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Arms races tend to lead to absurd products of competition—nuclear weapons, for one—and the camera industry is no different. Though companies may have come to a ceasefire in the megapixel war, the zoom ratio race is alive and well. Sporting longer and longer focal lengths, it's not uncommon to see point-and-shoot cameras with zoom ratios well above 50x these days.
Though 42x was once considered a bridge too far, the 60x zoom club has a new member: The Nikon Coolpix P600 (MSRP $449.95). With an absolutely freudian zoom ratio of 60x, the P600 matches the Panasonic FZ70 with the largest zoom ratio on the market.
While 60x zoom may sound impressive, there's one little hiccup: physics. Can a 60x lens and a small point-and-shoot sensor deliver the kind of images you expect from a $450 camera? We ran the P600 through our lab tests to find out.
At this stage of the game, an archetype has been established for the superzoom camera, and the P600 does nothing to disrupt the trend. With a deep grip, dial-laden control scheme, and an electronic viewfinder, the P600 looks to all the world like an entry-level DSLR. But a more thorough inspection reveals that the P600 is not nearly as well built as something like the Nikon D3300. The body is lightweight, but it's mostly plastic. The dials are a nice extra, but they wobble and feel chintzy. The one thing we can truly say we like as much as the D3300 is that grip, which has a toothy texture that provides plenty of purchase.
Similarly, it's a little easy to get starstruck by specs when it comes to zoom length. That 24-1440mm (35mm equivalent) f/3.3-6.5 zoom lens looks a lot sexier on paper than the 1/2.3-inch 16.1-megapixel sensor behind it. It's part of the faustian bargain that every superzoom camera on the market must make: a larger sensor would provide better image quality, but doubling the size of the sensor would cut the zoom ratio in half. That said, compared to other superzooms the P600's lens provides plenty of advantages. It's compact, it zooms quickly, it has a nice zoom lever on the side, and it provides both a useful wide angle for landscapes and reaches subjects farther away than most other cameras.
When we actually shot with the P600, the experience was mostly a pleasant one. An aggressive, deep grip gives you a substantial hold on the admittedly light camera, and while the lens extends far out from the body, the weight is mostly situated to the rear. The result is that there's not much lever force at the end of the lens, so zooming in doesn't throw you off balance. An overall light weight may make the P600 feel a bit like a toy, but there's just enough heft (and optical stabilization) to keep the camera more or less stable when you're zooming in on far away subjects.
Once you've popped the P600 out of the box and set it up, you'll be greeted by a camera that is fairly easy to decipher. Controls are right at your fingertips and arranged in a logical, clear layout. Should you be more used to manual settings, the camera has full PASM shooting modes, as well as some dedicated scene modes and an auto mode on the dial. Despite its somewhat simple interface, it's easy to dig into some of the more advanced controls—a boon to novices who want to learn more about photography.
Once again it's important to point out that the controls differ greatly from a DSLR. Though there are dual control dials, the lens only allows for zoom control—there are no manual aperture, focal, or focus rings. It's clear that Nikon still envisions you using your left hand to support the weight of the camera, however, with a zoom toggle on the lens barrel right where your thumb sits.
Taking a camera out into the field is a wholly different experience than reading a spec sheet, so it's important to highlight some of the more useful things the P600 can (and can't) do. Despite relatively ho-hum performance numbers, it's one of a select few cameras that enables high-speed video capture, and it's as well suited to share your content with your computer or HDTV as you could hope.
The P600 is nothing if not versatile. If the full-on manual shooting mode wasn't enough for you, the articulating LCD will allow you to take shots at extreme angles without your face glued to the electronic viewfinder (EVF). Unfortunately, it's not all that great in direct sunlight. In those situations, using the EVF would be an acceptable alternative (if you don't wear glasses), but its 201k-dot screen is a very poor substitute for the real thing. The display is small and a far cry from the high-end EVFs we've seen recently, but it's enough to ensure your shot is framed correctly when all else fails.
If you thought that the decent stable of shooting modes was only limited to the stills, you'd be wrong. Though it's not exactly groundbreaking, flipping the mode dial to "Effects" will enable any picture effect to be used in video. Though you may not ever use these extras, it's a cool addition if you want to shoot videos for situations that call for it. For example: if your kids like to play wild west, the sepia effect takes some of the editing work out of cutting together a video for family.
Should action be your primary focus, the P600 offers both high-framerate video (120fps at 480p standard definition) and a drive mode capable of bursts of up to 7 frames per second. This is great news for fans of the slo-mo or action junkies. One slight issue will be focus speed, but the P600 does provide for manual focus, with a peaking function for easily telling what's in and out of focus. It's too slow to be used to track a moving subject, but at least if your shot is planned you can set the focus point before you start snapping.
