Nikon Coolpix P500: Hands On Review

A camera's zoom range has always been an important spec, but in the past two years, there's been an almost unhealthy obsession with making faraway objects look really big. Since 2009, the longest zoom range in a fixed-lens camera has doubled. We can't recall anyone complaining that 18x zoom just wasn't enough, but these days, we hear from camera shoppers who are literally not sure if 30x will be enough.

Competition is great that way (for setting outrageous expectations and standards, that is), so here we are reviewing the Nikon Coolpix P500, which sports a class-leading 36x zoom lens. More importantly, the P500 has much more going for it than a comically large zoom range. It's one of the best-rounded superzooms on the market right now.
Body & Design

The P500 is the most compact "full-size" superzoom that we’ve seen. There’s still enough real estate for a comfortable grip and well placed controls, and it’s substantial enough to feel like a serious camera, but it’s noticeably smaller than its competitors.

The size is all the more impressive considering that it sports the widest zoom range on the market, at 36x. While the 810mm telephoto range isn’t quite the longest on the market, the 22.5mm wide angle is the broadest. The lens barrel is deep, though at the wide-angle setting, the lens itself barely protrudes. Fully extended, the lens juts out about two inches from the barrel, increasing the body's depth by about 50 percent.

A 3-inch tilting (though not swiveling) LCD takes up most of the rear panel. At 921,000 pixels, it’s one of the sharpest screens on any long-zoom camera, period. It’s clear and vibrant anywhere except in bright, direct sunlight, and the hinge comes in handy for composing low-angle, close-to-the-ground shots. The P500 is also equipped with an eye-level electronic viewfinder (EVF), situated right above the LCD. It isn’t the sharpest EVF we’ve seen, and it doesn’t have an eye-level sensor, but the port-hole has rubber padding, and there’s a diopter adjustment to accommodate photographers with less-than-perfect eyesight. A dedicated EVF/LCD toggle sits in the upper-left corner.

To the right of the LCD, there’s a traditional four-way selector and a few buttons for accessing playback, the menu system, and for deleting shots. There's a jog dial in the top-right corner, then a dedicated video record button to the left, complete with a toggle for high-def and high-speed video modes. We’ve never seen a system like that on a fixed-lens camera, and while most users probably won’t use it much, it's a clever design to simplify video mode. And finally, a display toggle sits between the video button and the EVF.

Up top, the shutter/zoom-tilter combo sits at the tip of the right-hand grip, angled slightly away from the user. A hot-key for burst mode sits behind it, followed by the small power switch, recessed into an LED indicator. A big, easy-to-turn mode dial sits against the crest of the camera. A stereo microphone and flip-up flash sit on top of that crest, and on the left-hand side, there's a manual release for the flash.

The last notable feature is a secondary zoom tilter, situated on the left side of the lens barrel. Finishing up our tour for posterity, a rubbery flap on the left side of the body covers the mini-HDMI and micro-USB outputs, while a sturdy door on the camera's bottom hides the battery and SD/SDHC compartment.
Performance & User Experience

In a nutshell, the Nikon P500 is a responsive, intuitive camera that usually stays out of the user’s way (and that last part is a compliment). By our count, this is Nikon’s fourth-generation superzoom, and they’ve nailed down a pretty solid formula, though they still take risks with up-to-date shooting modes and new on-body controls. It isn’t perfect, but the user experience is a positive one.

Like most of this year’s premium superzoom cameras (and a number of compact zooms as well), the Nikon P500 is built around a backside-illuminated (BSI) CMOS sensor. These sensors perform well in poor lighting (which we’ll discuss in the Image Quality section below), and they also enable speedy performance, cutting down shot-to-shot times and shutter lag, while boosting autofocus and burst-shooting rates.

Though it isn't the fastest camera in its class in any category, the P500 is fast enough that it rarely misses a shot. It takes just a shade over two seconds to start up and snap a shot, which is quick. Autofocus is quite fast and generally accurate. It slows down a bit in dimmer lighting, though not as dramatically as many cameras. It has some trouble focusing on close-up objects at times; it can get some nice macro shots, but about half the time, it'll opt to focus on something other than closest object. At the telephoto end of the zoom range, autofocus speed and accuracy plummets, much more than we’d like to see, but bringing the range back even just a little bit seems to solve the problem.

