Originally Posted: June 21, 2011
Last Updated: July 26, 2011
The Nikon Coolpix P500 ($399) is a fully loaded super zoom camera with a whopping 36X, 22.5 - 810 mm optical zoom lens (the largest available at the moment), an articulating LCD, manual controls, fast continuous shooting, and Full HD movie recording. It uses a 12.1 Megapixel back-illuminated CMOS sensor (though it's no larger than what's found on any other compact camera) and is powered by dual Expeed C2 image processors.
The mega zoom field seems a bit less crowded that it was in previous years, though the Coolpix P500 still has some tough competition, especially from the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-HX100V.
Is the Coolpix P500 the ultimate super zoom camera? Find out now in our review!
What's in the Box?
The Coolpix P500 has an average bundle for a compact camera. Inside the box, you'll find the following:
- The 12.1 effective Megapixel Coolpix P500 digital camera
- EN-EL5 lithium-ion rechargeable battery
- AC-to-USB adapter
- Lens cap w/retaining strap
- Shoulder strap
- USB cable
- A/V cable
- CD-ROMs featuring Nikon ViewNX 2 and User Manual
- 28 page Quick Start Guide (printed) + full manual on CD-ROM
The Coolpix P500 has a whopping 102MB of memory built into it, which holds 17 JPEGs at the highest image quality setting. Even with a healthy amount of memory, you'll still want to pick up a larger memory card right away, The P500 supports SD, SDHC, and SDXC cards, and I'd suggest a 2GB to start with. If you'll be taking a lot of movies, I'd opt for something more like 4GB or 8GB. It's a good idea to get a Class 6 or 10 rated card for best performance. Do note that the P500 is not compatible with UHS-I cards, which are a fairly new type of SDHC/SDXC media.
The P500 uses the classic EN-EL5 battery, which has been used on Nikon cameras for years. This battery contains 4.1 Wh of energy, which a bit lower than I would've liked to have seen on a camera of this size. Here's how that translates into battery life:
The Coolpix P500 has the second worst battery life in the group, coming in almost 40% below average. Thus, you'll probably want to pick up a spare battery when you buy the camera. Also, I've heard stories about poor battery performance that is somehow related to having the "Charge by Computer" option set to auto. I haven't noticed anything out of the ordinary with my P500, though.
I should mention the usual issues about the proprietary batteries that are used by four of the six cameras in the above list. These batteries tend to be pricey (though an extra EN-EL5 is only around $20), and you can't use off-the-shelf batteries in an emergency, as you could with a camera that uses AAs.
The Coolpix P500's battery is charged internally, over a USB cable. You can use an included AC-to-USB adapter to charge, or just plug the camera right into your computer. And then you can go take a day trip to the mountains, as it takes nearly five hours to fully charge the EN-EL5! If you don't want to wait that long, might I suggest the MH-61 external charger, which does the same thing in a fraction of the time (about two hours), and it costs under $20.
Nikon includes a lens cap with a retaining strap with the Coolpix P500, as you'd expect on a super zoom camera.
The Coolpix P500 is very light on accessories. In fact, the only one is the external battery charger (priced from $19) than I mentioned a few paragraphs earlier.
Nikon includes their ViewNX 2 software with the Coolpix P500. The first part of this software that you'll probably encounter is Nikon Transfer 2, which is used to copy photos from the camera to your Mac or PC. In addition to copying images to a set location, you can also have it send them to a backup volume or folder, as well.
Nikon ViewNX 2
Once that's done, you'll find yourself in Nikon ViewNX 2, which has recently received some actual editing tools (previous versions had none). The main screen should look familiar -- it's like every other photo browser these days. Here you can e-mail, print, geo-tag, or view a slideshow of your photos. You can also upload them to Nikon's My Picturetown service.
Editing in ViewNX 2
Above you can see the image editing screen. You can adjust things like sharpness/contrast/brightness/and color, brighten shadows, straighten a crooked photo, remove redeye, or reduce chromatic aberrations. ViewNX 2 also has a movie editor built in. You can put clips into a timeline, remove unwanted footage, add transitions, and then save the results as a new video.
