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Nikon Coolpix S510
Overview

by Mike Pasini
Review Date: 03/07/08

The Nikon Coolpix S510 features an 8-megapixel CCD coupled to a Nikkor-branded 3x optical zoom lens with VR optical image stabilization. The Coolpix S510 offers a 2.5-inch 230,000 pixel LCD for framing and playback, but like many other small cameras these days, the Nikon S510 includes no optical viewfinder.

Nikon is known for a few special features that are included in the Nikon S510, including D-Lighting (which enhances darker images to improve shadow detail), Best Shot Selector mode (which takes a series of shots, letting the camera automatically pick the sharpest shot and discard the others), Red-Eye Fix (which automatically finds red-eye in your images and eliminates it) and finally Face-Priority AF (which, as the name implies, automatically focuses on faces).

Other Coolpix S510 features include an ISO range of 64 to 2,000, 52MB of built-in memory, a Secure Digital slot which is also compatible with newer SDHC cards, as well as USB and NTSC/PAL video connectivity. The Coolpix S510 draws power from a custom rechargeable lithium-ion battery and a charger is included in the product bundle.

The Nikon Coolpix S510 ships from September 2007, priced at US$279.95.

 

Nikon Coolpix S510
User Report

by Mike Pasini

I didn't so much test the Nikon Coolpix S510 as put it to work. After spending a few minutes with the Coolpix S510, it became clear that this was just the thing for my CES show coverage. It accompanied me to Macworld Expo and PMA, too.

Closed. Compact, light. Small microphone grill just below lens

Open. Quick on the draw, too.

I shot those shows with a dSLR, too, but the Coolpix S510 was my pocket camera for those shots that needed the convenience of a point-and-shoot. Like shooting out the window of the plane, across a dinner table, or at some poorly-lit venue where a macro shot was just the ticket.

So what made the Nikon S510 such an indispensable companion?

First, it's compact. There was always a place for the Nikon S510 in a coat pocket, shirt pocket, or camera bag, so I never had to leave it behind.

Second, it's quick. It starts up faster than I can decide how I want to handle the shot, and shuts down before I can get it back in my pocket. And the shutter is fast, too.

Third, I didn't have to use the Nikon S510's flash to get shots in low light. The combination of high ISO sensitivity and a lens with vibration reduction meant I could avoid the flash.

Fourth, the Nikon Coolpix S510's 2.5-inch LCD was big enough to both compose and evaluate images.

LCD. Nice big LCD, just a few controls.

There are other reasons to like this compact, versatile Coolpix. But those were the ones that delayed this review a few weeks while I put it to work.

Look and Feel. There's a striking resemblance between the Nikon S510 and the popular Canon PowerShot SD1000. They are both slim, compact, metal boxes, and they're about the same size. When a friend with the SD1000 propped them up next to each other, we found that the Nikon S510 is a little thicker. The little ELPH may have inspired Nikon to broaden the S-series Coolpix line with its S200, S500, S600, and S700 models.

Size is no small factor. Because I could fit the Nikon Coolpix S510 somewhere whenever I was off on an errand, it came along everywhere. And because I had it with me, I took pictures of things I might not otherwise have shot. Pleased with the results, I made a point to set the Nikon S510 down where my house keys were.

Bottom. Tripod mount, locking compartment cover, SD card (in front), and battery.

The Coolpix S510 surprised me with its versatility, handling difficult lighting in trade shows, poor visibility out airplane windows, no-flash museum venues, tight shots in small rooms, screen shots of the iPod Touch, close-ups of the Nikon D300, food shots at Chinese New Year, night shots in Las Vegas, you name it.

Controls. Real simple: Zoom, Mode, Playback, Menu, Trash, Navigator with Flash, EV, Macro and Self-Timer options.

Because it's light and compact, there's really no grip on the Nikon S510, just a place to grab the small box with your right hand. There is a small column of bumps on the back panel for your thumb to rub against but nothing on the front but a smooth surface. And that wasn't a problem at all.

Controls were minimal and easily reached with my thumb. The Nikon S510's Zoom lever was above my thumb and the scrolling navigator below it, surrounded by four buttons: Mode, Playback, Trash, and Menu. And an OK button sits in the center of the Nikon S510's navigator, which itself spins delightfully around to serve as a scroll device, too. On top there's just the Power button and the rectangular Shutter button.

Top. Nice, big Shutter button and a compact Power button with a green status LED. Note the small speaker grill, too.

The only viewfinder is the Nikon S510's 2.5-inch LCD with 230,000 pixels, a wide viewing angle and an anti-reflection coating. I never missed an optical viewfinder.

The lens itself is a multi-coated 3x optical Nikkor zoom with five elements in five groups. Aperture ranges from f/2.8 at wide-angle to f/4.7 at telephoto with a range of 35mm to 105mm in 35mm equivalents. The Coolpix S510's lens also features Nikon's vibration reduction technology which lets you hand-hold the camera at shutter speeds below 1/60 second. And on the Nikon S510, VR can be set with Response Priority so it's nearly as fast as not having it on.

Macro mode gets you as close as 5.9 inches to your subject but is optimized for telephoto focal lengths, oddly enough, so it only seems like you're touching the subject with the front of the Nikon S510's lens.

Icon Display. Fits everything on one screen with a text description on top. Here I'm about to format the SD card.

Interface. Nikon has really designed the best button interface I've ever seen on a digicam. It starts with just a few buttons, all with the same function no matter which Coolpix you buy.

Buttons are reserved for functions that you might want to change from shot-to-shot. The Nikon S510's Zoom lever is an obvious example, but the navigator obeys that principle as well. You can change the Flash mode, EV setting, Macro mode and Self-Timer mode from the arrow buttons. The Trash button will delete the captured image and the Playback mode button makes it simple to turn the camera into a playback device to review your images. Beyond those functions, you have a Mode button to make serious changes (like slip into Movie or Setup mode) and the Menu button to make general changes within a mode using the LCD menu system.

Record Modes. Auto, Hi ISO, Scene modes, Voice Memo, Movie mode and Setup all available at the spin of the navigator dial. Movie mode is active but I'm about to switch to Auto.

When you get into that menu system, you'll enjoy a very intelligent color scheme based on grays that uses yellow for the highlight color. Unlike most systems, you are never confused about which item has been selected or is active.

You can view menu options either in a list of text options or as icons with a message line to explain what each is. That saves some paging, so it's worth trying.

Help Display. Press the T on the Zoom lever to find out about the selected option. Here I wanted to know about the autofocus area modes.

And if you get confused about an option, all you have to do is press the Telephoto end of the Zoom bar to bring up a help page.

The Nikon S510's interface, in short, is really well done. And it's been consistently well done for some time now. So if you're upgrading, you've got nothing new to learn.

Modes. The Nikon Coolpix S510 has six Shooting modes and five Playback modes.

Shooting modes include Auto, High Sensitivity, Scene, Voice Recording, Movie, and Setup. Scene mode itself includes Portrait, Landscape, Sports, Night Portrait, Party/Indoor, Beach/Snow, Sunset, Dusk/Dawn, Night Landscape, Close Up, Museum, Fireworks Show, Copy, Backlight, and Panorama Assist.

Calendar Display. Four shots on Feb. 22.

Date Display. Same four shots on Feb. 22.

I spent almost all of my time in the Nikon S510's Auto mode, sometimes using the navigator for Macro. I'm used to using the EV option to cheat exposure up or down, so I really didn't bother much with the Scene modes in normal shooting.

Playback modes include Play, Calendar, List by Date, Audio Playback, and Setup.

Special Features. The Nikon S510 offers ISO sensitivity up to ISO 2,000 but it doesn't make it easy to get there.

In normal Auto mode with Auto ISO, ISO is set to 64 under normal conditions, minimizing noise. If required, however, the Nikon S510's ISO can climb up to 1,000. At ISO 400 you can see some noise in the images but it isn't objectionable.

High ISO. The High ISO setting uses 1,600, up from the auto range of 64 to 1,000. But you can also manually select ISO 2,000.

In High Sensitivity Scene mode, like my night shots in Las Vegas, ISO is set to 1,600.

To use ISO 2,000, you have to manually select it from the ISO menu option. But you can still shoot at the maximum resolution the sensor provides. There is no pixel binning (switching to smaller image sizes) at high ISO on the Coolpix S510.

The Nikon S510 can display your images not only sequentially like other digicams, but also sorted by date. You can select a particular date from a list or use a calendar view to find the date you want.

Higher ISO. Here's ISO 2,000 lighting up the NuLOOQ by the glow of a small monitor. It's soft, but color is very accurate and there's enough detail to read the logo, too.

The Nikon Coolpix S510 can also record voice memos, a very handy function. Voice recording is simply another Record mode option. Pressing the Shutter button starts recording and pressing it a second time stops recording.

Storage and Battery. The Coolpix S510 is powered by an EN-EL10 3.7 volt 740 mAh lithium-ion battery that provides about 170 shots. That's if you use flash on half of them. But with its high ISO option, that isn't really necessary, so you can count on over 200 shots per charge. I never ran out of juice, charging the battery only a couple of times over a six week period.

An AC adapter (EH-62D) is also available.

Images are stored on SD/SDHC cards with 52MB of internal storage available as well. The 3,264 x 2,448 pixel images from the 8.1-megapixel sensor run between 1.9MB and 2.6MB each, depending on the subject.

Performance. Startup time is slightly above average at 1.9 seconds, full autofocus shutter lag is also just above average, at 0.68 to 0.70 seconds.

Pre-focus time was a quick 0.088 second, which would rank above average among dSLRs. That's not really a surprise though, as there is no mirror to flip out of the way first. It's a little slower than some of its competition, however, including the Sony W200, whose 0.008 second pre-focus time is among the fastest on the market.

Flash cycle time was faster than average, requiring only 5.7 seconds to recharge the flash. Weight also ranked better than average, meaning the Nikon S510 is lighter than most.

Both the 2.5-inch LCD size and 3x optical zoom ranked average, no surprise. Cycle time was average too, at 2.12 seconds per full resolution shot, as was continuous mode at 1.06 large/fine frames-per-second.

The only below-average ranking was in USB download speed. The USB 1.x speeds are no match for cameras offering USB 2.0 Hi-Speed. But the simple solution to that is to use a card reader or a folding SanDisk Plus card which turns into a USB connector.

Zoom Range. 35mm to 105mm to 4x digital zoom.

Shooting. Admittedly, using a compact digicam to cover a trade show where the largest image I publish is 450 pixels wide or tall isn't much of a test. Reducing the images to that size from 3,264 pixels can hide a lot of problems, sharpening blurred shots and cleaning up noise.

But what you learn about a camera shooting in an exhibition hall is how well it adapts to unusual lighting (accurate white balance, real color), how nimble it is to use (fast focus, quick shutter), how close you can shoot (Macro mode), and how sensitive the sensor is (high ISO capability). Obviously, I was pleased enough with the results from the Coolpix S510 that I took it to three trade shows, not just one.

That's not to say the results were spot on. But the Nikon S510 brought home images that were at most a tweak or two away from the quality required to publish. And that meant I felt confident taking some pretty bad shots on the trade floor, knowing I could massage those pixels into a pretty nice shot later.

The iPod Touch shot is a good example of that. I brought up the newsletter home page on its screen, which I held with one hand in the darkened Apple booth, and took the shot with the Nikon S510 in my other hand. If you scour the Exif header, you'll see it's pretty much an Auto-everything shot of a small computer screen, exposure influenced primarily by the brightness of the screen. Not even Macro mode was set.

iPod Touch Screen. Casual shot captured every pixel.

Exposure time was a hand-holdable 1/56 second (but VR was on) at f/4.4 with the Nikon S510's Auto ISO raised only to 76. Take a look at the high resolution image to see just how sharp it is -- you can see every pixel of the iPod Touch screen.

Similarly the computer-generated embroidery at the Brother booth at CES required an Auto ISO of 290 to maintain a shutter speed of 1/87 second at f/2.8. All auto settings, again. Look at the full resolution image to see every thread in the pattern. You can quibble about the white balance, but since it was a trade show, it's hard to say that wasn't accurate. It is correctable, though, which is what I meant by a "little tweak" above.

16:9. Sometimes nothing else will do.

