Check out an examination of photo quality from the Nikon Coolpix S6000, a sub-$250 compact camera featuring a 28mm-equivalent wide-angle lens with a 7x zoom.
The photo quality from the Nikon S6000 is good to very good, but it really depends on how you intend to use the photos. The biggest issue is regardless of ISO sensitivity, the photos are soft meaning you'll never get very sharp fine detail directly from this camera. As the ISOs go higher, the photos get softer from noise reduction. It can be improved by sharpening with software, but that adds its own problems. On the other hand, this Nikon's noise reduction retains detail in exchange for a painterly appearance, so at smaller sizes subjects will look detailed--even at ISO 800. If you're looking to make prints larger than 8x10 inches or typically do a lot of heavy cropping or enlarging before printing, the S6000 isn't a good choice. For 4x6-inch prints, the occasional 8x10, and for Web use, though, it can produce very good photos for its price and class.
If you like to shoot close-ups, the S6000 does well in Macro mode. You can focus as close as 1.2 inches from your subject. The top photo is a 100 percent crop from the bottom photo. You'll get decent fine detail at ISO 100 to make larger prints, but you'll probably want to hit them with an unsharp mask before you do.
The S6000's lens seems a natural fit for anyone needing to get closer to sports action from the sidelines. The camera has a good full-resolution continuous shooting speed, but also offers a burst of 3-megapixel photos at 3 frames per second for up to 45 shots. (The top photo is a 100 percent crop from the bottom photo.) The shots look like still grabs from video and aren't great for large prints or heavy cropping. But you'll be able to get something suitable for Web use or small prints as long as you're not overly critical.
Nikon loads its Coolpix models with a Smart Portrait mode that combines things like skin softening, red-eye fix, and smile and blink detection, so you can get decent portraits--including self-portraits--without much effort. This is a 100 percent crop from the inset image with the skin softening set to normal (there are low, high, and off options, too). The softening really smooths details, so you probably won't want to blow up shots taken in this mode. But, if you want to cover up some blemishes without doing it on a computer with software, Nikon's results are good enough. However, at higher ISOs used for indoor/low-light photos, the skin softening combined with noise reduction will produce overly soft and smeary results.
While a 7x, 28-196mm-equivalent lens might not seem like much of a range, that extra bit over a 4x or 5x zoom does make a difference, especially when there's just no physical way to get closer. Unfortunately, the overall quality of the lens is questionable.
This is the wide-angle shot from the previous slide. It's a 100 percent crop from the upper left corner. The purple/blue fringing around the branches and leaves is so pronounced that it's enough to change the color of the photo. Though this fringing in high-contrast areas is typical of point-and-shoots, the S6000 is particularly bad.
At its widest, the lens exhibits slight barrel distortion (top). There's a hint of it at the telephoto end as well (bottom). Center sharpness is good, but drops off to the sides and in the corners. You'll want to keep your subject in the center of the lens to get the sharpest results.
The S6000's produces bright, vivid colors. In our lab tests they weren't accurate, particularly reds, oranges, and pinks, but my test shots were pleasing without looking unnatural. White balance is overall good, but a little too yellow/green indoors. Exposure was generally good, too, if occasionally underexposed. If it's not to your liking, though, Nikon's D-Lighting feature in this camera's playback editing options will help rescue detail lost in shadows. Like most all compact cameras, however, highlights tend to blow out.