Camera buyers want it all: Compact shooters with long zooms and great low-light performance for under $300. Because of a few principles called supply, demand, and physics, that’s a tough one to pull off.
But that hasn’t stopped enterprising camera manufacturers from trying. Sporting a 10x optical zoom, backlit CMOS sensor, and a price tag around $250, the Nikon Coolpix S8100 almost makes it happen. The results aren’t perfect, but it’s a pretty good compromise for the price.
Body and Design
The S8100 looks like a typical compact zoom, and is almost indistinguishable from the S8000, which was released in early 2010. 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 30-300mm (10x zoom) lens is a little bit narrow at the wide angle, but the telephoto setting is handy for nature shots. For a camera meant to shoot well in low-light, the max aperture of f3.5 is concerning, but that’s an expected trade-off for such a versatile lens.
The layout leans toward the sleek and minimalist end of the spectrum. The model I tested was entirely matte black, though it’s also available in gold and red. A vibrant, hi-resolution 3-inch LCD dominates the rear panel, rounded out by a few buttons (including a dedicated video record button) and a selection wheel, rather than a four-way pad. Up top, the power button, mode dial, and shutter release are placed comfortably, with the zoom tilter in a recessed nook -- no complaints there. On the right, there’s mini-HDMI output. On the bottom, a somewhat flimsy battery door, and a port for the A/V and USB connectors. The latter is not well placed, in my opinion, because it prevents the camera from standing upright while it’s charging or hooked up to a computer.
The S8100 suffers from one big design flaw: the irritating automatic pop-up flashes where my left fingers always rest -- judging by user comments, this design is unpopular with just about everyone on any camera. Thankfully, the S8100 is designed to shoot well in dim lighting without a flash, so you shouldn’t have to use it too often.
It’s also worth noting that the S8100 doesn’t ship with a separate charger. It’s in-camera charging only -- some folks like this set-up, since it keeps all the parts in one place, but others find it inconvenient. If you’re planning to buy a second battery, you’ll probably want to buy the optional external charger as well.
Performance and User Experience
The S8100 almost has the chops to be a semi-advanced compact, but the control scheme is made for casual users. The interface is stripped down and relies heavily on automatic settings. There are no Shutter and Aperture Priority modes, which are usually a staple of compact zoom cameras and a must-have for more serious, hands-on users. Even casual users will notice the lack of a Program (‘P’) mode on the dial, though the Auto mode basically functions like Program mode, and the Auto Scene mode is akin to a standard hands-off Auto mode.
In the place of the usual suspects, Nikon loaded up the mode dial with night-oriented modes, like Backlighting, Night Portrait, and Night Landscape. These modes basically just slow down the shutter speed and are available on most other cameras, but they don’t usually get their own notches on the mode dial. There are also separate notches for Subject Tracking (which only sort of works) and Continuous mode, which (no surprise) queues burst mode. It fires at 10 frames per second, but can only shoot five frames in a row. That lends itself to pretty limited usage, but it should be able to capture one decent still from an action scene.
The menu system is also a bit quirky. Some attributes that you’d normally find buried deep in a menu system (vividness and hue, for example) are adjustable in the top-level exposure compensation menu. Some attributes are mysteriously uncontrollable at times -- if you adjust the hue at all, for example, white balance is stuck on auto. Basically, read the manual. You should always read the manual with any gadget, but I get the impression from my experience editing this website that about half of you actually do -- that’s even a generous estimate. If you buy the S8100, read the manual.
So the control system is a bit of a paradox. Nikon wants to play up to the S8100’s strengths and simplify the control scheme for casual users. It works on a broad scale, but fine tuning is harder than it needs to be. Still, just because it’s different doesn’t mean it’s bad, and it succeeds in taking a lot of the pain out of low-light and nighttime shooting.
