NIKON COOLPIX P510 ~ Hands-on ReviewWhat it’s all about Is it a good buy?
When I said I retuned to Nikonland by buying a D5100 DSLR, I forgot to mention that the first Nikon camera I bought (after the quarter century drought) was a Coolpix P500. The glossy brochure made me drool. It seems the camera had a 4mm to 144mm zoom (that’s 22.5mm to 810mm in full frame terms — an enormous range going from extreme wide-angle to super telephoto). Sensibly, the 1/2.3 inch backlit CMOS sensor was a 12MP one with a 3000 x 4000 pixel image frame. This meant that noise would probably be minimized.It had a very SLR-like appearance, what with a mode dial displaying the familiar PSAM modes, AUTO, EFFECTS and SCENE modes; panorama shooting; shutter speeds from 1/1600th seconds to 8 seconds; full HD movies at varying frame rates and resolutions, a range of normal, fast and high-speed still shooting options up to 120 frames per second, Best Shot Selector (BSS) – all available at a touch of a dedicated shooting mode button on the top deck, just below the shutter release.There was a built-in flash; the Lithium Ion battery was supposedly good for about 230 shots; a movie button circled by a two-position rotary switch that gave one a choice between 120 fps Hi-speed (sans sound) and normal filming; there was in-camera pre- and post-capture retouching with a variety of effects such a selective colour and toy camera, backed up by a host of menu items that offered a mouth watering degree of control over the camera’s operations about parallel to what a DSLR offers. No one could blame me for forking out the full MRP (a little over 23 grand) for what promised to be my passport to photographic nirvana. So was the P500 my appointment letter to Magnum Photos? Did I receive a standing ovation at the Royal Photographic Society’s Annual General Meeting? Did National Geographic bombard me with emails till I joined their team? Were my prints avidly sought by New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art? I’m badgering you with these loaded questions because I feel you have a sense of humour. Because – to paraphrase Queen Victoria’s famous uttering – “ We were not amused.” In short, I’d been suckered. The P500 proved to be a major letdown.The trouble lay with me; I was coming from 35 years back. The company that had made me do the happy dance over its F2AS Photomic, the redoubtable Nikkormat FT2 and FT3, the fabulous Nikon EL2 and the exquisite Nikon FE, no longer existed. It was then called Nippon Kogaku K.K., and its famous logo occupied a place of honour among my pantheon of gods. It reveled in its proud boast (of,
and in, its unforgettable tagline): “We take the World’s Greatest Pictures.” Every time I stepped out of the house, my Nikon in my bag, I felt as if I was walking on air.
The P500 deflated me. It was made by a company that now called itself Nikon Corporation (a name that smacked more of corporate profits than razor sharp optics). Its new tagline was diffident, almost pleading: “At the Heart of the Image”, it bleated vapidly. Its brand ambassador was a glossy film star who smiled toothily and held up colourful little rectangles of glass and
plastic that were the Coolpix range of consumer compacts. No Raghu Rai, no Steve McCurry, no S. Paul – icons to all Nikon lovers – masters of their craft. I’d been betrayed by my loyalty to the brand.So was I saying that the P500 was a total bow-wow? Well, not exactly. It took pictures. But for one coming from legendary Nikon lenses like the 55mm f.3.5 micro-Nikkor, the 105mm F.2.5 tele-Nikkor and the 80-200mm F.4.5 zoom-Nikkor, the P500’s results left an aftertaste like shark-liver oil in the mouth. It couldn’t have been the optics. The company that once supplied lenses to even its greatest rival, Canon, had to be really negligent to make a bad lens (that is a possibility today, I admit – see the mediocre performance of the 85mm F.3.5 micro-Nikkor). We all know that today, camera manufacturers like Nikon are in a tearing hurry to rush new models from design and production to retail counters, and who can blame them: there’s fierce competition from rivals, baying like hounds at the heels of an aging, tiring stag. Corporate profits are sliding as consumers replace pocket compacts with iPhones, APS-C DSLRs with full frame models. Then there are intermediate cameras such as the mirrorless micro four-thirds cameras, all bringing out superbly capable instruments like the Olympus OMD EM5 that can produce results closely akin to those from a DSLR (and often surpassing them in performance), with Olympus and Panasonic (the latter with its clutch of Leica lenses) leading the pack. Electronics giants like Panasonic, Samsung, Ricoh, Casio and Sony have widened their net by venturing into cameras, leveraging their expertise in electronics and often tying up with legendary German optical firms like E. Leitz and Carl Zeiss, digging freely into their vast financial reserves to bridge the technological gap: a feat that would have been unthinkable as recently as a decade ago.
