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Nikon Coolpix S9 Digital Camera Review
by  -  10/17/2006

In the run-up to Photokina, Nikon updated its S (Style) line with two new digital cameras.  The Nikon Coolpix S9 was one of the two with the Coolpix S10 as the other one.  The S9 features 6 megapixel resolution, a 3x optical zoom, and 2.5 inch LCD in a very stylish, slim body shaped like its predecessors, the S5 and S6.

nikon coolpix s9
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As a side note, the S10 is completely different, since it’s an update to the ultrazoom, swivel body Coolpix S4.  The S10 offers a 10x optical zoom with Nikon’s Vibration Reduction, 6 megapixels, and a 2.5 inch LCD.

In the Box

Included in the box are a USB cable, AV cable, recharged lithium-ion battery (EN-EL8), battery charger, wrist strap, PictureProject CD-ROM, and user’s manual.

Camera Design 

The camera has a pretty small footprint, with dimensions of 3.6 x 2.3 x 0.8 in.  The body is all metal and the front and back panels have a sort of silver powder coat with a high gloss clear coating to give it some depth.  Overall, it’s an attractive camera even though it’s still just the typical digicam silver.

nikon coolpix s9
S9 next to the Kodak Easyshare V705 (view large image)

The ergonomics of the camera are actually pretty good, especially for an ultra-compact camera.  A textured thumb rest on the back of the camera helps you grip the glossy camera (don't forget to use the wrist strap).  It is possible to hold the camera in one hand as long as you put a finger on the bottom of the camera, but you’ll have better results if you can perform a two-hand hold.  The shutter button and zoom switch, on the top of the camera, are positioned well for shooting.  My only complaint with the controls is that the control pad has a slim profile and people with larger fingers may not be as sure when pressing the Ok button in the center of the control ring.

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The top of the camera has the speaker, microphone, one-touch portrait mode button, power button, shutter release, and zoom control.

nikon coolpix s9
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The front of the camera shows the flash, protected lens, and focus assist/timer lamp.

The back of the camera has the nice 2.5 inch LCD, status LED, capture/playback button, mode button, control pad, menu button, and delete button.

nikon coolpix s9
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One the bottom of the camera, you’ll find a tripod mount, the A/V out jack behind a rubber cover, and access door for the battery/memory card compartment

nikon coolpix s9
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Camera Features

Let’s start with the “vital stats”: the S9 takes 6 megapixel images with a 3x optical zoom lens.  The 2.5 inch LCD has 153.6K pixels of resolution.  There is no optical viewfinder and the camera has no manual exposure features.  It likes long walks on the beach, candlelit dinners, and puppies.  It’s turned off by dead batteries and the lack of light to make an appropriate exposure.  Ok, moving on…

You can capture images at 2816 x 2112 (6M/Fine), 2816 x 2112 (6M/Normal), 2048 x 1536 (3M/Normal), 1024 x 768 (PC screen/Normal), and 640 x 480 (VGA/Normal).  At full resolution and best compression settings (6M/Fine) you can get approximately 90 shots on a 256MB memory card.

The 3x optical zoom lens stays completely inside the camera body – it doesn’t protrude at all.  The 35mm equivalent focal length is 38-114mm.  There are 9 increments along the zoom range.  Optical zoom is not available during movie capture but digital zoom is. 

The S9 has several movie capture modes as well.  At the top of the list, with sound, it can capture movies at 640x480 at 30 fps, 320x240 at 30 and 15 fps, and 160x120 at 15 fps.  There are a couple modes that don’t capture sound: a time-lapse mode, that allows you to set an interval for a still shot that gets stitched together into a movie, and a stop-motion mode.  The stop-motion mode lets you take a shot that is shown on the screen with lower opacity that lets you move your subject by a small increment to take the next shot.  Once done, you have a stop-motion animation.  Optical zoom is not available during movie capture.

The camera also allows voice recording.  You can add a memo to an image that you’ve already captured, or just record a “standalone” audio clip.

The camera has 24MB of internal memory and accepts SD memory cards for more expansion.

The camera is powered 730 mAh lithium-ion battery pack (EN-EL8).  The charger can recharge the battery in about two hours.

