Nikon Coolpix S9300 Review

Design & Features

The Coolpix S9300 is a compact and generally well-designed ultra zoom camera. The body is made mostly of metal, with the front plate having a rubberized coating that makes the camera easier to hold. The only weak spot I could find is the very flimsy door over the battery/memory card compartment. Controls are easy to reach, though I'm not a huge fan of how they're flush with the back of the camera.

Images courtesy of Nikon USA

As with its predecessor, you can pick up the S9300 in three colors: black, silver, and red.

Nikon Coolpix S9300 in the hand

As you can see above, the S9300 is quite compact, especially considering the size of the lens. Here's how it compares to other compact travel zooms in terms of size and weight:

Camera Dimensions (W x H x D, excluding protrusions) Volume (bulk) Mass (empty)
Canon PowerShot SX260 HS 4.2 x 2.4 x 1.3 in. 13.1 cu in. 208 g
Fujifilm FinePix F770EXR 4.1 x 2.4 x 1.4 in. 13.8 cu in. 209 g
Nikon Coolpix S9300 4.3 x 2.5 x 1.3 in. 14 cu in. 215 g
Olympus SZ-31MR iHS 4.2 x 2.7 x 1.6 in. 18.1 cu in. 226 g
Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS20 4.1 x 2.3 x 1.3 in. 12.3 cu in. 185 g
Pentax Optio VS20 4.4 x 2.4 x 1.5 in. 15.8 cu in. 213 g
Samsung WB850F 4.3 x 2.4 x 1.0 in. 10.3 cu in. 227 g
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-HX20V 4.3 x 2.5 x 1.4 in. 15.1 cu in. 221 g

The Coolpix S9300 is one of the larger and heavier cameras in the group. That's not to say that it's a large camera -- the S9300 will travel in your jeans pocket with ease.

Let's take a tour of the S9300 now, using our tabbed interface.

Front of the Nikon Coolpix S9300

The Coolpix S9300 has the same F3.5-5.9, 18X optical zoom Nikkor lens as its predecessor. The focal length of this lens is 4.5 - 81.0 mm, which is equivalent to 25 - 450 mm. That range should handle just about any situation you find yourself in. The lens isn't threaded, and conversion lenses are not supported.

Naturally, you're going to want an image stabilization system on an ultra zoom camera. Nikon has switched from a hybrid system on the S9100 to a more "normal" lens-shift system on the S9300. It'll reduce the risk of blurry photos, and will also smooth out your movies.

Behind the lens is probably the second-biggest new feature on the S9300 (with the GPS being #1): a new 16 Megapixel back-illuminated CMOS sensor. BSI sensors allow more light to reach the photo sites, which in theory allows for higher sensitivity. We'll see about that when we get to the photo tests.

To the upper-right of the lens is the pop-up flash, which is released electronically. This flash is stronger than the one on the Coolpix S9300, with a working range of 0.5 - 5.1 m at wide-angle, and 1.5 - 3.0 m at telephoto (both at Auto ISO). As with all cameras in this class, an external flash is not supported.

The only other thing to see on the front of the camera is the AF-assist lamp (just to the upper-right of the lens), which is used as a focusing aid in low light situations. This lamp also serves as a visual countdown for the self-timer.

Back of the Nikon Coolpix S9300

The main event on the back of the camera is the same 3-inch, 921k pixel LCD display that was found on the S9100. As you might imagine, everything is super-sharp. Outdoor visibility is average, meaning not wonderful. In low light, the screen "gains up" fairly well, so you can still see the subject you're trying to take a photo of.

At the top-right of the photo is the dedicated movie recording button. Under that we have buttons for playback mode, entering the menu system, and deleting a photo.

In between those three buttons is the four-way controller / control dial combo. You'll use this for menu navigation, reviewing photos, and adjusting the exposure. The controller also allows you to quickly change the flash, self-timer, and macro settings.

Top of the Nikon Coolpix S9300

The Coolpix S9300 logo sits atop the pop-up flash, which is in the down position here. The hump in the center of the photo is the GPS receiver, which I'll discuss later. The camera's stereo microphones straddle it.

Continuing to the right, we find the power button (which must be held down for a second before it does anything), shutter release / zoom controller combo, and the mode dial. The zoom controller moves the lens from wide-angle to telephoto in about 1.8 seconds. I counted twenty steps in the S9300's 18X zoom range.

More on the mode dial after the tour.

Left side of the Nikon Coolpix S9300

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.

Right side of the Nikon Coolpix S9300

On the right side you'll find the S9300's I/O ports, which include a proprietary USB + A/V connector and mini-HDMI. It was nice of Nikon to move the ports to the side of the camera, as they were on the bottom of the S9100.

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

Bottom of the Nikon Coolpix S9300

On the bottom of the S9300 you'll find a metal tripod mount and the battery/memory card compartment. The door over this compartment is very flimsy.

The included EN-EL12 battery can be seen at right.

While there's no live histogram on this screen, you can see one when you adjust the exposure compensation

I'd like to talk about the features on the Coolpix S9300 that are controlled by the various buttons and dials on its body. The first thing is the exposure compensation button on the four-way controller, which does just as it sounds like. In the Auto and Burst shooting modes, you can also use this button to adjust the vividness and hue of the photo you're composing (Nikon calls this the "Creative Slider").

