Today's point-and-shoot digital cameras are (usually) small enough to drop in a shirt pocket, tough enough to go just about anywhere, and they reliably produce first-rate images with only minimal effort from the shooter. The new Nikon Coolpix S9300 (which replaces last year's popular S9100) could be the poster child for this class of camera.
Forty odd years ago, when I first got into photography, 35mm point-and-shoot cameras were much bulkier and substantially heavier than today's 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 and film advance/rewind mechanisms.
Factor in much smaller electro-mechanical components and the super miniaturized zooms used in today's digital cameras and tiny super capable cameras are no longer a photographer's fantasy. Even slightly larger point-and-shoot digicams like the new Nikon Coolpix S9300 are much smaller, significantly lighter, and infinitely more feature rich than their old school predecessors.
Build and Design
At first glance, the S9300 is almost identical to its predecessor - Nikon didn't deviate much from the original design with this 4th generation unit. So what's different? The S9300 boosts resolution from 12 megapixels to 16 megapixels (via a new back-illuminated CMOS image sensor) and also features a GPS receiver. That little GPS hump on the S9300's top deck is the only visible difference between the two cameras.
The S9300 is a rather plain little digicam that looks very similar to every other compact out there. The user interface is uncomplicated and user-friendly, which seems logical given that the auto-exposure only S9300 doesn't really allow much user input into the exposure process anyway.
The S9300 is unintimidating to subjects (at least the black version - the camera is also available in red or silver), and small enough to drop in a shirt pocket. The robustly constructed metal-alloy/polycarbonate body has decent dust/weather/moisture seals and the S9300 feels comfortingly solid in hand.
Ergonomics and Controls
The control layout is sufficiently similar to every other compact camera ever sold to provide experienced digicam users with a comforting sense of deja vu. Buttons are logically placed and come easily to hand for right-handed shooters, but they are all rather small (with the exception of the shutter button), in fact the on/off button is so small that it usually requires a couple of attempts to turn the camera on or off. All controls are clearly marked, sensibly placed and easily accessed - for right-handed shooters. Operation is very basic, since all exposure options are minor variations on the auto exposure theme.
The mode dial is in the standard position, but it's not your typical mode dial. It doesn't provide a program mode option, or any manual exposure options. There is an auto mode setting (which most users will leave activated full time), a Scene auto selector mode, several popular scene mode settings, and the continuous shooting mode. Be advised that the mode dial moves easily and I was surprised several times (when removing the camera from my pocket) to discover the mode dial was no longer set to Auto mode.
The S9300's compass switch is surrounded by what is essentially a rotary jog dial (Nikon calls this the rotary multi-controller) which makes for super fast menu scrolling and function selection. Where Nikon's nifty rotary multi-controller really shines is for easy back and forth review and comparison of saved images. 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 functions mini-menu available for direct access adjustments of ISO and White Balance or other frequently changed settings.
Nikon still hasn't fixed one of the S9100's most frustrating design miscues. The exposure compensation function is meant to allow savvy shooters to subtly modify exposure by incrementally lightening or darkening images. If you access the Exposure Compensation function on the S9300, the camera will remember your settings - even after it is turned off.
The S9300's info display shows the exposure compensation setting (briefly) when the camera is turned on, however it is very easy to miss that bit of information and accidentally shoot images that are lighter or darker than the existing lighting calls for. There is no logical reason why a camera should be designed to remember an exposure compensation setting that was only relevant to a specific lighting situation.
The S9300's one-touch video Record/Stop button is noticeably smaller than that control was on the S9100, but it is still perfectly placed (at the upper right hand corner of the camera's rear deck) meaning the shooter doesn't have to look away from the LCD screen when composing (or to end) video clips.
Menus and Modes
The S9300's three tab (Image mode, Movie Options, and Set-up) menu system is reliably logical, user-friendly, and easily navigated. The large high resolution LCD and reasonable font size make reading menus simple. Unlike some of its competition the S9300 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 scene modes. The S9300 also features a Panorama mode - shooters can pan through 360 degrees (horizontal) or 180 degrees (vertical) as the camera captures and then automatically stitches together those multiple images.
