For decades Nikons were the camera of choice for professional photographers, photojournalists, and serious amateur shooters, but Canon has done a much better job of meeting consumer’s needs since the beginning of the digital era - especially when it comes to creating fashionable and easy to use ultra-compact digital cameras. That may be about to change. Nikon’s new Coolpix S200 is a stylish, ultra-compact and eminently pocketable 7 megapixel digital camera. The S200 is currently the smallest (3.6in/91.5 mm x 2.2in/56.5 mm), lightest (4.4 oz/125 g), and thinnest (0.76 inches/19mm) digital camera in Nikon's product catalog. The S200 is tough enough to go just about anywhere and simple enough to be used successfully by just about anyone. The snazzy little S200 (like the original Olympus Stylus) is the sort of P&S pocket camera a professional photographer might carry for grab shots and to record personal images while on assignment.
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NUTS & BOLTS
Like many current ultra-compact digicams the S200 doesn't provide an optical viewfinder so the 2.5 in/6.3 cm LCD screen handles all framing/compositional, image review, and menu access chores. The S200's LCD screen is a bit coarse (153,000 pixels), but adequately sharp for most situations. The LCD is bright, hue accurate, and very fluid. Some earlier “S” models featured LCD screens that were so shiny that in virtually any type of outdoor lighting they behaved like mirrors, making them essentially useless for framing and composition. Fortunately that is not the case with the S200 – the screen is usable even in bright mid-day lighting. The S200’s LCD gains up (brightens) automatically in dim/low light – LCD screen brightness can also be adjusted via the set-up menu.
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The S200 features a surprisingly good f3.1-f5.9/6.3mm – 18.9mm (38mm – 114mm 35mm equivalent) standard (6 elements in 5 groups) Nikkor Zoom; not the periscope-style folded light path zoom found on earlier “S” series digicams. When the camera is turned on the lens telescopes out of the camera body. When the camera is powered down the lens is fully retracted into the camera body and the built-in lens cover slides back into place to protect the front element. The S200’s zoom is quick and quiet, but the zoom control rocker switch is not as precise as it could be – I only counted seven steps, making incremental zoom adjustments tricky.
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P&S digicam zooms are extremely complex and as lenses get smaller optical performance generally deteriorates in direct proportion to the level of miniaturization. That's not the case with the S200, optical performance is noticeably above average. Images are hue accurate and slightly over saturated and essentially noise free in well-lit (low ISO) scenes, although night images tend to be noticeably noisier. Resolution (sharpness) is excellent throughout the zoom's range, but corners are a bit soft at the maximum aperture. There is some visible barrel distortion (straight lines bow out from the center of the frame) at the wide-angle end of the zoom range. There is also some very minor pin cushioning (straight lines bow in toward the center of the frame) at the telephoto end of the zoom range. I didn't notice any vignetting (darkened corners). Chromatic aberration (purple fringing) is very well controlled, but visible in high contrast color transition areas at the wide-angle end of the zoom range. Minimum focusing distance (in macro mode) is 3.9 inches (10 centimeters).
(view medium image) (view large image) Polyphemous Moth on Comfrey - Check out the dead-on accurate color (early evening Golden Light) and amazing detail in this close-up.
eVR (electronic Vibration Reduction)
The S200 features an electronic blur reduction system that reads image data from an on-board angular velocity sensor and then applies in-camera image processing algorithms to sharpen blurred pictures or video clips. Some shooters may be confused because Nikon uses the same VR designation with their optical image stabilization system equipped cameras and lenses, but eVR is a form of post exposure processing – it doesn’t actually reduce vibration.
Auto Focus (AF)
The S200’s Contrast Detection AF system is consistently fast and accurate in good lighting, but it hunts a bit at night and in dim/low light. Unlike earlier “S” series digicams the S200’s AF is fast enough to track and capture most types of action. Select the Portrait Scene mode and Face Priority AF is automatically enabled. In Face Priority AF mode the S200 detects a face and focuses on it (a square smiley face icon is superimposed over the face detected by the camera – if there is more than one face in the frame, the camera focuses on the closest face and the flash automatically switches to red-eye reduction mode. Although it takes a little getting used to and does throw in a worrisome compositional stumbling block (once focus is locked users can't recompose without losing focus lock on their primary subject) Face Priority AF does work, and it can be useful. Another problem with Face Priority AF is that it only works when the subject faces directly toward the camera, so FPAF won't lock on dramatic profile shots.
