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Nikon Coolpix S1 Digital Camera

Camera QuickLook
By
Shawn Barnett
Review Date
6/13/2005
User Level
Novice - Amateur
Product Uses
Family / Travel / All Day Carry
Digicam Design
Point and Shoot
Picture Quality
Very Good, 5.1-megapixel CCD
Print Sizes
11x14s or 8x10s with heavy cropping
Availability
Now
Suggested Retail Price
(At introduction)
$499 ($380 street)



Introduction

Nikon Coolpix S1 Review Links
Overview
Specifications
Design
Recommended Accessories
Operation
Sample Pictures
Conclusion
The Nikon Coolpix S1 is the latest in a long line of Coolpix digital cameras whose popularity stretches back to the original Coolpix 900, Nikon's first "breakthrough" digicam. The new Nikon S1 is the first in such a small, slim package. (Just slightly larger than a credit card, and only about 0.8 inch thick.)

Feature-wise, the Nikon Coolpix S1 falls somewhere between the recent Coolpix 5600 and 5900. Physically, however, the Nikon S1 is compact and extremely pocketable. It has no protruding lens parts, and as a result is unlikely to get snagged anywhere. Its 5.1 megapixel imager means it can capture relatively high resolution images, and its 3x zoom lens gives you the focal length flexibility you need to frame your subjects well. All in all, it's an excellent "take-with-you-everywhere" digital camera. With its range of user-friendly, point & shoot exposure modes, the Nikon Coolpix S1 can handle just about any photo opportunity you're likely to throw at it. Read on for all the details!

 

Camera Overview

Slim and light, the Nikon Coolpix S1 ranks among the smallest digital cameras currently on the market. A camera that can nearly be eclipsed by an ordinary credit card, the Nikon S1 is designed to fit nicely into shirt pockets, pants pockets, and small purses, perfect for anyone as a take-everywhere camera. It's so tiny (weighing just 4.9 ounces or 138 grams with the battery and memory card loaded), I'd highly recommend keeping the included wrist strap securely around your wrist when shooting. The automatic lens cover makes it quick on the draw, and eliminates any worry about keeping track of a lens cap. The camera's silver body is smooth, attractive and simple. Built into the Nikon Coolpix S1 is a 3x optical zoom lens with ED glass (which stands for Extra-low Dispersion glass, used in Nikon's finer lens elements to improve optical performance) and a 5.1-megapixel CCD for capturing high quality images, a macro mode capable of focusing as close 1.6 inches, and no fewer than 16 preset shooting modes. Since the camera operates mainly under automatic control, its control layout and menu display are very user friendly.

To keep size down the Nikon S1 features no optical viewfinder, only a 2.0-inch color LCD monitor. The camera's 3x, 5.8-17.4mm zoom lens (equivalent to a 35-105mm lens on a 35mm camera, a moderate wide angle to medium telephoto) offers maximum apertures from f/3.0 to f/5.4, depending on the zoom setting, and is made up of twelve elements in ten groups. The camera uses contrast-detection autofocus in normal mode, which ranges from 1.0 feet (30 centimeters) to infinity. Auto Multi-point AF selects the closest object, though it doesn't report more than an AF confirmation dot. In Macro mode, the camera focuses as close as 1.6 inches (4.0 centimeters), and automatically switches to continuous AF mode, focusing constantly when the Shutter button is not half-pressed. (Note that closest focusing is possible only when the lens is set to a fairly narrow range of focal lengths toward the wide-angle end of its range. The zoom indicator that appears at the top of the LCD when zooming and the "tulip" macro icon both turn green when the zoom is set within the optimal range in Macro mode.) Turning on the camera triggers the shutter-like lens cover to open, and an animation plays on the LCD. In addition to its 3x optical zoom, the Coolpix S1 offers a maximum 4x digital zoom, which lets you "zoom" in even closer (equivalent to a 420mm lens on 35mm camera). As always though, keep in mind that the digital zoom simply enlarges the center pixels of the CCD, resulting in lower image quality. The 5.1-megapixel CCD produces high-resolution images, good enough for printing to 11x14 inches with good detail, as well as lower-resolution images for sending via email or printing as 4x6-inch snapshots.

In keeping with the tradition of the entry-level end of the Coolpix line, the Nikon S1's exposure control is very straightforward. Operating mainly under automatic control, the Coolpix S1's user interface is easy to learn. Most of the exposure options are controlled through the multi-page LCD menu system, although a handful of external controls access basic features. A Mode switch on the back of the camera controls the operating mode, with three positions: Auto, Scene, and Movie. The Framing Assist modes are optional in Portrait, Landscape, Sports, and Night Portrait modes under Scene Mode, each offering a range of framing scenarios. For example, under Portrait mode, you can set up the framing for a centered single subject, a single subject off to the right or left, a close-up portrait, two subjects positioned side-by-side, and a figure shot with the camera held in portrait (tall) rather than landscape (wide) orientation. Once a specific setup is chosen, faint yellow subject outlines (these used to be quite bold on earlier models) appear in the LCD monitor to help you line up the shot for the best focus and exposure. Face-priority AF is another option under portrait, where the camera analyses the scene and puts a square around each face it sees, choosing to focus on the face closest to the camera (This is pretty interesting, because if you move the camera, or if the subject moves slowly enough, the square will actually move to follow the face. Sports mode offers enhanced options for capturing fast-paced action, such as a rapid fire mode that captures 16 tiny images in two seconds that form a single 4x4 image mosaic. Other Scene modes are Party/Indoor, Beach/Snow, Sunset, Dusk/Dawn, Night Landscape, Close-Up, Museum, Fireworks Show, Copy, Back Light, Panorama Assist, Underwater, and Voice Recording. Each scene mode sets multiple camera options to configure it for the specific type of subject and shooting condition chosen. In Voice Recording mode, you can get about 4 hours 27 minutes of audio on a 128MB card. This wide range of modes makes the Nikon S1 extremely flexible in a variety of conditions, greatly easing the task of bringing home good-looking photos from tricky shooting situations.

