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Nikon Coolpix P510 Review: Bigger Gets Better
by Howard Creech -  6/27/2012

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 Nikon Coolpix P510Coolpix 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.

Nikon P510 Sample Image
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.

Build and Design

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, Nikon Coolpix P510and 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.

Display/Viewfinder
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, andNikon Coolpix P510 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.

Performance

The Nikon Coolpix P510 features Nikon's standard point-and-shoot auto exposure system, one of the best I have ever used, but most P510 users will probably put the camera in Aperture Priority mode and leave it there. Auto ISO (ISO 100-3200 range), auto WB mode, and the default 256-segment matrix metering system combine nicely with the full selection of shooting modes to virtually guarantee very good to excellent images in a broad range of shooting scenarios.

Shooting Performance
The P510 comes in near the bottom of its sample group in terms of AF Acquisition times, but in real world use I found it to be faster to lock AF than many cameras I've used recently. Simply put, the P510 is quick enough for just about anything its target audience is likely to try - quick enough to capture the decisive moment in everything except the most extreme shooting scenarios.

AF Acquisition (press-to-capture, no pre-focus)

Camera Time (seconds)
Sony Cyber-shot HX200V 0.13
Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS20 0.16
Nikon Coolpix P510 0.39
Canon PowerShot SX40 0.46

Continuous Shooting

Camera Frames Framerate*
Sony Cyber-shot HX200V 10 10.0 fps
Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS20 10 9.2 fps
Nikon Coolpix P510 5 6.7 fps
Canon PowerShot SX40 8 2.3 fps

*Note: Continuous shooting framerates are based on the camera's fastest full-resolution JPEG continuous shooting mode, using the fastest media type available (300x CF, SDHC, etc.). "Frames" notes the number of captures recorded per burst before the camera stops/slows to clear the buffer.

What's more important than numbers is that the P510 consistently produces properly exposed images even in lighting that would challenge many compact cameras. Outdoors, the P510 does a great job - producing images that feature reliably accurate (though visibly oversaturated) colors and acceptable contrast, and impressive sharpness.

Image sharpness is dependably very good to excellent, noticeably better than average for cameras in this class, except at the long end of that incredible zoom - and even at the "fuzzy" end images were sharper than expected. The P510 not only has the longest zoom lens in the world, it also consistently produces the sharpest images I've ever seen from an ultrazoom.
The P510's 9 AF point Auto Focus system is identical to that of its predecessor including AF, Manual focus, and Macro focus modes with face detection AF, automatic (multi-point) AF, Single point AF, Center AF, Tracking AF, and Targeting AF.

The P510 features Nikon's new GPS system with built-in electronic compass to record position information when shooting still photos or recording video. The P510 also features a log function for geo-tracking position (even when the camera is off) and provides access to point-of-interest data for (according to Nikon) about 1,700,000 locations worldwide.

The P510's multi-mode (Auto, off, Auto with red-eye reduction, Fill flash, Slow synch, and Rear curtain synch) pop-up flash sits directly above the zoom - in the classic maximum red-eye configuration. The flash is very small and a bit on the weak side, but it provides an adequate selection of artificial lighting options.

Consistently capturing sharply focused pictures with a point-and-shoot camera that sports an incredibly long zoom offers some unique optical engineering challenges. Nikon claims the P510 can counter involuntary camera shake in seven ways. Using Hybrid VR, optical lens-shift Vibration Reduction and electronic IS combine to reduce the effects of camera shake), High Sensitivity (up to ISO 3200) reduces the risk of blurred images with faster shutter speeds, Motion detection compensates for subject movement, Night Landscape mode, and backlight mode also decrease image blur by improving low light performance.

The P510 draws its power from a 3.7V, 1100mAh Nikon EN-EL5 lithium-ion battery. Nikon claims the P510 (with a fully charged battery) is good for about 200 exposures. I do a lot of shoot, review, delete, and re-shoot so I don't usually keep track of exposures, but I only charged the battery twice while I had the camera and I shot a lots of stills and about a dozen video clips - plus the P510 suffers a slight, but continuous power drain from the GPS receiver - so I'd have to guess that Nikon's power duration claims are fairly accurate. The EN-EL5 lithium-ion battery is charged in-camera and requires about two hours for a full charge from standard house current. The P510 can also be charged via USB, but I didn't try this option so I can't comment. The P510 saves images and video to SD, SDHC or SDXC memory media.

Lens Performance
In the final analysis everything comes down to the P510's astonishing 42x zoom, since that monster optic is this camera's real claim to fame. When the P510 is powered up, the lens automatically telescopes out of the lens housing. When the camera is powered down, the lens is fully retracted back into the lens housing and a built-in iris style lens cover closes to protect the front element. Not so long ago 10x was considered a long zoom (most P&S digicams in those days sported 3x to 5x zooms) so the P510's f/3.3-5.9 24-1000mm (equivalent) 42x zoom is the star of the show here - allowing P510 users to Nikon Coolpix P510stand in one spot and cover everything from real wide-angle landscapes and large group-shots to wildlife shots and distant subjects.

The f/3.3 maximum aperture is a bit slow for shooting indoors, but should be more than fast enough for most outdoor shooting in decent light. Center sharpness is pretty good overall, but at the wide-angle end of the zoom corners are slightly soft. I didn't notice any vignetting (dark corners) and both barrel and pincushion distortion (straight lines bow in toward the center) are visible, but seem reasonably well corrected. Contrast is balanced (but a little flat) and colors are hue accurate, though visibly oversaturated. Chromatic aberration is remarkably well-controlled, but some very minor color fringing is present, especially in the color transition areas between dark foreground objects and bright backgrounds. Zooming is smooth, but fairly slow when compared to cameras with shorter zooms. Interestingly, there is much less motor noise than I expected.

