With its 36X optical zoom, the Nikon Coolpix P500 is the current ruler of the megazoom world. At 35X, only the Canon PowerShot SX30 is in close pursuit, but the SX30's 24mm wide angle specification is no match for the P500's superwide 22.5mm lens, a feat that has yet to be equalled by any other non-interchangeable-lens camera. The P500 is no slouch at full zoom either, reaching a highly impressive image-stabilised 810mm.
The 12-megapixel P500's attributes go beyond its powerful superzoom lens, as it offers full automatic, semi-manual and manual exposure modes. In addition, the camera has a nice balance of no-brainer options such as auto scene selection, as well as adjustable parameters that include post-shooting image optimisation and Active D-Lighting for increasing dynamic range.
The camera's multiple video options include 1080p high definition video, as well as high speed movie capture for slow motion (or fast motion) playback. Nikon has supported interval shooting for time lapse effects in many of its cameras for quite a while, and the P500 is no exception.
One thing that is missing is a RAW-shooting mode. Given the Coolpix P500's other strengths, however, that's a relatively minor consideration.
Hardware and design
Built around a 12 megapixel backside-illuminated CMOS sensor, the P500 utilises dual image processors and Nikon's latest Expeed C2 image processing engine. What that means, in part, is that the camera does well in low light conditions and is fairly speedy overall.
The star of this camera, of course, is its dual-stabilised 36X optical zoom lens, which starts at a superwide 22.5mm and extends to an impressive 810mm. With a maximum aperture of F3.5 at wide angle and F5.7 at full telephoto, the lens isn't all that bright, but its focal range covers more than a few hundred pounds' worth of DSLR lenses, making the P500 somewhat of a bargain.
The Coolpix P500 offers Nikon's hybrid (mechanical and electronic) Vibration Reduction system to stabilise the lens, but at full telephoto even dual VR isn't always enough to grab a sharply focused shot. Common among megazooms like the P500 is the fact that when the lens is fully extended, keeping the subject centred in the frame is difficult, if not impossible. Any micro-movement will throw the lens off. However, a second zoom lever is available on the lens barrel to help you manually stabilise the lens with your left hand while zooming.
Physically, the P500 is well built but far from pocketable. The camera measures 4.1 inches deep, 3.3 inches tall and 4.6 inches wide, and it weighs about 495g fully loaded, just a bit smaller than your average entry level DSLR. Nicely balanced even when the lens is extended, the camera is suitable for shooting one-handed, due in part to the textured rubber grip.
Visually attractive in either high gloss red or black, the P500 is equipped with a gorgeous 3-inch, tiltable high resolution LCD and an eye level electronic viewfinder. The EVF is a little grainy, particularly in low light situations, but it's bright enough to work effectively when direct sunlight proves too reflective for you to use the LCD.
Charging the camera's battery isn't always convenient, as you need to charge it inside the camera by way of a wall outlet or a USB connection. An optional standalone charger is available to charge the battery independently, but it would have been nice if Nikon had included that in the box. What's more, the battery lasts for only about 220 shots, so you will be charging up the P500 fairly frequently.
In addition to its mode dial, the P500 is dotted with buttons offering access to settings for continuous shooting, the flash, exposure compensation, macro mode, the self-timer, display information and switching between the LCD and EVF. A rear command wheel controls aperture and shutter settings, and you can use it to navigate menus as well. You'll also find a dedicated record button for movie mode, and a small switch to move between high speed and high definition recording.
What's missing, however, is a quick menu or dedicated buttons to set parameters such as ISO and white balance. You must make those and most other adjustments via the P500's main menu system. This method of setting changes is not conducive to quick tweaks, and is one of the camera's shortcomings, even though the menus are easy to understand and navigate.
Shooting modes and features
The Coolpix P500 offers enough versatility to engage both experienced photographers and snapshooters who want to step up from a basic point and shoot. It's a nice option for learning more about photography while taking advantage of the camera's superzoom capabilities.