Depending on the exposure mode, the Nikon Coolpix S1 offers a few exposure options. Though no mode allows the user to control the aperture or shutter speed directly, the exposure compensation adjustment can be set in Auto mode to deal with high contrast, dark or light subjects. The Exposure Compensation adjustment optionally increases or decreases overall exposure from -2 to +2 exposure equivalents (EV) in one-third-step increments. It is not reported on the LCD display, but the Coolpix S1's shutter speeds range from 1/350 to 2 seconds. A White Balance adjustment offers five preset modes, an Auto setting, and a Custom setting for manually determining the color balance. The Nikon S1 uses a 256-Segment Matrix metering system to determine exposure, evaluating the contrast and brightness across the frame to determine the best exposure. ISO light sensitivity can be manually adjusted to 50, 100, 200, or 400 equivalents, or you can choose the Auto ISO setting. (Note though, that the camera doesn't report its automatically chosen ISO value to the user while shooting.) You can also access Nikon's Best Shot Selector mode, which automatically chooses the least blurry image in a series shot while the Shutter button remains pressed. (The Best Shot Selector feature is one of my all-time favorite digital camera features, as it makes it possible to hand hold even very long exposures by playing the odds that during one of those moments you're going to be still enough to get a sharp image.)

The Nikon Coolpix S1's built-in flash is rated as effective from approximately one to 8.2 feet (0.3 to 2.5 meters) depending on the lens zoom setting, although in my own tests, I found it only marginally usable at 8 feet and ISO 100 with the lens set toward its telephoto position. (Very limited flash range is an unfortunate tradeoff of tiny camera bodies: There just isn't enough room inside for a large flash capacitor.) The S1's flash operates in Auto, Red-Eye Reduction, Anytime (Fill) Flash, Flash Cancel, and Slow Sync (night) modes. An option in many modes, Slow Sync combines the flash with slower shutter speeds, letting more of the ambient light into the exposure, making for brighter, more natural-looking night shots. In some Assist and Scene modes though, the flash mode is automatically set for you. Portrait Assist, for example, defaults to Red-Eye Reduction mode but can be overridden, while in Night Portrait Assist the default Red-Eye Reduction can not be overridden. Night Portrait Assist and the Scene modes Night Landscape and Dusk/Dawn also enable an automatic Noise Reduction feature to eliminate excess image noise resulting from the higher ISO sensitivity and longer exposure. Flash is also not available in Sports or Landscape modes. While this panoply of default flash modes and constrained options may sound complicated, the net result is that the camera's scene modes let average users bring back good-looking photos from tricky shooting conditions, while enjoying point & shoot simplicity.

Most digital cameras these days have special red-eye reduction flash modes, which pop the flash (or blink a bright LED) a few times before the shot itself, to make the pupils of your subject's eyes contract a little. This reduces the likelihood that light from the flash will reflect off the insides of the subjects' eyes, causing the dreaded red-eye. The Nikon Coolpix S1 goes quite a bit beyond the simple pre-flash red-eye reduction approach though, as it also incorporates special software inside the camera that can look for and remove red-eye before it saves the images to the memory card. While I don't have a standardized anti-redeye test (for whatever reason, our eyes here at IR just don't seem very prone to redeye), I can attest that the S1's system does indeed seem to remove red-eye very well when it's enabled, vs when it's disabled. The one downside to the Nikon S1's approach though, is that the post-processing that the camera uses to search for and remove any remaining red-eye takes an appreciable amount of time, resulting in a rather long delay before you can capture the next shot. Thus, the "cycle time" between shots stretches to on the order of 6-7 seconds when the camera is operating in red-eye reduction mode.

Another really unique feature of the Nikon S1 is its innovative "D-Lighting" option. This is a Playback-mode option that could be thought of as a "virtual fill-flash," in that it brightens shadow areas. There are a couple of important differences between D-Lighting and on-camera flash though. First and foremost, it brightens all the shadowed areas in the image, regardless of how far they were from the camera (that is, there's no light falloff as you'd have with a flash). A second point is that this is a post-capture option, one that makes a copy of the image with the D-Lighting effect applied, so your original image is undisturbed. On the downside, a third key factor with D-Lighting is that it will make image noise more apparent in the areas that it's brightened.

D-Lighting Examples
(Shot with Coolpix 7900)
With Without
(as-shot)

D-Lighting's effect on images is generally pretty subtle, as you can see from the two examples above (borrowed from my review of the Coolpix 7900 - The function works identically on the S1.) In the situations where you'd want to use D-Lighting though, subtle is good, you ideally want the image to look natural, as if nothing unusual was done to it. About my only quibble with D-Lighting is that Nikon more or less hid it in the user interface: You access it in playback mode by pressing and holding down the center button of the multi-controller on the camera's back panel. There's nothing to indicate that the function is there, so if you're not a dedicated reader of instruction manuals (or of our reviews ;-), you could easily miss it.

Other camera features include a Self-Timer mode, which provides a 10-second delay between the time the Shutter button is pressed and when the image is actually captured. A Continuous Shooting mode captures a rapid series of images while the Shutter button is held down, with the actual number of images dependent on the size and quality settings, as well as the amount of memory card space. There's also a Multi-Shot 16 mode, which captures 16 thumbnail images in sequence, arranged in rows of four within a full-sized image. The Coolpix S1's Movie mode offers four options: TV Movie 640 (640 x 480, 15fps), Small size 320* (320 x 240 pixels, 15fps), and Smaller Size 160* (160 x 120, 15fps, plus Time-lapse movie mode). The actual length of recording time depends only on the amount of available SD card space (there is no arbitrary limit set by the size of the S1's internal buffer memory), and appears in the LCD monitor.

