Nikon P900 Field Test
Nikon P900 Field Test
Great value and versatility trump a few obvious limitations
By Jeremy Gray | Posted: 06/08/2015
The Nikon Coolpix P900 has a 16 megapixel 1/2.3-inch BSI-CMOS sensor and a 24-2000mm (35mm equivalent) f/2.8-6.5 lens. As of this writing, the P900's MSRP is $600 USD. Considering the 83x optical zoom and its numerous features, the P900 proposes to be an excellent value.
|1/30s / f/2.8 / ISO 100 / 24mm eq.|
Body and Handling
The Nikon P900 is a moderately large bridge camera, especially when the lens is fully extended. Weighing in at just under 900 grams with the battery inserted, the P900 is not lightweight either. However, it balances well and has a deep grip. When using the camera, it doesn't feel large or heavy. On the back of the camera is a 3” fully-articulating LCD with 921,000 dots. The display moves smoothly throughout its articulation range and the mechanism feels sturdy. The display itself is sharp, although it is difficult to use in bright light. Unfortunately the display isn't a touch screen, which might have allowed for quick access to more controls that don't have dedicated buttons, such as ISO and white balance adjustments.
Despite its size, the P900 does not have many buttons. On the top of the camera there are power and function buttons, a mode dial, and the shutter release and zoom control switch. The power button is close to the function button, but the function button is slightly raised from the camera body to ensure that the power button isn't accidentally pressed when shooting. The shutter release feels good and responsive. Around the shutter release button is a toggle switch for the lens' focal length (in addition to a switch on the lens body itself). The switch around the shutter works very well because it offers some control over the speed at which the lens changes focal length. Likewise, the mode dial is excellent. There is no locking mechanism, but it stays in place well and it is difficult to accidentally switch modes. Beyond the standard P, S, A, and M modes, the P900 also includes a User Settings mode on the dial, which is really nice. There is also an ‘Effects' mode on the dial. When the camera is set to ‘Effects', you have to press the ‘menu' button to select the desired effect. Similarly, in ‘Scene' mode you press the ‘menu' button to bring up the scene options.
To the right of the display are Movie Record, Wi-Fi, Playback, Menu, and Delete buttons. There is a command dial above the thumb grip. Making fine adjustments with the command dial is difficult because there isn't a distinctive click. Rather than a secondary command dial for making additional shooting adjustments, there is a rotary multi selector below the thumb grip. The dial has slight clicks as you rotate it so that it can be useful for making adjustments, such as adjusting aperture in Aperture Priority mode. The rotary multi-selector also has four controls mapped to it. By pressing ‘up', you access the flash mode menu. Pressing ‘right' brings up exposure compensation, which can be controlled using the rotary multi-selector or the command dial. ‘Down' brings up the focus mode menu, which includes AF, macro, and infinity focus options in all shooting modes and a manual focus option in some shooting modes. Finally, pressing ‘left' brings up self-timer options, including an option to have the camera record an image when it detects a smiling face. The self-timer options only apply to the next image captured, however, which is inconvenient when doing repeated long exposure images.
The menu system is generally similar to that of a Nikon DSLR although simpler and more dependent upon the shooting mode that the camera is set to. A big improvement to the P900 would be a quick menu button that would give easy access to important camera settings because adjusting important settings like ISO and white balance requires working through a couple of menus.
|1/320s / f/5.6 / ISO 400 / 1100mm eq.|
The P900 has built-in Wi-Fi, NFC, and GPS. To connect my smartphone to the camera, I had to use Wi-Fi. However, NFC can be used with certain smartphones. To connect my iOS device to the P900, I pressed the ‘Wireless' button on the back of the camera and then selected the camera in my phone's Wi-Fi settings menu. I found that when the camera said that it was negotiating the signal and that I should wait, the only way to get the wireless functionality was to at this point leave the settings menu on my phone and go to the application itself. Unfortunately, Nikon's Wireless Mobile Utility app offers little functionality. You cannot change camera settings from the phone except for lens focal length and self-timer and lens focal length adjustments are very slow. The live view from the camera on the app has only a minor delay but the frame rate is low. The information on the phone's display is minimal, showing only shutter speed, aperture, remaining images, and battery life. Not all adjustments to the camera body register when using the application. For example, when the camera is in aperture priority mode, you cannot change the aperture on the camera or through the application. You have to go to the application's settings and select ‘camera shoot' to make adjustments on the camera body. However, these adjustments are not saved when you go back to having the application control the camera. On the plus side, you can remotely download images to your phone as you are using the camera to shoot. Overall, the WMU application with the P900 is highly limited in its applications, but it can still offer functionality for certain uses.
