Nikon Coolpix S9100 Review

Design & Features

The Coolpix S9100 is a fairly compact camera with a body made mostly of metal. It feels pretty solid in most areas, though the door over the memory card/battery compartment is quite flimsy. Controls are well-placed, and the camera is easy to hold with just one hand. While it looks like the flash takes up valuable finger space, there's still a "ridge" above the LCD to hold on to. About the only other negative I can come up with is the poorly placed USB+A/V out port on the bottom of the camera.

Images courtesy of Nikon USA

Nikon sells the S9100 in a rather loud red, plus more conventional black and silver colors.

As you can see above, the S9100 is quite compact, especially considering the size of the lens. Here's how it compares to the competition in terms of size and weight:

Camera Dimensions (W x H x D, excluding protrusions) Volume (bulk) Mass (empty)
Canon PowerShot ELPH 510 HS 3.9 x 2.3 x 0.9 in. 8.1 cu in. 183 g
Casio Exilim EX-ZR100 4.1 x 2.3 x 1.1 in. 10.4 cu in. 164 g
Fujifilm FinePix F600EXR 4.0 x 2.4 x 1.2 in. 11.5 cu in. 201 g
Nikon Coolpix S9100 4.2 x 2.5 x 1.4 in. 14.7 cu in. 214 g
Olympus SZ-30MR 4.2 x 2.7 x 1.6 in. 18.1 cu in. 226 g
Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS10 4.1 x 2.3 x 1.3 in. 12.3 cu in. 197 g
Samsung WB700 4.1 x 2.3 x 1.0 in. 9.4 cu in. 200 g
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-HX9V 4.3 x 2.4 x 1.4 in. 14.4 cu in. 215 g

The Coolpix S9100 is the second largest camera in the group in terms of bulk. It's not really a jeans pocket type of camera (though I suppose that depends on your waist line!), but it will fit just fine in your jacket pocket or in a small camera bag.

Let's take an express tour of the camera now!

Front of the Nikon Coolpix S9100

The Coolpix S9100 features an F3.5-5.9, 18X optical zoom lens. The focal range on this lens is 4.5 - 81.0 mm, which is equivalent to 25 - 450 mm. Not quite super zoom territory, but more than enough for nearly all situations.

You want image stabilization on a camera with a big lens, and the S9100 has a sensor-shift "Vibration Reduction" system to reduce the risk of image blur. There's also a "hybrid VR" mode, which adds electronic shake reduction into the mix, though note that this will slow down shooting speed, image quality may be worse than using standard VR. In movie mode only an electronic VR system is available.

Above the lens is the camera's pop-up flash, which is released manually. The range on the flash is average: 0.5 - 4.0 meters at wide-angle and 1.5 - 2.5 m at telephoto. You cannot attach an external flash to the S9100.

The last thing to see on the front of the camera is the AF-assist lamp, which is used as a focusing aid in low light situations. This lamp also serves as a visual countdown for the self-timer.

The main event on the back of the camera is a 3-inch LCD display with 921,000 pixels. As you might imagine, everything is super-sharp when you have that many pixels. Outdoor visibility is above average, and in low light, the screen "gains up" fairly well, so you can still see the subject you're trying to take a photo of.

Other items of note here include a dedicated movie recording button, and the combination four-way controller and scroll wheel. The scroll wheel does pretty much the same thing as the four-way controller: it adjusts settings and navigates through photos you've taken.

Moving left to right, here you can see the flash (in the down position), the stereo microphone, and the power button.

Next door to that is the shutter release button, which has the zoom controller wrapped around it. The zoom controller moves the lens from wide-angle to telephoto in about two seconds. I counted 21 stops in the camera's 18X zoom range, which doesn't allow for very precise adjustments to the focal length.

At the far right is the mode dial, which is loaded with point-and-shoot options. I'll tell you about the interesting ones right after this tour.

The only thing to see on this side of the camera is the release for the pop-up flash. The lens is at the wide-angle position here.

On right side you'll find the camera's mini-HDMI output port, which is kept under a plastic cover.

Wondering where the other I/O ports are? Click the next tab to find out.

The lens is at full telephoto here. Pretty amazing that it even fits into that compact body!

