Superzooms give you a camera with a socking great zoom lens without all the hassle and heft that goes along with a dSLR and all its added glassware. Even so, many superzooms tend to be rather on the bulky side and the Nikon Coolpix S9100 is one of a growing number of models that stick to the compact camera format but add the benefits of extreme telephoto.
At £260 it's not cheap, but with 18x optical magnification, your money literally goes much further than with most cameras of its class.
A bridge too far
For many people, a camera's size has a direct correlation to how likely you are to use, carry around or indeed buy a particular model. Nikon knows this well and, with the Coolpix S9100, the company has crammed a superzoom-type lens into a compact-type body.
That's not to say the S9100 can compete on portability with the wafer-thin models at the ultra-compact end of the market, but it's certainly much more portable than your average bridge camera, for example. At 214g all-in, the S9100 isn't going to be too much of a burden while you're out and about, either.
The device is available in three colours -- a violent red, a samey silver or a rather natty matte black. The design is unlikely to win any awards for originality, but it's satisfyingly solid and comfortable to grip. Most buttons are sensibly arranged, with the possible exception of the dedicated video-record control, which sits exactly where your thumb goes when holding the unit in your right hand, potentially risking some accidental movie-making.
The 18x Nikkor zoom lens is of the retracting variety. At full stretch it protrudes almost 2.5 inches from the front of the body. When retracted, the lens is too long to be fully absorbed into the main body of the camera and a permanently raised portion of the front panel around the housing adds a good half inch to the depth of the unit. Still, it's a small price to pay for the obvious benefits.
It's not just the zoom length that's impressive, either. The S9100 is capable of reaching high resolutions too, producing photos of up to 4,000x3,000 pixels at the top setting. Video recordings can be made at Full HD quality (1,920x1,080 pixels) and output via HDMI. Image stabilisation, high ISO sensitivity (up to 3,200) and a large 3-inch, high-resolution (921,000-pixel) LCD screen flesh out the eye-catching spec list.
Easy does it
Unlike some bridge cameras, the Coolpix S9100 doesn't attempt to inundate you with tonnes of complicated functions and features, reminding you, once again, this is a compact camera through and through.
A mode dial allows you to set the camera to full auto or choose from seven alternative shooting modes -- continuous, scene, auto scene, night landscape, night portrait, backlighting or effects. The latter provides a selection of filters that you can apply to your shots: selective colour, nostalgic sepia and so on. Panorama and smart portrait modes are also handy.
Manual options are available via on-screen menus rather than dedicated dials. The user interface is clean, well thought-out and looks sharp on the high-res LCD. Instead of the usual five-way pad, navigation and adjustments are carried out via a rotating wheel dial on the rear of the unit. It's a smart touch that's made even smarter by dint of the fact you can still use the wheel like a five-way pad, should you so wish.
Out and about, the S9100 proves itself to be an admirably versatile photographic companion. It's fast to switch on, springing to life in under 2 seconds. Battery life lasts for around 270 shots.
As well as its long telephoto abilities, the lens has a wide-angle equivalent of 25mm, which makes it suitable for any number of different situations. Its hybrid sensor-shift and electronic vibration-reduction techniques help to reduce blur, even when you're zooming in over long distances, and a best shot feature increases the likelihood of sharper snaps even further.
A backlit CMOS and extended ISO range, meanwhile, mean the S9100 is very effective indoors or in lower lighting conditions. You'll notice a little grain from around ISO 400, but this is pretty acceptable.
Colour-wise, the S9100 is a slightly contradictory beast. In auto mode, the camera can sometimes react a little over-enthusiastically to strong colours -- see our test pic for evidence of this, particularly in the orange of the plastic dog.
Conversely, we also found that shots with less richly coloured subjects sometimes came out looking a little bland. Tweaking settings helps, of course, and in most other respects the Coolpix carries itself well. Chromatic aberration isn't a huge problem, for example, and there's certainly no lack of detail.
In our tests, we did come up against one curious behavioural quirk. Occasionally -- and mostly while the zoom was at full stretch -- the autofocus seemed to have trouble understanding what to focus on. We tried adjusting the AF area mode settings but this didn't seem to have any effect on the issue. Nine times out of 10 this problem didn't even occur, but it was mildly annoying nonetheless.
The Nikon Coolpix S9100 proves that, if you want a powerful zoom, you don't have to lug around the serious sort of kit you see press photographers using on match day. Taking a good photo isn't just about making faraway things seem close, however.
Thankfully, a few minor idiosyncrasies aside, the S9100 generally acquits itself well in a wide variety of photographic scenarios. It's also easy to use, well-built and comparatively portable. £260 is still a fair whack of cash to spend on a compact, though, so you'll need to consider carefully whether or not you really need all that extra zoom length.
Edited by Nick Hide