Nikon Coolpix S4 Review

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Nikon Coolpix S4

Steve's Conclusion

The Coolpix S4 marks the return of the swivel lens design that we loved on Nikon's earlier models like the very popular Coolpix 990, the Coolpix 995 and the Coolpix 4500. While still offering high-end features that users have come to expect from Nikon, the S4 is more aimed at beginner and novice users with loads of fully automatic exposure modes as well as helpful features like Best Shot Selector, the Help Guide and D-lighting. The S4 boasts 6- megapixels of resolution, a 10x internal optical zoom lens (that's right 10x!), large 2.5-inch LCD, 5-point Autofocus system with focus assist lamp as well as records QuickTime 640x480 (15fps) video with digital vibration reduction.

Like its predecessors, ergonomics were good. The controls are well placed for easy access, while the menu system is logically organized. The only aggravation I had was with the 4-way "joystick" type controller. On several occasions I would try to make a selection in the menu by pressing it inwards and it would move up or down instead. I did this the most when changing the flash mode. The swiveling design of this model allows it to offer a great deal of versatility over typical models, allowing you to frame your self-portraits or capture images over a crowd. Although this is not an "ultra-compact" model that can go anywhere, this is a very tiny super-zoom camera that can be tucked away in just about any size purse or large pocket. I found that the 2.5-inch LCD worked very well outdoors in bright sun light, however it doesn't gain up when shooting in marginal lighting conditions. In fact, the display got very grainy when using the camera in your typically incandescently lit living room.

The internal 10x optical zoom lens covers a 35mm equivalent range of 38 - 380mm, offering a great deal of versatility for composing your shots. The moderate 38mm wide angle extreme allocates pleasing landscapes and group portraits, while the 380mm telephoto end of the zoom range will help bring your distant subjects up close and personal. I found that there was noticeable barrel distortion present at full wide angle, but almost no pincushioning present at the telephoto end of the lens. As with almost all super-zoom models, we also saw traces of CA (chromatic aberration, also known as purple fringing) around brightly lit subjects. But, you have to be viewing images at 100% or greater to notice it and it is very unlikely that you will see anything in your prints.

Shooting performance was average for a camera in this class. Power up to first image captured measured approx 2.2 seconds. The all important shutter lag, the time from depressing the shutter release to capturing an image, was less than 1/10 of a second when pre-focused and 5/10 of a second including autofocus. In single exposure mode, the shot to shot delay averaged 2 seconds without the flash and between 2.5 - 12 seconds using the flash, depending on subject distance and zoom position. The S4 offers two "burst" capture modes (Continuous, Multi-shot 16.) Shooting with Continuous mode allowed me to capture 8 shots in about 4.5 seconds. The Multi-Shot 16 mode records 16 frames in 10 seconds, then saves them as a single 6-megapixel image. Our tests were done using a Sandisk Ultra II 512MB SD card, 6M High mode, flash off, preview off, and all other settings at default (unless otherwise noted.) Times may vary depending on lighting conditions, camera settings, media, etc.

Image quality was good for a 6-megapixel consumer model. Using its 6M High mode, we captured relatively sharp images with good exposure. However it does sometimes over expose objects of high contrast (snow or white buildings) and there was visible edge blurring in a large majority of our samples. I also noticed noise levels were a bit higher than comparable models. Nikon's D-lighting feature proved to be very useful both indoors and out. While noise does become more noticeable, I found the usefulness of this feature out weighs this downfall. Plus, you won't even notice much of anything when printing your typical 4x6-inch photo. Be sure to check out our various D-lighting examples on the samples page.

When shooting indoors, you will have to deal with the short range of its tiny flash (approx. 10 feet.) It seemed to work well as a fill-in flash or when shooting close-up individual portraits. However, as with most all compact consumer models, it will not be able to illuminate subjects well in large open rooms. Unless, of course, your subject is within 10 feet and you are at full wide angle. Even then, the background of your photo will be very dark. I achieved the best indoor results shooting portraits of individuals from about 5 feet away, using the mid telephoto end of the lens. When doing so, flash exposure was good and skin tones appeared very natural. Red-eye wasn't much of a problem thanks, in part, to the red-eye reduction flash mode.

Like many of Nikon's models, the S4 is quite good at close-up (macro) photography. Its dedicated Macro focus mode will allow you to focus on subjects as close as 2.5 inches from the lens. I found it controlled the flash well, and we especially liked how the camera indicates the optimum focal range to use. You can tell this by looking at either the Macro flower icon or the lens position indicator, which will turn green when you are in this range.

The S4's 640x480 QuickTime movie mode was disappointing. Our video samples showed large amounts of compression noise, almost as if you zoomed in on a 320x240 clip. Also, the position of the microphone will pick up even the slightest breeze. Overall, I found not using the microphone was best.

Power is supplied by two AA type batteries. There are various types of cells you can use like alkaline, NiMH rechargeable or lithium. We however, recommend not using alkalines unless it is a last resort. They have poor life and will just end up in the local landfill. Using a set of NiMH 2500 mAh cells, I was able to capture about 90 shots and conclude several other tests before replacing with a fleshly charged set. Just remember, the more you use the flash or view images after you have taken them will dramatically change the amount of images you can capture.

Bottom line - The Nikon Coolpix S4 is somewhat of a mixed bag. While we love the big 10x optical zoom lens, swiveling body design and its various user-friendly exposure modes; its average image quality, terrible movie mode, and slow flash recycle time really hinders its ability to "be all it can be". However, with an MSRP of around $399, it does offer a good value for a compact super-zoom model. If you don't mind spending a few more bucks, check out some similar cameras like Canon's PowerShot S2 IS, Panasonic's Lumix DMC-FZ5 or Konica Minolta's DiMAGE Z5.

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