Tuesday, 28 April 2015

The Nikon Coolpix P610 Superzoom Bridge Camera for Birding and Wildlife - Video and Stills In the Wild

I can now report on how the P610 performed over two weeks in the state of Gujarat, India. In short, I used it for 95% of my video and 95% of the still photographs. Originally, I was intending to use the camcorder for video plus the odd still and the Nikon for stills where I needed a focal length of greater than 500 mm (in full-frame 35 mm equivalents). The longest focal length I can manage on my Sony camcorder with the awkward screw-in extender fitted is 300 x 1.7 = 510 mm.

I only used my Sony Camcorder for 5% of the footage. The reason for this was two-fold. Firstly, the large mammals (Asiatic Lions, Blackbuck and Asiatic Wild Asses, for example) in the national parks and sanctuaries of Gujarat were far more wary of vehicles than similar mammals in Africa and photography was therefore at a greater distance. I needed more than 500 mm, and so the Nikon, being used for stills was pressed into service to see if I could get video footage that I would have been unable to get with the camcorder. Secondly, the outrageously high camera fees charged in the parks and sanctuaries of Gujarat. Camera fees, payable in rupees, were GBP12.50 per camera per visit. Since we had six visits to Gir, the camera fees for that park alone were £75. The charge is per camera not per photographer so one unfortunate in our party was spotted with a second camera in her bag (which she had no intention of using) and dragged off to pay another fee. I was not going to pay for a second camera in order to add support to the bureaucratic lunacy of the ministry responsible for running the parks so carried only the Nikon to use for everything.

To cut to the chase, I could not distinguish the quality of the full HD video between the two cameras. If anything the Nikon had the slight edge (it has a larger sensor, 1/2.3 compared with 1/2.88 of my now obsolete Sony). Stabilisation also seemed similar. I was able to take video, sometimes at the full 1440 mm equivalent focal length by pressing the camera against the side of the vehicle or by pressing the camera into the flesh of my attractive assistant who received the simple instruction: ‘Stop breathing’. Of course, there were the usual problems of taking video from a vehicle with other people on board, with their slightest unintentional movement causing me and the camera  to move. The Nikon seemed slower than the Sony in changing focus. However, at focal lengths equivalent to the range available on the Sony, I had no problems at all and it may be the effect of a larger sensor and the long focal length that made the Nikon seem slower. The depth of field at a distance of 50 metres and an aperture of f/5.6 is only a couple of metres and a lion walking quickly towards the camera would need the autofocus to shift quickly. The only disadvantages of using the Nikon compared with the Sony were the recording of the noise of the zoom motor and of the wind whistling past the microphones. I have a Micromuff fitted to the Sony which helps with the wind problem. On the Nikon the stereo microphones are mounted on the top of the flashgun. Had I thought I should have tried raising the flashgun to change to angle of the microphones in relation to the direction of the wind.

I also made full use of the built-in GPS (as I did with the camcorder also).

Before leaving, I bought a package of a battery charger and two cheap batteries, so that I also had two fully charged spares with me. I did not take the supplied Nikon in-camera charger. I did not have to change a battery in the field but replaced the battery after each morning or evening session. The cheap batteries performed just as well as the original Nikon.

So can the P610 replace my camcorder for video?  For most purposes, my answer would be ‘yes’. However, the Sony does have the edge in two respects: its low lux capability and night shot (infrared). The capability of the cheap P610 does leave me with a problem for the not-too-distant future: what do I buy to replace the Sony camcorder; another Sony camcorder and if so which sensor size and output or a compact system camera with an added microphone, the Panasonic Lumix with a 4K video option, for example? I have already discounted an SLR for wildlife video since I do not want to have to use live view through the screen as a viewfinder nor do I want the very restricted depth-of-field for wildlife shots on the fly (desirable as that narrow depth of field would be in certain circumstances). I am putting off making that decision.

So, having found the P610 excellent for both stills and video (and a major improvement on the P510, as I explained in my previous post) were there any niggles? There were three; one was on performance, the others ergonomic. At full zoom and on a little of the hand-held, pressed-against-the-flesh video footage there was some ‘shimmering’ down the edges. Was this the result of the in-camera stabilisation fighting against or trying to help my keeping the camera still? Somehow, I found I had the electronic as well as the optical vibration reduction turned on, so that may be the reason. More testing will be done—not, sadly with a desert fox cub as the subject but a garden chair.

The catch that closes but does not
lock the battery compartment
Ergonomically, I found the video start/stop button in an awkward place. That is probably because I am a partial left-hander and hold the camera to my left eye. The rest of my face prevents my right thumb from gaining easy access to the video button. Finally, and despite all the plaudits, a real demerit for the Nikon designers. This is what happens. Binoculars are permanently welded to wildlife watchers and the camera dangles above them. Unfortunately, the catch that closes the battery compartment snags the top of the binoculars and the flap springs open. A fellow traveller had noticed this with here P510 (soon to be swapped for the P610) and had actually lost the battery because the tab holding the battery had also been pulled across by the binoculars or their strap after the compartment had flipped open. Nikon really do need to redesign the battery compartment catch; simply pushing it to one side to open it is too easy. At present a piece of sticky tape seems the most useful precaution.

It is very difficult to illustrate how good video or stills are on screen. However, here is a video shot at focal lengths beyond 1000 mm equivalent of parakeets seeing off a marauding rat snake.

Examples of still photographs (more on shown on my Flickr page). Nearly all are crops from the full-size (4608 x 3456 pixels) photographs, with processing in Aperture with Nik Software plug-ins.

So, to conclude, buying the Coolpix P610 shortly before we went to India paid off, enabling me to get video footage and still shots that would not have been possible with my Sony camcorder with its very limited (x10) zoom. Having tested it in action, I am extremely pleased that it did more than I asked.

There will be more information on the wildlife of Gujarat on my other blog, Zoology Jottings.