The Nikon P500: Can the do-it-all monster zoom actually… do it all?

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Before I get into this, let me get a few things off my chest first.  I’ve fallen for the Fujifilm X100.  Heart 1, head zip.  I’ve written about this passion, ok… obsession… on a few occasions (see here, here and here), comparing this rangefinder-esque camera with others and decreeing that it shall maintain a place in my camera bag.  With that said and given the surefooted, metal clad X100, everything else can’t help but feel like a hunky blob of plastic next to it.  The second caveat is that this user report is as much a commentary on the category (that would be the superzoom) as it is on the P500 itself.

The other reason to mention these two caveats is that I’ve become accustomed to shooting with a fixed lens compact.  The other side of that same coin is to say that I’ve increasingly become comfortable foregoing focal length options.  Sure, I’d love to go wider on occasion.  And zooming right in would be just what the doctor ordered on others.  But I’ve gotten over that.  In fact, I’ve embraced the limitations of a fixed lens camera and that has helped improve my compositional skills.  Knowing what a scene is going to look like before putting the camera up to my eye has prompted me to think in terms of the fixed frame of reference that the X100 mandates.  That’s not everyone’s day in the park, but it has started to become mine.

The P500 is, in a word, the exact opposite.  Not sure of your composition?  Worry not, you can figure that out once the viewfinder is up to your eye.  Want wider?  Go out to a 22.5mm equivalent.  Not bad.  Want some zoom action?  Bring it.  All the way out to 810mm.  Wow.  According to Nikon’s marketing department, the P500 is the perfect camera for… well… for everything.

Read on to see if I agree…

Nikon p500 amazon

 

First of all, the P500 is very nicely built.  It feels solid in your hands and the buttons and dials are confidence inspiring (more so in my opinion than the more rounded and less refined Canon SX30IS, another superzoom competitor to NIkon’s offering).  By the way, there are others: Fujifilm, Panasonic, and Olympus all offer similar cameras, but for various reasons, I thought I’d give the P500 a go.  Canon makes one of my favorite small sensor cameras, the G12 (see my user report here).  Their megacam SX series, however, does not offer the same level of build quality (try and find metal anywhere on it, I dare you).  The Panasonic, a top contender in this space, is getting long in the tooth and will likely be replaced soon.  Additionally, it doesn’t go as wide as the Nikon and I’ve become photographically addicted to wide, so I didn’t bother.  The Oly and Fuji reviews have been lukewarm/mixed and so again, I stuck with the Nikon.  Additionally, Nikon offers some whizbang features such as easy panorama and in camera HDR and I figured that since this is supposed to be the do-it-all camera, I might as well go for one that does-it-all.

To give you an idea of how massive the zoom range is, check out these two photos.  My feet were planted in the same spot for both – I only adjusted the zoom from widest to longest settings.

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That is some serious flexibility.

But while flexibility is good, what about photo quality?  In a nutshell, it’s a mixed bag.

When the light is strong and your ISO doesn’t crank up too much, you’ll be fine.  But as the light levels drop and your ISO increases and/or your shutter speed drops, you’ll wish you were carrying something else.  There should be no surprises here.  This is a small sensor compact with 12.1 megapixels fighting for elbow room – not a good recipe for success.  Compare that to the 10 megapixel, bigger sensor-sized, and less ambitious zoom range of the G12 and you’ll see a pretty big difference in terms of low light capabilities.  Throw the X100 into the mix and… oh, nevermind.

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In the park nearby my house on one early evening, I spotted this unusual site.  I took approximately 25 shots as the deer did not seem concerned about my advancing.  (Yes, eventually this felt a little creepy as I started to wonder whether deer ever charge those who are oncoming…)  Of the 25 shots, this one came out best, but it required a very healthy dose of after the fact noise clean-up and I had to hold my breath and prop the camera up to my face in a very still and very unnatural position in order to minimize camera shake.  It’s good that I had the zoom range of the P500, but in reality, had I had the G12, I would have been able to gain a better shot.  Cropping would have allowed for a similar composition for web posting and noise would have been far, far less.

I did enjoy the in camera pano stitching feature, which is similar to the implementation that Fujifilm and Sony employ.  I’d say it works as well as Sony’s and better (i.e., more reliably) than Fuji’s.  (Yup, that’s me in the lower left hand corner.)

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The results of the in camera HDR function was much less impressive.  Here are two shots, one without HDR and one with it applied.

