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Nikon Coolpix P520 review: All-around very good megazoom

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Editors' note: Several of the design, features, and shooting options are identical between the Nikon Coolpix P520 and the Coolpix P510 we reviewed earlier, so readers of the earlier review may experience some deja vu when reading the same sections below.

Nikon_P520_0215_100.jpg
7.7

Nikon Coolpix P520

The Good

Give the <b>Nikon Coolpix P520</b> plenty of light and it can turn out some excellent photos throughout its 42x zoom range. It has a lot of shooting options for those who like to fiddle with settings or straight snapshooters; a nice flip-out rotating LCD; and built-in GPS and support for Nikon's Wi-Fi adapter for use with Android and iOS devices.

The Bad

Its autofocus system is slow when the lens is zoomed in, especially when compared with other models in its class; battery life is short; and the camera feels cheaply constructed.

The Bottom Line

More point-and-shoot than dSLR in terms of features and performance than some competing high-end megazooms, the Nikon Coolpix P520 is a very good camera for those after a big zoom range, better control over results, and fine picture quality.

For the Coolpix P520, Nikon's flagship megazoom, very little has changed from its predecessor, the P510. Nikon put in a new 18-megapixel backside-illuminated (BSI) CMOS sensor, but it has the same 42x, f3.0-5.9, 24-1,000mm lens. The bulk of its other features remain unchanged, too.

That's not a bad thing since that's still one of the longest zoom lenses available, and the P510 had a nice helping of shooting options to keep even experienced shooters happy.

However, the P520 is still lacking things like a hot shoe, mic input, fast direct control over main settings, and raw support. Also, Nikon didn't make any improvements to autofocus speeds -- something the P510 needed and something Canon, Sony, Fujifilm, and Panasonic have been improving on with their competing models. The P520's photo quality is also about the same as the P510's, but in this case, that's a good thing.

In addition to the 2-megapixel resolution bump, the P520 gets a new flip-out, rotating 3.2-inch LCD; a lower starting sensitivity of ISO 80; two more shots in its full-resolution burst mode, so now it can capture seven in a row; and support for Nikon's tiny WU-1a Wi-Fi adapter, so you can wirelessly connect to iOS or Android devices for viewing or sharing your photos and videos.

For P510 owners, there's not a lot of reason to upgrade (and even if you don't already have a P510, you might consider hunting one down instead of the P520 if you can get it at a good price). But for first-time buyers, the P520 is a strong megazoom for those who don't care so much about having extra features they may never use.

Joshua Goldman/CNET

Picture quality
In terms of photo quality, the Nikon Coolpix P520 is very good to excellent, and perhaps just a touch better than 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.

Nikon Coolpix P520 sample pictures

See all photos

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 you go up in sensitivity and noise reduction increases, but it isn't until you reach ISO 800 that subjects lose significant detail and look a little smeary at smaller sizes onscreen or in prints. If you leave ISO in Auto, the camera tends to go with higher ISO settings when the lens is zoomed in even when you have plenty of light. If you're not trying to freeze motion, it's best to take back some of the control from the P520 and manually select your ISO.

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. (Read more about photo quality and the camera's capabilities in the sample picture slideshow above.)

Sarah Tew/CNET

Video quality is very good, certainly good enough for Web use and nondiscriminating TV viewing, and the stereo mics work well. The zoom lens does function while recording, but you will hear the motor in quieter clips as you use it. However, a bigger issue is the camera's slow autofocus when zoomed in; you may need to zoom back out a little to get a solid lock on your subject.

Shooting performance
Though the photo quality isn't very different from the P510's, the P520's shooting performance seems to have slowed some. Where the P510 took barely more than a second from off to first capture, I found the P520 averaged about 2.3 seconds. Shot-to-shot time both with and without flash was about 2.3 seconds, too, which is longer than the 1.7-second time of the P510.

