- Review Date: 05/11/11
- Bottom line:
It won't fit in your pocket, but Nikon's Coolpix P500 is a killer camera that combines sublime speed with a huge 36x zoom lens, HD-video recording, and a high-res articulating LCD.
36x optical zoom. Fast. Sharp images and very good low-light performance. 1080p video capture. Manual controls.
Bulky. Expensive for a point-and-shoot camera.
If you want to capture the action close up, the 12.1-megapixel Nikon Coolpix P500 ($399.95 direct), with its 36x zoom lens, will get you right there. But with this digital camera, you get more than just an insanely long lens. Good image quality, speed, and a well-rounded feature set, are part of the deal. Just keep in mind: The P500 is big, since it houses a big lens, but you don't get a large sensor, like you would with a compact interchangeable lens camera or a Digital SLR.
Though the P500 features a huge 36x zoom, a large, articulating 3-inch LCD and a solid, SLR-like grip, it weighs in at a surprisingly light-feeling 1.1 pounds. At 2.3 by 4.06 by 1.26 inches (HWD), though, it's not small. All that space is to hold the camera's massive zoom lens. The grip on the right side provides a firm hold while framing your shot, and well-placed buttons and switches offer plenty of control; the camera feels good in your hand. You get dedicated buttons for continuous shooting and video recording, and a scroll wheel for aperture/shutter/manual-shooting settings.
The lens has a massive focal length span of 22.5 to 810mm (35mm equivalent), giving it both remarkable reach and a very wide angle. To give you some perspective on how far and wide this lens can reach, the 18x Nikon Coolpix S9100 ($329.95, 4 stars) and the 14x Canon PowerShot SX230 ($349.99, 4 stars), both superzoom cameras, span just 25-450mm and 28-392mm respectively. The P500's corresponding aperture of f/3.4-f/5.7 isn't especially fast, but even f/5.7 is a respectable speed when you're zooming all the way to 36x. You might want to consider getting a monopod or tripod, though if you really want to take advantage of the full zoom capability. When extended all the way to 36x, the lens becomes extremely sensitive to shakes, so you'll need to a really fast shutter speed something to stabilize the camera
For a big camera, the P500 has a relatively small, 28.5mm2 sensor. To compare, the pocket-size Canon Powershot S95's ($399.99, 4 stars) has a 43.3mm2 sensor, and larger, but P500-size interchangeable-lens cameras like the Sony Alpha NEX-3 ($549.99, 4.5 stars) have even larger sensors).
The P500 offers three noteworthy features that help simulate a D-SLR experience. First is an electronic viewfinder (EVF), located just above the LCD. It looks like an optical viewfinder on an D-SLR, but instead of a reflected view through the camera's lens, it's a 240k-dot LCD mounted like a viewfinder that displays the same info on the camera's 3-inch articulating LCD. There's also a barrel-mounted zoom trigger. Besides the usual one on top of the camera, an additional one on the lens barrel lets you zoom in and out using your thumb. It's a similar sensation to twisting an SLR's lens to zoom. The last feature is the manual controls thumb wheel that can quickly control aperture and shutter speed in manual or priority modes. A flick can adjust your shooting settings when in these modes. Just like a D-SLR. Fully automatic shooting with face detection is also available, as are the typical selection of scene modes.
The LCD screen is top-notch; it's as large and sharp as what you'll find on much pricier digital SLRs. With a resolution of 921K dots, it's three times that of most point-and-shoot cameras. The display is mounted to an arm that you can pull out and tilt up or down. It's good to have when you have to shoot with the camera above or below your head.
Still-Image Performance, Video, and Conclusions
The P500 is fast, powering up and shooting in an average of 2 seconds, and you only wait 1.5 seconds between shots. Shutter lag, the time from button press to image capture, is a mere 0.5 seconds. In the PC Mag labs, we use Imatest to objectively measure image quality. And the P500 turned in great performance numbers. In terms of sharpness, the camera delivered a very sharp center-weighted average of 1,894 lines per picture height. And the P500 can handle low-light shooting with aplomb. I was able to crank the ISO sensitivity up to ISO 3200 and noise remained below the 1.5-percent acceptability threshold. Shooting at this high ISO means you can get away without a flash indoors and other low-light situations, and still get clean, usable images. To compare, the comparatively tiny PowerShot S95 turned up an average of 1,858 lines per picture height, and kept noise below 1.5 percent up to and including ISO 1600.
A powerful video-recording device, with the P500, you can capture footage in high-def at 30 frames per second in either 1080p or 720p. You also record small high-speed video (240p at 240 fps and 120p at 120 fps), which is then played back at normal speeds for a slow-motion effect. You can zoom and refocus the massive 36x zoom lens while you shoot, but both actions produce slight buzzing and clicking noises that will get picked up in your recordings.
Nikon includes a mini-HDMI port so you can plug it right into an HDTV for video and still-image play back. A proprietary USB port (with an included cable) lets you connect the camera to a computer. Since the camera records to SD, SDHC, and SDXC cards, you can use a card reader to transfer photos too.
If major zoom factor is your number one priority, the 36x Nikon Coolpix P500 delivers. While it's expensive for a single-lens point-and-shoot camera, you won't find a further-reaching lens for the $400 price. And you get speed, great image quality and solid low-light performance in the bargain. If you can sacrifice some zoom for a camera that fits in your pocket, our Editors' Choice, the the $330 18x Coolpix S9100 is much more compact, less expensive, and offers top-notch speed and performance.