Like a brother or a sister who might be mistaken for a twin, Nikon's new entry-level point-and-shoot digital camera is nearly identical to its more expensive sibling. Outwardly, the Nikon Coolpix 4600 and the Coolpix 5600 look exactly the same, but the 4600 has a 4-megapixel sensor instead of the 5600's 5.1-megapixel chip. And while the 4600 has the same video specs as the 5600, it doesn't record video with sound. Like the 5600, the 4600 has several novice-friendly features, including Blur Warning, D-lighting, and Best Shot Selector, which provide automatic solutions to problems you might otherwise solve with manual settings. This camera, however, doesn't offer manual settings because its likely owners aren't interested in fiddling with them. Add the Coolpix 4600's small size, solid construction, and 3X optical zoom, and you have a camera that's worth considering if you're a casual snapshot photographer on a tight budget.
The Nikon Coolpix 4600's well-designed, compact body is lightweight and easy to hold with one hand. Most of the buttons and controls cluster together on the back within easy reach of your right thumb. Southpaws, however, will find it difficult to hold this camera with just the left hand. The clustered buttons and controls leave ample room on the back for the 1.8-inch LCD screen. It's large enough to do the job, though you can find low-cost point-and-shoot cameras with larger screens, if that's important to you. The LCD shows you about 97 percent of the image you'll capture, while the optical viewfinder provides only about 82 percent coverage.
The menu selections on the Coolpix 4600 are almost identical to the ones on the 5600. Since the camera provides essentially no manual settings, and the setup options have a dedicated spot on the mode dial, the Nikon's menus contain a limited number of choices. That's a plus for beginners who might be confused by too many options. It's a minus, however, for experienced users who might want to explore the creative principles of photography.
Even an inexpensive point-and-shoot camera should have at least a few manual settings. The Nikon Coolpix 4600 is all automated, all the time--except for the ability to adjust the exposure plus or minus 2EV and select a light source for the white balance. You can also set the white balance to match a white or gray object, such as a handkerchief or an industry-standard white-balance card. That's an unusual feature for a low-end model.
The camera's 16 shooting modes consist of Portrait, Landscape, Sports, and Night Portrait assist modes, as well as 12 scene exposure modes, including Close Up, Dusk/Dawn, Night Landscape, Museum, and Underwater, which you can use with an optional underwater housing. Those are more options than many point-and-shoot cameras offer, and they could help beginners feel more confident about producing quality results in difficult situations. The shooting modes help make up for the lack of manual settings, which you would need for just these kinds of challenges.
Other features include Blur Warning, which checks each photo immediately after it's captured. If it's too blurry, you can eliminate it before it's saved. A related feature, Best Shot Selector, lets you shoot as many as 10 photos with a single press of the shutter-release button. The camera analyzes the images and saves the sharpest one. Another useful feature, D-lighting, brightens photos that are too dark. It could come in handy for low-light, backlit, or partially flash-illuminated images. Unfortunately, it also boosts visual noise, so you should use it sparingly.
These features also compensate for the camera's limitations. The Nikon Coolpix 4600 has a narrow ISO range of 50 to 200, so you're more likely to have blurred or poorly illuminated photos in dim light. To meet the low price point, Nikon had to limit the camera's hardwired capabilities. Features such as the Best Shot Selector, D-lighting, and Blur Warning restore some of those capabilities through software.
The results of our performance tests for the Nikon Coolpix 4600 were very close to those for the Coolpix 5600. Shutter lag measured a reasonable 0.31 second in bright light and 0.43 second in dim light; you'll be able to respond quickly to changing environments, such as when you're shooting sports events or fast-moving children. When we tested the Coolpix 4600, its poor time of 7.25 seconds from start-up to first shot surprised us. By turning off the default opening screen animation, we were able to reduce that time to 5.86 seconds, which is still much too slow. We were also disappointed with this camera's flash recovery time. While the shot-to-shot time without the flash was a fairly typical 1.89 seconds, when we engaged the flash, the time jumped to a frustratingly slow 12.11 seconds. You could miss many valuable shots while waiting for the tiny red light to stop flashing.
The Coolpix 4600's photos were similar to the Coolpix 5600's, except for the lower resolution. Overall, the image quality was quite good. The colors in our exterior shots looked a bit oversaturated, even for a point-and-shoot camera. This was especially evident with the brighter hues, though less obvious with more subdued colors, such as skin tones, that need to be more realistic. Image noise, sharpness, and exposure accuracy were better than average in our well-lit exterior shots.
With our interior photos, we began to see some deterioration. We couldn't adjust the ISO setting, so we experienced higher noise levels on some low-light photos, especially with flash-illuminated shots where the camera would sometimes boost the ISO to artificially extend the range of the flash. The narrow 50-to-200 ISO range for this camera will limit your ability to capture low-light and long-exposure shots, unless you're willing to live with elevated noise levels.
The video mode on the Nikon Coolpix 4600 is hardly worth having. Even the best setting (640x320 at 15 frames per second) was jerky and riddled with compression artifacts. Also, the camera doesn't record sound along with the video.
One bright spot is the camera's macro mode. We produced some excellent close-up shots using the macro-focus indicator. The macro icon changes from white to blue when the zoom is within the proper focus range. Note: The manual says the icon changes to green, but it definitely looked blue on our review camera.