Nikon Coolpix S9300 review: Easy to use, so-so performance
At a Glance
On paper, the Nikon Coolpix S9300 pocket megazoom doesn't differ much from its highly rated predecessor, the Nikon Coolpix S9100. The new S9300 offers the same 18X zoom lens (24mm wide angle to 450mm telephoto), easy-to-use controls, and helpful post-capture editing tools as the S9100. In addition, both cameras are geared toward pure point-and-shoot photographers, as neither one has manual exposure controls or the ability to capture images in Raw format.
The main changes that the Coolpix S9300 introduces are the addition of in-camera GPS and a higher-resolution (16-megapixel) sensor. Unfortunately, the S9300's battery life is much weaker than the S9100's; and according to our lab tests, its image quality is significantly worse.
Photo quality was one of the S9100's strong suits, but the new sensor seems to have a detrimental effect on sharpness and color accuracy. The Coolpix S9300 is still a decent long-zoom travel camera for anyone looking for sheer operational simplicity, but this is one sequel that doesn't match up to the quality of the original.
Performance, image quality, and video quality
The Coolpix S9100 earned among the best overall marks of any point-and-shoot camera we tested last year in PCWorld Labs' subjective tests for image quality. In contrast, the Coolpix S9300 falls squarely in the middle of the pack. Our judges rated its exposure quality as Good and its lack of distortion as Very Good, but the Coolpix S9300 picked up scores of only Fair for color accuracy and sharpness, which dragged its overall image-quality score down significantly. Compared to the output of the S9100, test photos shot with the S9300 looked washed out and less vibrant. However, you can fix those two things shortcomings by applying the camera's Quick Retouch filter as you review photos.
Click the thumbnail images below to see the full-size shots we used for our subjective tests.
In our video tests, the Coolpix S9300 earned a score of Good for overall video quality, thanks to the marks it received in our video tests in well-lit settings. In our bright-light tests, the 1080p/30-frames-per-second test clips shot with the S9300 exhibited punchy colors and good contrast, but captured motion didn't look particularly smooth. In our low-light tests, the S9300 jacked up the ISO settings, which resulted in orange-tinted video that lacked sharpness.
Here are the test videos we used for our subjective evaluations. Select 1080p from the menu in each player to see the highest-definition footage.
Alas, the Coolpix S9300's battery life is also a bit of a bummer. With a CIPA rating of 200 shots per charge, it lands in the Fair range of our battery life scores. It's also worth mentioning that you'll need to charge the battery inside the camera, as was the case with the S9100.
Shooting modes and features
But even though the Coolpix S9300 is a fully automated shooter, the camera's modes cover a lot of ground and offer easy-to-use alternatives to traditional manual controls. As noted earlier, you can't adjust the camera's shutter speeds and aperture settings, and you can't shoot in Raw format. But the camera does provide dedicated options for low-light shooting and backlit scenes, and you can manually adjust ISO settings (100 to 3200), white-balance presets, and light-metering modes (center-weighted or matrix metering).
Unfortunately, macro performance—a strong suit of the Coolpix S9300's predecessor—isn't as solid in this camera. I had my best luck with the lens positioned at least a couple of inches away from the subject I was trying to shoot, and the camera performed better when I used the Close-Up scene selection than when I pressed the dedicated macro button at the bottom of the S9300's directional pad.
In the Close-Up scene mode, you have a bit of control over the focus point within the frame, but you don't have manual focus controls for fine-tuning the focus distance. Consequently you'll have to count on the camera's autofocus system to lock in on close-up objects, which can lead to frustration: Even in well-lit environments, the S9300's AF system searches quite a bit. Autofocus also behaved problematically at the telephoto end of the zoom, though mostly in dimly lit environments.
More than most current long-zoom compacts, the Coolpix S9300's optical stabilization system struggles at the full-telephoto end of the zoom. If you're shooting faraway subjects, it's best to brace the camera with two hands as much as you can; quick one-hand snaps are likely to produce blurry shots.
The S9300's other notable issue is its slow write speeds. I used a Class 10 card and a Class 6 card—both of which are quite speedy—during my hands-on tests, and yet the S9300 took about 5 or 6 seconds to save some images. The slowest save times came when the camera was in Night Landscape mode, which performs additional image processing in the form of exposure bracketing and automated image stacking to create a brighter image in dark conditions. Regardless, it's certainly slower than the similar modes found in competing cameras. You can't shoot additional images while the camera works on saving them, either; instead, you have to stare at an on-screen graphic of an hourglass as the seconds tick by and the image processing takes place.