On the other hand, the built-in GPS is good. The GPS was quick to gain a signal and was able to maintain the signal throughout my testing. The P900 has a neat ‘point of interest' option in its GPS settings that will display the name of the nearest landmark on the display. In and around Acadia National Park in Maine, this feature worked very well at identifying where in the park I was and what interesting features were nearby. The P900 can log GPS for a set period of time even when the camera is powered off. When the camera is done logging GPS information, a .LOG file is saved to the SD card. The GPS was able to accurately log my movement during testing. However, battery life was drained quickly with GPS logging turned on.
The most interesting feature of the P900 is its 83.3x optical zoom lens. With a 35mm equivalent focal length of 24-2000mm and a maximum aperture of 2.8-6.5, the lens has an incredible range. The actual focal length of the lens is 4.3-357mm but the small sensor provides a large cropping factor. With a lens this long, vibration reduction is of critical importance. The P900 features a new dual-detect optical VR system which uses accelerometers. The new system provides 5 stops of shutter speed increase and works very effectively and quietly. With VR enabled, getting sharp images at long focal lengths while shooting handheld can be done, even at shutter speeds less than 1/100s.
|1/400s / f/6.5 / ISO 400 / 2800mm eq.|
Dynamic fine zoom: While sharpness at and beyond 2000mm is decreased, the P900 can still deliver images with good detail using dynamic fine zoom. This image was taken at nearly 2800mm equivalent.
Turning on the camera and extending the lens to 2000mm takes about five seconds. The camera can be set to start at up to 135mm, but this does not drastically reduce the speed from ‘off' to 2000mm. When the lens reaches 2000mm, you can continue to zoom in to 4000m using dynamic fine zoom. When in the dynamic fine zoom range, the focal length indicator on the display turns blue. Beyond this, there is also digital zoom up to 8000mm. When zooming from 4000 to 8000mm, the focal length indicator turns yellow.
There is a plastic grip on the body of the lens. The zoom control switch on the left side of the lens works well. The zoom control can also be set to control manual focus as well. The lens also has a zoom snap-back button on the barrel next to the zoom control. This button is very useful when shooting at long focal lengths and temporarily zooms the lens out to allow easier framing of a subject. There is a black rectangle in the viewfinder that shows the area that will fill the frame when you let go of the button and the lens zooms back in. This button is excellent to have as it can become quite difficult to keep track of a subject when at 2000mm and beyond. Less practical, however, is the P900's lack of a lens hood. The lens has a 67mm filter thread and the end of the lens does not rotate as you change focal length.
The P900's lens can focus very closely while at the wide end of the lens, with an effective close focus to 1cm. Close focusing distance drops off dramatically as the lens zooms, and at 2000mm the close focusing distance is 5 meters. When taking macro images there is dramatic loss of sharpness around the edges of the images. With such a small sensor, getting separation between the subject and background is difficult, even when shooting very close subjects.
|1/80s / f/2.8 / ISO 100 / 24mm eq.|
Close focus: The ability to close focus to 1cm is impressive, although extreme close-up images with the P900 comes with a big trade-off as sharpness around the edges decreases dramatically when focused closely.
