Review: Nikon Coolpix S6100

Categories: Photography, TechReview
Comments: 12 Comments
Published on: 2011.06.13

UPDATE: In mid-2012, the lens cover became stuck, and wouldn’t open all the way. By fall, the camera was exhibiting other issues as well, such as turning off suddenly during use, failing to take a picture when the shutter button was pressed, etc. Since this was our second consecutive CoolPix to fail just after a year of light use, we’ve switched brands. Our next compact will be a Canon PowerShot.

As mentioned on my other blog, my wife and I recently ordered and received a Nikon Coolpix S6100, replacing our defunct Coolpix P60.

Nikon Coolpix S6100
(Copyright © 2011 by Wil C. Fry. All rights reserved.)

It should be noted that our primary cameras are digital SLRs, the Canon 350D and 400D (Rebel XT and XTi, respectively). Almost all my images, including the one above, are taken with one of our Canon DSLRs. I believe full manual control, the ability to switch lenses, much larger sensors, a flash hot shoe, the ability to shoot raw, and other characteristics of DSLRs make them indispensable for anyone serious about photography.

(8 more images after the jump)

But we always keep a compact camera (“pocket camera”) on hand for those occasions when it’s not convenient or not allowed to use a DSLR. For many moments, I’d rather have a low-quality picture rather than no image at all.

After a few days of mild normal-use testing (as opposed to extensive scientific testing), we’re pleased with this purchase. Following are a few of my initial impressions.

Specifications

* Sensor: 16 megapixels (1/2.3″ CCD)
* Lens: 7x optical zoom (5-35mm, equivalent to 28-200mm)
* LCD: 3-inch touch screen (460k dpi)
* Video: 1280×720 HD Video W/Stereo Sound (.mov format)
* ISO: manual control from 80 to 3200 (or auto-ISO)
* Auto-focus: face detection and subject tracking
* Macro: minimum focus distance as close as 1.2″
* Image stabilization: yes
* Shutter speed: 4 – 1/2000 seconds (auto only)
* Exposure compensation: -2EV to +2EV (in 1/3 stops)
* Self-timer: 2 sec. or 10 sec.
* Built-in flash: yes
* Hot shoe: no
* Memory: SD, SDHC, SDXC
* Battery: rechargeable lithium-ion pack

What I Don’t Like

I’ll list the downsides first, to get them out of the way.

First, I don’t like the touch screen controls. More accurately, I don’t like the lack of physical buttons for the menu and settings. I realize touch-screens are the current fad (and possibly the way of the future), but I prefer actual buttons. My fingers are thick, so I’m forced to use the included plastic stylus in order to access any settings on this camera.

Second, when recording video, the auto-focus apparently is disabled by default. Even when using the “full-time auto-focus video” setting, you’ll lose focus when you zoom in to a subject. This is poor design. Even cheap digital cameras ten years ago could auto-focus when zooming during a video.

Third, the plastic door that reveals the computer connection port and the battery charging port (they’re the same port) doesn’t open wide enough. I have to force it wider in order to plug in the charging cable. I’m guessing this door will be the first thing to break on this camera.

Fourth, as with many compact digital cameras, this one doesn’t have a hot shoe. But you have to double the price to get one that has a hot shoe. I realize camera-makers don’t offer this in order to keep the size/weight to a minimum, but I still think it should be standard on even the smallest cameras.

Fifth, the video format is .mov. That might not bother you, but it bothers me. Instead of sticking with a standardized video format, Nikon chose to go with a proprietary one that requires Apple’s Quick Time software, one of the most offensive and annoying pieces of software I’ve ever used (and one that I permanently uninstalled years ago). Fortunately, I was able to find freeware software that will play .mov videos without the annoying qualities of Quick Time.

Lastly, the “digital zoom”. Camera-makers have been including this “feature” for more than a decade now, but it’s worse than useless. It’s useless because it’s no better than cropping and enlarging during post-processing. It’s worse, because it fools users into thinking their camera has better zoom than it does. By definition, “zoom” is a function of the lens, and the term shouldn’t be used for an in-camera crop/enlarge function. We always disable this function as soon as we buy a compact camera.

