Birding with the Nikon P510 and Canon SX50 – Part 1
I’ve decided to break this article into two installments, so as not to delay publishing it indefinitely… This first segment will offer some overall impressions of the Nikon P510. It will be followed with a separate and similar posting on our impressions of the Canon SX50.
First I want to emphasize that we use all our cameras pretty much exclusively for our bird photography. Which is to say: we shoot outdoors, mostly at low ISO, and nearly always with the long-end of the lens (at or near maximum optical focal lengths). We generally don’t shoot much indoors, nor do we take many people shots, street scenes, landscapes, or do much wide-angle photography of any kind. So what I’ll have to say about these cameras will be very specific to our birding, and definitely not constitute a comprehensive review. I hope these observations might nevertheless be useful to readers with comparable applications.
I shot with the Nikon P510 daily and exclusively for about 4 weeks. Temple used it only little, preferring to let me discover it and decide about optimal settings and custom mode presets. The camera doesn’t offer RAW output, but many users prefer shooting JPEG (for a variety of valid reasons), and Nikon has provided menu controls for several aspects of the in-camera processing, including Noise Reduction, Sharpness, Contrast, Saturation and more. After some initial testing, I elected to reduce many of these default jpeg settings to allow greater latitude in my post-processing, but I would say that the defaults should produce satisfying results for many users who prefer to avoid post-processing. I took a couple thousand shots of the birds during this period and kept hundreds of them, but have processed only a dozen or so for the gallery at this point. I hope to post more of them shortly.
I found the lens to be nicely sharp throughout the telephoto range and generally free of objectionable distortion across the frame. We usually crop our shots to some degree, so softness in the corners normally isn’t a problem for us anyway, but I’d give this lens high marks for the kind of shooting we typically do. The 16mp CMOS sensor captures good detail and produces reasonably clean images with noise generally well-controlled and uniform. At ISO100 cropping to 50% is easily manageable in well-exposed shots, and full-resolution IQ while a bit grainy, is still largely free of smearing and the dreaded CMOS “painterly effects”. So high marks again in overall image quality.
I prefer shooting in Manual mode to maintain control over both exposure and depth of field (to the extent possible). Unfortunately, the P510 viewfinder does not respond to manual shutter and aperture adjustments, but rather displays the selected mode of auto-exposure instead. This behavior (which is apparently common to all but Canon EVFs when shooting in Manual mode) renders Manual mode essentially useless to me. Using it does allow manual control of shutter speed and aperture, but what you see in the EVF prior to releasing the shutter is not what you get (WYSINWYG). Also, sensitivity is fixed at ISO100 when shooting in Manual Mode. So… I chose to shoot the P510 in Aperture or Shutter Priority mode, and set the Auto-ISO limit to ISO400. This way, exposures can be reasonably controlled using spot metering and half-press exposure locking based on what’s seen in the viewfinder. I found this method workable, but really not to my liking. I should add that like most small-sensor cameras, the P510 definitely produces it’s best image quality at its lowest ISO setting (ISO100), but its Auto-ISO algorithm tends to favor higher ISOs (and thus higher shutter speeds) even when its image stabilization (which is very good) could have handled a slower shutter and lower ISO setting. This is probably more a matter of preferred technique than a serious shortcoming in camera design, but these things are important to me.
Auto-Focus is the one automatic feature we always use in all our cameras. The P510 AF is pretty average I’d say… a bit more consistent than some cameras I’ve used, but also consistently slow to lock. Not a major failing really, but neither is it a strong point in its operation. Failure to focus in low light or on distant targets is fairly common, but really not much moreso than with other contrast-based AF cameras we’ve used. Fortunately, focusing is consistently accurate however. Once locked on target, it does focus sharply.
A few niceties and niggles:
The LCD screen of the P510 is the highest resolution of any camera we’ve yet used, which should be appreciated by those who use it to compose their shots. It does tilt to accommodate awkward angle shooting, but does not fully articulate to allow closing it against the camera body… so it is always exposed to being soiled and/or scratched.
I found the default “foldering” of bursts and series shots very awkward (frustrating) when reviewing images on the camera. This makes quick “chimping” and removal of missed shots a drudgery. If there is a way to alter this behavior, I did not find it.
The camera charges its batteries via the USB connector, which is nice when uploading images using this connection. But it does not come with a standalone charger which makes it difficult to keep spares charged up.
In summary: The P510 offers a sharp lens with very long reach (1000mm), and a 16mp CMOS sensor which can produce birding and wildlife images of very good quality at a very attractive price. Like all such small-sensor superzooms its handling and feature set will be preferred by some more than others. But those who choose it will get a lot of birding camera for their money.
I’ll be adding more images to our P510 Samples Gallery as time allows. And we’ll be posting our impressions of the SX50 also as soon as possible.
Hope this is helpful,