I have been a photographer for more than forty years and I’ve been reviewing cameras since 1994; I wrote my first digital camera review in 2000. Since then I’ve written more than 300 digital camera reviews for epinions and three other websites. I’ve managed to meet a lot of people in the digital imaging industry over that dozen years and when one of them contacted me recently and asked if I’d like to review the Nikon Coolpix P310, I jumped at the chance because I’d reviewed the Nikon Coolpix P510 last summer (for digitalcamerareview.com) and I had been wanting to get my hands on the P510’s little brother ever since.
Recommend this product?
Earlier this year Nikon introduced two updated P&S digicams that replace (respectively) the Coolpix P300 and the Coolpix P500. These two new cameras (P310 & P510), although they show no resemblance whatsoever to each other, because they utilize primarily the same components, are almost identical under the hood. Both cameras share identical GPS systems, EXPEED C2 image processing engines, COOLPIX Picture Control functions, 1080p HD video recording (with stereo audio and the ability to utilize the zoom during video capture), indentical 16 megapixel backlit CMOS sensors, the same lens-shift vibration reduction (VR) system which provides camera shake compensation equivalent to a four-step increase in shutter speed, and identical 3.0 inch 921K flip-out LCD monitors. The most significant differences between the two cameras are in their physical sizes and their zoom lenses. The P310 is a pocketable compact camera with a superfast f1.8-f4.9/24mm-100mm (35mm equivalent) zoom (currently the fastest maximum aperture available on any P&S digicam), while the P510 is an entry-level DSLR sized P&S digicam with an f3.0-f5.9/24mm – 1000mm (35mm equivalent) zoom – currently the second longest (right behind the Canon SX50 HS) zoom range available on any P&S digital camera.
NUTS & BOLTS
I have always loved small cameras and over the years I’ve owned and used several, including a Rollei 35S, an Olympus Pen F, a Minox 35GL, an Olympus Stylus “Clamshell” 35, and a Contax “T2”. My photographic heroes have always been "straight shooters" - documentary, street/candid, Natural/Available Light, and environmental portrait photographers. Straight-Shooters are primarily concerned with depicting people in natural and/or candid situations that reveal important aspects of the human condition. Famous straight-shooters like Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Doisneau, Bruce Davidson, Robert Frank, W. Eugene Smith, and Jim Marshall used compact Leica 35mm rangefinder cameras to capture many of the iconic moments that defined 20th century European and North American society, history, and culture. Rangefinders are small and unobtrusive cameras, yet they are very responsive in the hands of a skilled shooter; capable of generating images that are every bit as good as those produced by bigger, heavier, and more conspicuous cameras. The gold standard for "straight-Shooter" cameras has always been the Leica rangefinder (generally equipped with a normal or moderate wide-angle lens). In hand, the elegant little Nikon Coolpix P310 evokes tactile memories of those classic Leica IIIFs and M4s although it is closer in size to the Leica/Minolta CL mini-rangefinder.
Like many currently available digicams the P310 provides no opical viewfinder. Users must rely instead on the LCD monitor for all framing/composition, GPS data, captured image review and menu navigation chores. Most modern shooters rarely use optical viewfinders anyway and in many shooting scenarios (macro shots and portraits for example) it is actually quicker and easier to watch the decisive moment come together on the LCD screen than it is through an optical (or EVF) viewfinder. The P310 features a large 3.0” LCD screen with 921K resolution.
The wide-viewing angle 3.0 inch TFT LCD is super sharp, very bright, hue accurate, and fluid and the info display provides all the information this camera's target audience is likely to need. The LCD gains up (automatically increases brightness) in dim lighting and brightness can also be adjusted to the individual shooter’s preferences. The anti-glare/anti-reflection coating (applied to both sides of the LCD’s protective cover) is substantially better than the average for digicams in this class. Finally, the P310's LCD flips/folds out, which is useful when shooting macro or high-angle (above the heads of the crowd) shots, but the LCD doesn't swivel. The P310 may lack an optical viewfinder, but makes up for that omission by providing a noticeably superior to the competition LCD monitor.