With most ultrazooms the maximum telephoto setting can often be more of a curse than a blessing since long zoom digicams produce images that are notoriously soft at the maximum telephoto setting. Nikon's optical and mechanical engineers did a remarkably impressive job on the P510's monster zoom. The lens is reasonably compact, quiet and much sharper (at the long end of the zoom) than expected. P510 users can consistently handhold the camera for shots at maximum telephoto and many of their pictures will be sharp enough for 4 x 6 prints or VGA web shots, however (and this is surprising) some of their handheld telephoto shots will be sharp enough for 9 x 12 enlargements.

Video Quality
The P510 captures HD video at 1920x1080p at 30 fps with stereo audio and the 42x super zoom can be used during filming. This camera also provides an HDMI out so that users can watch their HD video clips on their wide screen HD TVs.

The P510's video mode may be this digicam's greatest shortcoming. When users press the start/stop control to start recording - the P510's LCD/EVF goes dark for a full second before video capture begins, which rather defeats the benefit of having a start/stop button. Since video capture doesn't start until a full second after you push the button, it will be necessary to anticipate the beginning of your video and press the start/stop button at least a full second before the action commences. The P510 is an impressive camera, but if video capture is an important consideration - I'd give the P510 a pass.

Image Quality
The Nikon Coolpix P510 utilizes a new 16 megapixel 1/2.3-inch back-illuminated CMOS sensor to capture images. Like most compact P&S digicams, image files produced by the P510 are optimized for the bold, bright colors and slightly flat contrast that many veteran shooters refer to as "consumer" color. Recorded hues are accurate but noticeably more intense than in real life - reds are warm, blues are bright, and greens/yellows/oranges are very vibrant. The bottom line is that the P510's color interpolation, while a bit more intense than neutral, is consistently and dependably hue accurate. The colors I saw on my monitor when I reviewed the images I shot with this camera were the colors I saw when I shot the pictures.

Outdoors, in good light, the P510 dependably captures very good to excellent images in all shooting modes. Indoors, the camera performs with a little less aplomb than most the competition due to the slow maximum aperture and the complexity of the optical design - the farther you zoom indoors, the worse the image will become.

The P510's Auto White Balance mode is dependably accurate over a wide range of lighting conditions. In fact, Nikon's latest point-and-shoot white balance system is probably the best I've seen to date. The P510 provides several WB options including Auto 1 (normal lighting), Auto 2 (warm lighting), Preset Manual WB, Daylight, Incandescent, Fluorescent, Cloudy, and Flash settings.

Nikon P510 Sample Image
Auto White Balance, 5500k fluorescent light

The P510 provides an adequate range of sensitivity options, including auto (ISO 100-800) and user-set options for ISO 100-3200. ISO 100 images are very sharp with intense colors, very low noise levels, and balanced but slightly flat contrast. ISO 200 images were also very good, but with a bit less snap. At the ISO 400 setting, noise levels are beginning to rise and there's a very minor, but perceptible loss of fine detail.

Nikon P510 Sample Image
ISO 100
Nikon P510 Sample Image
ISO 100, 100% crop
Nikon P510 Sample Image
ISO 200
Nikon P510 Sample Image
ISO 200, 100% crop
Nikon P510 Sample Image
ISO 400
Nikon P510 Sample Image
ISO 400, 100% crop
Nikon P510 Sample Image
ISO 800
Nikon P510 Sample Image
ISO 800, 100% crop
Nikon P510 Sample Image
ISO 1600
Nikon P510 Sample Image
ISO 1600, 100% crop
Nikon P510 Sample Image
ISO 3200
Nikon P510 Sample Image
ISO 3200, 100% crop

Indoor image quality is acceptable at lower ISO settings, but as sensitivity rises to overcome lower levels of ambient lighting, noise levels rise noticeably and color intensity suffers a bit. Noise levels are quite reasonable up to ISO 400, but they increase noticeably after that.

Nikon P510 Sample Image Nikon P510 Sample Image
Nikon P510 Sample Image Nikon P510 Sample Image

Conclusion

Nikon recently introduced two new Coolpix cameras and although they show no resemblance whatsoever to each other, they are remarkably similar. Both digicams share identical GPS systems, identical EXPEED C2 image processing engines, indentical 16 megapixel backlit CMOS sensors, the same lens-shift vibration reduction (VR) system, and identical 3.0-inch 921k-dot flip-out LCD monitors. The most significant differences between the two cameras are in their physical sizes and their zoom lenses.

The P310 is a pocketable little camera with a superfast f/1.8-4.9 24-100mm zoom (currently the fastest maximum aperture available on any P&S digicam) while the P510 is a compact DSLR sized P&S digicam with an f/3.3-5.9 24-1000mm (equivalent) zoom - currently the longest focal length zoom available on any fixed-lens digital camera.

Canon has always been the manufacturer most known for developing imaging components and then using them creatively to generate a variety of cameras designed to appeal to different types of photographers. The pocketable little P310, with its super fast f/1.8 zoom, would work beautifully for street shooting and available light photography. The P510, with its monster zoom, can easily handle landscape/scenic photography, wildlife photography, event photography (festivals, concerts, parties, family gatherings), and sports/action photography. It's nice to see Nikon being more competitive since the ultimate beneficiary of this enhanced competition is the consumer.


I really liked the P510 - a DSLR shooter would need a camera bag full of very expensive lenses to cover the same range as that 42x zoom. In fact, there is only one thing preventing the P510 from emerging as the top dog in the ultrazoom class - the ludicrous viewfinder blackout and one second recording start delay. The Nikon Coolpix P510 would be an almost ideal choice for an aspiring photographer on a budget, and a very good choice for travelers who want a tough, easy to use digicam with lots of reach.