WHAT'S HOT: The Coolpix 5000 is a versatile, powerful 5-megapixel camera in a remarkably compact case. Though small enough to fit into a large field coat or pants pocket, it has nearly all the controls a serious photographer would look for. Thanks to its light weight and large right-handed grip, this unit is more comfortable to hold and operate than its 5-megapixel competitors.
Its overall appearance doesn't depart radically from that of other small, boxy digital cameras, but the 5000's look and layout are refreshingly new for a Coolpix. One distinctive change is the adaptable rotating color LCD panel. Fold it face-in to protect it from bumps and scratches. Pull it from the body, and it swings out horizontally 180 degrees (a bit like the fold-out viewfinders you see on digital video cameras). From there you can rotate the LCD up and over so that it faces the same direction as the lens (great for self-portraits) or down so that it faces the ground (useful for overhead shots). Spin the panel 180 degrees and fold it back into the camera, and the LCD faces out--as on a typical digital camera. The Coolpix 5000 is not the first camera to pull this trick--Canon's G1 and G2 got there first--but it's a valuable addition to Nikon's bag of tricks.
In most cases, we had no trouble changing the Coolpix 5000's settings. A good-size thumb dial on the top right corner of the camera lets you efficiently select an aperture or shutter speed; a button-and-dial combination steers you through the usual exposure controls (automatic, aperture priority, shutter priority, and manual). Using other buttons, you can quickly change frequently needed settings, such as focus mode, resolution, flash, and exposure value. A strategically placed button on the front of the camera, close to the lens, lets you quickly lock the exposure and focus for multiple shots--an extremely useful feature for shooting panoramas.
WHAT'S NOT: Our biggest gripe with the Coolpix 5000 is its hair-trigger shutter. You'll be glad that deleting unwanted shots is relatively easy because you're likely to take a bunch--especially at the start. Another flaw involves the small monochrome LCD status panel to the right of the optical viewfinder. In aperture- or shutter-priority modes, it lists the setting you've dialed in, such as the f-stop in aperture-priority mode, but not the reciprocal setting that the camera picks (the shutter speed, in the case of aperture priority). To get this often vital information, you have to turn on the color LCD display, which shortens battery life.
We wish the LCD were brighter, too: For properly framing close-ups you almost have to use the LCD. But when we tried taking outdoor wildflower shots in bright sunlight, we could barely see the image. And you can't attach the Coolpix 5000's lens cap unless the camera is turned off. That's inconvenient on damp or dusty shoots.
WHAT ELSE: In our standardized tests, the Coolpix 5000 earned an overall image quality score of very good. As you'd expect from this class of digital camera, the Coolpix produced sharp, detailed, and (for the most part) accurately exposed images. Our test prints had a little too much contrast, however, resulting in some loss of shadow details. We also noted some mottling in the blue sky of our test outdoor shot.
Taking informal shots, we created pleasing close-ups with bright colors and accurate focus. Impromptu flash photos of people were satisfactory, with relatively accurate skin tones and little flaring from the flash. On the other hand, scenic shots of our local green hills looked rather dull.
When we first picked up the Coolpix, its controls seemed unintuitive; but given some time, we adapted to them nicely. The buttons are small but functional, and reasonably well placed. You can hold the camera and change basic settings such as resolution, flash, and macro mode with one hand. Unfortunately, a few controls, are extremely awkward. Case in point: To set the focus manually, you have to hold the small auto-focus button down with your left thumb and spin the selector dial with your right thumb; there is just no comportable way to position your left hand during this operation.
The foldout LCD panel has three buttons embedded in its frame: One turns the LCD on and off, another pops up the menus, and a third lets you quickly review stored shots. When you view the LCD folded out, the buttons are at the top of the frame; in that position they're a bit difficult to use. With the LCD folded against the back of the camera, the buttons are situated at the bottom of the frame; and braced by the camera, they're easier to push.
Powered by a proprietary lithium-ion rechargeable battery, our Coolpix 5000 recorded an impressive 332 shots on one charge. The kit includes an external battery charger with an AC adapter. Unfortunately, the AC adapter cannot be used to power the camera directly (you have to buy a second, optional adapter), and if you're out in the field for an extended photo shoot, you'll likely want a second battery ($40 to $60). Options for the Coolpix 5000 include a solid selection of accessory lenses--among them, a fish-eye wide-angle lens.
Nikon bundles a fairly useful collection of software with the Coolpix 5000. Nikon's View 4 is a handy and simple utility for viewing and downloading images from your camera. The software CD-ROM we received also had a demo of Canto's sophisticated Cumulus 5.0 image management software, ArcSoft's Camera Suite 2000 (a capable image editing application) and Panorama Maker 2000, and Altamiura Group's popular Genuine Fractals 2.0 LE digital image enlarger. Given the sophistication of the Coolpix 5000's target buyer, Adobe's Elements or Photoshop LE would probably have been a more appropriate image-editing choice.
UPSHOT: A good bet for sophisticated photographers looking for a powerful, light digital camera, the Coolpix 5000 is a fine digital companion for people still attached to their 35mm film SLRs. By Tracey Capen