Nikon Coolpix S5100 Review
Due to strong similarities between the Nikon Coolpix S5100 and S640, many parts of this review where taken from the S640's review. In terms of specifications, the most significant difference between these two cameras is the S5100's ability to shoot 720p HDTV video.
The Nikon Coolpix S5100 is an ultra-compact digital camera with a 12 megapixels sensor, a 5X stabilized wide-angle optical zoom lens and a 2.7" LCD. It packs all this in a 0.9" slim body. The optical zoom lens has a versatile range equivalent too 28-140mm. The Nikon S5100 has a wide range of ISO sensitivities, from 100 to 3200.
Headline features of the S5100 are startup speed and short shutter-lag. Nikon has equipped this ultra-compact with technologies to improve speed and low-light performance while keeping the design simple. Exposure on the Coolpix S5100 is entirely automatic. Aside from +/- 2 stops of exposure-compensation, exposure is controlled by the camera alone. With a choice of center-weighed or evaluative metering, this camera shows little flexibility.
- 12 Megapixels sensor
- 5X Stabilized optical zoom, equivalent to 28-140mm
- ISO Sensitivity from 100 to 3200
- Shutter-speeds from 1/1500s to 4s
- Automatic white-balance, 5 white-balance presetsDaylight, Incandescent, Fluorescent, Cloudy and Flash and custom white-balance
- Evaluative and center-weighed metering
- Single (AF-S) or Contrinuous (AF-C) autofocus
- Auto, manual, center or face focus point selection
- Best-Shot-Selection and Multi-shot 16 modes
- Normal and macro focus modes
- Exposure compensation, -2..+2 EV, 1/3 EV steps
- 0.8 FPS continuous drive
- Self-timer, 2 or 10 seconds
- 1280x720 30 FPS 16:9 HD Movie mode
- Single or continuous autofocus while filming
- 2.7" LCD 230K Pixels
- Standard, vivid, b&w, sepia and cyanotype
- Smart portrait, Subject tracking, Panorama assist plus 16 other scene modes
Suitability - What is it good for?
This small ultra-compact distinguishes itself by a wide-angle lens which makes it suitable for photography in close-quarters. Landscape and architecture shots can greatly benefit from a wide-angle lens. The focal-length, being equivalent to 28-140mm in 35mm terms, should render flattering portraits and even more distant things.
While the Nikon S5100 is a general purpose point-and-shoot camera, its feature set is rather limited and gives almost no direct controls to the photographer. Custom white-balance and focus-point-selection are the main direct controls. Note that the shutter-speed range goes from 1/1500 to 4s. This is neither quick enough for fast action, nor long enough for night photography.
There is no optical viewfinder on the Nikon S5100 but its 2.7" LCD with 230,000 pixels is among the very best on an ultra-compact digital camera. The LCD shows really good outdoor visibility, thanks to an anti-reflection layer which also provides a broad viewing angle. The claims of higher contrast seem to hold true, as this display can show a good dynamic range, similar to that of images captured. This greatly helps judging if exposure is good or not. Also of great help is a live-histogram that appears when setting exposure compensation.
The Nikon Coolpix S5100 also records 1280x720 30 FPS HDTV video. This is known as 720p and has a wide-screen aspect ratio of 16:9. Video recording starts with the press of a dedicated button. Both single-shot or continuous focus modes are available during video recording. It has is a Panorama mode which helps take a sequence of images in any direction by locking exposure and focus. It does disable all settings including ISO, WB, Flash and drive-mode. At least we can now set EC before starting the panorama. The majority of remaining features are standard among this class of cameras. The ones that are not are covered in more detail in the next section.
Usability - How easy is it to use?
As the S5100 is one of the smallest cameras, its size is not without compromise. The build quality is excellent everywhere except for the flimsy but flexible battery-door compartment cover. The tiny rubber band covering the mini-USB connector does not look like it can use a lot wear-and-tear. Since this digital camera only recharges via USB, it will surely get a lot of use. Not only that, the camera is trapped while charging, requiring more care and fiddling if you want to keep more than one battery charged.
