The Nikon Coolpix P310 ($329.95 direct) may be billed as a point-and-shoot camera, but it's clearly designed with serious photographers in mind. A wide aperture lens and a thoughtful physical control layout let you take full command of the camera's settings, and image quality is excellent for its class. More casual snapshooters may be turned off by the 16-megapixel camera's size—it's a little large for its class—and limited zoom range. For that reason the smaller, longer zooming Sony Cyber-shot DSC-WX150 ($249.99, 4.5 stars) wins our Editors' Choice winner for compact point-and-shoot cameras, but photographic enthusiasts will want to give the P310 serious consideration when shopping for a pocket camera.
Design and Features
The P310 measures 2.3 by 4.1 by 1.3 inches (HWD) and weighs 6.9 ounces. Its body isn't quite as deep as you'd think from those figures—the lens extends out a quarter inch or so, even when retracted. When you compare it to a traditionally designed compact camera like the Panasonic Lumix DMC-SZ7 ($199.99, 3 stars) it's noticeably bigger. The SZ7 measures just 2.4 by 3.9 by 0.9 inches and is lighter at 4.8 ounces.
The larger size is due in part to the P310's lens. Even though it boasts a modest 4.2x zoom range, the 24-100mm (35mm equivalent) lens opens all the way up to f/1.8 at its widest setting, which captures a little more than twice the amount of light than most competing cameras, including the Canon PowerShot Elph 320 HS ($279.99, 3.5 stars). Even though the camera has a fast lens, its image sensor is the same size as found on most compacts, 1/2.3 inches. Our current Editors' Choice high-end compact, the Canon PowerShot S100 ($429.99, 4.5 stars) has a larger 1/1.7-inch sensor, a comparably fast f/2 lens, and adds the support for Raw shooting that the P310 lacks. Even more promising is the upcoming Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX100 ($649.99), which features a large 1-inch sensor, the same size that is found in the Nikon J1 ($649.95, 3.5 stars), and an f/1.8 lens.
In addition to a Mode dial, the camera has two dials to control functions—one on the top and one on the rear—plus a programmable Function button on the front, and controls for Flash, EV Compensation, Macro shooting, Movie recording and the Self Timer on the rear. The camera is configured so that you won't often have to dive into menus to adjust settings when shooting. But when you do, you'll be greeted by a menu system that occupies the entirety of the rear display. Most other cameras, including the Sony WX150, employ an overlay menu that doesn't completely obscure your frame, which is an interface Nikon has yet to adopt.
The rear display itself is gorgeous. It's 3 inches in size and has a 921k-dot resolution. This high-res design makes it crystal clear, and it's bright enough to use when the sun is shining. The display is one area where the P310 trumps the Sony WX150—even though the Sony's screen looks good on its own, when you place it side-by-side with the Nikon the difference in quality is noticeable.
Performance and Conclusions
The P310 is a great camera for enthusiasts, but it does have one aspect that is sure to frustrate those used to shooting with D-SLRs. Its shutter lag, the time between pressing the shutter down and the camera taking the picture, clocks in at about 0.4-second. That delay can cause you to miss a shot, which is a blemish on an otherwise excellent performer. It can start and fire a photo in about 1.6 seconds and grab a 5-shot burst of photos in a second, or shoot continuously with about a second between each photo. The Sony WX150 wins the shutter lag battle—it doesn't have any. That camera is able to start up in 1.4 seconds and can grab a burst of 10 shots with only 0.15-second between each photo.
I used Imatest to measure the sharpness of the P310's photos, and the results were good. It scored 1,865 lines per picture height at its widest angle and aperture, which exceeds the 1,800 lines required for a sharp photo. The Canon Elph 320 HS is sharper, netting 2,247 lines, but its touch screen interface is sure to frustrate photographers who like to adjust shooting settings.
Imatest also measures noise in photos, which can make shots appear overly grainy and hurt image detail. Noise is kept under control through ISO 800, and more importantly the camera does so without hurting image quality. If you need to shoot at a higher ISO, be happy to know that ISO 1600 only records 1.6 percent noise, and while fine details suffer a bit at this setting, it's still pretty good. ISO 3200 is useable in a pinch, but fine detail is washed away by this point, and the top setting of ISO 6400 should be avoided if possible. The P310 does a much better job at higher ISOs than the Panasonic SZ7—even though that camera records less than 1.5% noise through ISO 1600, the images don't have nearly the clarity of those from the P310 at that setting. Compound this with the Nikon's faster lens, which allows you to shoot at a lower ISO in the same light, and you have a camera that does well in even dim lighting.
The P310 records 1080p30 video in QuickTime format. The quality is excellent; footage is sharp and colors are crisp and accurate. You can zoom in and out while recording, and the noise of the lens moving in and out is only barely audible on the soundtrack. A mini HDMI port is there to connect to an HDTV, and the P310 hides a proprietary USB port on its bottom. This port doubles as the connector for the AC adapter—there's no dedicated battery charger included, so remember that you'll have to plug it into a wall to recharge the battery. This can be a concern to shooters who opt to buy a second battery, as you won't be able to recharge one battery while shooting with the other. Standard SD, SDHC, and SDXC memory cards are supported.
Despite a few flaws, the Nikon Coolpix P310 is a compact camera that should keep serious shooters happy. Its image quality and control layout are excellent, and the fast lens and good high ISO quality make it a very versatile shooter. It's priced lower than most enthusiast compacts, although if you're willing to spend another $100 you can move up to our Editors' Choice enthusiast compact Canon PowerShot S100, which features a bigger image sensor, Raw shooting support, and a GPS. If you're looking for a smaller camera and don't care about manual controls, our Editors' Choice compact Sony Cyber-shot DSC-WX150 is worth a look—it packs a 10x zoom lens into a teensy form factor, without sacrificing image quality or performance.
This review is in partnership with PCMag.com.