What I Like

I like that this camera comes in various colors. I know, it’s a petty thing, but the black-only choice for DSLRs gets pretty boring. As pictured above, we ordered the “violet” version of this camera.

Despite my complaint above about the lack of physical buttons on the camera, I do like that you can hold the camera without touching a bunch of buttons. (Some older compacts had so many buttons spread out over the back and top of the body that you could barely hold them.)

Nikon Coolpix S6100
(Copyright © 2011 by Wil C. Fry. All rights reserved.)

The face-detection auto-focus works well. When you press the shutter halfway, the camera automatically detects any faces in the frame, and focuses on the closest one. If there are no faces, it detects objects within view and focuses correctly. Sure, I’d prefer a little more control over where the focus lands, but that’s not the point of compact cameras.

The zoom range is just about right. Some compacts don’t go wide enough for my tastes and some don’t go long enough. As noted above, this camera goes from (equivalent) 28mm to about 200mm, which is a very nice range for photography. On my 1.6x crop-sensor DSLRs, this is the same field of view I get with my 18-125mm Sigma lens, which is my favorite all-purpose lens.

Compare:

Wide Angle Water in the Eye
(Copyright © 2011 by Wil C. Fry. All rights reserved.)

The image at left is fully wide, while the right one is fully zoomed. The camera and subjects were at the same distance for both shots, and neither image has been edited in any way. In the left image, you can see quite a bit of foreground (my pasty white legs) as well as the surroundings. In the right image, you can see only the subject. It’s nice to have this choice.

Two more for zoom comparison:

Wide Angle Fun In The Sun
(Copyright © 2011 by Wil C. Fry. All rights reserved.)

This time, the camera was much further from the subjects. The left image shows almost the entire swimming pool, the fence, and the neighborhood in the background. The right image shows only the out-of-shape white guy and his beautiful daughter.

I also like the color rendition, which is something I’ve always liked about Nikon compact cameras. Whether outdoors, or indoors without flash, the colors seem very accurate.

No Flash Test
(Copyright © 2011 by Wil C. Fry. All rights reserved.)

The above image depicts our living room. The camera chose 1/8 as the shutter speed and ISO400. Combined with vibration reduction, the image came out clearly and with extremely accurate color.

However, when using flash indoors, I found the color cast to be off ever so slightly (but still close enough for general use). Some images came very close, like the example below, while others were much too “warm” in appearance.

Eating a Necklace
(Copyright © 2011 by Wil C. Fry. All rights reserved.)

This camera also offers manual control of ISO sensitivity, up to 3200. Here’s an example at ISO3200:

ISO3200 Test
(Copyright © 2011 by Wil C. Fry. All rights reserved.)

I wouldn’t recommend using it; the noise-reduction software makes the resulting image look pretty crappy. But there are times when ISO3200 can allow you to get an image that you couldn’t otherwise capture. Again, the vibration reduction helped stabilize this image, which was shot in very low light at 1/30 second.

Conclusion

This is the camera we expected it to be. It takes sharp, clear, perfectly colored images when used outdoors or in great light. The HD video offered is a step above our last compact camera (as long as we don’t do a lot of zooming when using video) and will greatly compliment our camcorder for videoing aspects of our lives.

It’s small and light so we can take it anywhere. The flash can be disabled for use in museums or other situations where flash isn’t allowed.

If I need absolute control of my images or require off-camera flash, I’ll use one of my DSLR bodies. But this camera will help fill in the gaps nicely. The downsides are few and mostly expected, so they don’t worry us much.

(For my own reference: purchased this camera June 2011 from B&H.)

12 Comments
  1. Richard says:

    Did you happen to calculate how many images it would make on a 64GB SDXC card? A drillion?

    Compact cameras have improved even more than DSLRs in the last ten years. My first digital compact, the 2002-era Nikon Coolpix 885, which Abby nicknamed R2D2 after its chattering, was fairly primitive. Abby and I currently carry Olympus compact cameras (though I have an older Canon), but I think they are all amazingly capable in the right hands.

