Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Nikon Coolpix P6000 - 05 Aug 2009

I've had this camera for a few weeks now and felt the need to comment on its performance. In a word? "Yes!"
As I noted in a previous post my Coolpix P5100 took an unexpected three-and-a-half gainer out of my pocket and onto the rocks at my feet. It still focuses, and takes video just fine. However, if I try to take an image I end up w/ an overexposed image full of hundreds of horizontal lines. So, my options were to try to replace it w/ another P5100, a new Coolpix P6000 (at twice the price), or another camera. My initial choice was to replace it w/ another P5100. Unfortunately, the unit has been discontinued, and the only source appears to be eBay. I put a bid on one, but soon found myself outbid by an unknown computer for a camera from an unknown source. I spent an hour or so in Best Buy w/ the scope, testing potential replacements, but found none that offered any hope of providing the features I need in a digiscoping camera: bright viewfinder, aperture-priority, vignette-free zoom range, accurate focusing, low-noise, fast frames-per-second shooting, large buffer, and adaptable to my digiscoping adaptor. Though the P5100 lacked all of these features, it was still considered one of the best digiscoping cameras since the famed Coolpix 8400.
I was hesitant to buy a P6000. Price for a new unit is ~$400-500 depending upon source. Slightly more megapixels than the P5100 typically means 'more noise'. The lens housing has been redesigned from the P5100, and I was worried that my digiscoping adaptor 'might not' fit, forcing me to come up w/ a new adaptor, or possibly having to buy a commercial adaptor. Lastly, there has been discussion regarding soft images, sluggish performance, and poor high-ISO performance. But, thanks to folks like Mike McDowell, Kevin Bolton, and Neil Fifer (our reigning guru of all things digiscoping), some truly wonderful images have come from this new camera. Anyone interested in the capabilities of the P6000 should read Neil's thread on Birdforum!
I received the camera on a Thursday afternoon and was anxious to test it out. The camera did not come w/ the external battery charger that is included w/ a P5100, but an AC adaptor that plugs into the side of the camera to recharge the EN-EL5 battery. I mistakenly ordered a second EN-El5 thinking that it was different from the battery used in the P5100, but they are the same! So now I have 4 extra batteries and an MH-61 battery charger to give me all the power I need for everyday shooting. This Marsh Wren was digiscoped from about 30' the following morning!
P6000 specs can be found here. The camera comes with a LAN connection, but this only allows you to upload images to the Nikon photo-sharing site (you can't transfer images over the internet or on a local network). It also comes w/ GPS, so geo-tagging images is possible. And, users have the capability to shoot RAW. I haven't tried these features and won't anytime soon. More importantly, I'm concerned with how the camera matches up with my Zeiss 85T*Fl Spotting Scope and 20-60X Zoom Eyepiece.
The first thing noticeable difference with the new P6000 is the increased vignetting relative to the P5100. The 6 - 24mm (28-112 mm, 4X) zoom lens on the P6000 is the reason. The P5100 has a 7.5 - 26.3 mm (35-123 mm, 3.5X) zoom lens so less vignetting occurs at 1X camera zoom. Vignetting w/ the P6000 disappears at about 12 mm (2X), and although maximum image magnification is less than with the P5100, images remain sharp throughout the entire zoom range of the camera (4X). With the P5100 I was limited to about 2.5X zoom before images became too soft. An additional bonus w/ the P6000 is that the camera can be used at higher magnifications on the zoom eyepiece of the spotting scope. I can zoom the eyepiece to 60X and capture acceptable images by adjusting the zoom on the camera to remove shadowing. For example, I digiscoped a telephone pole at a distance of about 200' from my front porch. At 1X zoom on the camera and 20X eyepiece zoom the image is sharp, but vignetting is severe. At 4X camera zoom (20X eyepiece) fibers attached to the wires are visible and well-resolved. With the scope eypiece at 60X and the camera at 2.5X zoom the fibers are still well-resolved with little chromatic abberation. I did find that the viewfinder goes dark w/ uneven illumination at these magnifications, but exposures appear good. Edge-sharpness degrades, and depth-of-focus is extremely small, so props to the camera for being able to focus on the thin fibers at such a distance!
My current digiscoping adaptor snapped onto the front of the P5100 (after removing the lens ring) and gave me a fast and convenient method for centering the camera to the scope's eyepiece. With the redesign of the lens mount on the P6000 the adaptor is now too large to snap onto the front of the P6000. Fortunately for me, the lens ring has also been redesigned, so now I have a more permanent attachment to the camera. If I place the blue teflon tape dispensor cap over the lens mount, then replace the lens ring, it tightens down and holds the plastic cap in place. I can then insert the Canon LA-DC58F and have a lightweight, portable adaptor that stays on the camera, fits in my birding vest pocket, fits snugly over the zoom eyepiece and allows hands-free digiscoping (if I prefer). The increased vignetting is actually an advantage in that my camera is properly aligned when the vignette circle is sharp all around.
With the P6000 attached to the scope I found the view through the 3" LCD viewfinder to be much sharper and brighter than the P5100. With the camera set to Macro I found the spot-focus to be much more reliable than with the P5100, especially at long distances.
How is the image quality? I found a Marsh Wren willing to pose long enough for me to grab a few images with both the Nikon D300 + Sigma 400mm f/5.6 and the P6000 through the scope. The D300 image at left is at 100% scale, while the digiscoped image (right) is only at 33% full zoom. From the same distance the P6000 at 18mm produced a magnified image ~3.5X that of the Sigma 400mm f/5.6 or equivalent to about 2100mm (if you take into account the crop factor of the D300). The digiscoped image (ISO 100) is (expectedly) softer than the DSLR combo, but is impressively sharp with a smooth bokeh. A couple of clicks w/ the Unsharpen mask in Photoshop will provide additional sharpness to the image.
It is no secret that most P&S cameras suffer from sensor noise, especially at ISO's above 200. The P6000 is no different. But I wanted to test ISO performance of this camera to determine under what circumstances I could get away w/ using higher ISO. The telephone pole at left was digiscoped from the front porch at ISO 64. The 100% zoom crop has not been adjusted. At ISO 800 the resulting image produces the expected watercolor effect. But what about in between? With the scope at 20X, I attached the camera (@ 6mm or 1X) and took images of the telephone pole at ISO's of 64, 100, 200, 400 and 800. I loaded each image side-by-side in Photoshop and examined detail at various image magnifications. At 25% and 50% image magnifications (essentially cropping a quarter to half of the image) there is little loss in detail. ISO's of 400 and 800 are still usable. At 100% and 200% image magnifications noise and loss of detail become apparent at higher ISO's. So, even at 200 feet distance I could digiscope a bird at the low zoom settings and use ISO's up to 800 to capture acceptable images. I should be able to crop my images to remove vignetting and end up with sharp, usable images. Note, however, that applying Noise Reduction software to higher ISO images will result in white pixels scattered all over the image, so use with care! When I zoom the camera to 24mm (4X) and photograph the same pole, things begin to fall apart. At 50% image magnification all ISO's still appear to be acceptable. But at 100% image magnification the ISO 400 and 800 images look terrible. At 200% image magnification you can see that the ISO 800 is less noisy than the ISO 400 image, but that's due to additional smoothing being applied by the camera. The result is a soft, watercolor-like image. I will say that chroma noise at all ISO settings is significantly less on the P6000 relative to the P5100 (at least under sunny skies - expect both luminance and chroma noise to increase drastically under cloudy conditions). High winds and clouds during the late afternoon of 27 July forced me to use ISO 400 to capture this Piping Plover at Pt. Mouillee. Despite the high noise I managed to salvage an acceptable image using Noiseware. So the lesson to be learned here is that higher ISO's can be used as long as you keep magnifications low, and your subjects as close as possible. Me? I'll be keeping the camera at ISO 100 or 64 and not exceed 200 unless absolutely necessary. Color balance has always been one of the big selling points of the Coolpix line. The P6000 is no different. I've found that I need almost no color correction in Photoshop when I process images. Lastly, this tip comes courtesy of Will Weber: be careful with the battery compartment latch. The P6000 has a significantly 'softer' latch mechanism than the P5100 that makes it possible to pop the latch open and potentially lose a battery or memory card. My camera latch popped open while in my photo vest, so I'm trying to figure a good way to better secure it. Conclusion? After only limited use I really like this camera. Its a significant improvement over my old P5100 and has already produced some nice digiscoped images despite some long distances and less than optimal weather conditions. Focus is fast enough for me and spot-on, so even when the viewfinder is under the glare of the sun, I can be confident that I'm correctly focusing on the bird. With my simple, home-made digiscoping adaptor securely attached to the camera I'm ready to capture images of my subjects within seconds of focusing on them. The Nikon Coolpix P6000 is a highly-recommended camera for use with the Zeiss 85T*Fl Diascope and 20-60X Zoom eyepiece. Happy shooting!


