On February 2, 2010, Nikon officially launched 7 new Coolpix cameras, with rumors about more news to come shortly.
As P&S is not the main focus of this site, it suffices to say that the new cameras have resolutions from 10,4 to 14,5 Mp., an optical zoom range from 3,6 to 26x, while all include movie mode. 4 Models offer HD 720p and one – the P100 – Full HD 1080p.
I will not go in-depth on these new models, with the exception of the P100, not only because it may be an interesting DSLR back-up, but also because it introduces us to a few exiting technologies, which – although not entirely new – appear for the first time in a Nikon camera. For more info on the other models, click here.
|Nikon Coolpix P100|
After the break: P100 basic characteristics
P100 basic characteristics.
• 10.3 Mp., 1/2.3" (± 25 mm²) backside illumination (or: illuminated) CMOS sensor.
• 4.6-120 mm. f/2.8-5.0, 26x Optical Wide-Angle Zoom-NIKKOR ED Lens (26-678 mm. eq.).
• Exposure times from 1/2000 to 8 seconds (A, S, M modes) and 1/8000 to 1 seconds (1.1 Mp. Sports Mode).
• 3.0-inch vari-angle high resolution 460,000-dot Clear Color Display.
• Full 1080p HD movie recording at 30 fps.
• HDMI output.
• 5-way VR Image Stabilization System
• Program, Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, Manual Exposure.
• 17 scene-modes
• Smart Portrait System
• Active D-Lighting
• Macro shooting (close focusing) down to 6 mm. (0.4”)
• Approximately 43 Mb. of internal memory
• No NEF/NRW (RAW) format – an obvious flaw, IMHO.
The P100 maintains the pseudo SLR form factor and the 3” vari-angle monitor from its predecessor, the P90, raising it’s resolution from 230 to 460K dots.
The optical zoom range also goes up: from 24 to 26x, for an astounding 135 format equivalent of 26 to 678 mm.
Even if taking into account the serious quality limitations of the tiny, pinkie-nail sized sensor, optics and the lack of RAW, getting one’s hands on a USD 400 (MSRP) “stabilized”, 680 mm. equivalent zoom-lens may sound pretty attractive to some DSLR users.
After all, Nikon does not offer one single affordable lens in this focal range; even the optically modest 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6D streets for well over USD 1.500.
Nikon finally moves its sensor.
The P90 was the first Nikon to incorporate sensor-shift optical stabilization technology, long after other manufacturers, like Canon, Panasonic, Sony, and even Samsung, had introduced it in their P&S cameras, while some also successfully up-scaled it to DSLR.
The P90 bragged about additional OS technologies – VR in Nikon speak – like best shot selection, high ISO and Motion Detection or “electronic” VR, but that was really nothing more than automatically boosting ISO in low-light situations, with all the degradation typical of high ISO images.
The P100 now adds so-called “Hybrid VR” to this list, which – simply put – takes a two-step approach to motion blur correction, the first being sensor-shift.
If sensor-shift is insufficient to correct the problem, the camera automatically takes two shots, one at a high and one at the nominal shutter speed.
It then compares the two captures, determines how much each pixel has moved, extracts the images’ respective noise, chroma, blurring information and then writes a “stabilized” image to file.
With some serious hands-on reviews yet absent, I am not sure of how effective this is, but it looks like it could – at least theoretically – be an improvement over the P90’s method of shake reduction.
Nikon claims Hybrid VR works best on images with large amounts of motion blur.
The B-I-G news: a BSI CMOS sensor. Less is More?
Even though Nikon just mention the “New back side illumination CMOS sensor” in Key Features, and do not offer any explanation, the P100 is the first Nikon P&S to feature a CMOS sensor and, moreover, the first Nikon ever to include a BSI (back side illuminated) chip, which might mark a point of no return for the CCD, even in Nikon’s compact camera line.
Some experts claim the CCD may “be running out of steam”, because it requires a dedicated, relatively expensive manufacturing process, where CMOS can now be produced in “fabs” that turn out all kinds of standard semi-conductor chips.
Also, the physical limitations of the front-lit design are, apparently, an impediment to reduce pixel sizes below the 1,4 micron limit, which is an obstacle for future growth (and dropping prices), while the demand for smaller imaging chips with higher pixel counts, as used in cell phones, for example, has seen a sharp rise lately.
The concept of BSI has been around for almost 20 years, but only very recently the technology reached the point of (mass) consumer market production.
Sony launched 3 BSI camcorders (2.65 Mp. three-chip and 6.6 Mp. single-chip) at the beginning of last year, its Cyber-shot TX1, WX1 in August, and the DSC-HX5V and DSC-TX7 last January, all still cameras featuring the 10 Mp. Exmor-R 1,75 micron BSI chip.
Taking a non-expert look at the Exmor-R specs, it appears that the same chip or a very similar one (with Nikon’s Expeed engine), has now found its way into the P100.
Compared to the P90, the P100 “features” a lower pixel-count (10,4 vs. 12,5 Mp.) and lower maximum ISO (3.200 vs. 6.400) but in return offers standard 3.200 ISO – against the P90’s 1.600 (3.200, 6.400 only @ 3 Mp.) – plus full HD 1080p video @ 30 fps., 10 fps. continuous shooting at 10,4 Mp. and a mind-boggling 120 fps. maximum shooting speed in 1,1 Mp. “Sports-Mode”.