ArcSoft PanoramaMaker 5 Pro
Also included is ArcSoft's PanoramaMaker 5 Pro. While the Coolpix P500 can create panoramas right on the camera, you can also shoot them manually, and use this software to stitch them together. It does a really nice job, and you can even order giant prints of the photo right from the software.
The manual for the Coolpix P500 is split into two parts. First, there's a 28 page "Quick Start Guide" in the box, which is enough to get you up and running, but not much further. For more details, you'll have to load up the full manual, which can be found in PDF format on an included CD-ROM. The quality of the manuals is better than average -- it's too bad that you have to get out a CD to read it, though. Documentation for the included software is installed onto your Mac or PC.
Look and Feel
The Coolpix P500 is a fairly large camera (with a 36X zoom lens, it kind of has to be) that looks very much like the P100 that came before it. The body is made almost entirely of plastic, which makes it feel lighter than you'd expect. It's well put together, with even the door over the battery/memory card compartment feeling pretty sturdy. The camera is easy to hold, courtesy of a large right hand grip.
The camera is loaded with various buttons and dials, most of which are well placed. The only trouble spot I could find was the HD/HS movie mode switch, which is pretty easy to bump. The P500 has two zoom controllers -- one in the traditional position and another on the side of the lens. The side zoom controller can also be used to adjust the manual focus, or "snap" the lens back toward the wide-angle position. One thing I wish the camera had were some direct buttons for things like ISO, or at least a shortcut menu.
|Images courtesy of Nikon USA|
The Coolpix P500 is available in black and a rather unique red.
Now let's take a look at how the Coolpix P500 compares to other super zooms in terms of size and weight:
As you can see, the Coolpix P500 is right in the middle of the group when it comes to size and weight.
Let's tour the Coolpix P500 now, shall we?
The biggest feature on the Coolpix P500 is, of course, it's 36X optical zoom lens. This lens isn't the fastest out there, with a maximum aperture range of F3.4-5.7, but it'll win any focal length battle. The focal length of the lens is 4.0 - 144 mm, which is equivalent to 22.5 - 810 mm. Of course, at 810 mm, you'll probably want to use a tripod for the best results! The lens isn't threaded, and thus conversion lenses and filters are not supported.
Image stabilization is a requirement on a camera with a huge lens like this. The P500 uses a sensor-shift IS system (which Nikon calls Vibration Reduction) to reduce the risk of blurring photos due to camera shake, and it can also use some electronic trickery to further enhance the effect (if you want). How well does the IS system work? Let's see:
Image stabilization off
Image stabilization on (standard)
Both of the photos above were taken at a shutter speed of 1/5 of a second. As you can see, the VR system did its job, producing a noticeably sharper photo. Image stabilization is a good thing to have in movie mode, especially when you've got such a powerful lens. Unfortunately, like many other cameras that use sensor-shift IS, the Coolpix P500 only supports electronic VR in movie mode, which isn't nearly as effective as the real thing (see example).
Straight above the Nikon logo is the P500's pop-up flash, which is released manually. This flash is fairly powerful, with a working range of 0.5 - 8.0 m at wide-angle and 2.2 - 4.5 m at telephoto (both at Auto ISO). Since the P500 lacks a hot shoe, you cannot add an external flash.
The only other item of note on the front of the camera is the AF-assist lamp. The P500 uses this as a focusing aid in low light situations, and it also serves as a visual countdown for the self-timer.
One of the nice features on the Coolpix P500 -- carried over from its predecessor -- is an articulating LCD display. The screen can be pulled away from the body, and then tilted 90 degrees upward or 82 degrees down. While articulating LCDs aren't quite as flexible as one that flips to the side and rotates, it's still better than an old-fashioned fixed display.
Here you can see the LCD in a more traditional position. This 3-inch screen has 921,000 pixels, so everything is ridiculously sharp. The screen is bright and easy to see outdoors, and in low light, it "gains up" automatically, so you can still make out your subject (though the frame rate drops considerably). The viewing angle was quite good, as well.
