Nikon Coolpix S1 Review
The Coolpix S1 is the most compact point-n-shoot digicam that Nikon has to offer as of
June 2005. It incorporates a 5-megapixel imager combined with an internal Zoom-Nikkor 3x
optical zoom lens as well as many of the advanced features found on other Coolpix models.
Like many point-n-shoot's, the S1 includes the usual "Auto"matic exposure mode with
limited adjustments for ISO, white balance, etc. There's also a multitude of scene
exposure modes for special shooting conditions as well as scene-assisted modes
that display helpful framing outlines on the LCD.
Despite its small size, the controls are well-placed and with the right technique it can have a comfortable feel in your hands. Pinching it with your left index finger and thumb seemed to work best, just keep your finger away from the lens. It has one of the largest LCD viewfinders (2.5-inch) among its Coolpix siblings, despite being one of the smallest cameras. Outdoors in bright sunlight I found it was quite usable without having to adjust the brightness. Indoors in low-ambient lighting, it intensifies the live image to aid with indoor shot composition. We're glad to see Nikon provided this top-notch LCD as the S1 lacks an optical viewfinder. I was disappointed that the S1 does not maintain shooting priority during menu operations or image playback. If you enter playback mode or the menu system, the camera does not return to record mode by simply tapping the shutter button; you must must exit first.
Shooting performance was robust for a camera in this class. Power up to first image captured measured 2.4 seconds -- faster if you disable the startup screen. Shutter lag measured less than 1/10 of a second when pre-focused and ~6/10 second including autofocus. The shot to shot delay averaged about 2 seconds between frames without the use of the flash and between 3 and 5 seconds with the flash, depending on subject distance. When the battery is not fully charged, the LCD goes blank and the camera freezes while the flash is recharged. We found this quite aggravating and it will cause you to miss out on some spontaneous photo opportunities.
There are three Sequential shooting modes to choose from; Continuous, Multi-shot 16, and Interval Timer. Continuous mode was impressive; I was able to capture 15 Large Fine JPEG images in 8.6 seconds. Buffer clearing, was also very fast taking only 4 seconds to write all 15 images to the SD memory card. Multi-shot mode captures 16 frames in 8.3 seconds and combines them into a single 5M/Fine image. Interval Timer mode allows you to choose the interval between shots (30 sec. - 60 min.) and once started, will continue to record until the sequence is stopped by pressing the shutter release. The LCD viewfinder briefly displays the last image captured in all Continuous modes, making it difficult to capture moving subjects; this is when an optical viewfinder would come in handy. All tests were done using a Sandisk Ultra II 512MB SD card, using 5M/Fine size/quality, welcome screen off, and all other settings at default (unless otherwise noted.) Times may vary depending on lighting conditions, camera settings, media, etc.
The internal Zoom-Nikkor 3x optical zoom lens produced sharp results throughout its range, with noticeable barrel distortion at wide angle but virtually no pin cushioning at the telephoto end. The lens moves smoothly and quietly, but not continuously; I counted 6 steps between wide angle and telephoto, adequate for most shot composition needs. Its 35 - 105mm (equivalent) zoom range is typical for a camera in this class, offering a sufficient field of view for most interior and landscape shots, and a telephoto range useful for portraits and to bring your distant subjects closer.
I was pleased with the overall image quality when using 5-Megapixel Fine mode. Outdoor images showed good overall exposure, with colors being nicely saturated. Noise levels were very low when below ISO 400. We saw virtually no traces when using ISO 50 and even at 200 our samples looked good. I saw very little CA (Chromatic Aberration aka "purple fringing") around highlights. The AF system worked well both indoors and outdoors, when shooting in low light conditions it is aided by the AF-assist lamp. However, the AF-assist lamp was only effective at distances of 3 to 4 feet with the lens at wide angle, it was of little help in the moderate to telephoto range.
Our indoor portrait images were sharp, well exposed and the skin tones look very natural. You can include yourself in group portraits thanks to the tripod socket and self-timer. Beginners will find the Portrait Assist modes handy, offering help with shot composition for several types of situations. The Nikon-unique "Face-priority AF" portrait mode recognizes and focuses on faces present in the frame -- it worked remarkably well. The redeye reduction flash mode was also very effective, helped by both the pre-flash and the camera's automatic Red Eye Fix feature. I saw virtually no occurrence of red-eye in the "people" pictures; Nikon seems to have gotten it right.
The flash has an effective range of only about 8 feet. This limited range coupled with the 35mm (equivalent) field of view was adequate for portraits of individuals in small rooms, but not for large rooms or groups. Like most Coolpix models, the S1 excels at Macro photography. You can focus on a subject as close as 1.6-inches from the lens. It also controls the flash well, "throttling down" to ensure you don't overexpose the subject. When shooting with natural light, the S1's macro mode is complemented by the Best Shot Selector (BSS) feature, which captures a sequence of up to 10 images and saves only the sharpest one.
The S1 includes two unique features that help you overcome common causes of poor images. Blur Warning detects camera movement during the exposure, warning you that the image is blurred and giving you the choice of saving the picture or not. If you are satisfied, you can save it; if not, you can retake it with flash or Best Shot Selector on, ensuring that you leave with a better image. D-lighting solves a different problem, one of underexposure due to back lighting or insufficient flash coverage. D-lighting operates in image playback mode; if you find an underexposed subject, simply hit the OK button and the image will be brightened and displayed on the LCD monitor. If you like the result, confirm that you want it saved; it will be recorded with a different file name. You can see both indoor and outdoor examples of D-lighting on our Sample Photos page.
Movies can be recorded at resolutions of 640x480, 320x240, or 160x120. The length of these clips is limited only by the amount of available memory. The S1 includes a microphone and movies are always recorded with sound; as a result, the optical zoom can be used to compose movies before recording starts, but not during recording. The Digital zoom can be used, but image quality will be degraded. The S1 allows you to set Continuous AF during movie recording, but I found it has trouble keeping subjects in focus; I suggest that you use Single AF. The S1's movie mode produced average quality clips with visible compression noise.
The S1 is powered by a proprietary EN-EL8 3.7v 730mAh Lion battery. Nikon claims you can record up to 200 shots on a fully charged battery. We found battery life was good, capturing about 140 sample images and concluding our other test before the low battery warning was displayed. As always, to avoid the inevitable disappointment that a dead battery brings to a unique photo op, we suggest you purchase a spare and keep it charged and ready at all times.
Bottom line - the Coolpix S1 makes a good choice for those who want ease of use, speedy performance, and great image quality in an extremely small camera that can be tucked away almost anywhere. While it offers very useful features like Face-priority AF, D-lighting and Red Eye Fix, I was disappointed with the short flash range, Continuous AF performance in Movie mode and the flash recharge issue when the battery is not fully charged. That said, with an MSRP of around $380 it does offer a good value.
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