As the variety and quantity of “travel zoom” compacts grows, kicked off in earnest by Panasonic’s TZ series a couple of years back and now sporting everything from Full HD video and GPS to 3D shooting, it was about time Nikon pimped its Coolpix series and emerged with its own “small camera, big zoom” contender.
It has done so here in the comparably slim and attractive shape of the 18x optical zoom Coolpix S9100, which despite shoehorning in a focal range equivalent to a wide angle 25mm to 450mm in 35mm film terms, with a maximum F/3.5 lens aperture, still manages to fit in a trouser pocket or clutch bag. Such an expansive range trumps just about every current travel zoom rival, with the exception at the time of writing of the 24x Olympus SZ-30.
The Coolpix S9100’s lens is supported by sensor shift anti-shake, electronic vibration reduction plus motion detection technology to avoid blur resulting from hand wobble at longer focal lengths. Though there’s not much in the way of a handgrip offered on this model, except for a thin sliver at the front and small square of raised plastic nodules at the back, proportions are a manageable 104.8 x 62 x 34.6mm and it weighs 214g including optional SD card and provided rechargeable battery. Available body colours include red, silver and the sophisticated black we had a look at.
Whilst Casio’s latest Exilim EX-H30 travel zoom is perhaps the closest match for this Nikon in terms of size and control layout - though fields a 16-megapixel resolution and weedy 12.5x optical zoom by comparison - other rivals include the Canon PowerShot SX220 HS, Fujifilm FinePix F550 EXR, Sony Cyber-shot HX9, Olympus SZ-20 alongside the aforementioned Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ20 and Olympus SZ-30, so plenty of choice. The S9100 is comparably and competitively priced however, with online deals available around the £250 mark, down from its maker’s suggested retail price of £299.
Press the top plate power button and in just over a second the camera readies itself for action. The rear LCD blinks into life and a fraction later the lens extends from its retracted position within the body to arrive at extreme wideangle setting ready for the first shot, or video.
Lens apart, the Nikon is no slouch when it comes to headline features. These include a 12.1 effective resolution from a 12.75 megapixel CMOS sensor, Full HD video recording at 30 frames per second and in stereo too, thanks to a pair of top mounted microphones, and the alternative option to shoot video at 240fps to create slow motion clips when replayed. Although the camera does offer a tiny top plate stills shooting mode dial with which to manually make selections, plus a dedicated record button for video, we don’t get the usual shutter and aperture priority plus manual shooting options crammed onto it. Despite the sophisticated exterior, this is very much a point and shoot camera - and fortunately, as we’ll see, a commendably reliable one with it.
With, as expected, no optical viewfinder provided, photos and video are composed and reviewed utilising the 3-inch screen, which betters the average 230k dot camera LCD quite considerably via its huge 920k dot resolution. Nikon also claims its screen cuts down on reflection in bright sunlight; in practice we were shooting under bright spring sun without viewing difficulty.
Apart from the preset auto modes on the Nikon’s teeny dial - which include two night shooting options in night portrait and night scene, neither of which proved as effective as simply finding a flat surface to rest the camera on, setting it to auto and activating the self timer to avoid jogging the camera when pressing the shutter release - the mode that jumps out is “effects” mode. Short for “special effects” this is a new mode for Nikon, also featured on its latest D5100 DSLR, which is a collection of digital effects filters by another name.
Applied at the point of capture, as with the Magic Filters and Art Filters on Olympus compacts and digital Pen series, are on the Nikon the likes of the self explanatory “soft”, “nostalgic” (not only sepia toned but also artistically blurry), high contrast monochrome (punchy black and white), high key, low key, and selective colour options. If you’re wondering where the usual “miniature” mode is, it’s to be found instead among the playback menu’s retouching options, which also allow the application of soft, selective colour plus fisheye effects. The above all help prevent the more experienced user getting bored, whilst providing extra icing on the cake for those trading up the S9100 from a lower priced snapshot. The accent at all times remains on ease of use.
Luckily then the camera is as responsive as we'd hoped for from a pocket compact. A half press of the shutter release button and exposure had been determined in the blink of an eye, the camera’s readiness trumpeted by the auto focus point glowing green and a loud confirming bleep. Upon pressing down fully in less than 2 seconds a maximum quality JPEG is committed modest internal memory or the three varieties of removable SD card - respectably swift once again. There’s no RAW shooting option here.
When it comes to downloading or sharing pictures and video, the camera features the regulars of HDMI output under a side flap, plus joint AV and USB output port squirreled away at the base. As with recent Coolpix releases, there’s no mains charger provided - instead the S9100’s battery is charged in camera, with the supplied USB lead hooking up to a mains adapter with vacant USB port. Battery life is good for around 270 shots, which is so-so - better than some competitors but rather short of the 1000 shots offered by the Casio EX-H20 or H30 models.
Whereas typically Nikon compacts have delivered rather muted colours in comparison with the likes of Panasonic and Samsung, that’s not the case here. Images are as well saturated as we hoped for straight from the camera, whilst colours remained true to the subject. This meant that we felt moved to carry out little in the way of post processing.
Though the optical zoom can be used when shooting video, the camera takes a moment to catch up with adjustments, which can therefore throw your shot out of focus when zooming in.
We were however able to achieve sharp results from shooting handheld in daylight at the telephoto end of the zoom - not always the case with competing travel zooms. That said, there were instances of corner softening at maximum wide angle and also the familiar bugbear of purple fringing visible between areas of high contrast - both only really visible if cropping in closely. For lower light, sticking at ISO 800 and below naturally yielded the smallest amount of image noise, but while the top ISO 1600 and ISO 3200 low light settings do yield a progressively more speckled appearance in the shadows, overall the image quality exceeded what we expected from a sub £300 point and shoot.
The S9100 is something of a sheep in wolf’s clothing; though styled like an enthusiast model, at least in its black incarnation, when you drill down into the feature set you discover a pretty much “auto everything” point and shoot.
Still, the £250 asking price reflects this - in comparison with say a Nikon Coolpix P300 or P7000 - and the point of this model is, first and foremost, that humungous focal range. This is a camera that will slot easily into your pocket to be ready, with a little quick zoom adjustment, for most subjects you can throw at it. Given its ability to both shoehorn expansive landscapes and candid close-ups into frame - switching between both in a matter of seconds - £250 seems a fair price to pay for the privilege. The end result is one of the better travel zooms on the market today.