(view medium image) (view large image) Fence climbing Golden Lab - This grab shot demonstrates the quickness and accuracy of the S200’s AF.
Manual Focus (MF)
The S200 provides no manual focus capability
The S200's tiny built-in multi-mode (Auto, Red-Eye Reduction, Fill Flash, Slow Synch, and Off) flash is, not surprisingly, a bit underpowered. Nikon claims the maximum flash range - at the wide-angle end of the zoom - is just shy of 18 feet, but that seems wildly optimistic. Real World (effective) flash range is between 8 and 10 feet, anything beyond 10 feet/3 meters is going to be a pretty dark unless the subject is shot against a light colored background with lots of ambient lighting. The flash is on essentially the same plane as the lens, but the S200's In-Camera Red-Eye Fix is automatically activated in the Redeye Reduction flash mode.
Image File Storage/Memory Media
The S200 saves images to SD/SDHC memory cards (Nikon doesn't include a starter card). The S200 also provides users with 20MB of internal image storage.
Image File Format(s)
A/V out and USB 2.0 out
The S200 draws its power from a tiny Nikon EN-EL10 Li-ion 3.7V/740mAh Battery. Nikon claims 230 exposures and I have no reason to quibble with that number. I didn’t keep track of exposures, but I used the camera heavily for almost a month and never ran out of juice. The included charger needs just over 90 minutes to fully recharge the battery.
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The S200 is an automatic digital camera with no manual exposure capability. In Auto mode (actually Program mode) the camera automatically selects the aperture and shutter speed, but allows users to control sensitivity (ISO), white balance, color/saturation, and exposure compensation. The S200 also provides 15 Scene modes - Portrait, Landscape, Sports, Night Portrait, Party/Indoor, Beach/Snow, Sunset, Dusk/Dawn, Night Landscape, Close-up, Museum, Fireworks Show, Copy, Back light, and Panorama Assist. In all scene modes the camera's CPU automatically optimizes all exposure parameters (aperture, shutter speed, white balance, sensitivity, etc.) for the specific image type selected. Users can also opt for BSS (Best Shot Selector) which automatically selects and saves the best shot from a sequence of 10 exposures. Another option is the High Sensitivity Mode which automatically increases CCD sensitivity (up to ISO 1000) to match ambient lighting. There's also a voice notation mode allowing users to attach a 20 second voice memo to still images. In addition the S200 can function as a digital voice recorder – recording duration is up to 5 hours (with a large SD/SDHC card) or up to 47 minutes in internal memory.
The S200 captures video at 640x480 @ 30 fps (up to 2GB duration) and a selection of lower resolutions and slower frame rates. Users can also opt to shoot StopMotion movies - up to 1800 (640x480) images with an SD/SDHC card or up to 233 (640x480) images using the internal memory at a variety of time intervals (0.5, 1.0, 5.0, 10, 30 and 60 minutes). The captured time-lapse video is viewed at 30 fps.
The S200 measures light via Nikon's famous 256 segment (multi-pattern) matrix metering. Metering is automatic, consistent, accurate, and dependable in most lighting, but there is a slight tendency to burn out highlights.
(view medium image) (view large image) Wild Columbine in bloom. This tough back-lit close-up shot demonstrates the accuracy of the S200’s Matrix Metering
White Balance (WB)
The S200 provides an adequate selection of WB options, including Auto, Daylight, Incandescent, Fluorescent, Cloudy, Shade, and Flash. The S200's Auto White Balance is consistently accurate in most lighting, but images shot under fluorescent lighting (at the Auto WB setting) showed a very slight pinkish cast.
The S200's Sensitivity range is adequate for the camera's target audience -- TTL Auto (ISO 50-800) Sensitivity and user selected settings of 50, 100, 200, 400, 800, and 1000 ISO.