The Nikon Coolpix S1 stores images on SD memory cards, but the standard retail package in the US includes no memory card. There is enough onboard memory, however, to hold up to about 10 "full resolution pictures" according to the box. Files saved to internal memory can be easily copied to an SD card, and vice versa. Given the camera's large 2,592 x 1,944-pixel maximum image size, I strongly recommend picking up at least a 128 - 256MB memory card so you don't miss any important shots. Images are saved in JPEG format, with three compression levels available for. A CD-ROM loaded with Picture Project software accompanies the camera, compatible with both Windows and Macintosh platforms (including Windows XP and Mac OS X). Nikon Picture Project provides organization and image editing tools for enhancing images. The camera comes with a slim EN-EL5 lithium-ion battery and a charger. While the Coolpix S1 has good battery life for such a compact model, its worst case run time of about 109 minutes could be a little short for extended outings. (As always, I recommend picking up a spare battery and keeping it freshly charged at all times, to avoid dead-battery syndrome. - Murphy's law applies in spades to digital camera batteries - They invariably go dead when you can least afford it.) The optional AC adapter uses a "dummy battery" that slides into the battery compartment. This could be useful for offloading pictures after a long day of shooting, but really isn't necessary for the vast majority of users. Also included with the Coolpix S1 is a video cable for connecting to a television set for slide shows, and a USB cable for downloading images to a computer.

 

Basic Features

  • 5.1-megapixel (effective) CCD delivering image resolutions as high as 2,592 x 1,944 pixels.
  • 2.0-inch color LCD display.
  • 3x, 5.8-17.4mm zoom lens (equivalent to a 35-105mm lens on a 35mm camera).
  • Maximum aperture f/3.0-f/5.4, depending on lens zoom position.
  • Shutter speeds from 1/350 to four seconds.
  • 4x Digital zoom.
  • Automatic exposure control.
  • Built-in flash with five modes.
  • Built-in mic and speaker for including sound in videos and playback from the camera, plus voice recording.
  • 12MB internal memory.
  • SD memory card storage.
  • Power supplied by lithium ion rechargeable battery, or optional AC adapter.
  • Nikon Picture Project software for both Mac and Windows.

Special Features

  • ED Glass lens.
  • Five Multi-point AF, or user selectable AF point.
  • Face-priority AF recognizes faces in a scene and keeps them in focus.
  • Voice recording mode.
  • QuickTime movies (with sound).
  • Continuous Shooting, Multi-Shot, and Multi-Shot 16 mode.
  • Twelve preset Scene modes, plus four Scene Assist modes.
  • Red-Eye Fix automatic red-eye correction.
  • Self-timer for delayed shutter release.
  • Best Shot Selector mode.
  • Macro (close-up) lens adjustment.
  • White balance (color) adjustment with seven modes, including a manual setting.
  • 256-Segment Matrix metering.
  • ISO equivalent sensitivity range of 50 to 400.
  • PictBridge compatibility.
  • USB cable for quick connection to a computer.
  • Video cable for connection to a television set.

 

Recommendation
As the smallest Coolpix models in the line (and one of the smallest digicams on the market), the S1 is a combination of a fine Nikkor 3x ED glass optical zoom lens, a 5.1-megapixel CCD, and a range of automatic, preset shooting modes in a very small and slim digicam. Automatic exposure control lets the camera take charge of all the picky details, although a handful of exposure options provides creative tools when you need them. With its diminutive dimensions, the Nikon Coolpix S1 is great for travel as well as everyday carry, and the range of preset shooting and framing modes anticipates most common shooting conditions. The 2,592 x 1,944 pixel maximum resolution is high enough for making acceptable 11x14-inch photographic prints (or 8x10 prints with some cropping), while the 640 x 480-pixel resolution setting is perfect for sending email attachments over the Internet. The uncomplicated user interface means you won't spend much time learning the camera. Perfect for novice users or anyone looking for a point-and-shoot camera with a slick look, a few extra features, great ease of use, and sharp, colorful photos, the Nikon Coolpix S1 could also serve as a great take-anywhere snapshot camera for more advanced shooters.

 

Design

Slim, trim, and super-tiny, the Nikon Coolpix S1 is the smallest Coolpix model so far (it's not much taller than a credit card). The camera is mostly flat, with no protrusions except for a button or two. Rounded edges soften the flat front and make it comfortable in the hand or pocket. The lack of any grippable surface front or back makes our usual recommendation to use the included wrist strap slightly more emphatic, as there's almost nowhere for your thumb to rest on the back. The Nikon S1's matte silver, metal body is offset by shiny silver highlights. High quality Nikkor optics and a 5.1-megapixel CCD give the Coolpix S1 great image quality, and a broad selection of Scene Assist modes makes operation a breeze, even for novice users. The Nikon S1 measures 3.5 x 2.3 x 0.8 inches (89.9 x 57.5 x 19.7 millimeters), and weighs 4.87 ounces (138 grams) with battery and memory card.

The camera's front panel contains the 3x zoom lens, built-in flash, and the self-timer lamp. The self-timer lamp also serves as a relatively bright AF (autofocus) assist illuminator when there isn't enough light available for the camera to set its focus. A shutter-like lens cover protects the lens when not in use, and automatically slides out of the way when the camera is powered on (eliminating the hassle of keeping track of a lens cap).

On the right side of the camera is the Secure Digital (SD) memory card compartment and an eyelet for attaching the wrist strap. The SD card compartment door opens by inserting a fingernail under the door and pulling toward the back of the camera. The card releases with a downward press.

The opposite side of the camera has nothing.

The Shutter button, Power button, Mic and Speaker are on the top panel.