Here's a breakdown of the S9300's shooting modes:
There is no dedicated movie/video setting on the mode dial - simply press the S9300's one touch movie start/stop button at any time (in any exposure mode) to switch to video capture mode.
Like most currently available digicams the S9300 doesn't provide an optical viewfinder so the LCD screen must be used for all framing/composition, image review, GPS receiver, and menu access chores. The S9300 may lack an optical viewfinder, but it makes up for this omission (somewhat) by featuring a large 3.0-inch LCD screen with four times the 230k-dot resolution that was the industry standard LCD resolution just a couple of years ago.
The S9300's wide-viewing angle 3.0-inch TFT LCD is super sharp (921,000 pixels), bright, hue accurate, and fluid and the info display provides all the information this 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 shooter's preferences.
Some earlier "S" models featured LCDs that were so shiny that they behaved like mirrors, making them almost useless in bright outdoor lighting. The S9300 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 substantially better than average for digicams in this class.
Like all LCD screens, the S9300's monitor is subject to fading and glare under bright outdoor lighting. The DCR test lab objectively measures LCD peak brightness to assist our readers in making more informed digital camera purchasing decisions. Peak brightness for the S9300's LCD screen (the panel's output of an all-white screen at full brightness) is 350 nits and on the dark side (black luminance) the measurement is 0.75 nits. The S9300's overall contrast ration is 466.1 - generally a contrast ratio of around 500:1 is considered adequate under most lighting - so, close enough.
The Nikon Coolpix S9300 does not provide advanced shooting modes like Shutter Priority, Aperture Priority, or full Manual exposure, in fact the S9300 doesn't even feature a Program mode. The S9300 does feature one of the best auto exposure systems I have ever used. This digicam relies on its very capable basic auto exposure mode, Auto ISO (ISO125-ISO 3200 range), auto WB mode, default 256-segment matrix metering system, and snappy AF performance to capture reliably very good to excellent images in a broad range of shooting scenarios.
The S9300 leads the parade in AF Acquisition times and Continuous shooting mode rates and is competitive in terms of shutter lag. Simply put, the S9300 is fast enough for just about anything its target audience is likely to try - quick enough to capture the decisive moment in everything except the most extreme cases.
AF Acquisition (press-to-capture, no pre-focus)
|Nikon Coolpix S9300||0.14|
|Fujifilm FinePix F600EXR||0.14|
|Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS10||0.18|
|Canon PowerShot ELPH 520 HS||0.21|
|Nikon Coolpix S9300||7||7.0|
|Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS10||14||5.5|
|Fujifilm FinePix F600EXR||4||3.5|
|Canon PowerShot ELPH 520 HS||8||2.4|
In addition to being as quick or quicker than most of its competition, the S9300 consistently produces properly exposed images even in lighting that would challenge many compact P&S digicams with almost no effort on the part of the shooter. Outdoors, the S9300 does a great job. Image quality is dependably very good to excellent and noticeably better than average for cameras in this class - except at the long end of the zoom. Exposures are consistently accurate, but lots of sky in the image often results in slight overexposure (the sky turns from blue to white) so getting great landscape shots on bright pretty days may require some judicious exposure compensation experimentation.
The S9300's 9 AF-point Auto Focus system is identical to that of its predecessor. The S9300 is the quickest camera to acquire AF in the DCR sampling and in my opinion, this camera's contrast detection AF system is as speedy as many entry-level DSLRs which are driven by inherently faster phase detection AF systems.
The S9300 features a new GPS system with built-in electronic compass to record position information when shooting still photos or recording video. The S9300 also features a log function for geo-tracking position (even when the camera is off) and provides access to point-of-interest data for (according to Nikon) about 1,700,000 locations worldwide.
The S9300'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 at the short end of the zoom and flash-lit images are as close to natural looking as it is possible to get with an on-camera flash.