At 24mm, there is a loss in sharpness around the edges of the frame, but at 2000mm, there is a dramatic decrease in sharpness across the frame, particularly in the corners. When you need to zoom in to 2000mm and beyond to capture an image of a distant subject, there are also atmospheric conditions to deal with. In between the two focal length extremes, the lens is excellent. For telephoto work, I found myself using focal lengths less than 1500mm for optimal sharpness when possible rather than zooming in all the way to 2000mm. With that said, the lens is still capable of producing good images at 2000mm and even into the fine zoom range.
|1/500s / f/6.3 / ISO 200 / 1200mm eq.|
Despite having a small sensor, the P900's images are good, particularly at low ISOs. Unfortunately, the P900 cannot capture RAW files. Not recording RAW files does not matter as much as it would if the camera had a large sensor because there just isn't as much depth of information being captured. However, it would still be nice to have the option to record RAW files. Given the camera's slow processing of JPEG files, I'm not sure what sort of performance could be expected with RAW files, however.
In my opinion, the P900's image files don't have excellent dynamic range nor detail. There are always trade-offs to be made, especially when the camera has the immense optical zoom that the P900 has. Taken in the context of a bridge camera with a class-leading optical zoom, the P900 delivers acceptable images. Colors look good with standard picture controls, although the P900 can only capture images in the sRGB color space. With the P900 capturing only JPEG files, there is not a lot of post-processing that can be done beyond minor basic adjustments. Fortunately, in my experience, image files straight from the camera rarely needed adjustment. Taking everything into account, from the camera's sensor size, its optical zoom capabilities, and its price point, the image quality is impressive.
The P900 uses a 921,000 dot electronic viewfinder that has 100% viewfinder coverage. The electronic viewfinder works well enough, although it is not excellent. The viewfinder is quite small, but it does have a sharp display and the text around the frame is easy to read. There is a good variety of information shown along with some degree of customizability too.
There is an eye-detection sensor that attempts to switch the camera between the EVF and the main display depending on whether or not you're looking through the viewfinder. In my experience, this sensor was unable to consistently determine which of the viewfinder or display I was using to shoot.
When half-pressing the shutter, there is a slight stutter that can be a bit jarring. When shooting in bursts, the EVF shows the images as you capture them, which can make it more difficult to track fast motion. Further, you do not get to view the scene while the camera is processing images, the display just shows the image processing screen. Overall, the EVF is fine, although its occasional stuttering is unfortunate.
|1/60s / f/5.6 / ISO 360 / 185mm eq. / monochrome|
Scene Modes and Effects
The P900 has a wide variety of scene modes. Three of these scene modes are on the mode dial itself, night portrait, night landscape, and landscape scene mode. Beyond these three scene modes and the camera's scene auto selector scene mode, there is easy panorama, pet portrait, moon, bird-watching, time-lapse movie, portrait, sports, party/indoor, beach, snow, sunset, dusk/dawn, close-up, food, museum, fireworks show, black and white (copy), and backlighting (HDR) available through the menu system. In scene auto selector mode, the camera attempts to determine the scene you are shooting and then selects the appropriate scene mode. The scene modes work fine, but many of them do not add any additional functionality. Many of the scene modes simply augment camera settings and prevent the user from making certain adjustments. However, a few of them are very useful. I found that the panorama, moon, and backlighting modes are all particularly useful and work well.
The P900 also has an Effects mode on the mode dial. The available special effects are soft, nostalgic sepia, high-contrast mono, high key, low key, selective color, high ISO monochrome, and cross process.
The P900 has matrix, center-weighted, and spot metering options. Unfortunately spot metering is not tied to the AF point, but rather uses a small, stationary spot in the center of the frame. With that said, the camera meters very well, particularly in matrix metering mode. There were few situations where exposure compensation was necessary. When necessary, exposure compensation is available by pressing right on the directional pad and offers +/- 2 stop compensation.
