Thursday, 21 May 2015

Review: Nikon P900

Review: Nikon P900

Introduction and features

Nikon's P900 currently leads the market for optical zoom range, with its 83x ratio equating to 24-2000mm in 35mm terms. Nikon claims this allows you to see things not visible to the human eye - such as details on the surface of the moon. There's also a digital zoom, which boosts that reach to 166x, or 4000mm.

A major issue with long zooms is image blur at the longest end of the zoom range, as the effects of camera shake are exaggerated. Nikon's solution is to include its latest Dual Detect Optical VR system, which it claims offers a 5-stop shutter speed advantage.

The P900 has the same 1/2.3-inch, 16 million-pixel sensor as Nikon's slightly cheaper P610 bridge camera. That's the same size sensor as in many compact cameras – and, despite appearances, the P900 is classed as a compact camera because the lens is fixed, not because the camera is small!

Read: Nikon P610 review

Nikon P900

The P900 has a fully articulating, 3-inch, 921k-dot screen, although Nikon has chosen not to go down the touch-sensitive route. This is complemented by a 921k-dot electronic viewfinder which has a eye sensor for activating and deactivating it automatically.

Nikon P900

Nikon appears keen to include Wi-Fi and NFC in as many of its products as possible, and the P900 is no exception. A free app, available from the Apple and Google Play stores, enables you to remotely control the camera from your smartphone or tablet, or to download images you've already taken. GPS is also built-in, for those who like to geotag their images.

Another problem associated with compact cameras is shutter lag – the delay between you pressing the shutter button and the picture being taken, as the camera autofocuses; to counter this the P900 features 'rapid AF', which promises responses of approximately 0.12 seconds at the wide-angle end of the lens.

Nikon P900

Full manual control is available, along with a range of automatic, semi-automatic (aperture priority and shutter priority) and scene modes. However, Nikon has chosen not to include raw format shooting - which seems a bit remiss for a camera at this price point, and given the intended audience. The P900 can only capture JPEG images (Normal or Fine quality).

A range of digital effects can be applied to images, either at the time of shooting or in playback mode.

To complement its ability to record full HD (1080p) video, the P900 has a built-in directional microphone which adapts to the zoom setting; however, there's no port for plugging in an external device. You can also create time-lapse movies.

The P900 is no lightweight, tipping the scales at a hefty 899g, which is about as much as the average DSLR and kit lens – although you get a much more greater zoom range than the average kit lens, of course.

Battery life is quoted at around 360 shots, which is reasonable for a compact camera, and should be enough for a day of fairly heavy usage.

Right now, no other bridge camera comes close to offering the same kind of focal range as the P900, although some rivals come close, such as the Canon SX60, which offers a 65x optical zoom, and the Sony HX400V, which offers a 50x optical zoom. Of this trio, only the Canon offers raw format shooting.

Read: Canon SX60 review, Sony HX400V review

Build and Handling

To look at the P900 you'd be forgiven for thinking it was a DSLR rather than a compact camera, as it's as big as some DSLRs with a kit lens attached.

The grip is textured to help you get good purchase, but while there's an indent for your finger, the grip would perhaps be better if it was a little larger to balance out the size of the lens. As it is, the camera can feel a little unbalanced.

Nikon P900

Although all the buttons are on the right hand side of the body, it's not really a camera you can use one-handed for any length of time without feeling the strain on your wrist, so you'll need your other hand to support the lens. Having all the buttons grouped together does make it easier to change settings using just your thumb though.

Next to the mode dial on top of the camera is a second dial, which has different functions depending on which shooting mode is selected. In shutter priority mode it adjusts the shutter speed, but in aperture priority mode it has no function - you change the aperture using the scrolling dial on the back of the camera. It's a slightly odd way of working, and while it's something you get used to we'd like to have seen a dial on the front of the grip, similar to those on many DSLRs, for a more natural way of working.

