Some cameras want to do everything for you and rob you of features in the process. Others positively bristle with options and settings but leave you to work them out for yourself. Then there's the Nikon Coolpix S9300, which strikes a careful balance between the two extremes.
On the one hand, it has a meaty set of specs, with a high resolution and long zoom. On the other, it automates the vast majority of shooting options, so even if you don't know how to put them all to best use, you can still be assured of a decent picture.
The Nikon Coolpix S9300 can be yours now for around £220.
Build and specs
The 16-megapixel sensor is back-illuminated, which means the electronics have been repositioned behind the photosites so that each pixel receives more of the incoming light. This should improve low-light performance, yet sensitivity can still be pushed as far as ISO 3,200, from an opening gambit of ISO 125. There are options to cap it at ISO 400 or ISO 800 if you want to preserve image quality, and compensation runs to +/-2.0EV in 1/3EV steps.
Its low light performance was fair, with very accurate colours maintained at ISO 800, 1,600 and 3,200. However, at each of these settings, there was some degradation in the quality of the image, which became obvious when zoomed to 100 per cent. You would expect to see increased grain at this level but there was also a painterly effect evident, which while attractive, wasn't representative of the original scene.
At full resolution, images stand at 4,608x3,456 pixels. When paired with the 18x zoom (equivalent to 25-450mm on a regular 35mm camera), that gives you enormous flexibility, both while shooting and when cropping in post-production.
In this respect, it comes very close to matching the specs of the Fujifilm FinePix F770EXR, which pairs a 16-megapixel sensor with a 20x zoom, equivalent to 25-500mm. Both cameras also have a GPS sensor on board to geostamp your images so the locations of your shots can be plotted on a map. But the Fujifilm has, in my opinion, a better finish, with a rubberised body where the S9300 has a high-gloss plastic casing.
The S9300's full auto mode is supplemented by presets for portraits, soft focus, panoramas, landscapes and so on. While the Fujifilm has these too (some are in sub-menus), it also makes provision for manually setting the shutter speed and, to a limited degree, the aperture. This will appeal to more adventurous users and those who want to achieve a specific result without relying on camera presets.
For many, the real test of a camera is not so much what goes on under the hood as the quality of its images, so let's see how the S9300 performed.
If you're looking for a more advanced yet largely automated camera, the S9300 is a good choice. I performed my tests in a mix of fully automatic and panorama modes and was impressed by the consistently high quality of the output. The resolution was high enough -- and the lens sharp enough -- to resolve very fine detail right across the frame.
In the shot below, there's a slight fall-off in the level of focus towards the edges and corners of the frame. This is what you would expect since the lens is having to do a more pronounced job of bending the light than a camera with an interchangeable lens, while still keeping it in focus at the point where it reaches the sensor. It's far from a problem -- the shop names in the furthest reaches of the scene are still readable, despite them being considerably further away from the lens than the point of focus, which in this instance falls on the cabins of the boats.
It did equally well in areas of broadly similar tone as it did in those with plenty of varied detail. In the hull of the boat below, which is dominated by a fairly uniform brown, and the surface of the sea surrounding it, which shows similarly slight variation in its colour, the S9300 has picked out fine detail. Look at the grain of the wood and the gentle waves on the surface of the water.
It did an excellent job of rendering accurate skin tones, as can be seen below, with smooth transitions between areas of similar colour and finely reproduced details such as freckles and individual hair follicles.
The lens was sharp enough to avoid introducing evidence of chromatic aberration, which is an undesirable effect where edges of fine details are fringed with pink or turquoise -- and often both. It can occur in images with sharp contrasts, where dark objects pass over a light background.
This is most commonly seen where subject matter such as branches or, as in the image below, the masts and rigging of boats, are set against a bright sky. Where you see evidence of this, the lens has failed to focus all the wavelengths of incoming light in sync. In this image, the S9300 had no such problems and performance was impressive overall.
The panorama mode shoots either 360 or 180-degree sweeps of a scene and stitches them together in camera. It automatically detects the direction in which you're panning, so you don't need to pre-select this. The results in my tests were very impressive, with neatly matched subject matter and no evidence of any stitching. Indeed, so good was it that it even managed to accurately stitch a boat that was bobbing up and down as I panned past it, without rendering a rippling roof or deck.
The S9300 shoots HD video at 1,920x1,080 pixels, 30 frames per second progressive, with supplementary options for 720p resolution and smaller frame sizes for web use and sharing.
The results achieved in my tests were very good, with accurate colours and fine detail retained throughout. It reacted well to changes in the level of light in the scene, while the soundtrack was cleanly recorded when out of the wind and not using the zoom.
Unfortunately, when I did use the zoom during filming, the noise of the lens motors shifting the barrel was clearly audible on the soundtrack. Although wind noise reduction was switched on during my tests, it was unable to remove all evidence of a passing breeze from the captured footage.
I've already compared the S9300 to the Fujifilm FinePix F770EXR on account of their similar headline specs where sensor and lens are concerned. The Fujifilm is around 10 per cent more expensive than the S9300, and were you paying for just the finish and a slightly longer zoom, you might find that hike hard to justify. Take into account the greater flexibility offered by its more extensively customisable settings though, and it starts to make more sense.
Even so, the S9300 is an excellent, advanced camera for less confident users, with a wide range of scene modes encompassing regular portrait, landscape and other options. You can safely leave all shooting decisions in the S9300's hands and be confident of a good result. But it does mean that if you're a novice buying a camera to learn more about the technical side of photography, you might find it a little limiting in the long run.
If, on the other hand, image quality, ease of use and the flexibility of a long zoom are paramount, you couldn't buy much better. On these three fronts -- the ones that really matter in a pocket camera -- it performed consistently well throughout my tests.