Nikon Coolpix S600 digital camera

The S600 wears its "Style" moniker well with a metal body and a good set of easy-to-use point and shoot features that include that fast start-up time, advanced functions such as auto ISO mode and high ISO capability (up to ISO 3200) and excellent photographic performance within that slim and stylish body.

In fact, Nikon claim the camera has the "fastest start-up time for any camera in its class", and it certainly does fly out of the blocks, shutting down equally as quickly too, all in less than half a second and more on which in moment.

The camera’s pocketable, squared-off classic looks sport a large 2.7-inch screen that’s excellent to use in almost any lighting, with a neat 4x optical zoom lens that provides a useful focal length range of 28-112mm (35mm equiv.). This provides a reasonably wide-angle focal length for groups shots, say, and a reasonable long end to get you close at full zoom.

The lens’ F/2.7 maximum aperture is actually okay but the much slower F/5.8 maximum aperture at full zoom is much more limiting and makes having that CCD-shift the VR anti-shake system in there most welcome.

Handling is simple with just two top plate buttons that include the on/off and shutter release buttons, while the back plate houses the lens zoom control and four mode, menu, playback and direct delete buttons that orbit neatly around the so called rotary multi-selector.

The multi selector provides a fairly fast way into various settings and menus via a nice animated menu system used together with that Mode button where you can get at the shooting, Hi ISO, scene mode selection, movie mode and settings options.

You spin the multi-selector to the desired position on the animated menus and press the central "OK" to select the required mode. Simple and fast to use, it means the camera is not overloaded with "hard" buttons on its body for many of its functions, but inevitably, that in itself means it slows down handling, at least until you get used to the way the camera works.

Four main shooting modes provide you with an all-auto general purpose shooting mode; Hi ISO mode – for low light shooting, for example – a Scene mode provides 14 scene modes with the usual array of presets such as landscape, portrait and night scene modes.

Last up comes the very nice 640 x 480, 30fps movie mode with sound. Interestingly, Nikon’s D-Range optimiser is included and allows you to balance highlights and shadow areas in a shot without affecting detail in either, and it works very well indeed.

That big screen has 230k-dot resolution and has a low reflection surface that makes it slightly grainy on the one hand but usable in bright conditions, which is good since there’s no optical viewfinder to back it up. However, direct bright sunlight still presents a problem. Power usage is effective and on my test after around 150-shots over a 2-week period I was still shooting on the first full charge, so not bad at all on that front.

Focusing works well, although the face detection AF system was hit and miss, failing to identify faces in profile or if they are small in the frame. However, the camera switches to its usual 9-zone focusing system if face AF fails and this worked a treat on most shots. An impressive 99-zone AF system backs this up for manual selection of the focus point, ideal for tripod mounted shots for portraits or macro, where point of focus selection can be critical.

However, surprisingly, I still had a few of soft images where the focusing did not getting it right despite looking okay prior to pressing the shutter button, even on portrait style shots, but otherwise, typically, the AF fast and responsive.

The camera’s metering system is generally reliable but it seems to struggle on lower light subjects, without flash, where it seems to want to underexpose by around a stop. On most general scenes, it does not miss a beat though but I did find the S600’s tiny flash unit works fine for a close fill-in unit, but is not much use for anything else.

The high ISO settings (you get a range from ISO 100 to ISO 3200 with auto ISO set to use ISOs between 100 and 800) at the camera’s disposal help here, but as you might expect, over ISO 400, noise becomes problematic. And although you do get that high ISO 3200 setting, it’s a brave man that uses it, since noise issues make the shots taken at the highest ISO setting almost unusable.

Performance wise, we are back to the fast start-up claims made by Nikon. While it’s true the start-up is very fast, a problem is that the shutter button remains locked for around 2 seconds after the screen comes to life and the lens moves out ready to shoot, so that’s a disappointment.

Add to this noticeable shutter lag – thought to be fair, it’s about average for cameras at this level – things are not as speedy as they could be. And so, you’re left with a camera that turns on quickly in around half a second, and you get a nice preview image on the screen so you can quickly start composing, the actual time before you can take a shot is over 2.5 seconds.

Shot to shot times are around 3 seconds from focus acquisition, making the shot, processing the image, refocusing and taking another shot. So again, the fast start-up timing does not translate to the camera’s behaviours once you’re shooting.

The lack of any real manual controls, or overrides, it is frustrating too, particularly with a camera pitched at this level (though in truth its more likely to be used as a simple point and shooter, so perhaps this is a little less relevant) that means you have to rely on it’s automatic systems almost entirely and far more than some might prefer.

But what of the all important image quality? Well, aside from the higher ISO noise issues mentioned earlier, the camera can capture plenty of detail (also see below) and colour is okay though the vivid mode makes things far too red for my liking. You also get Standard, Mono, Cyanotype, and Pastel colour modes; the standard mode works well and is certainly good enough for most uses creating neutral and natural looking colour results.

The lens does well at capturing a good level of detail, but images look a tad soft by default and benefit from some sharpening afterwards on PC, for example. White balance is remarkably good, though mixed lighting can produce a slight orange colour cast while using the correct white balance pre-set (sunlight, cloudy, shadow, etc.) works a treat.

Verdict

The Nikon Coolpix S600’s lightening fast start-up belies an average (overall) performance elsewhere in the camera, so it is a bit of a mixed bag. And yet, the decent design and build and good image quality might just sway it for you.