Nikon Coolpix P520 £399.99
17th Apr 2013 | 15:58
42x optical zoom bridge camera put to the test
Competition in the bridge camera market at the moment is pretty fierce. It's one of the only growing segments in the compact camera market, as users look for something much more advanced than their phone, especially in regards to zoom functionality.
It's a bit of an oxymoron that bridge cameras are lumped into the compact genre when, in actuality, many of them are roughly the same size as entry-level DSLRs. Where the difference lies, however, is in the size of the sensor.
The Nikon P520 houses an 18 million pixel, 1/2.3-inch CMOS sensor. This is the same size as those found in many "normal" compact cameras. However, where this camera, and other cameras of its type, trumps the larger sensored DSLR is the zoom flexibility.
Housing a 42x optical zoom, the Nikon Coolpix P520 boasts a 35mm equivalent focal length of 24-1000mm. That's an incredibly versatile range that could see you shooting everything from sweeping vistas to the deer standing on a hill that you can barely see with the naked eye.
This is a camera aimed at those looking to get a little more from their photography, and as such, it is also capable of full manual control, along with semi-automatic modes (such as aperture and shutter priority). Unfortunately, however, it cannot shoot in raw format.
Along with an articulating 3.2-inch, 921k dot, rear LCD screen, there's also a 201k dot equivalent electronic viewfinder, which is something that may be appreciated by those stepping up from a compact camera or smartphone camera.
A feature that may be of interest to travelling photographers is the inbuilt GPS, which can log the details of a shot's location. This is helpful for plotting on a map when you get back, or remembering the name of the remote village you holidayed in.
The Nikon Coolpix P520 doesn't have Wi-Fi built in, but it is compatible with Nikon's Wu-1a wireless adaptor if you want to add the functionality.
There's a range of creative options available also, including Effects mode and Easy Panorama. Auto HDR mode combines two shots taken at different exposures to create an image with wide dynamic range and rich colour gradation.
Another example of the camera's flexibility is macro focusing, which is available from as close as 1cm for frame-filling shots. A 99-point autofocus system is included, along with subject tracking AF. Furthermore, high speed continuous shooting of up to 10 images at 7fps at full resolution is available, or alternatively, 30 full resolution shots at 1fps.
The Nikon P520 goes head to head with cameras including the Fuji HS50 EXR, which also features a 42x optical zoom. The Fuji, however, boasts a maximum aperture of f/2.8 at the wide end of the lens, compared with the Nikon P520's f/3.0 offering.
Although it doesn't quite have the reach of the Canon PowerShot SX50 HS (which features a 50x optical zoom lens), the two cameras occupy roughly the same price bracket.
Build quality and handling
The Nikon Coolpix P520's large grip and generally large body makes this almost akin in size to an entry-level DSLR, with of course the added benefit that the flexible 42x zoom brings.
For those looking for a serious-looking camera that is weighty and sturdy, without the bother of having to change lenses, this should be a serious contender.
Although the camera is made from plastic, there is a rubberised coating around the hand grip, on the area next to the lens and where your thumb rests at the back of the camera. This gives it good purchase, especially when shooting one-handed, and also lends the camera an air of quality that it might not have if it was entirely plastic in appearance.
Much of the button layout is also very similar to a DSLR. For starters, there's a dial on top of the camera for quickly switching between different modes. Here you'll find all those at home on a DSLR, including full manual mode and semi-automatic modes (shutter priority and aperture priority). On this dial you'll also find full automatic mode, scene mode, effects mode and space for a user-defined group of settings, which is useful if you often find yourself shooting in one particular scenario, such as low light.
Unlike most DSLRs, there's no dial on the finger grip for making changes to settings such as aperture priority. Instead, there is a dial at the rear of the camera, which you can reach with your thumb. This can only be used when in fully manual mode for making changes to shutter speed.
To change aperture (or shutter speed in shutter priority mode) you need to use the scroll dial around the OK button further down the back of the camera.
To change the autofocus point, you need to hit that OK button and then use the scroll dial, or the directional keys which the scroll dial doubles up as, to navigate around the scene to the point you want to use. This is reasonably quick to do, though it could be speedier if a touchscreen was included.
Other settings accessed via the four-way directional pad include exposure compensation, self-timer/drive mode, flash settings and focusing settings. You can choose between standard autofocus, macro focusing, infinity focusing and manual focusing.