The camera's high-speed burst will capture at 7 frames per second at full resolution for up to seven frames (though I clocked it at 7.6fps). Unfortunately, after you fire off those seven shots, you're left waiting about 2.5 seconds for each frame to save before you can shoot again. Other continuous-shooting options include a low-speed full-resolution burst capable of 1fps for up to 30 frames and 120fps and 60fps bursts that capture up to 60 shots at VGA and 1-megapixel resolution, respectively.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Shutter lag -- the time it takes from pressing the shutter release to capture without prefocusing -- is 0.5 second in good lighting, which is tolerable, but in our low-light test with less scene contrast, the shutter lag averaged 1.9 seconds. Once you start extending the lens, the camera takes even longer to focus. Once you get out to the 1,000mm position, it can be very slow to focus. This isn't unusual, just something to be aware of if you're going to shoot fast-moving subjects at the telephoto end of the lens. On the other hand, Sony, Panasonic, Canon, and Fujifilm have all improved autofocus speeds in telephoto, making this Nikon one of the slower high-end megazooms available.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Design and features
The body design has barely changed since the P500, remaining amazingly compact considering the lens. And the lens is really the bulk of the weight, which makes the rest of the body feel lightweight and cheaply constructed. However, the right-hand grip is deep and comfortable with a textured rubber piece on front and the large 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 small, but decent, electronic viewfinder (EVF) and a Vari-angle LCD for framing up your shots. The LCD flips out from the body and can be rotated up or down. Nikon removed the button to switch back and forth between the EVF and LCD and instead you have to flip the LCD so it faces into the body to activate the viewfinder, which is a pain if you like to use the larger LCD for settings changes or reviewing. And, 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 diopter adjustment dial and to its right are a Display button for changing what information is viewed on the displays and a movie record button.

Key specs Nikon Coolpix P520
Price (MSRP) $449.95
Dimensions (WHD) 4.8x3.3x4.1 inches
Weight (with battery and media) 1 pound 3.4 ounces
Megapixels, image sensor size, type 18 megapixels, 1/2.3-inch backside-illuminated CMOS
LCD size, resolution/viewfinder 3.2-inch LCD, 921K dots/Yes, electronic
Lens (zoom, aperture, focal length) 42x, f3.0-5.9, 24-1,000mm (35mm equivalent)
File format (still/video) JPEG/H.264 AAC (MOV)
Highest resolution size (still/video) 4,608x3,456 pixels/1,920x1,080p at 30fps
Image stabilization type Optical and digital
Battery type, CIPA rated life Li-ion rechargeable, 200 shots
Battery charged in camera Yes; wall adapter or computer via Micro-USB
Storage media SD/SDHC/SDXC

The rest of the controls haven't changed from the P510 (it's a pretty standard digital camera control layout). There is a rocker switch on the lens barrel for controlling the lens. It can be used to zoom in and out (handy when shooting movies), to snap the lens back a bit in telephoto should your subject move out of frame, or for manual focus. There is also a programmable function button just behind the shutter release; its default is changing continuous-shooting modes, but it can be set for ISO, white balance, metering, AF area mode, color mode, or image size.

The camera's interface is easy enough to navigate that first-time users should have no trouble getting around. Navigation is a bit sluggish, though, with a slight delay with every button press. For those who like to actually take control away from the camera and change settings, this can be somewhat frustrating and it doesn't help that outside of the aforementioned function button, there are no buttons for direct control of ISO, white balance, metering, or AF area modes.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The battery compartment and card slot are under a door on the bottom, right next to the tripod mount, so you can't remove the card or battery while it's mounted. The battery life is fairly short at 200 shots (I got to 240 before the battery was exhausted). The battery is charged in-camera and the wall adapter takes more than 4 hours to fully charge the battery from zero. If a typical day of shooting for you will include the high-speed burst modes and movie capture and using the 3.2-inch LCD and the zoom a lot, you'll want a backup battery.

Outputs are under a cover on the body's right side; you get a Mini-HDMI and a Micro-USB/AV port, the latter of which can be used with Nikon's WU-1a Wi-Fi adapter so it can communicate with Android and iOS devices for viewing and transferring photos and videos. 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, instead remaining 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.

