Nikon Coolpix P520 First Impressions Review
Nikon spins its wheels with this underwhelming if affordable superzoom
Our First Take
Over the last few generations, Nikon’s P-series superzooms have gradually increased their zoom ratios, but done little else in the way of innovation. Most recently, the P510 made waves at CP+ 2012 by becoming the first-ever 42x superzoom. Unfortunately for Nikon, its triumph was short-lived, as Canon jumped to 50x with its SX50 HS at Photokina in the fall and Fujifilm followed with the SL1000.
CP+ 2013 brings us the latest iteration in the series: the P520 (MSRP $429.95). For the first time in recent memory, the new model doesn’t top the zoom ratio of its predecessor. In fact, its 42x optical zoom appears to be the very same glass used on the P510. So what has changed? Well, a higher-resolution backside-illuminated sensor and fully articulating screen are the two big features, but a host of other small tweaks also try to help the P520 stand out.
Design & Usability
You’ve seen this camera before.
When it comes to ergonomics and control, there’s absolutely nothing new about the P520. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, though—the P510 was one of the best-handling cameras of its class.
Like most other superzooms, the P520 has a DLSR-esque shape, complete with a viewfinder prism hump and a sizable grip. The huge 3.2-inch rear LCD now fully articulates—swinging out to the left and then rotating to let you shoot from virtually any angle. The screen itself is bright and clear, with 921k dots providing a sharp-enough picture. The integrated electronic viewfinder is decidedly low-res, but probably enough to get the job done in a pinch.
Despite its size and the length of its lens, the P520 is oddly lightweight—a bit cheap-feeling, in fact. The all-plastic construction feels hollow, and while we didn’t notice any creaks or cracks, the build quality was not reassuring. The buttons have a decently tactile response, and they’re laid out intelligently. The problem is, there’s just not enough of them—the layout here is reminiscent of any number of sub-$200 point-and-shoot models, lacking the DSLR-style manual controls of the best superzooms.
In addition to the standard zoom ring surrounding the shutter release, the P520 has a secondary zoom control lever on the side of the lens barrel. It’s something we’ve seen from several other manufacturers, presumably to enhance video zoom control. We’d still prefer a manual zoom ring like the one used by Fuji’s XS1, but this setup is de facto second best.
A lot of tiny upgrades should add up to a slightly better superzoom.
The P520 is not a gamechanging camera; it’s a quiet, efficient upgrade to a well-received model. The primary power-ups come in the form of a new 18-megapixel BSI CMOS sensor and a big, articulating rear screen. Beyond those, the upgrades get a lot smaller.
For one thing, the minimum ISO has dropped from 100 to 80. Combined with the new 1/4000sec maximum shutter speed, this should make things easier on bright daylight shooters. Continuous shooting has been improved to 7 frames per second, and full-HD video can now be captured at 1080/60i, in addition to 1080/30p. Finally, the lens-based vibration reduction system now has an active mode, which keeps the VR on continuously rather than activating it only when you press the shutter release. Theoretically, this will help you frame shots more easily when on unstable footing.
The included GPS module works full-time (when activated) to track your movements and label each shot with your latitude and longitude coordinates. That’s cool. But what’s cooler is its Points of Interest feature, which will alert you when you’re passing by something worth shooting. (I’ve certainly been on a few long, dreary road trips that could have benefited from such a function.)
Despite being the biggest, baddest Coolpix that Nikon has announced in what is quickly becoming The Year of Connected Cameras, the P520 doesn’t have WiFi baked in. Instead, you can buy the accessory WU-1a wireless adapter for $60. Once the adapter is installed, you can connect to your smart device or computer to transfer shots and videos cable-free—just like the $180 Coolpix S5200 can do straight out of the box.
One other perplexing specification is the P520’s battery life; per CIPA, it’s dropped to 200 shots per charge, down from 240 on the P510. We’re not sure what could have caused this, aside from a more power-hungry sensor or possibly the active VR mode, but it’s a bummer whatever the reasoning.
There are undoubtedly better cameras out there, but the P520 seems like a solid value.
The Coolpix P520 doesn’t do anything wrong, per se. It’s the epitome of a superzoom, content to simply meet expectations rather than exceeding them.
Where the Canon SX50 HS jumped ahead of the pack to a 50x zoom ratio, the P520 is happy to hang back at 42x (to be fair, still pretty impressive). Where the Panasonic FZ200 boldly turned up its nose at insane zoom ratios and went for a 24x optical zoom with a constant f/2.8 aperture, the P520 offers up a yawn-inducing f/3-5.9. Where the Fujifilm X-S1 offers DSLR-style manual control, the P520 is content to act like a cheap point-and-shoot dressed up in daddy’s clothes.
But let’s look at the positives. The lens appears to be unchanged from the P510, and we found that model to have very good all-around image quality with excellent (if often software-assisted) sharpness. Nikon’s vibration reduction system is also quite effective, which is crucial when you’re hitting 1000mm effective on the long end. And the built-in GPS functionality is a win for hikers and other adventurous types.
Bottom line: If you can deal with less-than-stellar build quality and a point-and-shoot style control scheme, the P520 should be good value for your dollar. We like all three of the cameras mentioned above better than this one, but each of them costs at least $50 (Canon SX50 HS) and as much as $370 (Fuji X-S1) more. At $429.95, you’re going to have a hard time finding another camera as versatile as this one, and its image quality should be tough to beat for the price, as well.
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