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Nikon Coolpix P500 Review
by Jim Keenan -  4/11/2011

Going where no Coolpix has gone before, the Nikon P500 expands the ultrazoom lens envelope out to 36x, currently the largest in the class and well past the 26x zoom of the P100. But while Nikon went long on the zoom multiplier, they went wide on the lens.

Nikon Coolpix P500


The P500 starts out at 22.5mm and tops out at 810mm in 35mm equivalents, giving up 30mm of telephoto coverage to the longest lenses in the class. Here's what that focal range looks like:

Nikon P500 Sample Image Nikon P500 Sample Image

And before you're too quick to knock the image quality of the telephoto shot, consider that the Oceanside pier is nearly 4 miles away - that's a lot of atmospheric disturbance to shoot through. In any event, even with stabilization that long lens makes the P500 a good candidate for a tripod or monopod to assist with managing camera shake when shooting telephoto work.

While the Coolpix P100 remains on Nikon USA's website at this writing, expect it to fade from view as existing supplies dry up. The P500 is a virtual twin on the outside - size and weight are very similar, and the $400 MSRP is the same. But the new camera packs some new hardware over and above that bigger lens. Resolution of the backside illuminated (BSI) CMOS sensor jumps to 12.1 megapixels from 10.3 and there is a new EXPEED C2 dual image processor, a first for the Coolpix line (and a harbinger of things to come with the pro DSLRs, I think - see if the D4 and D400 don't carry dual processors when they appear later this year). The dual processor is said to "greatly enhance performance, reduces noise and corrects distortion in both movies and still images".

The 3.0-inch LCD monitor gets a big resolution boost to 921,000 dots and there's an additional zoom control (called the side zoom control) located on the lens barrel. Full HD video returns and a new shooting mode button lets you access continuous frame shooting or other specialized capture features like Best Shot Selector without resorting to internal menus. Internal memory jumps to 102 megabytes and the camera accepts SD/SDHC/SDXC memory media. Nikon includes a camera strap, rechargeable Li-ion battery, AC charging adapter, USB and AV cables, lens cap, printed quick-start manual and CD-ROM software with each camera.

AC charging adapter? Yep, the P500 continues the P100 practice of having to charge the battery in the camera, and you probably already know what I think of that arrangement. Nikon makes an external charger that sells for about $18 retail - surely they can afford to provide one given that $400 MSRP. And while we're on the subject, how about a complete printed user's manual, not a quick-start manual with the complete one relegated to the CD-ROM?

The P500 succeeds the P100 and the P100 proved a nicely capable camera. Let's see how the new kid on the block measures up.

BUILD AND DESIGN
As a virtual visual clone of the P100, the P500 features the same mini-DSLR configuration and composite construction. Materials, fit and finish seem appropriate for the price point.

Nikon Coolpix P500

Ergonomics and Controls
They may look the same, but it only takes an instant after picking up the P500 to feel that something's changed. That something is the exaggerated handgrip, or rather the material and finish that now reside there: a checkered, rubberized stuff that promotes a really nice feel and grip.

Nikon Coolpix P500

My shooting finger fell naturally to the shutter button and traditional zoom lever, and the side zoom control on the lens barrel fell right under my left thumb when using a two-handed hold on the camera. The movie capture button lies under the right thumb, nicely positioned to facilitate quick, one-touch video recording. Controls seemed nicely spaced so as to avoid conflicts and unintended actuations. Overall a nice feeling, easy to hold camera.

Controls are mainstream for the superzoom compact class. The self-timer, flash, exposure compensation, focus mode and continuous shooting options can all be selected quickly via external controls; you can also switch quickly between HD and HS (high speed) movie capture. Most camera settings for the manual modes such as ISO, image size and quality, white balance, etc. require accessing internal menus.

