Nikon surprised us last fall with the S8100, a compact zoom with the chops to actually turn out some decent low-light pictures. Camera buyers had been begging for something like it for quite some time, and while a few other models had come close, we thought Nikon was the first one to really nail it.
So it’s no surprise that Nikon followed up on that success with the S9100, a “big sibling” model that builds on the basics of the S8100: Same sensor, same engine, a similar design, but a much longer, 18x zoom lens tacked onto the front. Aside from a few tweaks here and there, not much has changed -- but the rest of the market has, with a large handful of similar models hitting shelves since January. Read on to see if the design still stands up.
Body & Design
The S9100 looks a heck of a lot like the S8100. It’s about the length and height of a smartphone, and about an inch thick -- small enough to fit in a pants pocket, but not a tiny camera. It’s a little bit heavy, but that heft makes it feel well-built. The 25-450mm (18x zoom) lens is exceptionally versatile for such a small camera. It’s tied with the Samsung WB700 for the largest zoom factor in the compact zoom class, and the telephoto range actually bests the Samsung. For a camera with low-light ambitions, the maximum aperture of f3.5 is a bit dim, but that’s an expected trade-off for such a long-zooming lens.
It's shaped like a brick, and almost everything about the design is a matter of function, nothing to clever or cutesy about it. The model we tested was entirely matte black, which is a cool look, though it’s also available in gold and red. A bright, 921,000-pixel, 3-inch LCD dominates the rear panel. This is as high-res as it gets on a compact camera, so kudos to Nikon for decking it out. The back is rounded out by a selection wheel, a few buttons for playback, menu access, and deleting shots, as well as a dedicated video-record button. Up top, the power button, shutter release, and mode dial are placed comfortably, with the zoom tilter in a recessed nook -- no complaints there. The stereo microphone aperture sits up top as well.
And thankfully, Nikon has addressed the pop-up flash issue that so many users have complained about on so many cameras from so many manufacturers. Instead of awkwardly popping up at power-on or when the camera deems it necessary, it releases only when users flip a switch. If the S9100 thinks that the flash should be up, a message appears on the LCD recommending so. The door is still situated where most shooters’ left fingers go, but at least the action is under user control. And in any case, it shoots pretty well indoors without the flash, as we'll get to later, so the flash should stay tucked in most of the time, anyway.
Finishing up our tour, a mini-HDMI output sits on the right side. On the bottom, there’s a somewhat flimsy battery door, and a port for the A/V and USB connectors. The latter feels awkwardly placed because it prevents the camera from standing upright while it’s charging or hooked up to a computer, but it’s a minor annoyance.
It’s also worth noting that the S9100 doesn’t ship with a separate charger -- in-camera charging only. Some folks like this set-up, since it keeps all the parts in one place, but others find it inconvenient. Shooters who like to keep a second battery handy should also plan to buy the optional external charger.
Performance & User Experience
Thanks to its backlit CMOS sensor, the S9100 is a nimble shooter. Startup takes a little over a second. It’s quick to focus in most settings -- and importantly, pretty consistently whether its in bright light or low light. Shot-to-shot times are very fast, too, even a bit quicker than most other BSI CMOS-based cameras at the moment. Burst mode is a bit of a letdown, though. It can pump out 9.5 frames per second at full resolution, but can only capture five frames in a row. So one half-second in time will be well documented, and users should be able to pull at least one good shot out of an action scene using this method. But compared to the burst modes we’ve seen on other BSI CMOS-based compact zooms this year, which can sometimes sustain rates of 10 fps or more for a few seconds, the S9100 can’t keep up.
Though it has the caché to appeal to some hands-on users, the S9100 is geared for mostly automatic operation. There are no Aperture or Shutter Priority manual exposure modes, or even a defined Program mode (though its Auto mode offers all the same adjustments as a traditional Program mode does). It was the same case with the S8100, and as more BSI CMOS cameras have trickled out in the following months, manual exposure modes have become more scarce in the class. It’s an unfortunate trend -- more control over a tool never hurt anyone -- and it'll basically eliminate the S9100 from any enthusiast's shopping list, but it's not uncommon by current standards.
The slots on the mode dial tend to highlight the S9100’s low-light capabilities: Night Portrait and Night Landscape each occupy one of the eight notches. Backlit mode gets another, and appears to use high-dynamic range (HDR) techniques to pull usable shots from the shadow world. Scene Presets and Easy Scene selector take up two more spots. There’s a dedicated burst mode notch, an effects mode notch, and Auto mode.
