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Nikon Coolpix S5 review

The latest addition to Nikon's expanding range of digital compacts in the S-range is the Nikon Coolpix S5, an ultra slim 6-megapixel model with a strong metal body. It combines simplicity of operation with high-quality image performance and a multitude of scene exposure modes while using a new Pictmotion photo sharing technology for in-camera slide shows with smooth transitions and added music.

frontal view of Nikon Coolpix S5 rear view of Nikon Coolpix S5

The Coolpix S5 incorporates a Nikon ED f/3.0-5.4 35-105mm optical zoom lens with 12 elements in 10 groups and a range of in-camera features such as Nikon's D-lighting technology as well as in-camera Red-Eye Fix. Its sister model the Nikon S6 even comes with built-in Wi-Fi for wireless photo transfer to MAC or PC and an even bigger 3.0" LCD screen.

Using the Nikon S5

On our usual trip around the camera the first thing to notice is that there is no protruding lens barrel. The 3x optical zoom lens located in the top right hand corner at the front is completely internal. A small lens cover hides it from view when not in use. This non-extending lens makes for ultra quick start-up times and gets the camera ready to take pictures in just over a second.

sample image Nikon S5 sample image Nikon Coolpix S5

On the top plate we find the main controls such as on/off switch, shutter button and zoom control. What struck me was that all controls are very tiny, which makes precise handling with normal-sized hands rather awkward. Especially the minute zoom control is too small to operate with any degree of precision and would need a small finger with a very delicate touch. A special addition is the Face Priority button on the left which actually recognises the shape of a human face and automatically focuses on it. In playback mode this control is used to activate the D-lighting function, which improves under-exposed shots by brightening darker areas, to balance them with the lighter parts.

Holding the camera takes some getting used to as the ultra thin body with wave shaped contour does not provide much grip for single handed operation, whereas the position of the lens means that it is quite easy to cover it with your left index finger when holding the camera with two hands. Build quality is very good. The Nikon S5 feels solid and durable and all controls have that feeling of real quality to them, as we have come to expect from Nikon cameras.

The back of the camera is almost completely covered by the large 2.5" LCD screen with a scratch resistant acrylic covering. While this shiny protective layer does prevent damage to the screen it is also highly reflective, which makes framing images under less than ideal circumstances rather difficult. Note that there is no optical viewfinder on the S5, so you will need the LCD for all image operations. Next to the LCD is the large circular control dial which can be used as a conventional four-way controller but it can also rotate, which makes for very fast scrolling through camera functions or through your images in playback mode. Above this we find the delete button plus controls for image playback, record mode and camera menu. The menu is convenient to use as print is large and can easily be read even by those with less than perfect eyesight. The text can be substituted by pictograms or icons should you prefer that.

Pressing the Mode button selects the desired recording mode. Selections here include normal (green) recording mode, movie or voice recording and several Scene Assist modes such as Portrait, Landscape, Sport and Night Portrait. A further selection of 12 scene modes can be found by selecting Scene and pressing the menu button. These include options such as Party/Indoor, Beach/Snow, Close up, Museum, Panorama Assist or Fireworks among others. The icons here also provide quick access to exposure compensation in steps of 1/3 EV over 2 stops and image quality settings. Help for any menu function is available by pressing the Telephoto zoom button towards T(ele).

Scene Assist mode on the Nikon Coolpix S5 is rather special in that it provides welcome composition assistance for every scene chosen. In Portrait mode for example you can mark the type of portrait you want to take, such as duo portrait or single person left or right in the image and the camera will adjust settings accordingly. In Landscape mode you can tell the camera if you want to capture architecture or if the scene contains lots of sky and exposure is then adjusted accordingly. It is possible to fine-tune these settings by applying exposure compensation or by selecting different resolutions or quality settings.

Seeing that this camera is aimed at first-time shooters it is good to see that there are ample automatic functions such as automatic Red-Eye removal; Best Shot selector; an on-screen warning for camera shake at slow shutter speeds plus a multitude of handy Scene Assist modes. A nice touch of the blur warning system is that it does not only warn for camera shake at the capturing stage, but if the shot turns out to be unsharp, the camera will ask whether you want to keep the image or delete it. What is missing though is any information about apertures or shutter speeds used. So no clues here for more advanced users who would like to know what their camera is doing.

What the Nikon S5 excels at is Macro focus. It is possible to take frame filling macro shots as close as 1.6 inches from the lens. Without leaving macro focus the camera can focus all the way to infinity, so if that colourful bee buzzes off into thin air you could follow it all the way to the horizon. When using flash in macro the camera automatically reduces flash intensity to ensure the subject is not overexposed. For best results in Macro use of a tripod and self-timer will ensure the sharpest possible results.

In normal recording mode the last flash setting used will be remembered by the camera when it is turned off. This is not the case in macro mode which always resets flash to automatic as soon as the camera is switched on. When you press the shutter half way, a small but convenient indicator light on top of the camera will show if flash will fire or not, alerting you about the current flash status. In wide angle flash will cover a range of 0.3 to 2.6m, which at tele is reduced to 0.3 to 1.4m. There is also a handy Interval timer to take shots with intervals of 30 seconds to 60 minutes. This could be nice to record the opening of a spring flower over time or other time lapse subjects.

