Today's point-and-shoot digital cameras are (usually) small enough to drop in a shirt pocket, tough enough to go just about anywhere, and they reliably produce first-rate images with only minimal effort from the shooter. The new Nikon Coolpix S9300 (which replaces last year's popular S9100) could be the poster child for this class of camera.
Forty odd years ago, when I first got into photography, 35mm point-and-shoot cameras were much bulkier and substantially heavier than today's digital cameras. That was before the widespread replacement of metal and glass with polycarbonate and plastic. Digital cameras don't need film, so substantial space was saved by not having to accommodate a 35mm or APS film cassette and film advance/rewind mechanisms.
Factor in much smaller electro-mechanical components and the super miniaturized zooms used in today's digital cameras and tiny super capable cameras are no longer a photographer's fantasy. Even slightly larger point-and-shoot digicams like the new Nikon Coolpix S9300 are much smaller, significantly lighter, and infinitely more feature rich than their old school predecessors.
Build and Design
At first glance, the S9300 is almost identical to its predecessor - Nikon didn't deviate much from the original design with this 4th generation unit. So what's different? The S9300 boosts resolution from 12 megapixels to 16 megapixels (via a new back-illuminated CMOS image sensor) and also features a GPS receiver. That little GPS hump on the S9300's top deck is the only visible difference between the two cameras.
The S9300 is a rather plain little digicam that looks very similar to every other compact out there. The user interface is uncomplicated and user-friendly, which seems logical given that the auto-exposure only S9300 doesn't really allow much user input into the exposure process anyway.
The S9300 is unintimidating to subjects (at least the black version - the camera is also available in red or silver), and small enough to drop in a shirt pocket. The robustly constructed metal-alloy/polycarbonate body has decent dust/weather/moisture seals and the S9300 feels comfortingly solid in hand.
Ergonomics and Controls
The control layout is sufficiently similar to every other compact camera ever sold to provide experienced digicam users with a comforting sense of deja vu. Buttons are logically placed and come easily to hand for right-handed shooters, but they are all rather small (with the exception of the shutter button), in fact the on/off button is so small that it usually requires a couple of attempts to turn the camera on or off. All controls are clearly marked, sensibly placed and easily accessed - for right-handed shooters. Operation is very basic, since all exposure options are minor variations on the auto exposure theme.
The mode dial is in the standard position, but it's not your typical mode dial. It doesn't provide a program mode option, or any manual exposure options. There is an auto mode setting (which most users will leave activated full time), a Scene auto selector mode, several popular scene mode settings, and the continuous shooting mode. Be advised that the mode dial moves easily and I was surprised several times (when removing the camera from my pocket) to discover the mode dial was no longer set to Auto mode.
The S9300's compass switch is surrounded by what is essentially a rotary jog dial (Nikon calls this the rotary multi-controller) which makes for super fast menu scrolling and function selection. Where Nikon's nifty rotary multi-controller really shines is for easy back and forth review and comparison of saved images. The central portion of the rotary multi-controller functions in the familiar compass switch configuration - up/down (flash/macro), left/right (self timer/exposure compensation), and center "OK" button. Unfortunately there is no functions mini-menu available for direct access adjustments of ISO and White Balance or other frequently changed settings.
Nikon still hasn't fixed one of the S9100's most frustrating design miscues. The exposure compensation function is meant to allow savvy shooters to subtly modify exposure by incrementally lightening or darkening images. If you access the Exposure Compensation function on the S9300, the camera will remember your settings - even after it is turned off.
The S9300's info display shows the exposure compensation setting (briefly) when the camera is turned on, however it is very easy to miss that bit of information and accidentally shoot images that are lighter or darker than the existing lighting calls for. There is no logical reason why a camera should be designed to remember an exposure compensation setting that was only relevant to a specific lighting situation.
The S9300's one-touch video Record/Stop button is noticeably smaller than that control was on the S9100, but it is still perfectly placed (at the upper right hand corner of the camera's rear deck) meaning the shooter doesn't have to look away from the LCD screen when composing (or to end) video clips.
Menus and Modes
The S9300's three tab (Image mode, Movie Options, and Set-up) menu system is reliably logical, user-friendly, and easily navigated. The large high resolution LCD and reasonable font size make reading menus simple. Unlike some of its competition the S9300 completely eschews manual exposure options, relying instead on a tweakable Auto mode (which is really more like Program mode), a Scene auto-selector mode (which is really more like a smart auto mode), and several mode dial scene modes. The S9300 also features a Panorama mode - shooters can pan through 360 degrees (horizontal) or 180 degrees (vertical) as the camera captures and then automatically stitches together those multiple images.
Here's a breakdown of the S9300's shooting modes:
There is no dedicated movie/video setting on the mode dial - simply press the S9300's one touch movie start/stop button at any time (in any exposure mode) to switch to video capture mode.
Like most currently available digicams the S9300 doesn't provide an optical viewfinder so the LCD screen must be used for all framing/composition, image review, GPS receiver, and menu access chores. The S9300 may lack an optical viewfinder, but it makes up for this omission (somewhat) by featuring a large 3.0-inch LCD screen with four times the 230k-dot resolution that was the industry standard LCD resolution just a couple of years ago.
The S9300's wide-viewing angle 3.0-inch TFT LCD is super sharp (921,000 pixels), bright, hue accurate, and fluid and the info display provides all the information this camera's target audience is likely to need. The LCD gains up (automatically increases brightness) in dim lighting and brightness can also be adjusted to the individual shooter's preferences.
Some earlier "S" models featured LCDs that were so shiny that they behaved like mirrors, making them almost useless in bright outdoor lighting. The S9300 shows marked improvement over its predecessors in this area - the anti-glare/anti-reflection coating (applied to both sides of the LCD's protective cover) is substantially better than average for digicams in this class.
Like all LCD screens, the S9300's monitor is subject to fading and glare under bright outdoor lighting. The DCR test lab objectively measures LCD peak brightness to assist our readers in making more informed digital camera purchasing decisions. Peak brightness for the S9300's LCD screen (the panel's output of an all-white screen at full brightness) is 350 nits and on the dark side (black luminance) the measurement is 0.75 nits. The S9300's overall contrast ration is 466.1 - generally a contrast ratio of around 500:1 is considered adequate under most lighting - so, close enough.
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