The Imaging Resource
Nikon Coolpix S3 Digital Camera
The new Nikon Coolpix S3 is the company's third digital camera in a small, slim package, following the S1 and S2. The S3 has a larger 2.5 inch LCD and a slightly larger sensor, too.
Feature-wise, both the Nikon Coolpix S3 and S1 fall somewhere between the recent Coolpix 5600 and 5900. Physically, however, the Nikon S3 is compact and extremely pocketable. It has no protruding lens parts, and as a result is unlikely to get snagged anywhere. Its 6.0-megapixel sensor 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 tolled, it's an excellent "take-with-you-everywhere" digital camera. With its range of user-friendly, point & shoot exposure modes, the Nikon Coolpix S3 can handle just about any photo opportunity you're likely to throw at it. Read on for all the details!
To keep size down the Nikon S3 features no optical viewfinder, only a 2.5-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 Nikon Coolpix S3 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 6.0-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 S3's exposure control is straightforward. Operating mainly under automatic control, the Coolpix S3'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. The Nikon Coolpix S3's other Scene modes are Party/Indoor, Beach/Snow, Sunset, Dusk/Dawn, Night Landscape, Close Up, Museum, Fireworks Show, Copy, Backlight, 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 S3 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 S3 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 S3'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 S3 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 S3'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 S3'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 Nikon Coolpix S3'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 S3 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 S3's system does indeed seem to remove red-eye very well when it's enabled, versus when it's disabled. The post-processing the camera uses to search for and remove any remaining red-eye did not seem to take an appreciable amount of time.
Another really unique feature of the Nikon S3 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'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 S3.) 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 Nikon Coolpix S3's Movie mode offers four options: TV Movie 640 (640 x 480, 15 fps), Small size 320* (320 x 240 pixels, 15 fps), and Smaller Size 160* (160 x 120, 15 fps), plus Time-lapse movie mode (up to 1,900 still at specified intervals). 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 S3's internal buffer memory), and appears in the LCD monitor.
The Nikon Coolpix S3 stores images on SD memory cards, but the standard retail package in the U.S. 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 2,816 x 2,112-pixel maximum image size, I strongly recommend picking up at least a 128 to 256MB memory card so you don't miss any important shots. Images are saved in JPEG format, with three compression levels available. 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-EL8 lithium-ion battery and a charger. The Coolpix S3 has good battery life for such a compact model, but at 190 frames, you'll definitely want to bring the charger 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 double 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 Nikon Coolpix S3 is a video cable for connecting to a television set for slide shows, and a USB cable for downloading images to a computer.
- 6.0-megapixel (effective) CCD delivering image resolutions as high as 2,816 x 2,112 pixels
- 2.5-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 two seconds
- 4x Digital zoom
- Automatic exposure control
- Built-in flash with five modes
- Built-in mic and speaker for recording and playback of sound in videos, plus voice recording
- 12MB internal memory
- SD memory card storage
- Power supplied by lithium ion rechargeable battery, or optional AC adapter
- USB cable for quick connection to a computer
- Video cable for connection to a television set
- Nikon Picture Project software for both Mac and Windows
- ED Glass lens
- Contrast-detect through-the-lens AF with AF assist illuminator
- Face-priority AF recognizes faces in a scene and keeps them in focus
- Voice recording mode
- QuickTime movies (with sound)
- Continuous Shooting, Multi-Shot, Multi-Shot 16, and Interval Timer mode.
- Thirteen 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
As one of the two smallest Coolpix models in the line (and one of the smallest digicams on the market), the Nikon Coolpix S3 is a combination of a fine Nikkor 3x ED glass optical zoom lens, a 6.0-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 S3 is great for travel as well as everyday carry, and the range of preset shooting and framing modes anticipates most common shooting conditions. The 2,816 x 2,112 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 S3 could also serve as a great take-anywhere snapshot camera for more advanced shooters.
Slim, trim, and super-tiny, the Nikon Coolpix S3 joins the S1 as 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 S3's matte black, metal body is offset by shiny silver highlights. High quality Nikkor optics and a 6.0-megapixel CCD give the Coolpix S3 great image quality, and a broad selection of Scene Assist modes makes operation a breeze, even for novice users. The Nikon S3 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 same as the S1.
