Nikon P510 User Report- The Camera Compared

So why did I chose the P510? Of course, there is the V1 option, with it’s adapters allowing AF with long Nikon lenses, offering a massive, stabilised 200-800mm with my 70-300 (or so, actually for nitpickers, 189-810mm). I tried it out in a shop and both the usability and detail was surprisingly good. Yet it feels unwieldy, delicate to have that long lens on a small body, like a NEX on steroids. Also, having only recently gotten into m4/3, for now I don’t really want to invest in yet another system, especially one that is in its infancy as far as native lenses go and I’m not so convinced Nikon’s DSLR lenses can all hold up so well to its massive 2.7 crop either. I can see myself getting into that in the future, though, perhaps when their uniquely attractive (in abilities if not so much in the looks department), V2 plummets in price. The V2 fixed a lot of the problems of the V1, despite losing the smooth styling, but is at least twice as expensive as it ought to be considering its small sensor and doesn’t really develop the IQ much from what I’ve seen. If I’m going to make a big purchase, I’d rather invest in DSLR lenses or m4/3, where you can already get such great images. So I went even smaller, sensor-wise.

Memory Lane-1972

I live far from Mt. Fuji, yet on a clear day and on a high point, you can make her out in the distance.

Memory Lane-1970

With the ultrazoom at 1,000mm I can clearly see the crest. Almost unbelievable, considering the distance.

So far, there’s a lot to like. It has incredible software, which can quickly take and process HDR images, or construct panoramas as you pan the camera. The zoom is accompanied by a tremendous VRII system, which works right to the end of the zoom. Even the mode choices are good, choosing the clearest shot automatically, or adapting to the environment well (snow mode much more appropriate than automatic for today’s purposes). I’ll admit I’ve previously turned my nose up at such ‘bridge’ camera due to their tiny sensors and often low IQ, but as sensors advance and their lenses get so exotically long it is hard to ignore them. There is simply no other way to get small lenses that reach so far and whilst my interest is birding, there are other applications where it may work wonders- flower-fields, candids in the street way out of sight, temple details on a trip. It opens up new avenues, even if, with that small sensor, the dynamic range and high-ISO qualities are so limited… something that blending photos with the special modes may help with, the same way that HDR helps with my iPhone, which with newer apps and faster processors has become my standard usage now for it.

Yet the P510 is not without limitations, aside from it’s necessarily small sensor, which is more a compromise than a real limitation, similar in its own ways to any miniturisation, from a camera-phone to the very existence of the m4/3 system- arguably the most carefully-engineered compromise of our time, if not the digital age in general (though I think that goes a little far, as NEX, Fuji’s line and even DX cameras have a lot to offer here). It could really do with a RAW option and for the life of me other than a misguided desire to push people up to their other cameras, I can’t see why they left this out, it offers such better noise-reduction and white-balance control options, not to mention the ability to transform an original image, rather than an already ‘baked’ one. True, the jpegs out of camera have excellent colour and contrast, though lack a little sharpness and there isn’t all that much you can do with a RAW from such a small sensor compared to a larger one, but still, there is a lot that you can do. It’s actually one of the few camera I’ve bought that doesn’t offer RAW and it will be interesting to see if, as a raw-shooter, I use it all that much. Other compacts of mine, be it the Canon S40, my first digital camera, or G9, or even my more recent Lumix LX5, all featured RAW and I defaulted to it, which may have made their files more of a chore to deal with, but allowed me to play around with my favourite captures to me heart’s content, though I’ll admit, as far as changing exposure goes, they have nothing on my Nikon files. Basically, RAW means creative freedom and more freedom is always better.

There is also the lack of a hot-shoe, which whilst I hardly ever mount a flash on my compacts, being as I only have a huge SB800 that dwarfs them, though works well in automatic mode (and an small SB400 that would work great on this, being as it only works on Nikons), would be helpful for anyone that uses this as their only camera. What Nikon probably forgot is that this is why most people buy a bridge camera in the first place, so here again they pretty much gave sales to their competitors, as it wouldn’t cost all that much to add one, though in all this I should add that the low price of the Nikon is one reason I looked into it, though the incredible samples were what convinced me.

Only slightly cropped, here you can see the detail of the lunar surface. Hand-held, at ISO 100. Having manual controls available helped here.

Only slightly cropped, here you can see the detail of the lunar surface. Hand-held, at ISO 100. Having manual controls available helped here.

In terms of competition, up against the P510 you have a vast selection of bridge cameras, though as you look closer, there aren’t so many comparable ones. Fuji makes quite a few, but hearing from users, I wasn’t too impressed by their actual photo quality, even of their more expensive models. Panasonic makes the FZ150/FZ200 which as main cameras are a much better choice, despite their terrible Panasonic sensors, that show noise even as low as ISO80. Why Panasonic can’t get their act together here after so long, I’ll never know.  I expect they can’t afford the necessary research and development that the likes of Canon or Sony are capable of, but they have long had image noise and clumsy noise reduction as their Achilles heel, though when you get up to the sensor size of m4/3 it is at least usable to ISO800 or so. Still, their amazing autofocus and the f/2.8 lens in their FZ200 is outstanding… yet at 24-600mm it isn’t what I was looking for. I’m sure this is more than enough for most users, who might bring this as their only travel camera and have a great time with it, if they can’t raise the ISO safely, at least they can have a much brighter lens and get the shot.

