Released not long after its sibling, the P5000, the Nikon Coolpix P5100 quickly claimed its role as the new leader of the Coolpix pack. The two cameras bear a close familial resemblance both on the surface and under the hood--most notably the solid, compact body, optical image stabilization, and manual exposure controls. But the P5100 delivers 12 megapixels (versus the P5000's 10), improved Face-Priority autofocus, lens distortion correction setting, a redesigned mode dial, continuous flash, and a slightly wider lens, along with a few other changes.
Weighing 8.1 ounces fully loaded and measuring 3.9 by 2.5 by 1.6 inches, the P5100 is compact enough to stow in a jacket pocket and carry around all day. At the same time, this little SLR lookalike is extremely well built and feels rugged enough to withstand rougher-than-usual handling. Ergonomics are good, and its rubberized grip provides a comfortable and solid handhold.
The small optical viewfinder is helpful when sunlight washes out the 230,000-pixel 2.5-inch LCD, which occurs more frequently than it should. Despite its small size--and only 80 percent coverage--the viewfinder is usable for most shots.
The P5100's 3.5x optical zoom is only a hair wider than the P5000's (35mm-to-123mm-equivalent versus 36mm-to-126mm) but it can't match any of Panasonic's 28mm wide-angle cameras nor the Canon A650 IS' 6x optical zoom. Wide angle and telephoto accessory lenses are available to make up the difference, but the 3.5x optical zoom should be sufficient for general picture-taking.
If you feel the need for extra flash power, you can pick up a Nikon Speedlight (SB-400, SB-600, or SB-800). Because the P5100 is so small, you're probably better off with the relatively petite SB-400 to prevent the camera from being top-heavy.
When it comes to features, the P5100 doesn't discriminate against any skill set: Whether you're an experienced shooter, in the learning phase, or a point-and-shooter, you'll find something to like about this camera. Amateur photographers will appreciate the full complement of manual exposure controls and tweaking options. Those in learning mode can get their photographic feet wet with flexible Program mode, which allows you to opt for a faster shutter speed or a wider aperture setting. And newcomers will feel comfortable with Auto mode, the P5100's 15 scene modes, and onboard context-sensitive help.
Other features of interest include the ability to cap the ISO range when using Auto ISO as well as a group of image-optimization settings. In addition to Normal, the latter includes Softer (for portraits), two Vivid options (Vivid and More Vivid), Portrait, and Custom (for adjusting contrast, sharpness, and saturation). There's also a black and white option in the same menu group.
The P5100 also offers Nikon's signature D-Lighting, which adjusts exposure post-capture so underexposed images can be brightened. D-Lighting generally works well but at the expense of adding some image noise.
Working with the P5100 can be a little confusing, especially for photographers who aren't used to using a command dial in conjunction with the four-way controller or the user-assignable function (Fn) button. The P5100's menu system is easy to understand once you know where to find the settings. For some inexplicable reason, Vibration Reduction (Nikon parlance for optical--and sometimes electronic--image stabilization) lives in the Setup menu along with the Format function.
To make things even more confusing, the P5100 offers three different options for avoiding blurry images. Vibration Reduction is optical image stabilization and the setting of choice when lights are low, since you should be able to handhold shots at about two, and possibly three stops slower. Anti-Shake mode, available via the mode dial, enables VR, boosts the ISO to 1,600, disables the flash, and activates BSS (Best Shot Selector) when Continuous shooting is selected. The third option is High Sensitivity mode, also available on the mode dial. Like Anti-Shake, this mode boosts the ISO to 1,600 depending on available light but does not enable VR. Frankly, I'd rather select Vibration Reduction, then manually select the ISO. The camera's maximum ISO 3,200 is available only at 5-megapixel or lower resolution. Like the P5000, however, you'll notice a color shift when changing light sensitivity settings.