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Nikon Coolpix S5 Digital Camera Review
by Howard Creech -  4/23/2006

The "S" for style Nikon Coolpix S5 is a 6 megapixel digital camera with a large 2.5" LCD screen and a 3X optical zoom. It's a fashionably thin compact digital camera that is sort of reminiscent of the classy little Contax T film camera. The Contax T (introduced in 1984) was designed by F. A. Porsche and achieved cult status among serious photographers almost immediately. Master photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson replaced his venerable Leica rangefinder, during the last years of his life, with a Contax T. Like the Contax T, the Coolpix S5 is an elegantly thin compact point & shoot camera with an amazingly good lens.

nikon coolpix s5
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Nikon has a proud heritage; the camera of choice for generations of photojournalists and war correspondents, the only camera manufacturer ever identified in the lyrics of a number one pop song, and the imaging tool NASA astronauts took to the moon. The Nikon Coolpix S5 does remarkably well with some of the things its predecessors were famous for, plus it is highly pocketable and tough enough to go just about anywhere.

What's new?

Like Sony's nifty but expensive N1 digicam, the S5 doubles as a portable image viewer allowing users to create (in-camera) pro-look slide shows (with audio soundtracks).

The S5 features Face-priority Auto Focus, automatic in-camera red-eye fix, and Nikon's nifty D-Lighting function, making it much simpler to shoot stunning portraits, even under less than optimum conditions.

I shoot a lot of vertical compositions, so it is nice that Nikon finally got around to including Auto Image Rotation (the camera automatically identifies vertical compositions and displays them with correct orientation) in the Coolpix line.

Also impressive is Nikon's eminently logical new Rotary jog dial. The S5's compass switch (4 way multi selector) features the familiar control configuration (up/down, left/right, and center buttons) in addition Nikon incorporates a nifty rotary collar for super fast scrolling, back and forth image browsing/comparison, and simplified menu navigation.

NUTS & BOLTS

Viewfinder/LCD

Optical viewfinders and Electronic Viewfinders (EVFs) limit the photographer's view of the world (by eliminating everything except the field of view through the camera's lens) and that forces shooters to see photographically. What's left out of the composition is almost always just as important as what's left in. Arms length LCD screen composition is a major part of what's wrong with photography today -- Arms length composition causes shooters to see their images as a smaller part of a larger picture -- a portion of the whole rather than as a self contained mini environment and that is a very important distinction, in creative terms.

The S5 doesn't provide an optical viewfinder so the large 2.5 inch (230,000 pixels) TFT color LCD screen must manage all framing/compositional, image review, and menu access chores. The S5's LCD screen is sharp, bright, hue accurate, and very fluid.

nikon coolpix s5
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The LCD gains up automatically in dim/low light, but screen images (in dim/low light) look flat, fuzzy, and somewhat grainy. The S5's LCD screen is so shiny that in basically any type of (daytime) outdoor lighting it behaves like a mirror, making it almost useless for framing and composition -- and that is a major fault since there's no optical viewfinder.

nikon coolpix s5 sample image
(view medium image) (view large image) This image of the S5's LCD screen was shot outdoors under heavy shade. Note the mirror like reflection of my hands.

The S5's big LCD screen is really impressive when the camera is used as a portable image viewer for Nikon's new In-Camera Creative Slideshow Entertainment function. Users select images and/or movie files, choose a transition style (fade, pan, dissolve, etc.) and music (one of five pre-loaded music files or a user loaded MP3 music file). The soundtrack is played back on the tiny built-in speaker and the slide show is displayed on the camera's LCD screen.

Zoom Lens

The S5 features a very good f3.0--f5.4/5.8mm-17.4mm (35mm -105mm 35mm equivalent) all glass 3X optical Zoom-Nikkor ED lens. When the camera is turned on a guillotine style lens cover opens and the camera is ready for business. When the camera is powered down the integral lens cover slides back into place to protect the zoom's front element. The S5's optics are internal (nothing protrudes from the camera body) so the S5 is faster at start-up than digicams that must first extend the zoom. The S5's zoom operation is quick and quiet, but the tiny zoom switch is fiddly and hard to get used to which makes incremental zoom movements less precise than they should be. Minimum focusing distance (in macro mode) is 1.6 inches (4 centimeters).

The S5's optical performance is above average for compact digicams. Images are hue accurate and slightly over saturated with virtually no noise in well-lit scenes (although night images tend to be noticeably noisy). Resolution (sharpness) is excellent throughout the zoom's range, but corners are a bit soft. There is noticeable barrel distortion (straight lines bow out from the center) at the wide-angle end of the zoom range, but no visible pin cushioning (straight lines bow in toward the center) at the telephoto end of the range. I didn't notice any vignetting (darkened corners) and chromatic aberration (purple fringing) is very well controlled.

