Nikon Coolpix P500 £320
30th Aug 2011 | 11:18
A 36x super-zoom bridge camera with a 12.1 megapixel back illuminated CMOS sensor
Overview and features
As digital SLRs have become more accessible and less expensive, bridge cameras have had to change so they now have larger zoom ranges and more compact bodies than their predecessors.
Nikon's Coolpix P500 sits in the middle of their 'Performance' range of compact cameras, which offer more features than the 'Style' range - including manual control and superior low light performance.
In the case of the P500, it offers the largest zoom range of any current Nikon Coolpix camera and manual control, but lacks some more advanced features - such as raw image recording - and is priced at around £300.
The huge zoom lens covers a range equivalent to 22.5-810mm on a 35mm camera. The wide-angle end is wider than most equivalent cameras, which can be useful for shooting in tight spaces and for exploiting the distortion of perspective as you get close to your subject.
The 810mm equivalent telephoto is ideal for isolating distant subjects, and may even be suitable for wildlife and other areas of photography that require some distance between the camera and the subject.
Although the 12.1-megapixel sensor may have a modest pixel count by today's standards, its back illumination should ensure the quality at high sensitivities is maintained. Back-illuminated sensors differ from traditional imaging chips because the circuitry is located out of the optical path, allowing more light to be gathered by the sensor, which improves quality at high sensitivities and increases dynamic range.
Sensor-shift and electronic image stabilisation technologies have both been incorporated into the design, which should help to increase the number of sharp shots taken with that 810mm equivalent telephoto.
Nikon's latest Expeed C2 image processor is also included. This promises to improve the responsiveness of the camera, the quality of video and the quality of images taken at high sensitivities when compared to previous image-processing engines.
Videos can be recorded at up to 1080p resolution at 30 frames per second for up to 29 minutes, which is a fairly typical spec for a camera of this level. Alternatively, high-speed video can be captured at up to 240 frames per second, albeit at much reduced resolution. When the footage is played back at 30 frames per second, a smooth yet eerie slow-motion effect is created.
Stereo sound is recorded with standard HD footage via the microphone on top of the camera, and there is no way to connect an external microphone. High-speed footage contains no sound.
Zoom and autofocus functions are disabled during recording of high-speed video footage. When recording HD footage, the zoom can be used, but autofocus will only function if the full-time AF function is enabled in the menu.
Along with a wide range of automatic scene modes, the P500 also has program auto, aperture priority, shutter priority and manual exposure modes, which will please enthusiasts who may want to take more control over exposure.
The usual range of automatic assistance is also available - including face detection, blink detection and automatic scene mode selection.
Build quality and handling
The P500's black, SLR-shaped body is constructed from high quality plastic that feels quite robust.
A deep finger grip is provided and is coated with a soft rubber material to make using the camera with one hand a pleasant experience.
The controls are laid out in a way that will suit both one-handed shooters and those who prefer to support the weight of the camera with their other hand. A second zoom control is provided on the side of the lens barrel, and can be operated with a left hand thumb.
This zoom control provides a little more precision when it comes to the speed of the zoom than the bezel control - which is located around the shutter release - making it ideal for use when recording video.
On the rear, there's an articulated three-inch screen with a resolution of 921,000 dots. The view on the screen is very clear and sharp, with good contrast - even in bright lighting conditions - thanks in part to the excellent anti-reflective coatings. The screen can be tilted to allow shooting above head height, or for use as a waist-finder, making shots from high and low angles easier to take.
An electronic viewfinder with a resolution of 230,000 dots is also provided and this is especially useful when using the lens in the telephoto range as it's easier to keep the camera steady when it is held to the eye.
The P500's menus are clear and easy to navigate via the large directional control on the rear. This control also provides quick access to exposure compensation, macro, self-timer and flash modes.
A small thumb-wheel is located near the top of the rear, making changes of exposure setting quick and straightforward, and will suit users of Nikon DSLRS, who may be used to this control method.
A built-in pop-up flash raises about an inch clear of the lens, which should help to reduce red-eye in photos taken at reasonably close distances. The flash doesn't pop up automatically and the camera will display an on-screen warning if the flash is engaged but not required.
A burst of five shots can be taken continuously at a rate of eight frames per second. Although this feature is impressive on paper, in practice the camera shoots this burst in under a second, which may result in missing action if the burst isn't accurately timed.
The modest pixel count combined with the back-illuminated CMOS technology and Expeed C2 image-processing engine pays dividends when looking at the quality produced at high ISO sensitivities.
Images taken at ISO sensitivities up to ISO 400 are clear, and fine details are rendered well, with no signs of softening due to noise reduction. Increasing the sensitivity to ISO 800 results in a slight amount of softening, but colours are still vibrant and the loss of fine details is only noticeable on close inspection.
Increasing the sensitivity further results in an increased level of softening due to noise reduction and less vivid colours, but the quality still holds up well, especially when compared to many other compact and bridge-style cameras. Pictures taken at ISO 3200 should still be able to produce respectable 9 x 6-inch prints so long as exposures are accurate.
A comprehensive range of metering options are available through the menu. A choice of Matrix, Centre-weighted, Spot, and Spot metering from the focus area used are available.
The P500's Matrix metering mode performs well in even lighting conditions, but is often fooled by high-contrast scenes, such as backlit subjects and scenes with bright but overcast skies. Exposure compensation of plus or minus two stops may be a bit limiting for some situations.
Many scene modes are available via the menu when the exposure mode dial is set to the scene position. If choosing a scene mode each time is too troublesome, than Nikon's Auto Scene Selector will attempt to do the hard work for you.
In practice, the Auto Scene Selector mode works well much of the time, but occasionally it is fooled in dark lighting conditions, which may result in the camera taking a longer exposure than you may have hoped for.