The P500 precipitated my loss of photographic innocence. No longer could one rely on a brand name alone. For the first time in 35 years, Nikon had sold me a lemon. Its not that the P500 did not deliver at all. It took pictures. But they were of the ho-hum variety, lacking the characteristic bite of Nikon glass. No buyer in his right mind would shell out a thick wad of greenbacks for Nikon’s top-of-the-line bridge camera without expecting near-DLSR picture quality. But in almost all the key functional parameters, the otherwise handsome P500 was a huge disappointment. It was promptly banished to the depths of my daughter’s cupboard, there to spend the rest of its days in solitary confinement.
So why am I shooting the breeze about the P500, when I’m supposed to be reviewing its successor ? Because had the P500 not happened, the P510 may never have seen the light of day. Gargantuan, phlegmatic, ponderous it may be, but a corporate entity as large as Nikon has a sort of life of its own. I’m sure that the debacle of the P500 galvanised Nikon into action. Stung to the quick by scathingly critical reviews, nettled by knowing smirks from rival manufacturers, its hard won reputation cut to ribbons on reader’s forums, its profitability dented by falling sales and piles of unsold stock, slow-footed Nikon at last swung into action. Seeing that it is a Japanese company, and having had Far Eastern History as a subject in my M.A., I knew well that it was a hara-kiri situation. Lots of corporate heads must have rolled at Nikon Corporation.
Cricket umpiring believes in the notion that the benefit of doubt must go to the batsman. I decided to give Nikon another chance. This time, I’d learned to bargain: the P510 set me back 22 grand as against its then MRP of over 24K. The moment I picked it up, it felt right in my hands. I selected the new grey coloured version, reckoning it would be even less
conspicuous than the black one (I was right). After inserting the battery, I strode out of the shop, shooting as I went. I’d shot 86 frames by the time I reached home.
The Nikon Coolpix P510 is a bridge camera — a camera that acts as a transition vehicle from a simple compact point-and-shoot, to a full-fledged DSLR. But it is a superzoom bridge camera. Its 42X zoom meant its 4.3mm wide end went to 180mm at the tele end. That’s 24mm to 1,000mm in full frame terms ! I made full use of it, giving it a real baptism of fire. It was 27th August 2012, and a late afternoon sun gave me enough light to stick to base ISO – 100, in its case. The flip-up and flip-down (82° downward, approx. 90° upward), 3”, 921K LCD screen with its antireflective coating presented no problems in the open air, not that I didn’t use the 201K electronic viewfinder. It was the same one as on the P500, and I was quite happy with it, grateful that at least I had an EVF to back up the LCD, both offering 100% coverage and outshining the 95% of the D3100, D3200 and D5100/5200 DSLRs !
The deeply knurled dioptre adjustment (-4 to +4 m-1) wheel on the left of the flash housing is a luxury I availed myself of as soon as I put camera to eye. As the images marched across the screen, I realised my hunch had been right. This was a P500 on steroids. Anyone who buys a top-of-the-line superzoom doesn’t need any handholding: he’s probably quite familiar with the lay of the land, all the more so if he’s used to dealing with Nikon’s menus, as I was. A Guide Mode would be redundant on the P510. Fortunately, it doesn’t have this feature.Looking at the P510 from the front, one can’t possibly miss the impressive-looking 42X ultra-zoom lens which, despite its vast range, is fairly compact. It comes with a squeeze-fit Nikon lens cap that can be attached to the strap with the supplied tethering cord: I’d advise you to use it, even if it dangles annoyingly while you are shooting. Nikon’s lens caps are notoriously expensive even on the off chance that you can locate a spare. Again, alas, there is no filter thread on the lens. Like many others, I am paranoid about accidentally damaging my lens’s front element, but Nikon refuses to oblige.
The on-off switch on the top deck needs a longish press before it turns green and the camera comes on. The barrel extends even with the cap on, unlike the P500, where the lens cap, which clamped on to the lens barrel, prevented extension and caused a warning to appear on the flip-up, flip-down LCD screen. Do remember to remove the cap before shooting (though a glance at the LCD will warn you of it).
The rest of the top deck is pretty much conventional. Stereo mikes on either side of the flash hump, a GPS homing device built into the rear of the housing (works ineffectively, best avoided), the mode dial with the usual PSAM, EFFECTS, Scene modes etc., Fn button (usually dedicated to ISO, I set mine on shooting frame selection, i.e., single, continuous H, continuous L, 120 fps High. 60 fps Low; pre-shooting cache option, BSS, etc.) and, of course the zoom toggle concentric to the smooth, shiny, silver shutter release button. But wait ! This camera has some nice tricks up its sleeve. We’ll come to those a bit later.The back of the camera has lots of buttons, yet doesn’t give the impression of being cluttered. On the left of the EVF is the button that enables toggling between EVF and LCD; there is no sensor to do that automatically. I’d have preferred it to the GPS; however, with GPS being a selling point, and the P510 being a great travel camera, perhaps its existence is justified…in marketing terms. I keep it switched off, since it drains the battery. At 240 shots per charge, the EN-EL5 doesn’t engender confidence for a whole day in the field, and the battery has to be charged in the camera via the USB
cable and a plug-in adapter, which is why I forked out 2K for a spare, along with the optional MH-61 battery charger. The peace of mind that accompanied these items was well worth the extra investment.
On the right of the housing is the DISP button for access to plain screen, basic data screen and full info screen. The great thing is that you can have grid lines (to aid better composition / avoid tilted horizons) as well as a histogram on the screen as well as the EVF. These are features that many popular DSLRs lack ! I love them ! There’s more such delicious goodies inside, exposure
bracketing, backlit shooting and an intervalometer option being just three.Just below the mode dial is the red-dot movie button, enabling a whole range of recording options from 1920 x 1080 30fps Full HD video, moving down to lighter formats. I am a stills shooter, but I hear the video is pretty good. If you’re thinking of taking videos with it, you’d better get at least an 8 GB SDHC card with a Class 10 rating.To the far right of the shoulder of the camera is the lone command dial, which is used to shift the ‘flexible program’ settings, i.e., auto exposure data expressed in terms of a particular combination of aperture and shutter speed; this combination can be altered by twirling the command dial with the thumb, when a * appears next to the capital P (in Program shooting mode) on the left upper corner of the LCD. Exposure itself remains the same, but the aperture – shutter speed combination can be brought closer to the requirements of the shot you intend taking (if it still doesn’t match your needs, try changing the ISO, too). To switch off the *, turn the mode dial or switch off the camera itself. I normally set the exposure compensation to -0.3, aware that highlights can easily clip in a small sensor camera. The shadow detail can be pulled up in post processing, but clipped highlights are gone forever.
In shutter priority auto, turning the command dial enables shutter speed changes (aperture shift is automatic). In aperture priority auto, the knurled multi-function dial changes the aperture while the shutter speed reciprocates accordingly. At the right hand corner of the LCD screen is a small oval flash ready lamp that glows orange when the flash is fully charged. I wish it was within the EVF frame, so that I could see it even when using the EVF. At the corner is a ramped, rubberised thumb pad, offering good support for the shooting hand. Below that is the playback button, enabling image review even with the camera switched off. On the front of the camera, sited snugly between the luxuriously moulded, cross-hatched rubberised handgrip and the lens housing, is the autofocus illumination lamp-cum-self timer warning light. It casts a bright orange light.On the left side of the P510 (looking at it from the front) is a rubberised flap that conceals the AV out and USB sockets. At the bottom of the grip, is a small cover protecting the jack for the (optional) AC Adapter EH-62A, a direct mains power source. This option implies that the P510 can be safely used for extended periods, also implying that it is more rugged than it appears to be and can tolerate the rise in temperatures that are the inevitable corollary to such lengthy shooting sessions.
There is a lone speaker located just under the strap lug on the right side of the camera. And just below the flash is the flash pop-up button with the lightning bolt symbol, for raising the flash manually (it pops up automatically in AUTO mode, if the camera feels it is needed). The flash itself is quite powerful and red-eye is not a problem, thanks to the TTL ability, with pre-flashes.Now we come to the multi-selector dial. Nikon did here what I’ve been dying for them to do in DSLRs – make this dial truly multi-functional. This one rotates around its axis, to speed up choice of sub-menu items,
and this rotational action can also be used for scrolling though images (apart from the usual left / right presses). At the cardinal points of the compass, you have – reading from left – the self timer control; the flash options control; the exposure compensation control (± 2); and lastly, the one for focus setting control (though only the macro symbol is seen) which includes those for landscape and macro. After a selection has been made, pressing the OK button at the centre confirms it, i.e., locks it in. If only it had an option for ISO…but its far better than the Nikon D5100’s control dial !
Below the multi-selector is the familiar trashcan symbol for deleting images in playback. To the left of that is the all-important menu button, enabling access to the fairly extensive shooting, set up, movie, and replay menus / sub-menus, all indicated within by familiar symbols running down the left margin.Get into a particular menu, and move up or down by rotating the multi-selector scroll wheel, or the up – down – left – right key points. Press right to enter options within each sub-menu, select one and press OK. Anyone who knows how to operate a cellular phone can handle the P510’s menu with ease. There are no arrows, you have to imagine them. Suits me fine ! A little exploration and practice will make it seem even more intuitive.
