Super-zoom cameras have had a difficult time over the past few years. They used to have a role as the stepping-stone between compact cameras and full-blown digital SLRs, and are often still called "bridge cameras" reflecting that position. However since the introduction of Compact System Cameras and long-zoom travel cameras the traditional super-zoom camera has become somewhat redundant, and although most of the main manufacturers still include at least one such camera in their product range, they aren't as numerous nor as popular as they once were. In light of pressure from both above and below, the development of super-zoom cameras has progressed down the only path that makes them special; the provision of ever more powerful zoom lenses. Thus we have the new Nikon CoolPix P510, which sports the most powerful zoom lens ever installed in a digital camera, a colossal 42x zoom range equivalent to 24-1,000mm.
The P510's amazing lens isn't just a little more powerful than its competitors; it simply blows them away. The next biggest zoom range is the 35x lens found on the Canon PowerShot SX40 HS; nothing else even comes close. The SX40 HS is the P510's closest competitor in terms of both specification and price. Both have very powerful zoom lenses with advanced optical stabilisation, both feature articulated monitors (although the Canon has full flip-and-twist, the Nikon's is only hinged) and both have full 1080p HD video with stereo audio. They also both have 1/2.3in backlit CMOS sensors, although the Nikon's is 16.1-megapixels while the Canon is 'only' 12.1-megapixels. Both are also closely matched on price, with the P510 currently selling for £299.00 and the Canon for £295.00.
Design and features
The body design of the P510 is based on its predecessor the P500, and has the same SLR-style handgrip with a textured rubberised pad, and the same simple and uncluttered control layout. It's of about average size and weight for a modern super-zoom, a bit smaller and lighter than the Canon SX40, but slightly larger and heavier than the Panasonic FZ48. The body shell is plastic, but as you'd expect from Nikon the overall build quality is excellent, with tight panel lines and no creaks when squeezed. The tilting monitor is mounted on a strong metal frame and the battery hatch has a metal hinge. An unusual caveat here are the controls. While the buttons have a nice solid feel, the mode dial and zoom controls do feel a bit flimsy, and the rotary bezel of the D-pad is quite loose and easy to jog.
The monitor is superb, a pin-sharp 7.5cm (3.0in) TFT LCD screen with 921,000 dot resolution, a viewing angle of about 170 degrees and an anti-glare coating. The viewfinder, however, is not quite so good. It's a small half-centimetre LCD with a resolution of only 201,000 dots, and really isn't large or sharp enough for accurate manual focusing. It does have dioptric adjustment and a rubber surround so it won't scratch your glasses.
Obviously the P510's most significant feature is that amazing lens. A zoom range of 24-1,000mm is unprecedented on a digital camera. To give you some idea of the sheer magnifying power of the lens, you should take a look at the sample photos. With the camera on a tripod I was able to take a photo of the Moon at night in which the diameter of lunar disk was nearly 1,200 pixels, over a quarter the width of the frame, with even quite small craters clearly visible. There are only a few DSLR lenses that can pull off a feat like that, and they cost thousands of pounds. In another sample shot I photographed a ship coming into Plymouth harbour. At full zoom every detail of the bridge and superstructure is clear and in sharp detail from about half a mile away, and that shot was taken hand-held. Nikon's new second-generation vibration reduction system is astonishingly effective, giving around four stops of extra stability, so every millimetre of that huge focal length is usable.
In light of that achievement it's a shame that some of the other features don't quite measure up. The HD video mode is adequate, but in dim light with the camera on a tripod I noticed that the AF kept losing focus and hunting backwards and forward. The sound quality was also less than ideal, with the auto level control causing the sound level to fluctuate when recording live music.
The P510 is also equipped with a GPS receiver. I've not found many cameras where this feature was effective, and sadly this one is no exception. Despite having the camera stationary, outdoors under a clear sky and well away from tall buildings for over 15 minutes the GPS failed to lock on. In fact over the full two weeks that I was testing the camera, not one of more than 200 test shots successfully recorded any location data.
The P510's overall performance is good, although it could be a bit quicker. From a cold start it can power up and take a shot in approximately three seconds, which isn't bad at all, and in single-shot mode its shot-to-shot time is approximately 1.8 seconds, which is also reasonable. It has a range of continuous shooting modes. In full resolution it can shoot 30 frames at 1fps or five frames at 7fps, while in VGA mode it can shoot 60 frames at either 120fps or 60fps. It also has a 20-frame pre-shooting cache and Nikon's usual Best Shot Selector mode.
Autofocus performance is fast and accurate in good light, but does slow down somewhat in low light, but it is equipped with a good AF assist lamp with a useful range of at least four metres.
Battery duration appears to be excellent. Nikon claims 240 shots or an hour and 10 minutes of video, and my results back this up. Unusually, activating the GPS didn't appear to make much difference to the battery life, possibly because it failed to pick up any satellite signals.