Nikon P900

On the back of the camera is the usual four-way navigation pad, with each directional key accessing specific features – the right key, for example, controls exposure compensation.

To change the autofocus point, you first need to set the AF area mode to single point via the main menu. Once you've done this, you press the OK button in the centre of the navigation pad and then either use the directional keys or the scrolling dial to move the AF point around the screen to where you want it.

Also on top of the camera is a small function button, which you can use for quick access a range of options. By default the button is set up for ISO adjustment, but if you scroll to the bottom of the menu you can select another parameter, such as metering pattern or white balance. This can be a slightly long-winded process if you're changing settings often, but it's a little quicker than delving into the main menu to make changes.

Nikon P900

Focal length can be adjusted via the zoom lever around the shutter release button, or by using the lever on the side of the lens itself. Using the switch on the lens enables you to keep a proper grip the camera with your right hand as you use your left thumb to extend the zoom. Also on the side of the lens is a button which, if you hold it down, causes the lens to zoom out a little to allow you to locate a subject which may have moved out of the shot; when you've found the subject, you can release the button and the lens will zoom back in to the length it was at before.

The P900's screen is fully articulating, which is useful for shooting from awkward angles, and you can fold it away to protect the screen when not in use. The viewfinder, which sits just above the screen, has a sensor which switches the screen off and the viewfinder on when you lift the camera to your eye. It's much easier than having to manually switch the viewfinder on and off, and makes it more likely that you'll actually use the viewfinder.

The viewfinder itself is a little smaller than we'd like on a camera of this size, but it's nevertheless useful when you're shooting in bright conditions, or if you prefer not to use a screen.

Nikon P900

A dedicated button on the back of the camera activates the camera's Wi-Fi system. If you have a Wi-Fi-enabled phone or tablet, you connect directly to the camera, and then launch Nikon's Wireless Mobile Utility app. If you have an NFC-enabled phone the process is even easier, as you simply tap the two devices together where you see the NFC chip icon. It's a shame the app isn't a bit more advanced though - all you can do is zoom in and out and fire the shutter release – but it's handy for group and self-portraits at least.


Photos are rich and vibrant straight from the camera. While you can't shoot raw images for maximum editing flexibility, you can give your images a different look in camera using the four Picture Control options. The Standard setting is fine for the majority of situations, while you can use Vivid to boost saturation a little - this should be used with care, though, as it can lead to slightly cyan skies in landscapes, for instance.

There is a Monochrome mode too, but as there's no way to revert to a full colour image if you change your mind later, you need to be sure you want a black and white image before using it.

You can also change the look of your images more dramatically by using the Effects mode, where you'll find filter effects such as Cross Process and High-Contrast mono – but again it's worth remembering that you'll be stuck with whichever option you choose.

Nikon P900 sample image

Click here for a full size version.

Nikon P900 sample image

Click here for a full size version.

Nikon P900 sample image

Click here for a full size version.

At lower ISO settings, the overall impression of detail is very good - especially when viewing images at normal print or web sizes (A4 or below). However, if you examine images at 100%, it's possible to see detail smoothing in some parts of the image even as low as ISO 400. Moving up through the ISO range, this smoothing becomes more apparent at ISO 800-1600 at A4 or smaller.

Although it's possible to shoot at ISO 6400, this isn't recommended unless the light levels are very poor and you absolutely have to get the shot. Ideally, going no higher than ISO 1600 will give the best quality images from this camera in low light.

In our labs tests, the P900 delivers similar performance to the P610, which is unsurprising given that they share the same sensor. Our labs test show that the P900 resolves slightly more detail than the P610.

At the lower end of the ISO range, the P900 is also very closely matched with the Canon SX60, but the P900 performs better at ISO 800 and above. When it comes to dynamic range it's hard to separate the P900 and the Canon SX60, as both put in a very similar performance across the ISO range.

