Nikon Coolpix S5 Review
The Coolpix S5 is among the most compact point-n-shoot digicam that Nikon has to offer (as of April 2006). Weighing just under six ounces including battery, SD memory card and wrist strap, and measuring less than one inch in thickness, the S5 is very pocketable. Yet it houses a 6-megapixel imager and internal Zoom-Nikkor 3x optical zoom lens, joining the exclusive one megapixel per ounce club. Like many point-n-shoot cameras, the S5 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 S5's controls are well-placed, being easy to use while not subject to accidental activation. The S5's Multi Selector was effective during playback and while navigating the menu system, able to be both rotated and used as a traditional 4-way controller. The tiny top-mounted zoom control was less effective, being too small to operate with any degree of precision. Having no optical viewfinder, the S5 includes a high quality LCD. The LCD was a very effective viewfinder indoors, intensifying the live image in dim lighting to aid in shot composition. It was less usable outdoors, lacking an anti-reflective surface that would minimize reflections and glare.
The S5 is a fairly responsive performer. Power up to first image captured measured 2.2 seconds. Shutter lag measured 2/10 second when pre-focused and 6/10 second including autofocus time; both measurements include an approximate 1/10 second delay in the LCD viewfinder's live image. The shot to shot delay averaged about 1.5 seconds between frames without the use of the flash and between 6 and 8 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 four 6-megapixel Fine JPEG images in 1.6 seconds. Buffer clearing speed was on the slow side, taking 6 seconds before being able to capture the next 4-shot burst. Multi-shot mode captures 16 frames in 7.5 seconds and combines them into a single 6M/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 Kingston 32x 512MB 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 in the center of the image throughout its range, but exhibited a lot of softness in the corners. There were moderate amounts of barrel distortion at wide angle and pin cushioning at the telephoto end. Chromatic aberration are well-controlled, with only a very slight amount of purple fringing evident in high contrast areas. 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 disappointed with one aspect of the lens, however; it has a fixed aperture. The lens does include an electronically-controlled neutral-density filter that reduces the available light to an effective f/8 from f/3 at wide angle, but that step is sometimes too great, causing the exposure system to select it in combination with a slow shutter speed, sometimes resulting in images blurred by camera shake even in bright sunlight. The lens also exhibits a bit of vignetting, or light fall-off at the corners.
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 noticeable throughout the image at ISO 400, although those images are quite usable.
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 fairly effective, aided both by the pre-flash and the camera's automatic Red Eye Fix feature.
The flash has an effective range of only about 8.5 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 S5 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 S5'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 S5 includes two unique features that help you overcome common causes of poor images:
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 S5 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 S5 allows you to set Full Time AF in movie mode, but it operates only before recording starts, not during recording. Movie quality was very good in 640x480 30fps mode, but that quality comes at the cost of consuming about 1 megabyte of memory per second of recording. Be sure to purchase a sizable SD memory card if you intend to exploit the S5's movie feature.
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 170 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 S5 has a lot of appeal to those wanting ease of use and good image quality in a very small stylish package. It offers several unique features that distinguish it from the competition, including D-lighting, Red Eye Fix and Best Shot Selector. But it suffers from low flash output and sometimes selects a low shutter speed that results in images blurred by camera shake. At a street price of around $300, The S5 a fairly good value if you can live with its limited flash range. Want even more? Check out the nearly identical Coolpix S6, for about $100 more it adds Wi-Fi connectivity and a larger 3-inch LCD monitor.
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