The closest competition, as so often for Nikon, comes from Canon. Their SX40 has a bit less zoom (24-840) and a hotshoe (but no RAW support) and is now discounted. For me that reduced zoom puts it in the ‘ordinary’ category, as for my purposes I am going for the extraordinary. Meanwhile it’s successor, the SX50 stole the long zoom category crown from Nikon with an amazing 24-1200mm! It has a lot of users, even those who moved there from the Nikon and was my original choice. Yet a few things put me off. For one, the photos I see from it are a little blurry, as the IS can’t keep up with that long lens as well as Nikon’s can and also, I suspect, the lens itself is a bit soft just to reach those lengths. The colours also aren’t as rich. It seems the sensor has better low-noise characteristics, which may be helped to achieve by being only 12mp, yet doesn’t capture such rich colours. Which is a shame, as it is by far and away the better-featured camera. Yet, for some those features and the even longer zoom make the grade.

Of course, as well as enjoying my new cam, I of course need to feel it’s the best choice, for me at least. All in all, I want to get away from the type of blog post that merely seeks to justify a purchase, as opposed to one that explains one, but holds out that there are other good options for those with different needs. I’m pretty sure for me that this is the best choice right now. Just for fun let’s look at the pros and cons compared to it’s closest competition, the Canon SX50HS and then what we’d like to see in a successor. The camera as it is very usable, but of course could certainly be improved on.

Pros

  • Better colour depth, the photos have richer colour. Especially for nature photography, I’m a fan of Nikon’s vivid colours.
  • Slightly lighter and more compact
  • Nice price, currently around 50% cheaper than the SX50, at least where I live.
  • Probably a sharper lens, as the results are generally sharper, though Canon may be using more on-chip noise-reduction.
  • VRII, which even works pretty well at the end of the zoom.
  • 16mp sensor gives a lot of detail (vs. 12 on the Canon).
  • Not sure if the video is as good, but at 30 fps, rather than 24fps, it should be smoother.
  • Beautiful, large, tilting VGA LCD screen.
  • Innovative software, making for an interesting shooting experience
  • In-camera panoramas and raw
  • Light, considering it’s capabilities
  • GPS, though it eats into batteries

Cons

  • No RAW (almost unforgivable, this one, as it is software-based)
  • No flash hotshoe
  • Low resolution EVF (which also plagues the Canon)
  • Poor battery life, with only 1100 mah, necessitating multiple spares. (Also unforgivable)
  • Poor AF at longer lengths, involving a lot of hunting, though snappy at shorter lengths. This is especially troubling for video.
  • No Phase-detection AF makes action shooting difficult.
  • Low dynamic range can blow highlights (though smaller sensors are generally most guilty of this and I found it better than most, here)
  • Not much in the way of continuous shooting- buffer only supports 5 shots.
  • No charger supplied (only USB cable, no good for multiple batts)
  • Poor high-ISO and without Raw, not much control over noise reduction
  • LCD is tiltable, but not 180 degrees flip-out style, like say the D5100
  • Small buffer for high-speed mode shooting (just a few shots allowed)
  • Shorter lens (1000mm vs. 1200)
  • HDR modes are a bit plasticky
  • Will probably be updated in a couple of months from now (January, 2013), if Nikon follows its general schedule with these cameras.

Conclusion

A great lens and processor on an only okay camera, with several glaring omissions. Though it may well be the best in it’s class, whether or not it still leads in it, it would be good to see much of this addressed in the next model, certainly better battery life and RAW support. No doubt, also, we’ll have a longer lens and hopefully the new VRIII.We also don’t have long to wait before announcements, which are typically on February 1st for this model.

Wishlist for the P520, or whatever it might be called (yes, already!)

* Note, I realize a lot of this will make it more expensive, but it’ll be worth it.

  1. Raw mode
  2. Much better AF, preferably with on-sensor phase-detection
  3. More advanced sensor for better high-iso and dynamic range
  4. A sensor that doesn’t flare in direct sunlight
  5. ISO 50-80, for best quality (even if it sometimes needs a tripod)
  6. New processor/buffer, for better continuous shooting (Expeed 3a anyone?)
  7. More powerful battery, or better battery life
  8. Included battery charger
  9. A hot-shoe
  10. An even longer lens, to compete with Canon… providing it’s still sharp.
  11. A still-wider lens- lets push the boundaries!
  12. A filter thread for not only filters, but perhaps even wide angle/telephoto adapters. (Enough is never enough).
  13. A hood to help with flare
  14. Even better VR, like the VRIII in the 70-200 f/4
  15. Much higher resolution EVF
  16. Better video modes, such as 60fps 1080p, 120fps 720p and offering higher bitrate
  17. Higher speed continuous shooting, especially for bracketing for later making HDRs
  18. Built-in Wi-fi transfer, even at the expense of losing GPS
  19. Touchscreen (why not? It’s handy for focusing)
  20. Raw mode (did I say that before- it’s lack is a deal-breaker for many)

In short… more of a prosumer than a consumer camera, which may or may not be Nikon’s intention next time around. Yet even so, a lot of these could make it into a camera considered ‘low end’, seeing as the competition has them already.

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