The Nikon Coolpix S500 is the (soon to be tested) S200’s bigger brother, not in terms of size so much, as in terms of the specification it brings to your photographic table.
The headline specification includes a stainless steel body (black or silver colours available) and a resolution of 7.1-megapixels. Nikon has avoided the urge to cram 10-million pixels on here and that benefits picture quality by allowing room for the pixels to breathe (or rather, “see”) on the small, 1/2.5-inch CCD sensor. The standard – for today’s compacts’ at least – 3x zoom lens combines with superb Lens-Shift Vibration Reduction or VR and provides a veritable treat for the 35-105mm focal range. The VR technology comes straight from Nikon’s professional spec lenses and works well and can be used across two modes: “On” and “Response Priority”.
In the former, the VR works across still and 640 x 480-pixel video capture (with sound) but is sophisticated enough to counter only vertical shake when the camera is panned horizontally and visa versa. In the latter, Response Priority mode, the shutter release takes priority (a very slight lag is evident when VR is in “On” mode as the lens moves to compensate for any shake) so by prioritising the shutter, there may be some compromise to the effectiveness of the VR system.
In my tests however, both modes proved very reliable and allowed me to hand hold shots around three stops slower than I would nominally attempt. An Anti Shake mode is provided that also takes advantage of the cameras top ISO 2000 setting, combining the faster shutter speeds available at that setting with VR. However, the downside is the shots are rather noisy, more of which later.
Other key kit includes a One-touch portrait button that provides a Face Priority AF system that seeks out and focuses on any face in the frame. Then, in playback mode it provides an In-camera Red Eye Fix system that remarkably effectively removes redeye on images you’ve shot and that are stored either on the camera’s internal 26MB of memory or on the SD/MMC storage card of choice you’ve slotted home under the flap on the base. The last setting is the D-Lighting system that allows you to adjust a shot in camera to balance high contrast areas without compromising the detail in either. Again, this works well enough and even provides a neat preview so you can assess the effect before saving the D-Lighting optimised version.
Another neat touch that I really liked is the Rotary Multi Selector, which replaces the more “traditional” four-way jog dial and adds a new (ahem!) spin to compact camera handling. The Rotary Multi Selector, erm, rotates and allows you to spin through a list of settings presented in the camera’s extremely clear menu system. It can also be used to scroll through images playback and to scroll menus activated by some of the camera’s other external buttons and controls such as the Anti Shake, Scene (of which you get 16 in all including the usual array of portrait, landscape and night scene modes.
The Mode button fires up a neat animated menu wheel that lets you select options such as set up, shooting, video and Hi ISO modes. A press of the central OK button confirms the selection and either enters the mode of brings a new menu into play for that setting, such as resolution options in the Image Quality section of set up for example.
However, it occurred to me that while it’s intuitive and easy as pie to play with, it actually adds another level of menu operation into buttons that would otherwise be one click away from a setting. It also revolves very freely, meaning until you get used to the wheel, you can overshoot the required option far to easily, which wastes a lot of time, at least at first.
So it looks good, has great build and features some nice kit, although an omission (or at least, I think it is at this £250 price tag) is no manual control options except for exposure compensation. Like other manufacturers of cameras at this level, Nikon has opted to go for including oodles of scene modes to help get the most from a variety of scenes rather than allow the photographer to take control. However, having just written that, thinking about it, the market this camera is aimed at would perhaps not use them anyway. Still, you never know when that little bit extra control could come in handy.
The large 2.5-inch colour screen has an anti-reflective coating and is one of the nicest screens I’ve used. It is extremely clear and crisp and the only problem, as with all digital cameras without am optical viewfinder, is direct sunlight makes it hard to compose and hard to see what you’ve shot.
But what of the picture quality? First the focusing system is excellent, the face priority AF works nicely; I let my 3-year-old daughter loose on it and she got some cracking pictures and even managed to get some nice differential focused shot of me and the missus. It works!
White balance control is excellent but as is common, mixed indoor lighting proved a little problematic with slight orangness, possibly caused by our mix of normal and low-power bulbs! Colour capture is natural (and can be tweaked, as can the white balance) while exposure is very reliable indeed. High contrast and heavily backlit subjects were handled with ease and overall, the camera’s responsiveness (even with VR in the “On” mode) made the camera a please to use.
As for the dreaded noise, Nikon has plumped to retain detail and allow a controlled amount of noise to come through, a preferable option in my view. Sensitivities from ISO 50 through 100, 200, 400, 800, 1600 and 2000 give lots of scope, but over ISO 400, noise is an issue. Below ISO 400, it’s not bad with ISO 50 being the best performer, as you’d expect. What I did not expect however, was noise to show up in shadows, as it does, from ISO 100.
Over ISO 400 things go down hill noise-wise – as you’d expect – and because the camera utilises the top ISO setting (and VR) for its Anti Shake mode (so rather neatly you can reduce camera shake and subject blur at the same time) expect noise issues in those images.
The new camera’s handling is great with the Rotating Multi Selector proving a novel and a nice touch – if a bit over sensitive. Response or rather responsiveness is not the problem for start up times (around 0.8 of a second) or shutter lag, with a very impressive 0.005 of a second being the Nikon quoted speed, so the camera can really be ready to fire as quickly as you when set up properly.
Image quality is excellent up to ISO 200, good at ISO 400 and about the average for this resolution from then on. But one thing that is not average is the Coolpix S500 is a beautifully crafted camera, the stainless steel body looks – and is – very strong, its posh, brushed metal look provides extra poise and poseur panache.