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Exposed! The Nikon Coolpix P500 Review

In a lingo that most people can understand, the Nikon P500 is like a rebellious teenager- having broken free from the controlled and caged world of toddler-hood. it is now filled with many wild and fun characteristics, able to think rationally sometimes, but most of all, a deep desire to grow up into adulthood. However, it falls just short of that. Fortunately, it seems content with the phase of life it is in. :-D

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Having played with Point & Shoot (P&S) compacts for most of my life, handling this semi-pro gadget was certainly a whole new experience for me. In addition, the brand was also something new to me, with my fingers having pressed the buttons of an Olympus, Canon, Kodak and a Pentax before. I have heard much about Nikon’s DSLR lenses before so my expectations were quite high in that area.

For a RRP price tag of about RM 1,400, the P500 sure packs in quite a lot of goodies from the specifications point of view. A comprehensive summary of what’s under its hood can be found HERE.

Appearance

Physically, the P500 is a true beauty indeed. It is not as heavy or large as professional DSLRs, yet its appearance commands a second look, especially for the all-black version. (It also comes in red/black colour). I especially liked the diamond cut rubber-like material on the camera grip. It ensures a confident grip and handling of the camera. Another feature that is instantly head-turning is the gorgeous 921K LCD viewscreen that can be folded and tilted to allow better shots from a wide variety of angles. Although it also comes with an Electronic Viewfinder, the image quality in the EVF just cannot compare or comes close to the beautiful LCD screen.

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That aside, the P500 also comes with an innovative zoom button on its side barrel, which can be quite useful when video-zooming (less noise compared to normal zoom trigger). Another usefulness of it is that it can also be assigned as a manual-zoom for greater control when you use the manual focus mode.

 

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Superzoom

But of course, the single feature that has gotten most people salivating over the P500 has got to be its insane 36X optical zoom, which starts out wide at 22.5mm and extends to 810mm. Though it may not be the longest zoom in its class, this telephoto-like ability will ensure hours of fun. Seriously. I read somewhere that a typical DLSR would need to be affixed with 3 or 4 lenses to achieve the sort of focal range offered in the P500. And since it is all packed within its compact shell, this zooming feature is most certainly a plus point whenever the need arises to zoom in to capture those details from a distance.

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Unfortunately, the law of photography states that ‘with great zooming, comes great distortions’. Heh. So, although the P500 tries to packed in various features like 5-way Vibration Reduction, Hybrid VR, etc. I still found it quite a challenge to get a focus lock with the camera on full telephoto zoom, especially for moving subjects. There are some reviews that have slammed the P500 for the image quality in its max zoom, but I think through practice and patience, the image produced can be pretty darn good. And for all photographers, there is always that incredible sense of achievement when the desired shot is taken. Of course, there is always the tripod to lend a helping leg too. :-P

I also noticed there can be quite a bit of noise when the camera machinery launches its long zoom barrel, and the whirring sound is very apparent during the focusing period when it tries hard to fix a lock on the subject. Apparently, the noise has already been much reduced from its previous P100 model, so I guess it is something Nikon may want to work on in future models. :-)

Video Quality

Moving on, there is another feature sets the p500 apart from its other competitors of the same class – its impressive video capabilities. The P500 is capable of shooting full HD movies in 1080p – the best quality available to-date. Too bad, the maximum duration for a full HD movie is capped at 30 mins, regardless of the size of the storage card. The video mode also has a dedicated button on the back panel, which skips the unnecessary steps of going into the mode settings. Apart from HD, the P500 can also shoot videos in HS (High Speed) mode. This allows more creativity as videos can be shot in slo-mo or hi-speed. Haha. :-p

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Image Quality & Handling

So, since it is a camera (in essence!), does the P500 deliver on image quality and focus handling? The P500 offers a max res of 12MP for its images which are stored in JPG format. For the more experienced photographers who prefer the raw format for better editing and control, this must really be a setback. Nevertheless, for a basic user like myself, JPG format is good enough already.

Based on my couple of weeks playing with it, I can say that the P500 is quite a speedy fella, with the full boot-up to focus taking below 2 secs. Sadly, it is not able to detect if the lens cover is on or not, so you’d just need to make sure you take off the cover before powering up – to avoid all sorts of unwanted whirring noises and warning messages. :-p In bright conditions, the P500 was able to focus and capture pretty good images. It also comes the standard P, S, A, M modes, as well as a U mode for the user to save settings used frequently. It is unfortunate that it doesn’t have brighter lens with its apertures starting at f/3.4 at wide-angle and f/5.6 for telephoto. The aperture setting can be changed to  f/8. Heck, my mobile phone even gives me a f2.8! Anyway, whilst this does not help in producing those sharp images with blurred backgrounds that is so popular, I know that through proper manual focusing and shutter speeds, those kind of images can be produced at apertures above f/5 too!

