The P520 isn't much different from its predecessor, the P510. But in terms of its photo quality, that's a good thing.
The Nikon Coolpix P520's photo quality is very good to excellent, and perhaps just a touch better than the quality of the P510 it replaces. The extra megapixels really don't help much except with well-lit macro shots or frame-filling portraits; looking at the photos at 100 percent only reveals noise and artifacts. Basically, don't be fooled by appearances -- the P520 is not as good as a digital SLR. For its price and features, though, most people should be more than happy with its results.
These are 100 percent crops from our test scene. At ISO 80 and ISO 100, subjects look sharp with fine detail good enough for large prints up to 11.5x15. Things look slightly softer as noise reduction increases as you go up in sensitivity, but it isn't until you reach ISO 800 that subjects lose significant detail and look a little smeary at smaller sizes on screen or in prints.
ISO 1600 is OK for Web use, especially if the subject doesn't have much detail to begin with; things just get a little too soft and smeary and colors look slightly duller. The highest sensitivities really aren't usable for much, though if you're used to bad low-light smartphone photos, they'll be better than those.
The camera does have a Hi 1 setting (ISO 6400) available in the PSAM modes, which you could use in a pinch if you can't shoot with flash or get a longer exposure. The bottom photo is a 100 percent crop from the top photo.
If your subject is not moving and you don't mind shooting in an auto mode, you might want to skip using the highest ISOs and use the camera's Handheld Night Landscape mode, which captures a burst of pictures and combines them into one with greatly reduced noise. These are 100 percent crops of photos of our test scene. The top photo was taken at ISO 800 in Program mode, the bottom also at ISO 800 in Handheld Night Landscape.
Though it's no longer the most zoom available on a point-and-shoot, the P520's lens still packs quite the range. It goes from an ultrawide-angle 24mm (top) to 1,000mm (bottom). It's a bit like having a small telescope attached to a camera. The camera's image stabilization worked well, but trying to keep a subject framed using the camera handheld takes some practice.
Megazooms tend to be very good macro shooters, and that's certainly the case with the P520. It can focus as close as 0.4 inch from a subject and if you have a lot of light and keep the ISO to 80 or 100, you can enlarge quite a bit.
Colors are bright and pleasing without looking unnatural. The default Standard color mode isn't necessarily accurate, mainly because most people like their colors a bit punchier. However, if you want more-neutral or more-vivid colors, Nikon makes it possible to adjust them in-camera and save them as custom color options.
Fringing in high-contrast areas of photos is visible with the P520, especially when the lens is fully extended. The purple fringe on the right side of the statue is noticeable when photos are viewed or printed at larger sizes.
Somewhat hidden in the P520's Backlighting mode is an option for high dynamic range (HDR) photos. Press the shutter release and the camera takes photos at different exposures and combines them into one shot to help bring out highlight and shadow detail (right). It also stores a normal photo taken at a normal exposure (left). The process takes several seconds, so don't use it if you're in a hurry.
Nikon's Active D-Lighting helps preserve details in highlights and shadows for more natural contrast. However, if you don't want to turn it on while you're shooting, you can apply a similar D-Lighting effect in Playback mode, which is what I used here on the top photo. You'll also find enhancements for contrast and saturation in Playback.
Nikon includes Program, Aperture-priority, Shutter-speed-priority, and Manual modes on the P520. Shutter speeds are adjustable from 8 seconds to 1/4,000 of a second. Apertures at the wide end go from f3.0 to f8.3 with a total of 10 stops. The telephoto end has just four stops: f5.9, f6.6, f7.4, and f8.3. Beyond aperture and shutter speed, Nikon includes manual adjustments for noise reduction, sharpening, contrast, and saturation, color filters and toning for monochrome photos, and things like exposure bracketing and flash exposure compensation. And if you come up with a set you like, you can store them in the Custom mode for easy recall.
A Special Effects mode gives you some creative options like Cross Process (top) and Soft, which gives your photos a dreamy look. The playback menu also has other effects filters you can apply after you shoot, like Painting for a hand-painted look and Fisheye.
Nikon includes two panorama modes: Easy and Panorama Assist. The latter uses a ghost image on screen to help you line up your successive photos. The former, used here, 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 for scenery without movement in it.
This photo and the ones that follow are all taken with the lens fully extended to 1,000mm. There is a link below each to view the photo at full size. They are large files, though, so they may take some time to load.