The Coolpix S9100 is one of the most interesting of the eight new Nikon point-and-shoot digicams announced early this year, updating last year's popular Coolpix S8100.
Forty odd years ago, when I bought my first camera, 35mm point-and-shoot units were much bulkier and substantially heavier than today's compact 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.
Factor in much smaller electro-mechanical components and the miniaturized zooms used in today's digital cameras and thin credit card sized digital cameras are no longer a photographer's fantasy. Even compact digicams like the new Nikon Coolpix S9100 are much smaller and significantly lighter than their predecessors.
BUILD AND DESIGN
On the surface, the auto-exposure only S9100 looks very much like every other compact point-and-shoot out there, but on closer inspection, this little camera seems rather elegant in an understated way. The S9100 is unobtrusive (at least the black version - the camera is also available in red or silver for all the fashion mavens out there) and small enough to drop in a shirt pocket. The robustly constructed metal-alloy/polycarbonate body has good dust/weather/moisture seals and feels comfortingly solid in use.
At first glance, the S9100 is identical to its predecessor. Nikon didn't stray far from the original design with the third generation S9100. The S9100's zoom lens has been shifted slightly to the left (the S8000 and S8100 had their zooms centered) and there's a new quick-release button for the popup flash. Nikon also switched the positions of the Mode Dial and Shutter button, slightly improving ergonomics.
The Coolpix S9100 not only looks like the S8100, it features the same 1/2.3-inch 12 megapixel back illuminated CMOS sensor, the same processor, and the same 3.0-inch (921k-dot) LCD screen as the S8100. So what's different? The S8100 featured a 10x (30-300mm equivalent) zoom, but the S9100 features a new 18x (25-450mm equivalent) zoom - which not only increases coverage at the wide-angle end of the zoom - it also substantially extends the camera's reach at the telephoto end of the zoom. That's a lot of zoom capability for a pocketable (2.5 x 4.2 x 1.4 inch) little digicam that weights in at 7.6 oz/214gr.
Ergonomics and Controls
The S9100's user interface is very basic and the control layout is straightforward. Buttons come easily to hand for right-handed shooters, but (with the exception of the shutter button and one-touch video button) they are all rather small and the super tiny on/off button sometimes requires an extra push to power the camera up or down. All controls are clearly marked, sensibly placed and easily accessed. Operation is dead simple and all exposure options are minor variations on the auto exposure theme.
The mode dial is in the standard position, but any similarity to a traditional mode dial ends there. The S9100's mode dial doesn't provide a program mode option or any manual exposure options. There is an auto mode, a Scene auto selector mode, several popular scene mode settings, the continuous shooting mode and the special effects mode.
The S9100's traditional compass switch is surrounded by what is essentially a rotary jog dial (Nikon calls this the rotary multi-controller) for super fast menu scrolling and easy back-and-forth saved image comparison. 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 direct access method, like Canon's "func" button for adjusting ISO and White Balance or other often changed settings.
The S9100's large oval one-touch video Record/Stop button affords users not only a bigger control button (meaning the shooter doesn't have to look away from the LCD screen when composing video clips), but it also seems quicker and more responsive when compared to the small round one-touch video Record/Stop buttons of most of the S9100's competition.
Menus and Modes
The S9100's three tab (Image mode, Movie Options and Set-up) menu system is dependably logical, user-friendly, and easily navigated. The large 3.0-inch 920k LCD and reasonable font size make reading the menus easy.
Unlike some of its competition (Canon SX230 HS and Panasonic ZS10) the S9100 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 (Portrait, Night Landscape, Night Portrait and HDR Backlighting) scene modes.
The S9100 also features a new Panorama mode - shooters can pan through 360 degrees (horizontal) or 180 degrees (vertical) as the S9100 captures and then automatically stitches together multiple images - allowing tourists to stand on the skywalk at the Grand Canyon, in the center of Piazza San Marco, or beneath the soaring roof of the Cathedrale Notre Dame de Paris and create amazing 360 (or 180) degree panoramas. The Nikon Coolpix S9100 does provide the ability to incrementally make subtle exposure adjustments via the exposure compensation mode (which has a dedicated position on the compass switch), but this is an auto exposure only digicam - consequently user input into the exposure process is very limited.
