Nikon Coolpix P310 review

4 out of 5
£235

For

Decent AF with lots of options including user-defined point, detailed images, close-up macro mode, lots of movie capture control

Against

No raw capture, standard compact sensor size, image quality behind the larger-sensor competition

The Nikon Coolpix P310 is the company’s latest take on its high-end compact camera. Like the P300 that came before it, the P310’s biggest sell is its 24-100mm f/1.8-4.9 lens.

But unlike the burgeoning competition the P310 doesn’t have a larger-than-average sensor size. Given that’s often what makes these “advanced” compacts capable of producing the very best in image quality, has Nikon missed an all-important trick here?

Pocketable design

The P310 – which is now available in either a black or a white finish - is comprised of a small body with plenty of modes and dials for full control. It’s a pocketable design yet looks and feels sturdy in the hand. The understated look means there aren't chunky, protruding grips, yet it's still comfortable to hold as the camera is so light. The small "strip grip" on the front of the camera is sufficient for a sturdy hold of this particular model.

The main mode dial on top of the camera, a rear thumbwheel and d-pad-cum-rotational-dial on the rear shout out that this is a camera for those after greater levels of control. As well as the usual manual shooting modes there are also scene options and an auto mode for point-and-shoot simplicity.

Why the standard sensor?

To give the P310 a little context: the likes of the Canon S100, Panasonic LX5 and Olympus X-Z1 have been available for some time now. And each features a 1/1.7-inch sensor that’s a fair whack larger than the 1/2.33-inch one found in most standard compacts, including the Nikon P310.

So why does this matter? If each sensor was the same resolution then each "pixel" on the larger sensor’s surface would also be larger. That would mean more light could enter for a cleaner signal and, therefore, better image quality compared to the smaller equivalent. To some extent larger sensors also make achieving that “blurred background” effect - known as shallow depth of field - easier, though at the smaller scale it may not always make a huge difference.

As the P310 doesn’t differentiate itself from most standard compacts it feels somewhat isolated by comparison to its competitors. But also the increase in megapixels from the P300's 12.1-million to the P310's 16.1-million seems unnecessary, particularly for high-end users where quality is of paramount concern.

But the proof, so they say, is in the pudding. So just how good are the P310’s 16.1-megapixel images?

"Good enough" is the best we can muster. There’s a lot of detail in the ISO 100-400 images that’s particularly notable in close-up macro shots. ISO 800 starts to show signs of processing artifacts but is still perfectly usable. Hit ISO 1600 and things go downhill, increasingly so up to ISO 6400.

These three top sensitivities also can’t be used in conjunction with the dynamic range optimiser setting as it would only further enhance the image noise throughout the images. This in itself shows one of the limitations of a standard sensor size. And that's the thing: the camera performs well given its sensor, but it's hard not to put it up against the likes of the Canon S100.

But other factors control how the P310's images look. The f/1.8 aperture at the widest-angle 24mm (equivalent) focal length makes it easy to achieve blurred background shots, or to capture subjects in dimmer conditions with greater ease. A small AF-illuminator lamp can also help out when it’s extra dim.

The 4.2x optical zoom extends up to a 100mm equivalent and handles distortion well throughout the full range. It’s in this area that the P310 matches up to the likes of the Canon S100, if sensor sizes are hypothetically ignored.

On the downside there is some slight colour fringing to be seen, but otherwise the pairing of Nikon’s optic and sensor does a decent job.

Performance

In use the P310 takes on a far more positive stance. The autofocus system is fast and offers all manner of options: face priority; auto area; manual for user-defined positioning (99-areas); centre; subject tracking with face priority; and a new manual focus option.

The manual focus works by using the rear rotational d-pad but only shows the focal distance as a green and white bar to the right hand side of the screen - it doesn’t provide an actual focal distance that would have been particularly useful.

Macro is one of the P310’s more impressive areas too: able to focus just 2cms from the lens at its widest angle setting means it’s easy to get pronounced closeups and the bright f/1.8 aperture helps add to the style.

Burst mode can whirl out shots at up to seven frames per second (7fps) or comes in handy for exposure bracketing – though the shot-to-shot time for the latter is far slower. Autofocus has to be disregarded when firing off a burst of shots as the camera relies on the initial acquired focus only – this is standard procedure for almost all cameras, particularly compacts, but does mean shooting subjects moving towards or away from the lens is difficult and inaccurate.

There are other higher-spec options tucked in the menus: noise reduction can be controlled from low through to normal or high, while a zoom memory will start the camera at a predefined focal length for quick off the mark shooting. There’s also a "step zoom" type feature where it’s possible the jump between the better known, or classic, focal lengths such as 24mm, 28mm, 35mm, 50mm and so on.

On the rear of the camera there’s also a one-touch movie button that jumps into 1080p capture after a brief screen blackout. It’s possible to use a fixed focal point or adjust focus using the d-pad while recording. For some pro-looking focus pulls it’s even possible to use the manual focus option, though pin-point accuracy can be tricky to achieve here. Auto exposure can be left on or, via a right d-pad press, can be locked for specific exposure. Plenty of control to be found here.

Verdict

We weren’t really sure we’d like the P310 that much: it’s a tad confused in this market space as it doesn’t challenge the larger-sensor advanced compacts of its competitors.

But taken in isolation and given its reasonable price bracket the P310 is one cool, quirky (in a good way) little camera. The more we used it the more we liked it.

Of course it’s far from perfect: we’d like to see a quick menu system for easy access to settings; a brighter aperture at the top end of the zoom would be desirable, even if it meant a slightly larger body; and, as mentioned, the likes of the larger-sensor (yet pricier) Canon G1 X, Canon S100 and Olympus X-Z1 do put this Nikon in the shade on the image quality front.

That said the P310 produces decent, detailed images, the close-up macro mode works a treat, movie mode has lots of control, and it’s a small and therefore an easy-to-pocket compact camera.

We’d reach for a larger-sensor compact over this Nikon, but if price is as much a drive as image quality in your hunt for an advanced compact then the P310 certainly has value in its favour.