The Nikon P900 was announced back in 2015, and remains to this day the holder of the world’s biggest zoom on a consumer camera. Its 83x zoom range is equivalent to 24-2,000mm on a full-frame camera and can stretch from wide-angle vistas to pictures of the moon filling the frame.
Nikon Coolpix P900 review: Tl;dr
That zoom is the headline feature of course, but aside from that, what does the Nikon Coolpix P900 offer? Essentially, the P900 is what’s commonly referred to as a “Bridge” camera in the camera industry, because it sits inbetween traditional compacts and SLRs.
As with other bridge cameras it has a big zoom – the biggest around, in this case – and although shaped like an SLR, it has only a small 1/2.3in image sensor. That’s the same size as you’ll find in cheap compact cameras and modern smartphones.
Other key specifications include the ability to capture 16-megapixel images and 1080p video, and the camera also has a 3in articulate screen on the rear.
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Nikon Coolpix P900 review: Price and competition
That enormous zoom lens ensures that the P900 stands alone in the bridge camera market. Nothing else is quite like it; nothing even comes close, in fact. It’s worth noting, though, that at £449 inc VAT it’s quite pricey for this type of camera.
The Nikon Coolpix B500, for instance, is less than half the price at £219, yet still produces perfectly acceptable snaps and offers a usable zoom range of 40x. The Panasonic DC-FZ80, meanwhile, costs £120 less yet offers nearly as monstrous a zoom as the P900 at 60x.
Nikon Coolpix P900 review: How did they make it so big?
Record-breaking specs don’t always produce a well-rounded camera, however. So was this camera conceived through Nikon R&D engineering excellence, or a demand from the marketing department to produce an enormous zoom regardless of quality?
Two things dictate the effective zoom range of a camera: the lens and the sensor onto which it focuses light. The P900 uses a small 1/2.3in sensor, the same as is found in cheap compact cameras. That way, the lens dimensions can also be reduced. The lens actually has a focal length range of 4.3-357mm, but because it’s focusing light onto a much smaller area, it behaves like a 24-2,000mm lens on a full-frame camera.
That’s handy, because it keeps the size down; on a full-frame camera, a true 2,000mm lens would be about the size of a small car. However, it also places high demands on the quality of the optics. Achieving sharp focus across the enormous 83x zoom range can’t be easy.
Nikon Coolpix P900 review: Design and layout
It’s still a bulky bit of glass, though, and the P900 as a whole is bigger and heavier than most consumer SLRs. It includes some handy features, such as an articulated screen, built-in Wi-Fi and GPS, but the upmarket features quickly run dry. There’s no RAW support and no hotshoe for flashguns and other accessories.
The electronic viewfinder has a reasonable 921,000-dot resolution, but the view is quite small and the insubstantial surround doesn’t block out sunlight sufficiently. I had to resort to cupping my eye with my left hand while holding the camera with my right. The chunky handgrip means one-handed operation is comfortable but it isn’t ideal for keeping the camera steady – a particularly important concern for telephoto shooting.
There are a reasonable number of buttons, but they’re not assigned to the functions you might expect. There are buttons for self-timer and Wi-Fi but not continuous mode, ISO speed or white balance. A customisable Fn button appears on the top and can be assigned to one of nine functions, but this isn’t enough for a camera that you’d want to use to capture moving subjects such as wildlife and sports.
There’s one button that’s very welcome, though; it’s located on the lens barrel, beside one of the two zoom controls (the other is around the shutter button). This button momentarily zooms out to help you locate and frame your subject. Release the button and the lens zooms back in again. This is particularly useful when shooting handheld at the long end of the zoom; you can frame someone’s head and shoulders from 50 metres away, but the slightest movement of the camera means the subject will go careering out of the frame.
The camera’s stabilisation is used while framing shots to help with composition, but while it reduced jitters, it’s inevitably tricky for the camera to differentiate between unintentional shake and deliberate but slight movement to compose the shot. As a result, carefully framing subjects at 2,000mm proved difficult, and that was just for static subjects. Tracking moving subjects at 2,000mm or even 1,000mm was completely out of the question.
Nikon Coolpix P900 review: Ergonomics and performance
Various other aspects of the P900’s operation proved frustrating. There’s an eye-level sensor to switch automatically between the viewfinder and LCD screen, but automatic switching is suspended while the temporary-zoom-out button is held down. I was frequently caught out by this while trying to locate a distant subject, first with my eyes and then with the camera’s viewfinder with the help of that button.
The 6.5fps continuous performance is decent enough in itself but it lasts for only seven frames, at which point the camera becomes inoperable for six seconds while it saves those shots. Autofocus performance is reasonable, typically taking around 0.3 seconds between pressing the shutter button and taking a shot. However, when reviewing shots I discovered that it often hadn’t focused on the part of the frame I had hoped for.
The Auto ISO mode behaved quite strangely, too. By default, it avoided using ISO speeds above 800 and instead used shutter speeds as slow as one second. Indoor shots at 1/8sec, ISO 450 means blurry moving subjects. There’s an option to customise the Auto ISO mode by setting the minimum shutter speed, and setting this to 1/30sec meant the ISO speed would rise to 1600 before the shutter speed dropped below 1/30sec, which worked well for indoor shots.
However, the next time I took the camera outdoors to capture telephoto shots, the P900 was shooting at 1/50sec, ISO 100. This led to hopelessly blurry shots due to increased camera shake at telephoto settings. Reverting to the default Auto ISO mode pushed the shutter and ISO speeds back to a more sensible 1/200sec and ISO 400.
The upshot here is that it’s best to shoot in shutter priority mode and adjust settings manually to avoid blurry shots. Some people will prefer to do this, but it shouldn’t be a requirement.