Now it's time to dive into the items on the S9300's mode dial. They include:

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

Scene mode

Pick a scene mode yourself, from the following options: portrait, landscape, sports, party/indoor, beach, snow, sunset, dusk/dawn, close-up, food, museum, fireworks show, black and white copy, easy panorama, pet portrait, and 3D photography.
Night landscape mode In hand-held 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.
Backlighting mode By default, the camera will use the flash to light up subjects with a bright light source behind them. You can also turn on an HDR (high dynamic range) feature, which takes 2 or 3 images (Nikon doesn't say exactly), each at a different exposure, and combines them into a single photo with improved contrast.
Smart Portrait mode The camera will take a photo when someone in the frame smiles. A "blink proof" feature will take two photos and save the one in which the subject's eyes are opened. A skin softening function is also available.
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 on the next page.
Effects mode 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, and selective color.

The Coolpix S9300 is a 100% point-and-shoot camera, with no manual exposure controls to be found. If that's okay with you, then you'll find plenty of automatic modes and bells and whistles to choose from, most of which I explained above. The S9300 has a pair of multi-shot, for night as well as high dynamic range (HDR) shooting. I'll tell you about the latter in a moment.

The "easy panorama" scene mode lets you "sweep" the camera from side-to-side, after which the camera will stitch everything together. You can choose from 180 or 360 degree panoramas, and keep in mind that the resolution of these images is on the low side. As you can see above, the camera had a little trouble with the Bay Bridge -- I don't think you'd want to drive across it. Less challenging subjects should look better.

Selecting the Backlighting mode on the dial will give you access to the camera's high dynamic range (HDR) function. When you take a picture in this mode, the S9300 will create two images: one without HDR, and one with. The HDR photo is a combination of two or perhaps three images, each taken with a different exposure. The resulting photo is supposed to have brighter shadows and less highlight clipping than a regular image. Let's see if that's the case:

Normal image
View Full Size Image
HDR image
View Full Size Image

The HDR feature performed just like it did on the Coolpix S9100. While yes, contrast is improved, the HDR effect is so over-the-top that it looks like a Photoshop effect. If you really want HDR on this camera, just take three shots at different exposures and combine them using one of the many HDR applications out there.

The final item on the camera body that I want to go over before we hit the menus is what's under that hump on the top: a GPS receiver. The GPS is new to the S9300, and it also features a point-of-interest database and electronic compass. There are over 1.7 million entries in the POI database, and that information will be shown on the LCD when you're composing a photo, and saved into the metadata when it's taken. You can choose how "deep" the info drawn from the POI database is, from country all the way down to the landmark. When the camera knew my location, it almost always had a POI to go along with my location.

GPS options menu

GPS performance was fairly typical for a digital camera, meaning "not great". As is typically the case, the S9300 failed to get a signal when in downtown San Francisco. It also struggled to find me in a pretty open area in the mountains, though I've seen that on regular GPS', as well. In flat, open areas (near the Bay), it generally worked okay, taking around a minute to figure out my location. A tracking option is available, with three durations to choose from: 6, 12, or 24 hours. Do note that this will drain your battery even faster than the GPS already does.

Now let's go over the most interesting items found in the S9300's menu system. The menu system is attractive and easy to navigate. While there are help screens available when selecting a scene mode, they're not available for the regular menu options.

  • 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 125 to 3200, use an Auto mode that tops out at ISO 1600, or a fixed range auto mode that can stop at ISO 400 or 800
  • AF area mode: choose from face priority, 9-point auto, manual (choose from 99 points yourself), center, and subject tracking
  • 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 (assuming that you've got Auto ISO turned on), though this will increase image noise

Strangely enough, the S9300 lacks the Active D-Lighting feature found on nearly all of Nikon's other cameras. It also lacks a spot metering option, though I doubt that the S9300's target audience would use that very often. The camera also does not rotate portrait photos automatically -- a rather surprising omission.

Now let's talk about movies. The S9300 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 either of the two 1080p settings, you'll hit the time limit first. There are two 1080p choices (normal and high quality), and you can also record at 720p, 640 x 480, or 960 x 540 (using Apple's poorly marketed iFrame codec).

The optical zoom lens can be used while you're recording a movie, and the lens moves slowly so the motor noise isn't picked up by the microphone. The optical image stabilization system is active on the S9300, which was not the case on its predecessor. The camera can focus continuously, so your subject will stay sharp as they move around the frame, or if you zoom in or out.

There are no manual controls in movie mode on the Coolpix S9300. The only things you can adjust (besides the resolution) are the AF mode and a wind filter.

The S9300 can also record movies at frame rates other than the standard 30 fps. Choose from 15 fps (at 1080p), 60 fps (at 720p), or 120 fps (at 640 x 480). Movies taken at 15 fps will appear to move twice as quickly when played at normal speed, while the opposite is true when the frame rate is 60 or 120 fps (they'll be 2X or 4X slower).

Except for the special iFrame size, movies are recorded using the H.264 codec.

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

Click to play movie (1920 x 1080, 30 fps, 27.0 MB, QuickTime/H.264 format)

Looks like pretty decent video quality for a low cost travel zoom to me!

The Coolpix S9300 has a pretty nice playback mode, loaded with retouching options. The interesting ones include:

  • Quick Retouch: enhances contrast and saturation, with three levels to choose from
  • D-Lighting: brighten dark areas in a photo
  • Skin softening: remove blemishes and wrinkles from people pictures
  • Filter effects: apply soft, selective color, cross screen, fisheye, miniature effect, and painting filters to photos you've already taken
  • Rotate image: since the camera doesn't do this automatically, you may need this option
  • Calendar view: keep "zooming out" in playback mode and you'll be able to jump to photos taken on a certain date

One playback feature that you won't find on the Coolpix S9300 is some kind of movie editing/trimming function.

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 S9300 moves from photo to photo without delay.