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Nikon Coolpix S9100
12.1MP | 25-450mm (18X) ZOOM | $299/£219

The Nikon Coolpix S9100 succeeds the Coolpix S8000, one of the cameras featured in last year's group test of compact travel zoom cameras. The S8000 had a relatively modest zoom range of 10x (the minimum to be considered a 'travel zoom' in our testing), which stretched from 30mm (equivalent) at the wide end to 300mm (equivalent) at the telephoto end. This zoom range is adopted by the current Coolpix S8100. The S9100' lens is considerably more versatile, and at 18x, (25-450mm equivalent) the S9100 has the most powerful optical zoom lens of all the cameras in this group test. At 12MP the S9100 offers a lower pixel count than the S8000, but its Back-illuminated CMOS design should make it competitive in poor light - one area in which we found the S8000 somewhat lacking.

In most other respects, the S9100 is a fairly standard compact camera at this price point. Manual exposure control is limited effectively to exposure compensation, but what the S9100 lacks in technical versatility, it makes up for in in convenience, portability, and a decent selection of fun and useful shooting modes. Unlike the S8000, the S9100 features an exposure mode dial on its top-plate, which speeds up operation, and serves as a useful visual reminder of the current shooting mode.

  • 12.1 effective Megapixels (BSI-CMOS sensor)
  • 25-450mm equiv lens
  • 1080p HD video
  • 3.0 inch LCD with 921,000 dot resolution
  • Built-in GPS
  • 'Hybrid' VR image stabilization incorporating sensor shift and electronic stabilization (in video mode, sensor shift VR is disabled)
  • ISO sensitivity up to 3200
  • 5 shooting modes, 15 Scene Modes and 6 Effects mode

Click here for full product information including reader reviews and image samples (opens in new window)

Key Features

The increased complexity of the S9100's lens means that the S9100 does not feature the optical stabilization system of its predecessor. Instead, the S9100 offers 'Hybrid VR' which couples sensor-shift stabilization with electronic correction. Speaking of shifting sensors, like several other models in this group test, the S9100 captures images using a back illuminated (BSI) CMOS sensor, which thanks to a more efficient design, promises better image quality in poor light than more 'traditional' small CMOS sensors, while retaining the same practical advantages, such as high frame rates and good video performance.

Other key specifications include a 921k dot LCD screen and full HD (1080p) video capture mode. The S9100 also boasts a comprehensive collection of scene and special effects modes including Night Landscape, Night Portrait, Backlighting and Easy Panorama - the latter designed to quickly assemble a panoramic image from a single 180 or 360 degree pan of the camera.

Nikon's Night Landscape/Portrait and Backlighting HDR modes work by combining several consecutively-captured shots in-camera to produce a final image. These modes do a good job of ensuring pleasant, well-balanced exposures in poor light, but the final images tend (like this one) to be rather soft, and rather noisy. Certainly good enough for most purposes, though, and better than no image at all.
The S9100 also features a range of post-capture effects, including the currently very fashionable 'miniature effect'. Sadly though it is not possible to fine-tune the effect by shifting the in-focus and blurred areas of the scene (something that would have been useful for this shot).
The S9100 boasts a 1080p HD movie mode, and video is captured via a one-touch movie shooting button on the rear of the camera. The raised pattern on its left acts as a thumb-grip - useful when the camera is held one-handed.

Nikon has clearly been looking over Sony's shoulder for inspiration, since the technology used in the S9100's Night Landscape, Night Portrait, Backlighting and Easy Panorama modes is very similar - at least in principle - to similar modes in recent Cyber-shot compact cameras. Like the equivalent modes in the Sony Cyber-shot HX9 (amongst other Cyber-shot models), Night Portrait/Landscape modes work by combining multiple images taken at different shutter speeds to create a single, sharp exposure without the need to use a tripod.

In Easy Panorama mode the S9100 automatically creates panoramic images when the camera is panned. Images can be created from 180 or 360-degree pans, but resolution is limited to 560 pixels vertically.

Image quality and performance

Overall, the Coolpix S9100 gives a very strong performance in most everyday shooting situations. Outdoors in good light the S9100 sits towards the top of this group, and certainly superior to the S8000 that it replaces. The S8000 was one of the weaker models in last year's compact travel zoom group test when it came to image quality but the S9100 is much more satisfying.

Particularly impressive is the optical quality of the S9100's 18x zoom lens. Distortion is extremely well corrected and sharpness (except for the extreme corners) is high. Even at 450mm (equivalent) the S9100 delivers reasonably detailed images. There is a slight haziness at 450mm which isn't present in images taken at wider focal lengths, but it isn't too destructive. That said, even with a 'perfect' 450mm lens, if you're shooting distant objects on a hot day, the chances are that heat haze and atmospheric pollution will take a significant bite out of image quality anyway.