Consistently capturing sharply focused pictures with a tiny camera that sports a zoom as long as Pinocchio's nose offers some unique optical engineering challenges. Nikon claims the S9300 can counter involuntary camera shake (like that caused by trying to keep an 18x zoom locked on a distant subject) in seven ways including Hybrid VR (Optical lens-shift IS and Electronic Vibration Reduction combine to reduce the effects of camera shake), High Sensitivity (up to ISO 3200) reduces the risk of blurred images with faster shutter speeds, Motion detection compensates for subject movement, Best Shot Selector (BSS mode) automatically selects the sharpest of up to 10 sequential shots, Night Landscape mode, and HDR (high dynamic range) backlight mode also decrease image blur by improving low light performance.
The S9300 draws its power from a 3.7V, 1050mAh Nikon EN-EL12 lithium-ion battery. Nikon claims the S9300 (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 twice while I had the camera and I shot a lots of stills and half a dozen video clips - plus the S9300's suffers a slight, but continuous power load from the GPS receiver - so I'd have to guess that Nikon's power duration claims are fairly accurate. The EN-EL12 lithium-ion battery is charged in-camera and requires about two hours for a full charge from standard house current. The S9300 can also be charged via USB, very useful for charging from your laptop's battery when in the field.
The S9300 saves images and video to SD, SDHC or SDXC memory media, plus 74MB of built-in memory.
In the final analysis everything comes down to the S9300's 18x zoom, since that is this little camera's real claim to fame. When the S9300 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 to 5x zooms, so the S9300's f/3.5-5.9, 4.5-81mm (25-450mm equivalent) zoom is the star of the show The S9300's 18x zoom permits shooters to cover everything from real wide-angle landscapes and large groups to tightly framed environmental portraits, backyard wildlife shots, distant subjects, 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 S9300's diminutive footprint and impressive 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) are visible, but both seem reasonably 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.
Finally, the S9300's 450mm (equivalent) maximum telephoto setting can be as much of a curse as it is a blessing. Nikon's engineers did a really good job creating a small pocketable P&S digicam with an 18x zoom, however there really is no free lunch. S9300 users will be able to handhold the camera for shots at maximum telephoto and many of their pictures will be sharp enough for 4x6 prints or VGA web shots. Decent enlargements will require the use of a tripod, since even the best image stabilization system currently available will not render tack sharp handheld images at 450mm. The bottom line here is that all handheld shots at maximum telephoto will be somewhat soft. Users who expect to be shooting regularly at the S9300's maximum telephoto setting should plan on carrying a tripod.
The S9300 captures HD video at 1920x1080p at 30fps and the 18x super zoom can be used during filming. This camera also provides an HDMI out so that users can watch their HD video clips on their wide screen HD TVs. S9300 users can also opt for 720p at 60fps, 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 S9300 - Nikon utilized a higher sensitivity and faster shutter speeds electronic VR system to control blur in video mode. I did notice fairly pronounced "jitter" (difficulty holding 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 megapixel wars seem to continue unabated with a never ending parade of tiny new cameras that generate huge image files, but the S9300's boost in resolution is not necessarily cause for celebration. Continually crowding more pixels onto tiny sensors typically results in noticeable increases in image degrading noise. Hopefully, consumers will eventually realize, that everything else being equal, larger pixels have better light gathering capabilities than smaller pixels - so larger sensors are actually more important in the image quality equation than more pixels.
The Nikon Coolpix S9300 utilizes a new 16 megapixel 1/2.3-inch back-illuminated CMOS sensor to capture images. Like most compact P&S digicams, image files produced by the S9300 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 in real life - reds are warm, blues are bright, and greens/yellows/oranges are very vibrant.
The bottom line is that the S9300's color interpolation, while a bit more intense than neutral, is consistently and dependably hue 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.
