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Nikon Coolpix S10 Digital Camera Review
by Howard Creech -  2/26/2007

The Nikon Coolpix S10 digital camera

Nikon’s first consumer digicam was the swiveling lens Coolpix 900.  This innovative camera featured a split body design that permitted the CP 900’s zoom lens to swivel through a 270 degree arc, independent of the LCD screen, giving shooters a new level of compositional flexibility.  Like many veteran photographers, I’ve always felt that Nikon’s swiveling lens digicams actually worked better than Canon’s articulated LCD screens, which sought to accomplish the same goal.  The newest swiveling lens Nikon digital camera is the Coolpix S10, which replaces the Coolpix S4. 

nikon coolpix s10
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NUTS & BOLTS

Viewfinder/LCD

The S10 (like many current consumer digicams) doesn’t provide an optical viewfinder so the large 2.5 inch (230,000 pixels) wide viewing angle LCD screen must handle all framing/composition, image review, and menu access chores. The S10’s LCD screen is bright, sharp, hue accurate, and very fluid – unfortunately the LCD screen is also very shiny and in pretty much any outdoor lighting it behaves like a mirror - making it almost useless for framing and composition – and that is a major problem since there's no optical viewfinder.  The S10’s LCD display gains up (brightens) automatically in dim/low light. 

nikon coolpix s10
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nikon coolpix s10
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Zoom Lens

The heart of the snazzy little S10 is its big 10X zoom lens.  The S10’s f3.5-f5.6/6.3mm-63mm (38mm-380mm 35mm equivalent) internal focus zoom can be swiveled through a 270 degree (relative to the camera body) arc.  On top of the lens barrel are two very conveniently placed buttons - the first engages/disengages VR and the second shifts the camera into portrait scene mode/face-priority AF/redeye reduction mode (in record mode) and engages the D-lighting function (in playback mode).  At the end of the zoom is Nikon’s nifty techno-look removable flip-out plastic lens cap.

nikon coolpix s10
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The S10 features an internal focus (IF) lens design (12 elements in 9 groups) so it’s faster at start-up than digicams that must first extend the zoom.  Zoom operation is quick and fairly quiet, but the tiny zooming switch is fiddly making incremental zoom movements hard to control and less precise than they should be. 

Overall, the S10's optical performance is about average (for compact P&S long-zoom digicams).  Images are hue accurate (but slightly oversaturated) with virtually no noise in well-lit low-ISO outdoor scenes.  Images shot in dim/low light tend to be noticeably noisier. Resolution (center sharpness) is excellent throughout the zoom’s range, but corners are consistently 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 well controlled, but visible in high contrast color transition areas.  Nikon cameras are famous for delivering excellent macro images and the S10 is no exception - minimum focusing distance (in macro mode) is 1.6 inches - more than tight enough for dramatic bugs and flowers shots.

nikon coolpix s10 sample image
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Auto Focus (AF)  

The S10's Contrast Detection AF system is consistently quick and dependably accurate in good lighting, but it hunts a bit in dim/low light.  The S10's AF is fast enough to capture most action (as long as the photographer is prepared) but it is not quick enough to freeze really fast action.

Push the Portrait mode button on the lens barrel (in record mode) and Nikon’s Face Priority AF function (which recognizes and focuses on faces in the image frame) is automatically activated. In Face Priority AF mode the S10 will track and continually focus on the nearest face(s) in the frame. Although it takes a little getting used to Face Priority AF does work, but it only works when the subject faces the camera directly, so FPAF won't help with profile shots and it does slow AF lock a bit. 

Manual Focus (MF)  

The S10 provides no manual focus capability

Vibration Reduction (VR)

The S10 is the first swivel lens Coolpix digicam to include the Vibration Reduction (VR) technology of Nikon’s VR digital and film SLR lenses.  The S10’s CPU detects camera movement and automatically shifts the CCD to compensate – rather than by gyroscopically shifting lens elements to reduce or eliminate blurring like most of the S10’s competition.  Vibration Reduction (optical image stabilization) permits photographers to shoot at shutter speeds up to (Nikon says) two stops slower than would have been possible without Vibration Reduction.  For example, if a shutter speed of 1/500th of a second is required to avoid the effects of camera shake (without VR) the S10 (with VR engaged) can capture a reasonably sharp image of the same subject, everything else being equal, at 1/125th of a second. 

