If you want the versatility of a digital SLR and the portability of a compact camera, a superzoom may be the answer. Nikon's Coolpix S8200 strikes the perfect balance, thanks to its high resolution, powerful lens and great results. While it's not cheap, at around £280, if you buy one today, its impressive specs will stave off any thoughts of further upgrades for years to come.
Specs and build quality
In every respect, the S8200 looks and feels like a very serious camera. On the front, there's a massive 14x zoom (equivalent to 25-350mm on a 35mm camera), behind which sits a 16.1-megapixel sensor. The digital zoom is only 2x, but, when applied to that 350mm optical monster, it takes the maximum effective zoom to 700mm, which, on a regular camera, would require a foot of heavy metal and glass.
As you might expect, the S8200 isn't the smallest of compact cameras. It's a good inch and a quarter thick at its fattest point and weighs 213g, so it's not one we'd recommend tucking into your pocket for a trip to the pub. Take it on holiday, though, and you'll find it has sufficient power to replace a bulkier dSLR for all but the most devoted photographer.
Minimum focusing distance is a fairly run-of-the-mill 500mm in everyday shooting, but switch to macro and you can peer at your subjects from just 10mm away. We put this to good use shooting a crane fly. To complicate matters, the insect was sitting on a window, but the S8200 managed to effectively separate it from its surroundings, blurring both the view through the window and the reflected light on its surface to isolate the subject. Furthermore, the extremely shallow depth of field, which was exactly what we were hoping to see, kept the body in sharp focus while softening the leading edge of the closest wing.
The camera feels incredibly robust, and that's as much on account of its sheer bulk as it is to do with the smooth rubber coating the front. The flash rather neatly hides itself inside the case and pops up when called into action, keeping safe from harm without spoiling the S8200's clean lines.
The battery and SD card slot are tucked behind a door on the underside, which is kept well away from the tripod mount point. The mount point itself is offset from the centre of the lens, so bear in mind that you won't be swivelling the camera around the sensor if you're shooting panoramas. Fortunately, the dedicated panorama scene mode lets you shoot 180- or 360-degree frames by sweeping the lens across the scene.
The regular power, playback and movie-record buttons are supplemented by a heavy-duty mode dial on the top of the case that clicks into place with a satisfying snap. On the rear, a scroll wheel lets you move quickly up and down the menus.
As well as the 16 scene modes, there are six built-in effects for tweaking the shot at the point of capture, rather than in post production: soft, sepia, high-contrast monochrome, high key, low key and selective colour.
Sensitivity runs from ISO 100 to ISO 3,200, although, in auto mode, it stops at ISO 1,600. Should you choose to use it, there's also a neat limiter that will prevent straying beyond either ISO 400 or ISO 800 if you want to minimise noise in your pictures.
Our photo results were superb. Detail was very finely rendered and output extremely clean. We started with our regular chromatic aberration test, shooting fine metal window frames, thin tree branches and sharply contrasting edges overlaid on a bright sky, checking for areas where the lens had failed to accurately focus each wavelength of light in the same point on the sensor. Across the centre of each frame, the results were spot on, with only minor fall-off at the edges or where an overexposed sky, which you would look to avoid, had encroached on the detail.
With exposure set to auto throughout our tests, the S8200 made a good job of balancing some tricky frames where a bright sky might otherwise have caused extreme shadows in darker parts of the image. Where it encountered large areas of white in close proximity to more muted areas, such as the side of the building below, detail was lost, as revealed when we mapped the hot zones, indicated in red. But this wasn't unexpected and, in regular use, where more careful framing would have excluded this largely featureless part of the image to focus on the more interesting detail, as seen in the second image below, the camera achieved a perfect balance between the bright sky and darker brickwork.
In more general use, the S8200 produced extremely well balanced and highly detailed results, with foliage very well handled across all tones, and skies smoothly graduated as they fell towards the horizon.
The focusing subsystem also did a great job of reading the scene we were shooting and choosing the most appropriate settings. Rather than box out multiple areas, each of the same size, to show on the LCD what would remain in focus, the S8200 employs a system of overlapping rectangles of varying sizes to depict the focal zones. This is highly intuitive and helps you understand at once what kind of a result you can expect.
In the shots below of ironwork set into a garden wall, the S8200 made it easy to see whether whole vehicles would be kept sharp, as in the first example where the focus is retained from the front of the green car right through to the yellow 2CV at the back, or whether we should expect some fall-off, as we see in the slightly soft pipes on the trailer at the back of the second shot.
We couldn't fault the camera on detail, testing it with a wide variety of textures and surfaces at various zoom lengths.
In all instances, the S8200 was quick to get a fix on our subjects, taking fractions of a second to settle on the correct focus and exposure for the best results and helping us to shoot tricky subjects, such as short-focus detail on moving plants and flowers. Both of the images below remain pin-sharp at their focal points, despite the subjects being caught in a gentle breeze.
So the S8200 is top-notch where stills are concerned. When it comes to movies, though, we were less impressed. We selected the S8200's highest quality setting in our tests -- 1,920x1,080 pixels at 30p -- but there are seven alternatives, including a 120 frames per second mode for super-smooth slow-motion playback, although, at that rate, you'll have to settle for smaller, 640x480-pixel pictures.
We set the S8200 to use continuous autofocus so that it would refine its settings as we zoomed or panned through a scene, and, although its response time would have been admirable had we been shooting stills, the half second or so it takes to correct itself is quite obvious in movies.
Further, we noticed considerable wind noise on our video and no way to reduce it, as the S8200 lacks a wind-noise reduction option. That's a shame, as it spoiled an otherwise great result. Our video was full of detail and vivid, realistic colour, and the auto-exposure subsystem did a great job of compensating for changes to the overall level of light in a scene.
The Nikon Coolpix S8200 is a great camera. The photos it produces are first-class, and the underlying firmware gives you loads of feedback when you're shooting. Dedicated snappers will love the versatile zoom, great focusing system and sharp results that are simply alive with colour. The camera's mixed video performance has shaved half a star off the score, but, in all other respects, the S8200 has plenty to recommend it.
Edited by Charles Kloet