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The Nikon Coolpix P500, the manufacturer’s latest full-size megazoom, is packing a 36x f3.4-5.7 21.5-800mm lens (35mm equivalent). That blows away its predecessor, the P100, which had a 26x, f2.8-5 26-678mm lens and narrowly beats Canon’s PowerShot SX30 IS and its 35x, f2.7-5.8, 24-840mm (35mm equivalent). At least in magnification, since the Nikon starts wider; it doesn’t surpass the Canon, though really when it comes to specsmanship the “36x” is all that matters.
The camera is more than just its lens, however. It has a gorgeous 3-inch vari-angle LCD and an electronic viewfinder; excellent image stabilization to back up that lens (though keeping your subject in your shot is a whole other issue); shooting options that take advantage of its high-speed CMOS sensor; and it’s got a comfortable, easy-to-figure-out control layout and menu system. It’s also got great shooting performance including almost no shutter lag and short shot-to-shot times.
On the short list of notably absent features is raw support and automatic picture orientation, something that can be found on cameras at a fraction of the P500′s cost and abilities. It also lacks direct controls for settings like ISO and white balance, though, so maybe the P500 is a good fit for those looking for a point-and-shoot with a long lens and room to experiment, whereas something like the Panasonic Lumix FZ100 is for more serious hobbyists and enthusiasts.
In general, the P500′s photo quality is good, but photos are just really soft and lack fine detail. They basically didn’t improve from the P100; they’re just higher resolution. However, the extra megapixels don’t give you any more room to crop or enlarge. Put simply, the P500′s photo quality, though decent for a point-and-shoot camera, is no doubt going to let down anyone expecting higher-caliber photos because of its price and design. The lowest ISO is 160, and things aren’t really sharp there; start adding in more noise reduction as you go up in ISO and subjects only get softer. Photos are OK at ISO 400, but colors get somewhat muddy and desaturated. The P500 can be locked to use ISO 160 to 200 or ISO 160 to 400; I strongly recommend using the former when you’re in bright conditions. The results above ISO 400 just aren’t good for much beyond small prints and Web use. Every user is different, though, and seeing what this camera is capable of, some people will just be thrilled with what they are able to capture and more forgiving of the results.
Nikon Coolpix P500
Nikon does a great job correcting for lens distortion at both ends. There’s no sign of barrel distortion or pincushioning. The lens isn’t sharp in the center, but it is consistent from side to side with just some slight softening at the edges and in the corners. Though it’s bad with most megazoom cameras, the fringing in high-contrast areas of photos is terrible with the P500, especially when the lens is fully extended. Lens flare was also an issue.
Up through ISO 400, color performance is very good from the P500. Everything turned out vivid and bright without looking artificial. Exposure is generally very good, plus there are plenty of options for adjusting and improving the results. Auto white balance looks overly warm under incandescent light; it performed well under natural light, though. The cameras presets work fine, too, and there’s a manual option.
Video quality is on par with a basic HD pocket video camera: good enough for Web use and nondiscriminating TV viewing. Panning the camera will create judder that’s typical of the video from most compact cameras. Low-light video suffers from the same problems that the photos do; they’re very soft, bordering on looking like a living watercolor. The audio quality was good, though, and the zoom does work, and both it and the autofocus are fairly quiet so you’ll only really hear them in scenes with little background sound.
The P500′s shooting modes are mostly for point-and-shoot users, but you do get Program, Shutter priority, Aperture priority, and Manual options and a spot for a set of custom settings on the mode dial. The largest aperture is f3.4 (the P100 started at f2.8) and is enough to create some depth of field. The smallest aperture is f8. Shutter speeds go from 1/1,500 second to 8 seconds.
There are two Auto modes on this camera. One is Nikon’s Scene Auto Selector located in with the other Scene modes. It adjusts settings appropriately based on six common scene types. If the scene doesn’t match any of those, it defaults to a general-use Auto. Then there is an Auto mode, which shuts off all photo settings except for image quality and size.
Outside of the Scene Auto Selector there are 15 other scene modes like Landscape and Portrait as well as a new Pet Portrait mode and two panorama modes: Easy and Panorama Assist. The latter uses a ghost image on the screen to help you line up your successive photos. The former just requires you to press the shutter and pan the camera left, right, up, or down to create a panorama in camera. These modes never handle movement well, so they’re best used on scenery without movement in it.
Like most cameras with BSI CMOS sensors, the P500 has multishot modes for improving low-light photos of landscapes and portraits. At a single press of the shutter release, the camera takes several photos and then combines them to improve blur from hand shake and reduce noise and correct exposure. In general, the Night Landscape mode is successful, but not as good as others I’ve tested. The Night Portrait mode takes shots with and without flash and combines them into nicely exposed shots. However, because of the nature of how these images are produced, these modes cannot be used with moving subjects.
