The last Coolpix camera I’ve used was a Coolpix A. Even though the camera’s 28mm fixed lens isn’t really my preferred focal length, I love the APS-C sensor, it’s f/2.8 lens and image quality. So while I’m waiting for Nikon to release a 35mm Coolpix A, Nikon announced the Coolpix P900 last month which immediately grabbed my attention.
It is kind of strange as normally I’m a big fan of camera with large sensor and fixed focal length lens like the Coolpix A and the Coolpix P900 is completely opposite to that. It has a small 1/ 2.3” sensor and a fixed zoom lens. So why am I interested?
The P900’s lens is 24-2000mm (35mm equivalent)!
Yes you read it right, 24-2000mm, that’s 83x zoom! Crazy isn’t it? That’s exactly why I’m interested in the Coolpix P900.
The biggest selling point of the Nikon Coolpix P900 is without a doubt it’s 83x 24-2000mm lens. For a superzoom camera, it’s f/2.8 – 6.7 aperture is pretty good too, especially when the maximum focal length is 2000mm.
As a consumer targeted camera, Nikon Coolpix P900 is quite plasticky, but despite that, the build quality is pretty good. The Nikon Coolpix P900 is not really a small camera and at a glance, it looks just like a DSLR! The grip area is big, feels solid and very supportive. There is a tiny amount of play around the lens barrel when it’s fully extended but it’s not really unexpected consider how long the lens barrel is.
The camera takes standard 67mm filter and the filter thread doesn’t rotate when you zoom or autofocus. If you want to leave the filter on permanently you can do that no problem. While this may seem normal for a DSLR but it’s not really the case for a non-DSLR like the Coolpix P900. For a lot of cameras, the filter thread would rotate and some you have to get an adaptor or something if you want to use a filter and then there are still lots of other issues. So it’s pretty good to see the Nikon Coolpix P900 has none of those issues.
There is a big “High Speed AF” sticker on the camera. Considering it’s a contrast detection system with a f/2.8-f/6.7 lens, the autofocus system does its job ok in terms of speed and accuracy. But frankly I won’t call the autofocus high speed. In the future, it would be good if Nikon let some of it’s Coolpix cameras have the amazingly fast hybrid autofocus system from their Nikon 1 cameras .
The P900 has a 3” vari-angle LCD screen. The colour and resolution are both quite good. And having a adjustable screen just makes taking photos or videos from extreme low or high angle a lot easier. The camera also has a pretty decent built-in electronic viewfinder (EVF) as well. The EVF has minimal lag and the only issue I noticed is the quite noticeable rolling shutter effect when you are panning the camera horizontally. Fortunately this only affects the preview and doesn’t affect the actual photo.
And when you are shooting at longer focal length, using the EVF instead of the LCD for framing can also greatly improve the stability. It’s because your head, arm and body now forms a triangle shape that is rigid and stable. It may not be that important when you are shooting wide angle but for a camera like the Coolpix P900 that can zoom all the way to 2000mm and you are trying to take a photo of birds that are few hundred metres away, the extra stability provided by the EVF really helps tremendously!
Talk about stability, one of the most essential feature of this camera is it’s 5 stop VR system. The Coolpix P900’s VR system is really effective at reducing camera shake. Without VR, its pretty much impossible to shoot anything at 2000mm when handheld the camera. Just a tiny amount of camera shake would completely blur the image. But with the VR turned on, I can easily shoot at around 1/150s and still get pretty sharp photos.
But if you do plan to take a lot of photos at or near 2000mm (of course you would if you buy a P900?), you really should use a monopod as well. At 2000mm, the field of view is just over 1 degree. So while P900’s optical stabiliser is very effective at reducing the image blur, you still have to point the camera towards your target. And trust me it’s not easy at all if you don’t have anything solid to support you. This is not a problem of the camera, it just highlights some of the challenges when your camera lens has insanely long focal length.
I’m very glad the wide angle end goes down to 24mm, which is a lot better than some superzoom cameras which starts at 28mm. It may not sound like much but 4mm wider really makes a huge difference at the wide angle end.
In terms of features, the Coolpix P900 has pretty much everything you expect and more, apart from the vari-angle LCD screen, EVF I have already mentioned, there are also full HD video recording, Wifi, NFC and GPS. You can easily pair your P900 with your smartphone and upload your geotagged photos to the internet straight away.
So how about the image quality?
I won’t lie and tell you the image quality is fantastic like a Nikon D810 with 600mm f/4 because it isn’t. And it shouldn’t be as otherwise all the sports photographers would be using the little Coolpix P900 instead of their 5kg+ $20000 DSLR combo which can only shoot at 600mm max.
The small 1/2.3” sensor does affect the image quality but we have to understand the use of a small sensor is essential to keep the size, weight and also of the P900 to an acceptable level. This is a compromise we have to make to get that crazy 83x zoom and 2000mm (35mm equivalent) focal length.
But anyway, P900’s image quality really is not too bad.
Picture quality from base ISO all the way up to ISO 800 remains quite good. I probably would go up to ISO 1600 if i really have to but pushing anything more than that is just not fair for the 1 / 2.3” sensor.
Sharpness is reasonably good overall including the extreme wide and tele ends. At 2000mm, there is a little bit of softness, but remember it is 2000mm! If you try stack two 2x teleconverters on top of the big 600mm f/4 lens to get 2000mm focal length and your image would also be a little bit soft as well.
