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Just like every other camera that passes through our labs, we subjected the Nikon Coolpix P520 (MSRP $449.95) to our battery of image quality tests. The good news is that the P520 is indeed better than last year's P510 in most respects. The bad news? It's not that much better, with a couple exceptions. In terms of lab numbers it's also in the same ballpark as the highly regarded Canon SX50 HS, though the real-world gap is a bit larger.
The P520 scored well in the lab for noise control, though that's mainly due to incredibly aggressive noise reduction (more on that later). Color accuracy was actually a little worse than the P520, but not noticeably so, while automatic white balance was markedly improved. The camera's dynamic range is right on par with the SX50 HS. The P520's best improvements probably come in video performance, where the new model has made a huge leap forward.
In our tests, the P520 wasn't anywhere near as sharp as the P510, which was initially a little confusing since the two ostensibly share the same lens.
But after doing a little analysis, we're convinced that the difference is almost entirely down to software processing. The P520's most accurate color mode (Neutral) uses a dialed-down sharpness setting that doesn't produce any oversharpening. In contrast, the P510's most accurate color mode (Standard) oversharpened shots by 10–15%.
Due to the camera's neutral sharpnening profile, shots from the P520 are a little soft straight out of the camera (particularly when using the Neutral picture control). To correct this, you can either edit shots in a post-processing suite like Photoshop or bump up the sharpness setting in-camera. Each picture control mode lets you adjust sharpness on a 7-point sliding scale. We suggest you play with this to get the results you prefer.
Nikon makes a big deal out of the P520's low-light capabilities in its marketing materials, but the truth is that the camera can only do so much with its tiny 1/2.3-inch sensor.
The camera's noise scores are actually quite a bit better than last year's model, and they even outdo the Canon SX50 HS, but that's almost entirely down to over-aggressive noise reduction. Regardless of what noise reduction setting you're using, noise doesn't occupy more than 1% of the total image area until ISO 1600. That's unbelievably good for a sensor of this size. Literally. We don't believe it.
Nor will you, once you see the crops from our still life setup. As you'll see, noise is present but not obnoxious until around ISO 800, but from that point on it's so bad that the camera has to go way, way overboard with NR. Details are severely diminished at ISO 1600 and pretty much obliterated beyond that point.
Seriously, you should never use ISO 3200 or 6400.
Need more evidence that the P520 is trigger-happy with the NR? Peep this: Whether using the Low, Normal, or High NR settings, noise levels actually drop at ISO 200. Yep, ISO 200 is less noisy than ISO 100 or ISO 80. From that point on, noise levels rise steadily, so we're assuming that 200 is simply the point where Nikon's engineers panicked.
In the lab, the P520 scored a bit lower in color accuracy than its predecessor, but in the real world its colors look pretty much identical.
Curiously, while the Neutral picture control was the most accurate, it was also significantly under-saturated (at 93.9%). The Standard picture control, which was most accurate on the P510, was only a little less accurate on the P520. It was also slightly over-saturated (103.8%). On the whole, we prefer the output of the Standard color mode, and suggest you use it for everyday shooting.
The camera's ∆C 00 chroma corrected color error checked in at 2.74 using Neutral and 2.85 with Standard mode enabled. We consider any error higher than 2.5 to be less than great, but a 2.85 is perfectly acceptable for a fixed-lens consumer camera. The most significant errors were in the yellows and reds—colors typically associated with skin tones.
Automatic white balance was quite a bit better than we saw from the P510, though not quite as good as the competition from Canon. As usual, shots under artificial light showed either a greenish (with compact white fluorescent) or orangey (with incandescent) cast. White balance temperature errors in these conditions averaged as high as 2439 K (incandescent) and 934 K (CWF). Daylight auto white balance was very good in comparison, with an average error of just 62 K.
Custom white balance readings produced excellent results, though oddly daylight was the worst of the bunch. We recorded an average error of 230 K under daylight conditions when setting a custom white balance—far worse than when letting the camera do its own thing.
Video from the P520 is clear, crisp, and free of artifacting in good light. In our standardized sharpness test, we recorded 650 lp/ph of horizontal sharpness and 675 lp/ph of vertical sharpness in bright light, which is a very respectable achievement. When we reduced the ambient illumination to 60 lux, sharpness dropped to 600 lp/ph on both axes. In the dimmer setting, noise levels rose dramatically and there were noticeable compression artifacts, as well.
We also tested the sensitivity of the P520's sensor by recording a test chart in steadily decreasing ambient light levels. This camera was able to maintain a broadcast-ready image brightness (50 IRE) down to 20 lux. Coincidentally, that's exactly the amount of light the Canon SX50 HS needed to achieve the same result. The P510 needed 38 lux, so the P520 marks a significant improvement.
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