If you like to shoot close-ups, the P500 has a few ways to enter Macro mode. It will automatically switch to it if you’re using the Scene Auto Selector mode. You can also select a Close-up mode from the camera’s Scene options. And if you’re in PSAM, you can switch to macro focus via the control pad. You can focus as close as 0.4 inch from your subject if you extend the lens some (there’s an onscreen marker to let you know where to stop zooming), but at the lens’ widest position, it focuses 4 inches from a subject.
The high-speed performance of the CMOS sensor gets put to use in burst modes, too. The best one is the Continuous H setting, which lets you shoot at up to 8 frames per second (fps) for five photos. The Continuous L mode drops to approximately 1.8fps, but can capture up to 24 photos. The camera also has 60fps and 120fps burst options for capturing up to 25, 2-megapixel or 50, 1-megapxiel photos, respectively, at a press of the shutter release. Similarly, there’s a preshooting cache setting that will start capturing images once you half-press the shutter release. Once you fully press the shutter, it will store the five photos before you press and up to 20 after (2-megapixel resolution). There’s a substantial wait while the camera stores all those photos, but if you’re trying to capture a specific moment in time, these are your best bet with this camera. At the other end of the speed spectrum is an interval shooting option that will continuously shoot every 30 seconds or 1, 5, or 10 minutes.
Overall shooting performance is excellent. It goes from off to first shot in just over 1 second with a typical shot-to-shot time of 1.4 seconds. Using the flash adds about a second to that time. Shutter lag is low in both bright and dim lighting, at 0.3 and 0.6 second, respectively. Its full-resolution high-speed continuous mode is capable of 10fps, but again only for five shots.
The body design barely changes from its predecessor. The look and feel is still nice and amazingly compact considering the lens. The grip is deep and comfortable with a textured rubber piece on front, the body is well-balanced, and the lens barrel gives you ample space to hold and steady the camera with your left hand. The controls are comfortably placed and responsive.
There’s a decent electronic viewfinder (EVF) and a vari-angle LCD for framing up your shots. The LCD pulls out from the body and can be tilted up or down, but it does not swing out horizontally from the body and rotate. Like all LCDs and EVFs, the screen blanks out for a second once you’ve taken a shot, but it’s reasonably fast to recover. To the left of the EVF is a button for switching between the LCD and EVF, as well as a diopter adjustment dial. To its right is a Display button for changing what info is viewed on the displays and a movie record button with a switch for picking what type of video you want to shoot (regular or high speed).
The rest of the controls don’t change from the P100 (i.e., a pretty standard digital camera control layout) with two exceptions. There is now a rocker switch on the lens barrel for controlling the lens. It can be used to zoom in and out (handy when shooting movies), snap the lens back a bit in telephoto, should your subject move out of frame, or for manual focus. (Its function is changed in the settings menu; this is a nuisance while testing, but otherwise fine, as I don’t imagine changing it often in regular use.) The only other change is a button just behind the shutter release for changing continuous-shooting modes.
The menu systems are sharp and easy to read, helped, no doubt, by the bright, high-resolution LCD. My one gripe is that there are no shortcuts for changing ISO, white balance, autofocus mode or area mode, or metering. Almost everything’s done through the Menu button. Even exposure bracketing, which I expected to find under the continuous-shooting modes, is in the main menu system. If you want fast, easy control over those settings, this might be a deal breaker for you.
The battery compartment and card slot are under a door on the bottom. The battery life isn’t great for this camera, and using the wall adapter takes nearly 5 hours to fully charge the battery from zero. If a typical day of shooting will include the high-speed burst modes and movie capture and using the 3-inch LCD and the zoom a lot, you’ll want a backup battery.
Outputs are under a cover on the body’s left side. There’s a Mini-HDMI and a Micro-USB/AV port. There’s no accessory shoe for an add-on flash, limiting you to the onboard pop-up one. It doesn’t automatically rise when needed; it remains off until you push a button on the left side of the camera. It’s adequately powerful and there are flash exposure compensation settings available.
Like I said about the P100, the Nikon Coolpix P500 is one of those cameras that consumers will either love for all that it can do or hate because one of those things isn’t taking superb photos. For those interested mainly in having a very wide, very long lens on a point-and-shoot with room for experimentation and a lot of settings to play with, the P500 is exactly that.
Shooting speed (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)
Time to first shot
Typical shot-to-shot time
Shutter lag (dim)
Shutter lag (typical)
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