Nikon Coolpix S9100 - digital camera review: Nikon Coolpix S9100 - digital camera

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The Good The Nikon Coolpix S9100 has fast shooting performance, a wide, long lens in a pocketable body, and several useful and fun shooting modes.

The Bad The Coolpix S9100's photo and video quality is soft, particularly at high ISOs and in low-light conditions. It also lacks auto picture rotation.

The Bottom Line Nikon produces another solid point-and-shoot compact megazoom with the Coolpix S9100 by offering fast performance, good photos, and an excellent feature-to-price ratio.

7.8 Overall
  • Design 8
  • Features 8
  • Performance 8
  • Image quality 7

The Nikon Coolpix S9100 is a step up from the S8100. That camera features a 10x 30-300mm-equivalent lens, whereas the S9100 has an 18x 25-450mm-equivalent lens. Otherwise, the cameras look the same (though the S9100 is slightly larger) and the shooting options are similar, too, due in part to their 12-megapixel backside-illuminated (BSI) CMOS sensors. They are both very good cameras with a lot of automatic shooting options to help get the best photos without dealing with settings other than changing shooting modes.

Basically, the reason to go with the S9100 over the S8100 is the longer, wider lens; shooting performance and photo and video quality is about the same. If you're a stickler for sharpness or fine details when photos are viewed at larger sizes, then this camera probably isn't for you. Also, I found it difficult to hold this camera still with the lens fully extended, and the image stabilization could only do so much. Without some sort of support, you may end up with a lot of blurry shots. But for its price and shooting flexibility, most people after a decent snapshot should be pretty happy with the results.

Key specs Nikon Coolpix S9100
Price (MSRP) $329.95
Dimensions (WHD) 4.2 x 2.5 x 1.4 inches
Weight (with battery and media) 7.6 ounces
Megapixels, image sensor size, type 12 megapixels, 1/2.3-inch backside-illuminated CMOS
LCD size, resolution/viewfinder 3-inch LCD, 921K dots/None
Lens (zoom, aperture, focal length) 18x, f3.5-5.9, 25-450mm (35mm equivalent)
File format (still/video) JPEG/MPEG-4 AVC H.264 (.MOV)
Highest resolution size (still/video) 4,000x3,000pixels/ 1,920x1,080 at 30fps
Image stabilization type Mechanical and digital
Battery type, CIPA rated life Lithium ion rechargeable, 270 shots
Battery charged in camera Yes; by computer or wall adapter via USB
Storage media SD/SDHC/SDXC
Bundled software Nikon ViewNX 2 (Windows, Mac)

Overall photo quality from the S9100 is very good, on par with most other cameras in its category. Though its sensitivity settings run from ISO 160 to ISO 3,200, the S9100 produces the best results below ISO 400. Regardless of sensitivity, photos generally look somewhat soft and benefit from sharpening with photo-editing software. There's a Fixed Range Auto option that will limit you to ISO 160-400, which is nice since, again, this is where the S9100 performs best. On the other hand, the regular Auto ISO setting only goes up to ISO 800, and since the S9100 does OK there, too, it's fairly safe to use. The two highest ISOs--1,600 and 3,200--should probably only be used in emergencies, mainly because the colors get very washed out and the noise reduction makes subjects appear smeary.

Nikon does an excellent job of controlling both barrel distortion at the wide end and pincushioning at the telephoto end of the lens. The lens is reasonably sharp in the center, but there is noticeable softness at the sides and in the corners when photos are viewed at their full resolution. The corners also show some pulling toward the center when using the wide end. It's not always noticeable, and even when it is, it may not bother you. Similarly, fringing in high-contrast areas of photos is generally only visible when photos are viewed at full size, and even then it's typically off to the sides of a scene.

Colors produced by the S9100 are good up to ISO 800--pleasing and natural. Exposure is consistently good, too, and if you need some help, Nikon's D-Lighting feature can be used in Playback mode. The auto white balance under incandescent light and when using the flash is a little too warm, so it's best to use the presets or manual white-balance option whenever possible in those situations. Also, like most compact cameras, highlights can blow out easily. Nikon's Backlight HDR (high dynamic range) mode can help even things out, though.

Despite its 1080p movie capture being a main selling point, video quality is merely on par with a good HD pocket video camera: good enough for Web use and nondiscriminating TV viewing. If you plan to do a lot of panning from side to side or shooting fast-moving subjects, you'll likely see judder. Also, though the zoom does work when recording, the movement is picked up by the mics on top so you will hear it in your movies. If you use the zoom while recording you'll want to keep the autofocus set to full time, but unfortunately you will hear the lens focusing in your movies, too. Worth mentioning is the ability to capture stills while shooting movies. Just press the shutter release down and it'll grab a frame at the resolution you're recording in.

General shooting options Nikon Coolpix S9100
ISO sensitivity (full resolution) Auto, 160, 200, 400, 800, 1,600, 3,200
White balance Auto, Daylight, Tungsten, Fluorescent, Open Shade
Recording modes Auto, Scene Auto Selector, Scene, Continuous, Special Effects, Night Landscape, Night Portrait, Backlighting HDR
Focus modes 9-point AF, Manual AF (99-point selectable), Center AF, Subject tracking AF, Macro
Macro 1.6 inches (Wide)
Metering modes Matrix, Center-weighted, Spot (digital zoom 2x or more)
Color effects Brightness, Vividness, Hue controls
Burst mode shot limit (full resolution) 5 shots

There are two Auto modes on this camera. One is Nikon's Scene Auto Selector. It adjusts settings appropriately based on six common scene types. If the scene doesn't match any of those, it defaults to a general-use Auto. Then there is an Auto mode, which is like the program AE modes on other point-and-shoots. You can change ISO, white balance, and exposure compensation as well as light metering, and autofocus area and mode. For the S9100, Nikon adds some extra control over hue (color tone) and vividness (saturation), with adjustable sliders. They're not revolutionary, but if you like to experiment, they'll be welcomed. The slider settings get stored in the camera's memory for the Auto mode, so they stay even if you power the camera off.

There are 15 other scene modes like Landscape and Portrait as well as a new Pet Portrait mode and two panorama modes: Easy and Panorama Assist. The latter uses a ghost image on the screen to help you line up your successive photos. The former just requires you to press the shutter and pan the camera left, right, up, or down to create a panorama in camera. These modes never handle movement well, so they're best used on scenery without movement in it.

If you like to shoot close-ups, the S9100 has a few ways to enter Macro mode. It will automatically switch to it if you're using the Scene Auto Selector mode. You can also select a Close-up mode from the camera's Scene options. And if you're in Auto mode, you can switch to macro focus via the control pad. You can focus as close as 1.6 inches from your subject, and the results are very good.