Nikon's Coolpix P600 is, at heart, a Nikon Coolpix P520 with a new 60X zoom. The new zoom seems better in most areas than the 42X zoom that graced the P520. I was surprised at just how sharp my telephoto images were, especially when I compared them to images from the similar (50x zoom) Canon Powershot SX50 HS and the Nikon P510 (42x zoom).
My P600 shots, at telephoto, were noticeably sharper than similar shots I had made with either the SX50 HS or the P510, even factoring in lighting and other environmental issues.
The optical rule of thumb has always been, 'the longer the zoom, the softer the images.' Nikon's optical and mechanical engineers did a surprisingly good job on the P600's new monster zoom -- the lens is much sharper, especially at the telephoto end of the zoom, than expected.
But photography has always been about compromise. In this case, P600 users are going to have to give up some capabilities at the wide-angle end of that monster zoom.
The 60X zoom that graces the P600 takes a slightly different design path than the long zooms on other ultra-zoom digicams by significantly improving telephoto performance, but that comes at the expense of the wide-angle. Simply put, the P600 has the worst parallax/barrel distortion function of any ultra-zoom I have used to date.
At the 24mm (equivalent) end of that 60X zoom, shooters will find it almost impossible to shoot an image with straight lines, like in shots where buildings are prominent. The effect is similar to keystoning in image projection, where the building will appear trapezoidal (or, wider at the bottom than at the top), rather than square. This is not an uncommon lens fault with long zooms, but other manufacturers correct more heavily for this problem, and those corrections reliably affect performance at the other end of those long zooms. The P600 isn't totally useless at the wide-angle end of the zoom -- users will just have to step back a bit and zoom out to about 30mm (equivalent) to correct the issue. Here are a couple of examples of what I mean.
The P600 is a rather utilitarian-looking entry-level DSLR-sized digital camera. It looks very similar to most of its competition. In fact, it bears a striking resemblance to its predecessor, and stretches the P520's zoom by almost 500 millimeters (24mm - 1000mm vs. 24mm - 1440mm) without radically altering the camera's dimensions.
That 60x zoom (24mm to 1440mm equivalent) is its claim to fame, and is currently the longest point-and-shoot zoom range available on any P&S digicam. In addition to that monster zoom, the P600 features 16-megapixel resolution and Wi-Fi connectivity. The device provides a robustly constructed metal-alloy/polycarbonate body and adequate dust/weather/moisture seals.
Ergonomics and Controls
The P600's control layout is efficiently designed. Its buttons/knobs/switches are logically placed and come easily to hand for right-handed shooters. The top deck features a standard mode dial and a large raised shutter button (with zoom toggle surround).
Nikon's function button is not like Canon's "func" button, which calls up a shortcut menu to directly access often changed settings. Rather, the Nikon "Fn" button provides direct access to one user-selected function, whether it be image size, picture control, WB, metering, continuous shooting mode, ISO, or AF area.
The P600's control pad functions in the familiar compass switch configuration, and the rotating dial around the OK button makes for super-fast menu scrolling and function selection. Where Nikon's nifty rotary multi-controller really shines is in its easy back-and-forth review and comparison of saved images.
The P600's one-touch video Record/Stop button, meanwhile, is a bit smaller than it should be and it's somewhat awkwardly positioned -- but it can still be used without requiring the shooter to look away from the LCD/EVF when starting or stopping video.
The device provides a solid handgrip for improved handling and camera stability, as well as a secondary zoom control positioned on the left side of lens barrel for zooming in vertical format.
The user interface is unashamedly traditional, and similar enough to every other P&S digicam to provide most users a comforting sense of deja vu.
Sadly, the P600 continues the frustrating Nikon practice of not having the exposure compensation function return to zero when the camera is turned off. There is no logical reason for this as the lighting problems it addresses tend to be temporary. Unfortunately, the only way to get the exposure compensation function on the P600 back to zero is to manually do it after wrapping up a shooting session.
Menus and Modes
The P600's four tab menu system is reliably logical, user-friendly, and easily navigated. The large, high-resolution LCD and reasonable font size make reading menus simple -- even for older shooters.
Here's a breakdown of the P600's shooting modes:
Like most currently available ultra-zooms, the P600 provides an electronic viewfinder, so shooters can use either the LCD screen or the EVF for framing/composition, image review, and menu access chores. It features a large 3.0-inch LCD monitor with 921K resolution. The wide viewing angle TFT display is sharp, bright, hue accurate, and fluid.
The default info display provides all the information this camera's target audience will likely need. The LCD gains up (i.e., automatically increases brightness) in dim lighting, but individual shooters can also adjust brightness to their preferences. The anti-glare/anti-reflection coating (applied to both sides of the LCD's protective cover) is substantially better than average for digicams in this class too.
Finally, the P600's Vari-angle LCD flips and folds out, which is useful when shooting macro or high-angle shots. And unlike its predecessors, the P600's LCD also swivels.
The P600's EVF is a 0.2-inch unit with 200K resolution; and, finally, Nikon included a diopter adjustment for bespectacled shooters. The EVF is a nice retro composition tool, especially useful in bright outdoor lighting. The viewfinder button, which is located directly to the right of the EVF, allows users to switch back and forth between LCD and EVF.
In general, the P600 is a fairly fast ultra-zoom P&S digicam. Off-to-first picture capture is about two seconds. Ultra-zoom lenses don't move all that fast, and that's fine for video clips where users want slower, more controlled zooming. But if you are trying to track a fast-moving subject like a skateboarder, the P600 can seem a bit slow. Still, the newest Coolpix is a competent picture taker that is capable of producing consistently very good to excellent still images, and high quality HD video. The P600's performance was dependably competitive similar ultra-zoom cameras from other manufacturers that I've reviewed.
