The Coolpix S8100 compact megazoom is Nikon’s follow-up to the Coolpix S8000. That camera didn’t offer much more than what you could get from other manufacturers–if anything–and produced average photos and had average shooting performance. Its design was really the only thing that made it above average. Nikon quickly moved forward with the S8100, keeping the prior model’s design for the most part, but adding a high-speed backside-illuminated (BSI) CMOS sensor.
These sensors generally allow for faster shooting performance and better low-light photo quality, and this is the case with the S8100. For the same price as its predecessor you get a lot more camera, better photos, and burst shooting capable of up to 10 frames per second, among other performance gains. There’s still room for improvement, but overall the S8100 is one of the better compact megazooms I’ve tested at its price.
Overall photo quality from the S8100 is very good, on par or above other cameras in its class. Though its sensitivity settings run from ISO 160 to ISO 3,200, the S8100 produces the best results at ISO 200. Photos on either side of this sensitivity look soft and benefit from sharpening with photo-editing software. There’s a Fixed Range Auto option that will limit you to ISO 160-400, which is nice since this is where it performs best. On the other hand, the regular Auto ISO setting only goes up to ISO 800 and since the S8100 does OK there, too, it’s fairly safe to use. The two highest ISOs–1,600 and 3,200–should probably only be used in emergencies, mainly because the colors get very washed out and the noise reduction makes subjects appear smeary.
Nikon Coolpix S8100
Like most cameras with BSI CMOS sensors, the S8100 has multishot modes for improving low-light photos of landscapes and portraits. At a single press of the shutter release, the camera takes several photos and then combines them to improve blur from hand shake and reduce noise and correct exposure. In general, the Night Landscape mode is successful, though at full size you will see chroma noise. The Night Portrait mode takes shots with and without flash and combines them into nicely exposed shots. However, because of the nature of how these images are produced, these modes cannot be used with moving subjects.
Nikon does an excellent job of controlling both barrel distortion at the wide end and pincushioning at the telephoto end of the lens. The lens is fairly sharp in the center, but there is noticeable softness at the sides and in the corners when photos are viewed at their full resolution.
Colors produced by the S8100 are good up to ISO 800, if not altogether accurate (though that’s average for midrange point-and-shoots). Exposure is consistently good, too, and if you need some help, Nikon’s D-Lighting feature can be used in Playback mode. The auto white balance under unnatural light tends to be a little too warm, so it’s best to use the manual white-balance option whenever possible (the presets turned out a little green under unnatural lights in my tests).
Despite its 1080p movie capture being a main selling point, video quality is merely on par with a good HD pocket video camera; good enough for Web use and nondiscriminating TV viewing. If you plan to do a lot of panning from side to side or shooting fast-moving subjects, there is a lot of judder. That’s fairly common for point-and-shoots, but it’s really noticeable on the 1080p movies. Also, while the zoom does work when recording, the movement is picked up by the mics on top so you will hear it in your movies. If you use the zoom while recording you’ll want to keep the autofocus set to full time, but unfortunately you will hear the lens focusing in your movies, too. It basically sounds like a constant clicking sound.
There are two Auto modes on this camera. One is Nikon’s Scene Auto Selector. It adjusts settings appropriately based on six common scene types. If the scene doesn’t match any of those, it defaults to a general-use Auto. Then there is an Auto mode, which is like the program AE modes on other point-and-shoots. You can change ISO, white balance, and exposure compensation as well as light metering, autofocus area and mode, and continuous shooting modes. For the S8100, Nikon adds some extra control over hue (color tone) and vividness (saturation), with adjustable sliders. They’re not revolutionary, but if you like to experiment they’ll be welcomed. (Then again, so would semimanual or manual controls.) The slider settings get stored in the camera’s memory for the Auto mode, so they stay even if you power the camera off.
