Sunday, January 29, 2012

Review: Nikon Coolpix S8100

I had a lengthy in-depth review all typed out, but then I realized that most of what I had said was unimportant. So I deleted it and started over.
Stargazer Curves - Tehachapi, California
Taken with a Nikon S8100.
Most product reviews give a lot of attention to things that don't matter and what is truly important is often ignored.

A Closer Look

The Nikon Coolpix S8100 is a pocket digital point-and-shoot camera designed for someone who knows nothing about photography. It's meant to be used in Automatic Mode or one of the (also automatic) Scene Modes. There are some manual controls if you dig through the menus, but not many. And those manual controls are not always available.
Country Tree In January - Tehachapi, California
Taken with a Nikon S8100.
The S8100 has the excellent Expeed C2 software built-in. It has 12.1 megapixels on a 1/2.3 back-illuminated CMOS sensor, which is pretty good. The Nikkor 30-300mm (equivalent) lens is very sharp and can focus very close. It includes a large and bright 3" rear screen with 921,000 dots. The camera can capture up to five frames at 10 frames-per-second. Nikon even included 1080p HD video.
Kodak 35mm Camera - Hesperia, California
Taken with a Nikon S8100.
I'm not going to talk about the size, weight, ergonomics, style and build-feel. All pocket digital point-and-shoot camera are similar (a rectangle about the size of 5-year-old cell-phone) and will at least be adequate. Besides, those things are secondary to image quality. Image quality is always more important than the way the camera looks or feels. However, if you are worried about those things, simply know that the S8100 is one of the better cameras in this regard.

Function

The S8100 does a great job most of the time selecting the correct aperture, shutter speed and ISO. If a camera is automatic, it has to get those things right or it's junk. The S8100 gets it right. The camera does like to over expose a little, but that is typical of point-and-shoot cameras. Besides, it's easy to manually adjust.
White Rose - Tehachapi, California
Taken with a Nikon S8100.
The default setting for ISO is Auto, which chooses between ISO 160 and ISO 800. Because of the sensor and the software, the camera has very little noise at those ISOs (including 800). If you apply a little noise-reduction in post-processing to the ISO 800 photographs, there is no significant difference between images taken with ISO 800 and images taken with ISO 400 without a close, side-by-side study (and even then it's tough to tell). Even so, the camera will give priority to the lowest ISO unless it detects camera-shake (just as long as the anti-shake features are enabled). If the camera detects shake, it will increase the ISO so that it can get a faster shutter speed.
Burger Spot - Tehachapi, California
Taken with a Nikon S8100.
In certain functions you can manually set the ISO, which includes ISO 1600 and ISO 3200 (two ISOs that are not available in Auto-ISO). This is helpful when using the camera in low-light situations. There is a significant jump in noise between ISO 800 and ISO 1600, but ISO 1600 is quite usable. ISO 3200 is very noisy and I would not choose it unless I purposely wanted lots of noise, or unless the print would not be larger than 5" x 7". Typically, ISO 3200 will look better as a black-and-white image than color.
Water Heater and Valve - Tehachapi, California
This is an example of ISO 3200.
White Balance can be set manually in some functions, otherwise it's selected automatically by the camera. Thankfully, the auto-white-balance does a great job, so manually adjusting the white balance isn't necessary most of the time. One good white balance feature is Preset Manual, which allows you to use a gray card to accurately adjust the white balance to whatever it needs to be.
Waiting Under The Light - Tehachapi, California
Taken with a Nikon S8100
The camera does include many different scene selections, and if you know what it does in those scene modes, you can manipulate the camera in order to get the images you want. So while you can't pick the specific aperture or shutter speed, you could pick a scene mode that gives you basically what you need.
Vent Hose - Tehachapi, California
Taken with a S8100.
Again, this camera wasn't designed for you. But any camera can be used to create great photographs, including the S8100. You have to figure out how to force the camera to capture the image the way you want it. It doesn't take long to figure the camera out, but you have to think about it differently than your typical DSLR.

Actual Image Quality

There are several factors that will determine image quality in digital photography. Most important of those (besides the skill of the photographer, which is most important) are lens, sensor, and software.
House In The Foothills - Tehachapi, California
Taken with a Nikon S8100.
For $300 or less, it would be difficult to find a camera that has a better lens, sensor and software combination than the S8100. The Canon S95 is comparable and is another option you could consider. I purchased the Nikon S8100 on sale for $150, and I've never seen the S95 for less than $225. If you can find the S8100 for $150, I don't think there is a better digital camera on the market for that price.
California Golden Hills - Caliente, California
Taken with a Nikon S8100.
Back to image quality. Most reviews do certain "tests" that don't really tell you anything. How the camera performs when doing actual photography is the real test. For the point-and-shoot, what you really want to know is will other people be able to tell that you didn't use your DSLR?
Cows On Hill - Caliente, California
Taken with a Nikon S8100.
With the S8100, unless you are making large prints, I really doubt anyone would be able to tell that you didn't use your DSLR. As long as your prints are 11" x 14" (or 11" x 17") or smaller--or unless you did significant cropping--it would be incredibly difficult to tell you used a "lesser" camera.

Who Is This Camera For?

The Nikon S8100 is for someone who knows nothing about photography but wants good results. That means this camera could be a good choice for you if you will not be the only one using it.
Roof Peaks #1 - Tehachapi, California
Taken with a Nikon S8100.
If you are in the market for a digital point-and-shoot to supplement you DSLR, are on a tight budget, and won't be the only one using the camera--the S8100 is the obvious choice. Your research could end right here.
Roof Lines And Shapes - Tehachapi, California
Taken with a Nikon S8100.
 However, if you have a larger budget and won't be sharing the camera, there are many other options to consider (including the Canon S95 mentioned earlier). Even so, if you can find the S8100 for a good price, it would be tough to find a better value.
Tree Trunk - Tehachapi, California
Taken with a Nikon S8100.
 Besides, your camera doesn't matter, anyway.

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