This is only a vs. review in the sense that the Canon SX20IS was my current camera when I started looking for something new. I have been using superzoom bridge cameras for several years now…the Sony H9 and H50 in their time, and the Canon, having a lot of fun, and getting satisfying results.
The Canon is a wonderful camera. It has excellent image quality at ISOs up to 200 (especially compared to the two Sonys that came before it), decent image quality at ISOs up to 400, and I love the way it handles in the field. The lens is amazingly sharp. I have been totally happy with it…or almost. The only limits of the camera are 1) a 20x zoom range topping out at 560mm equivalent field of view…there are lots of new superzooms with longer zooms at the telephoto end, and many of them better the Canon’s 28mm wide end too, and 2) no rapid capture to speak of…the fastest you can take images with the SX20IS is .8 frames per second (yes that is point eight!) and that is simply very frustrating when shooting active wildlife. Many of todays’ Back-illuminated CMOS sensor superzooms will shoot 5-11 frames per second. Then too, the new BICMOS cameras shoot full HD video and the Canon is limited to 720p.
I was tempted by the Panasonic FZ100. Five fps and all kinds of image processing modes made possible by the BICMOS…but, at 600mm, its zoom is not significantly longer than the SX20IS’ and it got pretty dismal reviews on image quality.
And of course I had a good long look at the Canon SX30IS, with its 35x zoom extending to 840mm equivalent field of view…but again, image quality reviews were disappointing (especially the often mentioned chromatic aberration and purple fringing) and, without a BICMOS sensor, its rapid capture ability was not that much better than the SX20.
I was on something of a self imposed time limit for my shopping. I had two major trips to photo destinations scheduled and coming up fast…1) St Augustine Florida for the Florida Birding and Photo Fest and the Alligator Farm rookery for flight shots, and 2) Ohio for The Biggest Week in American Birding and lots of frantically feeding warbler opportunities along the boardwalk at Magee Marsh.
After a fair amount of research, I bought and shot several hundred images with the Fuji HS20. The Fuji had all the right specs and handling was a dream: 24-720mm equivalent zoom, 8-11 fps, full HD video, extended contrast range, macro mode with special processing for out-of-focus backgrounds, manual zoom and easy button access to common settings, and an ultra solid feel. Unfortunately the image quality from its 16mp sensor was about on a par with that of my original Superzoom…the Sony H9 of several years ago. The Fuji showed a lot of water color effect…fine details were smeared, and smooth color gradients were blocky. While the images look good, spectacular even, at smaller sizes and resolutions, even with every effort to process the files for best effect in Lightroom, they too often looked more like paintings than photographs at anything approaching full resolution…an effect that was obvious in even an 8.5×11 print. Folks who use and love the camera claim that with proper settings (using the camera at 8mp, and tweaking a bunch of other stuff) you can nurse some truly spectacular images out of this camera, but if I had wanted to be nurse I would have gone to school for it. I wanted a camera that I could pretty much use out of the box for satisfying results. I returned the Fuji, with genuine regrets, but few doubts.
View this image at full resolution to see the water color effect…a deal breaker for me.
That sent me to the internet one more time to look at image samples from the remainder of the BICMOS long zoom introductions for this year. The Sony HX100v looks really good on paper, and as a ZEISS employee I am of course attracted by the Vario-Sonnar lens, but it is not really out yet, even at this writing, and samples of the types of images I am interested in capturing are hard to find. I actually had one on order for delivery on release, but my experience with the Fuji made me a bit cautions of cameras that look really good on paper, and that have high pixel count BICMOS sensors (the Sony is also 16mp).
I ended up, after looking at all the samples images I could find, going to my local Best Buy and purchasing a Nikon Coolpix P500 on the day I left for Florida. Not the wisest course of action, but, as you will see if you read on, one that, so far, has worked out pretty well.