On the bottom of the camera you'll find its metal tripod mount (yay), battery/memory card compartment, and yes, the USB+A/V output port (why they couldn't put it on the side of the camera is beyond me). The plastic door over the battery/memory compartment is quite flimsy, though at least you can open it while the camera is on a tripod.

The included EN-EL12 lithium-ion battery (complete with hologram to ensure authenticity) can be seen at right.

Now let's talk about the features you'll find on the Coolpix S9100. I'm going to start with our usual list of the items found on the mode dial:

Option Function
Auto mode Point-and-shoot, with all menu options unlocked.
Scene Auto Selector mode Still point-and-shoot, with the camera selecting the camera setting that it thinks is best for the situation. Most menu options are locked up.

Scene mode

Pick a scene mode yourself, with the following choices: portrait, landscape, sports, party/indoor, beach, snow, sunset, dusk/dawn, close-up, food, museum, fireworks, black and white copy, panorama, and pet portrait.
Night landscape In handheld mode, the camera takes several exposures in rapid succession and combines them into a single image. In tripod mode, the camera will turn VR off and take a long exposure.
Night portrait Same idea as above, but with the flash involved for a slow sync exposure. Can be a combination of multiple exposures or a single long exposure, depending on the mode you're using.
Backlighting Here you'll find the camera's HDR mode. If it's on, the camera combines two or three photos (not sure how many) -- each taken with different exposures -- into a single image with improved contrast. A second photo, processed using the D-Lighting feature (described later), is saved as well. When HDR is off, the camera uses the flash to brighten your subject.
Burst mode Choose from a whopping seven continuous shooting modes: high speed, low speed, pre-shooting cache, continuous high 120 fps, continuous high 60 fps, Best Shot Selector, and Multi-Shot 16. More details below.
Effects Choose from six special effects, which can be used for stills or movies. They include soft, nostalgic sepia, high-contrast monochrome, high key, low key, selective color.

As you can see, the Coolpix S9100 is a 100% point-and-shoot camera. It does have some pretty neat features, including a panorama mode that lets you pan the camera from side-to-side, with the result being a 180 or 360 degree panoramic image, automatically stitched. The resolution isn't super high, so don't plan on making large prints of these, but it works pretty well for web viewing:

You can also take the photos separately and stitch them on your PC, if you wish.

The HDR function takes at least three photos in an instant: a regular photo with D-Lighting (a digital shadow brightening tool) applied, and then two or possibly three more exposures, each with a different exposure compensation value (this is the true HDR photo). So does it help with overall image contrast? Yes... and no.

Original image
View Full Size Image
HDR image
View Full Size Image

The HDR feature does indeed improve the contrast of our test photo above. That said, the resulting photo looks almost artificial and, if you view the full size image, you'll find that it's quite soft, too. My suggestion is to pass on this feature, or do it yourself by taking three photos with different exposures (like -1/3EV, 0EV, and +1/3EV), and combine them using Photoshop or the like.

As I mentioned in the previous table, the S9100 has a large collection of continuous shooting modes, and you can only access them via the spot on the mode dial. The table below summarizes them, and what kind of performance you can expect (at the highest image quality setting):

Setting Measured performance
Continuous high Takes five shots in a row at 10 frames/sec.
Continuous low Takes thirteen shots at 1.8 frames/sec.
Pre-shooting cache Takes five shots, two of which were recorded before you fully pressed the shutter release button, at 7.5 frames/sec. Image on LCD freezes when shutter release is pressed.
Continuous H: 120 fps Takes fifty photos at 120 fps (per Nikon). Resolution is set to 1280 x 960.
Continuous H: 60 fps Takes twenty-five photos at 60 fps (per Nikon). Resolution is set to 1600 x 1200.
Best Shot Selector Camera takes up to five shots in a row and saves the sharpest one.
Multi-shot 16 Camera takes 16 pictures at about 30 fps and combines them into a 5 Megapixel collage.

Tested with a SanDisk Class 10 SDHC card

The Coolpix S9100 can shoot pretty quickly, even at full resolution, though the buffer fills up very quickly. Two things I should mention are that 1) shooting stops when the buffer is full, so you have to press the shutter release again to take another sequence and 2) the camera may boost the ISO in this mode, which will degrade image quality.