Another way to compose photos is to use the camera's electronic viewfinder, which is located right above the LCD. I found that the viewfinder doesn't protrude very far from the camera body, so your nose ends up leaving prints on the LCD. The EVF, which is 0.24", is an LCD that you use as if it was an optical viewfinder. Unfortunately, the 230k pixel resolution is quite low, so you'll probably end up using the main LCD in most situations. You can adjust the focus of the EVF by using the diopter correction knob located on its left side.
Now let's talk about buttons, dials, and switches. To the left of the EVF is the button used to switch between it and the main LCD. Jumping to the right, we find the Display button, which is used to toggle the information shown on the LCD/EVF. Next to that is the dedicated movie recording button, which has a switch for moving between regular and high speed mode below it. Next door to that is the camera's control dial, used for adjusting exposure compensation, shutter speed, and aperture. The dial can also be used to scroll through the menus.
Moving downward, you can see the button for entering playback mode, with the four-way controller beneath it. The four-way controller is used for menu navigation, and also:
- Up - Flash setting (Auto, auto w/redeye reduction, flash off, fill flash, slow sync, rear-curtain sync)
- Down - Focus mode (Autofocus, macro, infinity, manual)
- Left - Self-timer (Off, 2 or 10 secs)
- Right - Exposure compensation (-2EV to +2EV)
- Center - OK
Manual focus, with center frame enlargement
The only thing from there I want to mention is the manual focus feature. There, you'll use the four-way controller to set the focus distance yourself. The center of the frame is enlarged, and while a guide is shown, the lack of actual distance numbers makes it difficult to use.
The final set of buttons on the back of the Coolpix P500 are for entering the menu system and deleting a photo.
The first thing to see on the top of the Coolpix P500 is its stereo microphone.
To the right of that is the mode dial, which is full of options for both beginners and enthusiasts. They include:
First, a few notes about manual controls. The full shutter speed range is only available in "M" mode, and even then, you have to watch your ISO setting, as it restricts the shutter speed range. Something that would've been nice in full manual mode is a bulb mode, but alas, there isn't one. Something else you won't find on the P500 is support for the RAW image format.
The point-and-shoot features are far more interesting to talk about. The Smart Portrait feature starts off with both face and smile detection activated, so it'll automatically take a photo as soon as someone in the scene cracks a smile.
The backlighting mode can use fill flash, but perhaps more interesting is the HDR (high dynamic range) function. The HDR function combines two or three exposures (Nikon doesn't say) and saves two files: one with D-Lighting applied (more on that feature later) and another that combines an under and overexposed image (this is the true HDR photo).e So does it help with overall image contrast?
View Full Size Image
View Full Size Image
The first thing to tell you is that I downsized the crops by 50% in order to fit them on the page. The second thing is that photos taken in HDR mode are zoomed in a bit in the final image, so keep that in mind when composing your photos. As for the contrast issue, in the two tests of the HDR feature that I performed (one of which is above), the improvement was small, at best. The real change is in terms of sharpness, and not for the better. The P500's already soft photos look quite poor in HDR mode. Thus, I'd probably pass on that, and use the Active D-Lighting feature that I'll discuss later if you need to brighten up your photos (though it has its own set of issues).
The P500 can select a scene mode automatically, or you can choose one yourself, with plenty to choose from. Buried in the scene menu is a panorama feature, which lets you pan the camera from side-to-side and a stitched image is created instantly. You can choose 180 or 360 degree panoramas, with the resulting images being 3200 x 560 and 6400 x 560, respectively (when shooting horizontally).
There's also a "pet portrait" feature in the scene menu. The camera will detect the face of a cat or dog (up to five at a time) and continuous shooting is on by default, so you don't miss any action. A pet portrait auto release feature will take up to five photos of your pets automatically. The P500 also turns off the AF-assist lamp and the camera sounds so your pets don't get spooked.
There are night portrait and night landscape scene modes right on the mode dial. The only thing I want to say about those is that there's an option to choose between handheld and tripod. The handheld option will shoot a series of images, then combining them into a single photo. I unfortunately did not get a chance to try this, but from past experience, don't expect miracles. The tripod mount uses a single exposure, and should result in a cleaner-looking photo.
