Nikon Coolpix P310: premium compact camera at a bargain price

With an F1.8 lens, manual exposure controls, and a much lower price than its rivals, the Coolpix P310 offers excellent bang for the buck.

The Nikon Coolpix P310 is without peer at its price ($300 as of August 15, 2012). It's a premium compact camera priced more like your average point-and-shoot, with a fast F1.8 lens, manual exposure controls, very good image quality, and a pocket-size body. The Coolpix P310 offers the best bang for the buck you'll find in the premium-compact class, just as long as you don't need a long-zoom lens or a RAW mode.

Performance, Image Quality, and Video Quality

In PCWorld Labs jury evaluations for image quality, the Nikon Coolpix P310 largely lived up to its "premium compact" branding. It may not have the best overall image quality in the premium point-and-shoot realm, but it is among the best cameras we've tested this year.

The P310 earned scores of Very Good in three of the four testing categories (exposure quality, sharpness, and lack of distortion), and a Good score for color accuracy. Unlike most other cameras these days, the Coolpix P310 takes an understated approach to color reproduction; you don't see the punchy, oversaturated colors that you do in other cameras' pictures. That's not necessarily a bad thing, though skin tones do look a bit on the pale side.

The Coolpix P310's scores in our video tests weren't as impressive. In our bright-light tests it produced noticeably less contrast, sharpness, and detail than some of the better video-capable point-and-shoot cameras. In our low-light tests, the P310's 1080p/30-fps test clips looked so dark that we had a hard time picking up what was happening in front of the lens. Overall, the Coolpix P310 earned a score of Fair for video capture; we rated its audio pickup as Good.

With a rating of 230 shots per charge in CIPA's standardized tests, the Coolpix P310's rechargeable lithium ion battery ranked at the high end of our Fair range for battery life.

Shooting Modes and Features

These days most cameras in this price range are loaded with bells and whistles such as in-camera GPS and Wi-Fi capabilities. Instead, the Nikon Coolpix P310 is somewhat refreshing in its straightforward features, which Nikon is aiming solely at traditional photography.

The Coolpix P310 is a very good performer in macro mode, with the ability to get within an inch of the subject and capture a crisp shot--at least in well-lit situations. I also found that the camera's close-up focusing capabilities are even better if you switch to manual focus; in Auto mode, the camera's minimum focus distance is about an inch, but if you jump into aperture-priority mode and use manual focus, you can get within half an inch. In either case, the depth of field is impressively shallow for a camera with a relatively small 1/2.3-inch-type sensor.

As you'd expect in a premium compact camera, the Coolpix P310 goes beyond Auto mode and Program Auto mode and offers manual exposure controls, aperture-priority mode, and shutter-priority mode. One notable omission is a RAW-shooting mode. In addition to those manual controls, you'll find a custom entry on the mode dial labeled with a "U" for "user." When you set the camera to User mode, diving into the menus allows you to pick your own default settings.

Another entry on the mode dial gives you quick access to the camera's Night Landscape mode, which employs exposure bracketing and image stacking to produce crisp, clear photos in low-light settings without using a flash. The results are outstanding, but the camera takes about 8 seconds to process your photo in this mode. It's great for one-off photos in low light, but your shot-to-shot times will suffer as you wait for your images to write to your storage card; you can't use the camera while it processes the photos. You'll encounter the same slow save speeds while shooting video, but at least you can use the camera while you're waiting for a video to save to your card.

For high-speed shooting, you have other options. A Function button on the front of the camera provides access to burst-shooting settings: a 5-frames-per-second burst mode at full 16-megapixel resolution, a 120-fps high-speed mode at 640-by-480-pixel resolution, and a 60-fps mode at 1-megapixel resolution. The front-mounted Function button also provides access to a precapture buffer that starts taking 3-megapixel images once you half-press the shutter button, an interval timer that you can use for time-lapse photography, and a unique "Multi-shot 16" mode that creates a single mosaic of shots captured at high speed.

Since all of those options are available at the touch of the Function button, the rest of the settings menus stay clean, but there's a catch: Because the button is on the front of the camera, you sometimes forget it's there.

