Nikon Coolpix S5100 review

4 out of 5
£179.99

For

Image quality, styling, small size, ease of use, HD movie capture

Against

Low powered flash, optical zoom not possible during video capture, chromatic aberration issues, image noise at high ISOs

The Nikon Coolpix S5100 is stylish new 12.2-megapixel digital compact that combines small size with big features, including HD 720p video, Vibration Reduction and Nikon’s clever Smart Portrait system, so just how well does it perform?

The new S5100 looks every bit the stylish yet very compact camera that combines good looks with good features. Available in six colours, black (tested here) pink, red, silver, purple and blue and costing £179.99, there’s a broad choice of finishes for most tastes and the price level makes it competitive too.

Key kit you’ll be buying if you do plump for one of these little beauties starts with the 12.2-megapixel RGB CCD, a 1/2.3-inch sensor that sits behind a versatile 28-140mm F/2.7- F/6.6, 5x optical zoom that provides scope for most general snapping scenes. The lens also has Nikon’s Vibration Reduction (VR) anti camera shake system, which works very well and provides around two stops of leeway in terms of hand holding shots at lower shutter speeds or at longer zoom ratios. 

A HD video mode is a must these days and so the S5100 has a 720p HD video capture mode with sound, that provides a smooth video capture performance even if it rather lacks in detail. Eighteen scene modes that combine the usual modes such as landscape, portrait and night scene with sunset, dusk and dawn and panoramic modes among others. Nikon’s Smart Portrait mode backs this up and helps get attractive portrait shots by applying a degree of skin softening at either high, normal or low levels with an off mode to back that up. Set to the top setting however and detail can be very compromised, which is worth bearing in mind if you don’t want to loose detail in more than just a person skin!

Smart Portrait also combines a Smile Timer with Blink Detection that provides an automatic mode that fires the shutter when your subject is smiling with a system that alerts you if the person has blinked in a shot allowing you to quickly reshoot the photo. Now this is clever and apart from the caveat on image detail at higher skin softening levels, it’s a real plus to have at your disposal particularly when at, say, a party or when in a nightclub where there’s not always time to get everything needed coordinated properly for a fun photo.

Face detection AF and subject tracking allow you to quickly get sharp snaps of people or track them moving across the frame keeping them sharp for the moment you press the shutter button while a new flash system looks good but as is common on such cameras the flash is rather underpowered so ideal only as a fill-in in daylight or smaller scenes in lower light conditions. New motion detection and tripod detection systems provide further back up and stability options that dovetail into the camera’s VR system very nicely indeed, helping warn you if you need to use the VR (if it’s off) or a tripod for example.

There’s also an auto mode detection system that when active, is denoted by a sweet little “Scene” with a heart icon on the screen that changes to macro, portrait, landscape or whatever the camera decides the scene before should be recorded as. It a system that works well enough with the least reliable setting appearing to be the Macro mode which can be fooled by smaller subjects with lots of detail.

In terms of handling, the camera’s small size does not compromise its use, though the on/off button that sits next to the combined shutter release and zoom lever is a tad small for larger fingers. The camera’s 2.7-inch colour screen is very nice to use even in brighter, direct sunlight and as there’s no optical viewfinder, that’s a key aspect of the ease of use. Disappointingly however, the screen is not widescreen but the more usual 4:3 aspect ratio, but this is probably a nod towards helping keep the price down as well as an aid to retaining the camera’s svelte lines.

The remainder of the controls on the camera’s back includes the usual four-way jog control for flash, self-timer, exposure compensation and macro modes, as well as scrolling menus or images. An “OK” button in its centre is used to confirm menu choices and pick your selected shooting options for example. A scene selection button advances you through the various shooting options and scene modes, including the Smart Portrait settings, but a complete lack of manual control, other than the +/- 2EV exposure compensation provides only a very small measure of control over difficult lighting.

A dedicated delete button sits alongside the Menu button while a playback button sits beneath a rather small and fiddly to use one touch video mode control. Press this once in any setting and the camera will start to shoot video, pressing it again switches it back to stills shooting mode. This is very simple and more importantly very fast to use so helps you snap or record footage quickly and easily.

This camera sits within Nikon’s new advertising blurb under the “I Am Fun” banner so it’s core targets are teenagers, families and given the range of colours it’s available in, almost certainly women. The 21mm thick, 135g weight make it handbag or pocket friendly too so this makes it an ideal choice.

The NIKKOR 5x zoom lens pops quickly out from the face of the camera when you turn it on, but cannot be zoomed during video capture, not unusual perhaps for this type of camera but rather disappointing none the less. The overall startup time however is rather disappointing at around seconds; that said once it is on, the camera is responsive enough to keep most snappers happy.

The small lithium ion rechargeable battery sits under a flap on the camera’s base that also comprises a slot for the SD/SDHC external storage with about 32MB of internal storage backing this up, though that’s only enough for one or two shots at most. Interestingly, the battery is charged in camera, via a USB connection to a supplied power plug or perhaps via a laptop if you’re on your travels. The lack of a charger also helps keep the price down as it minimises peripherals the camera needs and as it adds versatility to the charging methods as well that’s no bad thing in our view.

Image quality at the top resolution JPEG setting is good offering bags of detail though a tad more sharpening than the default setting available can help glean yet more detail out of my shots, so perhaps this Nikon’s sharpness is a tad on the conservative side.

White balance and colour were well controlled and represented the subjects photographed well enough with colour on the natural side of bright. The sensitivity settings available top out at ISO 3200, but this is ambitious and although not as bad as the Nikon Coolpix S1100pj also reviewed, image noise is evident from ISO 400 and above; ISO 800 is just about usable and both ISO 1600 and 3200 should be left alone.

Highlights can be quickly burned out in brighter scenes and shadow areas became blocky even at lower sensitivities and pixel fringing was also an in high contrast scenes. In gloomier scenes, images appeared to be quite flat and, dare we say it, murky-looking, although it is made worse by higher sensitivity settings, keep the ISO below ISO 400 and it’s not as problematic. 

Metering is good overall; we found the best balance attained by using the centre-weighted mode for more general scenes, the matrix metering mode strangely seemed to less reliable.

Verdict

In overall terms, while there are similarly specified compacts from other makers for less money available on the market, the modest amount more you pay for this excellent little Nikon is worth considering if you’re in the market for buying a new compact. 

The S5100’s lens is very good in terms of focal length and certainly helps to make the camera versatile, but the lack of manual control and the now very common all-auto ethos at this level in the market might not suit some but for the target market however, it’s probably spot on.

Well made and pretty, compact and lightweight and able to take some great shots and nice video, the Nikon Coolpix S5100 is certainly more than worthy of close consideration and is recommended.