Lastly, the P520 has built-in GPS. It's strictly there for geotagging photos, so no fancy maps or anything like that. But it was relatively quick to lock onto a signal, even in the middle of New York surrounded by tall buildings. Nikon wisely gave it its own tab in the menu interface, making it easy to turn it on and off. It will drain your battery fast, so make sure you shut it off if you're not using it.

General shooting options Nikon Coolpix P520
ISO sensitivity (full resolution) Auto, 80, 100, 200, 400, 800, 1600, 3200, 6400
White balance Auto (normal), Auto (warm lighting), Custom, Daylight, Incandescent, Fluorescent, Cloudy, Flash
Recording modes Auto, Scene Auto Selector, Scene, Special effects, Night Landscape, Landscape, Subject backlighting/HDR, Program, Aperture priority, Shutter priority, Manual, User, Movie, High-Speed Movie
Focus modes 9-point AF, Manual AF (99-point selectable), Center AF (wide, normal), Subject tracking AF, Target finding AF, Manual
Macro 4 inches (Wide); 0.4 inch (at 3 increments from the maximum zoom position to the telephoto position)
Metering modes 224-segment matrix, center-weighted, spot
Color effects Soft, Nostalgic sepia, High-contrast monochrome, High ISO monochrome (ISO 12800), High key, Low key, Selective color, Silhouette, Cross process; Standard, Neutral, Vivid, Monochrome (customizable)
Burst mode shot limit (full resolution) 7 shots

The P520 has a nice mix of shooting modes, making it a good choice for both snapshooters and those who want a little more control. 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 from the user except for image quality and size.

Outside of the Scene Auto Selector there are 16 other scene modes, such as Landscape and Portrait as well as a Pet Portrait mode that will automatically shoot when it detects a cat or dog face, as well as 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. Nikon also added a simple 3D photo mode. It works like the Panorama Assist mode; you take one shot, and move the camera slightly to the right, and it fires off a second shot and combines them into one MPO file for viewing on a 3D display.

Sarah Tew/CNET

If you want to do more than just point and shoot, the P520 has Program, Aperture-priority, Shutter-speed-priority, and Manual modes. Shutter speeds are adjustable from 8 seconds to 1/4,000 of a second (though ISO must be fixed at 80 or 100 to access the full range). 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. It's not as much as control as you'd find in the Panasonic Lumix FZ200 or Fujifilm FinePix HS50EXR, but more than you get from lower-end models like the Nikon Coolpix L820.

For video, you can record up to a resolution of 1,920x1,080 pixels at either 30p or 60i. There are also a couple of high-speed recording options, including 720p at 60fps and VGA at 120fps. The camera's Special Effects modes, such as Soft, Selective Color, and High-contrast Monochrome, can be used for shooting movies, too.

Conclusion
Overall, the Nikon Coolpix P520 is a very good megazoom. It doesn't have the higher-end features or deeper controls of the Fujifilm HS50EXR, Panasonic FZ200, or Canon PowerShot SX50 HS, but if you don't need or want those, it's not an issue. The only real concerns I have are the slow autofocus in telephoto and the long shutter lag in low light. But, again, if you don't shoot anything that's terribly fast-moving, it probably won't be an issue.

Shooting speed (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)
Time to first shot  
Typical shot-to-shot time (flash)  
Typical shot-to-shot time  
Shutter lag (dim)  
Shutter lag (typical)  
Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ200
1.2 
3 
1 
0.4 
0.2 
Fujifilm FinePix HS50EXR
1.7 
1.3 
1.1 
0.4 
0.2 
Canon PowerShot SX50 HS
2 
2.4 
1.6 
0.5 
0.3 
Nikon Coolpix P520
2.3 
2.3 
2.1 
1.9 
0.5 

Typical continuous-shooting speed (in fps)
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
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7.6 

Nikon_P520_0215_100.jpg
7.7

Nikon Coolpix P520

Score Breakdown

Design 8Features 8Performance 7Image quality 8