Without the ability to capture RAW images, the lack of white balance bracketing on the P900 is unfortunate. On the plus side, the camera's auto white balance and auto white balance warm settings work very well outdoors. In addition to these two auto white balance settings, there are all your standard white balance presets. You can also customize white balance settings when additional fine-tuning is desired. Auto white balance is not quite as good when shooting overcast scenes, sometimes reducing natural color in overcast scenes slightly and making images seem almost black and white. It's impressive that the camera can consistently get neutral whites and grays, but to preserve an overcast scene's natural color, the cloudy white balance preset is optimal.
|1/800s / f/3.2 / ISO 100 / 43mm eq. / Backlit Scene HDR|
Autofocus performance is generally good, although it struggles in situations of low contrast and scenes with small subjects. The P900 uses contrast detection AF, so focusing speed and accuracy decreases dramatically when a subject does not stand out from its environment. Additionally, the P900's autofocus struggles when there is a light-colored background. For example, when trying to photograph a bird perched in a tree with the sky as the background, the P900 regularly failed to focus on the bird even when it filled a large portion of the frame. There were numerous situations where I had to reframe an image to get the subject in focus, but without a dedicated AF-L button on the camera to lock autofocus, getting the image I wanted occasionally proved problematic. Autofocus and exposure can be locked by maintaining a half-press on the shutter, but this is not as convenient as dedicated AF-L/AE-L buttons
The autofocus is not consistently fast, but in ideal conditions it is fairly quick and very accurate. In low light, autofocus performance is decent although very inconsistent in its speed and accuracy. The orange AF assist lamp helps some when a subject is quite close. Provided that a subject contrasts well and is mostly unobstructed, the camera accurately autofocuses the desired subject most of the time using Target Finding AF. Target Finding AF is a fully automatic AF area mode where the camera attempts to determine and focus on the subject. When it works well, it works really well and this mode proved to be my favorite to use. With other cameras, I often use manually controlled spot AF, but that mode with this camera was not as quick to use as I would like. There are three manual AF area modes: spot, normal, and wide. When any of these three modes is selected, you're in control of an autofocus point (or area) that can be moved around the frame with the rotary multi-selector. After this initial point selection, you have to press ‘OK' to be able to move the AF point around the frame again. This is cumbersome when shooting due to the ‘OK' button being small and the rotary multi-selector not having distinct directional movement. Further, the autofocus points cannot cover as much of the frame as I expected given the small image sensor.
In addition to the above AF area modes, the P900 has face priority and subject tracking AF. Face priority is essentially target finding AF except that it searches for and prioritizes faces in the scene. When you select Subject Tracking AF, the camera attempts to determine the subject, when it does you press ‘OK', and then the subject is tracked throughout the frame. This works quite well when the subject fills a moderate portion of the frame and contrasts the rest of the scene well. There was an instance when I set the camera to track a black duck and then it picked up a light brown duck that swam into the frame and followed the brown duck instead despite the original black duck remaining in the frame. Subject Tracking AF does not seem particularly sophisticated, although it can work well in favorable conditions.
The P900 offers single AF (AF-S) and full-time AF (AF-F) modes. Autofocus modes are selected for photo and video shooting separately. In good conditions, AF-F adjusts focus quickly and accurately. With AF-L being tied to half-pressing the shutter release, in AF-F mode the camera is constantly focusing when the shutter is not depressed. In conditions that are not good, either for a lack of light or a lack of contrast between the subject and its environment, the camera regularly loses focus and reacquires it slowly. With that said, the small image sensor provides a relatively wide depth of field, so minor focus inaccuracies are not as problematic as they are on a camera with a large sensor.
|1/200s / f/5.6 / ISO 400 / 700mm eq.|
Automatic: With the P900 metering both exposure and white balance very well and autofocus performance being generally good, the camera works well in fully automatic shooting modes.
The P900 can manually focus. You have to set the camera to manual focus by pressing down on the directional pad and then choose MF. Once you've chosen MF, you can control focus with the zoom control on the lens body if you have chosen this option in the menu system, or you can rotate the rotary multi-selector to scroll through the focus range. By pressing left on the directional pad, you can toggle through 1x, 2x, and 4x magnification. By pressing right on the directional pad, you can override the manual focus and have the camera autofocus in the center of the frame. You can then continue to manually focus. By pressing the ‘OK' button, you can reset the display to 1x magnification. There is a basic focus scale on the display that shows infinity and macro (a flower icon) at the top and bottom, respectively, with a changing distance in the middle of the scale depending on the focal length of the lens. There is also focus peaking. The default control method of using the wheel to scroll through the focus scale is not precise. By setting the camera to use the focal length toggle as a focus ring of sorts of is a slight improvement, although it means that you have to control focal length on the top of the camera body. By pressing up and down on the directional pad, you can adjust the amount of focus peaking.
