When I offered to review the Nikon Coolpix P900 for Photography Life, I told Nasim I felt like a comedian rooting for Sarah Palin to become president so he’d have four more years of material. C’mon, 24-2000mm zoom combined with a 1:2.3” sensor? The comedic potential seemed endless. But what if it didn’t suck?
A box arrived for me with a Nikon D7200 and P900 in it for review. I went straight for the P900. I’ve got a serious case of telephoto-eyetis and I wanted to see just what this baby could do. I’d never shot with a superzoom point-and-shoot (AKA bridge camera) before and didn’t have any photogeek friends who owned one. To me such a camera was only seen around the necks of tourists at the Grand Canyon. So there was just one thing to do – I grabbed the P900 and headed to the Great Ditch.
Before we jump into the canyon, let’s check out some of the more pertinent and/or compelling features of the P900:
- 83x zoom range 4.3-357mm f/2.8-6.5 lens – a 24-2000mm equivalent. Add digital zoom on top of that and you can get 8000mm equivalent.
- 7fps burst rate at full resolution, 60fps and 120fps burst rates at lower resolution
- Pre-shooting cache – records images before you fully depress the shutter release
- 16mp sensor
- Focus Peaking
- 3” LCD tilt/flip monitor
- Electronic View Finder with eye control
- 5-stop Vibration Reduction
- macro focusing to 1cm
- 18 scene modes including timelapse, bird-watching, easy panorama and moon shot
- and of course wi-fi, GPS, full HD and all that stuff
1) Lens Performance
Let’s get right into the juicy stuff and check out the zoom range and lens performance. Where else can you get a single lens that can go from this…
Those are both handheld shots from the same spot and that’s not even the full zoom range. The first is 35mm equivalent and the second is 950mm equivalent (the P900 crop factor is 5.6). This was the view from Navajo Point toward Desert View and The Watchtower. To get an idea of the full zoom range let’s double the distance and go to Lipan Point, 1.8 miles from the Watchtower and slap the P900 on a tripod, set the self-timer to lessen camera shake and take some test shots.
The shots from 24mm to 2000mm equivalent are with the optical zoom. The shot at 4000mm equivalent is with the camera’s digital zoom enabled. Crazy, huh?
At 24-35mm, the corners are definitely soft, but by 55mm this improves a lot and is pretty much gone by 200mm. 500mm looks best to my eye for corner to corner sharpness. By 850mm the corners are softening a tad again, but most shots at this length or longer will likely be wildlife or another subject that likely doesn’t demand or benefit from sharp corners. At 2000mm things get a little soft overall, but bear in mind that we’re talking 2000mm here and shooting through 1.8 miles of atmosphere in a dusty part of the country. Once we go to digital zoom, softness drops a bunch, but even so from two miles away I can tell who’s texting, who’s shooting camera phone pics, who’s got the DSLR, and oooh, I hope that dog’s tail is always up like that.
Overall, the lens from wide to fully optically zoomed is way better than I expected for a lens with such design demands. Any distortion is well corrected (likely with a lot of help from the software). Also bear in mind that any comments as to sharpness are from me resorting to Dummyvision (viewing at 1:1 with my reading glasses on). If I view these at web resolution, they all look pretty decent except for the digitally zoomed 4000mm one. But don’t take my word for it, check out the MTF chart:
Whoops those aren’t the MTF curves, this is actually a rock abstract and judging by the sharpness I’m guessing the MTF chart looks quite a bit better.
Here’s some more at the long end – these are cropped to keep the subject the same size in final output. The 2000mm shot is cropped to about 35% of the original, the 4000mm one is about 70% of the original file, so this final view is equivalent to 6000mm. I did some sharpening and touch-up on these to see how good I could make them look in final output.
Definitely some noise/pixelation and fine detail could be better resolved, but overall not bad for a $599 camera and certainly good enough for one’s Facebook page. Before all us D810 owners start freaking out, here is the same bird, same final size, shot with the D810 with Nikkor 800mm f/5.6E VR and 1.4x teleconverter cropped and even upsampled a bit to get the same final subject size.