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The HDR composite does show greater dynamic range, but at a cost.  The detail is muted and upon close inspection, even smeared a bit.  In the darkest areas, I don’t see enough additional detail to justify the cost and I expect that I probably would have been able to gain as much in post.  Thankfully, Nikon preserves the original along with the composite.  And a nice and rather unique feature is that the camera stacks the photos so that you can quickly view the results without having the before and after shots mixed in with all the other images on your SD card.  Simply by pressing the ok button, and then skipping back and forth between shots, you can do an easy compare and contrast.  A quick nudge of the D-pad in the up direction places you back into normal playback mode.  The same is true of bracketed shots, which sadly only give you a plus/minus 1 EV range. 2 Guys Photo readers will recognize that this is one of my pet peeves.  With the extreme popularity of HDR photography these days, why won’t every manufacturer provide plus/minus 2 EV across three shots?

One big benefit of compacts over traditional DSLRs is that you can focus close and take advantage of the wider depth of field that smaller sensors provide.  The P500 proved to be a pretty capable close focus shooter.

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Yes, I need to paint my porch railing.

Speaking of depth of field, how does the P500 handle subject isolation, i.e., blurring of the background against a sharp subject?  The lens on the P500 isn’t particularly fast (f 3.5-5.7) and with the smaller sensor, I didn’t expect miracles.  I didn’t get miracles and this is very, very clearly not a larger sensor camera with fast glass, so let’s be real.  But, with that said, the Nikon is reasonably capable and you can isolate the subject to decent effect.

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How does the P500 handle higher ISO situations?  Here’s a photo of Shadow, shot at 1600.  I didn’t clean up the noise after.

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If you’re into flash (as in inbuilt, there’s no hot shoe on the P500), you could nab this shot no problem.  Shadow’s eyes would have been blown out (red eye equivalent in canines) and the lighting would have looked very harsh and unrealistic.  If you’re into indoor natural light shooting, you should be looking at a different class of camera.

Outdoor, brighter situations?  No problem.  The P500’s lens is plenty sharp and the sensor captures detail beautifully.  It’s been a while since I shot with a Coolpix and it’s good to see that the Nikon engineers seemed to be reengaged in making Nikon more than the also ran it has become in this space.

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I didn’t have much of a chance to test the P500 with fast moving subjects, but I didn’t have to.  I tried playing around with the various AF settings to track even slow moving action (thanks, Shadow).  If you want to track moving subjects, again… look at something else.  No point and shoot camera, no matter what kind of honking lens they stick in front of it, is ever going to win awards for birds in flight or youth soccer shots.

All in all, I really liked the P500 – more so than I expected I would.  For a supremely lightweight camera with tremendous versatility in terms of zoom range, it’s a winner.  It’s an ideal hiking camera.  Low light situations and fast action needs should push you toward a DSLR and good glass scenario, so it’s all going to depend on your needs.  Despite Nikon’s marketing department claims, this camera doesn’t really do it all.

And will I be selling my X100 because of the P500?

C’mon…

 

Posted by Rey

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4 Responses to The Nikon P500: Can the do-it-all monster zoom actually… do it all?

  1. Duane Bender says:

    I am enjoying the X100 more every time I shoot. I think the fixed lens making me work harder on composition is paying off. On other hand, I know I am missing some really good tight shots.
    -always pro’s and con’s

    • 2guysphoto says:

      Duane – this doesn’t always work because some situations won’t allow for it, but have you tried the in camera panorama mode? I’ve found on occasion, I as I was wishing for a wider view of a scene, that the pano feature really came in handy.

      Rey

  2. I have a Canon XS10 IS. I thought why not go from the 12 optical of my S3 to 20 optical. I found the increased noise in low light to be a real detractor as you also noticed with the P500. The G12 has such great reviews but at only 5x I just don’t like that trade-off either. Still waiting and I guess wishing I could try the X100 and see what the fuss is about.

    • 2guysphoto says:

      Maryann – I actually thought of you when I wrote the review as I know you shoot with a Canon superzoom… and have achieved great results. There’s a practical limitation in putting such as large lens in front of a sensor such as the G12’s. The physics of lens/sensor placement would necessitate a much bigger lens and that kind of defeats the purpose. I find that the G12 resolves so well that you can crop (and therefore gain some zoom equivalent) to good effect. But in no way can you reliably get to 20X +.

      Thanks,

      Rey

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