Its nice but its slippery front surface lacks any type of grip. On the rear, 5 protruding dots provide the only purchase on the camera. The included wrist-strap provides security from accidental falls. A poorly placed plastic tripod socket is found at one end of the camera casing.
The camera is powered by a recessed but easy to use button on the top-panel. Next to it is the shutter-button which has short travel and is quite responsive. The zoom is operated electronically via a rocker switch surrounding the shutter-release. There are 12 steps to the zoom which is a coarse granularity for a 5X optical zoom lens.
All other controls are easily accessible on the back of the camera. Thre the 4-way controllerhas an OK button in the center and 4 buttons around it, plus a dedicated movie-record button higher-up. There is no separate mode for recording video, when the button with the red dot is pressed, the Nikon S5100 starts recording about 2.5s later, when it is pressed again movie stops recording 1 second before the action. This means you must wait one second after the action you wish to record to get it all. Due to that the lack of a video mode, setting up the initial framing for recording video impossible as the 4:3 preview for taking stills does not match the 16:9 ratio of HD video.
The Camera/Scene button activates a mode-selection menu. In capture mode, it shows 4 vertical icons: Auto mode, the last used Scene mode, Smart portrait and Subject tracking. Use the up and down directions of the 4-way controller to select one of these. For the last used scene mode, the left and right directions can be used to change it to a different one. This way there are 18 choices, the first being the Auto scene selector mode, which selects among a few modes depending on light-levels and focus distance. This is followed by 16 typical modes and the useful Panorama-assist mode.
Panoramas can be taken in any of the 4 directions which is a very welcome feature. Once the direction is selected using the 4-way controller and confirmed with the OK button, EC can be adjusted and shooting can begin. This mode will help line up images properly by showing part of the previous image overlayed on the LCD. Nikon provides ArcSoft PanoramaMaker on a CD to produce panoramas from captured images. Since there is no other way to lock exposure and focus across images on the S5100, it is essential that images intended for a panorama be captured using the Panorama Assist mode.
The Smart Portrait mode groups a number of portrait features together. Face-detection controls focus and exposure. Faces are detected and the camera locks focus in just under a second. It does recognize faces unless even when not perfectly straight on. It recognizes drawings and caricatures too, although it was convinced my Logitech Z506 speakers had a face. There is also a skin softening feature which can be turned off or set to one of 3 levels. The softnening features makes people's skin look really smooth. When a low ISO is used, it can look reasonable, but when the camera selects a relatively high ISO, the image shows an abrupt change in noise-levels around faces. By default, the Smart Portrait mode turns on the Smile Timer which automatically takes a picture when it detects someone smiling. With the flash off, this is quick enough to take the picture before people stop smiling. With the flash on, you have to hold your smile until the picture is fully taken.
Subject tracking mode activates tracking autofocus. The user must point the camera to a subject and clicks OK, then tracking begins and ends when a picture is taken or the zoom controller is touched. In this mode WB and ISO are locked but you can still change EC and the Flash mode.
To enter playback mode, press the Play button. In playback mode, the Camera/Scene button returns to capture mode. This Nikon is a shooting-priority camera, so anytime the shutter button is pressed, the camera returns to capture mode. The Play button when already in Playback gives two options to sort images, either auto-sort which does so by capture mode or list-by-date which lists which images were captured on which date.
The Menu button obviously activates the current mode's menu. The Delete button works both in Shooting and Playback mode. In Playback mode it can affect the image shown, a selection of images or all images. In Capture mode it affects the last picture taken. In both cases, it asks confirmation before deleting the target image.
The central control is the 4-way controller. Each direction is assigned a function in Shooting mode. Up is for Flash-mode. Right is for exposure-compensation. Down is for macro-mode and Left selects the self-timer. A direction button invokes the list of options. To make a selection, either the vertical buttons or rotating dial must be used and the OK button must be pressed.
The 2.7" LCD shows each image after it is taken. There is no way to disable this. The viewing angle and anti-reflection coating are both very good. The S5100 uses SD or SD-HC memory cards, which are presently the cheapest and most common form of flash memory. Images are numbered in a standard form but the number keeps increasing even after changing the memory card. Not only is this rather annoying, there is also no menu option to reset the counter to zero. Then again, maybe only camera reviewers care about this.