We Win! We Win! We Win! The D810 absolutely clobbered the P900. I’m so delighted and relieved that I spent the extra $21,000.
All supertelephoto lenses, even those costing five figures, have issues when it comes to camera shake, heat shimmers and other atmospheric disturbances.
The softness of this coyote shot is not due to optical imperfection of even digital zooming (this is at 2800mm equivalent) but to late morning heat shimmers.
What about depth of field? The tiny sensor equates to greater depth of field at any given viewing angle.
At 24mm equivalent and f/8 you get everything from inches away to infinity in focus. However at f/8 sharpness is dropping off, likely due to diffraction. However, this is hard to see without Dummyvision.
Here’s an example at f/4.5 and 100% – looks nice and crisp.
Here’s the same lichen at f/8 and 100% – pretty good but not as crisp as the f/4.5 version. I would only shoot the P900 at f/8 if I absolutely needed the depth of field like in the rock slab shot above. Greater depth of field equates to more forgiveness in focusing. The flip side is if you want that super-narrow depth of field look (completely blurred out background) like this…
You need to shoot with a DSLR, preferably full frame like the D600 used for this Avocet shot. You won’t get it with the P900 or any other 1:2.3” sensor camera.
Zooming is power-only and takes 4 seconds to get from 24-2000mm. If you shoot more at one end of the range or another, you can set the start-up zoom position to whatever length you want and when you turn the camera on it will start zooming to that focal length.
The most glaring flaw with this lens is how much flare it suffers from because there is no lens hood and the front element is not recessed.
I needed to block the sun from the lens with my hand – I ended up doing this a lot.
Put the sun in the frame and I got more flare hexes than vultures in my shot. The hexes indicate Nikon used a six-blade diaphragm.
Nikon claims a 5-stop vibration reduction. Not sure about the numbers, but it worked good for me. A tripod worked even better and if you want to utilize the long end of the zoom range (and of course shoot in low light) I recommend one.
When put in close-up mode, Nikon claims the lens will focus to within 1 cm of the subject. However I actually shot Washington’s portrait on a dollar bill with the lens holding the bill flat against a window and it was in focus from about 1.5mm distance (but edges horridly soft).
Besides how easy it would be to bump your subject and/or scratch your lens, being this close can cause the camera shadow to partially block your subject and even make a ring light give a bright donut pattern. I’ve been disappointed with soft macro performance in other point-and-shoots, but when I backed up a little, the P900 did admirably. I really like this next shot.
There’s a bit of softening up and left of the “N” in National Geographic and obvious barrel distortion, but otherwise things look pretty crisp. You can even clearly make out the “void” pantograph, designed to prevent counterfeiters from photoduplicating such checks. So the macro mode won’t pay back for itself that way, but for flowers or bugs where corner sharpness and distortion don’t mean much, it should be fine.
This caterpillar looks very sharp. Even cropped at about 50%. But with the inherent great depth of field of the P900 there’s a bit of distraction in the background.
Here’s another caterpillar. Viewed full frame:
And at 100%:
I’m impressed by the sharpness.
Here we see an example of using the greater depth of field to include some background for context.
Here I wanted a simpler background so I used the sky.
And here I used the black side of my collapsible reflector as my background.
This is about 3”x4” worth of dead prickly pear. At f/6.3 the corners show just a smidge of softness.
2) Frame Rates and Shooting Speed
At full resolution, the P900 can shoot 7fps and you get a 7-frame burst before the buffer fills. It takes 4 – 4.5 seconds for the buffer to clear. All the while your viewfinder or LCD will just show a preview of the last frame shot so you lose sight of your subject for those precious seconds. Many times I waited for the buffer to clear, only to discover my subject was no longer to be seen or had just finished some interesting behavior I missed because of the P900s limitations.
