Superzoom cameras tend to be pricey bits of kit these days. Not so for the Nikon Coolpix P520 - this Coolpix sure doesn't hold back on the zoom, yet cuts back on the price compared to many of its competitors. We were already fond of the previous Coolpix, the P510 when we saw it back in 2012 as it demonstrated a push forward from Nikon in the superzoom department. However, we still found it to be a touch behind the competition in almost every area. Can the Coolpix P520's addition of a new vari-angle screen and updated, higher-resolution 18-megapixel sensor remedy such shortcomings or is the P520 all zoom with no vroom?
Small body, big zoom
Just like its predecessor there's no ignoring the P520’s significant 42x optical zoom. It's huge, but less so in the physical sense of the word - a varied 24-1000mm equivalent zoom range is held within a body that's smaller than all its rivals. The zoom can also be controlled via two different points on the camera body: there's a zoom toggle around the shutter button, while a second vertical zoom toggle sits to the left side of the lens barrel.
Lens-based image stabilisation is also on board, but it can't save the camera from all shooting conditions. As with any superzoom camera, the P520's huge zoom range may sound impressive, but with a maximum aperture of f/3.0-5.9 - that’s what controls the amount of light able to enter the camera, i.e., at 24mm the maximum aperture is f/3.0, while at 1000mm the maximum is a lesser f/5.9 - the longest focal length is going to need a whole lot of light to be of genuine use. We struggled shooting acts on stage at an event in reasonable light because the Auto ISO caps at ISO 800, so even if handshake isn't a problem, subject movement can be. It's not just the P520 which suffers from this kind of behaviour, but alternative - yet pricier - models offer up more advanced solutions, such as the Panasonic Lumix FZ200's constant f/2.8 aperture.
In terms of design there are few surprises to be found: the P520 is a near carbon copy of its P510 little brother, with the exception being a vari-angle LCD screen that's side mounted and, if you're extra eagle-eyed then the stereo microphone ports also look slightly different. That's no bad thing though as the large, protruding grip gives a substantial hold over the body.
Controls are plentiful too. The set-up revolves around the rear dedicated thumbwheel and a rotational d-pad beneath this, while a Fn button on the top acts as a quick access point to ISO, white balance, burst mode and many other options. The button can be reassigned to a different single-press use from within its own menu which cuts back on any menu digging.
In addition to the big zoom, the P520 offers up a variety of other decent features. The 3.2-inch, 921k-dot resolution LCD screen is just as good as its predecessor and the vari-angle mount makes it all the more appealing - far superior to the tilt-angle version of the P510 model.
Sadly not the same praise can be handed to the electronic viewfinder (EVF). Such a feature is important for a superzoom camera to help offer stability when shooting but also for when bright sunlight makes it tricky to see what's going on. The P520's EVF is overdue an update, so despite its occasional use we found the small 0.2-inch window and firm, plastic exterior surround none too inviting. In context it's behind the times too: Fujifilm's HS50 EXR is far ahead, but does demand an extra lump of cash for that pleasure.
Elsewhere GPS, to geotag where shots are taken, makes the features list, and while built-in Wi-Fi for picture sharing isn't an option, Nikon has made the P520 compatible with its optional WU-1a accessory.
We don't find that there's a jump between the P510 and the P520's performance. The autofocus system feels much the same, which makes for decent autofocus at the wider-angle settings but the camera can't quite live up to such speedy performance at the longer focal lengths. We also found the zoom speed to feel a little pedestrian at times and low-light conditions threw the occasional focus refusal into the mix - yet the AF-illuminator lamp was our friend on some occasions.
Focus types come aplenty, however, which opens up the P520 for straightforward point-and-shoot use or full manual control, including focus-point positioning. Auto and wide options provide a broad spread of the scene where the camera takes over focus, while centre and centre wide offer more honed-in specifics of these options. Our most-used option was manual where the focus point can be positioned throughout much of the screen, though not to the outermost edges. Face detection, subject tracking and target finding autofocus options also make an appearance - face recognition is quick to lock on to faces, while subject tracking feels a little slow to keep up and target identifies key areas within a scene and maintains focus on those, as shown by surrounding yellow focus area boxes.
Battery life lasted reasonably well, delivering on its 200 shots per charge promise. Not astounding by any measure, but this life can be easily cut into by using lots of playback, GPS and other such battery-draining features.
Megapixel counts continue to rise and the P520 is no stranger to this: we've seen 12.1-megapixels in the P500 model, 16-megapixels in the P510 and now 18-megapixels in the latest model. That's a lot of resolution, but its the impact of squeezing so much onto a small 1/2.3-inch sensor size that doesn't help the cause. By comparison the likes of the Canon SX50 HS maintains a 12.1-megapixel resolution and, for our money, offers the best superzoom image quality on the market today. Can the P520 compare?
In short, no. But it's no disaster by any means: even with the 18-megapixel resolution thrown in the mix we've found the P520's shots to be suitably impressive for the most part.
The ISO 80-3200 range is capped at ISO 800 when shooting in the Auto ISO setting as the high ISO settings really aren't worth getting excited about. But that's typical of such a resolution. If you know that higher ISO settings will be an often-used requirement then the P520 might not be best suited to your needs.
At the opposite end of the scale, it's all punchy colours and good levels of detail. There are some signs of image processing in all given ISO sensitivities, but not to the point of disrupting shots to excess.
As a superzoom lens is a big ask from a quality point of view, there are other signs which disappoint: at the widest-angle 24mm setting there's considerable corner softness/distortion with pronounced purple fringes spilling over subjects' edges in some scenes. At the longer-end of the zoom we had some success shooting subjects against blurred-out backgrounds in good light, so the P520 certainly has this box ticked.
We think the P520 does a decent job overall, so long as expectations are realistic. This isn't going to outshine a larger-sensor DSLR camera, but for the affordable £319 price point it more than delivers throughout and will please plenty of casual snappers no problems.
All things considered and the P520 is, in general, a decent superzoom camera. We like the small size, big zoom range, image stabilisation and new vari-angle screen - but even all that's just not enough to see it prevail as a class leader.
And that's the thing really: the P520, despite its small advances compared to its predecessor, remains a touch behind much of the competition. We'd like better battery life, an improved viewfinder, brighter aperture range and more than likely less resolution to get it into a more competitive position.
That said, the affordable £319 price matches up to the list of features on offer and, overall, it doesn't disappoint - it's just that the P520 isn't as much a leap away from its predecessor as it could have been. It's good, just not quite great when considering the range of competitors.