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Nikon Coolpix 5200 review: Nikon Coolpix 5200

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The Good Excellent red-eye prevention; versatile burst mode; simple operation; solid macro capabilities.

The Bad Tiny optical viewfinder; slow autofocus in dim light.

The Bottom Line The Nikon Coolpix 5200 is an easy-to-use ultracompact for newbies who want to print big, but image-quality-conscious buyers should stay away.

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6.0 Overall
  • Design 7
  • Features 6
  • Performance 5
  • Image quality 5

Nikon Coolpix 5200

Although targeted at the same snapshooting cadre as its Coolpix 3200 and Coolpix 4200 siblings, the Nikon Coolpix 5200 is a horse of a different color. It's just as pocketable and as highly automated as its stablemates, but the Coolpix 5200 sports a 5-megapixel sensor and a slightly smaller metal--not plastic--body with a better layout. Additionally, it costs $150 to $250 more. It will please first-time digital camera owners who want to make large prints without much editing, but if you're an image-quality snob, look elsewhere. The Nikon Coolpix 5200's compact, 6.4-ounce, silver-tone metal body fits easily in your grip for one- or two-handed shooting, with the shutter release and the zoom buttons falling comfortably under your index finger and thumb. Its uncluttered exterior features only four additional buttons, one dial, and a four-way control pad with an embedded Enter/OK key to activate any feature or setting.

Other than the shutter release, only a recessed power-on button with an LED indicator light and a knurled mode dial occupy the top surface.

The mode dial lets you select from programmed scene modes, movie capture, and setup options. On the clean back panel, under the 1.5-inch LCD, you'll find a mere three buttons--delete, menu, and review--and a control pad, with which you navigate the menus. Holes in the front and back panels for a built-in microphone and speaker complete the exterior decor.

The arrow buttons also activate flash options, macro mode, EV adjustments, and the self-timer.

You operate the zoom via two buttons rather than the typical rocker switch.

Nikon tucks away other settings, such as quality and compression levels and metering/focus modes, in a group of multipage setup, playback, and shooting menus. Under the playback menu, you'll find options for deleting photos, watching slide shows, resizing pictures, selecting photos for printing, and copying images between the 12MB internal memory and an optional SD card. The Shooting menu lets you specify resolution and compression levels and adjust parameters such as white balance and saturation. You can choose from 15 different scene modes in the scene menu. You'll also find five screens of customization settings in the setup menu. The options are so well organized that even a neophyte should be able to get around easily. The Nikon Coolpix 5200's feature set includes all the basics you expect from a point-and-shoot camera, plus a few of the kind of extras that must have made the Batmobile so much fun to drive. For example, burst mode includes an optional five-shot buffer option that allows you to crank out shots at a furious rate but retain only the last five photos. If you're not sure exactly when the decisive moment in an action sequence will occur, you can press the shutter release just prior, and the 5200 will snap shots for as long as you hold down the button. Let go right after the activity peaks, and the camera saves the last five images to its built-in 12MB of flash memory. This is a great feature for action shooters with uncertain timing. Nikon goes beyond the routine red-eye fix, too. It uses a typical preflash as a prelude to in-camera processing that performs search-and-destroy algorithms on red-eye--and the occasional random small red dots in your photo. And Nikon's Best Shot Selector collects a series of up to 10 nonflash shots at 2fps and saves only the sharpest one, which it determines based on an internal antijitter algorithm.

Among the 15 different scene modes, Portrait, Landscape, Sports, and Night feature what Nikon calls Scene Assist, which overlays outlines on the LCD to help you compose pictures. For example, in Portrait mode, the camera shows outlines of people, which help to better compose close-up portraits or align two shots so that you can include yourself in the photo. In Landscape mode, Nikon helps you frame mountains, the horizon, and the foreground. The Architecture view applies a grid to orient the vertical and horizontal lines. Other scene modes include Beach/Snow, Sunset, Museum, Fireworks, Close-up, Copy, Panorama, Dusk/Dawn, and Night Landscape.

