If you read the posts about my recent trip to Quebec, you know I took an awful lot of photos. I took pictures of whales in the St. Lawrence, the streets of Quebec City after dark, the dramatic landscapes of the Charlevoix region. It was a real test for a camera, from low-light and wide-angle shots to extreme telephoto. And I did it all with one camera: Nikon P900.
The P900 is what is often called an ultrazoom, or “bridge” camera – it has a chunky body, like a single-lens reflex (SLR) camera, but with a super-long zoom lens built in. That means you get the abilities of an SLR with a long lens attached, at a lower price. And the zoom lens on the Nikon P900 is truly staggering – the equivalent of 2,000 millimetres in SLR terms. I doubt you could even find an SLR lens that long.
All those millimetres come with a proviso, however: I’ve tried a lot of ultrazooms, and have never found one that satisfied me. These cameras have small sensors – that’s one of the ways they deliver such long zoom range. But those sensors have a hard time handling tricky lighting, and most often I’ve come home with shots that were a bit soft, especially at the long end of the zoom.
However, after travelling for 10 days with the P900, and then giving it a good workout with some bird photography on the Toronto Islands, I may have changed my mind. While it’s not perfect, this camera turned out good-looking shots in pretty well every type of lighting – including a few worth framing. And the photo quality held up well, even when I pushed it to the long end of that long zoom.
Looking at the camera
As noted, the P900 is built like an SLR, and it looks like one too. It’s a good handful, though I didn’t find it heavy, even with that big zoom lens aboard. A sizeable grip in the front and a thumb pad in the back made it comfortable to handle.
As for that outrageous zoom lens, the figures are impressive: an 83X zoom covering a range from 24mm wide angle to 2000mm extreme telephoto. And it’s high-quality: a NIKKOR ED glass lens with a fast f/2.8 rating at the wide end, shutting down to f/6.5 at full zoom.
As for the rest of the specs, it has a 16-megapixel sensor, giving you a photo file big enough to crop significantly. And there are full manual controls, so you can shoot as you would with an SLR. The big, sharp 3-inch monitor swivels out and tilts – handy when you need to hold the camera high or low. The electronic viewfinder is sharp, too, though it displays the colours a bit warmer than it should.
When it comes to shooting, the camera will rattle off 7 frames per second at full resolution. And to help you keep all those shots in focus, there are several focus modes, including modes that will find and track your subject. Another useful feature is a “snap-back” button that will zoom the lens back for a moment if you lose your subject — easy to do when you’re shooting with a long zoom.
There’s also full HD video (1080p) with stereo sound, built-in wi-fi and Near Field Communication technology so you can transfer pictures straight to your cellphone or tablet. This page provides full specifications if you’re interested.
Shooting with the Nikon P900
I found the P900 easy to shoot with. For the most part, I used it in shutter-priority mode to provide stability when using the long zoom. However, thanks to Nikon’s very capable vibration reduction, I had very few blurry shots. For day-to-day shooting, I often just put it in Program mode.
The camera was comfortable enough for street photography, and I happily wandered the streets of Old Quebec City by day and by night, capturing shots like this. The P900 seemed to handle tricky lighting situations well, and its 24mm wide-angle view was perfect for street scenes. (All the photos below are just as they came from the camera, though they have been downsized for easier viewing. Click on the photos to see them larger.)
Shooting wildlife is a tougher test, of course. And it took me a little experimentation to get the clear, sharp shots I wanted. In some cases, the spot focus mode worked best, but in others, I used a wider mode to help grab a focus on a moving subject.
The result was some good-looking nature shots, like this grey seal in the St. Lawrence River. Even when I cranked the zoom out to its longest setting, I managed to get good-looking shots. It seemed that no subject was too far to pull in. (Note: I didn’t use the digital zoom — it just didn’t seem necessary.)
The 7-frames-per-second burst mode came in handy for shooting action shots — I executed some long bursts without the camera running out of memory and grinding to a halt. However, the viewfinder display blacked out during the bursts, making it hard to follow my subject.
I didn’t take a lot of movies, but the camera performed well when I did. It allowed me to zoom in and out silently while I was shooting – a great feature. In fact, few SLRs offer a silent zoom. Here’s a clip from the changing of the guard at the Citadel fortress in Quebec City.
Looking at the pictures
I wasn’t sure what to expect from The P900. But the quality of the shots from this camera soon put me at ease. In normal lighting conditions, it turned out sharp, vivid, good-looking shots. It got the exposure right in the vast majority of cases, and didn’t “burn” out the whites badly in bright sunlight – a weakness of many digital cameras. And it performed well in trickier lighting, like this art gallery.
It’s when the light gets low that cameras with small sensors begin to struggle. But the P900 surprised me with some great-looking shots even in dark streetscapes. My night shots of Quebec City really captured the mood of the city – in fact, this shot of a dark street with the Price building in the background is one of my favourites of the year.
The shots aren’t perfect, of course. Looked at full-size, some photos showed grainy-looking “noise” – though less than I expected – and some masking of the details due to noise suppression. But unless you’re printing the pictures poster-size, this is no problem. At normal sizes, these photos look great.
As for the nature photos, the P900 surprised me again. I got some good-looking shots on the St. Lawrence, but the real test was the bird photography on the Toronto Islands. Getting a focus on a bird in a tree 20 metres away and snagging a good shot is one of the toughest challenges around, for the photographer and for the camera. But the P900 produced a dozen true keepers, photos I’d be happy to put in my “best of” folder.
Here’s a couple – a yellow-bellied flycatcher and a Cooper’s hawk, both shot at or near the long end of the zoom. These were taken without a tripod or monopod, which would probably have added some sharpness. I just don’t have the patience to set up a tripod every time I see a shot – and either do the birds.
Again, the shots didn’t give me the same quality I would have got from an SLR camera. There’s not as much feather detail, and the photos are not as needle sharp as good SLR shots. But they’re still top-notch, and even a little work with an editing program would make them eye-poppers. For a look at one of the shots that’s been edited, check out this post with my photo of an osprey.
The Nikon P900 is an amazingly versatile camera, and one you could take on almost any kind of trip. It’s easy enough to use for general photography in almost any situation. And if you’re going places where wildlife watching is a possibility, this is the camera to bring along.
In either case, you won’t be disappointed with the pictures you come home with — the photo quality is uniformly good. And you certainly won’t be regretting the shots that got away: this camera can zoom in on just about anything.
The P900 isn’t a pocket camera; it’s kind of like carrying around a small SLR. And it will take you a few days to learn all its features: for example, the focus modes, if you’re taking telephoto shots. But if you’ve used an SLR, it will be an easy adjustment. And if not, you can do just fine shooting in Program mode until you get used to the controls.
The last word The Nikon P900 is a powerful camera, and a great travel companion if you want a longer zoom and don’t need a tiny pocket camera. It’s priced like a lower-end SLR, but while the SLR might give you better photo quality, you won’t get anything like the stunning 2000mm lens the P900 is packing. As an all-in-one solution, this camera is hard to beat.
The Nikon P900 used for these photos was loaned to me by Nikon for the purpose of this review.