The remaining external controls are all located on the camera's rear panel, along with the 2.0-inch, TFT color LCD monitor. Two Zoom buttons in the top right corner control optical and digital zoom, as well as some Playback viewing options. Just right of the LCD is a five-way navigational disk, which accesses Flash, Macro, and Self-Timer options, in addition to navigating menu screens. The nav disk has a separate button in the middle for accepting selections, a solution that is easier than trying to press in the entire disk as we've seen in other cameras. This button can also be pressed to initiate picture transfer when the camera is connected to a computer that has the Nikon software loaded onto it. Just above left of the nav disk is the Menu buttons, with the Playback button on the lower left. Beneath all of this is the three way mode switch, with Auto, Scene, and Movie settings.

The Nikon Coolpix S1 has a flat bottom panel, with slightly rounded edges that curve up toward the rest of the camera. The battery compartment door and plastic tripod mount line up side-by-side, making quick battery changes while mounted to a tripod impossible. This won't likely be a problem for most Coolpix S1 users, though, given the point-and-shoot orientation of the camera. A hinged, plastic door covers the battery compartment, releasing with a slide to the rear. A battery retention latch inside the compartment keeps the battery from falling free when the door is opened, a welcome feature. Nestled in the battery door is the dock connector port. The included dock allows both charging and image offload.

The Nikon S1 comes with a charging/image-downloading dock called the Cool-Station MV-11. The handy little dock includes power, A/V out, and USB connectors for a complete charging, video line out, and photo upload solution. The S1 sits in the cradle facing toward the cables and tilted downward, presumably so you can have it on your desk and look at the photos onscreen.

Camera Operation

Despite the Nikon Coolpix S1's limited exposure control, the camera offers a nice selection of external control buttons, making for an easy-to-navigate user interface. Flash mode, Self-Timer mode, Macro mode, zoom, record mode, and an Erase function are all accessible via external controls. A slider on the back of the camera selects the main operating mode, and a multi-directional Arrow pad on the back panel navigates through on-screen menus, in addition to accessing camera features directly. The LCD menu system is fairly short, with user-friendly icons in the Scene Assist modes. Operating this camera is so straightforward I doubt you'll need the manual for much more than reference. It shouldn't take more than a few minutes to get into the swing of things.

Record Mode LCD Display: In Record mode, the Coolpix S1's LCD reports limited status information, including camera modes, the resolution/quality setting, number of available images, etc. Half-pressing the Shutter button displays a green circle when focus is achieved. The camera doesn't show aperture or shutter speed information as some do. It does tell you when it thinks the image might become blurred by camera shake when it's forced to use a slow shutter speed. The display mode can be changed from the Setup Menu, letting you choose between a viewfinder display of the subject by itself, or the subject with overlaid status information. Some scene mode options provide an overlaid grid as an aid to orienting the camera to your subject, while others offer subject outline as alignment aids for portraits, etc.


Playback Mode LCD Display: In Playback mode, the LCD reports the image series number, resolution/quality setting, file name and folder it's stored in on the memory card, and the date and time of image capture. It also displays an icon if the image is one that's been selected for quick download with Nikon's host software, as well as an icon indicating that you can record an audio note to accompany the image. There's no option for disabling the information overlay, but a slide show option lets you see the images sequentially, with no overlay on top of them, and if you just wait a few moments after selecting an image to view, the overlay display goes away. Pressing the "W" zoom button zooms out to a four-image thumbnail view of photos stored on the card. Pressing it a second time shows a nine-image thumbnail display. Pressing the zoom control in the telephoto direction zooms in as much as 10x on the subject, handy for checking image details and focus.

 

External Controls


Shutter Button
: Just to the right of the power switch, the Shutter button is long and slim. This button sets the camera's exposure when halfway pressed, and releases the shutter when fully pressed. In Playback mode, pressing this button lets you record a short sound caption to accompany the displayed image. If an audio clip has already been recorded, pressing the shutter button plays it back for you.


Power Switch: Nestled in a small recess to the left of the power LED and Shutter button, the power switch turns the camera on and off with a push.


Mode Switch
: On the back below the nav disk, this switch selects the camera's main operating mode. Choices are Auto, Scene, and Movie modes.


Zoom (W and T) Buttons
: Located in the top right corner of the camera's back panel, these buttons control the optical and digital zoom (when enabled) in any record mode. In Playback mode, the "W" button activates the index image display mode, while the "T" button controls digital enlargement of the captured image.


Multi-Directional Five-Way Navigator (Flash, Self-Timer, and Macro Buttons)
: Just right of the LCD, this button features four arrows, one pointing in each direction. In any Settings menu, the arrow keys navigate through menu selections, and the center button selects.

In Playback mode, the right and left arrows scroll through captured images. If an image has been enlarged in Playback mode, pressing the center button lets you save the portion of the image in the frame as a separate file. If you're looking at an unenlarged image in Playback mode, pressing the center button brings up a screen that lets you apply the S1's "D-Lighting" option, which lightens dark shadows and tones down overly bright highlights.

In Record mode, the arrow keys control specific exposure features. The up arrow controls the camera's flash mode, producing a popup menu of options (Auto, Red-Eye Reduction, Anytime Flash, and Flash Cancel). The left arrow activates the camera's Self-Timer mode, while the bottom arrow activates the Macro focus mode. All of these settings are confirmed by pressing the central button once the selection has been made.

When connected to a computer with Nikon's software loaded, pressing the center button triggers a "one touch" upload of selected images to the computer.


Playback Button
: Below and to the left of the Multi-Directional button, this button accesses the camera's Playback mode.


Menu Button
: Above left of the Playback button, this button displays the settings menu in any camera mode. It also dismisses the menu display.


Erase Button
: Below right of the nav disk, this button pulls up the Erase menu while in Playback or Record mode.

