When it came time to take the Nikon Coolpix S8000 out of the box, I have admit that I was a little nervous. I think I can safely blame that on the marketing department. This camera, which is hybrid of powerful features on a tiny body, is being sold to technophiles the world over with tag lines like "the world's slimmest 10x zoom camera."
Well, in spite of my irrational love for digital cameras in general, I'm the furthest thing from a technophile. I still have a cassette player in my car, so tech-heavy hype like that can be intimidating. When I pick up a new camera my first thought is not, typically, "how do I work this," but rather, "how do I keep from breaking this?"
Design and Handling
I shouldn't have worried, though. While it is indeed tiny, and it is indeed slim, the S8000 is well designed and feels sturdy. It's lightweight and plastic, but the narrow body remains easy to grip, and the weight of the lens on the front balances it nicely in your hands. Within the first few minutes, I forgot that I was holding the “world's most” anything right in the palm of my hand (almost literally).
I spent about a week with this camera. The first thing I'll say is this: I liked this camera better after a week than when I first started to shoot. That doesn't sound like it would be surprising, since as you get to know a camera you'd think it'd be natural to enjoy it more, but for me it typically works in the opposite direction. The more I know a camera, the more of its limitations I discover and the less impressed I am by the selling features that made me pick it up in the first place.
The handling is a point in the S8000's favor. It made more sense the more that I used it. On first go-around, I found the layout of buttons and controls to be a bit confusing. I'm not too familiar with the Coolpix line in general; maybe someone who is would find this layout normal. But after a day of fumbling around, it all seemed intuitive, and I didn't need to break out the manual to learn how to turn anything on or off. It's a good sign that it's logically designed.
The lens is one of the main selling points and biggest distinguishing features of this camera. Yes, it's a 10x zoom, and yes, that is indeed impressive considering the size of the body. It's nowhere close to a super-zoom, of course, and there are other pocketable cameras with larger zooms. But if you want something that slips into your purse or pants pocket and still gets you pretty close to the action, then you can't do much better than the S8000. The wide angle of the lens is another huge bonus, and it's fast-operating and smooth, too.
1x zoom (left) vs. 10x zoom (right).
This is an easy camera to use. Like most point-and-shoots, it has the standard auto mode, video recording in 720p, program mode, plus some extra scene modes (indoor, night shots, and all that). Scene Selector mode tries to pick the right scene mode for you, which, I have to admit, I've always considered a pretty silly option. I can't imagine a situation in which I'd have no idea if what I was shooting fell under Food or Fireworks Display, and would have to rely on my camera to decide for me.
But I digress. A Smart Portrait mode detects faces, fires automatically at smiles, softens skin, and, to be honest, resulted in photos that looked pretty much the same as Auto mode to me. Motion Tracker mode is meant to keep a moving object in focus, but was no match for my kitten. It might be able to focus on a less-active subject, like a swarm of angry bees, but all it gave me were several blurred shots of fur and angry eyes.
Low-Light And Flash ShootingSince I seem to be getting into the negative factors here, I might as well keep going, and list the two major things that irritated me about the S8000. Neither one should come as a surprise to anyone who's handled point and shoot digital cameras in the past, but I was nonetheless disappointed to find these issues still lurking on such a technophile-esque camera.
The first of the issues is, of course, low-light shooting. Now, I know it's difficult for a camera of this level to get quality low-light shots. It's possible, of course (see Panasonic and Fuji). But for the most part the image quality is going to degrade, and graininess and muddy color and poor focus, will plague any low-light shooting. I guess I just expected this camera's performance to be better than it was, especially with such a bloated price tag. From what I know of the Coolpix line, this has always been a major Achilles heel, and it's unfortunately no different with the S8000.
A strange side note to that, though: there were certain low light shots that, out of nowhere, out-performed themselves. I never did figure out what combination of factors caused it, but occasionally a shot I fully expected to be ruined by image noise would glow forth in warm, clear, antiquey color and soft (but not blurry) details, absolutely gorgeous, like a landscape at sunset. It was a remarkable effect. Unfortunately there was no rhyme or reason to when I got that result versus the static-filled, washed-out, sickly-looking poor quality shots, so there was no way to recreate it. Bottom line, though, is that you can't rely on the S8000 for low-light shooting.
So, if you can't shoot in low light, what's your other option when ambient lighting is running low? The flash, of course, which brings me to my next major complaint about this camera. Again, point-and-shoot veterans probably saw this one coming. Seriously camera manufacturers: is there a reason that point and shoot cameras are enthusiastically loaded down with flashes bright enough to illuminate a Hollywood movie soundstage? The kind of flash that makes car alarms go off a block away and turns human faces into white glowing zombie masks?
Maybe it's just me – I do admit I'm not a fan of flash in general, and anything except very gentle, subtle illumination looks glary and artificial to me. But honestly, the flash on this camera, which is a pop-up on the top of the body, is so strong that you can stand across the room from your subject, and still get a white-hot spot of light reflected on its forehead. And the background behind the item is inevitably thrown into heavy shadow, which makes the spotlight effect even worse. It's the most frustrating thing.
The S8000 doesn't offer any adjustments for flash intensity, either, although playing with the fill-in and slow-synchro options might get you somewhere. But most of the time, if you detest the effect like I do, you'll probably find yourself risking blurry photos and grain rather than turning on the flash and being disappointed with the results.
Is There An Upside?
I'm starting to sound like I didn't like this camera, aren't I? I'll admit, the things about it that didn't impress me are pretty major problems. Image quality in general is, after all, the most important factor behind a camera purchase, and the image quality of the S8000 isn't all bad. It better not be, for a $260 camera.
Aside from blurry low-light and blown-out flash photos, I'd rate the S8000's images well above average, even excellent in some respects. Daylight and natural light photos are crisp and detailed without looking over-worked, colors are vivid but natural, and the camera has a great capability for picking up on the "atmosphere" of light in a shot and translating it into the photo. They're realistic, true-to-life images, where the photo you capture is very close to what you saw in front of you, and that's much more complicated and difficult to find in a point and shoot than you might expect.
As a caveat to that, I should note: the LCD of this camera is nice and sharp, but has very dull color, so don't let it fool you. Once you shoot a photo you'll see a striking difference in color between what you saw on the viewscreen before you pushed the button and how the photo appears afterwards. In other words, don't be put off by the LCD; pay attention to the true scene in front of you instead, since it's much closer to the photo you'll get. The screen does the job in terms of letting you frame the shot, but has very little to do with what the image sensor actually records in terms of tone and quality.
In summary, if you're in the market for a camera, and not looking in particular for a large zoom lens on a pocket body, then don't buy the S8000. On the other hand, if you're a technophile and love the idea of shooting with the world's slimmest 10x, then the S8000 could win your approval. You'll get decent, but not great performance and results. Bottom line: You can do better, for less money, and be more satisfied with what you get from a different camera.