There's no quick menu available here, so you will need to delve into the full menu (accessed via a dedicated button) if you want to make extensive changes.
There is, however, a small Function button just next to the mode dial - here you can assign a number of different functions, including white balance, ISO and metering modes. You can change which parameter to access via the button itself, making it almost like a quick menu, if a bit of a convoluted one.
Confusingly, there's a Display button next to the viewfinder, but pressing this while the articulating screen is in the standard home position doesn't switch on the viewfinder. In fact, you can't use the viewfinder at all unless the screen is packed away from view.
Once the screen is packed away, the EVF automatically fires up. It's logical that this happens when the screen is not in use, but not being able to access it when the screen is out is more than a little annoying if you only want to use the EVF sporadically. Having to articulate and unarticulate the screen often gets frustrating pretty quickly.
The 42x optical zoom can be controlled in one of two ways. First, there's a standard zoom switch around the shutter release - common for compact cameras. Secondly, there's a switch on the lens barrel itself, which can be pushed two ways to zoom in and out.
This switch on the lens barrel can also be used to control manual focus if you prefer, setting this via the main menu.
A handy setting that can be configured via the main menu is to have the zoom always set to a certain position on start-up. This is handy if you're finding you're often shooting at one particular focal length towards the end of that huge zoom.
Nikon continues to impress us with the quality of images produced by its Coolpix range. Happily, the P520 is no different.
Images feature vibrant and well-produced colours, without being too over the top. Despite its small size, lots of detail is captured by the 18 million pixel sensor. Some evidence of smudging can be seen when viewing images at 100%, but generally in good light, details are crisp. Viewing at normal printing and web sizes reveals images with plenty to like.
There's also very little evidence of fringing in high contrast areas, which is pleasing to see.
That 42x optical zoom is extremely flexible for shooting a wide range of different subjects, and will surely be appreciated by travelling photographers. The excellent news is that while the zoom itself is quick and fluid to use, images taken at the far end of the telephoto optic also display a good amount of detail with minimal blur caused by camera shake.
Since you can alter the autofocus point, you have a good amount of control over compositions with the Nikon P520. Generally, autofocus locks onto the subject quickly and accurately.
Macro focusing can be activated if you need to get closer to the subject. This results in detailed close-up shots that also have the added benefit of reducing the depth of field for beautiful creative effects. The macro focusing capability of the camera is another advantage that bridge models have over their DSLR counterparts.
Generally, Matrix (all-purpose) metering does a very good job of helping the camera to produce accurate and well-balanced exposures. A couple of times during our review, it did struggle with scenes with very high contrast. If this happens, it's advisable to switch to Spot Metering for a better representation.
Again, automatic white balance does a reasonable job in different lighting conditions. If you find that the camera can't quite keep up, switching to a more suitable white balance option is pretty easy.
The Nikon Coolpix P520 offers some creative filters under the Effects mode found on the mode dial. Since the camera is incapable of shooting in raw format, should you decide down the line that the effects aren't what you really want, you're stuck with them anyway.
That said, there are some fun and interesting effects to experiment with, depending on your personal preference. We particularly liked the High-Contrast Monochrome and Cross Process filters.
As with other Nikon cameras from across its range of compacts, CSCs and DSLRs, there is also the option to adjust Picture Control. This is a more understated way to get creative, enabling you to boost the colours and contrast (Vivid) or create a simple black and white conversion (Monochrome). These can be accessed while shooting in fully manual and semi-automatic modes, giving you greater control over other settings.
The Nikon Coolpix P520's large screen is great for composing your images on, being bright and not suffering particularly badly from glare (except in the very brightest sunlight).
The fact that the screen articulates is a bonus too, since you can manoeuvre it away from very bright light, or have a better angle of view for awkward compositions.
Unfortunately, such high praise can't be lavished on the electronic viewfinder. We've already mentioned that it can't be used unless the screen is packed away, but it is also small and not as responsive as those found on other cameras, particularly the likes of the Nikon 1 compact system cameras.
We'd only recommend using the Nikon Coolpix P520's viewfinder in very bright conditions, or if you want an extra way to stabilise the camera when shooting at the telephoto end of the lens.
Image quality and resolution
As part of our image quality testing for the Nikon P520, we've shot our resolution chart.
