The Bottom Line
In the past, I have not been much of a fan of ultra-zoom cameras. The large zoom lenses typically cause the cameras to have sluggish performance, resulting in shaky image quality and missed photos of fast-moving subjects.
With the new crop of ultra-zoom cameras, though, I've changed my mind. The Fujifilm FinePix HS20 and the Panasonic Lumix FZ150 are excellent cameras, featuring 30X and 24X optical zoom lenses, respectively.
However, the best of the new set of ultra-zoom cameras may well be the Nikon Coolpix P500, with a 36X zoom lens and a lower price than the other two zoom cameras, at about $375.
For the most part, the camera can create great images, even in fully automatic mode.
You'll be amazed by some of the images you can create, thanks to the large zoom lens on the Coolpix P500. Despite the large zoom lens, camera shake is only an occasional problem with this camera. The large zoom range will give you impressive versatility with this camera.
Overall image quality with the P500 is outstanding. Colors are realistic, photos are bright, and images are sharp. The Coolpix P500's autofocus works extremely fast, and it is accurate throughout the camera's zoom range.
Flash photos are especially good with the P500, thanks in large part to the popup flash unit centered over the lens. The popup flash unit is larger than the built-in flash units you'll see on small point and shoot cameras, giving the P500's flash an advantage. You must press a button to cause the flash to pop up -- the camera doesn't open the flash automatically as it's needed -- but the camera will display a message on the screen, telling you to open the flash, when the lighting conditions require a flash.
You can't discuss the Coolpix P500's performance levels without starting with the extremely impressive 36X optical zoom lens, which has a measurement of 22.5mm to 810mm. Not only does the P500 have one of the best telephoto settings in the point and shoot market, but its wide angle options are very good, too.
The P500's response times are very good, and shutter lag is not noticeable most of the time.
The 3.0-inch LCD is extremely sharp and bright, offering high-resolution images, and you can select among five brightness levels. It also can tilt and swivel away from the camera body, allowing for odd-angle photos, although it doesn't twist completely around, which would simplify self-portraits.
You can use either the LCD or the electronic viewfinder to frame photos, although you must switch between the two by pressing a button. It would be nice if the camera automatically switched them whenever you lifted the camera to your eye, but it's a minor annoyance.
The P500 works extremely well in fully automatic mode, but you also will have some options that allow partial manual control (shutter priority and aperture priority), as well as a fully manual mode. The mode dial also includes settings for backlit, night portrait, and night landscape photos.
Finally, the Coolpix P500's movie mode is really good, offering a full HD movie mode or a high-speed movie mode, where you can shoot at 240 fps in QVGA quality.
Although it has a large camera body, the Coolpix P500 is lightweight. In fact, I was concerned with its sturdiness when I initially began using it, as it feels almost cheaply constructed. It performed very well, though.
One other minor complaint with design: You must charge the battery inside the camera or purchase a battery charger separately.
Otherwise, the Coolpix P500's design is really nice. It looks sharp, with a design very similar to a DSLR with a large right handgrip. You can easily operate this camera one-handed, which isn't the case with all ultra-zoom cameras.
In addition to the traditional placement of the automatic zoom control near the shutter button, Nikon has placed a zoom control on the side of the lens. It moves the lens through its entire zoom level more quickly than the other zoom control, but it isn't as precise. It is a handy placement for a second zoom control, though.
You'll find both a USB slot and an HDMI slot with this camera. In addition, when shooting in low light, the power button (located in the middle of the mode dial) is lit, make it easy to find the mode dial. As you turn the mode dial, each setting appears on the LCD screen, meaning you'll have no problems figuring out which mode you're using, even in the dark.