Product review: Nikon Coolpix P90 Megazoom

The 24X-optical-zoom, 12-megapixel Nikon Coolpix P90 ($400 as of 11/22/09) is a powerful camera that offers full manual controls, a tiltable LCD screen, and the easiest operation we've seen in the megazoom class.

Considering all the bells, whistles, and extras packed into today's digital cameras, it's somewhat refreshing (and oddly surprising) to see a model that's simply designed for taking a lot of different kinds of pictures. The Nikon Coolpix P90 has a few unique in-camera extras, but it concentrates on being a solid, versatile megazoom.

Specs-wise, the main draw is its impressive zoom lens. The 24X-optical-zoom lens ranges from 26mm on the wide-angle end to 624mm telephoto, and the built-in optical image stabilization does the trick in most real-world scenarios. Using a tripod, I was able to lock in on a building that was three and a half blocks away and get a crisp image. The macro mode produced sharp images when the subject was practically touching the lens.

About the only thing missing for advanced still photographers is the ability to shoot in RAW mode; you're limited to JPEG images. The camera's feature set includes full manual settings, beginner-friendly scene modes, and aperture- and shutter-priority settings. Through the camera's top-mounted control dial, you get access to all 11 modes: Auto, Program, Shutter Priority, Aperture Priority, Manual, Movie, Sports, Scene mode (which lets you select from 15 different options, including Portrait, Panorama Assist, Fireworks, Backlight, and other common choices), an automated scene-selection mode, and two user-defined setting modes. The Sports mode, for fast-action shots, lets you shoot up to 15 frames per second at a reduced 3-megapixel resolution.

A camera with that kind of hardware and imaging control is usually a complex device to master, but the Coolpix P90's secret weapon is its amazing ease of use. That's reflected in the relative lack of physical buttons: A four-way directional pad, a menu dial, and a scroll dial handle all of the camera's functions. Simply put, the P90 offers the easiest operation of any advanced camera I've ever used, thanks to its minimal array of buttons and well-organized menus.

On paper, another big draw is the wide range of ISO settings: The Coolpix P90 offers ISO levels up to 6400. However, grain starts showing fairly prominently at ISO 800, and ISO 1600 and 3200 are useful only in pitch-black settings unless you want quite a bit of visual noise in your shots.

The P90 maxes out at 640-by-480 standard-definition video at 30 frames per second, saved as AVI files. Those capabilities are a step behind the video features of similarly priced megazoom cameras out there (most shoot 720p high-definition video), but the Coolpix P90 has a nifty time-lapse video feature that sets it apart. Select a shot interval ranging from 30 seconds to 60 minutes and leave the camera in one place, and you get an automatically stitched-together time-lapse video. The camera also powers down between shots to conserve battery life.

In this case, I left the P90 on a windowsill in our office building overnight and set the shot interval at 5 minutes.

In addition to the time-lapse video feature, the P90 has a few more distinctive in-camera settings. The D-Lighting feature (the "D" stands for "Dynamic") lets you go into your saved images and ratchet up their brightness and contrast levels. And while you're shooting, the P90 has a "Blink Detection" feature that scans your photo for closed eyes and then alerts you right after the picture is shot if someone blinked--a useful extra for group pictures.

One advantage the Coolpix P90 has over many cameras is an adjustable, 3-inch LCD screen. Mind you, it doesn't flip out or swivel; instead, you can pull the LCD away and then tilt it upward or downward. This gives you plenty of adjustability for high-angle or on-the-ground shots, but the fact that it's not a flip-and-swivel screen means that it won't help you much with self-portraits. In addition to the LCD, you get an eye-level electronic viewfinder; like the majority of point-and-shoot cameras these days, the P90 has no optical viewfinder.

The Coolpix P90 feels less molded to the hand when compared with competing megazooms such as the Fujifilm FinePix S200 EXR and Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ35, but it still has a comfortable, texturized rubber grip. It's a bit bulky, but it's light; the camera body is made of a semidurable plastic, including the pop-up flash, which feels like it could snap off fairly easily. The light, plasticky build may have a bit of trouble holding up over time.

With excellent performance at both the wide-angle and telephoto ends of the zoom, the Nikon Coolpix P90 is a no-nonsense, photographer-friendly megazoom that won't wow you with frills or video resolution. The extras on this camera, such as the adjustable LCD, the manual controls, the macro capabilities, and the photo-saving in-camera adjustments, are aimed squarely at frequent photographers.

This story, "Product review: Nikon Coolpix P90 Megazoom" was originally published by PCWorld.

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