Nikon Coolpix P500 review: Nikon Coolpix P500

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The Good The Nikon Coolpix P500 has a solid design, is overflowing with photo and movie features, and has very fast shooting performance for its class.

The Bad Its photo and video quality is very soft, particularly at high ISOs and in low-light conditions. It also lacks raw support and auto picture rotation.

The Bottom Line The Nikon Coolpix P500 improves on its predecessor's features and shooting performance, but its photos and video quality still aren't as good as the rest of the package.

7.3 Overall
  • Design 8
  • Features 7
  • Performance 8
  • Image quality 6

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 capabilities. 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.

Key specs Nikon Coolpix P500
Price (MSRP) $399.95
Dimensions (WHD) 4.6 x 3.3 x 4.1 inches
Weight (with battery and media) 1 pound 1.5 ounces
Megapixels, image sensor size, type 12 megapixels, 1/2.3-inch backside-illuminated CMOS
LCD size, resolution/viewfinder 3-inch vari-angle LCD, 921K dots/None
Lens (zoom, aperture, focal length) 36x, f3.4-5.7, 22.5-810mm (35mm equivalent)
File format (still/video) JPEG/H.264 AAC (.MOV)
Highest resolution size (still/video) 4,000x3,000 pixels/ 1,920x1,080p at 30fps
Image stabilization type Mechanical and digital
Battery type, CIPA rated life Lithium ion rechargeable, 220 shots
Battery charged in camera Yes, by computer or wall adapter
Storage media SD/SDHC/SDXC
Bundled software Software Suite for Coolpix (Windows/Mac)

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 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.

General shooting options Nikon Coolpix P500
ISO sensitivity (full resolution) Auto, 160, 200, 400, 800, 1,600, 3,200
White balance Auto, Daylight, Tungsten, Fluorescent, Open Shade
Recording modes Auto, Scene Auto Selector, Scene, Night Landscape, Night Portrait, Backlighting HDR, Smart Portrait, Program, Aperture priority, Shutter priority, Manual, User, Movie, High-speed Movie
Focus modes 9-point AF, Manual AF (99-point selectable), Center AF, Subject tracking AF, Manual
Macro 4 inches (Wide); 0.4 inch (at three increments from the maximum zoom position to the telephoto position)
Metering modes Matrix, Center-weighted, Spot, Spot AF Area
Color effects Normal, Softer, Vivid, More Vivid, Portrait, Black & White, Monochrome filter (Yellow, Orange, Red, Green, Sepia, Contrast, Image sharpening), Custom (Contrast, Image sharpening, Saturation)
Burst mode shot limit (full resolution) Five shots

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.

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