Nikon P520 Review: Super-Zoom For Super-Cheap

nikon p520 reviewThe Nikon P520, retailing at $449 and available for as low as $249 online, is one of the most affordable super-zoom cameras on the market. It is also, of course, made by Nikon, a company amateur photographers have historically favored because of lens quality; a wise buyer will opt for a fine lens over high zoom any day of the week. Seeing as the P520 offers a 42x optical zoom, presumably equipped with a famous Nikon lens, you would think all debates and conversations concerning the best and most affordable super-zoom camera would be moot. But it turns out Nikon made a number of sacrifices to attain both crazy zoom and crazy low prices.

All the pros and cons are detailed below, and whether or not you decide to replace your aging Nikon, you can still improve your technique with this advanced course for digital photography on shooting manually.

Specs

The specifications for the P520 are incredibly solid. As already mentioned, the Nikon features a 42x optical zoom for the almost ridiculous price of $249-$449. More impressive than the zoom is the focal range: 24-1000mm. Keep in mind, this is a compact camera, something you could theoretically stuff into a cargo pocket (admittedly it would be somewhat bulky). It also features a new, larger CMOS digital sensor than its predecessor, the P510. This new sensor is 1/2.3″ and produces 18.1 MP, an ISO sensitivity range of 80-6400, and 1080P HD video recording (with stereo sound and the ability to shoot slow-motion video at 120 fps). But even an impressive zoom has limits, and this photography course on how to get close to subjects, such as wildlife, can help you compensate for any shortfalls.

Nikon had me sold at the ISO range, but this is just the beginning. As you would expect, the P520 is equipped with a wide pallet of manual modes, a highly sensitive 99-point autofocus, a burst option that offers seven frames per second, a 3D shooting mode, built-in GPS, Wi-Fi support that gives you the option of transferring images wirelessly to every popular wireless device on the market, and a 3.2″ LCD hinge display that is more or less the cherry-bomb on top. Reviewing these specifications, it’s amazing how far camera technology has come. I remember buying my first Nikon ten or fifteen years ago in the same price point (even in the same family: Coolipix), and it had a whopping 3.2 MP. If I’m not mistaken, the new Nokia Lumia cell phone features a 41 MP camera. Times have definitely changed.

General Usability

Another “pro” for the P520, at least in comparison to its rivals, is its truly compact dimensions. The dimensions, as provided by Nikon, are 125.2 x 84.1 x 101.6 mm (5.0 x 3.4 x 4.0 in.). That can fit in the palm of a large man’s hand. The weight is equally impressive: just under 1.22 lb (and that’s the weight with the battery and SD card). “Cheap construction” seems to be a common complaint, and if you don’t like glossy plastic, this is sure to irk you. Personally, I think the low weight is a happy compromise, but this is something that undoubtedly varies user to user.

In terms of physical design, the P520 is a pleasure to hold. For those using the P510, no substantial difference is noticeable. The grip, which protrudes generously, offers a nice handle that is made better by the very thin camera body; this allows the handle to cut deep into the camera, forming a nice bay between the lens barrel and the shutter button for fingers of all shapes and sizes.

One of the best received features of the P520 is its side-zoom option. There is, without fail, the cheapish plastic zoom toggle around the shutter button, but there is also a second zoom located on the left-hand side of the lens barrel. Both zoom buttons accomplish the same thing, but the second zoom, which is in the construction of a sturdy vertical dial, is one of the best features on this camera. Not only is it easier to control than the toggle zoom, but it allows you to zoom-then-shoot much faster and more comfortably; you can, for example, have your finger poised on the shutter, while your other hand controls the (better functioning) zoom. When the desired zoom is achieved, you’re already in position to take the shot. Needless to say, this is a definite “pro,” and certainly comes in handy for moment-to-moment occasions, like weddings (this blog article on mastering wedding photography has some invaluable advice, too).

When it comes to usability, small size and low weight are a great start, but they don’t automatically guarantee around-the-board user-friendliness. I don’t think Nikon has changed button size or design since my old 3.2 MP Coolpix back in the 1990s. The buttons are incredibly small, yes, but for the price, it is something I would be happy to overlook. Still, there has to be a better way to do this. It feels like you’re trying to press reset buttons instead of, say, photo library buttons.

Controls and Display

The controls are small, as mentioned, but they get the job done. Most used will probably be the Fn button, located above the classic D-pad (“Multi-Selector,” as Nikon refers to it; this, too, has not changed in fifteen years: OK button in the center and four immediate options for flash, exposure, Macro and self-timer). You can get a better grasp of Macro with this free food photography tutorial. Fn offers quick access to a number of important features, such as white balance, burst shooting, and ISO, among others. The thumbwheel, positioned just above the thumb rest, controls the settings of variable options, such as exposure. No complaints here, but no praises, either, and I think anyone would benefit from a course in mastering exposure in digital photography.

One feature I do appreciate is the record button. Located to the left of the thumbwheel, this is entirely dedicated to starting and stopping recording. It’s as easy as the Trash button; it serves one purpose, and best of all, it will initiate recording no matter what mode you are in.

The display is nearly perfect. At 3.2″ and 921k-dot resolution, it can’t feasibly be any larger or clearer (considering the iPhone 4S has a 4″ screen). It’s a hinged screen, with a new vari-angle mount, which basically means than you can flip and twist the screen to your heart’s content.

