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Nikon Coolpix S700 Review
by David Rasnake -  1/2/2008

Nikon’s new flagship compact camera, the Nikon Coolpix S700, has been built up by the company’s press department as one of the quickest compacts on the market. Speed and precision, courtesy of Nikon’s EXPEED image processing, may be the way out from under the long shadow cast by rival Canon’s quick and compact SD-series camera. Clearly Nikon is gunning for the new, very sleek SD870 IS with the S700.

Nikon Coolpix S700
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As a top-of-the-line compact model in Nikon’s Style series, the S700 certainly has the specs to compete against all challengers: 12.1 megapixels, Nikon’s VR image stabilization, sensitivity to ISO 3200, a 2.7-inch screen, and a brushed metal body. In spite of its feature-rich approach, the S700 has an air of simplicity – both stylistically and functionally – about it that has undeniable appeal.

IN THE BOX

The Nikon Coolpix S700 is an ultra-compact camera with 12.1 megapixels of resolution and a 3x zoom. Other specs and features include:

The S700 supports SD and SDHC memory formats. Image files are stored as JPEGs only. Movies are recorded in AVI format. The circa 50 MB of internal memory is good for about 9 highest-res, highest-quality shots. Expect a 1 GB card to hold around 160 images.

Nikon Coolpix S700
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The fact that you can not only open the battery door without powering the camera down, but can even change out memory cards with it up and running is an idea that will hopefully start showing up on more compact cameras.

IN HAND

Nikon took a less-is-more approach to styling with the S700, retaining the mini-brick shape, feel, and basic layout of the S500. As with previous iterations, it’s a package that works as a whole. The mostly metal construction is solid and weighty, giving the S700 a heavy-duty, but not too heavy, feel.

Nikon Coolpix S700
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Display/Viewfinder

The S700 sports a 2.7-inch, 230,000-pixel LCD, covering most of the camera’s back. The display showed good, if a little bit brighter-than-true, color reproduction, and the screen automatically gains up in low light. Refresh rate is not great, resulting in jumpy tracking for fast-moving subjects in particular. There is no optical viewfinder.

Nikon Coolpix S700
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The screen also displayed some weird focus related lock-up issues, and tended to lag considerably when panning. Overall, while the screen looks nice, this lack of smoothness feels particularly slow compared to other current top performers.

Holding and Shooting

The slightly rounded edges and blocky shape make the S700 easy to grip firmly and operate with one hand, and the camera has a nice balance in hand. The controls have a solid feel for the most part, though for whatever reason, the combined scroll wheel/d-pad on several of the current-generation Nikon compacts feels cheap and insubstantial. The thin plastic battery door doesn’t have a nice feeling either – not a big deal, but given that this is the flagship S-series Nikon, a little more might be expected.

Nikon Coolpix S700
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Nikon Coolpix S700
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While I’m not wild about the build quality of the thumb wheel itself, I find Nikon’s two-menu, scroll-through interface approach easy to navigate. The minimalist and slightly small control arrangement is logically sorted around the scroll wheel, and the wide/tele control feels reasonably nice and not too small.

If you’ve used a recent Nikon compact, not a lot has changed in this area. Remembering which of the two menus – there’s a shooting menu as well as a separate, more general set-up and mode selection menu – certain functions are sorted into can be tricky at first, but the inclusion of dedicated buttons for exposure compensation, flash, and macro settings makes quick adjustments easy. Users can select either an icon-based or a text-based menu system as well, and after a little familiarization time the icon-based menus (which put every menu option on a single page in most cases) were much quicker to use and eliminated page after page of scrolling.

Putting white balance and/or ISO controls on their own dedicated buttons (in place of macro and self-timer settings, perhaps) instead of in the shooting menu would have earned some appreciation from more advanced users, but since the S700 is primarily an auto-mode camera, this isn’t necessarily an oversight.

IN THE MENUS

As mentioned, the S700 is primarily a true point-and-shoot, but Nikon goes against the standard range of mode choices for the S series by merging full-auto and program functions into a single Shooting mode. The full range of mode options are as follows:

Users can adjust self-timer settings, exposure compensation, and flash settings in almost every still shooting mode (including most scene presets) via the d-pad.