Saved images look a bit grainier and noisier than comparable images shot in competing cameras' exposure-bracketing modes. Again, whereas low-light performance was a strength in the Coolpix S9100, this camera seems to have taken a step backward.
Luckily, the camera is speedier in its other modes, (including its 7-fps burst mode at full resolution) and in its filter-applying Effects modes. Six effects filters are available for real-time application as you shoot (selective color mode, high-contrast black-and-white, sepia tone, high-key, low-key, and soft focus), and you can apply four others (miniature effect, a painting filter, a cross-process effect, and a fish-eye effect)—as well as the selective color and soft-focus filters—during playback.
In addition to the filters and such now-common shooting modes as a motion-panorama mode and a 3D still-image capture mode, the S9300 has a great selection of post-shot editing tools. The best of these is D-Lighting, which brightens low-light images very nicely. Also, you can punch up the colors in your already-taken photos by applying the Quick Retouch preset, and you can smooth out blemishes in portrait shots with the Skin Softening filter.
The Coolpix S9300's GPS features go a bit further than simple longitude/latitude geotagging, as the camera has a location database stocked with real-world location names. In the camera's GPS menu during playback, you can manually edit location names for each photo, but only for photos that are already tagged with geodata; you can't manually enter location names from scratch.
The Coolpix S9300 comes with an electronic compass to identify direction the camera is pointed in, and that directional information appears at the bottom of the screen as you take photos. Your GPS connection times will vary depending on your view of the sky; I had to wait for a few minutes when trying to connect among the skyscrapers of New York City. The visual cues indicating that you've established a connection can be a bit confusing, too. A satellite icon appears on the viewfinder; it has a red background if no GPS connection exists, and a clear background if the camera is connected—but there's no way to tell whether it's in the process of connecting.
Once your photos are tagged, you can offload images to your desktop and drop them into Google Earth, into Flickr's map interface, or into Nikon's own sharing services. The S9300 lacks in-camera mapping, which might be a good thing, given the camera's mediocre battery life with GPS turned off.
Hardware and design
The version of the S9300 that I tested for this review has a glossy red, nail-polish-like finish. Other options include an all-black version that has a matte finish, a glossy silver model, and a glossy blue model. The S9300 is impressively compact for an 18X-zoom camera. But at 2.5 inches tall, 4.3 inches wide, and 1.3 inches deep, it's still a bit bigger than a typical point-and-shoot—though it should fit into most pockets. Nikon doesn't supply a full handgrip, but a slightly raised strip on the front of the camera provides a bit of support for your middle finger when shooting one-handed.
The S9300's interface is simple and clean, due in no small part to the absence of manual exposure controls. On the top of the camera is a pop-up flash (which you have to enable through the camera menus), a little hump above the lens that houses the GPS module, a power button, a shutter button ringed by the zoom control, and an eight-selection mode dial. The mode dial provides direct access to burst-shooting, backlight-correction, Night Landscape, Auto, and portrait scene-selection modes, as well as to in-camera menus for selecting scene presets and filter effects.
To the right of the 3-inch LCD on the back of the camera are a few more buttons, along with a diagonal rubber strip that acts as a thumbgrip. Just above the textured rubber strip is a dedicated video-record button. Below it are a playback button, a scroll wheel/directional pad for surfing in-camera menus, a menu button, and a delete button. Pressing the four cardinal points of the scroll wheel lets you pop up the flash, adjust exposure compensation, activate macro mode, and set the camera's timer.
A somewhat flimsy, plasticky door on the side of the camera covers two ports: a Mini-HDMI port, and an AV-out port that doubles as the charging input for the camera. On the bottom of the camera, a slide-locking door covers both the battery and an SD/SDHC/SDXC card slot; a tripod mount is included, too.
Like its predecessor, the Coolpix S9300 is designed for anyone who wants a long-zoom camera that's exceptionally easy to operate. When you remove the S9100's top-notch image quality and the decent battery life from the equation, however, the Coolpix S9300 becomes a far less commendable camera. If you can still find it, I recommend choosing the Coolpix S9100 over the S9300, as it offers better overall performance than the newer model.