So while the screen is perfect, the Electronic View Finder (EVF) is anything but. It seems that Nikon put all its eggs in its display basket. To begin with, the EVF, at a mere 0.2″, is housed in plastic so hard and uncomfortable you would think they were trying to dissuade you from using it. Then we have the fact that the EVF does not have a skin sensor, so it doesn’t turn on automatically when you raise it to your eye. This wouldn’t be so terrible is not for the fact that it doesn’t turn on even when you press the DISP button. How, then, does one activate the EVF? By returning the hinged display screen to its locked position. We put a man on the moon 45 years ago, and this is the best we can do? Steve Jobs would have had a heart attack at how non-intuitive this is. You might be thinking this isn’t a big deal, but wait until you try to use the display at high-noon on a bright day. As if things couldn’t possibly get any worse for the EVF, the truth is that its quality is just as abysmal as its usability. Call me old-fashioned, but I prefer a real view finder 99 times out of 100 (the screen is most useful for reviewing photographs, in my opinion), so this is an immense drawback.

Battery

I’ll keep this short and sour. The battery life is terrible. Define terrible, you say? How about 200 shots (that’s half the competition). The battery charges in-camera; at first, this sounds convenient (and it is, I admit), but it also means you can’t re-charge one battery while using another. Ultimately, I think anyone can find a way to live with this, but it would be much easier with a 400 shot capacity.

If you’re rained in for a weekend and battery life is inconsequential, you can spend two straight days learning your camera inside and out with this class on photography projects for a rainy weekend.

GPS

The GPS is a sweet feature, but it, too, suffers from imperfections. First, you’ll be lucky to get off 100 shots on a battery charge if you use the GPS full time. It really kills the battery, especially where signals are weak. It does, however, offer six levels of GPS detail, if you will. Level 1, for example, would simply tell you what country in which a picture was shot. Level 6 would pinpoint you to exact latitude and longitude. As you might expect, the lower the level, the more accurate the GPS reading. To be honest, you are not likely to find consistent accuracy in the higher levels, which I attribute to the lack of built-in Wi-Fi. Yes, you have the option of purchasing a Wi-Fi adaptor, but even so it would not have the effect I am alluding to; if you consider the instantaneous and perfectly accurate location accuracy of smart phones (this is a result of using Wi-Fi signals), it feels quite outdated when this GPS thinks you’re in another town entirely. Then again, shooting in the countryside would not be saved by Wi-Fi.

Image Quality

For the price, you would have to be insane to refuse this camera due to image quality. This might not be Nikon’s best lens ever (obviously), but for $249, you would be hard pressed to find something better. Aberrations are few and far between. At either ends of the focal range – 24mm-1000mm – there can be slight imperfections; at 24mm, you may have to deal with distortion, and at 1000mm you are going to struggle living up to the 18.1 MP expectations.

Even shooting in standard, automatic mode, the Auto White Balance system keeps colors true to life, which is a degree of professionalism not found in the P520’s rivals, which tend to sensationalize colors. There is a definite gripe with the way ISO and shutter speed balance, especially in the automatic settings. While night shots turn out great, you will soon see why night is not the best time for the P520 (although you can counter-balance this aspect with a little night-photography know-how). While the ISO is capable of 6400, is tops out at 800 in Auto ISO mode. This is frankly absurd. Why leave all that ISO on the table, when it’s plainly for the taking? To compensate for this, the P520 slows down the shutter speed, all the way up to (swallow your coffee) one full second. Sure, an option exists to limit slow shutter speeds, but as long as you’re in Auto ISO mode, you’re still going to top out at 800. I’m all for shooting manually, but to limit the Auto ISO so severely definitely takes some of the fun out of more playful shooting. You can counter-act this con with this course straight from the photography gods on how to perfect long exposure photography.

Other Considerations, And A Verdict

I’ll leave you with one last pro and con. The pro is the video mode, which is extremely easy to use. It’s just as easy to get wonderful results, too. Some modes are not available, and if you try to emulate them with ISO and the mode dial, you will find the camera simply takes over and sets them for you. But this really isn’t problematic. Considering the fact that this is first and foremost a camera, it’s amazing that it shoots true 1080p HD, and the results are spectacular, thanks to built-in stabilization control.

The con is the auto-focus, which sometimes takes so long it makes a sunset look like a fleeting opportunity. The lower the light, the slower the focus; we’re talking multiple seconds. This ultimately doesn’t hinder image quality, but it is relentlessly frustrating.

The verdict is one you’ve heard before: for the money, this is a great camera. The battery life is a bummer, the GPS is shifty, the auto-focus is annoying, and the control buttons belong in a museum. But the Nikon lens is still something special, not to mention the impressive focal range and the 42x optical zoom that will make you feel like a kid again, snapping pictures of distant objects willy-nilly. And that brings me to something very important: if you’ve never owned a super-zoom camera, it’s loads of fun. It will literally open up an entire new world of photographic possibilities. Let’s face it: dead serious photographers wouldn’t even be considering this camera. This is an affordable super-zoom camera, more compact than the competition and with a finely constructed lens. Far from perfect, but worth every penny.

So get out there and get shooting, and learn to capture the moment.