Shooting Mode

Combining default full-auto capability with some program-style adjustments, the single Shooting mode is intuitive and straightforward in its operation. In addition to the global adjustments mentioned above, users control white balance, drive mode, color mode (including black-and-white, sepia, and cyanotype effects), ISO, and AF mode via the shooting menu.

Though it provides no truly manual functions (shutter speed, aperture, etc.), Shooting mode offers enough flexibility to deal with most shooting situations. Serious photographers may notice the lack of selectable metering modes on the S700, but all other major areas of adjustment are well covered.

Hi ISO (High Sensitivity) Mode

Hi ISO mode retains all of the functionality of the Shooting mode, but automatically adjusts ISO sensitivity up to ISO 1600. For shooting at ISO 2000 and 3200, the ISO value must be manually selected in the Shooting mode instead.

Scene Mode

Scene presets are selectable via the shooting menu while in Scene mode. Fifteen presets cover the standard range with few particularly noteworthy functions. Still, the choice by Nikon not to clutter the Scene mode with page after page of superfluous presets promotes the S700’s overall image of elegant simplicity.

In general, presets seemed to work well and were both intuitive and intelligent in making appropriate setting selections. The Backlight preset, which works well to compensate exposure appropriately, is a particularly helpful addition here.

Movie Mode

Video clips with audio can be recorded at four resolutions/frame rates: 640x480 at 30 fps, 320x240 at 30 fps, 320x240 at 15 fps, and 160x120 at 15 fps. Additionally, silent movies can be shot using either a time-lapse setting (the interval between shots is selectable) or a stop-motion setting (a “ghost image” of the previous frame is overlaid on screen to aid in composition). Note that while in movie mode, the zoom is locked and Vibration Reduction is by ISO boost only.

Movie clips can be as long as available memory allows. At highest resolution and frame rate, expect to get around 14 minutes of video on a 1 GB card.

Playback Mode

The S700’s Playback mode is basic compared to many compacts on the market. Nikon’s generally excellent D-Lighting image processing, which adjusts mid-range and shadow values for maximum contrast while preserving highlights, can be applied in Playback mode, but beyond this there are no after-shot effects on the S700. Other options include a Slide Show mode and a function for creating web-sized copies of photos.

IN THE FIELD

Building on the tradition of the quick S500 and the promised benefits of Nikon’s EXPEED processor, the Nikon S700 has been marketed as a quick performer. While some speed results were nothing short of excellent, in some ways focus and flash performance seemed to let down or hold up what is otherwise a powerful, highly responsive camera.

Timing and Shutter Lag

With pre-focus obtained, the S700 has little to no discernible shutter lag, consistently firing in well under .1 seconds. Often, the pre-focus shutter lag wasn’t even measurable using our testing method. We’ve tested a few cameras lately that have come close to this mark, but if focus is locked, the S700 is the closest thing to instantaneous yet seen in a compact camera.

In light of this incredible speed, it is slightly disappointing that a slow AF system seems to muddle things up when shooting without pre-focusing: timings exceeded 1 second in some cases and rarely fell below .6, even for still subjects. These are not terrible numbers, but they’re not as good as might be expected for a camera with this lineage and in this price range.

In continuous shooting mode, consecutive shots can be taken in around 1.1 seconds. With competitors having dropped below the 1-second mark for multiple frames – even at highest resolution settings – this number is also not as good as it perhaps should be.

But the strongest mark against this camera’s timing numbers comes by way of shot-to-shot flash photo performance. With a flash blackout period of 6 to 8 seconds between shots, during which time the camera is completely unresponsive, the lithium-ion powered S700 turns in numbers that would be much more expected from a compact powered by AAs. While I don’t have the older AA-powered Nikon S500 on hand for a comparative test, I’m betting it would be neck and neck. Given that the pleasing quality of flash pictures from the S700 is one of its primary selling points, some refinement is needed in this area to round out the package.

Lens and Zoom

While a 3x zoom is basically expected equipment these days, Nikon’s optics remain the single most impressive feature of their cameras in many cases. As a physical unit, the S700 lens is pretty standard stuff: a three-stage design that feels more solid than many retractable zooms.