The Nikon Coolpix P500 has a 36x zoom, 23mm to 810mm equivalent and I like both ends (as well as pretty much everything in between). I already knew, from my experiments with the Fuji, that 24mm is significantly wider then 28mm when it comes to expansive landscapes, and, of course, 23mm is even wider. Better yet, at 23mm the Nikon lens has less distortion than my Canon SX20 at 28mm. Impressive. And at 810mm the Coolpix has the reach for many birds, even warblers in the woods, and certainly for much of the wildlife you might encounter. Amazingly the lens has very little chromatic aberration at any setting of the zoom. In fact it is the cleanest zoom, by far, that I have seen on any superzoom. Purple fringing (a sensor artifact that often accompanies CA from the lens) is so well controlled as to be practically no-existent. This would be impressive in a shorter zoom, but at 36x it is, as I say, amazing!
|23mm equivalent field of view||810mm equivalent field of view|
Then too, the P500 shoots 8 frames per second in continuous mode for a burst of 5 shots, or 24 frames at 1.8 frames per second. 8 fps is fast enough to capture even birds in flight or rapidly feeding warblers. Most of the time I end up selecting the best of the 5 shots, but I have captured several 5 shot sequences of birds in motion that are quite satisfying. And if 8 fps is not fast enough, you can even set the camera to lower resolution for up to 240 fps stop motion sequences.
|takes flight: 8 fps, 5 frames|
selected shots from 5 taken at 8 frames per second
All that is good…very good…but of course no camera is any better than its base image quality. The P500 has a 12mp BICMOS sensor. I have done some careful side by side testing, and while the Canon SX20IS’ 12mp sensor should, in theory, have very slight edge in fine detail, in fact, the Nikon has at least as good, if slightly different, image quality at ISO 160 as the Canon. And the Nikon has the best extended dynamic range and image optimization routines of any camera I have used…as well as considerably better high ISO performance. All in all, unlike the Canon SX20IS / Fuji HS20 comparison, in comparing the Nikon Coolpix P500 and the Canon SX20IS, the Nikon comes out the clear image quality winner. The following comparison shots are just as they came from the camera, and are available at full resolution with a click.
Nikon Coolpix P500 vs. Canon SX20IS: ISO 160, subdued light
P500 vs. SX20IS, ISO 800, inside.
P500 vs. SX20IS, ISO 1600, natural light
For extended dynamic range, the Nikon Coolpix’s Active D-Lighting can be set to 3 levels: Low, Normal, or High. It adjusts exposure overall, and selectively processes the highlights and shadows for extended range. In my experience it does a really good job of maintaining natural detail in clouds and opening shadows in the foreground…all without the unnatural effects of much HDR work. It is so good, in fact, that images from the P500 require very little exposure work in post-processing. I have intentionally tested the P500 with scenes that have always proved a challenge for my previous cameras, and there is a very noticeable improvement in the way the P500 renders the scene with Active D-Lighting on.
This scene is particularly difficult to render, with the shadowed trunks in the foreground and the bright sky behind. Active D-Lighting does an excellent job.
Image Optimization can be set to Normal, Softer, Vivid, More Vivid, Portrait, Custom, and Black and White. Custom gives you direct control over contrast, sharpening, and saturation. The rest of the modes apply some combination of those effects corresponding to their names. Vivid, which is what I use most of the time, produces the same effect out of camera that I have achieved in Lightroom with my other cameras…a bit of fill light, blackpoint slightly to the right, added clarity and vibrance…for an image that has a good deal of pop and drama…but without being so over the top as to call attention to itself. I have not experimented much with the other settings, but I plan on doing so.
Both Active D-Lighting and Image Optimization make the camera do more of the work I would normally do in Lightroom after the fact. I know that makes some photographers really really nervous (and quite disdainful of those who do not share their opinions and habits). They want to shoot in RAW and carefully control all parameters in post-processing for the best rendering of their vision. I am not that kind of guy. If the camera can do the job, I am perfectly willing to let it. In fact, I am happy to let it. As long as I know what the camera is going to do to the image, and can pre-visualize the result, letting the camera do its thing leaves me more energy to concentrate on seeing and composing. And I really do not need to spend any more time in front of the computer than is absolutely necessary, thank you all the same.
