November 24, 2009, 5:23 PM — 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.