Nikon COOLPIX S3
- Sharp shots
- Buggy autofocus, equally buggy blur detection
An average camera for the average user. The S3 isn't a bad choice, it takes some fairly good snaps, has most of the basic functions...but so do most of its competitors.
Price$ 599.00 (AUD)
After you've seen forty or fifty digital cameras, it becomes increasingly difficult to find something new and exciting to talk about. There are plenty of models with original and interesting features, or exceptional image quality, and those are great, but for every one of those there are two or three that are decidedly ordinary, offering nothing that really differentiates them from the pack. Nikon's S3 falls firmly into the later category. It is an average quality point and shoot which will satisfy many consumers, but offers less overall than many of its competitors.
The design is typical of modern a Nikon camera; a large 2.5" screen, with the controls laid out in a simple fashion on the right; operating with a standard directional pad and menu buttons setup. They are responsive and fairly intuitive. The unit itself is cased in a pearly combination of metal and plastic (although it is also available in black), and looks original enough to get noticed, although it is not particularly appealing. It is quite a light model, sporting an average sized design that will be more than portable enough for most people.
Image quality was hit and miss, with some real strengths in certain areas, but some obvious weaknesses in others. The S3's 6.1 megapixel sensor is capable of taking some very detailed shots. In high light conditions, with the flash operating, image clarity and sharpness was impressive. Certain sections of our test shots (such as some of the ports on our motherboard) blurred a small amount, but the majority of edges were sharper than average. In lower and softer light however, image noise became a serious problem, and areas of detail all blurred into each other. Thankfully the noise was not huge, in terms of size, but it was consistent, which means the shots will probably still be suitable for 4x6 prints, but not much larger.
Colour representation was similarly inconsistent. In many situations shots were overexposed, leaving faded, washed out hues, but in the right lighting conditions they improved considerably. Blue seemed to be the colour that presented the S3 with the most trouble, looking a little pale regardless of what we did, but we were happy with our overall results. The only other thing to look out for is some very minor purple fringing in high light situations. It was noticeable close up, but will not pose a serious problem unless you are looking for it.
Shutter lag was one of the S3's strengths. In our tests, it took a mere .05 to .1 of a second to snap off a shot. Power-up is similarly speedy, at about 1 second, and it took about 1.5 seconds to write pictures to the memory. After a number of shots however, this seemed to degrade, to the point where it was 3 or more seconds before we could snap our next picture, so keep that in mind if you take lots of shots in short succession.
The slowest element of the camera, and one of our biggest complaints was the speed and quality of the autofocus. We've noticed it in a few previous Nikons, but the S3 really cemented it. When holding the camera in a normal, two handed grip, you can feel the lens focussing through the chassis, in the bottom, left corner. It causes the whole camera body to shake and makes it quite unpleasant to use over long periods of time. We found the focussing a little slow compared to similar models we've seen recently, which is probably also a result of this design flaw.
The S3 offers a standard array of Nikon features. There are white balance, focus, ISO and exposure options, as well as a lightning quick continuous shot function that fires roughly 2 shots a second for 8 shots. The 15 scene modes presented more than enough options to sate the amateur photographer, and the best shot mode rounded out the feature-set; taking ten photographs, then picking the sharpest image, which ensures the best capture of a specific subject, if you can wait for all ten shots to fire.
We've looked at a few Nikon cameras in the last little while, and all of them have had one poorly implemented feature that we prayed would be fixed on this unit. Sadly we were disappointed. Again we were plagued with Nikon's "blurry image" recognition software. Whenever you take an image the camera deems to be blurry, it warns you, and asks if it should keep the shot or simply delete it. Sounds like a great ideas right? Of course it does, except when it detects shots that were taken on a tripod, in a professional lighting situation, with no room for human error, as blurry. The function can thankfully be turned off, but it needs some serious work before it will work properly.
We managed about 250 shots from the rechargeable lithium-ion battery included with the S3, which is about average. It won't win any awards for battery life, but 250 shots is enough to satisfy most happy snappers.
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