The Nikon S3's front panel has the 3x zoom lens, built-in flash, and the self-timer lamp/AF-assist illuminator. 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 Nikon Coolpix S3 is the Secure Digital (SD) memory card compartment and an eyelet for attaching the wrist strap. The SD card compartment door snaps open 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 is bare.
The Shutter button, Power button, Power-on lamp, Mic and Speaker are on the Coolpix S3's top panel.
The remaining external controls are all located on the camera's rear panel, along with the 2.5-inch, TFT color LCD monitor. A Zoom rocker button in the top right corner controls 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 Nikon Coolpix S3's 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 button, with the Playback button on the lower left. To the right of the Playback button is the Trash button. Beneath all of this is the three way mode switch, with Auto, Scene, and Movie settings.
The Nikon Coolpix S3 has a flat bottom panel. 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 S3 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 Nikon S3's 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 offloading.
The Nikon Coolpix S3 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 S3 sits in the cradle facing toward the cables and tilted downward, so you can see the photos onscreen when it's docked.
Despite the Nikon Coolpix S3'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 S3's LCD reports limited status information, including camera mode, 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. You can hide the information overlay (except for the storage medium icon) from the Setup menu. A slide show option lets you see the images sequentially, with no overlay on top of them, too. Pressing the Coolpix S3's "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.
Shutter Button: Just to the right of the power switch, the Shutter button is long and slim. This button sets the Nikon Coolpix S3'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 Coolpix S3'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 Coolpix S3's 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 S3'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 Nikon Coolpix S3's nav disk, this button pulls up the Erase menu while in Playback or Record mode.
Battery retention slider: Beneath the battery compartment door is a small orange slider that holds the battery in place until it is slid toward the back.
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:
- Set-Up: Takes you directly to the Set-Up menu.
- Image Mode: Sets the image resolution and JPEG compression to 6M* High (2,816 x 2,112 with a 1:4 compression ratio), 6M Normal (2,816 x 2,112 with a 1:8 compression ratio), 3M Normal (2,048 x 1,536 with a 1:8 compression ratio), PC screen (1,024 x 768 with a 1:8 compression ratio), or TV screen (640 x 480 with a 1:8 compression ratio).
- White Balance: Chooses from Auto White Balance, Preset for custom presetting of white balance, Daylight, Incandescent, Fluorescent, Cloudy, and Flash.
- Exp: Accesses Exposure compensation adjustment, +/- 2 EV in 1/3 steps.
- Continuous: Chooses from Single, Continuous, Multi-Shot 16, and Interval timer 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.
Scene Exposure Mode: The word "Scene" indicates this mode on the Mode switch. Thirteen preset scene modes are available on the Nikon Coolpix S3, by pressing the Menu button. All of the scene modes preset a variety of camera options for you automatically. Four additional options to help with framing your shots.
- Set-Up: Takes you directly to the Set-Up menu.
- Portrait Assist Mode: With an icon depicting 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 icon distinguishes Landscape mode. 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 6M* High (2,816 x 2,112 with a 1:4 compression ratio), 6M Normal (2,816 x 2,112 with a 1:8 compression ratio), 3M Normal (2,048 x 1,536 with a 1:8 compression ratio), PC screen (1,024 x 768 with a 1:8 compression ratio), or TV screen (640 x 480 with a 1:8 compression ratio).
- Voice Recording: Transforms camera into a digital voice recorder that can hold several hours of audio on an SD card.
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:
- Set-Up: Takes you directly to the Set-Up menu.
- 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, which uses more battery and makes some moderate repetitive sound) or Single AF (focuses only when shutter button is pressed).
Playback Mode: Pressing the Playback button on the Nikon Coolpix S3'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:
- Set-Up: Takes you directly to the Set-Up menu.
- 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 the Coolpix S3's 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.
- USB: Sets the Nikon Coolpix S3's 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.
See camera specifications here.
Cycle times, shutter lag, battery life, etc. can be found here.
In the Box
The Nikon Coolpix S3 ships with the following items in the box:
- Coolpix S3 digital camera
- Wrist strap
- Cool-Station MV-11 Cradle
- Power adapter
- USB cable
- A/V cable
- Li-ion rechargeable battery EN-EL8
- PictureProject installer CD
- PictureProject reference manual CD
- Instruction manuals and registration kit
- Large capacity SD/MMC memory card. These days, 128 to 256 MB is a good tradeoff between cost and capacity.
- Small camera case for outdoor and in-bag protection.
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...
For a look at some more pictorial photos from this camera, check out our Nikon Coolpix S3 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 S3 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!
A typical 3x optical zoom range, with good performance.
4x Digital Zoom
The Coolpix S3 zooms over the equivalent of a 35-105mm range, fairly typical for its class. The 4x digital zoom takes it out to 12x total (420mm 35mm equivalent) with the loss of quality that digital zoom creates.
A small macro area with good detail and high resolution. Flash handles the scene fairly well at this range, so plan on using external flash for macro shots.
|Standard Macro||Macro with Flash|
The Coolpix S3's macro setting performs unusually well, capturing a very small minimum area of 1.14 x 0.85 inches (29 x 22 millimeters). Detail is strong and resolution high, with only a moderate amount of softening in the corners from the lens. (Most cameras have some softening in the corners in macro mode.) The flash does relatively well with this scene, though there's slight light falloff from right to left. Exposure at this distance is nearly perfect with flash, somewhat underexposed without.
Higher than average distortion, but typical of this class.
This is the tendency for the lens to bend straight lines outward (like a barrel, usually at wide angle) or inward (like a pincushion, usually at telephoto). The Coolpix S3's 1.05% barrel distortion at wide angle is higher than average among the cameras I've tested. At the telephoto end, the S3's 0.31% pincushion distortion is higher than average.
|Barrel distortion at 35mm is 1.05%|
|Pincushion distortion at 105mm is 0.31%|
High at wide angle, minimal at telephoto.
|Wide: high, top left @ 200%||Wide: high, top right @ 200%|
|Tele: quite low, top left @200%||Tele: quite low, top right @200%|
Chromatic aberration is rather high at wide angle on the Nikon Coolpix S3, showing several pixels of moderately bright coloration on either side of the target lines, but decreases to very low levels at telephoto focal lengths. (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.)
Soft in the corners, especially at wide angle, but good overall.
|Wide: very soft in upper left corner||Wide: center shot sharp with
|Tele: Coma (softness) is not as
pronounced in telephoto
|Tele: center shot is softer than wide|
The Coolpix S3 produced somewhat soft corners, most evident at wide angle. The upper left corner was markedly worse than the others, which were closer to average for a camera this small. Compare the center shots above right, which technically should be the sharpest the camera can produce, to the shots at left, which represent the softest corners of the frame. Soft corners are to be expected in very small cameras like this, and they're generally softer in the wide angle shots, as we see above.
Exposure and White Balance
Indoors, incandescent lighting
Slightly warm cast with both Auto and Incandescent white balance settings. More exposure compensation required than usual.
|Auto White Balance +0.7EV||Incandescent WB +0.7EV|
Color balance indoors under Auto was excellent. Incandescent was surprisingly warm with an unpleasant greenish tint. The Coolpix S3 required a +0.7 EV exposure compensation boost with either setting to get a good exposure. Auto mode had color that was well-balanced and hue accurate. Our test lighting for this shot is a mixture of 60 and 100 watt household incandescent bulb, a pretty yellow light source, but a very common one in typical home settings here in the U.S.
Good color balance, very bright colors.
|Auto White Balance
|Auto White Balance
Outdoor shots generally showed accurate exposure with slightly blown out highlights. Shadow detail also tended to fall apart with the Nikon Coolpix S3, but nothing that would raise an alarm for a consumer digicam. Sunlit shots showed high contrast and oversaturation while overcast scenes managed a more accurate portrayal.
High resolution, 1,200 lines of strong detail.
Our laboratory resolution chart revealed sharp, distinct line patterns down to about 1,200 lines per picture height, with extinction at around 1,400. (The Nikon Coolpix S3 did produce slight color artifacts at lower line frequencies though, visible in the full-sized res target shots.) Use these numbers to compare with other cameras of similar resolution, or use them to see just what higher resolution can mean in terms of potential detail. Beware that while you might be able to make out what looks like distinct lines at numbers higher than those we've mentioned here, the camera is just doing its best to continue interpreting the lines. If you zoom in and follow them from the wider portions, you'll see the lines converge and reappear several times, so the lines you see at 1,500 and higher are really only artifacts generated by the camera's imaging system.
|Strong detail to 1,200 lines horizontal||Strong detail to 1,200 lines vertical|
Sharpness & Detail
Very sharp images.
|Good definition of high-contrast elements, with some evidence of sharpening halos.||Subtle detail: Hair
Noise suppression tends to blur detail in areas of subtle contrast, as in the darker parts of Marti's hair.
The Coolpix S3's images are sharp, but there is clear evidence of strong over-sharpening or edge enhancement on the camera's part. (Edge enhancement creates the illusion of sharpness by enhancing colors and tones right at the edge of a rapid transition in color or tone.)
Noise-suppression systems in digital cameras tend to flatten-out detail in areas of subtle contrast. The effects can often be seen in shots of human hair, where the individual strands are lost and an almost "watercolor" look appears. The crop at far right shows this clearly, with darker areas of Marti's hair showing only limited detail, even though individual strands are quite visible where there is greater contrast, as with the stray hairs that are highlighted. (The level of detail loss wouldn't be all that obvious on prints 8x10 inches or smaller though.)
ISO & Noise Performance
Increasing noise as ISO setting increases.
|ISO 50||ISO 100|
|ISO 200||ISO 400|
At ISO 50, the Coolpix S3 was relatively noise-free, though there was still some evidence of noise suppression at work. Noise suppression at ISO 200 starts to get somewhat involved, smoothing out just a little too much, though noise is indeed under control. At ISO 400 both noise and the evidence of suppression are significant. See the print results below for how relevant the noise is in different size prints.
Extremes: Sunlit and low light tests
High resolution with good overall detail, though high contrast and limited shadow detail. Pretty good low-light performance, capable of capturing bright images under average city street lighting and slightly darker conditions.
Because digital cameras are more like slide film than negative film (in that they tend to have a more limited tonal range), we test them in the harshest situations to see how they handle scenes with bright highlights and dark shadows, as well as what kind of sensitivity they have in low light. The shot above is designed to mimic the very harsh, contrasty effect of direct noonday sunlight, a very tough challenge for most digital cameras. (You can read details of this test here.)
The Coolpix S3 had a little trouble with the deliberately harsh lighting in the test above, producing very high contrast with washed-out highlights and deep shadows. Noise suppression is visible in both shadows and highlights as well, contributing to the loss of detail, made more severe in these areas. Exposure at least did not wash out the highlights when exposure compensation was set to zero adjustment. (In "real life" though, be sure to use fill flash in situations like the one shown above; it's better to shoot in the shade when possible.)
Our low light testing revealed some limitations in the lens and sensor's ability to gather and process light, but the Coolpix S3's performance in this area will be more than adequate for most consumers, provided they know to switch to "Night" mode for after-dark photography. The Night mode forces the ISO setting to 200 for minimum image noise, but permits shutter times as long as 2 seconds. The net result in Night Portrait mode was that our test images were bright as low as 1/4 foot-candle, which is about 1/4 as bright as average city street lighting at night. Color balance was slightly warm from the Auto white balance setting. The camera's autofocus system worked unusually well, able to focus on the subject down to the darkest light levels we test at. Do keep in mind though, that the very long shutter times associated with Night Landscape mode absolutely demand the use of a tripod or other camera support to get sharp photos. (A useful trick is to just prop the camera on a convenient surface, and use its self-timer to release the shutter. This avoids any jiggling from your finger pressing the shutter button, and can work quite well when you don't have a tripod handy.)
NOTE: This low light test is conducted with a stationary subject, and the camera mounted on a sturdy tripod. Most digital cameras will fail miserably when faced with a moving subject in dim lighting. (For example, a child's ballet recital or a holiday pageant in a gymnasium.) For such applications, you may have better luck with a digital SLR camera, but even there, you'll likely need to set the focus manually. For information and reviews on digital SLRs, refer to our SLR review index page.