Nikon Coolpix P500

The side zoom control may be assigned zoom (the default), manual focus or snap-back zoom functions. Snap-back works when the zoom is at some telephoto length, and each down push of the control approximately halves the focal length. You can also use snap-back to return to the original focal length with a single up push, but not for zooming beyond the original focal length when you first employed snap-back.

Nikon Coolpix P500

Menus and Modes
Menus, when you have to use them, are simple and intuitive. Shooting, movie and setup menus are available in any shooting mode except "scene," where a scene menu of 16 specific modes (along with image size and quality options) replaces the shooting menu.

One of the scene modes is a nifty panorama that offers "easy" and "assist" options - and 180 or 360 degree vistas with the easy option. Nikon has mimicked the Sony sweep shooting mode we ran into with the A55 - the Sony system made producing nice panorama shots an easy affair and the P500 does the same. Nikon's even improved on the Sony system a bit by overlaying a grid onto the screen that makes keeping the important portions of the image centered a bit easier. A tripod makes this mode a slam dunk, but it does very well hand holding as well. "Panorama" produces images at about 10.87 inches by 1.87 inches and 300 dots per inch at the 180 degree setting, and here's a look at handheld and tripod versions:

Nikon P500 Sample Image
Handheld

Nikon P500 Sample Image
Tripod

Shooting menu choices are not surprisingly quite restricted in the automatic shooting modes, but add up to 14 various settings on 2 pages for manual modes. There are two main playback menus, one offering playback modes such as "favorite pictures," "auto sort," and "list by date" and the other providing a fairly wide suite of 16 post processing options such as "quick retouch," "D-lighting," "filter effects" and "voice memo." Here's a complete rundown on shooting modes in the P500:

Display/Viewfinder
The 3.0-inch LCD monitor on the P500 is articulating and features a 921,000 dot composition. It can be swung out and down from the rear of the camera, and rotated up/down through about 75 degrees of travel. The monitor registered a fairly low 305 nit peak brightness and fairly high 983:1 contrast ratio.

Nikon Coolpix P500

Since we started measuring these values, all the Nikons I've reviewed have followed a similar pattern - low brightness, high contrast, and fairly good performance outdoors. It appears that high contrast helps overcome low brightness when shooting outdoors in direct light. The P500 monitor can be overcome by bright conditions, but the articulating ability helps some. Frame coverage is about 97% for capture and 100% for playback and the monitor adjusts for 5 levels of brightness. The electronic viewfinder has a 230,000 dot composition and diopter eyesight adjustment. Coverage is about 97% for capture and 100% for playback.

PERFORMANCE
When the P100 succeeded the P90, it showed improvement in most performance parameters over the older camera. Let's see if Nikon has stuck to that script with the P500.

Shooting Performance
The P500 starts quickly, presenting a focus icon in about 1.25 seconds after powering up. I could get off a first shot in a bit over 2 seconds, better than the P100, and single shot-to-shot times ran about 2.75 seconds, same as the old camera. Continuous high speed shooting is 8 fps according to Nikon, but we clocked the P500 at 10 fps, but only for 5 shots - and write times for that 5 shot burst will approach 7 seconds, even with a class 10 SDHC memory card.

Continuous low speed produced 10 shots in about 9 seconds, and the P500 could take 13 full resolution shots at that pace until things slowed. Continuous low speed has about a 1 second blackout period before displaying the first shot of a low speed sequence, and there's a briefer blackout between each successive shot, so tracking moving subjects can be difficult, particularly if you're zoomed in fairly tight on the main subject.