The other grouse is the ISO value offered by the P500. It starts at an ‘absurd’ 160 and can be changed to 3200. I would have expected a sub-100 rating, at least. But surprisingly, most shots I have taken seems pretty OK with the ISO set from 160-200 range. The shutter speed goes up to 1/1500, which is pretty decent already. It also helps that the P500 came with a command dial on the right side, which allows quick changes to the settings as required – just like all DLSRs. :-D Although, some reviews made a big deal out of P500 leaving out the shortcut to change ISO or White Balance, it didn’t bother me much as the settings I found myself changing most were the aperture, shutter speed and manual focus.

In short, image stabilisation can be quite an issue with the P500. But through practice and knowledge of how best to keep images locked in focus, pretty good images can be captured.

Fun Stuff

Apart from that, the P500 also offers fun (but necessary) features of burst modes, with capabilities to shoot five full 12MP res shots at 8fps. At lower res, you can even shoot some 100+ photos in burst mode! There’s also a nifty BSS (Best Shot Selector) that will intelligently take 10 shots and choose the sharpest image to be saved. In backlighting mode, there is another fun feature called the High Dynamic Range (HDR) which will shoot three shots simultaneously and then combine them all to produce the better looking shot. Cool.  Panoramic freaks would like the feature offered by the P500. Its Panaroma Assist enables the user to manually pan across the shooting area, like a video recording, before automatically stitching it together to get the full picture. Really fun and easy. There’s also the inclusion of popular image filters like fisheye and miniature effects.

Check out this video of swimming ducks shot at 120 fps….pretty fun eh?

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DXi_uaRVUYY

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Shooting in Low Light

The P500 runs into a little trouble in low light conditions and the built in flash doesn’t seem to be as powerful as desired at times. Too bad there isn’t an option to add on external flash on the P500. But generally, the Night Modes were able to deliver somewhat satisfactory shots. The image-combining thingy does help too. :-)

Manual Focus

I especially liked the little bits of DSLR features thrown in like the full manual exposure controls and also the ability to perform manual focusing. This worked remarkably well in macro shots, where the lens was able to focus as close as 4mm from the subject, and also some of those telephoto shots where the subject becomes just too difficult for the autofocus to function!. Of course, this requires a lot a lot of patience and practice though.

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Power

Finally, the P500 is powered by a Li-On battery pack which upon full charge, can shoot about 220 shots. I felt this was a weak point because most battery packs can easily shoot 300+ shots on a single charge. In addition, another boo-boo by Nikon was not providing the external battery charger. I had to charge the battery directly into my camera! Certainly a shocking a revelation but the good side on the charging is the availability of USB charging, so I could charge the camera + battery directly from my laptop. Problem is, how many people would actually do that in reality? Hah! :-p

In a nutshell…

The Good

Compact; Value for money; Insane superzoom; HD 1080p video; Manual focus; Manual exposure controls; CMOS sensor; 5 shot drive mode at 12MP high-res; Speedy boot-up and shooting; Can charge from PC; Cool Panorama assist; Tilting screen; Nice 921K 3.0″ viewscreen; Excellent macro capabilities; BSS; HDR; Extreme wide angle at 22.5mm; Good set of night scene modes; Fun features;Supports iFrame format;

The Bad

No external charger; Cannot detect lens cover; Max aperture at f/3.4; Min ISO of 160; Noisy whirring of focusing in action; Low number of shots of battery; No RAW format; No shortcut to ISO or White Balance; Image stabilisation issue; No support for external flash; Capped HD video length; No remote control; Poor EVF

Conclusion

A near-superb offering by Nikon into the superzoom compact pie. Although hampered by some obvious stabilization issues during telephoto length focusing which could take some time, practice and patience to get used to, the P500 is guaranteed to provide loads and loads of fun thanks to its various fun features, semi-pro settings and the incredible zoom, of course. Definitely a value-for-money gadget for those who want a fun camera but not that ready to dive into the DSLR world.

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Do check out my upcoming blogs for sample images