In addition to a flexible Program mode (you can adjust the aperture or shutter speed without changing the exposure), it has aperture-priority, shutter-speed priority and full manual exposure modes. The P500 also offers a boatload of simple-to-use options, including auto mode, auto scene selection and more than a dozen scene modes (portrait, landscape, sunset, black and white and more).
Among the more notable shooting features is a one touch Panorama mode (similar to Sony's Sweep Panorama) that sweeps as wide as 360 degrees. Advanced Night Landscape and Advanced Night Portrait modes combine multiple shots to help alleviate blur and image noise. Long exposure noise reduction, exposure bracketing, Active D-Lighting (to boost highlights and details in the dark areas of some scenes) and image effects are also part of the P500's relatively extensive shooting options.
Autofocus is responsive at lesser focal lengths, but it searches a bit at full telephoto. A tripod is almost a necessity when you're zooming in, unless the ambient light is bright enough to bump the shutter speed up to at least 1/800 of a second (shutter speed should always be at least as fast as the focal length).
The camera's ISO ranges from 160 to 3200, with the best results coming in at 400 or lower. ISO 800 images aren't bad, though, and smaller prints are possible even at higher light sensitivity settings.
The P500 is a little slow on startup, but otherwise speed is one of the P500's main strengths. It has no noticeable shutter lag, and it offers quick shot-to-shot times.
Continuous shooting at full resolution can reach speeds of a very respectable 8 frames per second, but only for 5 shots. Other burst options include 120 fps, which captures 50 images at about 1/125 second at 1280 by 960 resolution. The third option is a capture rate of 25 images in about 1/60 second at 1600 by 1200 pixels.
Videos record as .mov files and max out at 1080p at 30 frames per second. You can also shoot 720p and 640 by 480 standard definition clips at the same frame rate. You can use the optical zoom, the autofocus and manual settings such as metering while capturing movies, and the P500 lets you take still images while recording video, too.
The camera's high speed video modes knock the resolution down to 320 by 240 at the highest speed frame rate of 240 fps. You can also film fast action scenes at 640 by 480 at 120 fps and in 720p mode at 60 fps.
Overall, the P500 is relatively easy to use. To get into some of its advanced features, however, it's best to read through the user manual.
Performance, image quality and video quality
In subjective testing for image and video quality, the Nikon Coolpix P500 did very well in most categories. For exposure quality, colour accuracy and lack of distortion, it earned scores of Very Good. In image sharpness, it was slightly less impressive, receiving a Good rating.
In my own hands-on tests, image quality ranged from very good to average depending on the focal length and, more important, the ISO. The lens seems to deliver the best sharpness to about midrange. Even then, however, images are slightly soft, especially in the corners.
That isn't to say that the P500 can't capture details. It can, and in some cases they're razor sharp. I also found exposures to be spot-on in general, and I saw little chromatic aberration even in high contrast scenes.
Lens distortion was less of an issue than one might expect, given the ultrawide-angle 22.5mm lens. That said, I did notice some curvature of straight lines at wide angle, so you'll want to stay away from the wide angle setting for portraits unless you're after some science-fiction-like effects.
Colours are a little muted but natural, although some shades of red tend to come out more pink. Using the Vivid image optimisation option helps pump up the colour volume when necessary.
In tests for video and audio quality, the Coolpix P500 did a serviceable job. We rated its video quality as Good, as it produced less than crisp sharpness in bright light test footage, and disappointing low light performance. Audio pickup through the P500's top-mounted stereo microphones rated as Very Good.
You can view the test videos we shot with the Nikon Coolpix P500 below. Select 1080p from the drop-down menu in each player to see the highest resolution footage.
As noted before, battery life is a bit lacklustre, with a CIPA rating of 220 shots per charge. That falls within the "Fair" range for battery life.
The Nikon Coolpix P500 offers a lot of features on top of its 36X optical zoom that will appeal to enthusiasts and snapshooters alike. The wide range of features means that anyone can pick up the camera and start shooting or, in the case of experienced photographers, make the most of its advanced functionality. Bridging the gap between snapshot cameras and advanced models, the P500 is a versatile learning tool as well as a camera that you can easily grow into.