To the right of the mode dial is the power button. Above that is another button, this time for setting the drive mode. There are a whopping seven different continuous shooting modes on the Coolpix P500, and they include:
The full resolution continuous modes are pretty good, though as you can see, you can't shoot at 10 frames/second for very long. There are several faster burst modes, but the resolution is much lower for all of them and, in the case of the 60 and 120 fps modes, you can't actually see what you're photographing -- the LCD freezes and almost thirty seconds later, the images are available. Also, unlike most cameras, the P500 stops shooting when it reaches the limits above. You need to press the shutter release again to take another burst.
There's one other item in the drive menu, and that's the interval (AKA time-lapse) shooting mode. In this mode, you set the interval between each shot (30 sec, 1, 5, or 10 mins) and the camera will keep taking photos until it reaches a set limit (which depends on the chosen interval). Use of the AC adapter is strongly recommended.
Finishing up our look at the top of the camera, the last thing to see is the shutter release button, which has one of the P500's two zoom controllers wrapped around it. The zoom controller moves the lens from wide-angle to telephoto in just 2.7 seconds. I counted thirty-five steps in the camera's enormous 36X zoom range.
The first thing to see on this side of the Coolpix P500 is the side zoom controller. If you'd like, you can have this lever control manual focus or snap-back focus instead.
At the center of the photo is the release for the camera's pop-up flash. Continuing to the right we find the speaker and then the I/O ports, which are under a rubber cover. The ports here include USB + A/V output and mini-HDMI.
The lens is at the wide-angle position here.
There's nothing to see on the opposite side of the camera, though it's worth pointing out that the huge 36X lens is at the telephoto position here.
On the bottom of the Coolpix P500 we find a metal tripod mount, which is neither centered nor in-line with the lens. Next door to that is the battery/memory card compartment which has a reinforced plastic door of decent quality. Do note that you won't be able to open this door while the camera is on a tripod.
The included EN-EL5 lithium-ion battery can be seen at right.
Using the Nikon Coolpix P500
The Coolpix P500 is ready to start taking pictures just one second after you press the power button -- most impressive. The fact that the lens doesn't extend very much when at the wide-angle (starting) position has a lot to do with that, I'm sure.
Autofocus speeds were about average for a camera in the super zoom class. At the wide end of the lens, expect focus lock in 0.3 - 0.5 seconds. Telephoto focusing will take 0.6 - 1.0 seconds, and sometimes a bit longer. Focusing can be difficult when you're at full telephoto and your subject is moving due to camera shake, though that would likely be an issue with any camera with a lens this big. In low light situations, the P500 focuses accurately, though the camera is rather slow in these situations, taking a second or more to "hunt" for focus lock.
I did not find shutter lag to be an issue on the P500, even at slower shutter speeds where it often crops up.
Shot-to-shot delays range from two seconds without the flash, to just over three seconds with it. As I mentioned earlier, the camera may be locked up for eight seconds or more after you take a burst of photos.
After you take a photo, you can hit the delete button to review and/or delete the shot you just took.
Now, let's take a look at the numerous image size and quality options available on the Coolpix P7000:
If that isn't overkill, then I don't know what is! You can see that the P500 can take photos at 16:9, 3:2, and 1:1 aspect ratios, in addition to the standard 4:3.
Unfortunately, the Coolpix P500 does not support the RAW image format.
The Coolpix P7000 has the standard Nikon menu system, which is fairly attractive, and easy-to-navigate. It does not have the help screens found on some of Nikon's D-SLRs, unfortunately. The menu is divided into three tabs, covering shooting, movie, and setup options. Keeping in mind that not all of these options will be available in every shooting mode, here's the full list:
|Movie menu - more details on this stuff later in the review
Looks like I've got some explaining to do before we can move on to the photo tests!
Let's begin with the Optimize Image menu. While most of the options here are presets (such as softer, vivid, and portrait), both the custom and black and white items can be customized. For the custom option, you can adjust contrast (Auto, -2 to +2), sharpness (auto, -2 to +2, off), and saturation (Auto, -1 to +1). The black and white option has both contrast and sharpening, plus a monochrome filter (yellow, orange, red, green, sepia). In black and white mode, there's also a checkbox that allows you to take a color and monochrome image at the same time.
