Why This New Camera is Sensational and Scary

The Nikon P900’s remarkable zoom allows photographers to literally shoot the moon, but it also raises privacy concerns.

The latest techno-sensation is about a camera with, quite literally, otherworldly capabilities. The newly released Nikon P900 is a point-and-shoot that might as well be a telescope. The first consumers to get their hands on the thing are posting jaw-dropping videos of the camera zooming in on the moon — yes, the moon — with enough detail that you can identify individual craters. If you haven’t seen this demonstration yet, stop what you are doing and watch now.

Is it a telescope or a camera? Click to watch video of this zoom

To quote my friend and superphotographer Anthony Quintano: “Wow.”

At only $600, with a remarkable 83x optical zoom, the camera is an incredible breakthrough. Putting that kind of zoom power into everyone’s hands is sure to create a new avalanche of superzoom, superclose pictures on your Facebook timeline and Instagram feed. But not quite yet. The P900 is such a sensation that it has sold out everywhere, and there’s a pile of back orders.

But is there a dark side to popularizing the superzoom? And I don’t mean the “Dark Side of the Moon.”

Look at the camera’s capability in these two images — the first without zoom, and the second zoomed in on the distant point.

Image taken with the Nikon P900 without use of zoom. Source: NikonImage taken with the Nikon P900 without use of zoom.
Source: Nikon

Image take from the same position using full zoom capacity. Source: NikonImage taken with Nikon P900 from the same position using full zoom capacity. Source: Nikon

(If you want to see the full demonstration on Nikon’s website, click here.)

It’s amazing that you can shoot that surfer from so far away — from a distance that is just about invisible to the naked eye. Think about that: You can photograph him, but he can’t see you. Your mind might be wandering where mine has now. Is it a good thing that people with cheap-enough-to-be-in-everyone’s-hands equipment can use it for spying? Or worse? What are the privacy implications?

The gadget hits me squarely between two worlds. As a journalist and sometime photographer, I know the importance of liberal photography rules. Anything that begins to approach the notion of limiting rights to take pictures quickly approaches First Amendment territory and potential suppression of free speech.

On the other hand, I write frequently about privacy issues and about the unintended consequences of technology. It’s easy to imagine the P900 being used by peeping Toms or others who would violate privacy.

Holly Kearl, an expert in gender-based violence who runs the nonprofit Stop Street Harassment, is concerned about the distance the P900 places between photographer and subject.

“The camera will … make it much harder for a person being illegally photographed to know about it, or if they do find out about it – perhaps if the perpetrator posts it online – to know who took it,” she said.

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