Shutter Lag (press-to-capture, pre-focused)

Camera Time (seconds)
Nikon Coolpix P500 0.01
Canon PowerShot SX30 0.01
Pentax X90 0.01
Olympus SP800-UZ 0.03

AF Acquisition (press-to-capture, no pre-focus)

Camera Time (seconds)
Nikon Coolpix P500 0.30
Canon PowerShot SX30 0.35
Pentax X90 0.43
Olympus SP800-UZ 0.45

Continuous Shooting

Camera Frames Framerate*
Nikon Coolpix P500 5 10.0 fps
Canon PowerShot SX30 1.4 fps
Pentax X90 5 1.4 fps
Olympus SP800-UZ 10 1.2 fps

*Note: Continuous shooting framerates are based on the camera's fastest full-resolution JPEG continuous shooting mode, using the fastest media type available (300x CF, SDHC, etc.). "Frames" notes the number of captures recorded per burst before the camera stops/slows to clear the buffer.

Shutter lag and AF acquisition times were good at 0.01 and 0.3 seconds, respectively. The P500 does a fairly decent job of acquiring focus on still subjects at telephoto in good light, and with the AF assist lamp does pretty well in dimmer conditions as well. It's a contrast-detection system, pretty much the compact digital standard, so there needs to be some contrast for it to identify, but the P500 seems to do a bit better than average in this regard.

The P500 features the same 5-way stabilization system as the P100, so I'll excerpt portions of that discussion from the P100 review:

Let's look a bit closer at these options. Optical is good, one of the classic means to stabilize images. Hybrid is OK too, as Nikon's eVR system ".... applies specific movement data to image processing algorithms during processing to turn blurred images into beautifully clear results" per Nikon - basically, it's using a gyro (like a traditional mechanical system) to get motion data, and then applying a sharpening algorithm to compensate.

Motion detection is not on the list of methods I'd like to use - anytime the camera is free to ramp up ISO, noise levels can come into play in a fashion I'm not willing to accept. High ISO sensitivity is largely the same issue due to noise concerns, but there are ways around this.

BSS is another positive since it functions in the P, A, S, M modes where the user can control most aspects of image capture. The downside with BSS is it saves one shot, and that shot may not have been the one you'd have picked on your own.

The best part of the whole stabilization system in the P500 is that Nikon has given the user the means to enable some, all or none of the features. Optical, hybrid or neither can be selected for still image capture, and eVR can be enabled or disabled for movies. Motion detection may be enabled or disabled, the user can set any ISO when shooting in P, A, S or M and BSS is another option where the user retains input over ISO sensitivity. Nikon recommends turning off stabilization when the camera is mounted on a tripod.

The P500 flash range can extend to about 26 feet at wide angle and 14 feet at telephoto, with ISO set to "auto." Recycle times are in the 3 to 6 second range depending on the nature of the shot, and like the P100 the flash indicator only shows its status with a half push of the shutter button. You can't just hold at half push in order to fire as soon as the flash recharges - you have to release the half push and initiate another to update the flash status until the unit recharges.

Battery life is rated for 220 shots using a CIPA standard, so carry spares for all-day shooting sessions. Charging time for a completely depleted battery using the supplied AC adapter is about 4 hours and 50 minutes, and the camera cannot be operated while charging. The optional MH-61 external charger does the job in 2 hours, so getting one of those is the best $20 a P500 owner can spend.

Lens Performance
The P500 offers a much broader focal range than the P100, but with slower maximum apertures at each end of the zoom - f/3.4 and f/5.7 at wide and telephoto, respectively. Gone too is the "distortion control" setting that helped correct lens distortion at the peripheries of the frame. The P500 lens seems to do quite well on its own, however - there's a bit of pincushion distortion at the wide end, but as you zoom toward telephoto that goes away and the lens looks fairly distortion free at telephoto.

Nikon Coolpix P500

At the wide angle end the lens is a bit soft on the edges and corners, but fairly sharp in the center. There was a fair amount of chromic aberration (purple fringing) present in some high contrast boundary areas of shots that are admittedly worst case scenario for this type of defect - visible at 100% enlargement with a cursory inspection. Telephoto looks to be soft on the edges and corners also, and not as sharp as wide in the center. Chromic aberration seemed pretty well controlled, with fairly benign amounts that became noticeable only at 200-300% enlargements.

