Superzooms are like the monkey wrenches of the camera world. There's no job they can't tackle (even if they make a hash of it), and, for photographers chasing the highest possible specs in a single package, they're irresistible. Every maker likes to include a superzoom at the top of its range, and Nikon's offering is the Coolpix P90, in a shop near you for around £350.
The star of the show is that 24x super-wideangle lens, covering an equivalent focal range of 26-624mm. Yes, the Olympus SP-590 UZ has a 26x zoom that's slightly longer still, but, at these extremes, it's a small difference.
Shooting at super-long range is tricky, but the P90's equipped with Nikon's Vibration Reduction system to keep the picture steady. And, if you're worried about barrel distortion ruining your wideangle shots, you can rest easy, because this camera has a built-in automatic distortion-correction function that delivers perfectly straight lines even at the widest focal lengths.
The big difference between superzooms and digital SLRs is that superzooms don't have an optical viewing system, so you'll have to make do with the P90's pixellated electronic viewfinder, or compose shots on the 76mm (3-inch) LCD. Its resolution is only average, at 230,000 pixels, but there's a hinge that lets you flip out the display and tilt it downwards (for shooting with the camera held above head height) or upwards (for shooting at waist level). It has a more limited range of movements than conventional flip-out-and-swivel displays, but it's much simpler to use. And who needs sideways movements anyway?
You don't have to use this camera's in-depth technical features if you don't want to, but they're there if you do. They include SLR-style aperture-priority, shutter-priority and manual exposure modes, and Nikon's Active D-Lighting system, which tweaks the exposure and brings up shadow detail to deliver a wider dynamic (brightness) range.
Throw in a 1cm macro mode, 15-frames-per-second shooting and a maximum ISO of 6,400, and it looks like you've got a camera that really can do everything.
But here comes all the nitty, gritty, picky stuff. Let's start with the picture quality. The P90's not especially sharp for a 12-megapixel compact, even at normal focal lengths, but, towards maximum zoom, the detail falls off noticeably. There's also a significant amount of colour fringing around high-contrast edges -- this shows up particularly with our test target (below). The P90 has a tendency towards overexposure, too, especially where there are large areas of shadow in the picture.
The results are alright, make no mistake, but they're no better than those you'd get from a dozen other 12-megapixel compacts. Also, since this camera's clearly aimed at keen photographers, why didn't Nikon include support for raw files?
Then there are the operational restrictions. The P90 will go to ISO 6,400, but only at a reduced resolution of 3 million pixels. It will shoot at 15fps in 'sport continuous' mode, but only at -- you guessed it -- reduced resolution (2 million pixels this time). And, for some reason, in this mode, the ISO is restricted to the range 640-6,400, which isn't very helpful if you want to shoot in bright sunlight. The macro mode isn't all that straightforward, either, since the minimum focus distance depends on the zoom setting in a way that you'll need the manual to figure out.
The Nikon Coolpix P90 is a typical superzoom: fantastic specifications, but riddled with operational limitations and compromises that don't really become obvious until you've used it for a while. It's vastly more sophisticated than the average compact, but don't buy it as a substitute for a dSLR, because you'll be disappointed.
Edited by Charles Kloet