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Review: Nikon Coolpix P520

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2014.05.01

This article expresses the author's opinion at the time of writing. There are no guarantees of correctness, originality or current relevance. Copying the whole article is forbidden. Transcription of selected parts is allowed provided that author and this source are mentioned.

My wife was fed up of seeing me recording and shooting trains using nothing more than a cell phone. She bought me a Nikon Coolpix P520 by Christmas, and I just wrote this humble review, to whom it may concern.

P520 is sold as a "bridge" camera, more specifically a "superzoom": phalic zooms and enormous magnifications without the hassle of exchanging lens. Such features have trade-offs, as we will see.

Features

The camera is loaded with features, it took weeks to digest the user's manual. Typical features of DSLRs, including manual focus and manual exposure, are all included. Since there are many more features than buttons, the dreaded long menus are inevitable.

Since buttons and menus follow the "Nikon standard", the effort spent in getting acquainted with the P520 might pay off when the user upgrades to e.g. a Nikon DSLR.

The zoom magnification factor is 40x, equivalent to a 24-1000m zoom (in 35mm-film scale), with moderately wide aperture for the whole range. It is almost a telescope disguised as a camera.

The omission of the RAW format has been criticized. The actual usefulness of RAW is debatable, but I would have liked to play around with RAW files.

Performance

By and large, the camera works well. Most bad pictures were due to human error. Since this camera has a true autofocus and large aperture, the landscape will be out of focus if the camera decides to focus on the nearby bush. This was "new" to me, since small-sensor smartphone cameras put almost everything in focus every time.

It may be personal taste, but I think that P520 overexposures a bit. It is easy to compensate that, by correcting exposure to -0.3, and this is fortunately carried out by a button, not via menu.

The settings I liked most are: size of 8MP fine, NR- (lowest noise reduction), Picture Control in Vivid mode with extra saturation, Active D-Lighting in Normal.

Being a superzoom, this camera must have a small sensor, and therefore the picture sharpness is more comparable to compact point-and-shoots than to DSLR. (And yes, any compact camera will take infinitely better pictures than a cell phone!)

Besides the zoom and manual settings, the P520 has two solid advantages over compact cameras: video recording (Full HD) and night pictures without flash. Most reviews, even the negative ones, point out these as P520's highlights. The night mode combines multiple exposures, it is pretty interesting. I dare to say that P520 is a better video recorder than entry-level DSLRs (certainly better than my current D3200).

The tiltable display is also praised, it is better than displays found in more expensive models. On the other hand, the EVF is toyish. It has visibly low resolution and only works when the tiltable display is closed.

The P520 has an 18-megapixel sensor, but this is more a marketing appeal, since the sensor is so small and the sharpness suffers. It is better to accept it as a (very good) 8MP camera. More about this at the end of this article.

The battery is small for the camera. It is estimated to last 200 shots, which translates to "runs out in less than one day". Fortunately, a spare battery is pretty cheap.

The battery is charged within the camera, fed by a USB power source or by a computer. It uses a USB cable, but the camera side uses a proprietary plug. It is irritating, but non-brand compatible cables are cheap and plentiful. Also, the plug seems to be a Nikon standard (the same cable can be used with my D3200, for example).

Problems

From day one, the camera presented two annoying problems:

Internet folks have been pestering Nikon for a firmware upgrade, but a woman that published a YouTube video complaining about these very problems, discovered that they are related to memory card.

I was using a Class 6 micro-SD (with SD adapter) that I happened to have here. Replaced it by a Class 10 Sandisk, with natural SD size, and both problems vanished!

UPDATE: the SD card that came with my D3200 is the same brand of P520's, so I guess that Nikon Brazil is offering these cards. They are slow as well: continuous shooting delivers well below 4fps, while the Sandisk Class 10 fulfills the 4fps promise. At least the D3200 does not freeze with the slow card, it is just slower. A hypothetical firmware update for P520 should improve the "catastrophic" behavior in face of a slow card.

Nikon Brazil is trying to be nice by offering these free SD cards along with their products — the manuals themselves say that cards must be bought separately — but Nikon may be hurting itself by doing this.

UPDATE II: reported these problems to Nikon Brazil and they sent me two replacement SD Sandisk Class 4 cards. They are slower but they did work even for Full HD recording, so they are useful as backups.

Sensor size

It was not by chance that Nikon put 8MP in resolution menu, right below 18MP. At first sight, 18 to 8 is a steep downsize, but it would be actually pointless to have any intermediate resolution.

Yes, I did some tests, like shooting a carpet and looking for details like threads and textures. The 18MP and 8MP pictures, scaled and color-corrected, seem to have exactly the same detail level.

This page explains the physical reasons why the sensor size limits its effective resolution. In the case of P520's sensor of size 1/2.3", the calculated limit is indeed around 8MP.

In ideal conditions, no noise reduction and biggest aperture, P520 seems to achieve 10MP or 12MP effective. But then, we have another problem that affects small sensors: too much noise in low-light conditions.

At 8MP, it is possible to leave noise reduction in NR- (minimum), since the downscaling does some noise reduction. 8MP is a rather low resolution if you need to crop a small part of the picture. At least this particular problem has an easy workaround: "crop" with the powerful zoom.

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