The P500 has a fairly standard set of white balance presets, including a custom option, which allows you to use a white or gray card, for accurate color in mixed lighting. You can also fine-tune most of the WB choices, in the blue or red direction. Two things you cannot do: set the color temperature, or bracket for white balance.
Speaking of bracketing, this feature will take three shots in a row, each with a different exposure setting. The interval between each shot can be 0.3, 0.7, or 1.0 EV.
There are several ISO settings, including three auto modes. There's a regular Auto mode (which tops out at 800), a High ISO Auto mode (with a limit of ISO 1600), and a fixed range of either 160-200 or 160-400. If you're going to use an Auto mode, stick with one of the two fixed range choices. You'll see why later.
The P500 locked onto four of the six faces
Now let's talk about autofocus modes. There are five to choose from, including face priority, auto (9-point), manual (choose from 99 possible positions), center, and subject tracking. The P500's face detection system was good but not fantastic, typically locking onto three or four of the six faces in our test scene. The subject tracking feature lets you point a target at your subject, press the OK button, and the camera will keep them in focus as the move around the frame. The P500 supports both single and continuous (full-time) AF, with the latter reducing focus times at the expense of battery life.
The Coolpix P7000 has the same Active D-Lighting feature as most of Nikon's other compact and D-SLR cameras. This feature's aim is simple: to preserve highlight and shadow detail. It's off by default, and you have three levels to choose from (low, normal, high). Do note that both noise and processing times will increase when using this feature. Want to see it in action? Look below:
|Active D-Lighting off
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|Active D-Lighting low
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|Active D-Lighting normal
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I know what you're thinking -- the photos are in the wrong order. That's what I thought too, but it's not the case. First things first, though -- Active D-Lighting does a great job of brightening the dark areas of your photos. The bad news is that noise levels increase -- you can't make something from nothing after all. As for why the shadows get darker as the ADL setting goes up: the camera is restoring highlight detail, and the shadow brightening effect is reduced as a result. You can brighten photos after you've taken them by using a regular (non-active, I guess) D-Lighting feature in playback mode.
Alright, that does it for menus -- let's move on to photo quality now.
Our macro test shot turned out just okay. It's on the soft side, and you can see the effects of noise reduction if you look closely. While most of the colors look good, the reds are really washed out for some reason. Since it didn't seem to be an issue in my real world photos, I'm chalking it up to white balance weirdness in the studio.
In order to get as close to your subject as possible in macro mode, you need to get the lens into its "sweet spot". When the macro flower on the LCD/EVF is green, that means that the focus distance is just 1 cm. After that, the distance is 10 cm.
The Coolpix P500 won't win any awards for its night shot performance. There's a lot of noise and noise reduction here at ISO 160, which is eating away at the corners of buildings. There's both purple and cyan-colored fringing here, as well. Thankfully, highlight clipping isn't too bad. To take long exposures like this you'll want to use "M" mode (since that's where the full range of shutter speeds is available) or use the night landscape mode (preferably at the "tripod" setting.
Now let's use that same night scene to see how the Coolpix P500 performed across its entire ISO range:
While the ISO 160 and 200 shots are about the same, things go downhill rapidly after that. Details really start disappearing at ISO 400, so I'd try to stay below this setting if possible. Images become a noisy mess at ISO 800 and above, with the top two settings being especially poor. Since there's no RAW mode on the P500, this is probably as good as you'll get.
We'll take a look at the Coolpix P500's high ISO performance in normal lighting in a moment.
The Coolpix P500 takes a two-pronged approach to redeye reduction. First, it fires the flash a few times, ahead of the actual exposure. After the picture is taken, the camera detects any leftover redeye, and removes it digitally. As you can see above, it did a pretty good job at reducing this annoyance. If any redeye does slip by, you'll have to fix it on your PC, as there's no removal tool in playback mode.
There's remarkably little distortion at the wide end of the Coolpix P500's 22.5 - 810 mm lens. My guess is that Nikon is digitally reducing distortion here. I did not find corner blurring or vignetting (dark corners) to be a problem on this camera.