 

Camera Modes and Menus

Auto Record Mode: Activated by sliding the Mode switch left to the Auto position (green camera icon), this mode places the camera in control of both aperture and shutter speed, as well as most other exposure features. Pressing the Menu button displays the following Shooting menu.:

  • Image Mode:
    • Image Quality: Sets the JPEG compression to Fine, Normal, or Basic.
    • Image Size: Sets the image resolution. Choices are 5M* High (2,592 x 1,944 pixels), 5M Normal (2,592 x 1,944 pixels), 3M Normal (2,048 x 1,536 pixels), PC Screen (1,024 x 768 pixels), and TV screen (640 x 480 pixels).
  • White Balance: Chooses from Auto White Balance, PRE for custom presetting of white balance, Daylight, Incandescent, Fluorescent, Cloudy, and Speedlight (flash).
  • Exp: Accesses Exposure compensation adjustment, +/- 2 EV in 1/3 steps.
  • Continuous: Chooses from Single, Continuous, Multi-Shot 16, and Interval capture modes.
  • BSS: Best Shot Selector shoots up to 10 shots and picks the one with the least blur from camera shake or poor focus. Flash is automatically turned off in this mode, since it is intended for capture of natural light photos in low light.
  • Sensitivity: Selects Auto ISO or sets the camera to 50, 100, 200, or 400.
  • Color Options: Sets the color mode to Standard, Vivid, Black and White, Sepia, or Cyanotype.


Movie Mode: This mode is denoted by a movie camera icon on the Mode switch. Movie mode captures moving images at 15 frames per second for as long as the memory card has available space. (Provided that you have a fast enough memory card.) Pressing the Menu button pulls up the following options:

  • Movie Options: Sets the movie resolution. Choices are TV Movie (640 x 480 pixels), Small size (320 x 240 pixels), Smaller size (160 x 120), and Time-lapse mode.
  • Auto Focus Mode: Selects Continuous AF (camera is always focusing--this setting uses more battery and makes some moderate repetitive sound) or Single AF (focuses only when shutter button is pressed).

 


Scene Exposure Mode: The word "Scene" indicates this mode on the Mode switch. Twelve preset scene modes are available, by pressing the Menu button. All of the scene modes preset a variety of camera options for you automatically, four of them offer additional options to help with framing your shots.
  • Portrait Assist Mode: Labeled on the Mode dial with a woman in a hat, this mode is best for portraits, and is the first of the camera's Framing Assist modes. In Portrait mode, the camera uses a larger aperture setting to decrease the depth of field, producing a sharply focused subject in front of a slightly blurred background. Pressing the Menu button calls up the Scene Assistance menu, which lets you choose from a range of portrait setups, including basic Portrait, Portrait Left, Portrait Right, Portrait Close-up, Portrait Couple, Portrait Figure, and Face-priority AF. In each of these modes (except basic Portrait and Face-priority AF), an outline appears on the LCD display to help you align the subject. Face-priority AF actually surrounds each face it sees with a red box, and when focus is achieved, the red box of the face chosen for focus turns green.

  • Landscape Assist Mode: A mountain scene distinguishes Landscape mode on the Mode dial. Here, the camera employs a smaller aperture setting to produce sharp detail in both foreground and background objects. As with Portrait mode, the Scene Assistance menu offers a handful of options (accessed as in Portrait mode). Framing options are Landscape (no guidelines), Scenic View (mountain outline), Architecture (grid), Group Right (outlines of people with lines for buildings in the background), and Group Left (also outlines of people with building and horizon lines).

  • Sports Assist Mode: A figure in action is the icon for Sports mode, which uses faster shutter speeds to freeze action. The Menu button accesses the Scene Assistance menu, with options for Sports, Sport Spectator, and Sport Composite modes. Sport Spectator enables the user to instantly press down on the Shutter button without pausing halfway to focus, and works best with unpredictable subjects within a range of 9.8 feet (3.0 meters). Sport Composite mode takes 16 images in two seconds, each time the Shutter button is pressed, and arranges them in a four-by-four array, much like Multi-Shot 16 mode.

  • Night Portrait Assist Mode: Indicated by an icon of a person in front of a star, this mode is for twilight and dusk portraits. The flash is automatically set to Auto Red-Eye Reduction mode, and syncs to the slower shutter speed, which allows more ambient light in to balance color and shadows. The camera's ISO setting automatically adjusts as high as ISO 200, depending on the light level (not reported on the LCD screen). And Noise Reduction is turned on. The Scene Assistance menu offers the same framing outlines as in Portrait mode (described above), with the exception of Face-Priority AF.

  • Party/Indoor: Use to capture background details in situations that require flash. Also good for preserving the look of candlelight or other indoor lighting.
  • Beach/Snow: Boosts the exposure to compensate for subjects that are very bright overall.
  • Sunset: Preserves the deep colors of sunsets and sunrises. (Likely sets white balance to "daylight" rather than auto, and dials in some negative exposure compensation to get a good exposure on the sky.)
  • Dusk/Dawn: Preserves the colors seen in weak natural light seen before dawn or after sunset. The flash is disabled, noise reduction is automatically enabled at slow shutter speeds, and the autofocus-assist illuminator is disabled, even in dim lighting.
  • Night Landscape: Combines longer exposures with the "Landscape" mode. Focus is fixed at infinity, and the flash is disabled in this mode. Noise reduction is enabled for long exposures, and the autofocus-assist illuminator is disabled, even in dim lighting.
  • Close Up: Adjusts the lens for close-focusing on small objects, apparently also increases color saturation slightly. Autofocus operates continuously until you half-press the shutter button, helpful in focusing on very close subjects. AF-area mode is set to "manual", so you can select what part of the frame you want to focus on by pressing the center button of the multi-controller and moving the focus cursor around the image with the arrow keys. Press the center button again to save the new AF area selection.
  • Museum: Enables longer exposure times and higher sensitivity, for indoor situations where you can't use flash. Automatically turns on the Best Shot Selector to help get a sharp image. The autofocus-assist illuminator is disabled, even in dim lighting.
  • Fireworks Show: Sets a long exposure and small aperture so you can catch the colored trails of fireworks. Exposure compensation is disabled, and the autofocus-assist illuminator is disabled, even in dim lighting.
  • Copy: Sets the color mode to black and white, boosts contrast, and adjusts exposure to produce sharp images of black text (or line drawings) on white backgrounds.
  • Backlight: For difficult lighting conditions, when the main light is behind your subject, casting their features into shadow. The flash is set to fire even in bright conditions, to throw light onto the shadowed subject.
  • Panorama Assist: Lets you capture a series of images to be stitched together later on a computer as one panoramic image. Flash, macro, and zoom setting are all fixed at their values for the first shot in the series. Likewise, exposure and white balance values are determined by the first shot in the series, to help avoid visible boundaries between the component images in the final panorama, after they've been stitched together.
  • Underwater: For use with the marine housing accessory, this mode optimizes images taken underwater.
  • Image Mode: Sets the image resolution. Choices are 5M* High (2,592 x 1,944 pixels), 5M (2,592 x 1,944 pixels), 3M (2,048 x 1,536 pixels), 2M (1,600 x 1,200 pixels), PC (1,024 x 768 pixels), and TV (640 x 480 pixels).
  • Voice Recording: Transforms camera into a digital voice recorder that can hold several hours of audio on an SD card.