With only six steps between full wide and full tele, however, the zoom could be better in use. And while a 3x zoom on an excellent camera is preferable to a 10x unit on an average camera in most cases, for a flagship model a longer zoom would have been a nice addition.

Image Stabilization

In terms of performance, Nikon’s sensor shifting Vibration Reduction (or VR) image stabilization system may be consistently the best on the market, and implementation in the S700 is no exception. Two shots (without VR and then with), both taken handheld at 1/15 second under normal indoor lighting, show just how well it works.

Nikon Coolpix S700
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Nikon Coolpix S700
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While VR is enabled (it can be switched off for tripod shots, etc.), a constant and sometimes distracting whirring noise can be heard from the camera body. Otherwise, the system is not at all intrusive in normal shooting, and though it’s difficult to perform a quantifiable test with this system (as the S700 doesn’t provide any shutter speed information on the display), tack-sharp shots taken indoors under average lighting at ISO 64 speak for themselves in many ways.

Focus Settings and Performance

Focus can be selected from among four modes: Face Priority, Auto, Manual, and Center. As suggested, while consistently obtaining the correct lock, Auto mode feels slow in most situations, notably impacting camera speed as a whole. Center AF performs slightly faster and with considerably less hunt, making it preferable for any kind of action shooting with the S700. Face Priority correctly identified faces, working predictably well.

While the S700 lists a manual focus mode among the available options, in truth the Manual mode is a center-restricted point-selectable mode: the focus point can be moved using the d-pad. A nice feature for some shots, if a little too slow in use for most shooting.

An Auto Macro mode adds some flexibility for close-up subjects. In Auto Macro mode, the S700 auto-focuses across the full normal range of the camera, but brings the measured minimum focusing distance in to just beyond 2 inches. Combined with a sharp lens and good image rendering overall, macro shots show nice detail and balance.

While the mode was consistent in locking focus, the minimum focusing distance isn’t close enough for frame-filling shots with small subjects, and leaving the camera in Auto Macro further slows focusing on regular-distance subjects. The S700 has no super/close-up or dedicated macro modes.

Flash Settings and Performance

The S700 supports five flash modes, including both a forced fill and a slow synchro mode. Flash performance from the S700, particularly in rendering skin tones, is quite impressive. Flash portraits are neutral, even slightly warm, with even exposure; blown highlights are rare.

Not surprisingly, slightly warm flash tones come by way of a relatively underpowered flash unit. With ISO locked at 64, the S700 is no match for our dark room test shot. Even so, this power limitation is more than made up for by a camera that takes usable, even pleasing flash photos in normal shooting situations.

A red-eye reduction flash mode successfully keeps red-eye in check.

Battery Life

Testing at right around the advertised 150 shots per charge, battery life is neither spectacular nor terrible. A large, hi-res screen is probably to blame for slightly quicker juice drain than might be otherwise expected from a camera with a li-ion pack.

IN THE SHOTS

With 12.1 megapixels of resolution and a surprisingly sharp lens, detail capture and overall image quality on the S700 are quite good. Nikon has clearly done a lot of work on the processor side, balancing sharpness and noise reduction in a way that retains maximum detail without the excessive graininess seen in shots from many 12-megapixel compacts.

General Image Quality

Studio shots from the S700 show a punchy, smooth image. Details are amazingly crisp, with even the fine writing in our shot completely legible in 100% crops. No grain is discernible at ISO 64. There is some slight softness around the edges in this wide-aperture shot, but it’s nothing that mars the overall quality or printability of the image.

Nikon Coolpix S700
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Nikon Coolpix S700

In spite of the fine graininess, the Nikon retains more detail even at ISO 1600 than some cameras show at their lowest ISO setting.

Nikon Coolpix S700

Exposure, Processing, and Color

Default metering and exposure settings worked well in a variety of shooting situations. As a rule, the S700 does an exceptional job of preserving highlights and mid-range contrast, even in high-contrast shots. A bright sunlight shot on a snowy day shows just how well the metering system works, capturing an image with lots of depth.