Performance - How well does it take pictures?
Overall, the Nikon Coolpix S5100 performs nicely for a modern ultra-compact. Although its images do show noise from ISO 100, the noise pattern is fine and well under control. At ISO 400, medium-sized prints are still possible as only fine details get seriously affected. ISO 800 and 1600 can be used for small prints. ISO 3200 is not really usable.
Nearly every other aspect of image quality is quite good. Colors are rich and slightly oversaturated which will appeal the target market for this camera. Automatic white-balance is quite reliable. Even under artificial light, white-balance is rarely off by much. Metering is really superb, rarely needing exposure compensation. Distortion is low throughout the zoom range, showing only a hint of barrel distortion at wide-angle. The lens is sharp at the center of the frame with a some softness that increase towards the edges. Virtually no purple fringing was seen during the review period.
The most important aspect of the Nikon Coolpix S5100 is its speed. Focus times are quite fast for such a small camera. The lens zooms in and out quickly too. Shutter-lag is nearly instant. The screen blanks out after each picture for about 1 second, it takes another little while for the S5100 to be ready of another photo, meaning shot-to-shot speed is not impressive. Power on and off times are on the slow side too. The good thing is that this ultra-compact impresses with the most important speeds: focusing and shutter-lag.
At its best, the S5100 focuses in under 1/2s. It can do so consistently in good light for typical subject distances. It does slow down for macro focusing which can take up to 1s. Something that Nikon considerably improved over the S640, is that the S5100 manages to lock focus under most normal circumstances and rarely misses.
Most button pressed are acted upon quickly, particularly in camera mode. The notable exception is after taking a picture, it takes almost 3 seconds for the camera to be ready. Playback mode switches instantly between images. The pan-and-zoom function itself is very fast. The catch is that entering pan-and-zoom mode takes about 1 second. The camera probably loads the actual image at that time but uses previews before that.
Playback mode is very simple but does include image information and a luminance histogram, just press the OK button while an image is shown fully. There is a noticeable delay before the histogram appears and moving between images with the histogram visible is rather slow. When zoom-in, the OK button cancels the zoom, no need to zoom all the way out instead.
The continuous shooting is nothing short of useless. At 0.8 FPS it is very slow but the LCD does not even keep up, so shooting a moving subject is nearly impossible. The S5100's tiny flash is rather weak, so the camera has to boost the ISO to make it reach out under most circumstances. Setting the camera to a low ISO greatly reduces its reach. The camera's built-in image stabilization, called VR for Vibration Reduction, is very effective. As is macro focusing near wide-angle. Battery-life is short for a moden camera, with only 200 shots per charge.
The Nikon Coolpix S5100 is one of many ultra-compact point-and-shoot cameras with a wide-angle lens. This model manages to stand out by its fast and reliable autofocus system, something which is rare among such small cameras. This feature makes it more usable for moving subjects than other cameras in its class.
The remaining features are barely minimal and one can find many more capable ultra-compact digital cameras. This is no reason alone to dismiss the S5100 as it gives it simplicity and great usability. For the target user who rarely jumps into menu system, its basic point-and-shoot feature-set may be all that's needed. In fact, the S5100 makes the time between pointing and shooting quite short.
The image quality, without being top-of-class, is very reliable with reasonable noise-levels, rich color, very good white-balance and barely any optical distortion. This makes it easy to forgive the purple-fringing and other minor problems listed earlier. The only two weak areas are the long gap required between shots and below average battery-life.
The headline novelty compared to its precessor is this camera's 720p HD video recoding mode. This feature is unfortunately poorly implemented which makes using it rather frustrating, so it would be best to look elsewhere if HD video recording is truly important. Nikon has several other HD capable ultra-compacts available.
Competition wise, the undeniable superior to the S5100 is the significantly more complex Fuji Finepix F200 EXR which not only shows the most impressive image quality in its class but also a very complete feature set including manual exposure, a stabilized 5X wide-angle optical zoom and rather speedy overall performance. Compared to its predecessor, the S640, which nearly has the same feature set minus HD video recording, Nikon managed to improve usability and make the Nikon Coolpix S5100 more reliable.
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