The P600 features a TTL Contrast Detection AF system that is reliably quick to acquire the subject, and locks focus. It's an obvious improvement over the P510, which had the slowest of any of the major manufacturer ultra-zooms at the time of its launch.
The P600's multi-mode pop-up flash sits directly above the zoom, in the classic maximum red-eye configuration. The flash is very small and a bit weak, but it provides an adequate selection of artificial lighting options, including Auto, off, Auto with red-eye reduction, Fill flash, Slow synch, and Rear curtain synch
Consistently capturing sharply-focused pictures with a point-and-shoot camera, especially one that sports an incredibly long zoom, offers some unique optical engineering challenges. The P600 uses a Hybrid VR system, which reduces the risk of blurred images with faster shutter speeds in addition to standard image stabilization techniques.
The P600 draws its power from a Nikon EN-EL23 lithium-ion battery, which Nikon claims is good for about 330 exposures at full charge. I do a lot of shoot, review, delete, and re-shoot, so I don't usually keep track of exposures. But in my testing, I only had to charge the battery twice after shooting lots of stills and about a dozen video clips, so I'd have to guess that Nikon's power duration claims are fairly accurate. The battery is charged in-camera and requires about two hours for a full charge from standard house current. The camera can also be charged via USB, and it saves images and video to SD, SDHC or SDXC memory media.
At the end of the day, everything comes down to the P600's f3.3 - f5.6/24mm-1440mm (equivalent) zoom. Without it, the P600 is just another P&S digicam. That 60X zoom consists of 16 elements in 11 groups, with one super ED and four regular ED elements. The aperture diaphragm has six blades, which should provide slightly better bokeh than most of the P600's competitors. Minimum focusing distance in macro mode is 0.2 inches
When the P600 is powered up, that long lens automatically telescopes out of the lens housing, and vice versa when the camera is shut down. Nikon provides a pinch-clip lens cap with the camera.
Center sharpness is excellent, but at the wide-angle end of the zoom corners are slightly soft. I didn't notice any vignetting, but barrel distortion is well above average. Pincusion distortion, on the other hand, is well corrected. Contrast is balanced, but a little flat, while colors are hue accurate, though visibly oversaturated. Chromatic aberration is remarkably well controlled, but some minor color fringing is present in the color transition areas between dark foreground objects and bright backgrounds. Zooming is smooth, but fairly slow when compared to cameras with shorter zooms. Interestingly, there is much less motor noise than I expected.
The Nikon P600 will make birders, backyard wildlife shooters, astronomy fans, and anyone else who likes to bring far-away detail up close and personal very happy. If you shoot a lot of architecture, or if you use buildings as backgrounds, the P600 probably isn't the best camera for your needs.
The P600 captures HD video at 1920x1080p resolution and at an amazing variety of frame rates, all with stereo audio. The 60x zoom can be used during filming. The camera also provides an HDMI out so that users can watch their HD video clips on their HDTVs. Videos generated by the P600 are excellent, with highly saturated colors and balanced contrast.
I did notice some lag after pushing the start/stop video button, though. When users press the start/stop control to start recording, the P600's LCD/EVF goes dark for about a second before video capture actually begins, which defeats the benefit of having an instant start/stop button in the first place.
The Nikon Coolpix P600 utilizes a 16-megapixel 1/2.3-inch back-illuminated CMOS sensor to capture images. Like most P&S digicams, image files produced by the P600 are optimized for bold, bright colors and slightly flat contrast. Recorded hues are accurate but noticeably more intense than in real life. The bottom line is that the P600's color interpolation, while a bit more intense than neutral, is consistently and dependably hue accurate. When I reviewed the images I shot with this camera, the colors I saw on my monitor were very close to the colors I saw when first I shot the pictures.
Outdoors, in good light, the P600 dependably captures excellent images in all shooting modes. Indoors, the camera performs with a little less dexterity than most of the competition due to its slow maximum aperture and the complexity of that 60X zoom's optical design. The further you zoom indoors, the worse the image will become.
The P600's Auto White Balance mode is dependably accurate over a wide range of lighting conditions. In fact, Nikon's P&S white balance system is the best I've seen to date. Image sharpness is noticeably better than average for cameras in this class, except at the short end of that incredible zoom, of course. The P600 not only has the longest zoom lens in the world, it also consistently produces the sharpest telephoto images I've ever seen from an ultra-zoom digicam.
Camera makers have been trying for 150 years to develop an all-in-one camera that satisfies the needs of most photographers. The Nikon Coolpix P600 comes closer to filling that order than any of the other ultra-zooms I've tested to date, taking into account the issues at the wide-angle end of that monster zoom.
The P600 was obviously designed for photography enthusiasts, by photography enthusiasts. Photographers who purchase the P600 will need to have realistic expectations -- any camera with a 60x zoom is bound to be the result of countless mechanical, optical, electrical, and functional/operational compromises, and every one of those compromises is going to affect image quality in some way. The P600 will appeal to serious photographers who want to be able to cover a very broad zoom range of photographic genres without having to carry a heavy DSLR, a sturdy tripod, and a bag full of very expensive lenses.
Overall, the P600 does a remarkably good job of making those compromises palatable. But if tack sharp images across the full zoom range and architectural photography with absolutely straight lines are more important to you than the convenience of having a digicam with a monster zoom, then I suggest you buy an advanced user P&S digicam with a short fast zoom, like the Canon S110.