And for those who are interested, the S8100 has a slew of “that’s nice” features -- you might not ever use them, but they don’t hurt. It has features like in-camera touch-ups; Best Shot Selector, which takes three consecutive shots and picks the best one; high-speed capture at 1 megapixel; and the somewhat ballyhooed high-dynamic range (HDR) photography, which takes three consecutive pictures at three slightly different exposures, and creates a vibrant, richer-than-real-life image. It ends up looking a bit cartoonish, but it’s definitely striking.
Image and Video Quality
Since the low-light shooting is the headline feature on the S8100, lets get right to it. Here’s the thing. The low-light image quality isn’t really crisper than any other compact zoom, but it’s much easier to get a good exposure. In other words, you’ll actually be able to post those concert shots and birthday party pictures online without making everyone look like a blown-out ghost or blurry mess.
On closer inspection, it’s more complicated than simply saying “low-light quality is good.” It’s common to find details smeared like a watercolor painting. There isn’t much spotty noise until ISO 800, which is pretty standard. But even down at ISO 200, textures and edges lose sharpness. In this portrait (left, Chris), the subject looks good, the lighting is eye-pleasing, but the table in front of him and the wall behind him look like they were spread with a brush. There’s also a tendency to over-expose in brighter indoor conditions -- I suppose that’s part of the compromise that allows it to capture decent low-light shots, but it does require a little extra attention to detail, and perhaps a notch or two down on the exposure compensation scale.
In good, daylight shooting conditions, the S8100 is average. For simple shots, like landscapes or outdoor portraits, it’s nothing special, but totally fine. But even slightly more complicated settings throw it for a loop. Image clarity is fine and distortion is minimal, but the out-of-camera color seems cold. It has a particularly difficult time dealing with high-contrast areas, especially with the zoom extended. Take a look at the wide-angle/telephoto comparison below (click for full-res shots). At the wide-angle, the sky is blue, and the image is decently sharp and well-exposed. At the telephoto setting, the sky on either side of the clock is suddenly grey, and the purple fringing is front-and-center obvious. Most cameras will run into this problem, but it looks especially pronounced here.
30mm wide-angle (left) vs 300mm telephoto (right).
None of these flaws are necessarily deal-breakers. At medium sizes, it’s tougher to spot these issues, so if you stick to sharing photos online and occasionally printing some 5x7-inchers, you’re fine. And again, it’s probably the best low-light and indoor shooter with a decent zoom at its price. But it’s not a catch-all solution for night-time shooting. Dark shots hit more often than they miss, but you’ll have to look elsewhere, in a higher price bracket, if you want to make large prints of shots in concert halls, bars, or other late-night escapades.
The 1080p HD video quality is another hallmark feature on this camera, and it’s quite good. Nighttime video was clear and the S8100 still managed to focus pretty quickly. The motor noise from the extending zoom is audible (yet inevitable), but otherwise the stereo sound quality is ear-pleasing.
The Nikon S8100 is a great compromise. Long-zoomers don’t do too well indoors, and low-light shooters have limited usage outdoors. The S8100 does better than most long-zoomers indoors, and thanks to its long lens, it’s more versatile for outdoor use than any low-light shooters. It loses the best qualities of each, but there are a lot of users out there who have been looking for a camera like this. The design and build quality are very good, and the interface is decent, despite its unorthodox nature and lack of manual control. On a personal note, it’s one of the more intriguing compact cameras I’ve reviewed lately.
It earns it a low A- precisely because it’s what many shooters have been looking for -- I just hope that they realize they’re sacrificing the very good image quality they’d get from the Panasonic ZS5 or Sony HX5V in outdoor conditions and very good indoor quality they’d get from the Canon S95 or even SD4000, in exchange for decent image quality in all conditions. The wild-card in this situation is the Canon SD4500, which is basically a direct competitor to the S8100: a 10x zoomer with a CMOS sensor. We hope to be able to update this review in the near future with thoughts on the SD4500, but the user feedback and outside reviews we’ve read lead us to believe that it’s a B+ camera.