Nikon Coolpix S700
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Hue and saturation are nice as well, suited for crisp outdoor shots with vibrant colors. For a little more punch, the color mode can be changed from Normal to Vivid. The Vivid setting produces images more in line with the high-contrast “consumer” look than many users have come to expect, though the blues especially are pushed perhaps a bit too hard in this setting. The following test shot shows the Vivid color mode at work.

Nikon Coolpix S700
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While most automatic white balance settings produce shots with a brown or yellow tint under our incandescent studio lights, the cast of this studio sample shot taken with automatic white balance selected is worse than average, and this value shift translates to indoor photos without flash that are extremely warm if the white balance setting is not adjusted accordingly (either via the tungsten or the user preset setting, as used in the similar shots in the previous section).

Nikon Coolpix S700
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By contrast, automatic white balance does quite well in rendering flash photos.

The S700 shows only the slightest hint of sharpening artifacts, comparing favorably with top competitors in this class in this area as well.

Lens Faults

The S700 shows some barrel distortion in wide-angle shots, but little pincushioning at full telephoto. A user-selectable Distortion Control feature slightly skews the image during shooting to compensate for barrel distortion, and from all indications the system works well. The test shots below show the difference.

Nikon Coolpix S700
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Nikon Coolpix S700
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Chromatic aberration, or purple fringing, is extremely well controlled with this lens, with little to no fringe appearing in all but the highest-contrast areas. Similarly, no discernible vignetting (dark image corners) was noted in the test shots. For a compact camera, the S700 impresses with the sharpness and overall quality of its lens, offsetting in some ways the lack of more zoom reach.

Sensitivity and Noise

Sensitivity for the S700 ranges from ISO 64 to ISO 3200, with the highest setting limiting the recordable image size to 5 megapixels. Auto ISO limits the maximum ISO to 1000, with Hi ISO mode extending the automatic range to ISO 1600; as noted, ISO 2000 and 3200 must be manually selected.

The noise progression for this camera is as follows:

Nikon Coolpix S700
ISO 64
Nikon Coolpix S700
ISO 100
Nikon Coolpix S700
ISO 200
Nikon Coolpix S700
ISO 400

Nikon Coolpix S700
ISO 800

Nikon Coolpix S700
ISO 1600

Nikon Coolpix S700
ISO 2000

Nikon Coolpix S700
ISO 3200

Note that the apparent drop in noise at ISO 3200 is the result of the smaller file, and that while noise is less visible, nearly all fine detail disappears at this setting.

Higher ISO settings, while visibly noisy in the sample crops, display a very fine pattern graininess that prints nicely and doesn’t smear image detail. While the progression may look more severe in these crops than tests of competitive cameras, indoor low-light test shots suggest that the S700 performs much better than might be expected at high sensitivity under low light. Shots all the way up to ISO 1600 show very little discernible grain when printed at 4x6, and even ISO 2000 is more than usable in most cases.

The following shot and crop, taken indoors without a flash in Hi ISO mode, shows plenty of detail and depth, even under low light.

Nikon Coolpix S700
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Nikon Coolpix S700

Yes, there’s some noise here, as well as some evidence of detail softening courtesy of Nikon’s noise reduction algorithm. But Nikon has struck a really excellent balance with this camera, and its high-ISO performance works in tandem with a better-than-average flash and highly competent image stabilization to make the S700 one of the as yet undiscovered low-light leaders in the ultra-compact market.

Additional Sample Images

Nikon Coolpix S700
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Nikon Coolpix S700
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Nikon Coolpix S700
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Nikon Coolpix S700
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CONCLUSIONS

While the Coolpix S700 is certainly not perfect, there's a lot to like about this camera. Image sharpness and overall quality are truly impressive, the camera exposes and renders colors well, and ease of use is very good. Slowness in some areas proves to be a wart, but with locked focus the S700 is impressively fast as well. Perhaps most surprising, however, is just how well this 12-megapixel compact works in low-light situations. All of this comes together in a package that is stylish and functional, making the S700 one of the better small cameras currently on the market.

Pros:

Cons: