Nikon COOLPIX P510:
Hands On Review
The P510 is the first camera to break the 40x zoom barrier, heralding a new age of ridiculously versatile zooms in handheld packages. Has Nikon sacrificed image quality to win the numbers game?
By Chris Weigl
- P510 Big Picture
This product is ranked:
3rd of 24 in Extended Zoom Digital Cameras 2nd of 25 in $300 - $400 5th of 43 in Nikon Digital Cameras 3rd of 106 in 14-16 Megapixels Digital Cameras
Last updated on 01/18/2013
The Nikon P510 is the follow-up to 2011’s P500, a well-reviewed camera that pushed the limits of zoom range in a compact. That camera’s 36x optical zoom, however, pales in comparison to the P510’s monstrous 42x range, a number that handily eclipses the offerings from every other major manufacturer in the market. While that incredible lens is certainly the selling point here, the P510 offers a wealth of other features that keep it competitive too, such as a 16 megapixel backlit CMOS sensor, GPS tracker, an electronic viewfinder as well as tilting LCD, and a handy zoom lever on the lens barrel. With such an impressive feature set, will the P510’s image quality hold up to the rigorous demands of such a long zoom range? We put Nikon’s latest all in one to the test.
Body and Design
Initial impressions of the P510 are quite good. The camera doesn’t look all that impressive, partly due to the obvious use of plastic throughout, yet it’s solid enough. The plastic does give a little bit under pressure but this isn’t likely to ever cause a problem. While the all-plastic construction could have been a disaster, Nikon has followed it up with a very comfortable rubber grip that, when actually handling the camera, help a lot with perceived quality.
The camera is quite obviously built around that 42x lens, whose barrel protrudes out just over an inchfrom the front of the pop-up flash. At f3-5.9, the lens is actually slower than some of the less-ambitious competition, but those who really need that extra telephoto will probably appreciate the sacrifice. The grip is surprisingly deep relative to the size of the camera and instills confidence when using one hand to operate the camera. One-handed operation isn’t as balanced as we would hope, however, and you’ll find it easiest to use two for long periods of time (as well as stabilizing the camera at full telephoto). Nikon has even handily included a second zoom lever on the side of the lens to use with your left hand. The HDMI output and USB port are both housed on the side of the grip.
As for the top of the camera, the GPS is stationed above the lens and behind the pop-up flash, which sits between the left and right microphones. To the right of the flash, which has a release button on the left side, is the highly-textured mode dial, which includes the ASMP manual modes as well as Auto, Scene, a customizable User mode, Effects, Night Landscape, Landscape and Backlighting. The On/Off button sits next to the dial and behind a customizable Function button. The shutter button rests at the very tip of the grip, surrounded by an easily reached zoom toggle.
The 3-inch, 921,000 dot LCD dominates the back of the camera and protrudes out about a quarter inch from the rest of the camera. Rather than relying on a hinge to tilt the LCD, Nikon has mounted it on a metal arm. The LCD therefore tilts out quite a bit and can be seen from both above and below while remaining in line with the lens, but can’t be flipped forward to shoot self-portraits. Above this screen is the Monitor button, which is used to switch between the LCD and the electronic viewfinder (EVF), which protrudes out farther from the back of the camera than even the LCD. The EVF has a diopter adjustment, too, for those who have trouble using glasses while shooting. To the right of the EVF lie the Display button, then a Record button, and finally a back control wheel for your thumb.
The rest of the buttons on the back are fairly straightforward. There’s a small LED showing when the flash is recharged, a rubber thumb grip, and the Playback button. Beneath these lies the 4-way controller, which also functions as a rotating selector, with OK button in the center. The Menu and Trash button sit near the bottom of the camera, which is where the card and battery are inserted. Also note that the metal tripod mount is off-center.
User Experience and Performance
The P510 is both a compelling ultra-zoom camera for amateurs using automatic and a feature-rich portable alternative for DSLR gear-heads who demand a certain degree of control. Photographic controls in the priority modes are easily changed with the back control wheel, while the Function button can be customized to change one of seven photographic settings including Image Size, White Balance, Metering, and ISO. When using the electronic viewfinder, the overall experience is surprisingly close to a DSLR’s and usually doesn’t devolve into a menu dive. The viewfinder isn’t very clear, however, making an exposure or focus judgment in Playback mode next to impossible without switching to the back LCD.