Geo-tagging has been growing in popularity with shutterbugs, as they seek unique new ways to share their images. Some folks may already have aGPSdevice in their car, but the P310 provides a portable (in the field) system to track position against map data stored in the camera's on-board memory. For travelers who visit London, Paris, NYC, L.A., Chicago, Beijing, Tokyo, Buenos Aires, Rio and other world capitals the P310’sGPSsystem will locate the user precisely and then display a map with the quickest routes to major tourist attractions in those cities. I would have loved a camera like this when I was living in Germany and Japan – it would have allowed me to occasionally leave my heavy camera bag at home while scouting new shooting locations. I could have used the P310 to capture some sample shots, marked the location precisely via GPS, and then returned, at a later date, with a couple of SLRs, my Leitz Tilt-All tripod, my Bogen Monopod, and a big camera bag full of lenses. The P310’s GPS system won't work indoors and it is often slow to find and lock onto a satellite signal outdoors, but it is easily competive with the similarly handicapped digicam GPS systems from Canon and Olympus.
Like its predecessor, the P310 is built around a relatively short (4.2X) zoom with a super fast f/1.8 maximum aperture. Most P&S digicams offer zooms with maximum apertures of between f/2.8 and f3.5, so the P310's f/1.8 maximum aperture lets in more than twice as much light as an f2.8 aperture, which allows for faster shutter speeds in low/dim light.
The P310’s super-stabilized moderate wide-angle to short telephoto zoom covers the focal length range most often used by “Straight Shooters” who usually tend to work in pretty close. The P310 will obviously come up a bit short for those who wish to shoot team sports or wildlife, however the 1000mm (equivalent) zoom of the almost identical P510 will easily meet the needs of action sports and backyard wildlife shooters.
When the P310 is powered up the zoom extends from the camera body automatically, and when the camera is powered down, the lens retracts and a built in iris-style lens cover closes to protect the front element. Zooming is fairly smooth and lens operation is relatively quiet. The P310 needs between 2 and 3 seconds to move the lens from the wide angle end of the zoom range to the maximum telephoto setting. The P310's zoom is surprisingly good and even though the lens displays some minimal light fall-off and very minor corner softness, there's no vignetting (dark corners). Chromatic aberration (purple fringing) is visible in some high contrast shots, especially when shooting dark objects against a bright background, but overall – CA is very well controlled. Barrel distortion (at the wide-angle end of the zoom range) is present, but very well corrected and that’s impressive optical engineering since well above average barrel distortion is a common fault with small highly complex P&S digicam zooms.
Image Stabilization (IS)
Consistently capturing sharply focused pictures with a P&S camera offers some unique optical engineering challenges. The P310 optical image stabilization system reduces blur by rapidly and precisely shifting a lens element in the zoom to compensate for involuntary camera movement. Typically, Image Stabilization systems allow users to shoot at shutter speeds up to three EV slower than would have been possible without Image stabilization Nikon claims the P310 can counter involuntary camera shake (like that caused by trying to keep a zoom locked on a distant subject) in seven ways including Hybrid VR (Optical lens-shift Vibration Reduction and Digital/Electronic IS combine to reduce the effects of camera shake), High Sensitivity (up to ISO 3200) reduces the risk of blurred images with faster shutter speeds, Motion detection compensates for subject movement, Night Landscape mode, and backlight mode also decrease image blur by improving low light performance.
Auto Focus (AF)
The P310 features the same TTL (through the lens) Contrast Detection AF system as its predecessor with three AF modes - single, continuous, and face detection AF and four focus options - Multi-area AF, Center AF, and Tracking AF, plus manual focus. In all exposure modes, the camera analyzes the scene in front of the lens and then calculates camera to subject distance to determine which AF point is closest to the primary subject (closest subject priority) and then locks focus on that AF point, or users can opt for single AF point Auto Focus and shift that single AF point to any spot in the composition. AF is very quick and consistently accurate.
The P310's diminutive multi-mode pop-up flash provides a minimal selection of artificial lighting options, including Auto, On, Off, Red-Eye Reduction, and Slow-sync. Based on my very limited flash use, the P310's flash recycle time is between 3 and 4 seconds.
The Nikon Coolpix P310 saves images and video to SD, SDHC, and SDXC memory media.
Like the P510, the P310's 230 exposure duration proprietary Lithium Ion battery is charged in-camera via its USB AC adapter - the battery can also be charged via the computer’s USB port.
The P310 provides users with four light metering options including the default Evaluative mode, Center-weighted averaging mode, Spot mode, and a Spot AF metering (center-spot or shiftable spot). Default evaluative metering is dependably accurate in all but the most extreme lighting situations. Metering accuracy in the Center-Weighted Averaging and Spot modes is primarily dependent on the skill level of the photographer.
