included wall adapter. The battery and card compartment are on the bottom behind a locking door. Next to it is a Mini-USB/AV port. A covered Mini-HDMI port is on the right side of the camera for connecting to an HDTV or monitor; you'll need to buy a cable, though.
Nikon fans looking for an advanced enthusiast compact to compete directly with Canon's PowerShot S95 might feel a little let down by the Coolpix P300. It actually has more in common with Canon's PowerShot Elph 500 HS. That Canon has a slight edge in photo quality, but the P300 beats that camera in every other way. If you're after a point-and-shoot with some creative control and a fast lens, definitely check out the P300.
Find out more about how we test digital cameras.