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Nikon Coolpix S9 review: Nikon Coolpix S9

Nikon's Coolpix S9 has an attractive price, but its feature set and image quality could be better.

Phil Ryan
7 min read
More often, manufacturers have been making cameras with larger model numbers that cost less than their larger-numbered brethren. For example, Nikon's Coolpix S9 can cost anywhere from $20 to $80 less than the Coolpix S5, depending on the store you choose. Both have 6-megapixel sensors, 2.5-inch LCD screens, and 3X optical zoom lenses. Yet there are some rather subtle differences between the two cameras.

The two main differences are in the cameras' LCD screens and lenses. The S5's LCD screen has 230,000 pixels, while the S9's has just 153,600 pixels. This difference makes the S9's LCD appear slightly more coarse than the S5's screen; you may notice that diagonal lines and curves appear jagged. Though this has almost nothing to do with the cameras' actual captured images, it's a slight knock against the newer S9. The S5's lens covers a range from 35mm to 105mm, with an aperture range of f/3 to f/5.4. The S9's lens covers a range from 38mm to 114mm, with an aperture range of f/3.5 to f/4.3. This means that the S9 can't achieve quite as wide an angle of view as the S5, but it does reach slightly further with its zoom. (Though most people won't notice much of a difference, since it's less than 10mm on either end.) The difference in aperture at the telephoto (a.k.a., far) end of the two zooms is more important, though still minor. The S9 lets in more light, which means you could potentially use a slightly faster shutter speed when zoomed all the way, under the same lighting conditions. This time, the edge goes to the S9, as it has more potential to positively affect your actual images.


Nikon Coolpix S9

The Good

Relatively low price for an ultracompact; attractive design; easy to use.

The Bad

No manual exposure controls; sensitivity tops out at ISO 400; noisy images at ISO 200 and ISO 400.

The Bottom Line

Nikon's Coolpix S9 has an attractive price, but its feature set and image quality could be better.

The S9's design dispenses with the click wheel that Nikon includes on its S5, S6, and S7c. It's a shame, since the wheel provides quick navigation through Nikon's sleek, intuitive menu system. As with most slim, ultracompact cameras, one-handed shooting isn't really possible. The best you can do is to use two hands when changing settings, and then switch to one hand while pressing the shutter. Of course, if you want steady shots, two-handed shooting is always a good idea. The camera's button layout is comfortable to use, but we found the placement of the zoom rocker (to the right of the shutter button) unfortunate, since it's easy to nudge while you're waiting to press the shutter.

As usual with ultracompacts, which are geared toward snapshooters, the Coolpix S9's feature set is simple. You won't find manual exposure controls, though there are 15 scene modes that configure the camera for various shooting conditions. Nikon includes exposure compensation, up to plus or minus 2 EV, so you can tweak exposures when shooting difficult scenes.

If you're shooting a tricky scene and you don't want to use a flash, you may want to consider Nikon's Best Shot Selector (BSS) mode, of which there are four versions. The first shoots up to 10 exposures, then selects the one with the least blur. The other three versions are grouped together under a separate heading in the BSS submenu called Exposure BSS; they're called Highlight BSS, Shadow BSS, and Histogram BSS. All three capture five shots each time the shutter is pressed. From the five, Highlight BSS selects the shot with the least areas of overexposure; Shadow BSS selects the one with the least areas of underexposure; and Histogram BSS selects the one with the best balance of the two.

While the S9 includes a manual white balance feature, in addition to the usual assortment of presets and auto choices, Nikon renamed this feature "Preset white balance." When you see it, don't get confused-- even though we were at first. The camera also includes three continuous shooting modes: one is a regular burst mode, that continues to capture images as you hold down the shutter button; a second captures 16 images and arranges them in a grid as part of one 2,816x2,112 pixel image; the third captures up to 1,800 images at intervals of 30 seconds, 1 minute, 5 minutes, or 10 minutes. Like almost all cameras on the market today, you can also choose from a handful of color modes, including black and white.