Here's a breakdown of the S9100's shooting modes:
There is no dedicated movie/video setting on the mode dial - simply press the S9100's large oval movie start/stop button at any time to shoot video.
Like most currently available digicams, the S9100 doesn't provide an optical viewfinder so the LCD screen must be used for all framing/composition, image review, and menu access chores. The S9100 may lack an optical viewfinder, but makes up for this omission by featuring a large 3.0-inch LCD screen with four times the 230k-dot resolution that was the industry standard just a couple of years ago. The S9100's wide-viewing angle TFT LCD is super sharp (920,000 pixels), bright, hue accurate, and fluid and the info display provides all the information the 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 shooters preferences. Some earlier "S" models featured LCDs that were so shiny that they behaved almost like mirrors, making them basically useless in bright outdoor lighting. The S9100 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 noticeably better than average for digicams in this class. In our lab test, the S9100's LCD produced a relatively low peak brightness rating of 383, but a remarkable 0.38 black luminance rating, making for an overall contrast ratio of 1007:1.
The Nikon Coolpix S9100 does not provide more advanced shooting modes like Program AE, Shutter Priority, Aperture Priority or full Manual exposure - instead, the camera relies on its very capable auto exposure mode, Auto ISO (160-3200 range), Auto WB mode, 256-segment matrix metering system and snappy AF performance to capture dependably very good to excellent images in a broad variety of shooting scenarios.
The S9100 is fast enough for just about anything its target audience is likely to try - easily quick enough to capture the decisive moment in everything except the most extreme cases.
Shutter Lag (press-to-capture, pre-focused)
Casio Exilim EX-H20G
Canon PowerShot ELPH 300 HS
Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS10
Nikon Coolpix S9100
AF Acquisition (press-to-capture, no pre-focus)
Nikon Coolpix S9100
Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS10
Casio Exilim EX-H20G
Canon PowerShot ELPH 300 HS
Nikon Coolpix S9100
Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS10
Canon PowerShot ELPH 300 HS
*Note: Continuous shooting framerates are based on the camera's fastest full-resolution JPEG continuous shooting mode, using the fastest media type available (300x CF, SDHC, etc.). "Frames" notes the number of captures recorded per burst before the camera stops/slows to clear the buffer.
Usually I test digicam shutter lag and operational speed by seeing if the camera I'm using can freeze skateboarders and BMXers in mid-air. Check out the image below.
The S9100's 9 af point Auto Focus system is identical the that of the S8100. Kudos to Nikon - in my opinion, the S9100's contrast detection AF system is as speedy as many entry level DSLRs, which are driven by inherently quicker phase detection AF systems.
The S9100's multi-mode pop-up flash provides a tiny bit more distance from the lens than the built-in flash units of most its competitors - to help avoid the dreaded red-eye. The flash is very small and a bit on the weak side, but it provides an adequate selection of artificial lighting options, including Auto (fires when needed), On (fill flash), Red-Eye Reduction, and Off. Flash coverage is even and flash-lit images are as close to natural looking as it is possible to get with an on-camera flash. Unlike its predecessor, the S9100 features a new quick release button for the pop-up flash.
Nikon claims the S9100 can counter blurred images in seven different ways including Hybrid VR - Sensor-shift Image Stabilization and Electronic Image Stabilization (Higher Sensitivity and faster shutter speeds reduce the risk of blurred images) combine to reduce the effects of camera shake, Motion detection compensates for subject movement, Best Shot Selector (BSS mode) automatically selects the sharpest of up to 10 sequential shots, Night Portrait Mode, Night Landscape mode and HDR (high dynamic range) backlight mode all decrease image blur by improving low light performance. Users can enable the S9100's new Night Portrait mode (via its dedicated position on the mode dial) and the camera will capture several consecutive shots (with one push of the shutter button) both with and without flash (illuminating the subject and the background separately) and then combine those shots into one image.
The S9100 is powered by a 3.7V, 1050mAh Nikon EN-EL12 lithium-ion battery. Nikon claims the S8000 (with a fully charged battery) is good for about 270 exposures. I do a lot of shoot, review, delete, and re-shoot so I don't really keep track of exposures, but I only charged the battery once while I had the camera.
