Veteran digital shooters waxing nostalgic for the Nikon Coolpix 900 series will cheer for the Coolpix S4's resurrection of the swivel lens after nearly three years. The S4 comes in a more compact package, with 6-megapixel resolution, a 10x zoom lens, a 64mm (2.5-inch) LCD, and Nikon's signature ease-of-use features. But a lack of manual controls makes this compact snapshot camera a poor choice for shooting indoors or at a football match.
Although the Coolpix S4's shape is reminiscent of earlier Nikon swivel-lens designs, it looks positively Lilliputian next to a classic Coolpix 995. At 112 by 69 by 36mm and 204g, the silver-toned Nikon Coolpix S4 is smaller than the 990 by at least 25mm in every dimension and weighs a little more than half what its digital Dark Age ancestor did.
Family resemblance aside, this newest swivel Coolpix is an ultramodern implementation of the design. You compose and review on the 64mm LCD -- there's no optical viewfinder at all. And, instead of using a flip-up flash, Nikon places a tiny speedlight on the swivel section, immediately adjacent to the lens.
The lens-swivelling action is a big plus for those who hanker for a self-portrait or want to shoot from waist level or overhead. The lens module rotates while the LCD remains facing you. In reverse-view mode, the image flips vertically so that the display remains correctly oriented. The LCD is large enough that you can mount the camera on a tripod and preview the image while photographing yourself using the self-timer.
The Nikon Coolpix S4 requires two-handed shooting. The most comfortable one-handed grip causes the right thumb to obscure the right two-thirds of the LCD. Using two hands makes it possible to poise an index finger over the top-mounted shutter release and still manipulate the concentric zoom lever. Nikon has also crammed a microphone, a speaker, an on/off switch with power light, and a sliding mode switch (recording, scene selection and movie) on top of the right-hand section.
The back panel, not much larger than the LCD itself, has four buttons and a four-way rocker switch that navigates menus and controls the self-timer (left), the flash options (up) and the macro mode (down). The button array adjusts display-info options, deletes the current image, activates the menu system and shifts into playback review. With this minimalist set of controls, you'll need to visit the menus to change exposure (plus or minus 2EV in 1/3EV increments), white balance, ISO sensitivity, and other settings. The well-designed menus are divided into a two-page shooting menu and a four-page setup menu, both with large, easy-to-read text and highlighting.
The Nikon Coolpix S4's 10x zoom lens is its most compelling feature, as most superzoom cameras are heftier. Nikon emphasises telephoto with its 38mm-to-380mm (35mm-camera equivalent) range, sacrificing a wide-angle perspective. Still, the lens autofocuses as close as 42mm in macro mode, and you can choose from centre, multi-point or automatically selected focus zones.
Like other cameras in Nikon's S series, this one's features favour ambitious amateur photographers who crave lots of options but want to make few major decisions. For example, you can take time-lapse photos, create panoramas, shoot close-ups or select from 16 scene modes, letting the S4 handle the vexing details.