Nikon Coolpix P500 Review

Using the Nikon Coolpix P500

Record Mode

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:

Resolution Quality # images on 102MB internal memory # images on 4GB SD card (optional)
4000 x 3000
Fine 17 650
Normal 35 1280
Basic 68 2510
10.6M (3:2)
3984 x 2656
Fine 20 730
Normal 39 1450
Basic 77 2800
9M (16:9)
3968 x 2232
Fine 24 880
Normal 47 1720
Basic 91 3350
9M (1:1)
2992 x 2992
Fine 23 1030
Normal 46 2040
Basic 91 3890
3264 x 2448
Fine 26 970
Normal 52 1910
Basic 101 3650
2592 x 1944
Fine 41 1520
Normal 81 2940
Basic 153 5480
2048 x 1536
Fine 65 2410
Normal 126 4640
Basic 235 8620
2.1M (16:9)
1920 x 1080
Fine 98 3550
Normal 182 6700
Basic 329 12000
1600 x 1200
Fine 104 3770
Normal 199 7110
Basic 346 12000
1280 x 960
Fine 156 5740
Normal 286 10000
Basic 470 17200
1024 x 768
Fine 235 8620
Normal 411 15000
Basic 658 24100
640 x 480
Fine 470 17200
Normal 731 24100
Basic 940 30100

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:

Shooting menu
  • Image quality (Fine, normal, basic)
  • Image size (see above chart)
  • Optimize image (Normal, softer, vivid, more vivid, portrait, custom, black and white) - see below
  • White balance (Auto, preset manual, daylight, incandescent, fluorescent x 3, cloudy, flash)
  • ISO sensitivity
    • Sensitivity (Auto, high ISO auto, fixed range auto, 160, 200, 400, 800, 1600, 3200)
    • Minimum shutter speed (None, 1 - 1/125 sec) - how slow of a shutter speed the camera will use before increasing the ISO
  • Metering (Matrix, center-weighted, spot, spot AF area)
  • Exposure bracketing (Off, ±0.3, ±0.7, ±1.0 EV) - see below
  • AF area mode (Face priority, auto, manual, center, subject tracking) - see below
  • Autofocus mode (Single, full-time) - see below
  • Flash exposure compensation (-2EV to +2EV, 1/3EV increments)
  • Noise reduction filter (Normal, low) - for regular shooting
  • Long exposure NR (Auto, on) - when needed or forced on for exposures longer than 1/4 sec
  • Active D-Lighting (Off, low, normal, high) - see below
  • Save user settings - to the spot on the mode dial
  • Reset user settings - the settings saved to the "U" spot on the mode dial are reset
Movie menu - more details on this stuff later in the review
  • Movie options (HD 1080p*, HD1080p, HD 720p, iFrame 540, VGA)
  • HS movie options (QVGA/240 fps, VGA/120 fps, 720p/60 fps, 1080p/15 fps)
  • Open with HS footage (on/off) - whether a button press is required to start recording slow or fast motion videos
  • Autofocus mode (Single AF, full-time AF)
  • Electronic VR (on/off)
  • Wind noise reduction (on/off)
Setup menu
  • Welcome screen (None, Coolpix, select image)
  • Time zone and date - you can set this for home and travel locations
  • Monitor settings
    • Image review (on/off)
    • Brightness (1-5)
    • View/hide framing grid (on/off)
    • View/hide histograms (on/off)
  • Print date (Off, date and time, date)
  • Vibration reduction (On/hybrid, on, off) - hybrid uses electronic stabilization as well as sensor-shift IS; don't forget to turn the image stabilizer off when using a tripod
  • Motion detection (on/off) - whether camera will boost ISO to freeze moving subjects; only available in certain modes
  • AF-assist lamp (Auto, off)
  • Redeye reduction (Pre-flash on, off)
  • Digital zoom (On, crop, off) - see below
  • Assign side zoom control (Zoom, manual focus, snap-back zoom) - discussed earlier
  • Sound settings
    • Button sound (on/off)
    • Shutter sound (on/off)
  • Auto off (30 secs, 1, 5, 30 mins)
  • Format memory/card
  • Language
  • TV settings
    • Video mode (NTSC, PAL)
    • HDMI (Auto, 480p, 720p, 1080i)
    • HDMI device control (on/off) - whether you can control the camera with the remote control of a compatible HDTV
  • Charge by computer (Auto, off) - whether camera is charged over the USB cable when connected to a computer; you may need to turn this off when directly connected to a printer
  • Reset file numbering
  • Blink warning (on/off) - warns you if a subject had their eyes closed
  • Reset all
  • Firmware version

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
View Full Size Image
Active D-Lighting low
View Full Size Image
Active D-Lighting normal
View Full Size Image

Active D-Lighting high
View Full Size Image

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:

ISO 160

ISO 200

ISO 400

ISO 800

ISO 1600

ISO 3200

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:

ISO 160

ISO 200

ISO 400

ISO 800

ISO 1600

ISO 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.

Movie Mode

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:

Frame rate Resolution Playback speed
240 fps 320 x 240 1/8 recorded
120 fps 640 x 480 1/4 recorded
60 fps 1280 x 720 1/2 recorded
15 fps 1920 x 1080 2X recorded

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).

Click to play movie (1920 x 1080, 30 fps, 19.0 MB, QuickTime/H.264 format)

Click to play movie (1920 x 1080, 30 fps, 21.7 MB, QuickTime/H.264 format)

Click to play movie (640 x 480, 120 fps recorded, 7.2 MB, QuickTime/H.264 format)

Playback Mode

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.