You access the camera's extensive array of scene modes in a more traditional way, via the mode dial; you'll find a single Scene position that brings up a menu of 20 scene-mode options. Along with mainstays such as portrait, fireworks, landscape, and sunset mode, the P310 has newfangled options such as a 3D capture mode (which records images as .MPO files) and two options for panoramic images: a motion-controlled panorama mode and a stitch-assist panorama mode that helps you compose up to six successive shots.

Some of the Coolpix P310's best features come into play after you take a picture. Like many of Nikon's cameras, the Coolpix P310 has excellent post-shot editing tools that you can apply to a copy of an original photo during playback. A few highlights among the post-shot tools are a Quick Retouch feature that brightens up colors and contrast in your images, a D-Lighting (dynamic lighting) option that brings out details in darker areas of a scene, a Miniature Effect filter that mimics a tilt-shift lens, and a Selective Color feature that lets you pick a single color to highlight in an otherwise black-and-white shot.

Although the P310 doesn't provide full manual exposure controls in video mode, it does put a couple of semimanual video options at your disposal. By pressing the left and right directions on the camera's control pad while capturing video, you can force the camera's autofocus system to readjust or lock the exposure settings for a particular scene. You can also trim down clips inside the camera.

Hardware and Design

Don't expect to find a long-zoom lens here; the Coolpix P310's 4.2X-optical-zoom lens reaches from 24mm to 100mm, making it a good option for wide-angle landscape shots, macro photography, and portraits. Its F1.8 maximum aperture at wide angle is the marquee feature of the lens; at full telephoto, that aperture stops down to a less-impressive maximum setting of F4.9.

The Coolpix P310 is a little black box that should fit in anyone's pocket, as its compact body measures 1.3 inches deep, 4.1 inches wide, and 2.3 inches tall. On the front of the camera is a small raised lip that acts more like a fingergrip than a handgrip. However, the camera has so many controls at its top-right corner that you'll probably be better off shooting with two hands; bracing the camera with your left hand gives your thumb more freedom to operate the camera's zoom, shutter-release, and shutter-speed controls in manual mode. Near the raised fingergrip is the aforementioned Function button.

The top of the P310 hosts a mechanical pop-up flash on the left side. You operate it by using a switch on the left side of the camera, and you can put the flash back into the body by pressing down on it with your finger. The top of the camera also has stereo microphones, as well as several controls over on the top right side. You'll find a traditional mode dial with eight options (auto, program auto, manual, aperture priority, shutter-priority, scene modes, Night Landscape, and the user-defined mode), the shutter/zoom control, the on/off button, and an unlabeled dial that you use to adjust shutter-speed settings in manual mode.

That unlabeled dial is a bit underutilized. For example, you can't use it to adjust manual focus or ISO settings in other shooting modes. It's functional only in manual mode, and it merely lets you adjust your shutter speed.

To the right of the 3-inch, 921,000-dot LCD on the back of the camera are four dedicated buttons and a scrolling directional pad. A dedicated record button and a playback button sit near the top of the camera, and a menu button and delete button reside near the bottom. In addition to menu navigation and one-touch access to flash settings, exposure compensation, macro mode, and the self-timer, the directional pad controls the P310's manual focus settings (when you press up and down), aperture values (when you scroll), and other in-camera settings depending on the mode the camera is in. A Mini HDMI port on the side and a Micro-USB port on the bottom round out the camera's hardware features.

Bottom Line

Other pocketable premium cameras are out there, but most of them cost at least $400. If you're looking for a pocketable point-and-shoot camera with manual controls and good low-light performance, you won't find a lower-priced option than the Nikon Coolpix P310. It requires you to make some compromises: You have to do without a RAW-shooting mode, a big sensor, and a long-zoom lens, and you'll have to wait for Night Landscape shots and high-definition videos to save. Nevertheless, the Coolpix P310 gives budget-minded photographers a nice F1.8 lens and manual exposure controls to work with, and it takes great-looking photos in most lighting conditions. In fact, even if you ignore its bargain price, this is one of the best pocket cameras available right now.

This story, "Nikon Coolpix P310: premium compact camera at a bargain price" was originally published by PCWorld.

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