Look at the moon photo below, when I showed it to people, everyone were saying how sharp and nice it is and no one would have guess it’s from a Coolpix.
I was thinking the 83x zoom would mean disaster when it comes to barrel distortion. But after checking my sample photos, barrel distortion is surprisingly well controlled. I also don’t see much chromatic aberration as well.
In terms of dynamic range, obviously you won’t get the same dynamic range from a DSLR, but unless you are shooting really high contrast scenes the results are still acceptable. The camera also has a high dynamic range mode that combines multiple exposures into one high dynamic range image. It wouldn’t work when you are shooting moving objects but it works quite well on static scenes.
The Coolpix P900 has a macro mode for close up photography. Like a lot of fixed lens cameras, the macro mode only works when the lens is at wide angle end. You can get really close to the object. How close? The lens can get so close that lighting the object can actually be a big challenge sometimes.
So far it seems pretty much everything meet or exceed my expectation, but there are two things I don’t like in terms of picture quality.
Firstly it’s the bokeh. P900’s bokeh just doesn’t look very nice at all. It is harsh with distracting halo around the edges, almost look like the bokeh from a reflex mirror lens. If you want nice and smooth bokeh, sorry the Coolpix P900 can’t give you that.
The second issue I have is the JPG processing. The camera applies a little too much noise reduction and removes a lot of fine details. It may not be obvious but if you zoom in the photo and view it at 100%, you’ll see the image looks a little bit like a watercolour painting. The heavy noise reduction is probably because most consumer users prefer a noise free photo. But for those of us who want to preserve a bit more details in the expense of noise free output, there is no way to adjust the strength of the noise reduction filter. And there is no RAW file output either.
A lot of P900 users probably won’t be bothered by these two issues but they do bother me a bit as otherwise pictures from the Coolpix are really quite good.
So anyway, the most obvious advantage of the 83x zoom lens is that you can take close up photos of objects far far away. Like that moon photo above. But is that all?
What if someone tells you you can always zoom with your feet, or just back up if you need wider angle?
Moving closer or further away doesn’t equal to zoom in/out. The photo’s composition, perspective, foreground and background all changes as the focal length changes. So a zoom lens isn’t all about enlarging or reducing the size of your subject.
With a camera that has a 24-2000mm lens, we now have virtually unlimited freedom in how to capture our photo. You can shoot the scene close up at 24mm wide angle which exaggerates the size of your foreground object, have more perspective distortion and includes a lot of background around your subject. Or you can move back quite a bit and shoot at 2000mm and the scene would be heavily compressed with a tiny view angle and that can help you to hide the messy background. Or you can shoot at something in between to get the perfect balance between perspective distortion, compression and how much background to include.. etc.
Below is an example of the same scene shoot at different focal length using the Coolpix P900. This is probably not the best example and not too extreme, but you should still be able to see how the same scene look when you shoot at different focal length.
Remember there is no right or wrong about what focal length to use. It’s just how you want to visually present it in your photo. So if you are just starting out learning photography, the P900 could actually be quite a good camera for you to learn the image composition and how to use focal length to improve your image composition and tell your story.
Usually one of the main issue with non DSLR cameras is their very short battery life. Luckily the P900 has pretty decent battery life. I went out and took a few hundred photos and when I got home, the battery indicator still said the battery is full. Another pretty handy feature is that you can charge the battery by just using a standard USB cable. This is definitely great for people who travels a lot as you don’t need to bring the battery charger.
When it comes to camera design, it’s all about compromise. You can create a perfect camera or lens that is highly optimized for a special use but it could be so large, heavy, expensive that no one can afford one.
Nikon wants to put a lens with insane focal range in the Nikon Coolpix P900, but as a consumer camera, it really can’t be too big, too heavy nor too expensive. To achieve all these, Nikon installs a small 1/2.3″ sensor and it means there are some compromises on picture quality. But to be honest, apart from slightly heavy handed noise reduction and the bokeh, the picture quality isn’t too bad at all.
The RRP for the Coolpix P900 is $899 NZD, street price will probably be a bit cheaper. So for the same price you can buy an entry level DSLR kit. Obviously the DSLR gives you much better image quality and have the freedom to get additional lenses. But no DSLR lens in the current Nikon catalog can give you that 2000mm focal length. Even if Nikon makes one for you, it’ll be so big, so heavy and the price will be more than 20x the price of the Coolpix P900.
If you are planning your next holiday trip and want a camera better than the one on your smartphone, especially with the ability to cover an extreme wide focal range, geotag the photos and upload the photos to internet easily (with the help of your smartphone) to share with your friends and family, definitely check out the Nikon Coolpix P900.
The Coolpix P900 is like a swiss army knife, it may not be the sharpest knife around, but it’s 24-2000mm zoom lens and other handy features make it a very versatile camera especially when you are travelling and can’t carry too much camera gears.
And that 83x zoom is just beyond belief, you really have to try it yourself to experience that insane zoom in capability!
Reviewer: Richard Wong
Richard is a multi-award winning wedding/portrait photographer based in Auckland, New Zealand. Richard’s website is www.photobyrichard.com and his facebook page is https://www.facebook.com/PhotoByRichard
Richard is also a contributing writer for a few photography magazines.
Some more sample photos: (All photos shot in JPG and edited to taste in Lightroom)
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