Like other Nikon point and shoots, the P600 has support for the wireless mobile utility app in the Google Play Store or Apple's App Store. Though the app is showing its age, you can still use it to pair your smartphone with your camera. Once you've done that, you can share photos, or even control the camera remotely—so long as you're within range.
Though the P600 sports an impressive-sounding 60x optical zoom, images shot at full telephoto are soft, and often suffer blurring from camera vibration made worse by just how long that barrel extends. Even an undetectably minor tremor in your hand will be a violent shake when it comes to taking a shot at such extreme focal lengths, and this is only partially mitigated by the camera's stabilization system.
Providing 60x optical zoom in such a compact form is no small feat, but to get there Nikon had to make some big sacrifices. There are two ways to achieve greater zoom range with a fixed-lens camera: make the lens itself bigger, or use a smaller sensor. With the P600 (and just about every superzoom on the market) the choice is clear: stick with a relatively small 1/2.3-inch sensor and try to make the lens smaller.
Though 1/2.3-inch sensors are the same size found in other basic point-and-shoots (and are actually bigger than most smartphone sensors), but this decision has some knock-on effects that degrade image quality. For starters, low light performance is the obvious casualty, and as a result images don't have the same range of tones from black to white that you see with something like a DSLR. Second, compact superzoom lens design naturally introduces lots of aberrations and distortions. These are mostly corrected with software, but there's still a noticeable ding to image quality.
Most crucially, having a compact lens with such a small sensor limits how much light can get into the camera at any given time. Lenses like this close down as you zoom further and further, restricting the amount of light that reaches the sensor. When you close down the opening enough, cameras reach a point called the "diffraction limit". While we won't get too technical here, the practical consideration is that your shots will get blurrier and blurrier because the sensor can no longer detect as much fine detail. The P600 hits this limit about halfway through its zoom range and gets worse from there.
To combat this, we suggest using the lowest f-stop setting you can while you're shooting in manual mode, and to use the zoom sparingly. You'll get the best sharpness you can out of the P600 this way, and it has the added benefit of allowing you to use faster shutter speeds—reducing the chance of blurry photos from camera shake. The camera does its damnedest to compensate for these problems with software, but the P600 can't rewrite the laws of physics. Yes, having 60x zoom is nice at times, but there's a reason why cameras with less zoom in this class frequently perform better in our lab tests.
Looking beyond still quality, video is about as good as you can expect from a point-and-shoot camera. They'll be better than your smartphone, but image quality suffers in low light. To its credit, you can record video in several high-definition and standard-definition resolutions at several different framerates. You'll want to max out with 1080/30p, but you can drop the framerate or resolution a bit if you need the space. Dropping so means a little more trailing, and some frequency interference—think strobing in bicycle spokes—but on the whole the P600 takes video that's fit for Facebook.
It seems as if zoom ratio has become the new megapixel—a number people look for to judge camera quality because it's simple to understand. A bigger zoom number sounds impressive, so it must mean a better camera, right? Though it's fun to grab a superzoom and mutter "Enhance" to yourself over and over again as you zoom in on a subject standing 100 feet away, the resulting images rarely look all that great. In the P600's case, the wide angle shots are fine, but the most impressive ability the camera has—its extensive reach—is probably where image quality is the worst.
While in general we're a fan of the P600's overall package, the superzoom market is quite crowded. Though we liked a lot of what we got from the P600, there are quite a few other superzoom cameras for the same (or less) money that we think offer a better return on your investment.
If you've set aside around $500 to pick up a new camera, you've got quite a few great choices available to you. If you're dead-set on a superzoom, you can save a few bucks by grabbing a Canon PowerShot SX50 HS. You "only" get a 50x optical zoom, but performance was markedly better than what we got with the P600. Even Nikon's P520 (and likely this year's P530) would yield better image quality, with zoom ratios of 42x. Panasonic's FZ200 is also one of our favorites—it has only a 24x optical zoom range, but its lens lets in more light than any of these other superzooms and it doesn't close down as you zoom in.
But it's very possible that you don't want that much zoom at all, that you are looking at the P600 simply because you want something better than your phone and the P600 looks like a serious camera. If that's the case, then there are plenty of other options for those who don't need nearly that much zoom.
If you feel ready to step up to a more advanced camera, we actually would recommend an entry-level interchangeable lens camera like the Olympus E-PM2, the (aging but still great) Nikon D3200, or the Sony NEX-5T. All will handily outperform the P600—especially in low light—and you can pick up telephoto lenses that'll still let you zoom in a little bit. If you want to stick to a fixed lens camera with a moderate amount of zoom the original Sony RX100 (still one of the best point-and-shoot cameras we've ever tested) can be found for roughly $500 these days. Though the P600 is the best choice if you absolutely must have 60x optical zoom, it's a very competitive market and the best bang for your buck may not be a superzoom at all.
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