Playback Mode: Pressing the Playback button on the camera's back panel instantly enters Playback mode. Here, you can review captured images and movies, erase, enlarge, copy, and protect images, and also set them up for printing. Pressing the Menu button offers the following options:

  • Print Set: Sets the DPOF settings for captured images. A "Print Selected" option brings up an index display, letting you mark individual images for printing. Once images are marked, you can decide whether any text is overlaid on the image (such as image information or the date and time). You can also cancel print settings here with the "Delete Print Set" button.
  • Slide Show: Automates a slide show of all still images on the memory card with three seconds between shots. You can also enable a looped playback that will play for 30 minutes before the camera goes into standby mode.
  • Delete: Erases selected images from the memory card, or all images (except for write-protected ones).
  • Protect: Write-protects individual images from accidental erasure or manipulation. An special display of the images on the card appears, with a three image filmstrip across the top and a larger image preview on the bottom, which you scroll through and select images to be "locked." Protected images are only deleted through card formatting.
  • Transfer Marking: Marks all images or allows user to select specific images for auto transfer when the camera is connected to a computer running Nikon's software.
  • Small Picture: Creates a lower resolution copy of an image with this tool, choosing from 640 x 480, 320 x 240, or 160 x 120. Great for pictures you know you'll want to email.
  • Copy: Quickly copy images from internal to external memory or vise versa. Great for images you want to bring along or keep in memory for the startup screen.


Setup Mode: The following Setup menu is accessible from the top of almost all menus:

  • Welcome Screen: Chooses the welcome screen that appears at startup, either none, static, or animated, or lets you choose a previously-shot image as a personalized welcome screen.
  • Date: Sets the camera's internal clock and calendar. The Time Zone option lets you set the time for either your home or a destination city.
  • Monitor Settings:
    • Photo Info: Sets the monitor to Show info or Hide info.
    • Brightness: Adjusts the brightness of the LCD display.
  • Date imprint: Includes the date, or date and time as part of the image. Options are Off, or to imprint Date, Date and Time, or a Date Counter, showing the number of days since a specific date that you've chosen and entered.
  • Sound settings: Can turn on or off the button sound, shutter sound, and startup sound, as well as control the volume.
  • Blur Warning: Turns the camera's Blur Warning on and off. (If off, the "camera shake" icon will not appear on the LCD monitor.)
  • Auto Off: Enables the Auto Off feature, which automatically shuts down the camera after a period of inactivity, to save battery life. Times are 30 seconds, or 1, 5, or 30 minutes. Sleep mode will put the camera in standby mode after 30 seconds regardless of auto off setting if no change in scene brightness occurs; a press on the power button returns the camera to full readiness.
  • Format Card/Memory: Formats the SD card or internal memory, erasing all files (even protected ones).
  • Language: Changes the menu language to German, English, Spanish, French, Italian, Dutch, Russian, Swedish, Japanese, Simplified Chinese, Traditional Chinese, or Korean.
  • Interface:
    • USB: Sets the USB protocol to Mass Storage or PTP. The PTP option supports automatic processing of camera images under Windows XP and Mac OS X operating systems (unless you want to mount the camera on the desktop), while Mass Storage is best for older operating systems. Mass Storage makes the camera appear as a hard drive to the operating system when plugged in via the USB cable.
    • Video Mode: Sets the video output to NTSC or PAL timing.
    • Auto Transfer: Choosing On lets you mark pictures for later transfer to a computer as they are taken.
  • AF Assist: Disables the AF assist light, or puts it into Auto mode.
  • Reset All: Resets all camera settings to their defaults.
  • Menus: Sets the menu display mode to Text or Icons.
  • Firmware version: Reports version number of firmware (the operating software) running on device.

 

Specifications

See camera specifications here.

 

Picky Details

Cycle times, shutter lag, battery life, etc. can be found here.

 

In the Box

The Nikon Coolpix S1 ships with the following items in the box:

  • Coolpix S1 digital camera.
  • Wrist strap.
  • USB cable.
  • Power adapter.
  • A/V cable.
  • Cool-Station MV-11 Cradle.
  • Li-ion rechargeable battery EN-EL8.
  • CD-ROM loaded with Nikon Picture Project software and drivers.
  • Quick start video CD
  • Instruction manuals and registration kit.