    Good news: modern medicine can address think-fingeredness. ;>)

    http://richardbarron.net/cameras/2010/02/28/everyones-favorite-droid/

  2. Wil C. Fry says:

    “Compact cameras have improved even more than DSLRs in the last ten years”

    Yes, I’d agree with that. Fortunately, some of the improvements designed for compacts are now showing up in DSLRs (swivel screens, better noise reductions, etc.)

    My 2003 Sony Cybershot was very limited (but could still AF while zooming in video mode…)

    As for the cards, we bought an 8 gig SDHC card (which required a new card reader for us too). I haven’t yet made a dent in its storage capacity. :-)

  3. Shari says:

    Wil, Are you still happy with this camera?
    We are looking to get something under $150 for Taryn. Last night I looked at reviews for several, including the Nikon S6100, and the reviewer said the images (even at ISO 80) showed noise at 100% image size (when viewing on a computer, for instance, or printing at 8×10 or more).
    It also pointed out that there is no external charger for the battery (meaning you have to plug in the camera to charge it?). This seems like a very bad thing.
    Taryn isn’t really interested in taking video, so I didn’t worry about that part..
    I didn’t see anything about shutter lag, fps, or other indications of speed of use.
    Thanks for your help.
    Shari

  4. Wil C. Fry says:

    @Shari:

    Viewing at 100% isn’t really recommended for any camera’s output, even DSLRs. I recommend viewing images at a “normal” distance, depending on size of the image. For a wall poster, you view from a few feet away. For a 4×6 print, you view several inches away. For a billboard, you view from hundreds of feet away…

    Specifically for this camera:

    My main complaint is with the auto-focus during video — it fails often, especially if you zoom while filming. But you said she’s not interested in video… (and filmographers recommend not zooming during filming anway…)

    As for noise, I’ve been very happy with it, especially considering the price range. Here’s an example at ISO3200:
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/saintseminole/5826591238/

    At more “normal” ISO ranges (80 through 400), we haven’t noticed the noise.

    re: shutter lag

    It seems normal for compact digital cameras of today (faster than my compacts of a few years ago, slower than my DSLR).

    re: fps

    I haven’t used it on burst mode, but Nikon claims it gets 1.2 fps for a total of 2 images. *Shrugs* Except when shooting sports or birds-in-flight, I can’t imagine a need for burst mode, and it’s something I rarely use even on my DSLR.

    The Photography Teacher in me would say: arrange elements, compose, re-check composition, press shutter. That takes more than a second anyway, especially for a beginner.

    re: other indications of speed of use

    It activates quickly when you turn it on (ready to take pictures in about 1.5 seconds). After taking a picture, it’s ready to take the next one as soon as the first one is displayed on the rear screen.

    re: battery charger

    You read correctly. The charger plugs directly into the camera, which is fairly common for cameras of this (tiny) size. The battery itself is so small that it doesn’t seem practical to remove it each time you want to charge. I wouldn’t consider this a “bad” thing, just a mild inconvenience.

    With my DSLR, the only times I ever switched out batteries, continued shooting, AND charged the dead battery at the same time were during all-day sporting events. Most times when I’m charging the battery, I’m also not using the camera anyway.

    Hopefully, I answered your questions to your satisfaction.

    We knew when we bought it that a camera at that price will come with sacrifices, but it’s a pocket camera. ;-)

    For a beginner (assuming Taryn is still considered a “beginner”), what’s much more important at this stage is learning how to stage the elements in a photo — foreground, background, main subject, location of light, etc. — and then composing the image so it will be pleasing to the eye. She can definitely learn that with any compact camera on the market.

    And IF she DOES learn that, her images will already be better than most of mine. :-)

  5. Shari says:

    Thank you for the very detailed answer. I respect your opinion, and this information helps a lot.

  6. Wil C. Fry says:

    @Shari:

    Upon re-reading my answer above, I see that my tone might have been too dismissive of certain features which customers are taught to examine.

    Please keep in mind that Marline and I have only owned a combined total of five digital compact cameras: Nikon (3), Olympus (1), and Sony (1). And we’ve tested Mom & Dad’s Sony quite a bit. Personally, I like the images from Mom & Dad’s camera more than the images from our Nikon S6100, but only slightly (and I think their camera cost more).

    And it’s difficult to be objective about such low-end cameras after years of shooting with DSLRs. I try to take the high road and only see the good features of such cameras, but I still think my answers above are accurate.

    (And I forgot to mention that Marline is still mad at me for ordering the purple version of this camera. I can no longer count on one hand the things like this that she keeps bringing up… ;-)

  7. Blood says:

    Just came across this when I was researching my camera and it was a good read!

    How do you find the quality of pictures taken with max zoom on the following scenarios:

    – moving (not too extreme) objects at sunlight
    – moving objects at dim / artificial lighting (probably indoors)
    – low light conditions (both non-moving and moving objects)

    For low light conditions, if zooming in from far, should you use flash? Also, regarding the video Full-Time Focus, I also find it quite annoying that at times, it will be unable to focus. What I do now is, I set to Single-Time Focus, max zoom, then press record. I find it quite consistent even when zooming in or out.

    Lastly, how do you deal with the shutter lag? I see in the specs that max shutter speed of S6100 is 1/2000, but all I get usually are 1″, 1/3, 1/25, and best I got I think is 1/60.

    Thanks very much!

  8. Blood says:

    Also, a follow-up, which do you prefer? Auto-Mode or Scene-Auto Selector Mode?

  9. Wil C. Fry says:

    @ Blood: Thank for the questions; I’ll try to answer them one at a time.

    “How do you find the quality of pictures taken with max zoom on the following scenarios:”

    The three sub-questions there all have the same answer: It’ll be the same with any camera on auto settings. In sunlight, the camera will choose a faster shutter speed, freezing the action. In indoor/low lighting, it’ll have to use a slower shutter speed, so you’ll have blur (both from the motion of the subject, and from camera shake).

    This isn’t related to the Nikon S6100 specifically, but to general principles of photography and exposure. With a camera that uses manual settings, you can choose the exposure values that you like, but they still have to add up to a proper exposure.

    “For low light conditions, if zooming in from far, should you use flash?”

    For most cameras with a built-in flash, the built-in flash isn’t powerful enough to light up anything at a long distance.

    A lot of your questions seem to deal with a combination of low light and zoom. If you’re going to be taking pictures in low light (indoors/night) and plan to be zooming a lot, I would not recommend any point-and-shoot camera on today’s market. They simply aren’t made for that.

    Low-light photography can be a huge challenge, and I’ve covered that more extensively in a separate entry.

    “Lastly, how do you deal with the shutter lag? I see in the specs that max shutter speed of S6100 is 1/2000, but all I get usually are 1″, 1/3, 1/25, and best I got I think is 1/60.”

    The settings you mention are not related to “shutter lag”. They are shutter speeds, also known as “time value” or “exposure time”. Shutter lag is the time between (a) pressing the shutter button and (b) the shutter actually opening. All point and shoot cameras have varying degrees of shutter lag, and it usually gets longer when shooting in low light, since it’s harder for the lens to autofocus.

    The shutter speeds you mentioned all indicate that you’re shooting in low light. In bright sunlight, the S6100 will use faster speeds. Here are some examples from sunny days:
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/saintseminole/5825615365/ (1/1000 sec.)
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/saintseminole/5825627517/ (1/2000 sec.)
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/saintseminole/5825633351/ (1/400 sec.)
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/saintseminole/6023010385/ (1/1250 sec.)

    In each case, the camera chose the correct exposure value for the shutter speed, based on the amount of light. If the camera is choosing 1/3 sec., that means barely any light is hitting the sensor and you’re not shooting in daylight.

    “Also, a follow-up, which do you prefer? Auto-Mode or Scene-Auto Selector Mode?”

    To be honest, I haven’t changed that setting in our S6100. Whatever the default out-of-the-box setting was, that’s what I used.

  10. Bloodfire says:

    Hey! Thanks so much for taking the time to patiently answer my questions, and very helpful and easy-to understand! It gave me lots of insight since even though I am not an aspiring professional, at least now I know details on how-and-why things happen.

    Again, thank you very much for your help! Hope you continue being awesome at being helpful and informative!

  11. Wil C. Fry says:

    @Bloodfire:

    You’re welcome.

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