Shot-to-shot times are pretty quick, clocking in at about one second in good conditions (including a brief review of the previous shot). Burst mode tops out at 10 frames per second, which is respectable, but it can only shoot five frames per burst. Continuous drive mode (Continuous L in the drive mode menu) churns out about one shot per second for as long as the battery or memory card lasts. Those specs are pretty weak compared to the speediest compacts out there, though they're still useful in certain situations.

As with just about any fixed-lens camera out there, the P500 is geared toward automatic operation: Turn it on, switch it into auto mode, snap away, and enjoy the results. Even the preset shooting modes -- including Night Landscape, Night Portrait, and Backlit, all of which are meant for challenging conditions, and not coincidentally, each have a dedicated spot on the mode dial -- are a cinch. They’re easy, they’re intuitive, and they get the job done (for the most part).

The P500 also has a standard Program mode, which opens up some extra settings to user control: Exposure compensation, white balance, ISO sensitivity, and burst mode, among many, many others. As some of the extra dials and levers would suggest, the P500 also supports manual exposure modes: Shutter Priority, Aperture Priority, and full Manual.

Actually using the manual modes (and even program mode, for that matter) is a bit of a mixed bag. The jog dial is great for navigating menus and selecting exposure settings in the A, S, and M modes. The hot-keys on the four-way selector are useful, as are the dedicated EVF/LCD toggle, burst mode hot-key, and video mode selector. Even the little things, like the manual flash release, and the secondary zoom tilter on the lens barrel, contribute to a positive experience (though truth be told, we’re so used to zooming with the tilter by the shutter that we hardly used the barrel-mounted control).

But for shooters who adjust settings frequently, the P500 doesn't offer enough direct control. We had to press too many buttons to make commonplace adjustments to ISO sensitivity and white balance. A “quick” menu (laid over the photo preview) would help tremendously. And an assignable function button or two would really tie the interface together. An orientation sensor would help a great deal, too.

There is no perfect interface -- at least one photographer would change something about even the most well-loved control scheme. That said, superzooms have it particularly hard. Since they straddle the casual- and enthusiast-shooter realms, the interface has to seem simple and approachable, but it can't be too dumbed down. The P500 strikes a decent balance, though it's more accommodating to casual users than serious shooters.

Those same serious shooters, however, might be pleasantly surprised at the in-camera adjustments that are available. There’s no RAW capture mode, but the P500 does have adjustable sharpening, contrast, and saturation settings. It’s a little bit of a paradox: a relatively high level of control, with a somewhat rudimentary control scheme. Even so, patient users can learn to get some great results out of the P500.

Superzooms generally have decent battery life -- bigger bodies can fit bigger batteries -- but the P500 manages a meager 220 shots per charge. We actually eked out a bit more than 220 shots, but not by much. It isn't terrible, but a backup battery should be on any buyer's shopping list.
Image & Video Quality

As we’ve come to expect from cameras with these BSI CMOS sensors, the P500 performs well in a variety of settings. Image quality is generally solid for the price, with a few caveats.

As we mentioned above, BSI CMOS sensors tend to perform better at high ISO settings than their CCD predecessors do. That translates, loosely, to better low-light shooting. The P500 can’t work miracles, but it makes it easy for anyone to get a decent shot in dark conditions.

At ISO 800 and even 1600, where older cameras (and even some newer CMOS shooters) would turn shots into grainy, spotty messes, the P500 manages to produce some decent results (ISO 3200 is still unusable, however). Details are still pretty soft, with a bit of an oil-painting texture, but less grainy than what’s typical of a compact camera, and less likely to be blurry.

Noisy or not, the P500 makes it easy to get nice indoor and low-light exposures. Concert shots, birthday party pics, and even photos of indoor sports should look pretty good -- at least more often than they would with most cameras, and that’s counting several of the other premium superzooms currently out there. As long as you aren’t searching for problems, you’ll probably be happy with the photo quality in challenging conditions. Medium to medium-large prints will look good.

