The Super Zoom wars are ever-expanding as manufacturers strive to produce digital cameras with the biggest possible optical zooms in this solar system. Yes, in the digital camera world, size does matter, and the Nikon Coolpix P510 is currently the most well endowed model with its obscene 42x optical zoom lens. The last record was set by last year’s Coolpix P500, which flaunted an impressive 36x optical magnification, but that wasn’t obtrusive enough, according to Nikon. The new P510 also gets a new 16.1-megapixel CMOS sensor and GPS capabilities this year. How did the big Kahuna stack up against the Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ150 and Canon PowerShot SX40 HS? Read the full review to find out.

Nikon Coolpix P510 Design

Nikon-Coolpix-P510-Product-2The Nikon Coolpix P510 doesn’t stray too far from last year’s design. The camera is about the same size as the Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ150, which places the P510 just under an entry level DSLR in terms of bulk and heft. With that said, the P510 needs a little extra junk in the trunk in order to properly steady the camera at mega intimate focal lengths. It’s a comfortable model to hold, thanks to the DSLR-like knurled right grip side and flared rear thumb rest. I also like the fact that Nikon fortified the four-way directional pad with a spinning control dial this year, making Shutter and Aperture adjustments a breeze.

The same 921,000-pixel 3-inch fold-out display has also been carried over, though I’m going to refrain from calling it a vari-angle. Canon’s LCD screens are true vari-angles because they flip out horizontally and rotate up to 270 degrees for the ultimate in self portrait action. The Nikon Coolpix P510′s LCD screen only folds up and down, not out, preventing the camera from being a serious self-portrait tool. Also, there’s no microphone jack on the P510, compared to the Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ150. The P510 does, however mimic the FZ150′s lens barrel-mounted zoom toggle and the camera offers a popup flash with plenty of options like Rear Curtain and Slow Sync. Buttons and controls are plentiful as well, including a Function button, Video Record button and Focus mode shortcut.

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Nikon Coolpix P510 Full Wide-Angle (24mm equivalent)

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Nikon Coolpix P510 Full Telephoto (1,000mm equivalent)

The Nikon Coolpix P510′s 42x optical zoom lens is the star of the show, however, offering a 35mm focal length equivalent of 24-1,000mm. Holy cannoli! You can’t even see the house with blue windows in the first image above, but it’s framed perfectly at full zoom. When the lens is fully extended, the Nikon Coolpix P510 becomes quite the conversation piece. I became self-conscious using it in public. To combat jitter, Nikon equipped the Coolpix P510 with Lens Shift VR, a system that moves the lens in the opposite way of the offending vibration. For taking stills and most videos, I found this system to be superior to last year’s sensor-shift and electronic means, though a few movies at full zoom suffered from a “heat mirage” effect (you’ll see what I mean in the video samples below). The mechanical zoom was also slow and clunky, in addition to being highly audible during video playback. Nikon would have benefited from a more efficient and quieter motor or a lens barrel type zoom mechanism.

Nikon Coolpix P510 Features

Nikon-Coolpix-P510-Product-5This is an area where the Nikon Coolpix P510 is certainly not short staffed. The mighty Super Zoom has a veritable arsenal of tricks up its lens barrel. But unlike many other point-and-shoot cameras that offer kitschy, novelty Scene modes, the Coolpix P510′s are actually worthwhile. For instance, the Food mode set the focus to Macro and included a Warm <-> Cool slider to control White Balance easily, in order to suit the type of culinary environment you happened to be in. Pet Portrait mode had a burst option and face recognition feature that prompted the camera to snap shots as soon as a pet’s face registered in the frame. Easy Panorama mode offered 180 and 360 degree views using the sweep method, meaning all I had to do was hit the shutter button, twirl around in a circle, and a beautiful Panorama shot was made.

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180 Degree Panorama Taken in Easy Panorama Mode (click image for larger view)

The Nikon Coolpix P510 also rocked several Image Effects like Selective Color, Painting, Silhouette and Nostalgic Sepia, but other filters like Miniature and Cross Screen could be applied in Playback mode, right from within the camera. The Autofocus system for still images was great, honing in on multiple panes across the frame, and the P510 had a few excellent Macro modes including a burst Noise Reduction option. ISO this year had been expanded to 6400 (Hi1) and Nikon offered three different Noise Reduction settings to combat grain in low light. As evidenced below, the Noise Reduction system did an impressive job minimizing that muddy, cloudy noise that robs many images of clarity when the lights go down. The Nikon Coolpix P510 also had a robust White Balance mode with two different Auto settings (one for warmer lighting), Exposure Bracketing and Active D Lighting, which boosted the camera’s Dynamic Range. Active D Lighting could be applied in Playback as well.

