Little Nikon with big lens goes a long way

You see them all the time at sporting events: long-range lenses the size of an artillery shell with a little camera bolted on the back. And in the hands of many spectators, you see smaller versions of the same thing: compact digital cameras with great big lenses.

I’ve been trying out one of the latest, the Coolpix P520 from Nikon Corp. It’s a limited but decent camera that’s most noteworthy for a big-time lens with 42X optical zoom that will deliver high-quality images of people and objects a block away. This $430 camera also shoots very good high-definition video, made even more impressive by excellent audio recording that gives movies a surround-sound feel. With its built-in GPS for geotagging your photos and an optional $60 Wi-Fi transmitter, the Coolpix P520 is a major step up from the average point-and-shoot.

For Nikon and other compact camera makers, building better cameras is a matter of survival. Virtually every smartphone contains a camera that’s good enough for many consumers. According to ABI Research of Scottsdale, Ariz., worldwide digital camera sales dropped 14 percent last year. Nearly all of the decrease was in the simplest, cheapest point-and-shoots — cameras easily replaced by an iPhone or Android handset.


In the meantime, though, sales of high-end digital cameras surged 30 percent. I’m guessing smartphone shooters who have learned to love photography are trading up, in search of something that will give them better results.

Get Talking Points in your inbox:
An afternoon recap of the day’s most important business news, delivered weekdays.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

The Coolpix is a good compromise that falls somewhere between a simple pocket camera and a high-priced digital SLR with interchangeable lenses. The P520 comes with just one piece of glass, but with its huge zoom ratio, the lens is good for everything from close-up nature photography to shooting pictures of your kid during a Little League game.

It zooms out to 180 millimeters, which might not sound like much, but, like many cheaper cameras, the P520 has a fairly small image sensor, much smaller than the true 35-millimeter size used by professional shooters. Shrinking the sensor multiplies the zoom effect; according to Nikon, this makes the P520’s lens the equivalent of a 1000-millimeter lens on a pro-grade camera.

It sure looked that way through the viewfinder. I found I could get sharp images of people and objects more than 100 feet away. But the slightest muscle twitch set the image bouncing like crazy. I had to prop myself against a wall or lamppost to get good shots at full zoom. The camera’s vibration reduction feature didn’t seem to help much, either.

With such a small image sensor, photos tend to get grainy when they’re enlarged. Sensor size may also explain the camera’s mediocre performance in low light. I compensated by boosting the ISO setting to increase the sensor’s light sensitivity, and by using the camera’s built-in flash. Some compact cameras have a hot shoe to add a high-grade external flash unit, but not this one. That’s a shame, because as with all built-in flashes, the one in the Coolpix throws a harsh and glaring light.


Also missing is a jack for plugging in an external microphone for sound recording while shooting video. But I hardly minded. High-definition video quality is excellent, and the camera’s on-board stereo microphones captured voices and background sounds with unexpected clarity and fidelity. I could imagine taking this camera to a concert and using it just to record audio.

Like any smartphone, the P520 has a GPS chip, so you can set it to add location data; you can turn this feature off for the sake of your privacy — and the camera’s rechargeable battery. Another essential smartphone feature, Wi-Fi, is nowhere to be found. But Nikon offers a $60 gadget that plugs into the camera’s USB data port and lets you wirelessly transmit photos to an Android or Apple smartphone or tablet.

If they ever figure out a way to cram a 200-millimeter lens inside an iPhone, Nikon and other high-end camera companies will be in real trouble. But the optical limits of today’s smartphones have left an open niche in the photography market — just room enough for little cameras with big lenses.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at