Overall, the bigger lens seems to have acquired some chromic aberration at the wide end, held the line at telephoto, and looks to be a bit softer overall than the smaller zoom of the P100, particularly toward the long end of the zoom.

One bit of good news is the P500 lens retains the 0.4 inch close focus distance of the P100 when set for "close up" in the scene menu, so the camera has good macro capability. One bit of bad news is the lens closes down past the f/5.7 maximum aperture setting for telephoto as you zoom from wide angle to telephoto. If you set the aperture to the wide angle maximum of f/3.4 and then zoom the lens toward telephoto from wide angle, it's normal for the aperture to change as the various focal lengths are reached, but instead of stopping at f/5.7 the P500 continues to close down to f/7.1 as you approach the telephoto limit.

Video Quality
Video quality wasn't too bad at full HD, particularly if you didn't need to use all of the zoom the P500 lens gives you. Tracking moving subjects with the lens near the telephoto end is a chore hand-held, and nearly as difficult on a tripod, so the best video results come with the lens anywhere from wide angle to maybe mid-telephoto unless you're on a tripod.

Because the P500 uses a CMOS sensor, it is prone to demonstrate a bit of rolling shutter effect, but this came only with extremely fast panning and overall was well controlled. That big lens makes it tempting to shoot subjects at extreme distances, both still and video, and atmospheric conditions can sometimes play havoc with image quality in both instances due in large part to the range at which you're shooting.

Download Sample Video

The full range of zoom is available during video capture but the camera's stereo microphone will record zooming sounds. Wind noise can also be a concern and the P500 has a wind cut feature, but Nikon warns it can impact other sounds as well.

Image Quality
Default images out of the P500 represented a mixed bag - shots made toward the wide end of the lens and fairly close up looked pretty good, while shots made at telephoto tended to look a bit soft.

Nikon P500 Sample Image Nikon P500 Sample Image
Nikon P500 Sample Image Nikon P500 Sample Image

Most shots looked pretty good if viewed at less than 100% enlargement, but once the pixel peeping started the difference became easier to see. I've already mentioned that the telephoto end of the lens looks to me to be a bit softer overall than at wide angle, and this may have something to do with it. I'm also not sure Nikon did the P500 any favors by upping the resolution on the sensor - shots seem to show more artifacts than the P100, and this becomes most apparent at 100%.

It would have been interesting to see how the big lens and dual processors worked with the lower resolution sensor - I think the lens is partly to blame, but the sensor resolution might have a role as well. I also shot the P500 at 8 megapixel reduced resolution in both automatic and aperture priority modes, and thought the image quality wasn't as good as the full resolution captures, however.

While you can dial in some additional sharpness, contrast and saturation in the P, A, S and M shooting modes, in practice I found little difference between default and sharpened images shot in aperture priority. Here's two aperture priority shots - one at default settings, the other with sharpening maxed out.

Nikon P500 Sample Image
Default
Nikon P500 Sample Image
Maximum sharpness

"Normal" is the default color setting for the P500, but the manual modes allow you to choose options such as softer, vivid, more vivid and black and white. "More vivid" maxes out contrast, sharpening and saturation, but proved too much for my standard color palette shots of the 101 Diner.

Nikon P500 Sample Image
Normal
Nikon P500 Sample Image
Softer
Nikon P500 Sample Image
Vivid
Nikon P500 Sample Image
More Vivid
Nikon P500 Sample Image
Black & White

Suffice it to say if the P500 default images don't meet your criteria, particularly with regard to sharpness, post processing software may be your best bet.