Shutter speed maxes out at 1/4000s on the P900. Considering the maximum aperture at longer focal lengths, 1/4000 is fine and the camera will rarely reach this limit at anything but wide focal lengths in considerably bright conditions. According to Nikon, shooting lag (including AF) at 24mm is 0.12 seconds. At 2000mm, shooting lag is 0.75 seconds. This lag at telephoto focal lengths is problematic for shooting moving subjects.
The P900 can shoot at about 7 fps, but only for a 7 frame burst. After up to 7 images are captured, the P900 processes the files and doesn't allow the camera to be used in any capacity until it completes the task. When shooting fine JPEG files, the P900 can take upwards of 10 seconds to finish processing a 7 frame burst. This is unfortunate and limits the camera's usability for shooting action in bursts using continuous high. Continuous low, on the other hand, captures images at 2 fps but has a much larger buffer. With the 30MB/s SD card I was using, the buffer in continuous low was 57 images.
Additionally, the P900 can capture images at 60 and 120fps. At 60fps, the P900 can capture images with a resolution of 1920 x 1080. At 120fps, images are 640 x 480 resolution. These images are basically stills from different video capture modes. There is also pre-shooting cache mode. This mode records images at 15fps before the shutter release is fully pressed. The camera starts recording images when the shutter is pressed halfway and starting to focus. In this mode, the camera keeps the last five frames before the shutter is fully pressed. Any images taken before the last five are automatically deleted. This mode sounds great, but the images captured before the shutter is pressed are small files, they're only 1280 x 960 resolution.
The P900 uses an Expeed C2 processor, which is found in some of Nikon's other Coolpix cameras. The Expeed C2 is not a powerful processor and the P900 suffers because of it. On top of image processing taking a long time, the camera slows down regularly during use. Menus are sluggish and occasionally the camera is slow to activate. While the P900 is a fairly slow camera, it is important to keep its performance in the context of its price and its place in Nikon's camera lineup.
High ISO Performance
The P900 can shoot from ISO 100-6400 in color. In a special black and white effects mode, the camera can shoot at ISO 12,800. When in fully automatic shooting modes, the camera is limited to ISO 1600 or lower. The camera's ISO sensitivity setting affects the camera's maximum exposure times. Only at ISO 100 can the camera shoot at its maximum shutter speed of 15”. At ISO 200, the maximum shutter speed is 8”. At ISO 400, the maximum shutter speed is 4”. At ISO 800, it's 2”. At ISO 1600, it's 1”. At ISO 3200 and 6400, it's ½”. Even in full manual mode, these limits remain. Unfortunately, this means that the P900 cannot be used for any night landscape work that doesn't feature a lot of artificial light. The camera's built-in night landscape scene setting is limited to a maximum exposure of 2” when the scene is set to tripod mode. ISO is locked at 100 in tripod mode. In handheld mode, ISO can increase to 1600 but the shutter speed cannot be slower than 1/15”.
There are three noise reduction settings for the camera, NR low, NR normal, and NR high. There is no option to turn noise reduction off entirely. Although the camera can go up to ISO 6400, I didn't want to shoot past ISO 800 if possible. Fine details start to be lost at ISO 800 and are essentially gone at ISO 1600. This is not a camera designed for low-light photography. On top of the exposure time limitations, the sensor is too small and the autofocus is not sophisticated enough.
|1/60s / f/6.3 / ISO 800 / 850mm eq.|
Cranking the gain: Even at ISO 800 there is a fair amount of noise in image files.
