Date: July 4, 2006
Author(s): Rob Williams
Looking for a feature-packed camera that won’t empty your wallet? The S4 features a swivel-lens capable of 10x Optical Zoom, a 2.5″ LCD screen and even includes rechargeable batteries and charger. But does it take quality pictures? Read on..
I took a look at Nikons Coolpix L1 a few months back and was not impressed with the overall package. While the camera took some good pictures with great color, it lacked a few things that held back from a great review. So now I have the S4 on the test bench and hope that it can blow me away. Something the L1 was unable to do.
The S4 has potential. In the Nikon scheme of things, there is a three tiered system for their digital cameras. The L1 was included in the Lifestyle series… or ‘budget’. This S4 is qualified for Style, which is a Lifestyle camera with added features and better capabilities. The last is P for Performance series, but I will get into that one in my P3 review in the coming weeks.
One feature that makes this camera stand-out is already seen in the above picture. Instead of a standard camera with no moving parts, the S4 has a swivel lens. At a closed stance, the lens points upwards, but can be adjusted to be pointing in any direction. Upwards, straight ahead, downward and even towards you. I don’t understand a need for having an adjustable lens like this, however it will definitely make people around you oogle it.
Pictures I took of the camera somehow ‘disappeared’, but these high-res official pictures show off all the features quite well. Before we jump into some testing, here is a list of the specifications.
There’s no doubt… this is a packed camera. The 10x Optical Zoom is one of the biggest features of the camera, and will likely prove to be one of it’s key selling points. That aside though, this is a strange looking chassis. The design is just.. different. When you push the lens down to the normal picture taking mode, you will be holding onto it when you are snapping photos. It feels strange to hold, compared to other cameras, and can get uncomfortable after a while. If you take pictures using only one hand, then you will not really notice any difference though.
Since the 10x Optical zoom is one of the biggest features of the camera, I wanted to give it a test right away. While waiting in a parking lot for our car to be worked on, I decided to haul out the camera and zoom in on a Wal-Mart that is a fair distance away. Excuse the cars in front of me… I have no idea who put them there =)
The first picture below shows a “Robs-eye-view”. The perspective you see in the photo is exactly how I saw Wal-Mart from where I was standing. The second photo was taken with a slight zoom. The third was a 4x zoom, which tends to be the best zoom per quality ratio for the camera. Once you zoom in even further, dithering starts to occur and the photo is not as crisp.
When you move beyond 7x or 8x, the zoom bar on the screen turns green to denote that the quality will be significantly lessoned. As you can see with our 8x and 10x results, that is definitely true.
Over the course of a few days, I was pretty addicted to the zoom on this camera. Though the quality of the maximum zooms were nothing to brag about, the zooms up to 5x retained great quality. It was fun taking pictures of cars 100+ yards away to read their license plates.
The following picture was to see how close I could zoom in on something and still be able to read the text off of it. This shot was taken from 10ft back with a 6x zoom.
Yet another, but this time from 8ft back using a zoom between 4x and 5x.
The last test was to zoom in on a cemetery sign, which I could not read from where I was standing. It was approximately 250ft away.
Overall, the 10x zoom has impressed me on this camera. Having the ability to zoom in -so- close to objects is great, especially when you need to zoom in on a bank robbers license plate as he storms away. Seriously though, this is a great zoom. Though the image quality decreases quickly as you increase the zoom, 4x or 5x is a sweet spot and outputs impressive shots.
We should concentrate on some of the key specs that the camera has. We’ve already touched on the zoom capabilities, but didn’t touch on exactly what makes the lens take such clear pictures. The S4 is equipped with a 10x Zoom-Nikkor 38-380mm lens with a maximum aperture of f3.5. The focus range is 12″ to infinity, and 1.6″ to infinity in macro mode.
Quite a sharp lens for the price range, really. A great addition to the camera is a 2.5″ LCD 110,000 pixel screen. This is rather low resolution, but on par with most other cameras on the market in the same price bracket. However, due to the low resolution, it will be difficult to take the perfect picture in certain lighting conditions. Ever try to use an LCD of any kind outdoors? Yup, it’s impossible to see on a sunny day. This is where the optical viewfinder would come in handy though. Alas, the S4 does not have one…
The S4 does come with a huge share of shooting modes though. As always, experimentation will be the key here, but I found myself using BSS (Best Shot Selector) most often. There are modes used to help take pictures in very unique settings though, such as a fireworks show or a museum. If you enjoy having a date imprinted into the picture or set the camera to a 10 second timer, they are also there.
