Nikon Coolpix P510 Review
Performance - How well does it take pictures?
The P510 is fitted with an unprecedented 42X optical zoom lens. To achieve the equivalent 24-1000mm focal-range from an actual 4.3-180mm lens, Nikon uses a tiny BSI-CMOS sensor and squeezed a whopping 16 megapixels into it, making it one of the most pixel-dense sensors on any digital camera. This is similar to the sensor used by all modern ultra-zooms save for the Fuji X-S1 reviewed here
The lens used on this digital camera obviously gives it tremendous versatility but is where compromises are required. In addition to the small sensor, the P150 has a relatively dim maximum aperture of F/3 at wide-angle which drops down to F/5.9 at the telephoto end. This requires higher ISO sensitivities to compensate for the lack of light and faster shutter-speed to compensate for the long focal-length, giving the P510 a hard time in low-light.
The high-speed CMOS sensor used here has a base sensitivity of ISO 100 and reaches 3200 in standard mode. There is an expanded ISO 6400 setting which is available at full resolution plus a special completely automatic effect mode which exposes at ISO 12800 in Black&White only.
At ISO 100, the P510 delivers its best performance, which depending on light-levels, runs from clean to slightly noisy. Still, regardless of conditions, the 16 megapixels output produced at ISO 100 is usable for most common print sizes.
There is a clear jump in noise at ISO 200 which remains usable for medium prints even in moderate light levels. ISO 400 struggles and eats up some fine details but remains usable for medium sized prints. At ISO 800, noticeable softness begins and shows a strong degradation when viewed at 100% but prints look good up to 12" x 9". ISO 1600 and 3200 are just usable for medium prints, while ISO 6400 can still pull off a small 4" x 6" print. Overall this is actually a good but not class-leading performance for this type of digital camera.
Color rendition of the Coolpix P510 is set by what Nikon calls Picture Control. There are 3 color ones: Standard, Neutral and Vivid, plus on B&W one aptly named Monochrome. The color modes have adjustable Sharpening, Contrast and Saturation in 7 steps each. Instead of Saturation, Monochrome can filter for Yellow, Orange, Red or Green plus be tinted Cyan or Sepia in 7 levels.
None of the default Picture Control modes produce pleasing results, so it is important to configure the camera before using it. Neutral colors are close to realistic but contrast is anemic. Standard mode has much better contrast but colors are too saturated. Vivid produces completely over-the-top colors. The best results where achieved in Neutral mode with +1 contrast and +1 saturation. A Sharpness setting of 3 provides the sharpest artifact-free output.
Digital cameras require correct white-balance in order to render colors as humans see them and the Coolpix P510 has a large number of options to control this. There are two automatic modes, one which manages pretty well under most conditions and one which attempts to preserve the warm color-cast of tungsten lighting. In real world tests, both these settings work well within the expectations they set. For tough situations, the Custom WB setting does a decent job but does not produce perfect whites.
The Matrix metering of this digital camera is generally good. For scenes within the dynamic-range of the Coolpix P510, it exposes less than ideal but does not lose details anywhere. Unfortunately, the small imaging sensor has a rather limited dynamic-range which makes most scenes exceed what the camera can capture. In such cases, there are more cases of over-exposure than under-exposure, usually missing the mark by 1/3 or 2/3 EV, particularly when highlights are away from the center of the frame. Still, it selects a good exposure most times.
The Nikkor 42X ED VR lens used on the Nikon Coolpix P510 is its most impressive achievement. Even at 1000mm, the lens extends less than 6cm (2.4") from the lens barrel which itself measures about the same. The lens is sharp with excellent consistency across the frame. The extreme corners are barely softer than the center. Towards the telephoto end, there is a slight but noticeable drop in sharpness which has a minimal effect on image quality at typical print sizes.
Given the astronomical focal-lengths reached by the 42X optical zoom and the shutter-speeds required to keep images sharp, the image stabilization system, called VR for Vibration Reduction by Nikon, is one of the most critical features of the P510. This stabilization system consistently delivered an exceptional perfromance and, along with the lens, quickly became the star of this digital camera.
The Nikkor lens exhibits virtually no distortion at any focal-length. This is quite surprising and may be the result of in-camera distortion correction but - needless to say - the output is truly impressive. Chromatic aberrations are also very rare and may also be automatically corrected. Those are harder to completely detect, so a few remain sometimes, usually at the edge of light sources.
The performance of the Coolpix P510 which is based on a high-speed CMOS sensor is somewhat mixed. While certain functions are highly responsive, there are plenty of moments when the photographer must wait for the camera.