Sawwhets News said...

Jerry, Thank you for your information. I updated my P5000 to a P5100, rather than the 6000, due to the fact I am left handed and use the adapter for the p5100 made by nikon. I am not terribly creative at making an adapter for the digiscoping (I just started this in February, and have no previous photography experience whatsoever)
Do you have photos and a description of your adaptor set up and how you came about doing it?

Azahari Reyes @ Jason a.k.a horukuru said...

Yhanks a lot Jerry for the info.

Kevin said...

Cool Beans Jerry great inside and in detail info on the P6000, by the way Im just on my way out with mine for some shooting,


I tried dropping my P5100 to get a new P6000 from my wife but she would not buy my being mugged by a gang of insane criminals and in defense you know!


Bosque Bill said...

Jerry, after reading lots of posts and seeing Neil's photos, I've ordered a P6000 to use with my Swaro scope.

I just noticed that it does not come with a memory card and it will be my first device that needs an SD card, so I'll need to buy one. Any recommendations?

Have you used the video feature in digiscoping?

Anything else you'd like to add since originally posting this article?

Drew said...

I am hoping to get the P6000 to use with my 20-60x Zeiss Diascope 85. Would you recommend getting the Canon LA-DC58F or would Nikon have any attachment that would work better?

Jerry Jourdan said...

Apologies for the late replies.
Bosque Bill: Yes, I've used video quite often, especially when weather/lighting does not permit adequate digiscoping. The P6000 (and P5000/5100) are terrific for maintaining focus as long as the subject is centered. It does not, however, allow you to adjust exp. comp. on the fly. You can zoom, though.
Drew: In terms of adaptors, it really depends on how comfortable you feel hand-holding digiscoping in the field. If you need stability, then the Nikon adaptor may be the way to go. However, if you're cheap (like me) and want speed and handling, get the LADC58F and the teflon cap and go the minimalist route. At least the investment is low if you're not satisfied w/ results. Best!

Drew said...

Do you feel like the LADC58F and the teflon cap setup is secure?

Jon said...

Jerry, Thanks for shaking down the P6000. Can you tell me if the P5100 Bracket FSB-6 for the Nikon Fieldscope III will fit the P6000?
I'm looking for a backup to my P5100.
Thanks much,