Read: Nikon P610 review, Canon SX60 HS review

The 83x optical zoom is the headline feature of this camera, so we were particularly interested to see how it performed. Engaging the camera's image stabilisation certainly helps to keep shots blur free, and it's useful even in good lighting. It's also helpful when you're composing shots – if you're photographing something in the distance, even the slightest movement can cause you to lose track of the subject, but image stabilisation keeps the viewfinder image steady.

Nikon P900 sample image

Click here for a full size version.

Nikon P900 sample image

Here we can see just how impressive that zoom range is. The first image is shot at the wide-angle (24mm) setting. Click here for a full size version.

Nikon P900 sample image

This was taken at the maximum optical zoom setting (2000mm). These trees aren't even visible in the wide-angle shot. The effects of atmospheric haze are obvious, but details look softened too. Click here for a full size version.

Nikon P900 sample image

This is the same shot, but with the 2x digital zoom (4000mm equivalent). The quality is clearly affected. Click here for a full size version.

Nikon P900 sample image

This is with the 4x digital zoom (8000mm) and the quality is very poor. Click here for a full size version.

Images taken at the longest optical zoom setting display a reasonable amount of detail, and for those occasions when you need even more reach, shots taken using the digital zoom are also usable at small print and web sizes – but the 83x optical zoom offers such a high magnification that you may never need the digital zoom.

Nikon P900 sample image

Click here for a full size version.

The P900 also performs well at shorter focal lengths. At normal viewing sizes, the overall impression of detail is good throughout the zoom range. If you examine your photos at 100% though, images taken at further reaches of the zoom range are softer than at the wide-angle end. It's also worth pointing out that it's only at the very widest focal length can you use the maximum f/2.8 aperture setting: as soon as you zoom a little, the maximum available aperture decreases.

The camera's all-purpose metering setting usually produces accurate exposures, but there are times when a little positive exposure compensation will enable you to capture a more balanced exposure, such as when the scene is a little dull or overcast, or if there are large areas of high contrast.

The auto white balance setting performs well, with excellent colour rendition even under artificial lighting. Alternatively, there are several white balance presets to choose from, but it's likely you won't need to use them all that often.

Nikon P900 sample image

Click here for a full size version.

Autofocusing speeds are good in bright light, as we tend to find with most compact cameras. In lower light the speeds drop a little, but only if conditions becomes very dark will the camera struggle to focus. Achieving focus at the far telephoto end of the lens takes longer than when shooting at the wide-angle end, but that's not uncommon.

Not all aspects of the P900's operations are as fast – for instance, the playback can take a second or two to respond, leaving you wondering if it's working at all. On the plus side, making your way through menus is generally quick and intuitive.

Lab tests: Nikon P900 vs its rivals

We ran the Nikon P900 through our full range of lab tests to check its resolution, dynamic range and noise levels (signal to noise ratio) at different ISO settings.

We then compared its results against those from three main rival cameras and you can see the results in the charts below.

The rivals we chose were the Canon SX60 HS and Sony HX400V – the top of the range bridge cameras from these companies. Neither can match the Nikon's zoom range, but they come close enough that there won't be many situations where you genuinely need the P900's extra reach.

We also added the Panasonic FZ1000 into the mix because this is a very different but equally valid proposition. The Nikon, Canon and Sony use small 1/2.3-inch sensors which allow long zoom ranges but limit the image quality. The FZ1000 offers a shorter zoom range, but has a much larger 1-inch sensor, and the effect on quality is instantly apparent.

Normally we test a camera's JPEG files and its RAW files, but the P900 doesn't offer a raw option, so there is only one chart for each measurement.


Resolution chart

We use an industry-standard resolution chart to check each camera's resolving power at different ISO settings. Typically, resolution falls as the ISO setting increases – this is normal.

Nikon P900 resolution chart

Analysis: The P900 performs slightly better than its other small-sensor rivals, the Canon SX60 HS and Sony HX400V. It's not a large difference, but the resolution available from small sensors is lower than that from larger ones, and even a small advantage is worth having. The Panasonic FZ1000, however, outperforms all of them, especially at higher ISO settings, where its advantage is huge.

