Nikon Coolpix S3 Review

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Nikon Coolpix S3

Steve's Conclusion

The Coolpix S3 shares with its Coolpix S1sibling the honor of being the most compact point-n-shoot digicam that Nikon has to offer (as of January 2006). Its upgraded 6-megapixel imager and black matte body distinguish the S3 from its little brother, but it retains the S1's internal Zoom-Nikkor 3x optical zoom lens and easy to use features. Like many point-n-shoot cameras, the S3 includes the usual Auto exposure mode plus limited adjustments for ISO, white balance, etc. Geared to the novice to intermediate user, there are 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 and large 2 1/2-inch LCD, the S3's controls are well-placed, being easy to use while not subject to accidental activation. Large cameras with deep grips are easy to use one-handed, but small ones like the S3 require two hands; using your right index finger for the shutter button and right thumb for support while pinching the camera with your left index finger and thumb worked the best, just keep your left finger away from the lens. Having no optical viewfinder, the S3 includes a high quality LCD. It was very usable outdoors, its anti-reflective surface making it viewable even in the brightest conditions. The LCD was also an effective viewfinder indoors, intensifying the live image in dim lighting to aid in shot composition.

The S3 is a responsive performer. Power up to first image captured measured 2.5 seconds. Shutter lag measured 1/10 second when pre-focused and 5/10 second including autofocus time; both measurements include the slight delay in the LCD viewfinder's live image. The shot to shot delay averaged about 2 seconds between frames without the use of the flash and between 2 and 5 seconds with the flash, depending on subject distance. When using red eye reduction flash mode, the LCD blanks during the pre-flash, a critical period of about one second. The LCD also goes blank and the camera freezes while the flash is recharging.

There are three Sequential shooting modes to choose from; Continuous, Multi-shot 16, and Interval Timer. Continuous mode was responsive, capturing ten 6-megapixel Fine JPEG images in 5.6 seconds. Buffer clearing speed was adequate, taking 11 seconds to write all 10 images to the SD memory card. Multi-shot mode captures 16 frames in 7.5 seconds and combines them into a single 5M/Normal 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 follow moving subjects; this is when an optical viewfinder would come in handy. All tests were done using a Lexar 32x 1GB SD card, using 6M/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 moderate amounts of barrel distortion at wide angle and pin cushioning at the telephoto end. The lens moves smoothly and quietly, but not continuously; I counted 7 steps between wide angle and telephoto, adequate for most shots but you may need to zoom a bit with your feet when you need precise composition. 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 6-Megapixel Fine mode. Outdoor images showed good overall exposure, with colors being nicely saturated. Noise levels were very low at sensitivity settings of ISO 50 and 100. Shadow noise is present at ISO 200, and noise is evident throughout the image at ISO 400. Chromatic aberration, aka "purple fringing", was present only in small amounts around highlights. The only problem I had outdoors was with back-lit flash portraits; the S3's limited flash output was not sufficient to illuminate the faces adequately.

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 AF system worked well when shooting in low light conditions, aided by the AF-assist lamp. However, the AF-assist lamp was only effective at distances of up to 8 feet with the lens at wide angle, it was of little help in the moderate to telephoto range. Nikons unique "Face-priority AF" portrait mode had difficulty with frame-filling head shots, but was otherwise effective. The redeye reduction flash mode was also very effective, helped by both the pre-flash and the camera's automatic Red Eye Fix feature.

The flash has an effective range of only about 8 feet when the lens is at full wide angle. This limited range coupled with the 35mm (equivalent) field of view was adequate for portraits of individuals and couples, but not for moderate sized rooms or groups. Like most Coolpix models, the S3 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 that the subject is not overexposed. When shooting with natural light, the S3'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. BSS is an effective alternative to image stabilization for minimizing the blur that can occur at slow shutter speeds.

The S3 includes two unique features that help you overcome common causes of poor images:

  1. 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.

  2. 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 an example 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 S3 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 S3 allows you to set Continuous AF in movie mode, but it operates only before recording starts, not during recording. Movie recording was memory-efficient, consuming only about 500KB per second, but clips were only average in quality, with visible compression artifacts.

The S3 is powered by a proprietary EN-EL8 3.7v 730mAh Lion battery. Nikon claims you can record up to 190 shots on a fully charged battery. We found battery life was good, capturing about 150 sample images and concluding our other testing 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. The battery is charged in-camera using the supplied cradle.

The Coolpix S3 has a lot of appeal to those wanting ease of use and good image quality in a very small package. It offers several unique features that distinguish it from the competition, including D-lighting, Red Eye Fix and Best Shot Selector. At a street price of around $300, it's a fairly good value for families who can live with the S3's limited flash range and sub-par movie quality.

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Sample Photos

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DC Resource's S3 review

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