 

Recommended Accessories

 

Recommended Software: Rescue your Photos!
Just as important as an extra memory card is a tool to rescue your images when one of your cards fails at some point in the future. We get a lot of email from readers who've lost photos due to a corrupted memory card. Memory card corruption can happen with any card type and any camera manufacturer, nobody's immune. A lot of "lost" images can be recovered with an inexpensive, easy to use piece of software though. Given the amount of email I've gotten on the topic, I now include this paragraph in all my digital camera reviews. The program you need is called PhotoRescue, by DataRescue SA. Read our review of it if you'd like, but download the program now, so you'll have it. It doesn't cost a penny until you need it, and even then it's only $29, with a money back guarantee. So download PhotoRescue for Windows or PhotoRescue for Mac while you're thinking of it. (While you're at it, download the PDF manual and quickstart guide as well.) Stash the file in a safe place and it'll be there when you need it. Trust me, needing this is not a matter of if, but when... PhotoRescue is about the best and easiest tool for recovering digital photos I've seen. (Disclosure: IR gets a small commission from sales of the product, but I'd highly recommend the program even if we didn't.) OK, now back to our regularly scheduled review...

 

Sample Pictures

See the full set of my sample pictures and detailed analysis here. The thumbnails below show a subset of my test images. Click on a thumbnail to see the full-size photo.

"Sunlit"
Indoor Flash
Indoor
 

 

 

House
Musicians
Macro
 

 

 

Davebox
Resolution
Viewfinder Accuracy

 

 

"Gallery" Photos

For those readers interested in a set of less "standardized" photos from the Nikon Coolpix S1, we've assembled a "gallery" of more pictorial images shot with the Nikon S1.

 

Test Results

In keeping with my standard test policy, the comments given here summarize only my key findings. For full details on each of the test images, see the Coolpix S1's "pictures" page.

For a look at some more pictorial photos from this camera, check out our Nikon Coolpix S1 Photo Gallery.

Not sure which camera to buy? Let your eyes be the ultimate judge! Visit our Comparometer(tm) to compare images from the Nikon Coolpix S1 with those from other cameras you may be considering. The proof is in the pictures, so let your own eyes decide which you like best!

  • Color: Hue-accurate color, but very bright (bright colors are rendered with very high saturation.) Good white balance, better than average handling of incandescent lighting. The Nikon S1's color is likely to be very appealing to consumers who like bright, highly saturated color. Bright colors are quite oversaturated by the S1, but consumers have consistently shown a preference for this sort of very bright, snappy-looking color. Some of this oversaturation does carry over into Caucasian skin tones though, sometimes crossing the line from a "rosy glow" to a slightly sunburned look. Indoors, the camera's auto white balance system did a better than average job of handling the incandescent lighting that's so common in US households, and its manual white balance option delivered really excellent color under this very difficult light source.

  • Exposure: Generally accurate exposure, slightly high contrast. The S1 handled my test lighting quite well, though the camera produced slightly high contrast under the deliberately harsh lighting of the "Sunlit" Portrait. Dynamic range was pretty good, only slightly limited in the highlights, with good detail in the shadows. Indoors, the camera required higher than average positive exposure compensation, and the standard flash exposure left the images a little underexposed. The S1 had no trouble distinguishing the subtle pastel tones on the Q60 target of the Davebox. Overall, very good results.

  • Resolution/Sharpness: High resolution, 1,250 lines of "strong detail." The S1 performed about average on the "laboratory" resolution test chart with its 5.1-megapixel CCD. It didn't start showing artifacts in the test patterns until resolutions as low as 800 lines per picture height vertically and horizontally. I found "strong detail" out to at least 1,250 lines. "Extinction" of the target patterns didn't occur until about 1,500 lines.

  • Image Noise: Good control of image noise, but a fair bit of subject detail traded away at the higher ISOs. The Nikon Coolpix S1 did a good job of holding image noise in check, but it made a heavy tradeoff of subject detail at high ISOs to accomplish this. While the effect began as low as ISO 100, it became noticeable at ISO 200 and quite prominent at ISO 400. In areas of subtle contrast, the subject detail was blurred as part of the camera's effort to control noise. Shots at ISO 200 looked OK when printed at 8x10 inches, but rather soft: Most users are likely to be more pleased by them when printed at 5x7. ISO 400 shots are OK at 5x7, but probably best viewed and shared as 4x6 inch prints.

  • Closeups: A tiny macro area with great detail. Flash performed well. True to Nikon form, the S1 captured a very small macro area, measuring 1.08 x 0.81 inches (28 x 21 millimeters). Resolution was high, and details were strong and well-defined. The S1's flash did a good job of throttling down for the macro area, even at this very close shooting range.

  • Night Shots: Limited low-light performance, but capable enough for average city night scenes. Warm color and slightly high noise. Good low-light autofocus performance. The Nikon Coolpix S1's 2-second maximum exposure time limits its low-light capability somewhat, but at ISO 100 and above, it should do a fine job with typical city night scenes. Its autofocus system worked down to about half the brightness of typical street lighting with the AF-assist light turned off, and in complete darkness on nearby objects with it on. The S1's flash range was very limited though, as is often the case with subcompact cameras.

  • Viewfinder Accuracy: A very accurate LCD. The S1's LCD monitor was about 99+ percent accurate at both wide angle and telephoto lens settings. A very good performance.

  • Optical Distortion: High barrel distortion at wide angle, and a fair amount of pincushion at telephoto. Strong blurring in the corners at wide angle. Optical distortion seems to be one of the biggest tradeoffs for the Nikon S1's small size: I measured approximately 1.12 percent barrel distortion at wide angle, and approximately 0.5 percent pincushion distortion at telephoto. Chromatic aberration is moderately high at wide angle, but virtually nonexistent at telephoto. (This distortion is visible as a very slight colored fringe around the objects at the edges of the field of view on the resolution target.) The most notable distortion though, was the heavy blurring in all four corners with the lens at wide angle.