Yes, you read that right: one hundred and twenty frames per second…
That 3.200 ISO is a mayor less-is-more improvement, comes from the fact that the sensitivity of a BSI sensor can be almost twice that of a conventional one, because almost all incoming light is actually captured.
More light on the sensitive layer means less need for signal amplification (boost, gain), and thus less noise and a cleaner image, especially in low light.
BSI. So, what’s the big deal?
Back side illumination is a technology that basically swaps the order of the electronics and sensitive layers, moving the wiring and transistors from the center to the back side of the chip.
In a BSI chip, this metal “grid” no longer “shades” the sensitive layer, effectively eliminating the most obvious obstacle in its light path (see illustration).
|Sony FSI vs. BSI diagram.|
Sony claims to achieve an up to +6 dB sensitivity improvement and -2 dB random noise (for a total +8 dB better Signal-to-Noise ratio), while reducing dark current, defect pixels and color mixture problems – typically associated with BSI sensors – through the optimization of the photo diodes, improved color filters and a new (Nikon ????) micro-lens array (MLA), to maximize incident light-angle response.
I say Nikon-question-marks, because the D3S chip design also claims part of its outstanding high ISO performance to come from an optimized MLA.
The most important advantage of the BSI sensor, however, is the fact that it can far surpass the physical 1,4 micron (μm) pixel-density limit of front-lit sensors; some CIS industry experts claim it can come down from the current 1,75 or 1,4 micron to 0,9 micron and beyond.
This means both smaller high-resolution chips for compacts or smart phones and a theoretical road map to full frame (135-format) sensors way beyond 40 Mp..
That is, if BSI finds its way into DSLR at all, given that on APS-C and FF sensors the pixel-densities are far larger: roughly beween 4,5 and 8,5 μm.
I actually found two Kodak white papers on 6.8 μm 31 and 39 Mp. “standard” CCD FF sensors, here and here, which take the optimized MLA/color filtering route.
BSI CMOS is supposedly also capable of up to 60 fps. full frame continuous shooting, which opens the door to instantaneous multiple frame comparison and/or composition, as is clearly demonstrated by the P100’s “Hybrid VR” system, which compares and composes 2 frames, “Back-lit Scene HDR” (High Dynamic Range), and “Advanced Night Landscape” which both merge a series of exposures into one single, extended-range, image.
Even though for a total layman – like myself – it is hard to understand the implications of these new technologies, while Web information on BSI is still very scarce, I think a few conclusions are possible (even if wrong).
1 – Up-scaling the sensor. In the light of historical imaging sensor development, it ought not to be too hard to go from a 1/2.3" (28,5 mm2) 10,4 Mp. sensor to, say, a 40 Mb. DX (370 mm2) or a 80 Mb. FF (864 mm2).
I also understand that at least Sony and Samsung are already “working” on BSI sensors aimed at DSLR.
Thus, the only impediment that I can imagine for up-scaling sensor sizes to DX or FX would be economical, rather than technical.
Let’s see what the future brings us here…
2 – Higher shooting speed. With 10 fps. continuous shooting, the P100 outperforms both the D3, D3S (9 fps.) and the D3X (5 fps.).
In spite of the massive amounts of data that these big boys have to move through the sensor's pipe-lines, it seems fair to suppose that BSI can make an impact there.
3 – Clean high ISO. With its considerably higher sensitivity and better SNR, the BSI chip has clear advantages over front-side illuminated CMOS (FSI).
With the D3S already delivering pretty clean 12.800 ISO with “standard” FSI technology, one can’t help wondering how far technology can still push clean high ISO.
4 – Very clean, high speed, high sensitivity, high definition video.
Think about this for a second: If we can get full size, 30 frame-per-second, full-HD 1080p video from a “Mickey-Mouse-chip”, what will happen if we combine the claimed potential of 60 fps. with a DX or – even better – FX chip?
Only a few months ago I would have said: keep drinking the Kool-Aid. Now I’m not so sure anymore.
I’m a photographer and a writer, not an electronics expert, math wiz, engineer or anything else remotely scientific.
This article may, therefore, be laced with factual errors, stupid interpretations and other right-out blatant blunders.
Still, after doing my home work as best as I can, I can’t quite curb my enthusiasm. If you can’t either, that’s OK.
However, don’t blame me if someone more knowledgeable than you calls you stupid after quoting this article, and don’t call me stupid either, if you’re more knowledgeable than me (...that should be easy…).
Rather: please, correct me if I’m wrong. Thanks.
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Comment from: Johnny Buzz [Visitor]
can I make light trail photography on Nikon P100? if so, how? thanks.
Comment from: [Member]
Good question. Nikon does not spec shutter speeds in any public document. You have to download the manual to find this datum in the tech specs.
With shutter speeds from 1/2.000 down to 8 seconds in A(perture) and S(hutter) priority plus M(anual) modes, it IS possible to shoot light trails, although I find this slightly limited. Some other compacts offer better numbers (up to 30 secs.), but still: 8 secs. is quite workable.