VR provides an especially important benefit when shooting handheld outdoors in good light at maximum telephoto, where even the slightest camera movement is magnified exponentially.  VR can also be very helpful when shooting indoors - where higher shutter speeds (to overcome dim indoor lighting) may not be possible or would result in dark images with poor shadow/highlight detail.  In addition, VR combined with higher sensitivity settings (like the S10’s ISO 800 setting) significantly increase exposure options in low/natural light and dimly lit indoor venues - where flash is often prohibited.  Unlike Canon’s image stabilized digicams (which provide four image stabilization options) the S10 10 only provides two VR modes – on or off.

nikon coolpix s10 sample image
(view large image) Telephoto shot with VR engaged

Flash

The S10's built-in multi-mode (Auto, Red-Eye Reduction, Fill, Slow Synch, and Off) flash is tiny. Nikon claims the maximum range is just shy of 18 feet (5.4 meters), which seems a wildly optimistic claim.  Up close the tiny flash is unexpectedly potent and has a tendency to burn out detail.  Optimum real world flash range is about 6-8 feet and anything beyond 10 feet (2.5 meters) is going to be fairly dark unless shot against light colored backgrounds with lots of ambient lighting.  The flash is right beside the zoom so redeye will be an ongoing problem, but the S10's In-Camera Red-Eye Fix is automatically activated in the Redeye Reduction flash mode. I didn't shoot any flash-lit portraits so I can't comment on the usefulness of the S10's In-Camera Red-Eye Fix.

Image File Storage/Memory Media

The S10 saves images to Secure Digital (SD) memory cards, but unlike the newest Canon digicams not to SDHC (Secure Digital – High Capacity) cards.  Nikon doesn't include a starter SD card, but the S10 does provide users with 16MB of on-board image storage. 

nikon coolpix s10
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Image File Format(s)

JPEG

Connectivity

A/V out, USB out, and DC in

Power 

The S10 draws its juice from a tiny Nikon EN-EL5 Li-ion Battery.  Nikon claims 300 exposures with a fully charged EN-EL5, however that number is based on bench test/best case scenario. The S10's real world battery life is about (or a bit below) average for its class. 

EXPOSURE

The S10 is an AE (auto exposure) digicam with very limited user input - the camera controls aperture and shutter speed in all exposure modes.  Exposure options include Auto mode – which allows users to adjust ISO sensitivity and enable exposure compensation and Scene (Portrait, Landscape, Night Portrait, Party/Indoor, Beach/Snow, Sunset, Dusk/Dawn, Night Landscape, Close-up, Museum, Fireworks, Back Light, and Panorama Assist) mode.  In all scene modes the S10's CPU automatically optimizes all exposure parameters (aperture, shutter speed, white balance, sensitivity, etc.) for the specific image type selected.  The S10's auto exposure system is dependably accurate and consistently produces properly exposed images in good outdoor lighting.

Movie Mode

The S10 captures video at 640x480 @ 30 fps (monaural audio) and a selection of lower resolutions.  Strangely, CCD shift VR is not available in movie mode. 

Metering

The Nikon Coolpix S10 measures light via Nikon’s famous 256 segment (multi-pattern) Matrix metering.  The S10’s Matrix Metering system is reliably accurate, in most outdoor lighting.

White Balance (WB)

The S10 provides an adequate selection of WB options, including Auto, and user selectable settings for Daylight, Incandescent, Fluorescent, Cloudy, Flash, and custom. The S10's Auto White Balance is reliably accurate in most outdoor lighting.

