If you'd rather have a pocket camera that can stand up to a little rain or splashing instead of one that's compatible with an underwater housing, then Nikon has your number. Otherwise identical to the Nikon Coolpix S1, the Coolpix S2 has a water-resistant cover to protect the lens as well as a rubber ring to keep your memory card and battery dry. If you'd rather have a fully waterproof model to take snorkeling, opt for the S1, which has an Underwater scene mode and an optional housing.
Tiny size, acceptable but not outstanding image quality, and a lack of manual controls make the ultracompact Nikon Coolpix S2 a fine choice for snapshot photographers who want a good selection of fun features but don't want to make many decisions on their own. This Nikon's strong points are abundant scene modes, a 3X zoom lens that doesn't protrude during use, a postshot fix that automatically brightens dark backgrounds, and a clever Face Priority focus mode that ensures that the closest person to the camera will come out sharp and clear. But given the Coolpix S2's limited shutter-speed range of 2 seconds to 1/350 second, you won't be using it for long exposures or very fast action. Most digital cameras sized like a deck of playing cards become lumpy when you turn them on and the lens extends--not the Nikon Coolpix S2. Its recessed optics peep out but don't emerge from the camera when you flip their water-resistant cover open. They focus and zoom internally over a 35mm-to-105mm range (35mm-camera equivalent). The lens is even tucked far enough into the body to largely avoid the bane of fingerprints.
Unfortunately, the most comfortable two-handed grip makes it easy for stray left-hand fingers to curl over the top and wander into the field of view; more than half of our initial shots with this camera included one or more fingers in the frame. The LCD viewfinder--there is no optical viewfinder window--shows just 87 percent of the image (100 percent on review), so the stray digits escaped our notice until too late.
The camera is otherwise well laid out for an ultracompact. Its 3.5-by-2.3-by-0.8-inch aluminum-alloy body has nary a protrusion--even the handstrap lug is recessed--and features the minimal number of buttons and controls needed to get the job done.
The right side houses a water-resistant plastic door covering the SD/MMC memory-card slot and the battery. On the bottom, you'll find a plastic tripod socket and an I/O connector for the Coolstation dock. All the other controls squeeze onto a back panel dominated by a 2.5-inch LCD. They include a recording/scene/movie mode button, a four-way cursor pad with embedded OK button, a zoom rocker, and separate buttons for menu, picture review, and trash.
Most of these controls pull double duty. For example, the telephoto side of the zoom rocker functions as a help key when navigating menus. Pressing up on the cursor pad changes flash options, down activates macro mode, left enables the self-timer, and right marks pictures for transfer.
This camera's well-designed menu system is divided into three parts: setup, shooting, and playback. The last two are accessible only when you're taking photos or reviewing images, respectively. You can display menus in the customary text-and-icon mode, with a helpful scroll bar showing how far down the menu list you've ventured, or in an icon-based interface, which we actually found more confusing until we'd memorized what all the icons represented. The Nikon Coolpix S2's feature set is heavily weighted in favor of the neophyte shooter who wants to take many different kinds of pictures but doesn't want to make many decisions. It has scene modes for every conceivable situation, including Panorama mode. But it lacks manual focus or exposure controls other than exposure compensation. You can adjust light sensitivity from ISO 50 to ISO 400 and set white balance manually, but that's about it. Camera-selected shutter speeds range from 2 seconds to 1/350 second, limiting this camera's utility for long exposures and capturing very fast action.
Nevertheless, the Coolpix S2 has some very cool automatic features, most notably Face Priority focus. In Portrait mode, the camera looks for the human face closest to the camera and locks on to it, highlighting the focus area in red on the LCD. Other nifty tools include the Best Shot Selector, which takes a series of pictures and saves only the one that is sharpest or best exposed; the time-lapse-photography feature, which you can set to record one shot every 30 seconds to 60 minutes; the effective in-camera red-eye removal; and Nikon's D-lighting option, which brightens inky shadows in extra copies of your murky or high-contrast shots.
Many of the scene selections feature assist modes. The Portrait setting provides overlays to help you place figures or couples in the frame. Landscape Assist offers guidelines for positioning the horizon and any people in the shot. Architecture Assist supplies a grid for aligning horizontals and verticals. Macro capabilities take you as close as 1.6 inches, but for capturing subjects farther off in the dark, the electronic flash is positively anemic. It's good out to only 8 feet at the wide-angle lens setting and just 4.7 feet in the telephoto position. You can choose from five flash modes: flash off, fill flash, auto, auto with red-eye reduction, and slow sync.
The Coolpix S2 doubles as a voice recorder and can capture 640x480-pixel, 15fps video clips. The Nikon Coolpix S2's performance was generally average, except for its continuous-shooting mode, which was quite good, and its shutter lag under low-contrast lighting, which was poor at 1.8 seconds, even with the focus-assist lamp operating. Under high-contrast lighting, this camera managed to focus and squeeze off shots only 0.6 second after the trigger was pulled.
Continuous shooting produced 36 full-resolution images in slightly less than 24 seconds before the camera slowed. Set to 640x480 resolution and maximum compression, the Coolpix S2 plugged away nonstop for as long as we held down the shutter release. We captured 102 shots in 60 seconds. The Nikon S2 also has a multiexposure mode that squeezes 16 thumbnails onto a single image when you want to analyze your golf swing or batting stance.
The large, brightness-adjustable, 110,000-pixel LCD was usable outdoors under all but the brightest lighting conditions. It offered an acceptable view indoors under dim illumination. Some ghosting was visible, however. Image quality from the Nikon Coolpix S2 was decent but not great for a 5-megapixel camera. The exposure system was easily misled by backlighting, prompting us to use the backlighting scene mode and the D-lighting option more than we'd have liked. Images tended to be a little soft, and they showed noticeable blooming and color bleeding from one area to another.
Colors were generally accurate. We noticed a tendency toward yellowish skin tones, but the preflash red-eye prevention coupled with the software red-eye-removal feature did an excellent job eliminating glowing pupils. Cyan fringing was rampant around backlit subjects, and noise was often visible, even at lower ISO settings. As with most digital cameras, it was fairly easy to blow out the highlights.
A little barrel distortion made our images curve out near the edges at the wide-angle setting, and some pincushioning at maximum zoom made them curve in.