The S5's much touted wave surface design (the left side of the camera is thicker than the right side) is not really about style at all, the 3X zoom lives in the bulged out side of the camera that approximates the crest of the wave. Digital camera zooms are incredibly complex and a basic optical clich postulates that as cameras get smaller and thinner, optical performance deteriorates in direct proportion to the increased complexity required for miniaturization. Kudos to Nikon, that's not the case with the S5's zoom.

Auto Focus (AF)

The S5'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. In most shooting modes the default AF area is the center of the frame, but the AF point can be moved around (manually) inside the frame. After focus is locked the image can be re-composed and that's fine for static subjects, but it can dramatically slow things down when shooting action. As long as the photographer is prepared, the S5's AF is fast enough to capture most action but it is not fast enough to freeze really fast action.

nikon coolpix s5 sample image
(view medium image) (view large image) The S5 was fast enough to capture this shot of a warm weather application of this sled dog's genetic pulling ability.

nikon coolpix s5 sample image
(view medium image) (view large image) But not fast enough to freeze (note the slightly blurred focus) this airborne skateboarder

Pressing the One Touch Portrait button (on the left side of the camera's top) automatically shifts the S5 into Portrait Scene mode and activates the Face Priority AF function which recognizes and focuses on faces in the image frame. In Face Priority AF mode the S5 will track (a square happy face icon appears) and continually focus on the nearest face(s) in the frame. 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 subject) Face Priority AF works. 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. Do most users really need Face Priority AF? No (photographers naturally focus on faces in portraits) so this splashy new function is really more about style than substance.

Manual Focus (MF)

The S5 has no manual focus capability

Flash

The S5's built-in multi-mode (Auto, Red-Eye Reduction, Fill Flash, Slow Synch, and Off) flash is tiny. Nikon claims the maximum range is between 8 and 9 feet, which seems fairly accurate based on my limited testing. Used up close, the little flash is surprisingly powerful and has a tendency to burn out detail. Optimum range is about 6 feet (just about perfect for lighting the classic head and shoulders portrait). Anything beyond 6 or 7 feet (2 meters) is going to be a bit dark unless the subject is shot against light colored backgrounds with lots of ambient lighting. The flash is right beside the zoom so redeye will likely be an ongoing problem, but the S5's In-Camera Red-Eye Fix is automatically activated in the Redeye Reduction flash mode. I didn't encounter any redeye problems so I can't comment on the efficacy of the S5's In-Camera Red-Eye Fix.

Image File Storage/Memory Media

The S5 saves images to Secure Data (SD) memory cards (Nikon doesn't include a starter SD card). The S5 also provides users with 21MB of internal image storage.

Image File Format(s)

JPEG

 

Connectivity

A/V out, USB out, and DC in

Power

The S5 draws its power from a proprietary Nikon EN-EL8 Li-ion Battery. Nikon claims 210 exposures with a fully charged EN-EL8, however that number is definitely a lab test/best case scenario. In the Real World the S5's below average battery life may be its Achilles heel. I spent part of a long afternoon trying to coax the S5's dying battery to last until I had finished a loop through Cave Hill Cemetery, but I only had 81 images saved to my SD card when the EN-EL8 went belly up.

nikon coolpix s5
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EXPOSURE

The S5 is a fully automatic digita camera with a very narrow range of exposure options - Auto (Point & Shoot mode) and Program AE (Point & Shoot mode with user input) only. Auto mode includes 4 Scene Assist modes - Portrait, Landscape, Sports, and Night Portrait; Scene Assist modes provide a selection of LCD framing guides to simplify composition. There are also 12 basic Scene modes - 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 shots. Another option is Exposure BSS (Best Shot Selector) which automatically selects and saves the image most closely matching a set of user-selected exposure criteria from a sequence of five shots. There's also a voice notation mode. Based on my experiences with the camera, the S5 delivers dependably accurate exposures in most lighting, but there is a slight tendency to burn out highlights in bright outdoor lighting.

nikon coolpix s5 sample image
(view medium image) (view large image) Background and foreground elements of this image are properly exposed, but note lack of feather detail in swans

Movie Mode

The S5 captures video at 640x480 @ 30 fps and a short selection of lower resolutions and slower frame rates.

Metering

The S5 measures light via Nikon's famous 256 segment (multi-pattern) Matrix metering. Metering is consistent, accurate, and dependable.

nikon coolpix s5 sample image
(view medium image) (view large image) These backlit daffodils are striking (in part) because the background is underexposed - illustrating a major difference between Nikon and Canon. A Canon digicam would have balanced these brightly lit daffodils against their dark background for a correct (but far less dramatic) exposure. Nikon assumes the photographer wants to focus (no pun intended) on the primary element in the composition, which in this case is the grouping of backlit Daffodils -- since they cover most of the meters field of view. The Matrix Metering System analyzed the lighting on the subject and calculated an exposure that would preserve the dramatic backlighting.