Speaking of composition, the P500 has two features which I find really useful. The first, and most important, is a flip out LCD so that I can compose near-ground-level scenics and shoot macros without getting down on my knees and stomach. I refuse to buy any new camera that does not have an articulated LCD. The second is a user selected rule of thirds grid in the finder. While every rule is made to be broken, having the the two vertical power lines, the two horizons, and the 4 power points right there imposed on every scene definitely improves my ability to see a better finished image…whether I choose to follow the rule of thirds or to break it. (See The Really Strong Suggestion of Thirds). And, since it is user selected, if you don’t like it there, you can turn it off.
Macro at ground level, both made easy by the flip out LCD
And speaking of macros, the Nikon P500 can be set to macro focus in almost any of its exposure modes, but it also has a Close-up Scene Mode, which selects several parameters beyond macro focus to improve your chances of good results. The zoom automatically zooms to best length…the setting where you can get closest focus and largest image scale…about 32mm equivalent field of view. Focus switches to continuous center frame, exposure to center frame, and Image Optimization to Vivid. Good to go. Simply flip out the LCD, and hold the camera as close as 3/4 of an inch away from your subject. You can over-ride the zoom setting of course, and shoot full frame macros at out to 810mm equivalent from as close as 4 feet. The results are impressive…the best I have seen from any small sensor camera. I suspect there is some digital trickery going on to maintain good foreground and subject depth of field, while throwing the background well out of focus. At least the images look to me much more like images from a large camera sensor using longer focal length lenses than those from your average small sensor, short lens, P&S.
If you have read other reviews of the P500 you have probably encountered some criticism of the controls. Maybe it is a matter of expectations, but I find the controls, in actual field use, to be among the easiest, most responsive of any camera I have used in a long time. I love the Program Shift wheel right under your thumb that allows you shift the balance between f-stop and shutter speed at will, while maintaining correct exposure. I like the Exposure Compensation control on the control dial, also easily accessible via thumb. I like the separate, well placed, menu button that allows you to get the menus up even with the camera at eyelevel. And, while the menu system might look old-fashioned, it actually works very well, allowing rapid access to most settings, and on the fly changes…again, without removing the camera from your eye or taking your eye off the LCD. And the menu is blessedly fast. There is no lag at all between selection and implementation. with a little practice, you can be into the menus with a press of the button, scroll to your setting with the control dial, make your selection, and be back out of the menus and shooting in less time than it takes to read this sentence. What is not to like?
The P500 has several specialized exposure modes made possible by the BICMOS sensor and its rapid capture ability. I have not experimented with them all, but I particularly like the Night Landscape mode. Night Landscape rapidly captures 3 or more images of the same scene, then stacks them in camera to provide a sharp, richly colored night scene. Though some effort is made to control noise, I have found that more noise reduction in post processing helps…but the final results are pretty amazing.
The crescent moon and Venus in conjunction at dawn, St. Augustine FL. Night Landscape Mode.
St. Francis Inn, St. Augustine, Night Landscape Mode, handheld ambient light only
There is also an backlight HDR mode which shoots and combines several images for extended dynamic range even beyond that available with Active D-Lighting. Unfortunately, unless the scene has extreme contrast, the in camera processing produces a relatively flat image, which has more noise and more jpg artifacts than a single exposure. Fortunately Active D-Lighting is so good, HDR will rarely be needed, and when it is you can always shoot three auto bracketed exposures and combine them in Photomatix or some other HDR software.
