Shooting experience

by Jeff Keller

I'm old enough to remember when a 'superzoom' camera meant that it had a 10X lens, with a focal range that started at around 36mm. Zoom ranges kept slowly going up over time, and once the 'Megapixel Race' had slowed down, camera manufacturers switched to competing on focal length. Focal lengths seemed to level off at 30X for a while, and those were on larger bridge cameras, rather than more pocketable travel zooms. Lens designs evolved enough that cameras with 50X and 60X zooms arrived a few years later.

The Olympus C-2100 Ultra Zoom, released in 2000, had a 38-380mm equiv. lens.

That brings us to 2015, when Nikon introduced its Coolpix P900. I remember at the time thinking how ridiculous the whole concept was: who needs that much zoom? While there's no single answer to that question, the fact is that the P900 was actually a pretty good camera, with a sharp lens and amazing image stabilization, albeit with compact camera image quality.

P900 on the right, P1000 on the left

Evidently, Nikon thought that what people really need is an even longer lens, and in summer 2018 it released the Coolpix P1000. While the P900 surprised me, my reaction upon hearing about the P1000 was "are they kidding? That's absurd." After just a week of using P1000 I found that, despite rarely shooting at anywhere near 3000mm equiv, the fact that I could made it enjoyable to use, even if the camera itself is far from perfect.

The first place I took the P1000 was the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle. Being a former volunteer, I knew the best spots to go to put the camera to the test. The most important thing (besides distant subjects): plenty of light. At the front of the zoo is a view over the 'African savanna', where I found some zebras nearby and giraffes in distance. My photo of the zebra was 'only' at 650mm equiv., while a semi-closeup of a giraffe was 865mm equiv. Disappointed that I didn't even break 1000mm, I moved on.

ISO 100 | 1/320 sec | F5 | 650mm equiv.

Things got a little better as I continued my stroll. I got a nice 1100mm equiv. photo of an orangutan, which I made look a bit nicer by processing the Raw file, a feature that was sorely missed on the P900). A super-closeup of a heron, 1700mm equiv.

ISO 100 | 1/400 sec | F6.3 | 1700mm equiv.

After taking some lovely photos of butterflies, which needed no retouching since the P1000's JPEG colors are so nice, I finally found what I was looking for. Back where I started my tour, I saw something far off in the distance, well behind where the giraffes were. Not being able to see it clearly with the naked eye, I turned the P1000 into a telescope and spotted a Patas monkey sitting on a dead tree. I noticed that I was finally zoomed all the way in, at 3000mm equiv.

Converted to taste in ACR 11 beta. ISO 560 | 1/320 sec | F8 | 3000mm equiv.

It was at this point where I realized just how challenging it is to shoot at focal lengths that long. My hands are moving and the image stabilization system is trying madly to compensate, so the subject is shifting all over the place. The camera's chosen a shutter speed that seemed way too slow for a subject that will almost certainly move, so I switched to shutter priority mode. Thankfully, the monkey didn't go anywhere for a few minutes, and I was able to fire off several photos before it moved on. The photo isn't tack sharp, but that could be due to camera shake, diffraction, heat haze or motion blur (or more likely, a combination). But did I seriously just take a photo of a monkey 70 meter (230 feet) away? YES.

One of the features that I found extremely helpful at long focal lengths is 'Snapback Zoom', which is activated by a button on the lens barrel, right next to the zoom lever. Since it's easy to lose a very distant subject, I'd just hold down the button, the zoom would back out (to 500mm equiv., if I recall), allowing me to locate my subject. Once I did that, releasing the button brought the lens right back to where it was before.

The Snapback Zoom button helps you locate a subject that's moved out of the frame.

The main things I didn't like about the Coolpix P1000 concern the trade-offs of that huge lens, namely weight and aperture range. With the lens near its telephoto position, the camera becomes very front-heavy, to the point where my tripod couldn't keep it pointed at the moon (as one example). The solution: use a sturdier tripod. Keeping noise levels low is hard at the tele end of the lens due to the slow maximum aperture. And, the size/weight of the whole package made me pause on a few occasions about whether I wanted to take it with me or use my phone. One last thing that I found inexcusable on a $1000 camera in 2018 is the lack of a touchscreen.

As I mentioned at the start, I enjoyed shooting with the P1000, despite what you give up in order to have that lens. Would I actually buy one? Given how rarely I shot above 1000mm equiv. I'd personally select Sony's similarly priced Cyber-shot RX10 III, which tops out at 600mm but has a much larger sensor and brighter lens to give stellar photo and video quality. That shouldn't take away from the fact that the P1000 is a fun camera to shoot with, even if it's just for the adventure of finding a subject to take full advantage of that 'absurd' lens.