The P900's built-in flash extends quite high over the camera body to be able to get light past the lens. The flash never pops up automatically, you must press the button on the side of the camera. In some modes, the flash is required to be up, such as in the night portrait scene mode. Auto white balance works well when using the flash, although the flash white balance preset works better and is customizable. There is no control over the flash's power but there are different flash modes that are accessible by pressing up on the rotary multi-selector. There is standard, red-eye reduction, slow sync, and rear-curtain sync flash modes available. There is also a fill flash option when the camera is in close-up scene mode. At Auto-ISO, the flash is rated for an 11.5m range. The flash works well for fill flash and can overpower moderate natural light. There is no hot shoe on the camera for an external flash, so it's good that the built-in flash is adequate for many situations.
|1/30s / f/3.5 / ISO 100 / 50mm eq.|
The Nikon P900 records good quality video files. There is a dedicated ‘record' button on the back of the camera and the camera is always ready to record video. The P900 can record video at a variety of resolutions and frame rates up to 1080p/60 video. Video is recorded in MOV files with MPEG-4 (H.264) compression. There is also slow motion video recording at 480p resolution. There is a built-in stereo mic but audio recording quality is not impressive. Additionally, the sound of the lens zooming is picked up by the mic and can overpower a scene's natural sound. With the zoom microphone setting enabled, the mic picks up the sound of the lens zooming even more. When recording video, there is an additional electronic VR mode option beyond the lens shifting optical VR that is used during still photography. There is no microphone port, although there is a micro-HDMI port.
Video quality is generally impressive, although the continuous autofocus performance when recording video is occasionally poor. Video can be shot with either single or continuous autofocus and the autofocus setting for video is set through the independent movie settings menu. Continuous autofocus (AF-F) works well in good conditions, but it is slow to acquire focus in lower light and complicated scenes. The lens is also moderately noisy when attempting to focus, which is picked up by the camera's stereo mic. Overall, the P900 delivers good video for the price of the camera, although there are definitely some frustrating aspects of its video recording capabilities. However, the camera having a dedicated record button on the back rather than a separate mode switch is an excellent feature.
Nikon P900 sample video
1920 x 1080, Progressive, 60 fps
Download Original (125.2MB MOV)
Nikon P900 sample video
1920 x 1080, Progressive, 60 fps
Download Original (115.4MB MOV)
Nikon P900 sample low light video
1920 x 1080, Progressive, 30 fps
Download Original (41.7MB MOV)
Nikon P900 sample low light video
1920 x 1080, Progressive, 30 fps
Download Original (64.6MB MOV)
Nikon P900 sample slow motion video
1920 x 1080, Progressive, 30 fps
Download Original (11.1MB MOV)
Nikon P900 sample slow motion video
1920 x 1080, Progressive, 30 fps
Download Original (19.8MB MOV)
What I like:
- The 24-2000mm lens provides incredible versatility and provides opportunities to capture images that no other camera can.
- Vibration reduction performance is excellent.
- The P900 is a great value.
- Metering performance is good.
What I don't like:
- No RAW file recording.
- Autofocus performance struggles in low light and low contrast scenes.
- While the lens is generally very impressive, sharpness does decrease quite dramatically at 2000mm.
- Camera processes burst images very slowly and does not allow operation during processing.
- It is impossible to shoot at night without artificial light because the maximum allowable shutter speed is greatly restricted by ISO settings.
The Nikon Coolpix P900 is an interesting camera. It often toes the line between being excellent and being frustrating. The lens is the primary reason this camera stands out. However, the burst shooting performance is limited, the EVF struggles with action, and the autofocus performance can be slow. With a plethora of features, the P900 is a jack of all trades, but a master of none.
With that said, the P900 is ultimately an immensely fun camera to use. If I had to pick just one camera to pack before heading out the door, I wouldn't hesitate to grab the P900. Perhaps I would regret not having a camera that can shoot RAW, or a camera with more sophisticated autofocus and faster performance. But ultimately the P900 allows me to capture images that I cannot capture with any other single piece of gear. This creation of new shooting opportunities has immense value and more than outweighs any of the drawbacks of the P900's performance.
|1/500s / f/6.3 / -0.7EV / ISO 240 / 1800mm eq.|
There are many more images to check out in our Nikon P900 gallery!
[Quick links: Nikon P900 Overview • Gallery]