And here's that normal lighting ISO test that I promised earlier. Since this photo is taken in our studio, it's comparable to those taken with other cameras I've reviewed over the years. Keep in mind that the crops below only cover a small portion of the scene, so view the full size photos if you can! And with that, let's once again take a trip from ISO 100 to 3200:
As with the night shots, the ISO 160 and 200 photos are nearly identical. Images get softer and there's a slight drop in color saturation at ISO 400, and I'd stop here unless you're really desperate. Noise reduction makes the ISO 800 - 3200 photos softer and softer as the sensitivity increases, and those sensitivities are best avoided.
Overall, the Coolpix P500's image quality is just fair. Exposure was accurate, though you will see clipped highlights at times (as is the case with nearly all compact cameras). Colors were pleasing in most cases, with the exception being in our studio, where everything seemed washed out. The P500's big problem relates to sharpness and detail. Images are very soft and "over-processed", with very noticeable detail loss -- even at the base ISO of 160. You'll especially notice the detail loss on fine textures and in darker areas of your photos, with these two photos serving as good examples. The P500 does not perform well at high sensitivities, so you want to keep that ISO as low as possible (400 max). Purple fringing was an issue at times, but it wasn't horrible. If you'll be sticking to low ISOs and small prints, then you probably won't notice any of the image quality flaws that I just mentioned. For those who want to shoot at higher sensitivities or make larger prints, the detail loss is hard to miss.
Don't just take my word for all this -- have a look at our extensive Coolpix P500 photo gallery! After reviewing the photos -- and maybe printing a few of them -- you should be able to decide if the P500's photo quality meets your needs.
The Coolpix P500 has a very nice movie mode. You can record Full HD video -- that's 1920 x 1080 at 30 frames/second -- with stereo sound for up to 29 minutes. There are two 1080p settings to choose from: high quality with a 14 Mbps bit rate, or standard quality at 12 Mbps. You can also record at 1280 x 720 and 640 x 480, both at 30 fps. The P500 also supports Apple's poorly advertised iFrame 540 codec, which has a resolution of 960 x 540 and a bit rate of 24 Mbps.
You can use the optical zoom lens to your heart's content on the P500. The camera can focus continuously, though it's not as responsive as it needs to be for capturing fast action. Speaking of which, when you press the movie recording button there's a roughly one second blackout before the live view returns and recording actually begins. When shooting kite surfers, this delay usually meant that my subject had already moved out of the frame, so I'd have to go looking for them (good thing the camera has a trimming function). The sensor-shift IS system cannot be used in movie mode, as I mentioned earlier. The electronic system is not great -- especially at the telephoto end of the lens -- and I have a sample movie below to illustrate that. There are no manual controls in movie mode, unless you count a wind filter.
The P500 can also record videos at variable frame rates at the flip of a switch. These videos are played back at 30 fps, resulting in either slow or fast motion. The four choices are:
I've got a pretty cool sample for you below showing the 120 fps mode in action!
Movies are saved in QuickTime format, using the H.264 codec.
There are three samples available in this review: two Full HD, one high speed. The second Full HD sample is really to illustrate the difficulty of recording video at the telephoto end of the lens without mechanical image stabilization. And for those wondering, the wind filter was off for that one (oops).
The Coolpix P500 has a nice playback mode. Basic features include slideshows, image protection, DPOF print marking, favorite tagging, thumbnail view, and playback zoom. Do note that the camera does not automatically rotate portrait photos, unlike nearly all cameras.
|Playback mode menu||Filtering photos by date|
The P500 offers the ability to thumb through your photos in a number of ways. You can sort them by scene mode, date, or whether they're tagged as favorites. In addition to the "list by date" screen you see above, there's also a calendar-style view that you can access by pressing the "zoom out" button repeatedly.
Editing features available in playback mode included Quick Retouch (boosts contrast and saturation), D-Lighting (brightens shadows), skin softening, and various special effects (soft, selective color, cross screen, fisheye, and miniature effect). Photos can also be rotated, cropped, and resized. As I mentioned in the previous section, there's no redeye removal tool in playback mode.