DESIGN, BUILD QUALITY, CONTROLS & ERGONOMICS
At first glance, the P310 bears a striking resemblance to its predecessor - Nikon didn’t deviate much from the original design with this unit. So what’s different? The P310 boosts resolution from 12 megapixels to 16 megapixels (via a new back-illuminated CMOS image sensor), features a newGPSreceiver, and provides 1080p video with stereo audio.
The P310 may look like a typical compact P&S digicam since it is easily pocketable and will function nicely in Auto (P&S) mode, but unlike the flood of auto-exposure only P&S digicams currently inundating the marketplace - the P310 is an enthusiast’s camera that permits lots of personal input into the image making process. The P310 feels solid and stable in your hands, features a robustly constructed all metal body with first-rate dust/moisture seals, and allows full manual control of exposure.
The P310 features a classicly elegant minimalist design and will function nicely as a general purpose camera, but its strongest appeal may be that it is an almost perfect camera for candid/street photography. Street photographers focus primarily on the urban environments where people live and work. Street shooting is reactive and the subjects are often unaware that they are being photographed.
Traditional straight shooters have primarily used Leica rangefinders to capture images of real life as it happens. Today’s “straight shooters” might substitute one of Olympus’ new Digital Pen 4/3 models, the Panasonic GF3, the nifty little Pentax Q, or one of the elegant little “specialist” P&S digicams like the P310, The Samsung TL500, or the Canon S100 for those legendary cameras of yore. Quintessential street shooter Henri Cartier-Bresson developed the formula for successful street shooting – the photographer surreptitiously inserts himself/herself into the area where the action is likely to occur, follows the action, and then trips the shutter when the “decisive moment” arrives. The straight shooter’s goal is to hold a mirror up to society – to provide a literal and sometimes visceral visual experience of who we are, where we live, and how we react to the world we live in. The P310 is small and non-threatening to subjects, it is a competent picture maker, it is easy to use, it responds almost intuitively to the photographer, and it is fast enough to capture the decisive moment - making it almost perfect for reactive photography.
The P310's user interface is logical and uncomplicated - all buttons and controls are a bit small, but they are all clearly marked, sensibly placed and easily accessed. The control layout is efficiently designed, but the on/off button is so small that it usually requires a couple of attempts to turn the camera on or off – however this isn’t unique to the P310 – every Nikon I’ve used recently suffers from this minor design fault.
Nikon’s function button is not like Canon’s nifty “func” button (which calls up a shortcut menu to directly access often changed settings), rather the Nikon Fn button provides direct access to one (image size, picture control, WB, metering, continuous shooting mode, ISO, or AF area) user selected function - I used the function button for direct access to the nifty CPC function. The P310 features two usefully configured control dials. The dial on the top deck controls shutter speed and the dial on the on the back of the camera controls aperture. Both dials fall easily under the thumb and index finger of the right hand, but their functions can be swapped.
The mode dial on the Nikon S9300 (which I reviewed recently) moved easily and I was surprised several times (when removing the camera from my pocket) to discover the mode dial was no longer set to Auto mode – that is not the case with the P310’s mode dial - which stayed exactly where I set it.
I only got to keep the P310 for a week, but I was quite impressed with just how easy this camera makes it to capture the images you’ve visualized before you press the shutter button - and with more than forty years experience as a photographer (and very demanding camera user) I am not easily impressed. Most P&S digicams permit only limited user input into the exposure process while the P310 actually expands user input options – here’s a prime example – COOLPIX Picture Control. CPC is a comprehensive new "tweaking" feature available only on the P310 and P510; it is used to adjust color saturation and sharpening applied to images prior to shooting based on the type of subject or scene, shooting conditions, or the creative intent of the shooter.CPCcan be used in all exposure modes, including full manual, and provides four preset Picture Controls and six options for additional fine tuning. Shooters can save two frequently used settings as custom CPC scenarios.
Nikon still hasn’t fixed one of their most frustrating design miscues. The exposure compensation function is meant to allow savvy shooters to subtly modify exposure by incrementally lightening or darkening images. If you activate the Exposure Compensation function on any of the Nikon P&S digicams I’ve reviewed recently, the camera will remember your settings – even after it is turned off. The P310’s info display shows the exposure compensation setting (briefly) when the camera is turned on, however it is very easy to miss that bit of information and accidentally shoot images that are lighter or darker than the existing lighting calls for. There is no logical reason why a camera should be designed to remember an exposure compensation setting that was only relevant to a specific past lighting situation.
