Although we all like the idea of swapping camera lenses as and when we want to, in reality a one-lens-fits-all approach makes for greater convenience. A couple of months back Canon’s latest 35x optical zoom PowerShot in the SX30 IS nudged ahead of the 30x Olympus SP-800UZ and Fujifilm FinePix HS10 to offer the broadest focal range in the current super zoom class. Now Nikon has trumped its closest rival and gone “one louder” with the Coolpix P500, which, you guessed it, boasts a 36x optical zoom.
The focal range here is an impressively ultra wide 22.5mm to 810mm equivalent in 35mm film camera terms, with F/3.4 maximum aperture plus the ability to find focus as close as 1cm from a subject. The camera replaces the existing P100, which offered a mere 26x optical zoom.
Like its competitors, Nikon’s new pretender is styled like a digital SLR that’s been miniaturised, with controls that fall between a DSLR proper and your typical compact camera. So anyone who has handled either will feel immediately at home. Official dimensions are 115.5 x 83.7 x 102.5mm, so it sits comfortably in the palm if not quite the pocket. The P500 weighs 494g (so lighter than the Canon) plus retails for a street price around £350.
The pitch for this camera, and indeed all super or mega zooms is that the focal range on offer is so creatively broad that it doesn’t actually matter that the lens cannot be exchanged, as on an actual DSLR. This is, arguably, a camera that provides everything the family user - a more likely recipient than the dedicated photo enthusiast - will ever need.
Resolution wise the P500 matches the 18x Coolpix S9100 pocket zoom, in offering an effective 12.1 megapixels from a 12.75-megapixel 1/2.3-inch CMOS sensor. Likewise images are composed or reviewed courtesy of a 3-inch, high 921k-dot resolution LCD, which is usefully angle adjustable. The alternative of an electronic viewfinder sits just above. The Nikon’s build is a tad plastic-y for our tastes, but overall the camera feels solid none the less.
Press the P500's on/off button, illuminated in green when active and continuing to “pulse” when the camera is in standby mode, and the Nikon powers up in just over a second. The rear LCD blinks almost instantly into life and the lens barrel eases itself forward from its protective housing to arrive at extreme wideangle setting.
Squeeze the shutter release button halfway and after the briefest of pauses the white AF point centre of screen turns green prompting the user to take the shot. Do so and a full 12 megapixel highest quality JPEG is committed to memory in just under 2 seconds. That’s quick by any compact camera standards.
Unlike some bridge models, the Coolpix P500 doesn’t offer the ability to shoot unprocessed RAW files, only common JPEG. Photo enthusiasts may therefore be better served with the likes of a P300 or P7000 if wanting a back up to a DSLR, and not just a huge focal range.
Get in on the action
Unusually, there isn’t just one method of operating the P500’s zoom. As well as the usual lever encircling the shutter release button on the top plate, operated by the forefinger of the right hand, there’s a secondary zoom switch tucked into the barrel of the lens, operated by the thumb of the left.
Further convenience is offered courtesy of a dedicated record button for shooting video - here of the Full HD 1080p, 30fps, stereo sound variety. Yet another lever surrounding this button allows the user to flick to filming standard definition clips instead, to be replayed in slow motion. Coupled with the huge zoom and 8fps continuous stills shooting, this suggests the P500 as a possible tool for amateur action photographers.
We found the controls on the P500 to be well labelled, and for the most part large enough; the 11-option shooting mode dial including program, aperture priority, shutter priority and manual modes and shutter release button being the most chunky and prominent.
Furthermore the backplate controls include a rear DSLR-like command dial for quickly scrolling through selectable shutter speeds. Plus we get the standard-issue four-way control pad with “OK” button at its centre for implementing any changes to menu settings. The actual menu button sits directly below. Whilst an additional one for direct access to the likes of ISO might have further been useful, we also get dedicated delete, playback and display options, so the basics are covered.
Talking of basic essentials, all super zooms of course need some pretty effective anti shake. Here “belt and braces” stabilisation is provided via a combination of sensor shift image stabilisation - arguably the most effective of the lot - plus the electronic variety, which merely boosts ISO and shutter speeds. For those who do want to attempt lower light photography, a manually selectable sensitivity range maxes out at ISO 3200, and thrown into the mix are Night Portrait and Night Landscape shooting modes, though merely sticking the camera on auto, finding a flat surface and using the self timer to avoid jogging the lens and introducing blur is arguably more effective still.
For those who do want to just point and shoot and let the camera make any necessary calculations, Nikon’s scene auto selector mode is the nearest thing here to an “intelligent” mode. In this respect the P500’s functionality is much the same as that of the slim line styled Coolpix S9100 - just here we are getting alternative DSLR styling and the bonus of the bigger lens to go with it.
In terms of resultant image quality, during our test period the Coolpix P500 kept image noise largely under wraps. It wasn’t really until the very top ISO 3200 setting that detail softened and the image began to fall apart, which is fairly impressive.
That being said, of course the usual compact camera bugbears are in attendance. There is some softening of detail towards the edges of frame - not totally surprising, given the ultra wide wideangle 22.5mm equivalent setting - and also some purple pixel fringing between areas of high contrast. That grumble, coupled with the fact that it sometimes required two or three goes to get us anything other than a soft shot operating the P500 handheld at maximum telephoto, are the only real negatives here. But as we say, these are not wholly unexpected from a camera of this ilk.
Of course, for those who like the idea of an extremely broad focal range but don't want the attendant bulk typically associated with it, the equally new Coolpix S9100 travel zoom offers an attractive alternative, even if it is equipped with a more modest 18x optical zoom.
For those who do need a “big one” without spending a fortune, the 36x Coolpix P500 is an able alternative to Canon's direct SX30 IS rival and notably improves on its predecessor in terms of focal length versatility. Thus it provides an able tool for amateur paparazzi, wildlife photographers and local snoops, though there's the fact that with its DSLR styling it does look a bit too much like a “professionals” camera to appear truly innocuous. At the same time there is the fact that like most mega zooms, the P500 can look distinctly ridiculous with plastic-y lens barrel fully extended: rather like someone has attached the inner tube from an loo roll to the end of an otherwise sophisticated camera.
While we do prefer the Nikon’s more conventional super zoom styling and handling to the boxy Olympus SP-800UZ, for build quality and general ruggedness the Fujifilm HS10 (and newer HS20) tops it. Yes the Fuji is bulkier, but it has the further advantage of being able to manually adjust its lens barrel for greater hands-on control and thus more exact framing.
That said, with solid scores across the board, the Nikon Coolpix P500 is a fairly accomplished product at a fair price that delivers attractive images without needing much in the way of post processing. It offers the versatility of a lens reach that, when coupled with Full HD video with stereo sound, makes it an enticing all-in-one option for the general-purpose amateur photographer/videographer. Doubtless the P500 will go down well with families and doting dads who perhaps won't be looking for pin sharp image quality at all focal lengths and ISO settings, but will appreciate having the versatility of an expansive focal range that will deliver them the picture none the less.