The new Face Priority AF mode, which is activated by the dedicated button on the top plate can recognise a human face and automatically focus on it, wherever the subject is positioned in the frame. This works OK in good light although it seems to be less effective when lighting conditions are low or the subject is looking away from the camera. Strong back-lighting or movement of the subject also seems to confuse the system. Arguably more useful is the D-lighting function which is activated by the same button in playback mode. This function will quickly and easily improve underexposed images by effectively brightening up darker areas by increasing the ISO setting for those parts. A consequence of higher ISO is that there will be more noise in those areas, although it could make the difference between a badly underexposed shot and a reasonable image.

In the Nikon Coolpix S5 box

Apart from the usual straps and cables, the Nikon S5 comes with a handy Quick Start guide plus an elaborate 95-page instruction manual which clearly explains all the finer things of the camera and how to put them to good use. The Nikon S5 buyer is provided with ample info about the all new Pictmotion function to show your images as slide shows with added music on TV or PC. There are many tips on what settings to choose in various image situations and direct printing is explained in great detail as well.

There is no SD memory card with the camera as the Coolpix S5 is equipped with 21Mb of internal memory, which could hold about 8 to 10 six-megapixel shots at its finest resolution. Considering the prices of memory cards today, a 1GB SD card would be a good investment with this camera. This should keep you happy for a week's holiday, shooting about one hundred 6-megapixel images a day.

The proprietary Li-ion EN-EL8 battery provides enough power for almost 200 shots between charges. As other manufacturers manage to get quite a bit more out of their power cells, our best advice with the Nikon would be to buy a spare battery and keep it charged at all times. Charging the battery takes about two hours and is done by placing the camera in the supplied Cool Station MV-14, which acts as a camera dock to send pictures to PC or printer or to connect the S5 to a your home television.

Software comprises Nikon's Picture Project CD-Rom for Windows or MAC to transfer and store images on your PC. Its functions include adjusting brightness and contrast and performing some basic imaging functions. Images can be arranged in folders according to date or subject or shared with others.

Image quality

The Nikon ED f/3.0-5.4 35-105mm optical zoom lens produces sharp results in the centre of the image throughout its range, but there is some notable vignetting in the extreme corners of the pictures. Also we noted that corners were definitely lacking in sharpness. The latter would not be too obvious in most day to day photo situations but vignetting will be clearly visible in images with uniform colours, such as the blossom image you can see here. There is no evidence of purple fringing in extreme contrast situations. A fair amount of barrel distortion is visible at wide angle, which slowly changes into some pincushioning when you zoom in. The amount of barrel distortion seems to be a bit more than what we have come to expect in cameras of this class.

note vignetting NORMAL COLOUR VIVID COLOUR

Focusing and exposures were perfect under all circumstances and there were no obvious problems with white balance settings. The automatic WB coped well during our tests and should you find yourself in difficult lighting situations you can use one of the five presets or resort to the Custom setting in combination with a grey card. The Nikon S5 has only one metering mode and this appears to be some form of matrix metering, which is perfectly adequate for all but the most demanding lighting situations. There is no histogram function as Nikon believe the novice user the S5 is intended for would not really need this anyway. Colour rendition is excellent with clean natural colours, which appear to be a bit less saturated than on some other compacts, although this is not necessarily a bad thing. In the end it is down to personal preference which you would prefer. Nikon's colours are nicely neutral in this respect.

iso 50 iso 100 iso 200 iso 400

Exposures are fully automatic and this will certainly appeal to most first-time users. However the enthusiast who would like control over shutter speeds for instance would have to resort to more complicated measures such as choosing Sports scene if they want to crank up shutter speeds, or Museum mode if they need longer shutter speeds. However this is beginning to sound like advanced photography class and that is not what the Nikon S5 was intended for anyway. The camera has a fixed aperture of f/3 and when there is more light, exposure is reduced by dialling in a neutral density filter, effectively reducing the aperture to f/8 at wide angle. ISO can be left on automatic, or you can manually choose settings from 50 to 400 ISO. Noise is well controlled and even at 400 ISO, where noise does become apparent its pattern is rather like film grain, making images perfectly usable.

Conclusion

Despite some rather obvious shortcomings such as the tiny controls and reflective LCD screen coupled to the average lens quality, the Nikon S5 would still make a nice addition to the family’s photographic gear as an elegant ladies' camera, to capture the kids at play or to record snapshots on holiday. Its durable built and solid construction will ensure many years of trouble free use although we feel the price is a bit steep compared to the competition. Despite some of its nifty gadgets though, the serious enthusiast would probably be more tempted to buy a model with a higher level of user control if they intend to take their hobby further.


Additional information: Nikon Coolpix S5 product details and other reviews
May 3, 2006

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