The P310’s one-touch video Record/Stop button is a bit smaller than it should be and it is somewhat awkwardly positioned, but it can still be used without requiring the shooter to look away from the LCD when starting or stopping video clips.
Menus and Modes
The P310's four tab menu (Shooting menu, Movie menu, GPS menu, and Set-up menu) system is reliably logical, user-friendly, and easily navigated. The large high resolution LCD and reasonable font size make reading menus simple, even for older folks and those who wear eyeglasses.
Here's a breakdown of the shooting modes:
Auto: Point-and-shoot mode with limited user input - In Auto mode (which is actually closer to Program mode) the camera selects the aperture and shutter speed, but allows users to control sensitivity (ISO), white balance, color/saturation, and exposure compensation. Scene Auto Selector (automatically selects the most appropriate Scene mode for the shooting situation) from Portrait, Landscape, Night Portrait, Party/Indoor, Beach/Snow, Sunset, Dusk/Dawn, Night Landscape, Close-Up, Food, Museum, Fireworks Show, Copy, Backlight, and Panorama Assist. Night Landscape Scene Mode: Automatically selects a smaller aperture (to increase the area in focus) and a longer shutter speed (to help capture detail) in dim/low lighting conditions. Landscape Scene Mode: All exposure parameters are maximized for classic landscape pictures. Backlighting: Automatically adjusts exposure parameters (HDR) to balance backlighting and ambient lighting for more accurate exposures. Effects: Soft-focus mode, Sepia, High contrast monochrome, High key, Low key, Selective color, and Painting. User Settings: Custom Program: Auto exposure with limited user input. Aperture priority: Users select the aperture and the camera selects an appropriate shutter speed. Shutter priority: Users select shutter speed and the camera selects an appropriate aperture. Manual: Users select all exposure parameters. Movie:Full HD (1080p) video with stereo audio.
There is no dedicated movie/video setting on the mode dial – simply press the P510’s one touch movie start/stop button at any time (in any exposure mode) to switch to video capture mode.
In the Field/Handling & Operation
I live in the Ohio River Valleyand like most local photographers benefit greatly from living in North Central Kentucky. Three seasons of the year are absolutely beautiful here. We have a lovely spring (usually beginning in early March) with lots of flowering trees like Dogwood, Bradford Pear, and Redbud. During our hot and humid summers we host a stunning collection of wildflowers including Appalachian varieties like Lady’s Slipper, Trout Lilly and Dog’s Tooth Violet. We also have prairie species like Giant Purple Cone Flowers and Black-eyed Susans, and deep-south exotics like Passion Flowers and Dwarf Iris. Kentucky is where the Southern (pine, Hemlock, and softwood) forests meet the Northern (hardwood and Fir) forests, so we have a very impressive Autumn color season that draws leaf peepers from as far away as Chicago, St. Louis, and Cincinatti. During the winter North Central Kentucky is remarkably ugly. We get, mostly, gray skies, lots of rain, and many cold windy days. We get very little snow, so we don’t have much opportunity to do winter wonderland shots, but overall Louisville is very photographer friendly. We have lots of green space, dozens of neighborhood festivals, the best preserved collection of Cast-Iron facade buildings in the world, Old Louisville (a huge neighborhood filled with a collection of Victorian Mansions that rivals New Orlean’s Garden District, and Cave Hill Cemetery - an almost two hundred year old urban graveyard that is the final resting place for Revolutionary War Veterans, Civil War Veterans (from both sides), and some of Kentucky’s most prominent historical figures.
My first trip with the P310 took me toCave Hill Cemetery. Cave Hill became Louisville's first urban cemetery in the mid 1830's. Cave Hill is also our unofficial local arboretum and one of the best remaining examples of 19th century landscape architecture in the U.S. This old cemetery’s 300 acres are home to an amazing variety of exotic and native trees, shrubs, and bushes – making it an almost perfect photo venue for local shooters because it is free, centrally located, and there is almost always something interesting to photograph. Cave Hill is filled with thousands of weather worn old headstones, dozens of ornate mausoleums, a rustic old groundskeeper’s cabin, and a small lake with flocks of semi-tame ducks, Canada geese, and swans. The snazzy little P310 took a dreary day and turned it gothic, with evocatively stark time worn tombstones and angry skies filled with dark clouds.