  • Shutter Lag and Cycle Times: Slightly better than average speed, excellent buffer capacity. Overall, the Nikon Coolpix S1 does quite well for a subcompact model, with shutter lag figures on the fast side of average in full-autofocus mode, and blazingly fast when the camera is "prefocused" by half-pressing and holding down the shutter button before the shot itself. Shot to shot speeds are about average (which is pretty good for a compact camera model), but the buffer capacity is positively huge when compared to the competition. (15 large/fine shots in single-shot mode, 19 large/fine ones in continuous mode) Buffer clearing speed is also quite good, particularly in light of just how many images the buffer can hold.

  • Battery Life: Good battery life for a sub-compact, but a second battery still might be wise. The Nikon Coolpix S1 uses a custom rechargeable LiIon battery for power, and has no external power connector, so I couldn't perform my usual direct measurements of power consumption. Running the camera in its worst-case power-drain mode (capture mode, not sleeping, LCD on) showed a run time of 109 minutes. Not all bad for such a compact digital camera, but also not terribly long if you plan any extended outings with the S1. - I highly recommend purchasing a second battery if you plan any longer shooting sessions with the S1.

  • Print Quality: Good prints to 11x14 inches, quite sharp at 8x10. High-ISO shots are rather soft, but still don't look too bad at 8x10. Testing hundreds of digital cameras, we've found that you can only tell just so much about a camera's image quality by viewing its images on-screen. Ultimately, there's no substitute for printing a lot of images and examining them closely. For this reason, we now routinely print sample images from the cameras we test on our Canon i9900 studio printer, and on the Canon iP5000 here in the office. (See our Canon i9900 review for details on that model.) Prints from the Nikon Coolpix S1 looked quite good as large as 11x14 inches, although they were just slightly soft at that size, noticeably sharper at 8x10. (I suspect that most users would find 11x14 prints from the S1 to be entirely acceptable.) High ISO shots are always the toughest challenge for print size, but the S1 did better in this respect than I expected it to. It trades away quite a lot of fine/subtle subject detail at ISO 400, but shots taken at that setting looked surprisingly good when printed at 8x10 inches. There was some colored noise present, but not a terrible amount, and the softness wasn't too apparent when prints were viewed at typical distances of a foot or more. Still, ISO 400 shots did look better when printed at 5x7 inches. All in all, quite a good performance from a subcompact camera.



Conclusion

Pro: Con:
  • Attractive design, well-built
  • Good accuracy from the LCD viewfinder
  • LCD stays pretty visible under bright lighting (better than average in sunlight)
  • Excellent macro performance, flash works surprisingly well up close.
  • High contrast, slightly limited tonal range
  • Very bright color (good if you like bright color)
  • Slightly faster than average focusing
  • Loads of helpful "assist" options for novices
  • D-lighting feature helpful for shaded subjects
  • Best Shot Selector works well for avoiding motion blur
  • In-camera redeye reduction seems to work well
  • LCD viewfinder actually works fairly well in low light
  • Good VGA movie mode
  • Underwater case available
  • Rather soft corners in its images (unfortunately rather common in subcompact digital cameras)
  • Very bright color (a liability if you like more natural-looking color)
  • Skin tones can be rather ruddy looking, overly pink
  • Some image noise even at low ISO settings, but most users won't notice it
  • While relatively "clean," high ISO images are rather soft
  • Limited low-light capability
  • Very short flash range (a common limitation of subcompact camera models)
  • Shorter than average battery life, although not bad for a subcompact model
  • Higher than average compression on images, even at highest quality
  • Low light focusing requires camera and subject be totally still
  • No exposure info shown on the LCD
  • Only two aperture settings
  • Red-eye reduction option significantly increases shot to shot time

Free Photo Lessons

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Nikon's Coolpix line of consumer digicams has always been well-received, appreciated for their image quality and ease of use. The Coolpix S1 starts a new design trend for the company, packing a lot of features, a 5.1-megapixel CCD with 3x zoom lens, and a surprisingly large 2.5-inch LCD into a very small, attractive package. The result is a pretty successful subcompact digital camera design. The Nikon S1 shares some common limitations with other tiny subcompact models, in the form of limited battery life and a tendency to produce soft corners in its images, but these shortcomings represent more or less universal tradeoffs required by the tiny form factor. Image-wise, the Nikon Coolpix S1 delivers very bright, snappy-looking photos with vibrant, hue-accurate color and plenty of detail for making large prints. The S1's color is indeed very bright: This will appeal to the majority of consumers, who have again and again shown a strong preference for bright color, but may be a bit overdone for those accustomed to the more restrained color of higher-end and professional digital camera models. - See our test photos photo gallery to make up your own mind: Color rendering is a very personal preference, so it's important to let your own eyes be the judge, rather than relying on sterile test data. The Nikon S1's high-ISO performance was a little deceptive. Viewed 1:1 on a computer screen, its ISO 400 images looked very soft, and there was a fair bit of image noise visible. When printed though, the softness wasn't nearly as apparent, at least up to print sizes of 8x10 inches or so, and the noise likewise was less visible than it was on-screen. (This sort of dichotomy is the reason why we now make test prints from every camera we review, before rendering final judgement on image quality.) Bottom line, the ISO 400 setting of the Coolpix S1 should be more than usable for the majority of consumers, particularly if they are making prints 5x7 inches or smaller from the images. It's important to put each camera we review into context: The Nikon S1 is really intended as a take-anywhere "pocket" camera, rather than a bells-and-whistles/ultimate image quality mainstay for the photo enthusiast. It would come up decidedly short if compared against high-end "enthusiast" models, but does very well as a small, pocketable digital camera for the average consumer. For the "average consumer" willing to delve just slightly deeper than "just pushing the button," its extensive scene modes and unique framing-assist options greatly extend its capabilities, making it easy to bring back good-looking shots of what might otherwise be difficult subjects. All in all, a nice little subcompact digicam, worthy to be chosen as a "Dave's Pick."


 

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