The EN-EL12 lithium-ion battery is charged in-camera and requires about two hours for a full charge from house current. The S9100 can also be charged via USB. The S9100 saves images and video to SD, SDHC or SDXC memory media, plus 74MB internal memory.
There are few visible (or actual) differences between the S9100 and its predecessor, so in the final analysis everything comes down to the S9100's substantially longer (18x vs 10x) zoom. When the S9100 is powered up, the lens automatically telescopes out of the camera body. When the camera is powered down, the lens is fully retracted into the camera body and a built-in iris style lens cover closes to protect the front element.
Not so long ago, most compact P&S digicams sported 3x zooms, so the S9100's f/3.5-5.9 4.5-81.0mm (25-450mm equivalent) zoom is the star of the show - that's not too surprising given the tiny form factor of this camera. The S9100's 18x zoom permits shooters to cover everything from real wide-angle landscapes and large groups to tightly framed environmental portraits, backyard wildlife shots and up-close macro images.
The f/3.5 maximum aperture is a bit slow for shooting indoors, but should be more than fast enough for outdoor shooting - at least in decent light. The S9100's diminutive profile and extra reach make this camera almost ideal for travelers and candid/street shooters. Center sharpness is pretty good overall, but at the wide-angle end of the zoom corners are slightly soft.
I didn't notice any vignetting (dark corners) and both barrel distortion (straight lines bow out from the center) and pincushion distortion (straight lines bow in toward the center) seem well corrected. Contrast is balanced (but a little flat) and colors are hue accurate, though slightly oversaturated. Chromatic aberration is remarkably well-controlled, but some very minor color fringing is present, especially in the color transition areas between dark foreground objects and bright backgrounds.
Minimum focusing distance (in Macro mode) is 1.6 inches. Zooming is smooth, and fairly quick, but there is more motor noise than I expected - especially considering that the massive 18x zoom can be used during video capture.
The S9100's movie mode is a bit different. Nikon, of course, included 1080p at 30 fps HD video, but users can also shoot at 720p at 60 fps, iFrame (a digital video editing format developed by Apple), 1080p at 15fps, High-Speed 240 fps (QVGA), and 120 fps (VGA) slo-mo video resolutions - plus shooters can enable creative effects like Selective Color or B&W/Sepia at any resolution or frame rate.
Most digicams utilize the same optical or mechanical Image Stabilization system for videos and still images, but not the S9100. Nikon has been criticized in the electronic media for the S9100's electronic image stabilization system (which utilizes higher sensitivity and faster shutter speeds) to control blur in video mode.
Download Nikon Coolpix S9100 Sample Video
After reading some of the comments I was concerned enough to shoot twice as much video as usual. I shot video outdoors (in good light) of BMXers at the Extreme Park and indoors (window light and overhead fluorescents) of workers at a downtown letterhead press shop. Despite some shaking, my videos were consistently sharp, bright, fluid at wide angle and showed accurate colors. I'm not sure why Nikon chose to buck the conventional wisdom here, but my videos didn't look significantly different from the videos I've shot recently with some of the S9100's competitors. They did appear to be somewhat shakier than footage from an optically-stabilized compact camera. OIS can't work miracles though, and some of the shaking present would surely still exist even with a more aggressive stabilizer in place.
I did notice some "jitter" (difficulty holding the point of focus on the subject) at the telephoto end of the zoom in video mode. It's going to be a subtle difference with an 18x zoom, but the "jitter" would probably have been less noticeable with a standard (optical or mechanical) image stabilization system.
The Nikon Coolpix S9100 utilizes the same 12.1 megapixel 1/2.3-inch back-illuminated CMOS sensor as last year's Coolpix S8100 to capture images. Like most compact point-and-shoots, image files produced by the S9100 are optimized for the bold, bright colors and slightly flat contrast that many veteran shooters refer to as "consumer" color. Recorded hues are accurate but noticeably more intense than real life colors - reds are warm, blues are bright, and greens/yellows/oranges are very vibrant.
