Nikon Coolpix P5000
With cutting-edge capabilities like face-priority autofocus, optical image stabilization, and full-resolution sensitivity settings as high as ISO 2000 to augment its manual and semimanual exposure options, the P5000 fits some mighty attractive features into its 8.1-ounce, 3.9x2.5x1.6 inches (WHD) frame. Though only the front of the chassis uses magnesium alloy in its design, the camera feels quite sturdy. Its smallish, rubberized grip and thumb rest make the P5000 quite comfortable for one-handed shooting.
The scored ring surrounding the f/2.7-to-f/5.3, 36mm-to-126mm-equivalent lens comes off so you can screw on optional wide-angle (24mm-to-84mm-equivalent) and telephoto (108mm-to-378mm-equivalent) conversion lenses via an adapter. A Nikon i-TTL-compatible hot shoe allows for external flashes as well.
A few of the P5000's shooting controls--flash, self-timer, exposure compensation, and macro/distance limit focus--use dedicated buttons for quick access. You can assign another--ISO sensitivity, image quality, image size, white balance, or vibration reduction (VR)--to the single-function Fn button. The others, plus some important additions such as metering and continuous-shooting, require the always-fun trip into the two-level menus. Furthermore, though I don't mind putting a few set-them-and-forget-them features in a separate Setup mode, I don't think VR, LCD brightness, or format card really fall into that category; that's the kind of stuff that belongs in the menu system. Nikon provides 15 program scene modes, plus panorama-assist, interval shooting, and a high-ISO program shift mode that automatically chooses from higher sensitivity settings than the standard program exposure. During photo playback you can apply D-Lighting exposure adjustment and add voice memos.
The P5000's shooting speed falls at the bottom of its small pack. The 2-second wake-up-to-first-shot time doesn't hurt, but the 0.9-second shutter lag under optimal conditions coupled with a 3-second shot-to-shot time makes it unsuitable for shooting animals and children, along with many other things that move. At least adding flash doesn't increase that time at all. In dim, low-contrast environments lag jumps to 2.2 seconds. And continuous shooting clocked an anemic 0.9 frames per second on CNET Labs' tests.
My field tests bore out those findings. You can autofocus as close as about 1.5 inches with the P5000, but I felt a perceptible pause while waiting for the camera to achieve a lock, regardless of the focus mode. It also seems to take the face-detection algorithms just a bit too long to operate. Once locked, it tracks small movements pretty well. But if the person's head is tilted or rotated slightly sideways, or the person moves to the edge of the frame, detection rarely works. That wait for the autofocus does let you catch up on your mirror time. Despite an antireflective coating and bumped up brightness, the P5000's otherwise sharp, bright, 2.5-inch LCD turns into a mirror on cloud-free days. The optical viewfinder is quite good for what it is, but as with all direct-view cameras you can't use it for macro photography.
Though the P5000 performed poorly on several levels, you can't blame much of it on the lens. VR works extremely well, and in practice bought me close to three stops beyond what reciprocal math dictates; at best, I obtained a sharp shot at 1/4 second that would typically require 1/30 second. Additionally, the lens maintains very good edge-to-edge sharpness and shows minimal chromatic aberration (fringing). Keep in mind, however, that it trades off zoom range; it's much easier to produce a better optical system if you keep the range of focal lengths limited, as Nikon does with its 3.5x zoom. The lens does show a surprising amount of barrel distortion at the wide end given its rather narrow 36mm-minimum focal length.