The buffer increases to 60 shots for the 60fps and 120fps burst rates, but image size is reduced to achieve this, 1920×1080 for 60fps and 640×480 for 120fps.
This Grackle was doing some acrobatics to hang on to this branch in high wind. 60 fps allowed me the option to grab a frame at the height of action.
The Pre-shooting Cache is one feature I was very eager to check out. Anticipating wildlife action can be tricky at best – I have tons of shots of bird butts just leaving the frame when the lag between my brain to my finger to the completion of the shutter button depression was just too long. The Pre-shooting Cache starts recording frames at 15 fps when you depress the shutter release halfway to focus, but before you actually click the shutter. You can hold the shutter button halfway as long as you want and the P900 continuously records frames and tosses out all but the last five frames until you click the shutter. At that point the P900 saves the five frames recorded in the 1/3rd second before you clicked the button. You can keep shooting up to 20 frames total before the buffer fills, then of course you wait for the buffer to clear.
My reflexes were a bit too slow to capture the moment this raven hopped, but thanks to the Pre-shooting Cache, I ended up with the shot. This works amazing except for one thing – image size is reduced to 1280×960. Of course this is all just a function of processer speed and buffer capacity. When camera manufacturers deem it in our best interest, they will give us that capability. Note that this will not work with cameras using mirrors and focal plane shutters. However, I see no reason this couldn’t be implemented in Live View on a DSLR. Hey, Nikon could include it as one of the additional features they’ll offer in the I Am Advancing firmware update program. Oops, I forgot – I Was A Hoax.
To me, the biggest shortcoming of the P900 is its shutter lag. At the wide end it’s reasonably quick, but when shooting telephoto, the lag is a whopping 3/4ths of a second. For sports or wildlife this is a no go. The only workaround is the pre-shooting cache, but this reduces file size so much that it’s unsuitable for outputs bigger than web use.
AF performance is fast, but at longer focal lengths this is offset by the P900’s protracted shutter lag. Unless it’s recognizing faces, the P900 usually grabs the nearest object in the focus pattern to focus on. If you’re trying to shoot a deer hiding behind some branches the P900 will get fooled by the branches. Three work-arounds to this – try finding an object at the same distance as the deer to lock focus on, then recompose, lock focus on the branches and move closer until the deer is in focus, or resort to manual focus. Like most manual operations with the P900, manual focus is a tedious procedure. If your subject is not going anywhere and you have plenty of time you can take advantage of focus peaking. Focus peaking takes areas of crisp micro-contrast in the composition and highlights them in white, indicating those are in focus. This is an awesome feature I wish was enabled in live view on Nikon’s DSLRs.
4) Sensor Performance
So the lens does admirably, if fact, outstanding for an 83x zoom, but how does the sensor perform?
The 1:2.3” sensor used in the P900 provides good resolution at 16mp. Nevertheless, it suffers from the expected limitations of such a small sensor – poor high ISO performance and a small dynamic range. To cram 16 megapixels in such a small sensor, the pixel sites are very small. Smaller pixel sites gather less photons and less photons equals less data to create an image from.
The following sequence was shot in one-stop increments from ISO 100 – 3200:
And at 100%.
Up to ISO 800 it looks pretty good. At ISO1600 it looks bad and at ISO 3200-6400 it looks scarier than a wax museum Michael Jackson in his kabuki-look days. These were done with noise reduction set to normal. A lot of the P900’s pleasing image quality is a function of the software doing lots of distortion control, sharpening and noise reduction. With ample light, the little sensor provides enough data to produce quality results, but when the light gets dim and the ISO needs pushing, results go downhill fast.
Even when the ISO was low, I had trouble with the white balance. Some of this is because I’ve been shooting RAW for years and rarely shoot jpeg. Going back to jpeg mode and nailing white balance wasn’t easy. I usually didn’t like the tint of the auto-WB shots (it has both standard and “warm” auto-WB), but even when I searched for a different setting or tried to custom set my own WB, I still felt the tint was off and looked sort of yellowy-gray and required me to add a bit of magenta in post.