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ISO 6400 Noise Reduction Low

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ISO 6400 Noise Reduction High

But now it’s time for the less appealing traits of the Nikon Coolpix P510. First off, the camera was not as powerful in low light as I had hoped. This is due in part to an 8-second max slowest shutter speed with low ISO limitations. Most cameras in this price range offer at least a 15-second shutter speed. As a result, I couldn’t do any serious long exposure photography. Even the Tripod setting in Night Landscape mode offered a few seconds before snapping. The high ISO speeds were nice to have, but without a longer shutter speed, the Nikon Coolpix P510 is not as serious a contender as the Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ150 or Canon PowerShot SX40 HS.

Furthermore, the Nikon Coolpix P510 lacked manual controls in the video department and suffered from two staggering deal breakers: the Full-time AF during video recording was terrible and the GPS barely works correctly. Let’s start with the Full-time AF. In nearly all of my sample videos, the focus dozes in and out, fighting to lock onto a definitive target. This was mostly noticeable during my hockey game, in which the focus could not follow the players. Every other camera we’ve tested at that rink has performed admirably thus far this year, but the Coolpix P510 just could not focus properly. The Manual focus works well, though the taps of the dial can be heard when using it. I recommend designating the side Zoom toggle to control the Manual Focus and relying on that method for video recording. Otherwise, the Full-time AF is absolutely useless.

And then there’s the GPS conundrum. I’m not a fan of GPS cameras to begin with because I think you should be able to remember where a picture was taken just by looking at it, but I gave the Nikon Coolpix P510 a fair shot. Out of over 100 pictures I took with the P510, the GPS system only successfully tagged five of them. That is absurd. I also tried the camera’s GPS Logging function, only to have the camera display a primitive blue line on a vague grid without a map that claimed I traveled 5KM when in fact I took pictures along a 50-mile stretch. I could have drawn a more accurate path from memory using Microsoft Paint. I just saw the Canon PowerShot SX260 HS before the P510, and that camera’s GPS system performed admirably. Nikon needs to completely revamp its GPS system in the P510 or the complaints are going to come rolling in.

Aside from that, my only other gripes were the fact that the Nikon Coolpix P510 had a tendency to be sluggish when loading images in Playback mode and the menu system is antiquated. The camera didn’t even display the shooting modes each picture was taken in, nor did it display GPS coordinate information. All I got was shutter speed, aperture, exposure and ISO data. That’s it! When you compare this menu system to a Panasonic, Canon or Sony, it’s like pitting an Apple IIC against a MacBook Air.

So in closing, if you plan to take quality still images with the Nikon Coolpix P510, you’ll be happy in bright light and most low light situations. Forget about GPS, a refined menu system and decent autofocus in Video mode.

Nikon Coolpix P510 Image Quality

Nikon-Coolpix-P510-Product-3This year Nikon boosted the resolution on all of the Coolpix cameras to 16.1-megapixels. This means the Nikon Coolpix P510 has the same 1/2.3-inch CMOS sensor, only with a 16.1-megapixel count compared to last year’s 12.1-megapixel count. Honestly, there was no need to boost the megapixel count on the P510. I could have seen a new sensor with better technology, but that wasn’t present this year. Regardless, still images in bright light are awesome. The wealth of useful Scene modes and image effects really made shooting a fun experience with the Coolpix P510.

High ISO performance in low light was not too shabby either, thanks in part to the Noise Reduction system. I was now able to attain a better exposure in low light, thanks to the big ISO jump this year. But as stated before, the limited slow shutter speed narrowed the P510′s ability. I’d say low light sensitivity was better this year, but the inability to do any long exposure shooting really took the wind out of my sails.

Then there was Video mode. The Nikon Coolpix P510 can capture HD videos in a variety of resolutions: 1080P 30fps, 720P 60fps, 720P 30fps, iFrame, VGA and 120fps High-Speed. Bright light quality was impressive, but low light sensitivity was lacking. As stated earlier, the Full-time AF was awful and I experienced a gelatinous “heat mirage” effect at higher focal lengths. The Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ150 and Canon PowerShot SX40 HS were superior when it came to Video mode.

Nikon Coolpix P510 Image Samples

Nikon Coolpix P510 HD Video Samples

Nikon Coolpix P510 Conclusion

Nikon-Coolpix-P510-Product-9When I first started playing with the Master of the Mighty Zoom, I was very impressed. There were little things here and there that were improved over last year’s Coolpix P500. I loved most of the shooting features and effects, as well as the Coolpix P510′s extensive external design. Of course, the 42x optical zoom offered the ultimate bragging rights.

But the Nikon Coolpix P510 lags behind the competition for a few crucial reasons: ineffective GPS, Full-time AF with A.D.D., an antiquated menu system and limited low light and Video options. The Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ150 is still the king of the ring with the Canon PowerShot SX40 HS on its heels. We’ll have to wait for the full review of the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-HX200V as well, as the fearsome Sony looks menacing to the current Super Zoom crop.

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