Movie editing tools include a trimming feature, which allows you to remove unwanted footage from the beginning or end of a clip, as well as the ability to grab a frame and save it as a still image.
By default, the camera shows you very little information about your photos. Press the display button and you'll see a bit more, including a histogram and clipped highlights.
The Coolpix P500 moves from photo-to-photo without delay.
How Does it Compare?
The Nikon Coolpix P500 is a super zoom camera with the world's most powerful zoom lens (though who knows how long that record will last). It packs a whopping 36X, 22.5 - 810 mm lens into a relatively small and light package. The P500 has a number of popular point-and-shoot features, such as auto scene selection, face/smile/blink detection, and special effects, plus full manual controls. It also has the ability to record Full HD video with stereo sound and use of the optical zoom lens. All of these features are accessed via a beautiful articulating 3-inch LCD or so-so electronic viewfinder. Unfortunately, the P500's image quality is not nearly as good as the rest of the package. Images are soft, with lots of detail loss, even at low ISOs (and forget about high sensitivities). The mediocre image quality is why I can only recommend the Coolpix P500 to folks making small prints of photos taken at low ISO sensitivities.
The Coolpix P500 is a fairly small (relatively speaking) super zoom camera. It's made of plastic, yet feels quite solid. The large, rubberized right hand grip makes the camera easy to hold, and the important controls are easy to reach. Nikon has thoughtfully put a secondary zoom controller on the side of the camera, which you can use while supporting the lens with your left hand. The P500 could use more direct buttons (or at least a quick menu), as too many options require a trip to the main menu. The P500's biggest feature is its F3.4-5.7, 36X optical zoom lens. This lens, with a focal range of 22.5 - 810 mm, would require multiple lenses and thousands of dollars to achieve on a digital SLR. And it's not just good at telephoto stuff -- the lens can take macro shots from as little as 1 cm away. The P500 has a sensor-shift image stabilization system that does a good job in most situations, though it seemed to struggle at the telephoto end of the lens (not surprisingly). And that's one issue about all cameras with huge zooms -- keeping the camera stable at more than 800 mm is nearly impossible without a tripod. On the back of the camera is a very impressive 3-inch, articulating LCD display. It sports over 921,000 pixels and offers good outdoor visibility and a wide viewing angle. You can also compose and view photos on the camera's electronic viewfinder, though it's 230k pixel resolution means that things aren't very sharp.
The P500 has a nice mix of features for both beginners and advanced users. Those just starting out will probably end up using the regular auto mode, or perhaps the Scene Auto Selector mode, which is the default option in the scene menu. There are plenty of other scene modes to choose from, including a cool "sweep panorama" clone. The P500 also has the ability to combine several exposures into a single image for blur-free photos in low light, though I did not get a chance to try that feature. While the camera's HDR mode did not impress, I found the Active D-Lighting feature to do a good job of improving contrast, though be warned that noise levels will go up. Another feature of note is Smart Portrait mode, which combines face, smile, and blink detection to take photos when your subjects are looking their best. In terms of manual controls, you've got them for aperture, shutter speed (though you need to be in "M" mode to get the full range), focus, and white balance (including fine-tuning). The P500 unfortunately lacks support for the RAW image format.
The other big selling point on the Coolpix P500 is its Full HD movie mode. You can record up to 29 minutes worth of 1080/30p video with stereo sound. You can use the optical zoom while you're recording (though the microphone may pick up the sound of the lens motor), and the camera can focus continuously (but is slow to react). One thing that's not available in movie mode is the sensor-shift image stabilization system, and the electronic version is no substitute for the real thing -- especially on a camera with a monster lens. In addition to taking HD movies, the P500 can also shoot at different frame rates, ranging from 15 to 240 fps. When played back on the camera or your computer, these movies appear to fast (at 15 fps) or slow motion (at 60/120/240 fps). Something that I really didn't care like about the P500's movie mode was the blackout between the time you press the button and when the movie actually starts recording. For videos where your subject is tightly cropped and moving, this delay can cause you to lose track of them.
