Nikon Coolpix P900 review: Unprecedented zoom range, but unremarkable photo quality

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The Good The Nikon Coolpix P900 features an unmatched 83x zoom lens allowing you to use it for just about anything from close-ups and landscapes to portraits to birding and wildlife photography. It has a decent electronic viewfinder, flip-out rotating high-resolution LCD, manual and semimanual shooting modes and built-in Wi-Fi and GPS.

The Bad It lacks features more advanced users might want like raw image capture, a hot shoe and mic jack. Images are soft and lack fine detail when fully zoomed in. The autofocus system can be hit or miss and is slow to focus in low light. The lens does make it heavy compared to other megazooms.

The Bottom Line It's not the best megazoom around, but the Nikon Coolpix P900's lens is remarkable and if you need the most zoom on a compact camera, it's the winner.

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

The word "whopping" doesn't really do justice to the zoom range on the Nikon Coolpix P900.

The camera's 83x optical zoom starts at an ultrawide 24mm and ends in an astounding 2,000mm. Its Dynamic Fine Zoom digitally increases the range to approximately 4,000mm with minimal loss in quality.

That kind of zoom range is something I have little use for. I don't go to a lot of sporting events. I'm not a birder or into wildlife photography. The same goes for maritime photography. The moon is about the only thing I can see in the night sky where I am and, well, you can only take so many moon shots. My family and friends are typically close enough to me that a modest zoom range is sufficient. I'm also not a stalker.

The fact that I don't typically shoot these things didn't make the camera any less fun to shoot with, though. Being able to zero in on a bird that you can barely see or capture a sailboat at sea or shots of athletes from very, very far away with what is essentially a point-and-shoot camera is just plain cool. If these are things you want to do, the P900 is -- at least for the moment -- going to get you the closest to your subject in the smallest, least expensive way possible.

Sarah Tew/CNET

That doesn't mean it's cheap, though: The Coolpix P900 is $600 in the US, £500 in the UK and AU$700 in Australia. It's also not exactly small and light at 140 by 103 by 137mm (5.5 by 4.1 by 5.5 inches) and 899 grams (1 pound, 15.8 ounces). Still, it beats lugging around giant lenses (I mean, have you ever seen a 2,000mm lens for an SLR camera?) and the cost of matching the P900's lens for a dSLR would be astronomical.

Picture quality

A long zoom lens doesn't mean better image quality, though. In fact, it usually means the opposite, especially for point-and-shoots. The P900 uses a small 1/2.3-inch 16-megapixel BSI CMOS sensor, significantly smaller than what you'd get in a mirrorless compact or dSLR or higher-end compacts. A big sensor typically translates into better image quality, so don't expect the quality of a dSLR just because the P900 looks like one.

That being said, the P900's photos are good. They definitely benefit from some post-shoot editing to help with color, sharpness and contrast. Because there is no raw capture option -- it shoots JPEG only -- you can only do so much though, and that goes for improving on Nikon's heavy noise reduction at higher ISO sensitivities, too.

100 percent crops from the center of CNET's test scene Joshua Goldman/CNET
100 percent crops from the center of CNET's test scene Joshua Goldman/CNET

Pixel peepers won't like what they see when viewing the P900's images at full size. Up to ISO 200 you get a fair amount of fine detail so that enlarging and cropping in is possible, particularly with close-up shots. Details start to turn to mush above that, though, and you can more easily see artifacts. If you keep your crops modest, however, sensitivities up through ISO 1,600 are usable, if soft. I would steer clear of ISO 3,200 and 6,400. Because of this, and how slow the lens gets when zoomed in, the P900 is not a camera you'd want for indoor shooting.

Shots toward the end of the zoom range lack detail regardless of ISO setting, though. I've included several samples in the slideshow below so you can see that, while subjects can look good at smaller sizes, once you start to blow things up you lose a lot of detail. (There is a link to the right of each picture to download the full-size image.) Are they shareable online or fit for small prints? Yes, but I wouldn't go blowing them up for big prints.

Also, even though the camera's Dual Detect Optical VR technology works very well, you'll want to use a tripod or some other support to get the sharpest possible shots.

Video quality is good as long as you have a lot of light; with low-contrast subjects the camera will struggle to focus when zooming all the way in. There is no mic jack, but the stereo mics on top of the camera does well enough. If you zoom in and out while recording, the mics will pick up sound from the lens movement that you'll hear in quiet scenes. You might also hear the autofocus system clicking away if it's hunting for focus. These are things that are typical for this class of camera, though.

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