The Coolpix S9100 isn’t the smallest camera in the world, nor the most elegant. Frankly, it’s nothing special to look at – and on paper its specifications don’t look inspiring either. It has a small, 1/2.33in sensor and a narrow maximum aperture of f/3.5, both of which suggest distinctly average images. But it’s the pictures that count, and with the camera in fully automatic mode and the lens in the full-wide 25mm equivalent position, the Nikon Coolpix S9100 rendered a range of test images with impressive clarity and weight. Although distortion was visible at the extremes of the image, we saw no chromatic aberration, despite the harsh light in our outdoor scenes. Colours were perhaps a little on the cold side, but overall the atmosphere of a crisp morning was well captured.
Zoom performance was just as persuasive. With the huge 18x lens (25- 450mm) at its full extent, the Coolpix S9100 still managed to resolve bags of clean detail with solid contrast. And despite the fact that the lengthy zoom drove the frame deep into the shadows, requiring the shutter to slow to 1/40s, the resulting image was impressively clear, thanks to Nikon’s combination of physical and digital stabilisation.
Inevitably, when we tried indoor, low-light party shots, the flash gave the subject’s skin tones a certain pallor, but overall the colour balance looked natural, with the dark background appearing comparatively noise-free. Indoor macro shots came out sharp, with a pleasingly neutral overall light.
Switching to video mode again yielded a clear picture with lovely colours, although we were bothered by the high-pitched whirr of the zoom mechanism.
Surprisingly, the Nikon Coolpix S9100’s weakest suit was when we tried shooting a page of black and white text from across the room: here, letter forms were rendered quite unclearly. Evidently, the camera’s apparent sense of fine detail comes from an image processor more at home with the tonal gradations of landscapes and portraits than with the stark contrast of black-and-white text.
It isn’t only image quality that wins the S9100 its place on our A-List, however. It’s also the sheer joy of using it. The metal case feels exceedingly solid in the hand, and the 921kpixel screen – twice the resolution of most compacts – gives a colourful and detailed view of what you’re shooting. Best of all, with a shutter delay of only a fifth of a second between your finger going down and the exposure being captured, the camera feels, if you’ll pardon the expression, snappy. Flash recharge time is fast too, at 1.7 seconds.
And the camera’s easy to control. A dial on the top lets you switch between shooting modes, scene selection mode and full auto mode. For more options, you can tilt or spin the circular control to navigate an intuitive onscreen menu. Dedicated buttons for playback and movie recording sit in locations that may look arbitrary, but which quickly become second nature. In all, although Nikon’s interface looks unremarkable, in use it feels more instinctive.
It’s important to note that the S9100 doesn’t attempt to offer DSLR-type flexibility. There’s no shutter or aperture priority option, no manual mode, no bracketing and no RAW capture. Oddly, the pop-up flash must be manually ejected, adding a note of cheapness to what otherwise feels like a high-quality product. You do, however, get some control over ISO: two auto modes allow you to set it in the range ISO 160 to ISO 800, and ISO 160 to ISO 400, and you can manually set it to ISO 1600 and ISO 3200.
Plus, there’s a host of inventive consumer features. A clever pre-shooting cache can start recording stills from the moment you half-press the shutter, so you won’t miss your shot if the action takes you by surprise. A “best frame” mode fires off a flurry of shots, automatically discarding blurred images and keeping the most successful, sharpest ones.
High-speed burst and movie modes let you capture footage at up to 240fps (albeit at limited resolutions), providing the possibility of creative special effects such as extreme slow-motion. Panorama mode lets you capture broad vistas with a simple sweep of the hand. And the 30fps 1080p movie mode is an unusual treat at this price: most compacts top out at 720p.
If you’re a photographic enthusiast – or interested in becoming one – these niceties won’t make up for lack of manual control. But for those who want to grab photos with minimum fuss, the Nikon Coolpix S9100 oozes usability and produces great results. Factor in the price and it’s a steal.