I've already mentioned a few things about camera performance, and here are some more. The Coolpix P500 starts up remarkably quickly for a super zoom, taking just over a second to extend its lens and prepare for shooting. In good light, autofocus speeds ranged from 0.3 - 0.5 seconds at wide-angle to around twice that at full telephoto. Low light focusing is accurate, but on the slower side of the spectrum. I didn't find shutter lag to be a problem, and shot-to-shot delays were brief in most situations. The exception is when you've taken a burst of photos, which will lock up the camera for anywhere from 8 to 30 seconds (and that's with a very fast SDHC card). Speaking of burst modes, the P500 has seven of them, plus a time-lapse feature. You can shoot at 10 frames/second (up to 5 shots) or 1.8 frames/second (up to twelve shots), and there are even faster options if you lower the resolution considerably. The Coolpix P500's battery life is well below average for its class, and the internal charging system takes forever (5 hours), so do yourself a favor and buy an external charger.
The P500's weak spot is definitely photo quality. Starting on a positive note, exposures were accurate, and highlight clipping wasn't any worse than other compact cameras. Colors were pleasing in most situations, except in our studio, where everything seemed washed out (I'm guessing it's a white balance issue). Redeye and purple fringing levels were fairly low. Now, the bad news. Despite the back-illuminated CMOS sensor and dual image processors, the P500's photos are soft and over-processed, with lots of detail loss -- even at the base ISO of 160. Things get worse quickly, so don't expect to be shooting above ISO 400 on the Coolpix P500. Now, if you're a casual shooter who shares their photos on Facebook or via 4 x 6 inch prints, then these issues probably won't matter. But those who want to make larger prints or shoot in low light will want to consider another camera.
I have three last things to mention before I wrap things up. First, the P500 scores some points for having a lot of built-in memory -- 102MB, to be exact. That doesn't make up for the fact that Nikon puts the full manual on a CD-ROM, though. Finally, you won't be able to access the memory card while the camera is on a tripod, which is a common issue on compact cameras.
The Nikon Coolpix P500 illustrates a point I often make about the marketing-driven world of digital cameras. A camera can have the biggest zoom, the most pixels, or elaborate bells and whistles, but if can't take decent photos, who cares? The P500 is well designed and easy-to-use, but it needs a lot of work in the photo quality department before I start jumping up and down about it. As I said above, if you're not planning on doing much with your photos then it's worth a look, but enthusiasts or those who just want the best picture quality possible should look elsewhere.
- Huge 36X zoom lens with great 22.5 - 810 mm range
- Well designed, lightweight, easy-to-hold body
- Beautiful articulating 3-inch LCD with good outdoor visibility
- Fast start-up time for super zoom
- Plenty of manual controls
- Scene Auto Selector picks a scene mode for you
- Handy side zoom controller lets you zoom while keeping the camera steady
- Well-implemented sweep panorama feature
- Not much redeye
- Full HD movie mode, with stereo sound, use of optical zoom, and full-time autofocus
- Fun variable frame rate mode allows for super slow-motion videos (or just the opposite)
- Lots of built-in memory
- HDMI output
What I didn't care for:
- Images are soft, over-processed/fuzzy, with noticeable detail loss, even at base ISO
- Poor high ISO performance
- Movie mode annoyances: delay before movie recording starts, lack of "real" image stabilization, sluggish AF
- No RAW support
- Lengthy write times after burst is taken
- Below average battery life; very slow internal charging
- Hard to keep camera steady at telephoto (though this is a super zoom issue, not specific to the P500)
- EVF resolution is not great
- More direct buttons or a quick menu would've been nice
- Can't access memory card while camera is on a tripod
- Full manual on CD-ROM
Some other super zoom cameras to consider include the Canon PowerShot SX30 IS, Fuji FinePix HS20EXR, Kodak EasyShare Max Z990, Olympus SP-800UZ, and the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-HX100V. As of "press time", the only one of those I've reviewed is the Canon, a camera which I wasn't overly enthusiastic about either.
As always, I recommend heading to your local camera or electronics store to try out the Coolpix P500 and its competitors before you buy!
Check out our gallery to see how the Coolpix P500's photo quality looks!