The "auto" capture mode on the S9 is essentially a program auto mode, where you can modify the ISO, exposure compensation, white balance and so on. There are no manual modes on the camera, as is typical of this camera’s target market.  There are several scene modes that set optimum settings for the shooting scenario.  Nikon cameras also have a “Best Shot Selector” (BSS) mode that helps when images may be blurred or parts of the image may be over- or under-exposed.  When BSS mode is enabled, you just hold the shutter down and the camera will take up to ten shots and then select the sharpest image to be saved.  The latest crop of Nikon cameras also provide a dedicated button to access the Portrait mode, with Face Priority AF already enabled.

The auto focus system on the S9 can focus as close as 9.8 inches while in normal AF. When you switch over to macro, you can get as close as 1.6 inches. You can use a multi-zone focus area or a center zone focus area.  There is a focus assist lamp to help out in dark conditions.

The camera has a 10 second timer that is available by pressing the left direction on the control pad.  Besides the single shot mode, there are a couple other “drive” modes.  The continuous shooting mode captures images at 1.7 fps for up to 5 images (at Normal resolution mode).  The Multi-shot 16 mode takes up to 16 images, while you hold the shutter down, that are then stitched together into one larger image.  Finally, an interval mode tells the camera to capture an image, at an interval that you set, until the shutter is pressed again, there is no memory left, or 1800 pictures have been taken.

The flash button (up direction on directional pad) cycles through the available flash modes. You can set the flash mode to auto, fill (always on), off, slow sync, and red eye reduction. The flash range of the camera is 7.5 feet at wide angle or about 6 feet at telephoto.  This range seems to be pretty accurate as the flash is not quite strong enough to fill a slightly larger room (12 feet or so).

If you want to adjust the color settings during image capture, there are a few options.  Besides the default standard color, you can choose vivid, black and white, sepia, and cyanotype.

Camera Performance and Image Quality 

The speed of the camera was actually pretty good.  Start up time was a little slow (just under 2 seconds), but I’m usually not too critical of that.  Shutter lag (click to capture time) was also very good.  It does exist, but not so much that you’ll miss your shots.  Shot to shot time was very good, even when shooting with the flash which typically slows the camera down while it recharges.

Flash performance was pretty average.  As is typical with ultra-compact digital cameras, the flash can’t really put out enough light to cover a normal sized room.  The shot below is illuminated ok, but the camera boosted the sensitivity and lost detail in the process.

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The S9 achieved focus quickly and well.  The focus assist light automatically activated in darker conditions to help the camera find something to focus on.

I was impressed with the image quality of the S9.  I was happy with the color reproduction with the exception of some red tones.  The camera had some trouble differentiating between slightly different red tones and they would come out looking pretty orange.  Besides that, the images show good detail, with some very slight softness in the corners.  Exposure was good, even in some tricky lighting conditions with full sunlight and full shadow in the frame.  Shadow detail (dynamic range) wasn’t amazing, but about average for a camera in this class.

nikon coolpix s9 sample image
This "fire engine red" truck looks a little too orange (view medium image) (view large image)

Noise performance was good overall.  Sensitivities up to ISO 200 would look just fine in a standard sized print.  However, noise at ISO 400 may be noticeable.

Also, the zoom motor inside the camera is louder than I would have expected.  It’s not loud enough to disrupt your shooting, but I was surprised that a motor that moves such a small lens was that noisy.

Battery life was pretty disappointing.  Under admittedly heavy use during my review (lots of menu navigating, and reviewing images) I got under 100 shots on a full charge.

Additional Sample Images

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nikon coolpix s9 sample image
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Specifications

Conclusion

Overall, I liked the Nikon Coolpix S9.  The camera is nice and compact - definitely small enough to slip into a pocket or purse.  It operates quickly and takes good shots.  The S9 is also one of the cheaper, high quality ultra-compact cameras that you’ll find.  Unfortunately, with the money that you save, I would recommend that you get a spare battery since the battery life of the camera is not amazing.  It would probably make it through a weekend vacation, but that’s about it.

The camera is definitely not meant for an advanced shooter, or someone who wants to tweak settings until they get just the right shot.  There are no manual exposure controls, so you’re stuck with adjusting white balance, sensitivity (ISO), exposure compensation, or using the built in scene modes.  However, I would still recommend the S9 for someone looking for an ultra-compact camera with some style and an affordable price.  The camera is good for snapshots, and the one touch button to access Nikon’s portrait mode with Face Priority AF provides quick access to the optimal settings to capture your friends having a great time.

Pros

Cons