White Balance (WB)

The S5 provides an adequate selection of WB options, including Auto, Daylight, Incandescent, Fluorescent, Cloudy, and Flash. The S5'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.

Sensitivity

The S5's Sensitivity range is adequate for the camera's target audience -- TTL Auto ISO and user-selected settings of 50, 100, 200, and 400 ISO.

In-Camera Image Adjustment

Nikon's Picture Effects Mode is a very basic "cut to the chase" set of in-camera image adjustment options. Users can select Standard Color, Vivid Color, Black-and-White, Sepia, and Cyanotype (gives images a retro blue-hued monochromatic look).

The S5's exposure compensation function (exposure can be adjusted through a +2/-2 EV range in 1/3 EV increments) can be used to help manage difficult lighting by allowing users to quickly and easily lighten or darken exposures.

CONTROLS, DESIGN, ENGINEERING, & ERGONOMICS

The S5 was designed for casual shooters and family photographers who may occasionally experiment with composition and creativity, but will primarily use the camera for snapshooting. The S5 is small enough to be dropped in a pocket and forgotten until needed. The stylish wave surface brushed aluminum body is tough enough to go just about anywhere and capture super pictures when it gets there. Ease of use is amazing, even technophobes will be able to shoot stunning pictures within minutes.

nikon coolpix s5
Top view (view large image)

Dedicated controls are sparse and most have multiple functions, but all (with the exception of the zoom rocker switch) are logically placed and come easily to hand. The rocker switch for the zoom is very small (more tab than button sized) which makes precise zooming difficult. The S5's compass switch features the familiar control configuration (up/down, left/right, and center buttons) but also incorporates a nifty new rotary jog dial around its periphery. This allows for super fast scrolling, back and forth image comparison, and simplified menu navigation. I can't understand why someone didn't think of this application before since it substantially improves usability. I don't know if Nikon incorporated the rotary jog dial on all their newest digicams, but if they did they'll have stolen a march on their competition. Look for lots of rotary jog dials on new models next fall from all the Usual Suspects. Due to the lack of control buttons (form over function) the S5 is a bit too menu driven.

Technical Specifications

Included

COOLSTATION/battery charger dock, Dock Insert, wrist Strap, USB Cable, Audio/Video Cable, AC Adapter, EN-EL8 Rechargeable Li-ion Battery, Software CD-ROM, and printed users manual

Optional

Soft case, back-up EN-EL8 Rechargeable Li-ion Battery

PERFORMANCE

Image Quality

Outdoors, the S5's images are consistently hue accurate with slightly punched-up color saturation and hard default contrast, a classic example of what some veteran photographers call consumer image interpolation. Consumer image interpolation panders to the color/contrast preferences of amateur shooters. Indoor and night -- dim/low light shots didn't fare as well, many were blurred and underexposed. Nikon's D-Lighting function helps by lightening underexposed (post exposure) images, but nothing can truly correct a blurred image.

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.

Auto ISO images are generally excellent with sharp resolution, bold colors, and lots of snap (although some very minor pattern noise is occasionally visible in shadow areas). ISO 50 and 100 images are consistently 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 and some fine detail is lost (Noise comes through as an overall soft graininess sort of reminiscent of high speed film). I did see some blotching (chroma noise) in a couple of ISO 400 images.

nikon coolpix s5 sample image
(view medium image) (view large image) The S5's colors are slightly over saturated, but hue accurate. The colors in this flat of annuals at a Bardstown Road seasonal garden stand are almost exactly as I saw them.

Timing/Shutter Lag

The S5 is a quick digital camera. 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 compact consumer grade digicams.

A Few Concerns

I don't have many complaints with the S5 -- The major shortcoming of this digicam is its mirror surfaced LCD (which makes it difficult to use outdoors in bright light). Battery life could certainly be better, but users can always buy a back-up EN-EL8 battery.

Who is this Camera best suited for?

The S5 is a very good choice for budget conscious point-and-shooters, busy folks who like trendy techno-toys, casual photographers who want a camera compact enough to take along everywhere they go, and style conscious snap-shooters looking to amaze their friends.

Conclusion

The super svelte little S5 consistently delivers outstanding picture quality, above average performance, and puts the fun back into taking pictures. It is stylish, very well designed, user friendly, surprisingly versatile, and capable of dependably excellent results.

Pros:

Cons: