Nikon's Small Wonder
By Burt Helm
The Good Nice array of features; takes sharp, vivid photos
The Bad Cramped-feeling controls, images look blurry without the flash
The Bottom Line The S1 packs a lot of innovative features and great performance into a tiny package
Looking for a supersmall digital camera that still shoots photos like a pro? Me too. As part of a series that looks at slim and compact five-megapixel cameras, (see BW Online, 7/20/05, "A New Canon's Slight Misfire" and 7/13/05, "Konica Minolta Makes It a Snap"), today I'm taking a look at the Nikon Coolpix S1, which retails for $380. So far, this is a favorite. It's one of the slimmest cameras I've reviewed, and it also takes some of the best pictures.
The S1 has a sleek, silver body and is about the size and shape of an Altoid tin, roughly 3.5 by 0.8 by 2.3 inches. It has a 2.5-inch liquid-crystal display in the back. The front is completely smooth, save for two dime-sized holes in the upper right-hand corner, for the flash and the lens, giving it a minimalist look. The camera has a 3x optical zoom, with the mechanism embedded within the camera so nothing ever protrudes from the slim rectangular shape.
The layout of the camera's controls, however, is not as slick as the rest of the design. The back of the S1 is a jumble of small buttons and symbols, and it's hard to tell which goes with which. After some trial and error I could adjust the settings, view and delete pictures, and tweak things like the exposure without much difficulty -- but it never felt intuitive or completely comfortable.
While the physical buttons weren't laid out well, Nikon did a great job with the digital user interface. Menu screens were straightforward, easy to navigate, and different camera settings were almost always self-explanatory. On the lower-right there is a small switch that moves the S1 into one of its three modes: manual still photo, video, and a "scene" mode with 16 different presets.
The S1's scene mode is the best I've seen on any of the cameras so far. Nikon thought up preset scenes that really help you take superior photos without much practice or manual-reading.
A preset called "indoor/party," for instance, coordinates a fast series of five flashes to light the background as well as your subject in the foreground. Unlike typical party photos, where the single flash overexposes peoples' faces while leaving total darkness behind them, the result is a well-lit, balanced picture that looks almost professional.
Other presets help with backlit shots, and the menu is easy to use and navigate. For the well-mannered tourist, there is even a "museum" mode that it disables the flash and all snapshot sound effects to keep you from disturbing others.
Not all of the presets work perfectly. A shot I took of a pond in Central Park, for instance, was far sharper with everything set to "auto" than with the "landscape" scene switched on.
The S1 also provides a great deal of help in setting up shots. When you select "night portrait," for instance, a submenu asks where you plan to position the subjects, so that it can arrange the lighting and focus accordingly.
These submenu screens are arranged intuitively, and it's easy to set up many specific focus, flash, and exposure combinations without knowing much about photography or spending time studying the advanced features section of the instruction manual.
And if you're in a hurry, you can always just switch over to the manual mode, leave all the settings on auto, and take quick snapshots that way.
Photo quality on the S1 was excellent. Colors were bright and vivid, and it took very sharp-looking pictures in many different settings and conditions.
On the downside, it did have trouble shooting a focused image with the flash turned off, and pictures taken with the flashless museum mode often came out blurry. The video feature was also not too impressive, and took grainy images -- but that wasn't too surprising for such a small camera.
All in all though, the S1 was great for an amateur photographer like me. While I do have a few complaints about the control layout, and shots without the flash, it has a wide range of practical extras, is simple to use, and takes great photos. There's not much more you could ask for.
Helm is a reporter for BusinessWeek Online in New York