The camera also has a blur warning, where it will ask you before saving a picture, if it detects that it’s blurry. This can happen often during macro shots if you are too close, or if you shake the camera too much while trying to take a snapshot. It’s a simple yet effective feature that will have you conserve memory on your SD card and save you from sorting through numerous blurry pictures later on.
Though I didn’t touch on the movie capabilities with the S4, the settings are standard. 640*480 resolution at 15FPS, 320*240 at 15FPS or 160*120 at 15FPS. You can also choose to take a video with or without sound, depending on your interest. Without sound, the max FPS is still 15, but it would save memory if you didn’t require sound.
Because of the 6MP nature of the S4, you can take pictures up to 2816*2112 resolution. Moving down the scale, you have options of 2048*1536, 1024*768 and the classic, and incredibly small setting of 640*480.
The flash has a range of 0.4 – 3.0 meters (1′ 4″ – 10′). As is becoming common with newer digital cameras is a built-in red-eye reducer. This essentially just shines a red beam of light towards your subject, and then will immediately shoot a picture afterwards.
Battery life on the camera was not very impressive, as I found myself replacing the batteries after ~100 pictures at the 6MP setting. It will pay off greatly to bring extra rechargeable batteries along with you. Nikon estimated 450 pictures for each charge of the batteries, but this would have to be on the 1024*768 setting, because I didn’t make it near that far.
The S4 includes a staggering 13.5MB of internal memory, which is good for about 3 or 4 high resolution shots. This is only good for testing out the camera before you buy it, really.
To see what kind of color the S4 would spit out, I took a picture of the same general area both during the day and again in the evening. In the first picture, the grass has incredibly lush green color, as well as the rest of the trees and foliage. The camera did a great job of accurately capturing the color that the human eye will see.
Where I live, the weather changes about every 10 minutes, so I was able to also get a rainy day shot in addition.
The camera really does do a great job of capturing the blue and reddish hues in the sky, 10 minutes before the stars come out.
Nikon generally does a great job with the color in the outputted photos. I found that also with the L1 review also. It seems to be pretty congruent regardless of what Nikon camera you pick up.
Before I finish the review off, let’s take a quick look at a few miscellaneous shots to see how this camera shines through. The following picture is in the same area as the graveyard picture from page two, but uses the 6x zoom. It actually turned out far better than I thought it would. Though these people were 200ft away, you would be easily able to recognize them if you knew them.
Night scenes are quite different to take under certain conditions, as they tend to come out blurry more often than not.
Weird.. a SuSE Linux screenshot? Actually, this is a photo of the monitor with the room light off. Monitors are something difficult to capture clear, because they only show up well without a flash. The S4 did a great job with this one though.
The S4 has some fantastic macro capabilities, as seen in these pictures.
For a larger collection of macro shots taken with the S4, you can check out our SteelPad 5L, Microsoft 3000 Wireless Notebook Mouse and NZXT Apollo reviews. The camera was used throughout each of those reviews and give off good examples of what the camera can accomplish.
One problem I did find myself in with the camera though, was using macros where I got -too- close to the object with the camera. For example, take a look at the following picture, from our Nintendo DS review.
Even though I used a flash, you will notice a shadow in the top left corner. This is due to the light bouncing off the object which then bounces off the lens. Because the lens sticks out on the side of the camera instead of the middle, this is an effect I found myself running into often. One way to combat this to an extent is to stand away from the object and then use a 1x or 2x zoom, then take the photo. Because you are further away, the shadow is less likely to occur.
The S4 is easily one of best cameras I have recently used. For a camera that averages $270US, it really packs a punch. As we have seen, the image quality is great, as is the color. The 10x Optical Zoom is a very welcomed feature and provided what we needed for a few distance photos. The 2.5″ LCD is a great addition, but at the sacrifice of no optical viewfinder, which makes it extremely difficult to get the perfect shot on a sunny day.
The turn-on time for the camera could be a bit better. You will need to hold down the power button for around 3 seconds before the camera turns on, and then wait another 2 seconds for the lens to focus on the shot you want to take. Compared to the Casio Exilim EX-Z120 which is ready within 2 seconds. The camera did provide decent shutter lag though, but at larger zooms the speed was slightly decreased.
Given the price range, the S4 packs a punch and is certainly worth a look if you are looking to purchase a new camera. I award the Coolpix S4 an 8 out of 10.
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