My next trip out with P310 was toBardstown Road, in the heart ofLouisville's old Highlands neighborhood. During the '60s and '70s, Bardstown Road was the epicenter of our local counterculture. Times have changed, but here and there a bit of the old Hippie Bardstown Road survives. Street shooters have a two-mile collection of laid back bars, unique restaurants, one of a kind stores, and funky resale shops. The holiday season sidewalks are busy with shoppers, hang out artists, an occasional skateboarder, buskers, panhandlers, and street people. Winter has started here in the Ohio River Valley and it has been mostly cold and very rainy, but we’ve had a few nice days when the light was good and the sky was cobalt blue - and that day in the Highlands was one of them. The nifty little P310 was perfectly in its element – small, unobtrusive, unthreatening, and beautifully responsive in the midst of that chaotic sea of colorfully clad humanity.
My next outing with the P310 took me to the Louisville Extreme Park. The Extreme Park is the go to place for local photographers looking to capture action shots. Rollerbladers, Skateboarders, and BMX bikers are drawn to the park 24-7 (even in the winter) to perfect their moves in the industrial sized full pipe, 5 interconnected bowls, assorted ramps, and the twelve-foot half pipe. We have some very talented young athletes and a few of them can usually be found at the extreme park. I spent the better part of a pretty and unseasonably warm afternoon shooting environmental portraits of skateboarders and BMX bikers. I also shot several short HD video clips of the kids doing their routines – some of which were quite impressive. I did capture a few decent action shots of skateboarders, but framing/timing (centering the boarders in the picture and stopping the action in mid air) is actually pretty tough when you only have a 4.2X zoom - you have to move in pretty close to get frame filling shots and that can be very dangerous.
For my final outing outing with the P310 I took the little P&S to Chek’s Café in Germantown for a breaded Pork Tenderloin sandwich. The P310 allowed me to surreptitiously shoot indoors with the easily concealed little camera. Other than a noticeable, but very minor yellowish cast (from the old restaurant’s mix of fluourescent and incandescent lighting) the P310 performed flawlessly during my single indoor shooting test, due primarily to the fast f1.8 maximum aperture.
The P310's image files are (like all Nikon P&S digicams) optimized for bold bright colors and the hard-edged but slightly flat contrast that consumer’s seem to prefer. Viewed on my monitor – P310 images look a lot like the slides I shot during an earlier photographic era - midway between ISO 100 Fuji Sensia and ISO 100 Kodak Ektachrome transparencies.
Overall, reds are a bit warm, blues are a little brighter than they are in real life, and greens/yellows/oranges are impressively vibrant. The P310's images are highly-detailed and surprisingly sharp. In bright outdoor lighting, highlight detail was only occasionally blown-out, which is some very impressive exposure engineering.
Heads up to a couple of other digicams I’ve tested recently – the upscale Samsung TL500 (with a Schneider-Kreuznach badged short zoom) and the nifty Panasonic FH7 (with a Leica badged short Zoom) the P310’s image quality remains impressive, even when compared to upscale P&S digicams with lenses designed by iconic German lensmakers. Overall, the P310’s image quality is noticeably better than average for digicams in this class.
One of the biggest complaints consumers leveled at the P300 was its 720p HD movie mode. Nikon listened to those complaints and the P310's 1920x1080p @ 30fps HD movie mode produces sharply focused, properly exposed, color correct videos clips. The video clips I shot at the Extreme Park were consistently fluid with no jerkiness, sharply focused, with no blur even when my subjects were in motion in mid air. Colors were dependably accurate and exposure was reliably spot on.
I carried the snazzy little P310 around for several days and captured a broad range of pictures: street shots, urban landscapes, environmental portraits, macro images, and several documentary style images. The P310 is a 21st century reincarnation of those classic "street" cameras of yore. After spending some quality time with the P310 I believe that Jim Marshall would have felt right at home shooting The Rolling Stones up close and personal with this classy little P&S digicam and it's easy to imagine Henri Cartier-Bresson wandering the back streets of Paris with a P310 in his pants pocket.
I have been a photographer most of my adult life and a straight shooter almost as long. I never do any manipulation to my images - post exposure, except for some occasional minor cropping. I love documentary style images, available light photography, urban landscapes, shooting street/candid images, macro images, and environmental portraits. Actually after a week of carrying the P310 with me everywhere I went, I give the Nikon P310 Howard’s highest rating - I REALLY hated to return it.
One final note: Contrary to what epinions claims, the Nikon Coolpix P310 IS NOT A 3D CAMERA!
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This Camera is a Good Choice if You Want Something... Flexible Enough for Enthusiasts