Menus are intuitive and easy to navigate with the selection wheel, though the options are sometimes a bit quirky. Some settings that would be buried deep in most cameras' user interfaces seem to crop up at the top here, like vividness and hue adjustments, for example. Adjusting either of those settings locks in the white balance, too. That's just one example of many quirks. While the S9100 is as easy to pick up and shoot with as any compact zoom out there, users that will want to experiment with more hands-on settings should give the manual (included on a CD) a thorough reading.
Overall, the S9100’s user experience is a positive one. It’s quick, intuitive, and for what it’s worth, has a bit of personality. It has a similar feel as last year’s S8100, which is a good thing. The only limiting factor is that there are at least a half-dozen other compact zooms in the same vein, whereas there were only two others just six months ago. The S9100 doesn’t seem quite as special as its predecessor did, but it does benefit from the extra generation of design experience, and it's still fun to use.
Image & Video Quality
As we’ve come to expect from cameras with these BSI CMOS sensors, the S9100 performs well in a variety of settings, and the image quality is pretty good for the price, but with a few big caveats.
One of the most worthwhile characteristics of BSI CMOS sensors is the high ISO performance. That translates, loosely, to better low-light shooting. The S9100 is far from a foolproof low-light shooter, but it does better than a lot of cameras. At ISO 800 and even 1600, where older cameras (and even some newer CMOS shooters) would turn shots into grainy, desaturated messes, the S9100 manages to produce some decent results. Details are still pretty soft, almost painting-like, but less grainy than is typical of a compact camera, less likely to be blurry, and generally eye-pleasing. Regardless of noise, indoor and low-light shots just tend to expose better on the S9100 than most other digital cameras. Concert pics and birthday party shots should look pretty good, more often than they would with most cameras, at least.
The trade-off for that better high-ISO performance seems to be more mediocre low-ISO performance. Pictures aren’t bad at all. Details just look a little softer than they could be -- that’s a characteristic at all ISO sensitivities, and seems to be the case with pretty much all of these CMOS compact zooms.
Like its predecessor, the S9100 seems to mute colors a bit, though not as obviously. So while it’s a very good low-light and indoor shooter, it’s just average outdoors in bright light. In cloudy conditions, shots have a pale, washed-out quality -- that can be a challenging setting for many cameras, but the S9100 seems to have some extra difficulty. Of course, color is highly subjective, so what we consider to be flat and dull, somebody else could just consider neutral -- compact cameras tend to vivify colors, so it could just be that Nikon errs on the side of accuracy compared to their competitors.
Some other image quality issues pop up, though they’re pretty typical for this class. Green and purple fringing are a problem in high-contrast situations -- tree branches against a cloudy sky, for example. Wide dynamic ranges cause problems as well; it tends to overexpose highlights (the bright sections of a picture), especially when there are darker areas in the frame. Lens distortion does not appear to be a big problem in our test shots.
In short, the S9100 will not blow anyone away with its picture quality. But it is one of the better long zoomers out there for eye-pleasing low-light shots. Its shots -- in all situations -- are suited well for sharing online and even medium to medium-large prints. Many shots can work as big ol’ prints too, but users will have to judge on a case by case basis.
The S9100 also shoots 1080p video at 30 frames per second. Its low-light still-photo capabilities hold up well in the realm of moving pictures. It supports optical zoom (somewhat noisily) during video mode, and the stereo mic handles a wide range of volumes, from crushing heavy metal concerts to ambient noise.
Anyone in the market for a versatile carry-anywhere camera should consider the Nikon S9100. It has the longest zoom range of any pocket-sized camera out there. It’s quick, easy to use, and handles itself pretty well in a wide range of shooting situations -- it’s particularly easy to get good low-light shots.
Some users won’t like the flat color output, particularly casual shooters who are used to the vibrant, saturated colors that most compact cameras produce), and more picky photographers will find fault with some of the other moderate image quality issues, as well as the lack of manual exposure control.
And in the grand scheme of the compact zoom class, it’s harder to recommend this camera than it would’ve been in 2010. When the S8100 came out, it was literally one of three BSI CMOS compact zooms, and the best of the bunch. Now there are plenty of them. We're still giving it a slightly higher grade than we gave the S8100; though the image quality is slightly better, the mark remains the same in that category because the competition caught up since we reviewed the S8100. But the S9100 obviously has a better build, with the extra-long zoom range and design tweaks like the pop-up flash release, so that mark is higher, and one of the best in the class.
Still, it isn't the best compact zoom for everyone. The Canon SX230 offers the best all-around experience, though it's pretty expensive. The Fujifilm F500EXR and F550EXR take the best pictures and offer the most manual control (the F550 also packs GPS and RAW capture). There are a few worthy “budget” compact zooms, too. That said, the S9100 is still an incredibly compact camera, hitting all the marks that that casual photographers tend to look for in their all-in-one shooters. Recommended.