Quick access to the Night Landscape, Night Portrait, Backlighting and Smart Portrait scene programs is available via the exposure mode dial. Smart Portrait mode enables face detection, smile detection and blink detection for foolproof portrait snapping.
A combination of sensor-shift and electronic image stabilisation technologies have been employed to help tame camera movement and increase the chance of achieving sharp images. These features are especially appreciated when using the telephoto end of the zoom, although quite a bit of light is still required, even with all this technological help.
The auto white balance system on the P500 performs well in a wide range of lighting conditions, indoors and outside. It leaves just enough of a colour cast to retain the original atmosphere of the scene. For those who require more accurate colour the usual range of white balance presets are available through the menu, as well an option to take a custom white balance reading from a neutral surface.
Colours are generally accurately rendered, and if you require a little more or less saturation or contrast, this can be altered easily in the Optimise Image menu.
For a zoom lens covering such a wide range of focal lengths, distortion is remarkably well controlled, especially at the wide-angle end of the zoom range. A little pincushion distortion is visible at the telephoto end, but this should rarely be an issue.
Auto focus is fast, and accurate at shorter focal lengths, but as the lens is zoomed towards telephoto, the more it struggles to lock onto subjects accurately. Occasionally at maximum zoom the lens will refuse to focus at all, even in good light and on subjects with good contrast, which can be quite frustrating. When the lens is focused at maximum zoom, images lack the contrast and sharpness of images taken at shorter focal lengths.
The macro mode enables the camera to be focused as close as one centimetre from the front of the lens at the widest angle of the zoom. A convenient arrow is placed in the zoom display on-screen when in the macro mode. Setting the zoom to this point will result in the maximum magnification, which is a very handy feature to have available.
Image quality and resolution
Examining images of the chart taken at each sensitivity setting reveals the following resolution scores in line widths per picture height x100:
ISO 160, score: 20 (see full image)
ISO 200, score: 20 (see full image)
ISO 400, score: 18 (see full image)
ISO 800, score: 16 (see full image)
ISO 1600, score: 14 (see full image)
ISO 3200, score: 14 (see full image)
Noise and dynamic range
These graphs were produced using data generated by DXO Analyzer.
We shoot a specially designed chart in carefully controlled conditions and the resulting images are analysed using the DXO software.
Signal to noise ratio
A high signal to noise ratio (SNR) indicates a cleaner and better quality image.
JPEG images from the Nikon Coolpix P500 are on par with those from both the Sony Cybershot HX100V and Fujifilm Finepix HS20 up to a sensitivity of ISO 400. Above this value the Nikon Coolpix P500 images have less noise than the comparison cameras.
This chart indicates that the Nikon Coolpix P500's JPEGs dynamic range is comparable with the Panasonic DMC-FZ48
Colours are rendered accurately with default colour settings (See the full-res image here)
Changing the colour settings can result in more vivid colours (See the full-res image here)
Dynamic range levels are very good for a compact camera (See the full-res image here)
Distortion is very low for a camera with such a high zoom range (See the full-res image here)
The telephoto range is ideal for isolating distant subjects (See the full-res image here)
Images taken at maximum telephoto can lack the sharpness of images taken at shorter focal lengths (See the full-res image here)
A marker on the zoom range helps to achieve maximum magnification when using the macro function (See the full-res image here)
Having a wide angle equivalent to a 22.5mm lens on a 35mm camera is ideal for capturing wide vistas or shooting in tight spaces (See the full-res image here)
Shutter lag is minimal once the camera is focused, even when using the flash (See the full-res image here)
1/2.3-in. type CMOS with active cell array
Colour filter array
Approx. 12.75 million pixels
Approx 12.00 million pixels (4000 x 3000)
Optical 36x zoom, NIKKOR lens
4.0-144mm (35mm  format equivalent to 22.5-810 mm)
14 elements in 9 groups (one ED glass element)
Internal memory (approx. 102 MB), SD/SDHC/SDXC memory card
0.24 in. TFT LCD, approx. 230,000 dot with diopter adjustment
7.5 cm (3-inch), approx. 921k-dotTFT LCD monitor
HD 1080p: 1920 x 1080 (30 fps), HD 720p: 1280 x 720 (30 fps), iFrame 540: 960 x 540 (30 fps), VGA: 640 x 480 (30 fps); HS movie: (15/60/120/240 fps; no sound)
Auto (9-area automatic selection), Centre, Face priority, Manual with 99 focus areas, Subject tracking
Max burst rate
Five frames at 8fps approx at 12.1Mp
115.5 x 83.7 x 102.5 mm
Rechargeable Li-ion Battery EN-EL5 (1100 mAh), AC Adapter EH-62A (option)
With the price hovering around the £300 mark, this camera carries a premium price - but for that you get an incredibly large zoom range packaged in a lightweight camera body with a high level of control and decent build quality.
The zoom range provides amazing flexibility, and the extra-wide angle view at the shortest zoom setting can be very useful indeed.
The flexibility afforded by the huge zoom range, low noise at high sensitivities, articulated screen and video recording options are all excellent features.
The lens can struggle to focus accurately at its maximum telephoto point, even in good lighting conditions. Images taken at maximum zoom also seem to lack the level of detail and contrast of images taken at shorter focal lengths.
At the telephoto end, the camera struggles to focus, and images can lack the contrast and sharpness seen at shorter focal lengths. If this is taken into account, and care is taken when using the telephoto end of the zoom range, the P500 can still yield pleasing results.
Apart from that, there are some interesting features which make the P500 stand out from the crowd - such as the high speed video shooting and design touches like the articulated screen and zoom control on the lens barrel.