The bottom line is that the S9100's color interpolation, while a bit more intense than neutral, is consistently and dependably accurate. The colors I saw on my monitor when I reviewed the images I shot with this camera were the colors I saw when I shot the pictures. Shooters who like vivid color palettes will love the S9100.
Nikon is justifiably famous for its macro lenses. The old f/3.5 55 and the newer f/2.8 60mm AF Micro-Nikkor macro lenses are both classics. Those years of industry leadership in the close-up genre are evident in the S9100's close-up images - check out the fine detail in the sample image of the Tent Caterpillar on an Oak Brackett Fungus and you'll see what I mean. The S9100 only costs half as much as an f/2.8 60mm AF Micro-Nikkor lens and it will generate macro images that are nearly as good.
Outside in good lighting and even in lighting that would challenge many compact cameras, the S9100 consistently produces sharply focused and properly exposed images. The S9100's auto exposure system is sufficiently precise to allow users to capture consistently first-rate images with almost no effort on their part. Outdoors, the S9100 does a great job. Image quality is dependably excellent and noticeably better than the average for cameras in this class.
Exposures are consistently accurate, but lots of sky in the image often results in slightly overexposed images and the sky turning from blue to white. The bottom line is that the S9100's color interpolation, while a bit more intense than neutral, is consistently and dependably accurate. The colors I saw on my monitor when I reviewed the images were the colors I saw when I shot the picture.
The S9100's Auto White Balance is dependably accurate over a wide range of lighting conditions. In fact, it's one of the best Auto WB modes I've seen in a camera in this price range - essentially equal to Canon's G12 and S95 digicams. The S9100's Auto WB mode also handled indoor color with aplomb. In addition to the auto WB setting there are user selected Manual, Daylight, Incandescent, Fluorescent, Cloudy and Flash settings available.
Auto White Balance, 5500k fluorescent light
The S9100 provides an adequate range of sensitivity options, including auto (I160-800) and user-set options for fixed ISO auto (160-400), and ISO160 to ISO 3200. ISO 160 images are very sharp with intense colors, very low noise levels, and slightly flat contrast. ISO 200 images were also very good, but with a tiny bit less pop.
ISO 160, 100% crop
ISO 200, 100% crop
ISO 400, 100% crop
ISO 800, 100% crop
ISO 1600, 100% crop
ISO 3200, 100% crop
At the ISO 400 setting, noise levels are beginning to rise and there's a perceptible loss of fine detail. Indoor image quality is excellent, on par with much more expensive digicams, but as sensitivity (automatically) rises to overcome lower levels of ambient lighting, noise levels rise exponentially and color intensity (saturation) suffers a bit. Noise levels are quite reasonable up to ISO 400, but they increase dramatically after that.
Additional Sample Images
Better low-light images seems to be the new mantra of most of the major camera manufacturers. Nikon claims the new S9100 makes "...handheld night-time shooting as easy as taking daytime pictures" (from the Nikon USA website). Does the S9100 make shooting night pictures as easy as shooting daytime pictures? Sure it does, but the really important question here is - are the night time pictures it generates as good as its day time pictures? The answer is no.
Consumers have been demanding better low light performance from P&S digicams for a very long time and camera manufacturers seem to have finally started listening. Hopefully, OEMs will soon realize that the cheapest and most effective method for improving low-light performance is the installation of larger sensors. Everything else being equal, larger pixels have better light gathering capability than smaller pixels.
Serious shooters may complain that the S9100's lack of manual exposure options compromises the camera's creative usability and that's a valid point. User input into the S9100's exposure process is pretty much limited to lighter/darker tweaking via the exposure compensation mode.
Like the Panasonic ZS10 and the Canon SX230 HS, the S9100's low light images are marginally, not magically, better than those of its predecessor. The differences are subtle - so there is no definitive justification for S8100 owners to upgrade unless they can't live without the S9100's 18x zoom.
If you want or need manual exposure capabilities check out the roughly comparable Panasonic ZS10 or the Canon SX230 HS - both reviewed by this website. For everyone else, the Nikon Coolpix S9100 would be an almost ideal choice to replace an aging first digital camera, an excellent choice as a family camera, and a very good choice for travelers who want a small tough, easy to use digicam.