Nikon Coolpix P510

Nikon’s been a little late to the party with its line of superzoom cameras over the last couple of years. But its latest, the Coolpix P510, crams in a huge 24-1000mm (equivalent) lens - making it the longest zoom compact on the market. That’ll be enough to grab our attention, then. But is it all talk, or can the P510 truly keep up to speed with other superzooms in this bustling market area?

Mega-zoom

There’s no ignoring it: the P510’s 42x optical zoom is huge, though not so in the physical sense of the word. Despite the massive 24-1000mm zoom range this Coolpix is quite compact, at least smaller than all its main rivals.

The zoom can be controlled via two different zoom toggles. There’s one surrounding the shutter button on the top of the camera, and another to the side of the lens itself.

With such huge focal lengths at your fingertips it’s great to see Nikon has added lens-based vibration-reduction technology to the P510’s repertoire. This counteracts handshake by moving lens elements by microscopic amounts to produce not only a steadier preview, but also a sharper final image. The previous P500 model lacked such advanced image stabilisation, instead it depended on sensor-based and high ISO stabilisation that left it in the shade compared to the competition.

However, as with all superzoom cameras, there are limitations to what can be shot with success. The 24-1000mm range sounds impressive, but with a maximum aperture of f/3-5.9 – that’s what controls the amount of light able to enter the camera, ie, at 24mm the maximum aperture is f/3, while at 1000mm the maximum is a lesser f/5.9 – the longest focal length is going to need a whole lot of light to be of genuine use.

As a rule of thumb the shutter speed should at least match the focal length. The P510 doesn’t make that easy to achieve, even on an overcast day with the camera set at ISO 3200 the camera offered a shutter speed of around 1/500th - less than ideal and at an ISO setting too high for a decent quality image. In short, 1000mm may sound like a dream, but it’s a tainted one.

Key features

The sizable zoom isn’t the only thing on the P510’s features list. As well as a 3-inch, 921k-dot LCD screen, mounted on a tilt-angle bracket the camera also includes a 0.2in, 201k-dot electronic viewfinder.

However, the viewfinder is the same grade as that found in the previous P500 model. On the one hand it’s great to help add further stability when framing, or when sunlight is too bright to use the rear screen, but on the other hand the small size and so-so resolution aren’t too pleasing. The Fujifilm HS30EXR’s larger, finder walks all over this Nikon offering.

A main mode dial includes point-and-shoot auto, popular scene modes, effects for immediate in-camera adjustments, plus the full array of manual controls.

Not only can the P510 capture stills but 1080p30 HD movies can also be recorded. The rear d-pad controls AF activation and exposure lock, though the camera otherwise controls exposure and autofocus. Focus during zoom can become blurry as the camera seems to battle against itself to update the focus point in real time, but this isn’t unusual for compact cameras – at least the zoom can be used to its full potential while recording.

GPS – or Global Positioning Satellite technology – is also wrapped up within the design. When activated shots are tagged with location data that can come in handy when cataloguing or uploading your images to some websites or social media platforms. However, GPS is a known battery-drain, so use it with caution.

A true performer?

The P510’s autofocus system is, as per so many superzooms, good at wide-angle settings but less speedy and accurate at the longer focal lengths. This does, in part, depend on the content of the scene because of the way that contrast-detect autofocus works, but it’s not uncommon for over and under focus to occur before getting a full and final grasp of the shot. Dim conditions can be problematic, but that’s where an AF-illuminator lamp comes in handy.

No fewer than six focus types are available: face priority to target face, “subject tracking” locks on to a subject from the centre of the screen and updates focus as they move throughout the frame and “target finder” where the subject is found and revealed by a green box surround, including the specific area of focus within the main outline. It’s thorough, but the speed limitations to the full time autofocus mode mean that fast-moving subjects will be out of reach for the “tracking” mode.

The P510 performs much like a compact camera loaded with a massive zoom, so if you don’t anticipate a DSLR-rivaling device then it’s bang on the money. Speaking of which is the price tag. At £330, it’s less than many of its competitors - none too shabby considering the overall feature set.

Image Quality

The P510’s new 16-megapixel, 1/2.3in-size, back-lit CMOS sensor is an upgrade over the previous P500’s 12.1-megapixel sensor. But where extra megapixels are crammed onto the same sensor surface it doesn’t necessarily mean better quality.

The camera can shoot from ISO 100-3200, and there’s a "Hi1" (ISO 6400 equivalent) setting also available. Select "auto (ISO)" and the P510 automatically caps the top ISO setting to 800 in order to preserve better, more detailed images. But even at ISO 800 shots reveal plenty of signs of noise reduction processing that ultimately make it hard to get a defined, crisp-looking shot.

Drop down to ISO 100 - though this is less likely to be of use at the longer focal lengths on account of the other settings required for exposure – and, again, shots don’t have that crisp "bite" that we’d like to see in fine detail areas. The highest ISO settings - which need to be individually selected from ISO 1600 and above - show considerably more image noise and breakdown of quality, hence their absence from the "auto (ISO)" option.

But that’s not to say shots are bad. As per the Fujifilm HS30EXR it’s more a case of having realistic expectations: a superzoom just isn’t going to replace a larger-sensor camera, such as a DSLR. The P510 will rival other compacts with similar (if not the same) sensor, and that’s how it should be considered, albeit with far more reach available from that sizeable zoom.

One other thing is, the Auto White Balance system can throw up inconsistent results. Although not a huge issue, some test shots were marred with slight blue or magenta casts or just looked a little washed out.

Verdict

Nikon has upped its game when it comes to its superzoom range. Not only does the P510 have the longest focal length to be found in a compact camera, it’s also small in body when compared to the competition.

It’s a capable performer, and the vibration-reduction technology makes it far more capable than its P500 predecessor. However the supposed star of the show, yep that whopping-great lens, does have its downsides - shooting at a 1000mm equivalent is no walk in the park and the drawbacks of both the camera’s so-so image quality and the f/3-5.9 maximum aperture range will limit the results that can be obtained. DSLR this isn’t.

We’d like to see a lower-resolution, higher performing sensor, improved viewfinder and longer-lasting battery in the next release. When that happens the P500-series will be up there with the best of them. For now the P510 model represents a good all-rounder that’s affordable and packed out with features that challenge the competition. Oh, and it’s available in an optional smart-looking red colour, if that’s your kinda thang.