The P500 uses Nikon's D-Lighting feature to expand the apparent dynamic range of the camera. The option is off by default but may be enabled at low, normal or high levels for application while shooting. The feature is also available to post process images in the camera. Here are the default, normal and high settings:

Nikon P500 Sample Image
D-Lighting Off
Nikon P500 Sample Image
D-Lighting Normal
Nikon P500 Sample Image
D-Lighting High

The P500 also retains the backlight shooting mode that allows you to enable HDR (high dynamic range) for shooting images with very light and dark areas. With HDR enabled the P500 shoots images at high speed then saves two versions: a D-Lighting image taken at the time of capture, and an HDR composite image, which takes a bit of time to save. Here's Yoda shot with backlight in auto mode, and then the DL and HDR images produced by the backlight/HDR setting.

Nikon P500 Sample Image
Auto Backlight
Nikon P500 Sample Image
D-Lighting Image
Nikon P500 Sample Image
HDR Image

Auto white balance was used for the majority of shots in this review, and did a pretty good job overall, but shot a bit warm with incandescent (3200K) light. There are custom, daylight, incandescent, fluorescent, cloudy and flash presets available.

Nikon P500 Sample Image
Auto White Balance, 5500k fluorescent light

Matrix metering is the default setting and works well in most normal lighting conditions. The P500 can lose highlights in high contrast situations, which is not unusual in compact digitals. There are center-weighted, spot and spot AF options available.

ISO performance on the P500 reminded me strongly of the P100 - the 160 and 200 ISO sensitivities are basically indistinguishable from one another, and 400, while a bit noisier, is still quite good and suffering minimal loss of fine details. ISO 800 is clearly noisier than 400 but again the drop off is not major and loss of fine details is still minimal compared to 400.

Nikon P500 Sample Image
ISO 160
Nikon P500 Sample Image
ISO 160, 100% crop
Nikon P500 Sample Image
ISO 200
Nikon P500 Sample Image
ISO 200, 100% crop
Nikon P500 Sample Image
ISO 400
Nikon P500 Sample Image
ISO 400, 100% crop
Nikon P500 Sample Image
ISO 800
Nikon P500 Sample Image
ISO 800, 100% crop
Nikon P500 Sample Image
ISO 1600
Nikon P500 Sample Image
ISO 1600, 100% crop
Nikon P500 Sample Image
ISO 3200
Nikon P500 Sample Image
ISO 3200, 100% crop

ISO 1600 is the most significant fall-off (at least until we get to 3200) so far, and fine details are becoming more muddied, but even at this point the setting is usable for small images if need be. Quality at 3200 takes a fairly dramatic nose dive, with both coarse and fine details showing definite signs of deterioration - as it was with the P100, still a setting of last resort.

Overall my impression of the P500 is that ISO performance is on a par with the P100, perhaps just a bit better. Given the net resolution increase it would seem that dual processor may be living up to its billing.

Additional Sample Images
Nikon P500 Sample Image Nikon P500 Sample Image
Nikon P500 Sample Image Nikon P500 Sample Image

CONCLUSIONS
The Coolpix P500 is a logical extension of Nikon's product line in the superzoom compact digital ranks, dramatically expanding the focal range (both wide and long) and adding features over the P100 that it replaces. A slight increase in resolution is accompanied by what looks to be similar or slightly better low light ISO performance, so a net gain there.

Ergonomics are improved by the addition of a checkered hand grip and the addition of a side zoom control in addition to the traditional zoom lever located at the shutter button. HD and HS video options are carried over, and shutter lag and AF acquisition times meet or beat the P100 in those arenas. The whole package is a light, compact setup that carries and handles nicely. So far, so good.


The fly in the ointment here seems to be image quality, which looks pretty good when shooting wide angled close ups, but just a bit soft and average when the zoom heads toward the telephoto end of the spectrum, at least at 100% magnifications. In this regard the P100 seems just a bit better and sharper overall, especially if producing large prints is your objective. And the internal adjustments that are available to modify the images being captured by the P500 just don't seem to have much effect in the sharpness arena.

That's the main concern with this camera - if your images are meant for the internet or small prints the P500 does a credible job, but to my eye, some post processing sharpening would be in order to get many larger prints sharp enough to pass muster for me.

Pros:

Cons: