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Nikon Coolpix P310 Overview

Posted: 01/31/2012

You've probably been there: great photo opportunity, difficult ambient lighting. You've left your SLR or system camera at home, because you didn't feel like turning another day into an extended workout session. Now you're regretting your decision. Your smartphone isn't even worth trying; all you'll get is a blur. Perhaps it's got an LED "flash", but even if it has enough power, it'll take the soul out of the shot. You vow not to let this happen again--it's time for a second camera. It doesn't have to beat your interchangeable-lensed beauty, it just has to fit in your coat pocket or shoulder bag, not give you a hernia, and offer good enough image quality to get some decent prints. This is the scenario that Nikon had in mind when it developed the Coolpix P310, a digital camera it bills as the "serious photographer's pocket companion".

From the get-go, it's clear this isn't a camera for the snapshooter. There's no trendy color choices here, no eye-catching design statements, no form-before-function touch-screen interfaces. It looks like a camera. It comes in that classic camera color: black. It has buttons. Quite a few of them, and not just on the top and back panels: there's one on the front, to give your fingertips something to do. There are--count them, one, two, three dials, including the Mode dial. There's an f/1.8 maximum aperture at the 24mm-equivalent wide angle! It is a camera, not just a smartphone with the phone taken out! OK, the maximum aperture falls to f/4.9 by the 100mm-equivalent telephoto position, but this is the real world, and the laws of optics do apply.

What's behind that relatively bright lens piques your interest, too. The 1/2.3-inch sensor is packed with megapixels, yes--sixteen of them, to be exact. It's a backside-illuminated CMOS chip, though. You know this stuff: BSI means it'll grab hold of more of that light, and CMOS means you won't be waiting around until next week for another shot. Despite all that resolution, the combination of a BSI CMOS sensor and Nikon's EXPEED C2 image processor means you can look forward to five frames in a second burst shooting at full resolution, and a genuinely useful ISO sensitivity range of 100 to 3,200 equivalents, plus both Hi 1 and Hi 2 settings. That's ISO 6,400 and 12,800 equivalents, respectively. (Note, though, that at the latter setting, color imaging isn't possible: the Nikon P310 sacrifices color information at the highest sensitivity, in favor of at least getting a picture at all, even if it's limited to black & white.)

As you'd expect, there's no optical or electronic viewfinder here. That's not a dealbreaker--you're looking to keep the size and weight down, after all. Shooting at arm's length is a small price to pay for that goal, and the P310 boasts a high-resolution three-inch LCD panel, with 921,000 dots. That's roughly a VGA (640 x 480 pixel) array, with each pixel comprising separate red, green, and blue dots, and should make focusing a fairly pleasant experience. (Speaking of which, in macro mode you'll be able to focus down to just two centimeters, or a little under an inch, if you can manage not to bury your subject in shadow from that distance.)

If you feel like unleashing your creative side in-camera, rather than waiting to get back to your digital darkroom, the Nikon Coolpix P310's ready to lend a hand. Pre-capture effects include Soft Focus, Sepia, High Key, Low Key, High Contrast Monochrome, Selective Color, Painting, Silhouette, and High ISO Monochrome. Post-capture, you can tweak your shots with Selective Color, Cross Screen, Fisheye, Miniature, or Painting filters. And yes, there are scene modes. We might shun these training wheels of the photography world ourselves, but occasionally we'll probably let somebody else take a quick snapshot or two, and they'll probably appreciate not having to deal with shutter speeds, apertures, and all the other things we live and breathe. They can pick-and-choose from 21 scene modes, instead, or let the camera do the choosing in the Scene Auto Selector mode. Heck, they can rely on the Smart Portrait System, if they like.

The P310 won't just be used for still imaging, either. You can record Full HD (1,920 x 1,080 pixel) high-def video with it. (Yay, another bulky gadget you can maybe leave at home! Bye bye, camcorder...) We don't yet have the details on frame rates and resolutions, but we do know that the P310 records stereo audio, courtesy of two mic ports on its top deck.

For storage, the Nikon P310 offers up 90MB of built-in memory, plus an SD card slot. That's enough for a fair few shots if you happen to misplace your flash card, and you can shoot to your heart's content on high-capacity SDHC or SDXC cards, which you're probably already using with your interchangeable-lens camera. Power comes from an EN-EL12 proprietary lithium ion pack, rated as good for 230 shots to CIPA testing standards, one or two batteries will likely sustain you through a weekend's shooting. (If you're planning on more than that, you can always bring your SLR or system camera, after all...)

So... there's just that small matter of the price, and while it's certainly not an impulse buy, it's not going to break the bank. Set to ship from February 2012, the Nikon Coolpix P310 carries suggested retail pricing of around US$330. Now all you need is the Imaging Resource review, and you're set! (Watch this space...)