Another issue that came up was a drop off in color in the shadows at higher ISO.
The normally magenta hills in the back have gone gray at ISO 320.
At ISO 100 you see the color. If it’s dark enough to push the ISO that high for landscapes, then just go with a tripod, set ISO to 100 and dodge the problem.
Again at ISO 100, this time I even darkened the shadows in Lightroom to give the canyon more depth.
As expected, the P900’s dynamic range is narrow.
In harsh light with sun on the Ruddy Duck’s white feathers and his black feathers in shade I end up blocking my highlights.
In Lightroom I tried to dial back the highlights and pull up the shadows. I got back some shadow detail but the highlights just went grayg. This, admittedly, is a tough test for any camera.
Surprisingly, after boosting the shadows in post I was able to restore feather detail to this raven in the snow. However, this was in much softer light than the duck.
The P900 only creates jpegs or MOV files, no RAW. This really bums me out, but I’m guessing the RAW files would look real scary and there’s a lot of sophisticated tweaking going on to make the jpegs look so good.
The metering works well – I usually left it in matrix mode and only occasionally went to spot mode.
5) Camera Modes
This camera is designed for the Point-and-Shoot Set, therefore features loads of scene modes and auto functions. I tried to be a good reviewer and shoot the entire first day just in Auto. I made it to mid-morning before the control freak in me started reaching for the +/- button, then soon thereafter was spinning the selector to PAS and my favorite M. What I discovered is this camera is really slow to maneuver in those modes. For instance, if you want to change ISO you have click the menu button. If it takes you to the top of the menu, then it’s seven clicks to get down to ISO adjustment, one click there to access your options, then whatever number of clicks to get the desired ISO. At least the last menu selection pops up the next time you access the menu. It would be great if this had quick ISO and WB controls.
One thing the P900 has that neither the Mighty D4s nor the Mega D810 possess is User Settings. The funny thing is, most people who buy a P900 will rarely get out of Auto or one of the scene modes. They’ll never spin the dial to “U”. On the other hand pros wish everyday they had User Settings on their DSLR bodies and swear if they ever find the knucklehead who instead programmed in the virtually useless Custom Settings Banks, that they’d strangle him with their equally useless D4s-embroidered D-Kapitator camera strap. Wow, I guess I needed to get that out of my system until the next camera review.
After spending many days bogged down trying to shoot the P900 in manual mode, I gave in and went to the Scene settings.
Landscape Mode has it’s own spot on the Mode Dial. It puts the camera in a long distance focus setting and warms up the WB a bit.
These were shot in landscape mode and Standard Picture Control with a bit more contrast and saturation added in post. I could have achieved a similar result in-camera by using the Vivid Picture Control setting.
Earlier on I showed you pics of the Desert View Watchtower. I’d been to the Grand Canyon many times, but never ventured inside. Eventually I went in and was amazed at how cool the architecture was. It seemed a good place to try out “Museum” mode. This mode sets you up to shoot indoors without flash and is a lot easier than trying to do it all manually.
If you want flash you need to manually raise the flash – it won’t pop up itself in Auto Mode. The flash has no power adjustments and I found it a pain to use. It took me many tries before I got this shot right.
I even tried Museum Mode it in an actual museum (Tusayan Museum) where the lights are real dim to protect the artifacts and flash photos are strictly forbidden.
The kachina is a bit blurred from trying to handhold at 1/10 sec, but the other shots look good.
To work the Easy Panorama mode, just push the button, pan, and let the camera stitch the shot together.