Although you can't set the shutter speed or aperture manually, you can customize ISO sensitivity (ISO 64 to 400), white balance, and metering mode (256-segment matrix, center-weighted, or spot), and you can use autobracketing for both exposure and white balance to capture three shots at the current level in addition to over/under settings. More-experienced users can tweak noise reduction, sharpening, saturation, and contrast.

Nikon also gives the more ambitious snapshooter some flexibility with autofocus. The camera can automatically select a focus point from one of five points clustered around the center of the viewfinder, choosing the subject closest to the camera. Alternately, you can lock it at any of 99 points in the viewfinder. The 5200 also supplies continuous autofocus (best for moving subjects) and traditional autofocus, which locks when you depress the shutter halfway.

If you pay close to list price for this camera, you'll probably wish you had more than a 3X zoom lens. The Nikon's optics range from a barely wide 38mm to a barely telephoto 114mm (35mm equivalent) and provide only two fixed f-stops: f/2.8 to f/4.8 at the wide position and f/4.9 to f/8.2 at the telephoto end. Shutter speeds range from 4 seconds to 1/2,000 second. A fairly powerful--for a compact digital, anyway--electronic flash reaches from about 1 to 15 feet (wide angle) to 1 to 11.5 feet (telephoto).

As is increasingly becoming standard for the latest generation of digital cameras, the Nikon 5200 can capture 640x480-pixel movies at 30fps for as long as your memory card's capacity allows. Lower resolutions and longer recording times are also available. At 160x120 pixels, the camera can capture more than 50 minutes of video and sound at 30fps on a 512MB SD card. In general, the Coolpix 5200's performance proved to be good but not great. Wake-up time to first shot was about average, at 4.6 seconds, and once you've roused the camera from its slumber, you can snap off shots every 1.75 seconds (3.1 seconds with flash). Under high-contrast lighting, shutter lag was an acceptable 0.65 second, but delays expanded to 1.7 seconds under dimmer conditions, where the light-assisted autofocus system had a little trouble.

Battery life proved to be better than Nikon's specs promise. We snapped off 483 shots on a single charge of the 1,100mAh battery in a session that included 50 percent flash photos and a fair amount of zooming, photo review, and other power-taxing activities, such as card reformatting.

The Nikon 5200's burst mode should please any action photographer. The camera filled a 2.2-second interval with six full-resolution pictures and shot continuously at 2fps and 640x480 resolution until the memory card filled up. (For the record, we snapped 600 low-res photos in a little more than five minutes.) The five-shot buffer mode also comes in handy when you want a five-shot sequence but think you might have a hard time guessing exactly when the peak action will take place.

Autofocus operates down to 1.6 inches, but the tiny optical viewfinder shows only 75 percent of a non-parallax-corrected image, without diopter correction. If you wear glasses, you'll definitely want to use the LCD for close-ups; it displays 100 percent of the scene. If you plan to go from camera to printer without retouching your photos, you probably won't be disappointed in the Nikon Coolpix 5200's image quality--as long as you deliberately overexpose a bit. The camera's default exposures tend to be a bit dark, with very low contrast. The default works well for flash photos, however, allowing for an even illumination of the scene without blowing out side-lit areas. Overall, the camera also delivers very good automatic and preset white balance, though in our tests under strong tungsten lights, the 5200 couldn't shake the deep yellow color cast. We liked the flesh tones and especially appreciated the camera's complete domination over garish pupils, courtesy of the 5200's anti-red-eye system.

You can capture a lot of detail with the 5200 in all but reds (see images farther down).

Photos looked impressively sharp for a small camera; the lens maintained sharpness across the entire field of view, and there was little evidence of significant in-camera sharpening. Shots displayed a bit of chromatic aberration on the sides but not enough to merit concern.

The Nikon 5200 tends to lose details in red areas. We suspect this stems from a total absence of image data in the green channel of red objects, shown on the right. (These samples have been adjusted to make them easier to see.)

Unfortunately, the images are quite noisy, even at the camera's lowest light-sensitivity setting of ISO 64. The dark exposures hide the noise, which becomes quite visible when you correct the dynamic range of the photos. Worse, saturated red areas lose a considerable amount of detail, which appears to be caused by a total absence of data in the green channel.

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