The Coolpix S9 was neither the fastest nor the slowest ultracompact we've seen. It took 2.6 seconds to power up and capture its first image, 2.7 seconds between subsequent images without flash, and 3 seconds between images with the flash turned on. Shutter lag measured a speedy 0.7 second in our high-contrast test, which mimics bright shooting conditions, and 1.7 seconds in our low-contrast test, meant to mimic dim shooting conditions.

Though the S9's manual says that the camera can capture up to 5 frames at a time in its standard burst mode, we found that as long as you hold the shutter button, the camera keeps capturing images, although the speed slows down after the first five images. (This is probably because the camera must wait for the buffer to clear enough room to capture the next image.) Nikon quotes a speed of 1.7 frames per second based on its stated five frames. We were able to capture 42 VGA-sized images in 32.8 seconds, for an average of about 1.28 frames per second, and 42 highest-quality 6-megapixel images in 34.8 seconds, for an average of about 1.21 frames per second.

The Coolpix S9 produced pleasing images with accurate-looking and adequately saturated colors, though the images weren't quite as sharp as we've seen from some other ultracompacts, such as Sony's T series. We saw small amounts of barrel distortion at the lens' widest setting and even smaller amounts of pincushion distortion at its longest telephoto setting, though you'll likely not see it in your photos unless you're shooting an object with lots of straight lines--for example,a modern high-rise building with lots of glass windows. The automatic white balance served up very slightly warm images with our lab's tungsten lights, though still well within the usable range; some might even like the warm effect. The tungsten preset was more neutral, but had a minor greenish cast. The manual, or Preset, white balance we created gave us the most neutral results.

Strangely, Nikon includes only center-weighted, rather than matrix, metering in the S9. In our tests, it seemed to weigh the very center of the image more heavily than some similar metering systems we've seen. When we tested the camera's ability to balance fill flash, the S9 struggled when the lamp in our test scene was turned to the highest of its three brightness settings, and it didn't provide enough flash to illuminate the entire scene. When we lowered the lamp to its lowest setting, the camera did better, making us think that it gave too much weight to the object in the center of our image, which caught just enough light from the lamp to confuse a metering system that apparently doesn't take into account a large portion of a scene.

Nikon manages to keep noise under control throughout the S9's sensitivity range, but we noted that the camera's sensitivity maxes out at ISO 400, which is far below what you'll find in a lot of ultracompact cameras. At very least, we'd have expected the camera to reach ISO 800, though ISO 1,600 would've been better if Nikon wants to remain competitive. At its lowest setting of ISO 64, we saw very little noise, which likely won't be noticeable in prints, though you'll probably notice it when viewing on a monitor. At ISO 100, noise grew slightly. By ISO 200, noise was very noticeable on monitors. Though Nikon's noise-reduction algorithms help minimize noise in prints, they also rob much of an image's finer detail. ISO 400 showed plenty of noise, though again, not-so-detailed prints should be OK at smaller sizes. In addition to sacrificing finer details at this highest setting, darker portions of our images, such as the face of a plush ape in our test scene, plunged even deeper into darkness, obscuring detail in shadows as well as smoothing the noise reduction.

Overall, Nikon's Coolpix S9 is a decent ultracompact, but its lack of high ISO or image stabilization, as well as substandard noise performance make us think twice. If you're looking for a snapshot camera, you may be better served with something such as Canon's SD600 or SD630. Or, perhaps take a step up to Nikon's Coolpix S7c. Sony's T-series cameras, such as the Cyber Shot DSC-T9, have also done well in our tests, but tend to be a bit pricey compared to this Nikon.

Shooting speed
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)
Typical shot-to-shot time  
Time to first shot  
Shutter lag (typical)  
Olympus FE-120
Pentax Optio A10
Nikon Coolpix S7c
Nikon Coolpix S9
Casio Exilim EX-Z850
Sony Cyber Shot DSC-T9
Note: Seconds

Typical continuous-shooting speed
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
Note: Frames per second

Nikon Coolpix S9

Score Breakdown

Design 7Features 6Performance 7Image quality 7