There are actually way more scene and program modes than I have yet explored. Smart Portrait and Portrait provide a softer look with an out of focus background. Smart Portrait has face recognition. Beach and Snow provide for extremes of highlight range, etc. etc. It also has a mode in which the camera chooses the Scene mode based on an analysis of the frame. (That is taking camera automation even a bit far for me
The P5oo gives you two panorama options. Auto sweep panorama allows you to simply hold the shutter button down and sweep the camera along a horizontal or vertical line while it captures images. The camera then stitches them and evens out exposure. The results are very good, though the narrow dimension of the image is limited to 560 pixels in horizontal panos, and 1024 in vertical panos. The second option is to use Assisted Panorama mode. This provides guides to help you to align a series of full resolution images to be stitched together later in the included Panorama software, or in PhotoMerge in PhotoShop Elements.
Sweep Panorama mode
full resolution, assisted Panorama mode, stitched in PhShEl 9.
The P500 gives you control over both Image Size and Image Quality (compression ratio). I shoot in full size, 12mp, and Fine quality (low compression) almost all the time.
For action, I started out with the Sports Mode, which selects 5 shots at 8 frames per second, continuous focus, center focus and exposure, standard Image Quality, and Medium (8mp) size. While this works, I quickly found that I could still get 8 fps at Full Size (12mp) and Fine Image Quality, so I created a User mode with those settings, along with LCD off, full zoom, and a minimum shutter speed of 1/125 (yes you can set that!). I call that my Flight and Action mode.
My user designed flight and action mode.
By setting up Program with Full Size, Fine IQ, Active D-Lighting Normal, Image Optimization Vivid, I can use that setting on the control dial as my general purpose landscape and scenic mode. I then set my Scene Mode to Close Up (or Macro), and I have my User mode set for Flight and Action as above. That gives me three choices on the control dial for 90% of my shooting. With easy thumb access to Program Shift and Exposure Compensation in all modes, unless the situation is really extraordinary, or I want to shoot a panorama, I never actually have to go into the menus.
The Nikon Coolpix P500 does have some drawbacks. 1) As above, there are times when I can see more processing artifacts in the fine detail of landscapes than I really want to see, 2) The lens, while excellent in all other ways, is not very fast. f3.4 at 23mm to f5.7 at 810mm. 3) perhaps because of the slow lens, the minimum ISO is a rather high 160. Every other camera I have ever owned went down to ISO 100, and most went to ISO 80. (It might be noted that image quality at ISO 160 on this BICMOS sensor is as good as image quality at 100 on most small CCDs I have used, and image quality above 400 is considerably better.) 4) on and off times are not among the fastest. 5) it takes a while, especially when shooting Full Size and Fine, for the camera to write its burst of 5 images at 8 fps to the card. That can mean missing action. 6) focus, while excellent and quite fast, is still not as fast or accurate as the more sophisticated systems in DSLRs, 7) image sensor shift Vibration Reduction, while adequate for most shooting, is not as good as the lens based Optical Image Stabilization in Canon P&Ss. High zoom video, for instance, requires a tripod (and it is noisy!), and finally, 8) battery life, while adequate, is rather short by today’s standards, and the camera does not come with an external charger. To charge you have to plug the whole camera in via proprietary usb cable. Fortunately the P500 uses a common Nikon battery, and both extra batteries and external chargers are available, and relatively inexpensive, on Amazon. (Some users have reported more serious battery problems, with unusually short discharge and discharge while the camera is off…but my camera has been fine…and most who have had the problem returned the camera for one that works. Buyer be aware.)
Conclusion: while no camera is perfect, the Nikon Coolpix P500 is about as versatile a camera as you could ask for. From panorama, to ultra-wide, to macro, to portrait range, to long telephoto…from high dynamic range/high impact landscapes to soft telling portraits, from dawn to dusk, from night portrait to night landscape, from snow and sand to fireworks, from active wildlife to actual birds in flight…the P500 does it all, in a compact package that is easy to carry and use in the field. Like all superzoom bridge cameras it will not equal the image quality of a DSLR and a bag full of lenses, but it is certainly a camera that will bring back satisfying results under the widest possible range of conditions. It certainly does everything I had hoped for and more. It is a fun camera. And at this point in my photographic journey, it is just what is wanted.