The strong high-ISO performance comes with a trade-off though: Pictures are relatively soft at lower ISO settings, a trend we’ve seen in other CMOS-based cameras. They aren’t “bad” per se, just softer than they could and probably should be. Fine details are lost even at the ISO 160 base setting, which is certainly undesirable, but the result looks more like a texture than an outright flaw.

Our biggest complaint is that indoor shots are usually overexposed a bit. It’s probably a side effect of the same system that makes it easy to take low-light shots, but we found ourselves having to switch to Program mode and take the exposure compensation down a few steps to balance the images.

The P500 also tends to mute colors in less-than-ideal situations. In cloudy conditions in particular, shots have a pale, washed-out quality -- that can be a challenging setting for many cameras, but the P500 really dulls the colors by default. Of course, color is highly subjective, so what we consider to be flat and dull, somebody else could just consider neutral -- most compact cameras tend to vivify and over-saturate colors, so it could just be that Nikon errs on the side of accuracy compared to their competitors. In any case, shooting with the Vivid or More Vivid effects can help out, and users can manually adjust saturation settings, too. And outdoors on a bright, sunny day, the colors look beautiful, leaning toward the cool end of the spectrum -- blues are particularly striking.

For a lens with such an extreme focal range (22.5mm on the wide end and 810mm at the long end), distortion is corrected pretty well. We noticed a bit of warping in the corners of wide-angle shots, sometimes pretty obviously, but with just a bit of zoom, the problem goes away. Green and purple fringing are well-managed, except in the corners of those distorted wide-angle shots.

The Nikon P500 offers a full 1080p HD video mode, and it’s pretty solid. Movies aren’t quite as good as they would be from a traditional camcorder, but the P500 is a better video camera than most pocket camcorders.

The highest-quality movie mode captures 30 frames per second in Motion JPEG format, which creates large files with a maximum recording time of 30 minutes.Those files are easier to edit on a computer than the awkward AVCHD format that seems to be en vogue these days, for what it’s worth. The P500’s low-light abilities carry over into video mode. The camera does support optical zoom during video recording, though it struggles to re-focus. At the telephoto end of the range, hand-held videos are pretty stable, though we’d still recommend a tripod.

High-speed video mode is basically a novelty. It captures movies at 240 fps at a very reduced resolution for 10 seconds, then switches to a standard 30 fps recording mode. High-speed videos don’t hurt the user experience, but after you’ve watched water dripping out of a faucet in slow mo a half-dozen times, it’s not fun anymore.

The superzoom genre as a whole gets a lot of criticism. Some buyers expect a lot out of a $400 or $500 camera: a huge zoom, ease of use and comprehensive control, a solid build, and above all, near-flawless photos. That's not going to happen for quite some time, but it won't stop most manufacturers from trying to please the sticklers (nor should it).

But perhaps to its credit, Nikon doesn't really pander to the pixel-peeping crowd with the P500. They've designed a very good point-and-shoot that happens to have a gigantic zoom lens. We'd like to see some of the image quality issues resolved, and a more elegant control scheme to boot. But the average casual photographer should be pretty satisfied with the P500. Pictures are usually well exposed and look clear at regular viewing distances -- that is, when you're not looking for problems. Auto mode is a breeze, and the manual modes are there for those who want to experiment with them. The only big drawback is the beefy price tag for what is, as we said, an over-powered point-and-shoot.

There are some other worthwhile options in superzoom category. Panasonic's FZ100 is one of our favorites, thanks to a great feature set and interface, though it "only" has a 24x zoom, and the image quality gets iffy at higher ISO settings. Fujifilm's HS20EXR is a dark horse in the field. It has the ability to take excellent pictures, and offers the most comprehensive set of manual controls in the class. But one needs to use those comprehensive controls to get the great pictures. It isn't a very good option for inexperienced photographers. We've heard excellent things about Sony's HX100V model, though we have been unable to test it yet.

Canon's SX30 IS and Olympus SP-810UZ also offer massive zoom ranges (35x and 36x respectively, and both of their telephoto ranges are actually longer than the P500's), though they're both built around CCD-type sensors, which aren't as nimble as their CMOS counterparts. (It's worth noting that the Canon model is set to be replaced in the very near future, though the specs still have not been confirmed).

Even with those other options out there, we still strongly recommend the Nikon P500 as one of the best superzooms for your money.