Nikon Coolpix P500 Review

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:

Camera Dimensions (W x H x D, excluding protrusions) Volume (bulk) Mass (empty)
Canon PowerShot SX30 IS 4.8 x 3.6 x 4.2 in. 72.6 cu in. 601 g
Fujifilm FinePix HS20EXR 5.1 x 3.6 x 5.0 in. 91.8 cu in. 636 g
Kodak EasyShare Max Z990 4.9 x 3.4 x 3.7 in. 61.6 cu in. 589 g
Nikon Coolpix P500 4.6 x 3.3 x 4.1 in. 62.2 cu in. 494 g
Olympus SP-800UZ 4.2 x 2.9 x 3.3 in. 40.2 cu in. 416 g
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-HX100V 4.9 x 3.5 x 3.8 in. 65.2 cu in. 525 g

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?

Front of the Nikon Coolpix P500

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.

Back of the Nikon Coolpix P500

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.

Top of the Nikon Coolpix P500

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:

Option Function
Auto mode Point-and-shoot, with some menu options locked up.
Program mode Still automatic, but with access to all menu options. The Flexible Program feature lets you scroll through several shutter speed / aperture combinations by using the command dial.
Shutter priority mode You choose the shutter speed, and the camera picks the appropriate aperture. Shutter speed range is 2 - 1/1500 sec.
Aperture priority mode You choose the aperture, and camera picks the correct shutter speed. The aperture range is F3.4 - F8.
Full manual (M) mode Choose both the shutter speed and aperture yourself. The aperture range stays the same, while the shutter speed range expands to 8 - 1/1500 sec. Do note that the slowest shutter speeds are not available to high sensitivities.
User mode Store your favorite camera settings to this spot on the mode dial
Smart portrait mode Combines face priority AF with smile and blink detection. A skin softening feature is also available.
Backlighting mode Fires the flash or takes a high dynamic range photo for better contrast when your subject has a bright backlight.
Night portrait mode For taking portraits or landscapes in low light. Tripod strongly recommended.
Night landscape mode

Scene mode

Choose from Scene Auto Selector or select your own scene. The choices here include portrait, landscape, sports, party/indoor, beach, snow, sunset, dusk/dawn, close-up, food, museum, fireworks show, black & white copy, panorama, and pet portrait.

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?

Original image
View Full Size Image
HDR 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).

A 180 degree panorama, stitched right on the camera

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:

Setting Measured performance
Continuous high Takes five shots in a row at 10 frames/sec
Continuous low Takes twelve shots at 1.8 frames/sec
Pre-shooting cache Takes twenty-five shots, five of which were recorded before you fully pressed the shutter release button, at 10 frames/sec. Resolution is 2 Megapixel.
Continuous H: 120 fps Takes fifty photos at 120 fps (per Nikon). Resolution is set to 1280 x 960.
Continuous H: 60 fps Takes twenty-five photos at 60 fps (per Nikon). Resolution is set to 1600 x 1200.
Best Shot Selector Camera takes ten shots in a row and saves the sharpest one. A classic Coolpix feature.
Multi-shot 16 Camera takes 16 pictures at about 30 fps and combines them into a 5 Megapixel collage.

Tested with a Panasonic Class 10 SDHC card

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.

Side of the Nikon Coolpix P500

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.

Side of the Nikon Coolpix P500

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.

Bottom of the Nikon Coolpix P500

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.