Now I'd like to tell you about the interesting items that are found in the camera's menu system. Let me preface that by saying that the S9100's menus are attractive, and easy to navigate. While there are help screens available, it's only for the scene modes. I would've liked to have seen help menus for all of the options on the camera. And with that, here are some important features found in the menu system:

  • White balance: in addition to the usual presets, you can also use the "preset" option and a white or gray card to get accurate color in unusual lighting
  • ISO sensitivity: you can set it manually from 160 to 3200, use an Auto mode that tops out at ISO 800, or a fixed range auto mode that stops at ISO 400 (highly recommended if you're going to use Auto)
  • AF area mode: choose from 9-point auto, manual (with 99 points to choose from), center, face detection, and subject tracking. Face detection will find twelve faces in the scene, making sure they're properly focused. A related feature, Smile Timer, is accessed via the self-timer button on the back of the camera, and waits until one of three detected faces smiles before taking a photo. The subject tracking option will follow a designated object as they move around the frame.
  • Autofocus mode: Single AF locks the focus when the shutter release is halfway-pressed, while Full-Time AF is always focusing. That reduces focus times, but at the expense of battery life.
  • Motion Detection: when set to "auto", the camera will boost the ISO to prevent blur. Be warned that this may increase image noise, though.
  • Vibration Reduction: select from standard image stabilization, hybrid AF (which adds electronic stabilization into the mix), or off entirely (which is a good idea when using a tripod).
  • Digital zoom: while I'd avoid the regular digital zoom option, choosing crop mode will give you more zoom power as the resolution is lowered.
  • Blink warning: Puts up a warning screen if the camera detects that one of the people in your photo had their eyes closed.

So what's missing here? While the camera has controls for hue (tint) and saturation, which are accessed in the same way that you access exposure compensation, sharpness and noise reduction are not adjustable. The Active D-Lighting feature, found on many other Nikon cameras, is absent on the S9100 as well. This camera is about as automatic as you can get.

So those are still shooting options -- here's a little bit about the camera's movie mode, and what features are available. The S9100 records Full HD video at 1920 x 1080 at 30 frames/second, with stereo sound. You can keeping recording until the file size reaches 4GB, or the time elapsed reaches 29 minutes -- whichever comes first. At the high quality Full HD setting you'll hit the time limit first. Other resolutions include 1280 x 720, 640 x 480, and 960 x 540 (used for Apple's unknown iFrame format).

The optical zoom lens can be used while you're recording a movie, and it moves slowly so the motor noise isn't picked up by the microphone. The regular image stabilizer is not available -- you have to use an electronic system instead, which seems to be completely ineffective (video).

The camera also has the ability to record movies at very fast (or slow) frame rates. Choose from 15 fps, which makes movies play quickly when you view them, or 60, 120, or 240 fps, which appear to playback in slow-motion. While the 15 fps mode records at Full HD resolution, the high speed modes shoot at lower resolutions (720p, VGA, and QVGA, respectively). Recording times are also limited to a few minutes, tops.

Some of the notable movie-related options include:

  • Autofocus mode: here's where you can turn on full-time AF, which keeps things in focus as your subject moves around. Do note that the AF motor noise may be picked by the microphone.
  • Wind noise reduction: comes in handy when shooting outdoors
  • Trimming: you can remove unwanted footage from the beginning or end of a clip

Here's a sample movie for you, taken at the highest quality setting:

Click to play movie (1920 x 1080, 30 fps, 28.8 MB, QuickTime/H.264 format)

While the S9100's video quality isn't spectacular, I think it's good enough for a camera in this price class.

The Coolpix S9100 has a very nice playback mode, loaded with retouching options. The interesting ones include:

  • Sorting: view photos by date, whether you've tagged them as favorites, or by the scene mode in which they were taken
  • Quick Retouch: enhances contrast and saturation, with three levels to choose from
  • D-Lighting: brighten shadow areas in a photo
  • Filter effects: apply soft, selective color, cross screen, fisheye, or miniature effect filters to photos you've already taken

By default the camera shows almost no information about your photos. However, press the "OK" button on the four-way controller and you'll see a bit more, including a histogram. The Coolpix S9100 moves from photo to photo without delay.

Do note that, unlike 99% of the cameras on the market, the Coolpix S9100 does not automatically rotate photos taken in the portrait orientation. You'll have to use the rotation tool in playback mode (or do it on your PC).