Nikon’s P-series currently represents their high-end compact lineup. The line came to the fore with the arrival of the P5000 in 2007, an enthusiast compact that blended the separation between point and shoot and DSLR. Subsequent models have led to today’s oversized and feature-packed P7100, a camera that, like Canon’s G-series, loses sight of portability in the pursuit for functionality. Two years after Canon’s response to such concerns with the high-performance yet pocketable S90, Nikon shot back with its answer: the P300. The camera seemingly checked all the right boxes; it had a slim form, manual controls, and a fancy new backside-illuminated CMOS sensor, yet middling image quality in reviews doomed the camera from the get-go.
The P310, released in February of 2012, is proof that Nikon isn’t ready to throw in the towel on the enthusiast compact market just yet. The headline change lies in the sensor, which has been upped to 16.1 megapixels from the 12 found in its predecessor. The size of that sensor, however, a relatively small 1/2.33” chip smaller than those found in the Canon S100, Olympus XZ-1, new Samsung EX2f, Panasonic LX7, and especially the Sony RX100, remains a serious weakness. Other enhancements, such as a new expanded ISO range to 6400, 3D capture, and Function button, are promising but not groundbreaking changes. To earn top marks, the cheaper P310 will need to overcome its sensor handicap and boast image quality at least approaching that of the competition. A tall feat indeed, but could Nikon have done just that?
The P310 is available in either glossy white or a matte black. The review copy is a matte black highly reminiscent of the material Canon uses in its black S100, a high-quality plastic that seems exceptionally sturdy. There is little in the way of stylish curves on the P310, with the only nod to fashion being the rounded corners and edges; mostly straight lines and flat sides won’t have your friends gawking over your pretty new camera, but enthusiasts may prefer this minimalism. The pop-up flash along the top, being spring-loaded, does give a little under pressure and the battery door is flimsy, but neither should pose a problem with some care.
The lens barrel severely protrudes outward from front of the camera, turning a thin camera into a noticeable lump in your pocket. The lens itself is a 4.2x, 24-100mm f1.8-4.9 zoom range that’s average for cameras in this class. The lens speed is lacking compared to some, however, yet in line with the closest competitor the Canon S100. Near the bottom right of the lens is a small Function button and to the right of that a vertical grip that provides some purchase on the otherwise smooth plastic. The top of the camera features a pop-up flash on the far left side (with release button on the left plate), stereo microphones above the lens, Mode Dial with 8 different settings, On/Off button, Shutter button ringed by zoom toggle, and finally a control wheel on the far right side that sits nearly flush with the top.
The back of the camera features a large, 3-inch LCD with 921,000 dots. All buttons are arrayed to the right of this screen within easy reach of your thumb, which is given a rubber grip to latch onto in the top right corner. To the left of that is a Flash indicator light, Record button, and just below a Playback button. The 4-way controller is ringed by a control dial and offers quick access to Flash, Timer, Exposure Compensation, and Macro settings. Along the bottom of the back plate sit Menu and Trash buttons. The bottom of the camera includes A/V out, the battery and card compartment, and an off-center metal tripod mount. There is also a door on the right side of the camera for HDMI out.
User Experience and Performance - Nikon COOLPIX P310
As far as features and functions are concerned, the P310 possesses few surprises. The Mode dial on the top offers fast access to PASM modes, a User Settings mode to save specific camera settings, a Night Landscape Mode that combines a continuous burst into one image lower noise image, a Scene Mode with 19 different scenes or an Auto Scene Selector that does the choosing for you, and finally fully Automatic and Programmed Auto. Scene modes include the usual array as well as 3D and a Special effect section, which leads to options like nostalgic sepia, selective color, soft, low and high key, and silhouette. While they can be fun to play with, very rarely did they make a photo better. The HDR function, called Backlighting, really washes out images and makes them look unnatural while even the Panorama function, which takes images as you sweep the camera and combines them, is limited to a very reduced resolution.
Navigating these different functions, the menus, and making adjustments is quite easy due to the two control dials: the thumb dial at the top of the camera and the wheel ringing the 4-way controller. This means aperture and shutter speed can be modified nearly simultaneously in manual mode, without additional button presses to cycle between the two. The small Fn button on the front of the camera, within easy reach of your third finger, can be mapped to change shooting functions like ISO, metering, white balance or AF area as well as image size or Picture Control. We chose ISO and had near-immediate access to all three controls in no more than a single button press. The rest of the controls are couched in the Shooting Menu, which is a full-screen overlay rather than quick-menu along the side. Hopefully Nikon changes this in future models.
