Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Nikon Coolpix P900 Review

Nikon COOLPIX P900

Here's an idea: the Nikon Coolpix P900 is the digital camera equivalent of the Simpsons' character, Sideshow Bob.

...No, Really. Watch as I try to explain....

Fans of the show will likely have the classic episode "Cape Feare" (9F21)  burned into their minds. Rather than try to describe it, it's easiest just to show it:

As has been pontificated many times by the show's enthusiasts, this particular clip is funny precisely because it goes past the the reasonable point of being funny. The first time that Sideshow Bob steps on a rake, it's funny. Then the gag drags on and it stops being funny. The scene keeps going on... and for some reason the repetition of stepping on a rake becomes funny again. It's the same joke... repeated too many times, it becomes boring... repeated even more times and suddenly your brain finds it funny again.

What does this have anything to do with the P900? Very simply, super-zooms aren't a new concept. They've been around since the almost the beginning of the digital camera age and by nature are interesting cameras, offering tremendous versatility in a convenient size. Over the years, the concept was iterated, time and again... to the point that people lost interest. It didn't matter if it was 20x zoom, 30x zoom or 50x zoom, many people tuned out what was happening with superzooms partly because of what has been going on elsewhere (high end compacts, mirrorless, etc.) but mostly because these cameras stopped being interesting. The best of the breed are certainty good (Panasonic FZ1000, Sony RX10), but they are good not just because of the amount of zoom that they have.

So there you have it, tired concept, one that the audience is familiar with. So what do you do? If you were a writer for the Simpsons, you could try a different take on the joke (e.g., the 1" sensor high-end route) or you could go the way of Sideshow  Bob and the rake... that is to say, repeat the joke (or concept in this case) until it becomes funny or interesting again.

Which is exactly what the the P900 is about. It's the same small-sensor super-zoom concept that people had tuned out, only with more zoom. A modest about of zoom was interesting. Producing iterations with marginally more zoom became boring.... and yet, extending the zoom even further has made the concept interesting again.

The comedy analogy is more appropriate than you might think. It seems that everybody who gets a chance to try the P900 in person walks away with a stupid grin on their face. The numbers say it all: 83x optical zoom, the equivalent of 2000mmm in full frame DSLR terms. Nikon's longest DSLR lens was the Zoom-Nikkor 1200-1700mm f/5.6-8P IF-ED, which was 888mm at it's longest length (yes, you read that correctly...) The modest P900 bests that, and even adds 4x electronic zoom on top of it all.

Body and Design

That said, the P900 is not small; it easily dwarfs its more conventional sibling, the P610. The camera is dominated by the lens barrel, but the rest of the body is scaled accordingly so that it's not overwhelmed by the lens. It's the size of a small Canon DSLR (like a T5i, for example) but less dense. The grip is deep, somewhat reminiscent of the D5500 in comfort level, which is to say that it is quite comfortable to hold.

Left: P900   Right: P610

The rear of the camera closely resembles the P610, except that it uses a dual control-wheel setup, one dial on the top (same exposed dial style as the D5500) and one ring dial around the four-way controller in what can only be described as "Canon-style." The top command dial is a joy to use, but the rear dial is small and an awkward reach to get to.

Sensor Image Quality

The following is an ad hoc demonstration of the camera's JPEG output quality through the ISO range. Pay attention to the legibility of the soda bottles for detail retention (or lack thereof) as the ISO value rises, speckling in the broad colour patches for overall image noise, as well as the harshness of the reflections and shadows as dynamic range decreases. These samples are not directly comparable to similar samples found elsewhere in this blog because of variable ambient lighting conditions. The settings used were default JPEG fine with the lens set at 24mm equivalent. 

In a methodological goof, the lens was left at f/7.1, which is past the point of diffraction limitation (f/4-f/5).6 for a camera of this sensor size. In other words, use this sample set to get a subjective feeling for image noise only, and not for ISO effects on detail. This in itself is indicative, as the maximum aperture of the P900 lens is f/6.5, meaning that at longest zoom, all shots are diffraction limited  (for normal viewing sizes) no matter what you do. To get a better idea of what this sensor can do, go to this review. Click on the following image for 100% crop view.

There's no getting around the fact that the 1/2.3" 16MP CMOSchip is a small sensor. Backside lighting (BSI) helps the chip get the most efficiency out of its tiny area, but the practical limit for quality photography is somewhere between ISO 400- 800 for reasonable quality. Anything higher than this is subject to significant smearing through noise reduction. However, it should be remember that this is a test of a tightly-detailed target relative to the entire image frame; if your subject does not have fine detail and fills a large portion of the image, the subjective ISO limit rises. And to repeat; at apertures below f4, the images will look much crisper.

In case you are wondering, the camera does not have a RAW file output option. This is an unfortunate omission given that anybody who is willing to work hard enough to make a 2000mm shot work is probably going to have the patience to edit it afterwards. 

Big Zoom Lens

The headline feature of the P900 is ostensibly the lens. These are unprocessed out of camera JPEG's, downsized for web viewing. At widest setting, this is the field of view (24mm equivalent) that you see:


At it's longest optical zoom, the lens gives the same field of view as a hypothetical 2000mm lens on a full-frame DSLR. So from the same position as above but fully zoomed, you can see the contents of the refrigerator in detail:


But wait, that's not all. If you take a 100% crop of above image you can actually read the ingredients off of the individual bottles:

2000mm, 100% crop

Now do you see why people end up with a silly grin on their face after using this camera? Truth be told, the lens quality isn't necessarily the best at 2000mm but it's much better than would be expected. There is a general loss of contrast do to diffraction limitation and overall lens capability at maximum zoom, but the above example exaggerates that aspect because the bottles are behind a glass door. Here's another example, hand held at 24mm outside the camera store in the atrium.

If you look dead ahead you can see the grocery store across the way in the far distance. At maximum zoom, you can literally do your fruit and vegetable shopping from this distance:

2667mm equivalent, (Digital zoom on)

In fact, this shot is going just past the limit of optical zoom into a bit of electronic-zoom territory. This is 2667mm equivalent.... hand held. That mere fact alone is staggering. A good guess of the keeper rate at maximum zoom is roughly one out of every two to three shots, but even the misses aren't completely catastrophic. The surprise of the P900 is in how well the optical image stabilization works. The system is rated to 5 stops of advantage, which translates into a theoretical minimal safe shutter speed of 1/60s at maximum zoom. With steady hands, practice and perhaps a reduction in coffee consumption, hand-held shots at maximum zoom in middling light entirely possible. The other reason why that is, is because the stabilization allows for the autofocus to achieve focus lock within a relatively quick amount of time for a contrast-detect system. In this regards, the P900 is better than the Nikon P600 or the Canon SX60 HS, which are difficult to use at max zoom because of this reason. (One way to get around this is to keep the camera in manual focus mode and to leave it at infinity focus, since most things shot at long distance are far away.) What the stabilization won't do, however, is to allow for hand-held video shots at 2000mm; it does smooth out some hand movements but its simply too much to ask of the system.

Concluding Thoughts

The Nikon P900 is a fun camera, but possibly not a practical camera. You can do bird or sports photography with it, but that's only if you are willing to make it work. The zoom is tremendous but it doesn't have an advanced phase detection autofocus system (as in a DSLR) to truly keep up with moving subjects. It costs more than a traditional budget superzoom, and even though it has  less less image quality than a larger-sensor camera such as the Panasonic FZ1000,  at the very least the P900 does something that no other camera can do. 

With thanks to Broadway Camera

1 comment:

  1. Nice review, and the analogy with the Simpsons is funny!