The first thing you notice is the comprehensive information provided by the LCD. Shooting mode, aperture, shutter speed, movie setting, picture control, Active D-Lighting, ISO (yes, you heard right – ISO !), WB, composing grid, VR, battery charge, histogram, motion detection,
focus area, number of shots remaining – you name it. And incredibly, all this data is also seen in the viewfinder, including momentary as well as intentional image playback ! By the way, the view in the EVF is great ! Who said it was grainy and cramped looking? If I did, I take it back. I could happily work with the 201K EVF all day. Maybe I should
use it more, since it consumes very little battery power, thus prolonging battery life. I wish my DSLRs gave me all this. That incredible zoom can be controlled either by the toggle around the shutter release, or the zoom control on the left side of the lens housing. Be careful not to accidentally nudge this while shooting, with the left hand supporting the camera from underneath. I found the lens zooming out unaccountably, the first time this happened. The control can also be configured (within the menu) for manual focus duties. Since it zooms in and out at a more sedate pace than the one on the handgrip, it ought to be ideal for zooming during movies.
Given a reasonable amount of light, setting the ISO at 100 or 200 is usually enough to ensure sharp shots at medium shutter speeds. The fabulous 24mm wide end is perfect for scenics, panoramas, crowd shots or shop fronts, and with the zoom going all the way to 1000mm, and 2000mm with the 2X digital 2X zoom enabled, I could pull in things I could barely see. I got sharp shots handheld, too.I could avail of the night (handheld) landscape mode to take sharp shots in poor light. The camera takes a flurry of under-exposed shots, then merges them into one perfectly exposed image. Talk about technology. There’s even an HDR mode within Effects that can match or surpass the D5100 – and that’s saying a lot. And would you believe 3D images? Now ‘s the time to buy yourself that 3D / HD TV !Shift into macro mode and the camera will autofocus as close as 1 centimeter from the front element, at the widest zoom setting ! A little bug landed on my bed in what appeared to be an emergency landing. I shot it! It was half the size of a match head ! Unbelievable macro !If you intend using the P510 on a tripod, remember that VR (Nikonese for image stabilization) has to be turned off within the menu, otherwise the P510 will desperately try to stabilize an already stable camera, destabilizing itself in the process! This is true for all Nikon DSLRs as well, so no big deal here. Also, since the battery compartment door is close enough to the tripod mounting socket, you can’t change your battery / card without first dismounting the camera. Though the P510 has no provision for shooting in Raw, the jpegs are superb, and the supplied ViewNX2 software is enough for all basic image enhancement requirements. There is also no scope for remote operation with any kind of device, remote control or cable release. I suppose the 2-second self timer setting will have to suffice. Metering is 224-segment matrix, center-weighted, or spot. There is no hot shoe either, so you can’t use an external flash gun with it unless you have a slaved unit (a Nikon SB 700, Nissin 611 or Yongnuo 565EX will be fine) and fire it with the P510’s built-in flash, using judgment / manual power adjustments on the slaved unit, and flash compensation suitably set on the camera. But look on the bright side: there’s heaps of room for fun and creativity, if you’re willing to step away from the humdrum and the mundane.
Take it from me, this is one well thought out, well designed camera. If some features are missing here and there, you can rest assured that Nikon designers intentionally dropped them in order to keep weight and costs down. I tried taking a tight portrait in poor room lighting, in Program mode. The camera (without informing me) again made a flurry of shots (I froze with my finger pressing down on the release button at the instant I realised what was happening) and, after applying skin softening, handed me a perfect portrait. This one really shook me up. It had dug into its menu and had combined a number of features to give me what I needed – all unbidden. It was uncanny. I was flabbergasted.
This time Nikon has nailed it but good. Terrific optical (lens based) image stabilization makes that giant zoom an easy tool to use. Handheld. The tiny 1/ 2.3 inch, 16.1MP, BSI CMOS sensor combines well with the new Expeed C2 processor. Everything comes together perfectly to produce better results than one could reasonably expect. In one fell swoop, Nikon had won back my trust. Images were sharp, colours were realistic, and everything was tweakable within the menu or via surface controls to give me just the results I was hankering for. I began to feel very protective towards my P510. Writing this review gave me a grand opportunity to bond again with my P510. I regret not having shot with it much, of late. I hate winters. Come spring, I aim to make good that deficiency in full measure. This is a camera that hits all the high notes at a very reasonable price (which is steadily sinking, as always happens a few months after a new model has been launched). I have no hesitation in recommending this camera to anyone—including Robinson Crusoe, if he can somehow manage to recharge the battery and download / process images despite being marooned on a deserted island.
Despite the Canon SX50HS and its 50X zoom, or the spate of matching Fujifilm Finepix superzooms, the P510 has carved out a place for itself in people’s hearts, thanks to its low price, rugged build, large 3” 921K LCD screen (with adjustable brightness), good EVF, 8 - 1/2000 shutter speed, superb VR, ISO 100-6400, 24-1000mm f3.0 ~ 5.9 Nikkor zoom lens, compact dimensions (120
x 83 x 102mm), light weight (555 gms), simplicity of operation, elegant sophistication and, yes, its beauty. If ever there was a camera for all reasons and seasons, the Nikon Coolpix P510 is it.