The customization options don’t end with that single Function button, either. The User mode can be set however you’d like and the settings stick, so you can prime it for a specific setting or use it as your go-to mode. Nikon has also included the ability to set your Auto ISO range as well as minimum shutter speed, a nice touch that should avoid a lot of frustration in automatic modes. That shutter speed doesn’t change based on focal length however, so beware shooting at 1/15 of a second at 1000mm. Another nice touch is Nikon’s decision to place the HDR mode (which has three strengths) within the Backlighting setting on the mode dial. Because selections are sticky, you can have that mode default to HDR rather than fill flash, resulting in direct access to better image quality in high-contrast scenes (See normal vs. HDR 2 below). It’s these nice touches that make a camera a joy to use, and the P510 is as customizable as we could have hoped.
While speed is never a real issue for the P510, there is some room for improvement here. The camera starts up and shuts down with alacrity, but the noisy zoom motor is slow for such a long zoom range. Similarly, scrolling from image to image in Playback mode is quick, but trying to zoom in to judge sharpness results in a couple-second lag while the camera thinks. Autofocus is actually quite good throughout the zoom range, although it does get some false positives or just give up entirely when the lighting gets low. These issues occur more often, as you’d expect, at the long end of the zoom but were not prevalent enough to be a real nuisance.
Finally, the 7 fps burst mode, as well as the 60 or even 120 fps reduced-resolution options, is great in practice, but the LCD and viewfinder completely black out while the camera is taking photos. While most cameras will show the last photo taken to give some idea of tracking, the blackout makes shooting sports complete guesswork. To make matters worse, the buffer gives out after only about a second of shooting followed by a long period of file writing. It really isn’t a camera for sports, so those who need rapid and accurate burst should look elsewhere.
In short, the P510’s image quality is stellar. Files straight out of the camera are naturally saturated without appearing overcooked, although they can lack contrast. While this can be an annoyance to those who like to shoot and forget, it’s usually better that companies err on the side of less contrast to preserve dynamic range; a simple boost to the blacks in post was enough to remedy the problem.In good light, the files boast detail in even the finest of textures (think grass) without any of the smearing we’ve seen in many recent models. Low-light performance on the P510 is surprisingly good too, besting our recent results from the Panasonic TS20 and matching the Fujifilm F770’s (and therefore the HS30’s) very good SN mode. Colors are quite accurate straight through ISO 3200, and grain at ISO 1600 is noticeable but not especially intrusive.
The lens displays some chromatic aberration at the corners but is surprisingly sharp throughout the range. Yes, pictures taken at 1000mm display some obvious blurring, but they’re better than we had expected for such a zoom range and definitely better than the travel zoom cameras. We did notice some odd flare around bright objects in the frame. When shooting the moon, for example, some photos were rendered useless by intense red flare surrounding the subject.This was an isolated incident, however, and overall image quality stands among the best in the business.
Video quality is also very good, and the autofocus had little trouble adjusting while zooming. The zoom motor is slowed down quite a bit while filming, which helps prevent distracting noise. It’s still audible but much less intrusive.
It’s clear that Nikon has truly improved upon the P500, fashioning an incredibly long 42x extended zoom camera that does it all quite well. The build quality and handling are without complaint, the autofocus works quite well from 24mm all the way out to 1000mm, and images are surprisingly noise-free even at ISO 1600. Put simply, the P510 offers unparalleled versatility in a form that refuses to sacrifice function. Sports shooters will want to look elsewhere, but birders and travel photographers looking for every extra millimeter they can get will love this camera.
The competition in this segment is merciless and there are a number of alternatives to check out before jumping. Sony’s HX200v is the newest of the bunch and, with its 18 megapixel sensor and fast EXMOR processor, has very good image quality but a zoom that starts at 27mm. The Canon SX40 also deserves a look but wont match the zoom range nor resolution of the P510. Panasonic’s FZ150, while getting a little old in the tooth and an uncompetitive 24x range, still offers competitive image quality as well as RAW capture. Finally, the Fujifilm HS30EXR blends a manual zoom with fantastic image quality but questionable usability.
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