Most photographers know that a digital SLR offers the best possible image quality, but most are heavy and can draw unwanted attention when you're shooting candid street shots or if you're in a place where photography isn't really appreciated.
It's for these situations that a number of camera manufacturers are trying to tempt owners of SLRs to buy a second camera - a deluxe professional compact. The tiny Nikon CoolPix P5100 is just such a camera with full-featured controls, magnesium-alloy body, a 3.5x zoom, VR image stabilisation and a whopping 12.1MP image sensor.
Well, those are the headline specs, but how does the P5100 stack up when you're trying to use it as a replacement SLR?
First, the weight at a mere 200g without its battery is superbly light. The P5100 is the kind of camera you can grab just as you're going out the door and stuff in a jacket or camera bag pocket.
On the top-plate is a mode dial that offers PASM exposure modes and some scene presets. A simple thumbwheel operates changes for things like aperture or shutter settings. For everything else there's the usual navipad cluster with quick access to drive mode, EV compensation, flash mode and focus mode. There's also a Function button that can be programmed as a shortcut to any setting of your choice such as, say, white balance. Just as well since the menu system of the P5100 is hardly a model of clarity or logic.
A little wishy washy
At the rear of the camera is a slightly wishy-washy 2.5-inch LCD, which is easily overpowered in bright sunlight - thankfully there's a conventional optical viewfinder for such situations. Other points worthy of note include a Nikon Speedlite-compatible hotshoe, although the size of the P5100 means that using any of the Nikon dedicated flashguns would make the whole structure top heavy and faintly ridiculous.
Image quality isn't bad overall, although once you stray above ISO 200, noise starts to make itself felt. Odd then that this camera boasts a maximum ISO level of 3200. It may sound good on paper but don't even think about using it if you want to capture a printable shot. Images shot at lower ISO levels appear sharp and relatively smooth but also tend to appear a bit flat and lacking in punch. This is probably what a lot of people want from a replacement SLR, but then Nikon spoilt the whole thing by leaving out a RAW mode. Even Canon bowed to pressure and reintroduced RAW on the Powershot G9, so why Nikon thinks it can buck the trend towards RAW is certainly curious.
Unfortunately our criticisms don't stop with the omission of a RAW mode. The CoolPix P5100 also suffers from an unresponsive shutter and has a stuttering maximum shooting speed of just one frame per second. That sort of speed on a premium compact camera isn't good enough. No one expects machine-gun speed but one frame per second is dismal.
Our last gripe is the slow response of the Replay mode and the length of time it takes for a low-res image on the LCD to sharpen up. It's cock-eyed and amateurish and will find no fans among SLR users.
Now to the good points: the VR image-stabilisation system works very well and the built-in flash is good and shows no tendency to bleach out faces. We also like the ability to apply Nikon's shadow enhancement D-Lighting technology after you've taken a shot. The same goes for the distortion control that can remove some of the barrel distortion, which is visible with the lens at wider angles.
However, these points simply aren't enough to make the P5100 a serious contender for the crown of the world's must-have pro compact. That honour must stay with Canon's Powershot G9 - until Nikon can come up with something better.