Nikon Coolpix P500 Review

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!

Photo Gallery

Check out our gallery to see how the Coolpix P500's photo quality looks!

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If you have a question about this review, please send them to Jeff. Due to my limited resources, please do not e-mail me asking for a personal recommendation.