The Nikon P900: The New King of the Super Zooms

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Make no mistake: the Nikon COOLPIX P900 is a photo-taking telescope that you hold in your hand. The superzoom point-and-shoot camera has been around for years, albeit under the radar, as the point-and-shoot market has been waged in a war against two competing genres of cameras. On one end: the smartphone camera. On the other: the entry-level DSLR camera with its lower and lower price point. If the point-and-shoot is going to survive this war, it is the superzoom camera that will save it. Put simply, there is no smartphone or DSLR on the planet that can reasonably be as versatile as the superzoom point-and-shoot camera, and the COOLPIX P900 has just raised that game.

For the past few years, the superzoom standard bearers have been outfitted with impressive lenses that bring a 50-65x optical zoom to the digital sensor, giving them a 35mm equivalent focal length ranging from 20mm on the wide end to an eye-watering 1400mm-ish telephoto range.

THE Zoom

Are you sitting down? The new Nikon COOLPIX P900 features an 83x optical zoom lens that ranges from a 35mm-equivalent 24mm to 2000mm zoom range. No, that is not a typographical error. It is a 2000mm lens. Two with three zeroes following it.

35mm equivalent: 2000mm; 1/800, f/6.5; ISO 100

Let us put 2000mm in perspective.

Sports photographers with the huge lenses on the sidelines are usually outfitted with lenses ranging from 200mm to 600mm. Yes, that photo of your favorite gridiron player's helmet from across the field was likely shot with a lens that has less than 25% of the zoom power of the P900.

I have a Leica 77 Televid APO spotting scope—basically a telescope. When I attach a full-frame camera to the Leica, it is the 35mm equivalent of a 1,000mm lens. With an APS-C camera attached, I enjoy a 1,500mm equivalent view. With that field of view, the orbiting moon nearly fills the frame.

Do a search on the Internet for a 2000mm lens for a DSLR camera and you might find the famous Nikon Reflex-NIKKOR 2000mm mirror lens. Got a Nikon DSLR or SLR? 2000mm is possible—if you want to carry around a lens that weighs almost 40 pounds and costs, on the used market, upwards of $35,000.

The traditional downside of many point-and-shoot lenses is that the maximum apertures were relatively small and, especially as you zoomed out, the amount of light entering the lens was insufficient for photography in all but the brightest environments. The P900 has a pro-level aperture of f/2.8 at the wide end and an incredibly respectable f/6.5 at the extreme telephoto range. That Leica spotting scope I mentioned—f/11. The Reflex-NIKKOR—f/11, as well.

 

35mm equivalent focal length (left to right): 24mm, 70mm, 350mm, 2000mm

The farther you zoom out with a camera, the more that any movement imparted by your shaking hands is magnified. Camera shake is difficult to counteract at mortal focal lengths. When it comes to superzooms, a tiny bit of shake not only leaves you with a blurry image, it might mean you miss your target all together! To counter this shake on the COOLPIX P900, Nikon has strengthened its Vibration Reduction system to give shooters five-stop compensation with its Dual Detect Optical VR system.

Oh, before we move on to the controls, if 2000mm with the 83x zoom is insufficient for you, Nikon gives you a Dynamic Fine Zoom that digitally brings you to 4,000mm (166x zoom). Still need to zoom further? You may want to become an astronomer and book time at an observatory, or shop for a large telescope at B&H Photo.

The P900 features a 166x digital zoom for a 35mm equivalent focal length of 4000mm.

Design

In the land of point-and-shoot cameras, the superzooms are certainly the largest of the bunch. If you are looking for a camera to slip into a pocket or pocketbook, the superzoom is likely not what you seek. The COOLPIX P900, blaming its massive zoom range, is the largest of this genre, as it nears DSLR proportions. Frown if you must, but remember your other option for 2000mm with Nikon weighs about 40 pounds. The P900 weighs 2 pounds.

The Statue of Liberty, from Battery Park, at the 35mm equivalent of 24mm and 2000mm.

The P900 feels lighter than it looks. In the world of point-and-shoots, this is a good thing. It does not have the metallic heft that many love to find when they pick up a camera, but this thing is designed to travel with you without weighing you down.

The design is sharp and, to an outsider, you can tell that this camera is all about the lens. With a 67mm diameter objective lens, the glass dominates the design. The P900 is a big lens with an ergonomic handgrip on one side and a pop-up flash affixed to the top. From every angle aside from the rear, this camera is 80% lens. Zoom out and it looks like the P900 more than doubles in length.

The rear LCD screen measures 3.0" diagonally and features 921k-dot resolution. It is fully articulated and can flip out, rotate, and face forward. Articulated screens are something that, if you have been shooting SLR and DSLR cameras for years, you probably never missed. Once you use one on a point-and-shoot, mirrorless, or new DSLR camera, you will wonder how you ever got along without it.

A hand appears inside the crown of the Statue.

35mm equivalent: 2000mm; 1/1000, f/6.5; ISO 100

The COOLPIX P900 also has a 921k-dot electronic viewfinder with diopter adjustment for eye-level shooting and composing. For a DSLR user, this EVF features a pretty tiny screen, but it is more than sufficient for taking photos with the P900. The EVF is activated by a sensor when you bring your eye to the camera.

Controls

The P900 is outfitted with controls familiar to both Nikon COOLPIX and DSLR shooters. Very familiar to the consumer DSLR crowd, the camera features the same "PSAM mode control dial" that rides atop most of Nikon's DSLR cameras. This dial means that the P900 shooter quickly has access to shutter and aperture-priority shooting modes, as well as full manual exposure control. Many point-and-shoot cameras offer the same level of control to shooters, but the PSAM dial interface makes these options readily available; not always the case on other point-and-shoot cameras.