Saturation & Hue Accuracy
Slightly oversaturated color (especially reds and blues), very typical of consumer digital cameras. Generally good hue accuracy.
The other important part of color rendition is hue accuracy. Hue is "what color" the color is. Here, the Coolpix S3 did quite well. Like most digicams, it shifts cyan colors toward blue, to produce better-looking sky colors, but the rest of the hues were quite accurate.
Our random "Gallery" shots showed very pleasing color across a wide variety of subjects. (See our Coolpix S3 Photo Gallery for more shots taken with the camera.)
Very good accuracy from the LCD monitor.
|35mm eq., LCD monitor||105mm eq., LCD monitor|
The S3 has no optical viewfinder but the LCD monitor shows 104% at wide angle and nearly 98.6% at telephoto.
Coverage and Range
The Nikon Coolpix S3's small flash has a limited range, produces a slight blue cast in combination with typical incandescent room lighting. Our standard shots required more exposure compensation than average.
|35mm equivalent||105mm equivalent|
|Normal Flash +0.3EV||Normal Flash +0.7EV|
Flash coverage was rather uneven at wide angle but very good at telephoto. In the Indoor test, the flash on the Nikon Coolpix S3 underexposed our subject at its default setting, requiring a +0.7 EV exposure compensation adjustment to get what is essentially an equally overexposed result.
Even at eight feet, our closest test range, the S3's flash did not quite illuminate the DaveBox target adequately.
|8 ft||9 ft||10 ft||11 ft||12 ft||13 ft||14 ft|
Good print quality up to ISO200, good color, very usable 11x14 inch prints. ISO 400 images are very soft at 8x10, acceptable at 5x7, very good at 4x6.
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 the Nikon i9900 review for details on that model.)
With the Coolpix S3, we found that it had enough resolution to make very crisp 8x10 inch prints. At 11x14, its prints were a bit softer looking, but more than adequate for wall or table display. At high ISO, image noise levels are held in check, but at the cost of rather soft-looking images. ISO 200 photos look good printed at 8x10 inches, but ISO 400 images only become acceptable at 5x7 inches, and look fine at 4x6. Color-wise, the Coolpix S3's images looked very good when printed on the i9900, with bright, vibrant color. Users who prefer more subdued, technically accurate color saturation levels may find the S3's images a little too bright, especially reds and blues, but most consumers will probably find the S3's bright, snappy images appealing.
Timing and Performance
Coolpix S3 Timing
About average speed for a consumer camera.
|Power On to first shot||1.6 seconds|
Shutter response (Lag Time):
Full Autofocus Wide
Full Autofocus Tele
|Cycle time (shot to shot)|
|Normal large/fine JPEG||2.06 seconds|
|Flash recycling||5 seconds|
|Continuous mode||0.69 second
(10 large/fine frames)
|Windows Computer, USB 2.0||680 KBytes/sec|
The S3's performance is above average across the board. Start up speed is above average, though there are faster performers. Shutter response is a little above average at wide angle and about average at telephoto. If you "prefocus" the camera by half-pressing and holding down the shutter button before the final exposure, it's blazingly fast, with a shutter delay of only 0.06 second, among the fastest on the market. Shot-to-shot cycle times are also only average, at about 2.06 seconds for large/fine JPEGs. Flash recycle time is a little on the slow side at 5 seconds. Continuous-mode speed is average. Connected to a computer, download speeds are just above average, but you could get better performance from a USB 2.0 card reader. Bottom line, the S3 is responsive enough (particular at wide angle lens settings) to handle most photo opportunities, but could be a little faster for kid shots.
Battery and Storage Capacity
Short battery life.
|Still-image capture mode
The Coolpix S3 uses a custom rechargeable 730mAh Lithium Ion battery for power. Nikon's own numbers for the Coolpix S3 (based on the CIPA standard test procedure) indicate that you should be able to get about 190 shots from a freshly-charged battery with the LCD on.
No memory card is included with the Coolpix S3.
14-MB internal memory
|2,816 x 2,112||Images||4|
|2,048 x 1,536||Images||16|
|1,024 x 768||Images||57|
I strongly recommend buying at least a 128MB card, preferably a 256MB one, to give yourself extra space for extended outings.
|Free Photo Lessons|