If you view our crops of the resolution chart's central section at 100% (or Actual Pixels) you will see that, for example, at ISO 100 the Nikon P520 is capable of resolving up to around 24 (line widths per picture height x100) in its highest quality JPEG files.
For a full explanation of what our resolution charts mean, and how to read them, check out our full explanation of our camera testing resolution charts.
Examining images of the chart taken at each sensitivity setting reveals the following resolution scores in line widths per picture height x100:
Full ISO 80 image, see the cropped (100%) versions below.
ISO 80, score: 22 (Click here to see the full resolution image)
ISO 100, score: 20 (Click here to see the full resolution image)
ISO 200, score: 18 (Click here to see the full resolution image)
ISO 400, score: 16 (Click here to see the full resolution image)
ISO 800, score: 12 (Click here to see the full resolution image)
ISO 1600, score: 10 (Click here to see the full resolution image)
ISO 3200, score: 10 (Click here to see the full resolution image)
ISO 6400, score: n/a (Click here to see the full resolution image)
Noise and dynamic range
We shoot a specially designed chart in carefully controlled conditions and the resulting images are analysed using DXO Analyzer software to generate the data to produce the graphs below.
A high signal to noise ratio (SNR) indicates a cleaner and better quality image.
For more more details on how to interpret our test data, check out our full explanation of our noise and dynamic range tests.
JPEG signal to noise ratio
This chart shows that the Nikon P520's JPEG files have a similar signal to noise ratio to those from the Sony HX200V and Panasonic Lumix FZ200, and a weaker ratio than those from the Canon PowerShot SX50 HS, at every sensitivity setting.
JPEG dynamic range
JPEG images from the Nikon P520 again show a weaker dynamic range than those from the Canon PowerShot SX50 HS at every ISO setting, but produce a similar dynamic range to those from the Sony HX200V and Panasonic Lumix FZ200.
Some examples of image smoothing can be when viewing the image at 100%, however at normal printing and web sizes it's not too much of a problem.
Colours are represented well by the Nikon Coolpix P520, being vibrant without being overly punchy.
The wide angle (24mm-35mm equivalent) of the Nikon P520's lens at the widest point of the optic provides a lot of scope for capturing wide-angle shots, such as landscapes.
Macro focusing enables you to get really close to the subject and fill the frame. It also results in a pleasing shallow depth of field effect.
Cross Process is one of the filters that can be found in the Effects section on the mode dial. Compare this image with a standard image shot below.
The same scene as above, but without any filter used.
High contrast monochrome suits a number of different subjects - including, but not limited to, landscapes.
Other creative functions include the ability to capture 16 frames in one shot.
The 24mm end of the telephoto optic enables capturing of a wide-angle of view.
Compared with the far telephoto end of the optic, image stabilisation has also done a great job of keeping everything sharp here.
Similarly, shot at the far end of the telephoto optic, the camera has produced a detailed image with a pleasing shallow depth of field.
Sensitivity and noise images
Full ISO 80 image, see the cropped (100%) versions below.
The bridge camera is an ever competitive market, with Fujifilm being the dominant manufacturer in this area. As a response, Nikon's P520 has a lot to offer the consumer, and is a good all-round performer.
It's a shame that it can't do things such as shoot in raw format - something the Panasonic FZ200, Canon SX50 HS and Fujifilm X-S1 can all offer. That would have made it a much more appealing camera for those consumers looking for something a little extra.
Otherwise, the handling is good and the image quality - especially at the telephoto end of the optic - is also great. It's a big shame about the quirks of the electronic viewfinder, but a bonus to have an articulating screen. What the Nikon Coolpix P520 gives with one hand, it takes away with the other.
What camera should I buy? your options explained
The huge zoom range makes this a great bridge camera for the travelling photographer. Autofocusing, including macro focusing, is accurate, making it possible to photograph subjects from flowers to far-away wildlife well.
With no raw capture available, flexibility in post-processing is limited, especially when it comes to removing those filters that seemed like a good idea at the time.
What we have here is another very capable bridge camera from Nikon. Unfortunately, while the Nikon Coolpix P520 is an excellent and versatile all-round performer, ultimately there's nothing to get overly excited about, and it is not the best option currently available on the market.
If you're looking for something with a large zoom range, but with more flexibility, take a look at the Canon SX50 HS. Meanwhile, the fantastic Panasonic FZ200 offers a lens with an f/2.8 constant aperture throughout its zoom range, which is also worth consideration.