Dynamic range

Dynamic range is the camera's ability to capture a scene with a very high brightness, or contrast range, while still keeping some detail in the shadows and bright highlight areas.

Dynamic range and signal to noise ratio test

We measure dynamic range (and signal to noise ratio) using DxO Analyzer equipment.

Read: Noise and dynamic range results explained

Nikon P900 dynamic range chart

Analysis: In this test, all four cameras are remarkably close. We would expect the larger sensor of the Panasonic FX1000 to give it an advantage here, but in reality this only become apparent at ISO 3200 and above.

Signal to noise ratio

This is a scientific measurement of the amount of noise generated by the camera at different ISO settings. Noise increases at higher ISO settings. The higher the signal to noise ratio the better, because this means that more of the signal is real image data and less is random digital noise.

Nikon P900 noise chart

Analysis: The larger sensor of the FZ1000 means it produces significantly less noise than the others, but the margin is not that great. The Nikon, Sony and Canon are all very similar – in other words you can expect similar amounts of noise (and noise reduction/image smoothing effects) from each of them as the ISO setting is increased. The sharp improvement in the Sony's figures at ISO 800 could be due to a switch to a much more aggressive noise reduction process.

Overall conclusion

The Nikon P900 performs well against the Canon SX60 HS and Sony HX400V, but the differences are relatively minor – a point put clearly into perspective by the very different results from the Panasonic FZ1000. The P900 is pretty good for a camera of its type, but that type of camera (and that size of sensor) does have its limits.


Clearly the big selling point of the P900 is its 83x zoom. It's currently the market leader in this respect, but how long it retains that distinction remains to be seen.

The downside of having such a huge optical zoom is that the camera needs to be large. The P900 is pretty much the same size as a DSLR with a kit lens attached.

Although it's great to have the option full manual control, and a range of exposure modes, it seems a little remiss of Nikon to not include raw format shooting – it's something which appeals to enthusiasts, and one of its biggest rivals, the Canon SX60, does have this capability.

Read: Canon SX60 HS review

Using the camera is straightforward, and while there's a good range of external controls, a DSLR-style dial on front of the grip would be an advantage. The grip could also do with being a touch bigger to balance out the size of the lens, and it would be nice to have a touch-sensitive screen to make changing the autofocus point and other settings quicker and easier.

Nikon P900

If you're into wildlife or bird photography, or like shooting pictures of the moon or other subjects outside the range of most lenses, the P900 is definitely worth a look; but bear in mind that the focusing can be slow at the long end of the lens. If you like to travel a lot and want the flexibility of a huge range – and don't mind the size – this could be a good choice.

It's also worth bearing in mind that the launch price of this camera is quite high compared to similarly specced rivals – and even to some entry-level DSLRs. While it's true that equipping a DSLR with even half this zoom range would cost many thousands of pounds, the P900's overall image quality is not on a par with that from a DSLR.

If you're buying this camera for holiday photography then it's likely that most of your shots will be taken in bright light, and the P900 delivers good image quality in such conditions; if you like to keep shooting when the sun's gone down, however, then it's probably not the camera for you.

We liked

If you're after a camera with a huge zoom range you can't get huger than this, for now at least. Images taken in good light look great, with vibrant colours. Having the option of full manual control is also welcome.

We disliked

There are enough niggles about the P900 to stop us recommending it wholeheartedly. Probably the biggest is the lack of raw format shooting, which takes away some of the flexibility that most enthusiast photographers want.


It could be a small audience, but those looking for an ultra-zoom bridge camera should find the P900 very capable, especially if they don't mind only being able to shoot JPEGs.

While it's fairly bulky and heavy for a bridge camera, it's a good all-round camera for the holiday photographer who doesn't want to lug around a DSLR and a collection of lenses.

The P900 is an expensive purchase, but the price is likely to come down, and it has the longest zoom range of any camera currently on the market.

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