Speed was a mixed bag on the P310. The camera starts up in a second and shuts down just as quickly, but autofocus was frequently not up to par. In even moderate lighting the autofocus system does a double or even triple check before giving you the go-ahead. While this typically means it actually locks focus accurately, we found a couple occasions where the camera doesn’t even try to focus. Night Landscape Mode, for example, forces the focus to infinity regardless of where your subject lies. While this may have been a minor issue, the camera doesn’t warn the user when the subject isn’t in focus and always displays the green in-focus box upon pressing the shutter. Thus, macro photos that look wildly misfocused on the screen yield false positives. The subject tracking mode also barely deserves the name, with slow response making it near-useless for moving subjects. The P310 does offer an array of burst modes, with the fastest full-resolution mode clocking in at 7fps for 5 images at locked focus and exposure.
One other issue, and this is a bit of a head scratcher, is that zooming in on images in playback takes ages. It appears that the user can’t zoom in till the camera has loaded a high-definition preview, which takes a couple seconds even when using a high-speed card. If push the zoom lever before that preview has loaded, the camera simply doesn’t register the input and will never magnify the image, requiring another press. It’s incredibly frustrating to deal with and makes checking accurate focus a real chore. The P310 also doesn’t have an orientation sensor, so all images taken in the portrait orientation need to be manually rotated.
So while speed in both focus and playback needs improvement, as do the image combine modes (like Backlighting/HDR see left), which take 5 seconds or so for processing, usability on the whole is quite good. The dual control wheels combined with Fn button make the shooting process quite good. The speed issues hold it back from really competing with the highest-end compacts, but functionality is ahead of other most pocketable cameras in this price bracket.
Image Quality - Nikon COOLPIX P310
This is the area the P310 really needs to shine, and images on the whole are really quite good. On the standard color setting, images have a natural look that never appears over processed. This can actually work against the images, however, for while edges are left soft, colors and mid-tone contrast are both too muted for our taste. Users can of course change output in Picture control to suit their tastes. The camera also has a real tendency to overexpose and clip highlights; we recommend dialing in at least -1/3 exposure compensation for best results.
Images at base ISO are slightly smudged but display an impressive amount of detail, even in low-contrast features like foliage. As the lighting drops noise reduction kicks in, as expected, yet remains among the best we’ve seen for cameras with this sensor size. Color reproduction is impressively consistent right through ISO 1600, which exhibits a splotchy monochrome grain completely devoid of color noise. While such results for the sensor size are laudable, don’t be fooled into thinking this is a worthy competitor to any of the 1/1.7” enthusiast cameras; the Canon S100 is cleaner straight from ISO 100 and nearly two stops better at ISO 3200.
The P310’s lens is quite good and serves the 16 megapixel sensor well. Extreme corners at the wide end never really sharpen up, but center performance is exemplary throughout the range. Intense blue chromatic aberrations can crop up around high-contrast edges, but on the whole they are well controlled and non-intrusive.
Unlike the very good image quality, video quality is heavily reliant upon the slow autofocus. It’s possible to slowly zoom in and out during video, but the autofocus has trouble keeping up and sometimes loses focus entirely for many seconds. The other very obvious issue is that the camera doesn’t smoothly adjust to changing brightness but instead obviously “steps” from one exposure value to the next. It’s very distracting and, frankly, makes it hard to recommend this camera for anyone interested in video.
Looking back over our test images and the above review, it’s hard to know what to feel about the Nikon P310. The size and manual controls make it an enthusiast’s compact, but both image quality and price relegate it to an odd no-mans land between advanced and point and shoot. Those looking for great image quality probably won’t have any qualms about dropping another $70 for the similarly-sized Canon S100, and those who just want a decent compact camera won’t appreciate the P310’s sizable build. The camera really does have some intuitive controls, but the missing control wheel around the lens barrel is an obvious oversight and focus speed as well as playback mode can leave users frustrated. In summary, if you’re looking for manual controls and a relatively fast lens in an affordable compact, the P310 is a good option. If you can spend a little more money, however, there are much more capable cameras on the market that do a much better job.
As an advanced compact, if that's how we're to treat the P310, most of the competition comes in at a much higher price point. Sony's RX100, for example, is definitely the model to beat but at over two times the price isn't really competition. Canon's S100 is the model closest in price, features, and form factor to the P310 and bests it in just about every category. The Olympus XZ-1 is also worth a look for its moderate price and exceptionally fast f1.8-2.5 lens. The Panasonic LX5 can also be had for a bargain now that the LX7 has been announced, although you do sacrifice some zoom range.