Unfortunately, the P900 has just two pano settings – 180-degrees and 360-degrees. Even at the lower setting you have to pan in an awkwardly wide sweep to complete the picture. You need to give your self some extra space at the top and bottom and a good bit of leeway at the end of the sweep as the final file gets cropped a bit automatically. The camera will complete a pano if you only pan 90-degrees, stop, then wait 4-5 seconds for the camera to say that’s enough. If you sweep less than 90-degrees it will refuse to create the file. It would be great if Nikon added extra 90 and 120-degree modes in a firmware fix. It would also be great if the Cubs won the World Series. I think it more likely the Cubs will come through sooner.
Here’s a crop from another pano and the odd pattern you see here is lens flare repeating from the stitching process.
I really wanted a tight pano of the mountains in the back, but the P900 sets the focal length wide and you can’t change the focal length in pano mode, hence I searched for some nice grass to fill the foreground.
Next morning I wanted a pano of the wild vapor trails lit up in the sunrise, but this time the camera was tricked and gave this jumpy effect.
This was panned smoothly on a tripod so I’m not sure what went wrong.
I didn’t like the P900s pano modes, hence ended up just stitching in Photoshop for results like this.
In Birdwatching Mode you can align a bird inside a thin black frame, then push “okay” and the camera zooms to 800mm. You can then zoom in or out if desired and shoot away in either single shot or continuous mode.
I tried and tried to get a decent bird shot in bird-watching mode, but the P900 is just too slow to capture anything but a patient bird that really want’s it’s photo taken.
I ended up making my own bird mode with Auto-ISO, minimum shutter speed, 7fps burst, etc. and saving it as my User Setting. Still, my results were dismal and though on paper the P900 looked like a fun camera for bird photography, in the field it was just frustrating. Bird-watching mode seemed to work better for lizards.
The Moon Shot Mode works great. Just align the brackets over the moon, push “okay” and the camera zooms to 2000mm. Click the shutter release and it starts a 2-second self timer for the camera to stop shaking (you need a tripod for this).
Whee! The hardest bit is lining the moon up in the monitor at 2000mm.
While we’re talking about the moon, here’s some shots form the night of the recent lunar eclipse. These were not in Moon Mode as I was not cropping in as tight and also the P900 had trouble autofocusing on the moon behind the haze that evening.
Big moon coming over the ridge. Little does it know what will happen later.
Look close and you can see a jet flying by.
Thin layers of cloud kept coming and going.
When the eclipse started a few hours before sunrise, I found it impossible to shoot close ups of the moon during the eclipse – I just couldn’t get a focus on it. Instead I decided to try the Night Sky Time-lapse Mode that compresses 150 minutes into 30 seconds:
If there hadn’t been the thin haze I think you would see a bunch of cool stars show up when the eclipse reached totality, however the weather had different plans.
Still in partial eclipse as the moon sets. Next is a clip done in Sunset Time-lapse Mode (runs automatically for 50 minutes and creates a 10-second video):
Besides Scene Modes there are Effect Modes. Feeling naughty? Go ahead and throw out all but one color with Selective Color Effect.
Egads, I’d better do something good to make up for that. Fortunately, the High Contrast Monochrome effect comes to the rescue.
Better than that, there are more adjustable B&W settings in the monochrome picture setting menu. I did this next one by adding a red filter (in-camera setting) and boosting contrast.
Because I sometimes had trouble getting white balance where I wanted it, the black and white options were quite welcome.
6) Construction and Ergonomics
The build quality seems good. It’s mostly plastic, but there’s nothing obviously flimsy. The only thing I’d worry about is busting off the LCD flip screen if you manhandle it. Ergonomically it felt good, with a nice deep secure grip. I didn’t like the video button right under my thumb as I’m addicted to rear button focus on my DSLRs and I repeatedly accidentally hit record. As well the wi-fi button is close enough to the playback button that I hit it by mistake a lot. The 3” LCD 921K dot monitor works well even when viewed at an angle. The eye sensor that turns off the LCD and turns on the EVF is easy to block. You’ll know because your LCD inexplicably turns off. The EVF is utilitarian, which is a nice way of saying it shows you the scene and a bunch of pertinent data, but is pretty small, of moderate resolution and jumpy when panning.