There are high-speed shooting mode up to 120 FPS at reduced resolutions and up to 7 FPS at full resolution. These are useful for capturing fleeting moments for relatively stationary subjects since the viewfinder and LCD shut of completely during a burst. More useful is the Pre-Shooting-Cache drive which captures 3 MP images continuously while the shutter is pressed halfway. Upon release of the shutter, the last 20 images in the buffer are saved. Here the viewfinder or LCD shows a slightly delayed preview.
When the camera is not busy doing something else, buttons and dials get an instant response. The menu is responsive and quick to navigate, as are options offered by the cardinal points of the 4-way controller. Setting exposure parameters is speedy in all modes.
The following performance numbers characterize the performance of this camera:
- Startup: Under 1½ seconds. Very good for its class.
- Shutdown: Between 1 and 4 seconds, depending on the lens position. Average to slow.
- Zoom: 3½ seconds for the entire 42X zoom range using the zoom-controller around the shutter-release. 6s with the other zoom-controller.
- Autofocus: Just over ½s in good light, typically around 1½s in dim lighting but up to 4s at the telephoto end in low-light. Good to glacially slow.
- Shutter-Lag: Just over ¼ second. Slightly below average for a modern digital camera.
- Shot-to-Shot: 2 seconds. Mostly average.
Other than Startup and Zoom, the P510 turns in an average performance. Autofocus is quite decent near the wide-end of the lens but can become exceedingly slow. There is just enough shutter-lag to be annoying but shot-to-shot speeds are not bad. Still, after missing a shot, it takes at least 2s to take another one, so this camera is certainly not designed for action photography.
Video performance is mixed as well, in part because this Nikon lacks a dedicated video mode. It takes a whole 2 seconds to start recording video once the button is pressed. While this happens the screen goes blank. This makes it easy to miss action and hard to keep a good framing while waiting for the camera to record. Stopping works out better, as the camera does it instantly when the video button is pressed.
The quality of video itself is quite good. Details are sharp, motion is fluid and compression artifacts are small. Two things are slightly unsetting. One is that the field-of-view is greatly reduced when recording video. The other is that the built-in stereo microphone is way to sensitivite and easily picks up wind noise. There is no external audio input on the P510 but a separate recording can always be made and synchronized during editing.
The Nikon Coolpix P510 uses a small proprietary Lithium-Ion battery which supplies 240 shots per charge according the CIPA standard. This it is considerably below average. The battery charges in-camera via a supplied USB power converter or, optionally, by a computer USB-port.
The Nikon Coolpix P510 packs the most powerful optical zoom to date in a refined prosumer ultra-zoom camera. As the flagship of Nikon's P-series, the P510 provides a versatile feature set with a straight-forward interface. Its dual control-dials, dual zoom-controllers and function button provide more usability than typical ultra-zooms.
Optically, the Coolpix P510 does an amazing job at keeping sharpness consistent with virtually no distortion and only a hint of chromatic aberrations. The astronomic zoom reached by this camera is extremely well matched by one of the most efficient optical stabilization system ever tested here.
The 16 megapixels BSI-CMOS sensor used in this digital camera is impressive for its size, delivering nice medium-sized prints up to ISO 800 and even usable ones up to ISO 3200. Noise-levels and fine-details cannot stand pixel-level scrutiny but very few people actually need the full 16 megapixels implied by such close inspection.
Where the P510 lags is in terms of speed, particularly when compared with other CMOS-based cameras. While it turns in some good numbers which include autofocus in good light, it falters as light-levels go down and the camera often becomes unresponsive while writing to the SDHC card. Continuous drive modes suffer from the lack of preview or low-resolution too, so this camera is far from ideal for action photography.
This Nikon can capture full 1080p HD video with stereo sound and it does so with good quality. The microphone is very sensitive which works well indoors but is highly susceptible to wind. There is an accurate framing guide as well which leaves the only video issue to be a 2 seconds delay to start recording.
In the end, the Nikon Coolpix P510 provides to be a versatile camera suitable for typical travel photos when light is good. Its incredible reach will clearly please wildlife lovers and amateur bird photographers. It also leaves a good number of creative controls within easy reach to encourage experimenting and makes it easy to capture a wide-variety of images.
Nikon P510 Highlights
Sensor-Size: 6 x 5mm
Actual size when viewed at 100 DPI
|16 Megapixels Ultra Zoom||ISO 100-6400|
|41.7X Ultra-Wide Optical Zoom||Shutter 1/4000-4s|
|Built-in Stabilization||Full manual controls|
|0.20" Built-in EVF 200K Pixels||Custom white-balance|
|7 FPS Drive, 5 Images||Lithium-Ion Battery|
|1920x1080 @ 30 FPS Video Recording||Secure Digital Extended Capacity|
|3" LCD 920K Pixels||Internal Memory|
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