The Nikon S510 offers 16:9 aspect ratio, too, a feature I really enjoy when shooting landscapes (particularly if they're destined for display on an HDTV). I caught an approaching storm through the kitchen window one afternoon. At Auto ISO 64, the shutter fired at 1/615 second at f/9.4 (which is well stopped down). I didn't fiddle with Exposure Compensation, which I tend to do at the kitchen window. And the Nikon S510 delivered an accurate shot, capturing the subtle modeling of the clouds, the blinding shine on the Pacific Ocean, and the blue of the sky. An accurate color and tonal rendering, in short.

It's winter here, so the garden is a little shy of flowers. But I was able to find a few to test the ability of the Nikon S510 to render color. We have tests for this sort of thing, of course (detailed in the next section), but I didn't take those shots so I don't have a reference for the color. I did know exactly what the miniature rose on the dining room table looked like, though. So I took a shot.

Rose Test. Highlights on petals, accurate color on red rose.

It's a brutal test. Very high contrast, with the afternoon sun blazing down on the white tablecloth, half the rose fully light, the other half not lit at all, the shiny leaves perfect candidates for blown-out highlights. And the main subject a difficult red. But the Nikon S510 captured the color accurately at ISO 64. Red really is a tough color to capture for most digicams, but the Nikon S510 was dead on. And if you look at the full resolution image, you'll see just how sharp the image is, holding the hairs of the green foliage and the texture of the red petals.

The last gallery shot I'll draw your attention to is one of the first images I shot with the camera. Waiting for a flight out of the International Terminal at SFO, I spent some time in the airport library where an exhibit of antique toys with an aeronautic theme was on display.

Noise. ISO 665 in a museum, through glass.

The first toy that caught my attention was a stamped polychrome tin airport with a biplane circling it titled Girard Mechanical Airplane toy with clockwork mechanism from 1925. No flash was allowed (a good thing anyway since I had to shoot through glass). At f/4.7 and Auto ISO 665, my shutter speed was a ridiculous 1/8 second. That's where Nikon's lens-shift Vibration Reduction came in handy. It's noisy but it's a sharp shot, the lettering on the plane clearly visible.

The Nikon S510's Movie mode was decent, providing a high quality 640 x 480 and 30 frames per second option in addition to 320 x 240 at 30 fps or 15 fps, and 160 x 120 at 15 fps.

Click to view movie. AVI player required.

High Quality Movie. An 8.4MB file lasting eight seconds. Optical zoom was available, starting wide. (Click to download AVI file.)

I only say "decent," because only digital zoom is available in Movie mode. The problem with that is that you can never start a shot zoomed in. Yes, you can crank out optical zoom to the full 3x, but you can't crank out the digital zoom to its full 4x. You have to start Movie mode to use digital zoom. So you always start at wide-angle. That's a big limitation.

Movie mode does provide two other cool options, though. Time-lapse captures images at preset intervals that are joined in a single 640 x 480 movie at 30 fps. And the Stop-motion option lets you fire the Nikon S510's shutter when you like, assembling the 640 x 480 images in a movie you can play back at 5, 10, or 15 fps.

Image Quality. My requirements weren't very demanding. Our show coverage doesn't need anything higher than 450 pixels in the longest dimension. To really appreciate the image quality of the Nikon S510, you have to take a look at two of our test images.

The first test image is our Multi Target test shot. There are several of them, but the one I prefer to use is the "MULTIT" image, which is telephoto focal length at the highest resolution. The shot shows us several things, but just for fun, let's compare what it shows us to the Canon SD1000, a very sweet camera and a Dave's Pick.

Let's first look at each corner. You'll notice that the Canon has a bright discoloration characteristic of chromatic aberration on the arrows in the corners while the Nikon S510 does not.

Now let's look at the center of the image where the horizontal and vertical resolution targets are. You can clearly see to about 1,200 lines, perhaps slightly more, on the 7.1-megapixel Canon image. On the Nikon S510 image, you can see clearly to about the same resolution. The lines, that is, are distinct and not confused with JPEG artifacting. But the Nikon lines are softer generally. Edges just aren't as crisp.

The other test image of particular interest is the Still Life at the lowest (or natural) ISO of the sensor. For the Canon, this is the ISO 100 shot and for the Nikon it's also the ISO 100 shot.

In these two shots, we can see what the Nikon S510's softness really means. Look along the middle of the top edge for the WhiBal card and note how much sharper the Canon is. Come straight down to the Hellas vinegar label and look at the dark mosaic around the figure (to say nothing of the figure itself). Even at the center of the image, the Canon is significantly sharper. Now slide over to the right where the dark coffee cup sits on a white cloth. Compare the right edge of the cloth against the black cloth below it. Notice how the Nikon S510 shot exhibits a bleed of the bright tone into the dark tone? And that the Canon does not?

Those are all, in my book, serious and unfortunate flaws. It's important to note that, as Nikon recommends, Vibration Reduction was turned off for these tripod-mounted shots. You can confirm this in the MakerNotes section of the Exif page.

Speedometer. Through glass but still pretty sharp.

When we printed the images, the largest we could go was 11 x 14 inches, and those were a tad soft. ISO 1,600 shots were usable, if a little soft, at 4x6, proving the Nikon Coolpix S510 to be a good snapshot camera whose images can be cropped and still make a decent 8x10. Not the best we've seen, but good for most people.

But before I wrote off the Nikon S510, I thought I'd see how it did in real life. Compare, for example, the speedometer shot, which is surprisingly crisp, type and all, considering it's behind glass. The pink wildflowers shot in Macro mode (with VR on) were also quite sharp. As was the handheld Pontiac badge, shot in the shade.

Wildflowers. Excellent color -- and sharp.

Noise at high ISO has always been a tradeoff between color and detail. Nikon has traditionally focused on detail. That makes their high ISO images appear rather grainy compared to, say, Sony's. But there's a lot more information in Nikon's approach. And a little post-processing to smooth out the noise (even just resampling down) still yields a good image. The ISO 2,000 image of the Logitech NuLOOQ is an extreme example, but it shows what the camera can capture in very dim light. And the various thumbnails of it from the gallery to the full resolution image, show the validity of Nikon's approach.

What about that slight flaring of the white highlights? Well, the fire hydrant shot confirms that defect. Look particularly at the knob on top.

And yet the defects are really rather minimal in on-screen viewing. These issues might be problems for fine art images printed larger than 8 x 10, but they don't seem to have ruined any of the gallery shots.

Appraisal. With one of those classic compact camera designs married to a very well organized menu system, it's easy to make friends with the Coolpix S510. While test images were soft and exhibited some highlight flaring, they also showed very little chromatic aberration. And our gallery shots, sharp if not the sharpest we've seen, had natural color and control of highlight detail. It's a fun take-anywhere camera that requires almost no thought to enjoy, but you should think twice if you expect to enlarge your images bigger than 8x10.

 

Basic Features

 

Special Features

 

In the Box

The Nikon Coolpix S510 ships with the following items in the box:

 

Recommended Accessories

 

Conclusion

Pro: Con:
  • Very compact and stylish body design
  • Quick startup
  • Well-organized, easy-to-read menu system
  • Integrated Help system
  • Responsive shutter with good pre-focus shutter lag speed
  • Vibration Reduction lens for slow handheld shutter speeds
  • Accurate tonal and color capture
  • Slightly soft images
  • Some flaring of strong highlights
  • Corner shading ("vignetting") visible in some wide-angle shots
  • USB 1.1 connection slows downloads
  • Prints better kept to 8x10, even at lowest ISO

 

While our test shots were a little disappointing, the compact and well-designed Nikon Coolpix S510 was an immediate hit with me. I packed it along to three trade shows where it caught the action with ease, whether it was a dimly lit ballroom, a close-up of a small LCD or just a quick portrait. There was nothing it couldn't handle.

The Nikon S510's menu system is particularly noteworthy, enjoying the same well-organized and easy-to-read menus of other recent Coolpix cameras. The Help system was also a treat, particularly valuable for understanding some of the more sophisticated options on the Nikon S510 like Vibration Reduction and High ISO shooting.

Printed results weren't as good as we expect from an 8-megapixel camera, unfortunately, so though we can't give the Nikon S510 a Dave's Pick, we can say it's an easy to use, well-designed little pocket camera, great for snapshots that you don't plan to print bigger than 8x10 inches.