The P900 is about the same size and weight as a small consumer DSLR such as a D3300 with kit lens. This is not a pocket camera and you’d need a decent size purse to slip it in. Furthermore, pairing it with a light tripod is the best way to get the most out of the P900, especially for landscapes.
7) Other notes
I tried the Wi-Fi and successfully triggered the camera with my phone. Sometimes it didn’t want to connect.
Here’s the breakdown on maximum apertures: f/2.8 to 30mm, f/3.2 to 55mm, f/3.5 to 85mm, f/4.0 to 150mm, f/4.5 to 300mm, f/5.0 to 650mm, f/5.6 to 1200mm, f/6.3 above 1200mm.
I got 725 shots on a full charge. It’s only rated to 360 shots, but I used the EVF a lot instead of leaving the LCD running. To charge a fully exhausted battery takes 3 hours 40 minutes. Best to carry a spare.
And lastly, what a heck, it only comes in black?
8) Looking Forward
The P900 uses the Expeed C2 processor, which is like 100 years old in computer years. I’d be intrigued to see what it could do with something equivalent to the new EXPEED 5A processor just introduced in the Nikon 1 J5. Would we have pre-shooting cache abilities at full resolution? If so, all my complaints about the slow operation and shutter lag hurting the wildlife capabilities would vanish. How about 60 fps at full resolution? The EXPEED 5A is being offered in a $500 camera so one would think it wouldn’t bump the price up too high. The optical technology is there, the processor technology is there, sensors keep getting better (but would likely be the weak link). As we’ve seen with the sample photos, that little 1:2.3” sensor isn’t doing that bad. The real question is would Nikon be bold enough and smart enough to let the consumers have what they want? Throw in RAW capability and I’d buy that camera because it would let me get shots I couldn’t get with my other cameras, even my D4s. Yeah, yeah, the image quality wouldn’t be close to the D4s, but guess what? I could care less about the image quality of the shots I miss.
9) Bottom Line
The Nikon P900 is a camera that tries to do everything from macro to supertelephoto, and does a surprising number of things well. With its 24-2000mm equivalent zoom, it doesn’t just replace a whole bag of lenses, it replaces a trunkful. Bird watchers who are not looking forward to spending a ton of money on big and heavy gear will be delighted by this camera. It’s best for people who shoot JPEG (no RAW available) and who’s primary output is web-sharing or prints no bigger than 8”x10”. If you plan on printing bigger than 11”x14” or simply delight in viewing your files at 100%, this is definitely not the camera for you.
The 24-2000mm equivalent lens, the longest zoom of its kind, exceeds expectations; though to achieve such a huge zoom range in such a compact lens, it needs to be paired with a small 1:2.3” sensor. This small sensor primarily limits its low-light performance – it’s preferable to use a tripod rather than resort to speeds above ISO 800. The amazing telephoto range suggests this would be good for wildlife and sports. However, it is very slow to use in PSA or M modes and even in Auto, the long shutter lag and lazy zoom speed is a real drag. This doesn’t do well for quick moving subjects, hence for sports or wildlife it’s a poor choice. But for slower long-distance subjects, say celebrity cellulite on the beach, the P900 will do the trick. For most everything else, from close-ups of flowers to detailed shots of the moon, it produces nice results and you don’t have to hassle with changing lenses or cleaning sensors.
The Nikon P900 is a helluv fun to shoot in point-and-shoot mode, and I’ll be a little sad to return my review copy.
10) Where to Buy
As usual, you can purchase the Nikon P900 from our partner, B&H Photo Video. As of 04/08/2015, the Nikon P900 is listed at $596.95.
Text and photos © John Sherman unless otherwise noted.
Nikon Coolpix P900
- Optical Performance
- Build Quality
- Focus Speed and Accuracy
- Image Quality
- High ISO Performance
- Size and Weight
- Metering and Exposure
- Dynamic Range
Photography Life Overall Rating