Outdoors, in good light, the Nikon S9300 consistently captures very good to excellent images with almost no effort on the part of the shooter, although there is a slight tendency toward over exposure. Indoors, the camera performs a little better than the competition, at the wide angle setting, but most photographers won't use the S9300's awesome zoom indoors because the further you zoom the worse image quality gets. Virtually anybody can shoot very good pictures and decent HD video with the S9300 outdoors, but it is going to require magical powers to get excellent telephoto images outdoors without a tripod or indoors (under any circumstances) with the S9300.
The S9300's Auto White Balance mode 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 S100 digicams in terms of color accuracy. The S9300's Auto WB mode also handles indoor color with aplomb. In addition to the auto setting there are user selected Manual, Daylight, Incandescent, Fluorescent, Cloudy, and Flash settings available.
Auto White Balance, 5500k fluorescent light
The S9300 provides an adequate range of sensitivity options, including auto (ISO 125-ISO 800) and user-set options for fixed ISO auto (ISO 125-ISO 400), and ISO 125 to ISO 3200. ISO 125 images are very sharp with intense colors, very low noise levels, and balanced but slightly flat contrast. ISO 200 images were also very good, but with a tiny bit less pop. At the ISO 400 setting, noise levels are beginning to rise and there's a very minor, but perceptible loss of fine detail.
ISO 125, 100% Crop
ISO 200, 100% Crop
ISO 400, 100% Crop
ISO 800, 100% Crop
ISO 1600, 100% Crop
ISO 3200, 100% Crop
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
I've been a street photographer for most of my adult life so I really like compact P&S digicams - they are small enough to drop in a shirt pocket, tough enough to go just about anywhere, they generally produce first-rate images with little effort on the part of the shooter, and they are un-intimidating to subjects.
The S9300's 18x (25-450mm equivalent) zoom provides an amazing focal length range for such an easily pocketable little P&S digicam. Compact digicam zooms have traditionally featured focal length ranges in the 3x to 10x range, so a shirt pocket digital camera with an 18x zoom radically increases both reach and stand-off distance for shooters. A DSLR shooter would need a camera bag full of heavy (and expensive) lenses to cover the same range. In fact, there are only a couple things preventing the S9300 from becoming the darling of the mini-cam demographic - its lack of manual exposure capabilities and its soft telephoto images.
The S9300's target audience prefers auto exposure cameras, so the lack of manual controls won't put them off, however the S9300's soft handheld images (at the telephoto end of that awesome 18x zoom) may cost Nikon a few customers. Realistic expectations are absolutely mandatory because, simply put, no compact camera with an 18x zoom is going to produce images that are as good as the images from a similar digicam with a 3x or 5x zoom.
Here's why - it is impossible (even with image stabilization) to handhold a 450mm (equivalent) zoom steadily enough to guarantee sharply focused pictures. Factor in the dismally slow maximum aperture at the telephoto end of that 18x zoom, the higher noise output of the tiny 16 megapixel sensor, and the inherent difficulty contrast detection AF systems have locking focus on an unsteady subject at a substantial distance from the camera and the probability of getting a sharply focused telephoto shot with the S9300 (without a tripod) is better than your chances of winning the lottery, but not by a large margin.
On the positive side of that equation the S9300 does a remarkably good job, even at maximum telephoto, given the unavoidable compromises that Nikon's camera design folks were saddled with going in. However most focus faults won't be obvious in the 4x6 prints or VGA resolution Facebook pictures most of the S9300's purchasers will use this camera for.
The Nikon Coolpix S9300 would be an almost ideal choice to replace an aging/broken/lost/stolen 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 with lots of reach. A final note: If you like the idea of a point-and-shoot with an 18x zoom, but you don't want/need GPS the new Nikon S9200 is about fifty dollars cheaper than the S9300 and identical to the S9100 (12 megapixels and no GPS receiver). For real bargain hunters, remaining stocks of S9100s are going for less than $200, so if you can find an S9100 you can save $100 over the virtually identical S9200 and $150 over the 16 megapixel S9300 with GPS receiver.