Nikon recently introduced two updated digital cameras that replace (respectively) the Coolpix P300 and the Coolpix P500. This review will focus on the big brother in this sibling duo, the Nikon Coolpix P510, though I do hope that I get a chance to review the nifty little P310 at some point. The P510 is a compact, DSLR-sized ultrazoom that provides the greatest zoom ratio of any camera currently available - 24 to 1000mm (equivalent). A digital camera with a zoom lens that can go from true wide-angle to super telephoto allows photographers to cover virtually the entire spectrum of outdoor photographic genres - from classic landscape shots to tightly framed portraits of performers on stage at outdoor concerts.
In other words the magical "one lens covers it all" zoom that camera and lens manufacturers have been trying to create since the introduction of the world's first zoom lens - the Voightlander Zoomar f/2.8 36-82mm in 1959. In my opinion, the Coolpix P510 comes remarkably comes to filling that order.
I've reviewed "long zoom" digital cameras from Nikon, Olympus, and Canon and all of them have shared similar faults - slow maximum apertures, complex zoom formulas (which reduce contrast), vignetting (dark corners), noticeable barrel distortion (straight lines bow out from the center), and fuzzy/soft telephoto images. In many cases the optical performance of these cameras was actually better than expected, but the AF systems and IS systems simply weren?t up to the task of rapidly locking (and holding) focus on distant subjects and keeping camera shake at telephoto settings from negatively affecting subject sharpness.
I'm not sure what Nikon did differently with the P510, but most of those standard and expected faults have been noticeably minimized. Time after time I was surprised at just how sharp my telephoto images were. Check out the sample picture of the squirrel relaxing in the tree - I shot this picture handheld at the equivalent of about 750mm (my subject was in heavy shade with a bright background) and focused on the little guy's eye. Not only did the P510 focus accurately (check out the detail and overall sharpness), freeze camera movement, and get the colors exactly right, but the out of focus highlights in that bright background are rendered as flat, soft edged, and circular, rather than as bright, hard edged, and hexagonal or octagonal hotspots. And I've never seen better Bokeh (how a lens renders distracting out-of-focus points of light in the background of an image) in a long zoom digicam.
I'm quite impressed with just how easy the P510 makes it to capture the image you visualized before you pressed the shutter button - and with more than forty years experience as a photographer I am not easily impressed. The P510 was clearly designed for photography enthusiasts by photography enthusiasts, and with the exception of a couple of minor design missteps, photography enthusiasts should love this camera.
At first glance, the P510 bears a striking resemblance to its predecessor - Nikon didn't deviate much from the original design with this unit. So what's different? The P510 stretches the P500's zoom by almost 200 millimeters, boosts resolution from 12 megapixels to 16 megapixels (via a new back-illuminated CMOS image sensor) features a new GPS receiver, and provides 1080p video with stereo audio.
The P510 is a practical and utilitarian DSLR-sized camera that looks very similar to every other ultrazoom currently available. The P510 is not the camera for stylistas, but it will appeal to serious photographers who want to be able to cover a very broad zoom range photographic genres without having to carry a heavy DSLR, a sturdy tripod, and a bag of lenses. The P510's user interface is uncomplicated and unintimidating and its robustly constructed metal-alloy/polycarbonate body provides good dust/weather/moisture seals.
Ergonomics and Controls
The control layout is efficiently designed and buttons are logically placed and come easily to hand for right-handed shooters, but they are all rather small (with the exception of the shutter button), in fact the on/off button is so small that it usually requires a couple of attempts to turn the camera on or off - however this isn't unique to the P510 - every Nikon I've used recently suffers from this minor design fault.
The top deck features a standard mode dial, a large raised shutter button (with zoom toggle surround), the on/off button, and the Fn button. Nikon's function button is not like Canon's nifty "func" button (which calls up a shortcut menu to directly access often changed settings), rather the Nikon Fn button provides direct access to one (image size, picture control, WB, metering, continuous shooting mode, ISO, or AF area) user selected function.
The mode dial on the Nikon S9300 (which I reviewed recently) moved easily and I was surprised several times when removing the camera from my pocket to discover the mode dial was no longer set to Auto mode - that is not the case with the P510's mode dial - which stayed exactly where I set it. The P510's control pad functions in the familiar compass switch configuration - up/down (flash/macro), left/right (self timer/exposure compensation), and center "OK" button. Additionally, the control rotates, which makes for super fast menu scrolling and function selection. Where Nikon's nifty rotary multi-controller really shines is for easy back and forth review and comparison of saved images.
Nikon still hasn't fixed one of their most frustrating design miscues. The exposure compensation function is meant to allow savvy shooters to subtly modify exposure by incrementally lightening or darkening images. If you activate the Exposure Compensation function on any of the Nikon P&S digicams I've reviewed recently, the camera will remember your settings even after it is turned off. The P510's info display shows the exposure compensation setting (briefly) when the camera is turned on, however it is very easy to miss that bit of information and accidentally shoot images that are lighter or darker than the existing lighting calls for. There is no logical reason why a camera should be designed to remember an exposure compensation setting that was only relevant to a specific past lighting situation.
The P510's one-touch video Record/Stop button is a bit smaller than it should be and it is somewhat awkwardly positioned, but it can still be used without requiring the shooter to look away from the LCD/EVF when starting or stopping video clips.
Menus and Modes
The P510's four tab menu (Shooting menu, Movie menu, GPS menu, and Set-up menu) system is reliably logical, user-friendly, and easily navigated. The large high resolution LCD and reasonable font size make reading menus simple.
Here's a breakdown of the P510's shooting modes:
There is no dedicated movie/video setting on the mode dial - simply press the P510's one touch movie start/stop button at any time (in any exposure mode) to switch to video capture mode.
Like many currently available ultrazooms the P510 provides an EVF (electronic viewfinder) so shooters can use either the LCD screen or the EVF for framing/composition, image review, GPS receiver, and menu access chores. The P510 features a large 3.0-inch LCD screen with 921k-dot resolution. The wide-viewing angle TFT monitor is super sharp, bright, hue accurate, and fluid as the info display provides all the information this camera's target audience is likely to need. The LCD gains up (automatically increases brightness) in dim lighting and brightness can also be adjusted to the individual shooter's preferences. The anti-glare/anti-reflection coating (applied to both sides of the LCD's protective cover) is substantially better than average for digicams in this class. Finally, the P510's LCD flips/folds out, which is useful when shooting macro or high-angle (above the heads of the crowd) shots, but the LCD doesn't swivel.
The DCR test lab objectively measures LCD peak brightness and contrast ratios to assist our readers in making more informed digital camera purchasing decisions. A decent LCD contrast ratio should fall somewhere between 500:1 and 800:1. An LCD with a contrast ratio within that range should be bright enough to use the LCD screen for framing and composition in outdoor lighting and it should also provide a better sense of real world color and contrast than would an LCD screen with a lower contrast ratio. The P510 blows the needle off the scale at 1020:1. Peak brightness for the P510 (the panel's output of an all-white screen at full brightness) is 704 nits and on the dark side, the measurement is 0.69. For reference, anything above 500 nits will be fairly bright outdoors.
The P510's EVF is a 0.2-inch unit with 200k-dots of resolution, but there is no diopter adjustment for those who wear glasses. The EVF is a nice retro composition tool, and provides some much-needed stability when shooting at the long end of the zoom. The viewfinder button (located directly to the left of the EVF) allows users to switch back and forth between LCD and EVF.
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