At 25mm, central sharpness from the S9100's 18x zoom is high, but the corners don't look fantastic, partly due to the camera's distortion correction system. Severe diverging verticals can be seen in this image, but the lines of the distant buildings are perfectly straight. At 450mm, the S9100's lens turns in a good performance, and its hybrid VR system has done an excellent job of stabilizing this panned shot. This image also shows off the S9100's generally excellent metering system, which has captured the dramatic contrast between the bright water and dark, moody mountain backdrop very well.

As we'd expect given our experience with the Coolpix P300, the S9100 is at its best in bright, high-contrast shooting environments. Even in good light though, low-contrast scenes (or low contrast areas of scenes) typically lack fine detail. This is especially noticeable in distant foliage or grass, and in a subject's hair when shooting portraits. The problem becomes more acute at higher ISO sensitivities, but it is only really apparent at large magnifications. Take a look at our photographic tests pages for more information and examples, and our samples gallery for more real-world images.

In low light, at higher ISO sensitivity settings, the S9100 gives very similar image quality to its big brother the Coolpix P300 (which uses the same sensor). Noise levels rise visibly from ISO 800 upwards, but even at ISO 3200, high-contrast detail is still relatively well-preserved. The S9100's 12MP back-illuminated CMOS sensor is more convincing in low light than the previous-generation 14MP CCD which Nikon used in the S8000, and functions like Night Portrait and Night Landscape make it easy to create reasonably sharp, print-ready (although often rather noisy) images in very poor light without the need for a tripod.

Image Stabilization

To test image stabilization we shoot a standard test target at the long end of these cameras' zooms, at 1/30sec. We take ten images at each stabilization setting (including 'off') and average the results, expressing performance as a percentage of shots which we judge to be 'very blurred', 'blurred', 'soft' (usable at small print sizes) and 'sharp'.

The S9100 features Nikon's 'Hybrid VR' system, which combines sensor-shift with electronic vibration correction in order to mitigate the effects of camera shake. Sensor shift is exactly what it sounds like - the S9100's CMOS sensor is moved in opposition to camera movement in order to stabilise the image that falls upon it. Electronic image stabilization works by combining two exposures - one taken at a fast shutter speed, to minimise blur, and the other taken at the 'correct' metered exposure. These exposures are blended together to create a correctly exposed, but sharp final image. With VR mode set to 'hybrid', electronic image stabilization only kicks in if the amount of movement that the camera detects is too great to correct by simply shifting the sensor.

At 450mm (equivalent) and 1/30sec, we're impressed that the S9100 can deliver any sharp images at all. As you can see, with VR turned off, most images are very blurred. When turned on, about 30% are 'soft' (i.e. acceptable in a small print) but our hit rate improves dramatically when Hybrid VR is turned on.

Summary

Despite packing in a considerably more powerful optic, the S9100 remains - like the S8000 before it - an impressively slim, compact camera. It is also one of the most responsive models in this test and unlike its predecessor, it is capable of delivering good image quality across its entire ISO span. The S9100 is also notable for its unusually consistent optical quality, which remains high all the way from 25-450mm (equivalent). We don't expect miracles from lenses of this type, and it is no surprise that the P300, which shares a sensor with the S9100, gives critically better sharpness, but for everyday use the S9100 is perfectly capable. Perhaps more importantly, the S9100's Hybrid VR mode does an excellent job of delivering sharp images, even at 450mm (equivalent).

The only major weak point of the S9100 is its lack of meaningful exposure control. The S9100 is unusual amongst the cameras in this test for being essentially an 'auto everything' model. On the plus side, its automatic modes work very well, and of course exposure compensation is on hand if the camera's metering system doesn't quite give the results that you want.

Nikon Coolpix S9100
Category: Travel Zoom Compact Camera
Build quality
Ergonomics & handling
Features
Exposure and focus accuracy
Image quality (jpeg)
Flash performance
Low light / high ISO performance
Optics
Performance (speed)
Movie / video mode
Value
PoorExcellent
Good for
25-450mm (equivalent) lens is great for travelling
Not so good for
Anything that requires manual exposure control
Overall score
75%
The S9100 is streets ahead from its predecessor the S8000, thanks to a new sensor and much more versatile zoom lens. Image quality is very good in daylight conditions, and HD video footage looks great. The S9100 is also one of the fastest and most responsive cameras in its class. The only major negative points are sub-par image quality in poor light at high ISO settings and very little manual exposure control.

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