In-Camera Image Adjustment
Nikon's Picture Effects Mode allows users to select Standard Color, Vivid Color, Black-and-White, and Sepia.
Exposure compensation mode permits users to subtly modify exposure parameters over a 4 EV range (+ /-2 EV) in 1/3 EV increments by easily lightening or darkening exposures to compensate for difficult lighting and subject/background reflectance/non-reflectance problems or to compensate for environmental exposure variables. What’s really neat about the S200’s exposure compensation function is that it is located on the compass switch - many digicams bury exposure compensation deep in some obscure menu - making instant access a snap.
Nikon’s nifty D-Lighting function can be enabled (post exposure) to enhance shadow detail and lighten darker areas in underexposed images or shots with too much backlighting (by enhancing highlight detail and lowering contrast in burnt out areas). A corrected copy of the image is saved as a separate image.
CONTROLS, DESIGN, ENGINEERING, & ERGONOMICS
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Ultra compact digicams keep getting better and the S200 is a perfect example of this ongoing improvement. The brushed aluminium body is small enough to drop in a shirt pocket and tough enough to go just about anywhere. Despite being very compact, the Coolpix S200 has very good ergonomics. Dedicated controls are few and most have multiple functions, but all controls are logically placed, come easily to hand, and quickly become intuitive, making the camera easy to operate. Ease of use is amazing, even technophobes will be able to shoot good pictures.
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The S200’s images are a classic example of what some veteran photographers call consumer image interpolation - hue accurate with somewhat punched-up color saturation and slightly hard default contrast. Outdoors (daylight), the S200's images are dependably and consistently excellent. Images are generally well exposed, but the camera does blow out highlights in some shots, which is not too surprising since Nikon's matrix meters are calibrated to preserve shadow detail by clipping highlights. Corners are a bit soft, but chromatic aberration (purple fringing) is very well controlled. Indoors, at night, and in dim/low light the S200’s images are decent, but not quite as good as the daylight shots.
Auto ISO images are generally excellent (in good lighting) with sharp resolution, bold colors, and lots of snap (although some very minor pattern noise/color grain is occasionally visible in shadow areas). ISO 50 and 100 images are dependably excellent with very good detail and virtually no noise. ISO 200 images are surprisingly good, essentially the same as lower ISO images. Noise levels rise noticeably at ISO 400 - images are a bit flat, colors aren’t as bold as lower ISO images, and some fine detail is lost. ISO 800 and 1000 images are very noisy, colors lack pop, and edge demarcations are noticeably softer than lower ISO images. I didn’t notice any chroma noise (blotching).
The S200 is a very quick digital camera, noticeably faster than average. The boot-up cycle is 0.8 seconds. Shutter lag (about 1/10th of a second) shouldn't be a problem since shutter fire is essentially real time with pre-focus. AF is consistently very fast (about half a second) from scratch and shot-to-shot/write-to-card times are faster than average (for ultra-compact digicams).
(view medium image) (view large image) This BMXer captured in mid jump nicely demonstrates the S200’s very impressive quickness
A Few Concerns
I don't really have any issues. The superb little S200 is just about as good as can be expected and Nikon has corrected most of the complaints I had with earlier “S” models (mirror surfaced LCDs, fiddly zoom switches, poor battery life, etc.).
Who is this Camera best suited for?
The S200 is a very good choice for pros/serious amateurs looking for a quick and responsive pocket camera, weight/size conscious travelers/campers/bikers/hikers, folks who like trendy techno-toys, and casual photographers who want a camera compact enough to take along everywhere they go.
I recently spent a month using Canon’s new SD1000 Digital Elph and while the tiny S200 doesn’t match the SD1000 in creative flexibility or manual exposure options - it is only half as thick – and it does (in my opinion) compete on equal terms with the SD1000 in the image quality department.
Battery charger, wrist Strap, USB Cable, Audio/Video Cable, EN-EL10 Rechargeable Li-ion Battery, Software CD-ROM, and printed users manuals
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