The Nikon P510 is equipped with a 16.1-megapixel 1/2.3in back-illuminated CMOS sensor, the same one found in several of Nikon's better compacts, and the overall image quality reflects this. Exposure metering is very accurate, and automatic white balance is one of the best I've ever seen. Dynamic range is better than expected, especially with the Active D-Lighting feature turned on. Colour reproduction is a little undersaturated, but only in comparison to other mid-range compacts. High ISO noise control is also better than expected, with more-or-less usable shots at settings as high as 3200 ISO, but noise is present at all settings, even the minimum of 100 ISO. Overall detail is reasonably good, about what you'd expect from a good 16-megapixel compact. However, it is the lens performance that really stands out; from its 1cm macro range all the way to the Moon it produces clear, sharp undistorted pictures at every focal length. This is unquestionably one of the best and most capable lenses on any digital camera currently available; if only it could be matched with a better sensor it would be amazing.
If you're looking for a super-zoom camera for bird watching, ship spotting, amateur astronomy or taking close-up shots from half-a-mile away, Nikon's CoolPix 510 with its amazing 24-1,000mm lens is absolutely unbeatable. It handles well, has good battery life and reasonable performance, and image quality is reasonable considering the spec. Video mode could be better and the GPS system is useless, but other than that it's well worth considering.
This is the full frame at 100 ISO, the minimum setting. As usual, all these ISO test shots were done using tungsten studio lights and manual white balance. Download the full size image.
f/4.1, 1/8th, ISO 100. At the minimum ISO setting, the P510 shows the limitations of its tiny 1/2.3in sensor, with visible noise in the green area. Colour and detail are good though.
f/4.1, 1/15th, ISO 200. At 200 ISO there is a slight increase in noise, but overall detail and colour rendition are still good.
f/4.1, 1/30th, ISO 400. More noise at 400 ISO, with slight colour distortion in the green area. Colour saturation is beginning to fade a little too.
f/4.1, 1/60th, ISO 800. There's actually not much difference between 400 and 800 ISO; a little more noise, but not much. Colour and detail are about the same too.
f/4.1, 1/125th, ISO 1600. There's a significant drop in quality at 1600 ISO, with a lot more noise and further reduction in saturation.
f/4.1, 1/250th, ISO 3200. There's more noise still at 3200 ISO, although to be fair this is still not completely unusable.
f/4.1, 1/500th, ISO 6400. At the maximum 6400 ISO there's not much fine detail left and the image is very noisy, but overall I've seen a lot worse.
This is the full frame at 6400 ISO. Download the full size image.
Here's the usual detail comparison shot that I take with every camera. Download the full size image.
This is a full-res crop of the above image. The general level of detail isn't bad, about the same as a good compact.
Despite its vast zoom range the lens performs well at wide angle, with almost no distortion. Download the full size image.
Centre sharpness is very good, with decent contrast and not too much sharpening.
This is the corner of the same shot. It's still nice and sharp with no chromatic aberration.
With Nikon's D-Lighting feature the dynamic range is actually quite good for a small sensor camera. Download the full size image.
This is the wide-angle end of the zoom range, equivalent to 24mm. Download the full size image.
This is taken from the same position at maximum optical zoom, equivalent to 1,000mm. This was shot hand-held, and the ship is nearly half a mile away. Download the full size image.
Shot at night on a tripod, at maximum optical zoom. Manual exposure, f/8.3, 1/125th, ISO 100. Download the full size image.
This is a full-res crop of the image above. There aren't many cameras that could take a shot like this.
Low light focusing is a little slow, but generally reliable, although it hunts in video mode. Download the full size image.
Macro focusing range is approximately 1cm. This lens is full of surprises. Download the full size image.
The exposure system copes well with unusual lighting conditions. Download the full size image.
Colour rendition is a little muted, but the exposure is accurate. Download the full size image.
Smeaton's Tower lighthouse, on Plymouth Hoe. Download the full size image.
1/2.3-in. type CMOS, approx. 16.79-megapixel
4,608 x 3,456
42x optical, 2x digital
Focal length (35mm)
24 - 1,000mm equiv.
f/3 - f/ 5.9
8 - 1/4,000th sec
P, A, S, M
224-segment matrix, centre-weighted, spot
TFT LCD 7.5cm (3.0in) 921k dot tilting
EVF 0.5cm (0.2in.) approx. 201k dot
Wide: 0.5 - 8.0m, Tele: 1.5 - 4.5m
Single, Continuous H (7/60/120fps), Continuous L (1fps)
1,920 x 1,080/approx. 30 fps, HD
Memory card slot
1,100mAh li-ion rechargeable
USB, HDMI Mini
Dimensions (W x H x D)
119.8 x 82.9 x 102.2 mm
555g including battery and SD memory card
Neck strap, lens cap, charger, cables, software CD, Reference Manual CD