First Looks: Nikon COOLPIX P500

Launch SRP: S$699

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.

The Nikon COOLPIX P500 with its 36x optical zoom is its strongest selling point.

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.

There's no comparable lens that has the same focal range as the P500, but here's one of Nikon's most wide-reaching telephotos to give you a comparison. The Nikkor AF VR 80-400mm weighs 1.36kg, is 171mm long and costs a cool $3199. Of course you get better image quality, but do you really want to carry this around on your holiday?

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.

The P500 is an advanced compact that allows full manual control.

The P500 comes with another zoom toggle on the side of the lens, so you can zoom with either of your hands as you hold the camera.

The LCD swivels from the bottom, so it gives you more freedom to shoot vertically, but not as much 360 degrees of freedom compared to if it swiveled from the side instead.

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.

In Auto mode, the P500's auto-focus is inexplicably locked into center AF only.

Only in other modes like Aperture Priority (shown here) does the AF area mode change to multi-area AF when Auto AF is selected.

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).

Final Thoughts

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.