Because this camera is all about zoom, there are two separate zoom controls to keep shooters happy. The first is the common spring-loaded zoom ring surrounding the shutter release. The second is on the left side of the lens barrel where your thumb naturally falls when holding the camera in the shooting position. Alongside the lens-mounted zoom controls is the fashionable, and very useful, "snap-back zoom" button that zooms out quickly to help you regain your subject, if you lost it at the extreme zoom. Re-target and release the button to zoom back in. At 2000mm, it is not difficult to lose your subject.

Electronic Extras

Like many of today's cameras, the COOLPIX P900 features Wi-Fi and NFC capabilities to share your photos on the go with a compatible smartphone or tablet. The Nikon snapbridge mobile app will also control your camera from a remote position.

35mm equivalent: 2000mm; 1/1000, f/6.5; ISO 100

Embedded GPS geo-tags your images and allows you to access Nikon's Points of Interest system to find popular shooting sites.

For action shooters, the 16MP camera features 7-frame-per-second shooting. If that is not fast enough, the P900 will gladly shoot you a full-HD 1920 x 1080 movie at 60 frames per second.

I won't bore you with all the other details, but the COOLPIX P900 is packed with all the shooting, exposure, and scene modes that ship standard with many of today's point-and-shoot and DSLR cameras.

Shooting and Image Quality

To test the COOLPIX P900, I headed to the Statue of Liberty, in New York Harbor, to see what kind of images I could get.

 

35mm equivalent focal length (left to right): 24mm, 115mm, 450mm, 2000mm

Will a lens that covers everything from wide angle to telescope-telephoto feature the world's best optical performance? No. If someone could crack that code, we would all be shooting superzoom cameras but, with the versatility that extreme zoom lenses offer, come optical compromises.

But let me follow up by saying, "Wow!"

I walked around the Statue of Liberty and started taking photos. I zoomed in, and in, and in, and in. Have you seen those wonderful close-up photos of Lady Liberty in the glossy New York photo books or tourist guides, the ones taken from aerial platforms or with giant lenses (or giant crops) from the ground? With the Nikon COOLPIX P900, you no longer have to be envious of those vantage points. I was standing on the ground and getting even closer to the face of the statue than probably anyone has since there was scaffolding around her head.

The EVF is good but, as I mentioned, the screen does not really fill the viewfinder. This was not distracting and the EVF resolution is great. However, when pointed toward the sun, I found myself wishing I had a third hand to shade my shooting eye as the rubber eyecup wasn't sufficiently deep to allow me to see the viewfinder clearly in the bright sun. Had I been wearing a ball cap, I may not have noticed this.

Also, at 2000mm (and beyond with the digital zoom), the image stabilization sometimes trumps your compositional eye, as the exact image you were looking to grab might have shifted because you moved the camera when depressing the shutter release. At those zoom ranges, even a small bit of movement might move you completely off target. Luckily, digital is "free," so if VR made me miss, I would just recompose and shoot again until I got what I wanted. You can definitely tell how hard the VR is working while shooting at extreme telephoto; and working it is.

35mm equivalent: 555mm; 1/1600, f/5.0; ISO 100

As I was shooting, I was getting excited with the images I was seeing in the EVF. The Lady was looking great through the eyes of the P900. I was really enjoying the creative freedom of the extreme zoom. However, I was tempering my enthusiasm by constantly reminding myself that the quality cannot be all that good, right? I mean, this is not only a superzoom camera, it’s the new class leader with respectable-wide to insanity-telephoto. How can it be the master of anything?

Well, I got home, popped the SD card out and uploaded the images onto my computer for viewing.

Again, “Wow.” Seriously. I am very impressed with the optical quality of the images at all focal lengths. When I did 100% zooms into the 2000mm shots, I was looking at the rivets on the Lady's crown. Were they tack sharp? No, but they were pretty darn close. Consider that I was shooting at telescope-like focal lengths, handheld, on a windy day in freezing temperatures and you cannot help but be impressed by how the images came out. I doubt I could have gotten a sharper image with a DSLR in those conditions. And, with a DSLR, forget about zooming anywhere near that range.

You can see the images for yourself, illustrating this review. These photos are straight out of the camera. No post-processing at all. Great color. Great resolution. Impressive sharpness. What more could you ask from a two-pound point-and-shoot camera with big lens?

Final Thoughts

As you can see from these photos, the P900 really shines at extreme telephoto lengths. However, for family snapshots and portraits, I found the camera’s image quality was also superb. This camera really is an all-around workhorse that can meet a lot of demands.

The COOLPIX P900 was obviously designed to zoom boldly where no camera had zoomed before. It did its job flawlessly. It is designed as a travel companion that gets you shots that no other camera can get you. However, I found something even better inside the P900 that Nikon's marketing teams will likely overlook: the P900, because of its zoom prowess, allowed me to use that lens to take some really creative abstracts of the Statue of Liberty and later, on a walk through Manhattan, of the new World Trade Center and other buildings in the Financial District. With seemingly unlimited zooming, I was able to tightly frame areas in a way that no one else walking around New York Harbor today was able to do. In my opinion, this abstract and artistic exploration really elevated the COOLPIX P900 from a super-versatile travel zoom with amazing range to something that promotes creativity and art.

In the point-and-shoot's battle for survival against the camera phone and the DSLR, the point-and-shoot forces may have just received the weapon it needed to win the war and preserve the survival of the point-and-shoot camera genre.

Obligatory superzoom moon shot

35mm equivalent: 2000mm; 1/500, f/8.0; ISO 400

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