Nikon has been making swivel-body cameras dating back to its successful 900-series of Coolpix cameras in the late 1990s. Lately, in addition to the main benefit of allowing extreme low- and high-angle shooting, the company has taken advantage of the design as a way to build longer zoom lenses into relatively small camera bodies.
The latest, the Nikon Coolpix S10, includes a 10x optical zoom lens that covers a 35mm equivalent of 38mm to 380mm with a fixed maximum aperture of f/3.5, giving it one of the fastest 380mm-equivalent lenses in a compact camera. The camera also sports a 6-megapixel CCD sensor with sensor-shift image stabilisation -- Nikon refers to this simply as VR -- to help keep that long lens steady.
Strangely, Nikon didn't see fit to include any kind of manual exposure controls, which could have helped put this camera in a league with superzoom cameras such as Canon's Power Shot S3 IS. Instead, you have to rely on the camera's 15 scene modes and its plus or minus 2EV of exposure compensation to control your exposures. Nitpickers will also notice that there's no flash compensation, so you'll have to accept the flash output on which the camera decides. To its credit, the S10 did an admirable job of balancing fill flash with a bright table lamp in our lab tests.
One of the difficult things about the swivel design is that it leaves little room for buttons and basically requires two-handed shooting. Acquiescing to this, Nikon puts the buttons for Vibration Reduction (VR) and One-Touch Portrait modes on the lens barrel, while all other controls find their home above the 64mm (2.5-inch) LCD screen on the other half of the swivel body.
The tiny joystick, with its knurled edges, made navigating Nikon's well-laid-out menu system comfortable. We found the Delete button a little difficult to reach, however, though we don't know where else Nikon could have placed it. As with most of the company's current compact cameras, the S10's zoom rocker is to the right of the shutter button, making it easy to nudge while you wait to press the shutter.
If you're shooting a tricky scene and don't want to use a flash, you may want to consider Nikon's Best Shot Selector (BSS) mode, of which there are four versions. The first shoots as many as ten exposures, then selects the one with the least blur. The other three variations are grouped together under a separate heading in the BSS submenu, which is labelled Exposure BSS; these include Highlight BSS, Shadow BSS and Histogram BSS. All three capture five shots each time the shutter is pressed. From those images, Highlight BSS selects the one with the fewest areas of overexposure, Shadow BSS chooses the one with the smallest areas of underexposure and Histogram BSS opts for the one with the best balance of the two.
While the S10 includes a manual white balance feature in addition to the usual assortment of presets and auto choices, Nikon bowls a googly and calls its manual white balance Preset White Balance, so when you see it, don't get confused -- we were at first. Also, the camera includes three continuous-shooting modes: one is a regular burst mode that continues to capture images as you hold the shutter button; a second captures 16 shots and arranges them in a grid in one image; and the third captures images at intervals of 30 seconds, 1 minute, 5 minutes, 10 minutes, 30 minutes or 60 minutes. Like almost all cameras these days, you can also choose from a handful of colour modes, including black-and-white mode.
Video buffs will like the S10's ability to capture clips at as high as 640x480-pixel resolution and as many as 30fps. More interesting than that, though, is the time-lapse movie mode, which lets you capture as many as 1,800 still images in intervals the same as the interval drive mode, then strings them together into a silent movie as long as 60 seconds. Now you can finally create that time-lapse clip of the sun rising over Aunt Hilda's house that you've been dreaming of making since you spent a week camping in her garden, aged five.
We were pleased, for the most part, with the S10's performance in our lab tests. It took 1.7 seconds to start up and capture its first image, then took 1.9 seconds between subsequent images without flash, and 2.2 seconds with the flash turned on. In bright lighting conditions, its shutter lag measured a speedy 0.6 seconds, but slowed considerably in dim light to 2.5 seconds. In its standard continuous-shooting mode, we were able to capture 54 VGA-size JPEGs in 33.1 seconds for an average rate of 1.63fps. When we stepped up to 6-megapixel JPEGs, we captured 39 shots in 31.4 seconds for an average of 1.24fps.
Images from the Nikon Coolpix S10 were good with lots of fine detail at its lower ISOs, well-saturated colours, and very little in the way of JPEG artefacts or coloured fringing. The camera's automatic white balance served up nearly neutral colours with our lab's tungsten lights -- there was an extremely mild warm cast, though some users may even like the effect. The tungsten white-balance setting yielded a slightly greenish cast with our tungsten lights, while the Preset (aka manual) white balance provided the most neutral results.