First Looks: Nikon COOLPIX P500
A Far-Reaching 36x Optical Zoom Camera
The Nikon COOLPIX P500 is one of those cameras some used to call 'bridge' cameras, a category which existed between a standard compact and a DSLR camera. This was before mirrorless interchangeable lens swooped into the scene and became the new bridge cameras. But what the P500 and these cameras really are, are compact cameras with super-long zooms and manual handling.
It's in the Zoom
The P500 has an impressive 36x optical zoom, which is a focal length in 35mm lens equivalent of 22.5-810mm. Trying to get the same length with a DSLR would involve multiple lenses, one of which would be large and heavy enough to warrant its own tripod. The P500 packs that super-long zoom into a much smaller package which you can comfortably stuff into a bag, and that is its strongest point.
The P500 comes with Aperture, Shutter priority modes as well as full Manual. It even has a back control dial just like a DSLR so you can easily change your manual settings. The zoom toggle surrounds the shutter release, and has a comfortably well defined lever. The P500 lets you zoom another way, with a zoom toggle on the side of the lens so you can zoom with either hand holding the P500. The tilt-able LCD swivels up and down, so it affords you more angles to shoot from vertically, but doesn't give as much leeway as an LCD which swivels from the side.
There is a frustrating feature in Auto mode: The AF point doesn't shift away from the center. A rectangular center AF target is displayed which can't be shifted with the d-pad. When you switch to other modes like Aperture Priority however, AF changes from center to multi-area, but it goes back to center focus when you switch back to Auto.
It's the first time we've seen a camera not offer control over such an essential element as AF mode even in Auto and is simply baffling, not to mention a pain to use - you have to center focus and shift the camera every time you want to compose an image with an off-center subject.
AF speeds are decent, but the P500 seems to have more trouble getting a lock the further you zoom out. Getting a sharp, steady shot at the furthest end is difficult, because the smallest movement of your hands trigger a large shift of the lens. The P500's image stabilization helps some, but not a lot, so if you want to shoot racked out at 36x you're better off with a tripod (DSLR cameras with long zoom lenses face the same challenge).
The Nikon P500 is a camera with a host of strengths, but it doesn't feel quite finished. 36x optical zoom is an achievement and image quality suffices. But the AF system leaves more to be desired and movie mode suffers from unexplained distortion when image stabilization is turned on.