The Nikon Coolpix P500 is a camera with a massive 36x optical zoom lens.
The Nikon Coolpix P500 12.1Mp 'compact' digital camera might not be much smaller than an entry-level digital SLR with a kit lens, but the huge zoom range makes it versatile enough for almost any shooting task - you don't have to mess around with changing lenses. The camera's sensor could be better, though, and the lens' huge zoom range compromises its sharpness at longer zoom lengths.
The Nikon Coolpix P500 has a design similar to other 'bridge' cameras, which emulate the looks and controls of digital SLRs but have a smaller body. The large handgrip and lengthy lens barrel make the Coolpix P500 easy to hold, and the controls are easy to access and well laid out - we appreciate the inclusion of a rear control dial, which is a feature usually only found on high-end compacts and digital SLRs. The camera's pop-up flash above the lens barrel also emulates a digital SLR.
It's a little heavier than other super-zooms at 494g, but we're willing to overlook it considering the Nikon Coolpix P500's built-in electronic viewfinder above the 3in LCD screen - especially when you're at longer zoom lengths, using an eye-level viewfinder helps reduce camera shake. The LCD screen tilts upwards and downwards with a generous range of motion, but doesn't swivel to the camera's sides.
Nikon Coolpix P500: Performance
The Coolpix P500 is quick to start up - so long as you take the lens cap off. The camera won't start up with the lens cap on, and you have to turn the Coolpix P500 off and on again once you've removed it. Otherwise, the camera starts up in just over a second and can snap a photo instantly. You'll have to wait around 1.3 seconds between shots in single-shot mode, but continuous shooting is available at high and low speeds: eight and two frames per second respectively. Reduced-resolution 60fps and 120fps options are also useful.
The lens of the Nikon Coolpix P500 zooms quickly and smoothly; there's also a slow zoom trigger on the lens' side, intended to be used when you're recording video. The camera's vibration reduction does a good job of stabilising the image when you're taking a photo - it's reasonably effective even at maximum zoom - but it's quite noisy. The camera's macro mode has a minimum 10cm distance - not bad, but other compact cameras can operate much closer.
Nikon Coolpix P500: Picture quality
In bright lighting conditions, the Nikon Coolpix P500 produces reasonably clear and detailed images. We found that in general photos looked best when we were at the widest focal length, and progressively got slightly softer as we zoomed further.
Longer telephoto zoom lengths and maximum zoom images are slightly soft - it also doesn't help that the lens's slow minimum aperture of f5.7 at full zoom means it only gathers a little light, requiring the sensor ISO to be bumped up. For the lens's huge zoom range, the variable minimum aperture of f3.4-5.7 is impressive, but as usual we would have liked it to be faster.
Bright conditions mean low camera sensor ISOs, and the Nikon Coolpix P500's 12.1Mp sensor does a good job from its base ISO of 160 to around ISO 400, where noise reduction starts to smooth out detail. ISO 800 is usable in a pinch, but we found both ISO 1600 and ISO 3200 to be very blurry and overly smooth - it's also a pity the Nikon Coolpix P500 doesn't offer a RAW shooting option to preserve image data and allow enthusiasts to apply their own noise reduction.
The camera has a range of auto-ISO options including a low-range limited option between ISO 160 and ISO 400, which we'd leave the camera on if possible.
We think the Nikon Coolpix P500 is a good camera to take outdoors on a bright day, but any buyer looking for good performance in dim or dark conditions should look for a different model. The flash does a good job when you're close enough - if you're indoors we'd recommend using the flash to add a bit of light to a scene and allow lower ISOs.