Sensitivity

The S10’s sensitivity range is adequate for the camera’s target audience -- Auto ISO and user-selected settings of 50, 100, 200, 400, and 800 ISO.

In-Camera Image Adjustment 

Nikon’s Picture Effects Mode is a very simple set of in-camera image adjustment options.  Users can select Standard Color, Vivid Color, Black-and-White, Sepia, and Cyanotype.

The S10’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 

Nikon’s new Coolpix S10 is a relatively compact bi-lobed (the body is composed of two sections that pivot around a central axis) silver digicam that recycles everything that made the S4 popular (6 megapixel resolution, a 10X zoom, and a 2.5 inch LCD screen) and adds some genuinely useful improvements like optical image stabilization (which Nikon calls Vibration Reduction) and doubled LCD screen resolution.  The versatile little S10 also provides Face-priority AF, automatic in-camera red-eye fix, and Nikon's D-Lighting function (which automatically lightens under-exposed/dark image areas), all of which make it a super choice for shooting environmental, informal, and classic portraits.

nikon coolpix s10
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The S10 is reasonably pocketable and durable enough (metal alloy body shell) to go just about anywhere.  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) and poorly placed, which makes precise zooming difficult.  The joy stick multi-controller is pretty neat - once users gain some familiarity.   Overall, the S10 is a bit too menu driven for fast or intuitive operation.  Ergonomically, the S10 is a two handed camera – the camera’s slick metal surfaces and lack of a raised grip preclude safe one-hand operation. 

Technical Specifications  

Included  

Battery charger, wrist Strap, USB Cable, Audio/Video Cable, Software CD-ROM, and printed users manual
 
Optional  

Soft case, back-up EN-EL5 Battery

PERFORMANCE  

Image Quality  

Outdoors, the S10’s images are consistently hue accurate with slightly punched-up color saturation and slightly hard native contrast - classic consumer image interpolation.   Indoors and in dim/low light the S10 doesn’t do as well.  Images are generally well-exposed, but the camera did 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 consistently excellent with sharp resolution, bold colors, and lots of snap (although some very minor pattern noise is occasionally visible in shadow areas). Corners are consistently soft, but ISO 50 and 100 images show bright colors, very good detail, and virtually no noise.  ISO 200 images look surprisingly good – almost the same as lower ISO images. Images shot at ISO 400 are noisy and look a bit flat.  Noise levels rise objectionably at ISO 800 - colors seem faded and images look a bit soft. 

 nikon coolpix s10 sample image
(view medium image) (view large image) Overcast day with the S10 in Auto mode with sensitivity and white balance set to auto.

Timing/Shutter Lag 

In the speed department, the S10 is about average.  The boot up cycle is slightly faster than average.  AF speed is pretty good at the wide-angle end of the zoom, but noticeably slower at the telephoto end of the zoom range.  Shutter lag is about average in good light and slightly slower than average in dim/low lighting.   Shot to shot and write to card times are slightly slower than average.

A Few Concerns
 
My major complaints with the Nikon Coolpix S10 are its fiddly little zoom control switch and its mirror surface LCD screen.

Who is the Nikon Coolpix S10 best suited for?

The auto exposure only S10 is aimed at snap-shooters, casual photographers, and weight/space conscious travelers who may want to occasionally experiment a bit photographically, but who shoot primarily in P&S mode. 

Conclusion 

The Nikon Coolpix S10 is a bit over-priced; it’s menu driven/non-intuitive and there are a couple of irritating design glitches, but it is not a bad camera.  If it had been introduced two years ago it would have absolutely skunked the competition - today it may not be the best choice for smart digicam buyers.  Potential purchasers might want to wait and check out the soon to be released Canon Powershot TX1.  The TX1 may look quite different from the S10, but it is in fact a very comparable camera.

Pros:

2.5 inch LCD screen, joystick style 4 way multi-controller, very good image quality   

Cons:

Like many recent Nikon P&S digicams the S10’s LCD screen is essentially useless in outdoor light and the tiny zoom switch isn’t very precise