The type of scene you’re shooting may correspond to one of the camera’s 12 selectable scene modes. All of the scenes are standards like Portrait and Landscape, and there is a Panorama Assist for lining up a series of shots that can be stitched together with the bundled software. Nikon’s Smart Portrait System, used in either Portrait or Night Portrait modes, combines blink detection, smile-activated shutter release, red-eye fix, skin softening, and Face Priority AF features into one mode.
There are, as mentioned earlier, multishot modes for improving low-light photos as well as an HDR (high dynamic range) mode that combines photos taken at different exposures to help bring out highlight and shadow detail. The high-speed performance of the CMOS sensor gets put to use in burst modes, too. The best one is the Continuous H setting, which lets you shoot at up to 10fps for five photos. The Continuous L mode drops to approximately 1.8fps, but can capture up to 26 photos. The camera also has a 120fps burst capturing up to 54 frames at a press of the shutter release. The images are only 1-megapixel resolution and there’s a substantial wait while the camera stores all those photos, but if you’re trying to capture a specific moment in time, this is your best bet with this camera.
The last of the shooting modes is Subject Tracking, and the name pretty much says it all. Place the focus area box at the center of the frame on your subject, hit OK, and the camera will move the box with the subject. If the subject moves out of frame, the camera will do its best to pick up the subject when it reenters the frame. The camera can be set to focus once or continuously and it can prioritize tracking faces, but otherwise everything else is handled automatically. The mode mostly works as promised, but it should really just be an AF area option instead of a whole mode.
If you like to shoot close-ups, the S8100 has a few ways to enter Macro mode. It will automatically switch to it if you’re using the Scene Auto Selector mode. You can also select a Close-up mode from the camera’s Scene options. And if you’re in Auto mode, you can switch to macro focus via the control pad. You can focus as close as 0.4 inch from your subject and the results are very good.
As for shooting performance, the S8100 is one of the fastest compact megazooms I’ve tested. It goes from off to first shot in just over 1 second with a typical shot-to-shot time of 1.5 seconds. Using the flash only bumps that up to 1.8 seconds. Shutter lag is low in both bright and dim lighting, 0.4 and 0.7 second, respectively. Lastly, its full-resolution high-speed continuous mode is capable of 10fps, but again only for five shots.
Aside from all the features and performance, the camera is nice-looking and easy to use, too. Available in black, red, and gold, the S8100 is compact given its 10x zoom lens, and it’s one of the slimmest in its class. That’s likely because of the smoothly flared lens surround, which is somewhat out of step with the camera’s otherwise boxy design. It’s attractive, though, and will fit easily in a pants pocket or small handbag. The metal casing makes it feel high-quality, but I wish there was more than a slight ridge on the front of the camera to help with your grip. If there is one big problem with the design it’s the flash. It pops up from the left side, so it’s easily blocked by fingers when it rises and then leaves you little room to grip the camera once it’s up. Fortunately, it only pops up when needed.
The controls and menu system are fairly uncomplicated, so out-of-the-box shooting shouldn’t be much of a problem. The menu system is broken into three tabs: Shooting, Movie, and Setup. The layout keeps you from doing too much hunting through settings. And thanks to the high-resolution screen, menus are nice-looking, sharp, and easy to read. The LCD gets reasonably bright as well, so you shouldn’t struggle too much when framing shots in bright direct light. It’s great for playback to boot.
A mode dial sits on top for quickly changing your shooting mode. On the back, a large thumb rest separates the screen from a record button for movies; there is no standalone movie mode you have to switch to in order to shoot video. Below that is a playback button and a four-way control pad/wheel with an OK button in its center (Nikon calls it a Rotary Multi Selector), and then there are Menu and Delete buttons at the very bottom. The control pad is used for menu and image navigation as well as setting the self-timer, adjusting flash and exposure compensation, and turning on macro focus. Should you want to move more quickly through menus, images, and videos, you can spin the wheel instead of doing single presses with underlying control pad. Although it moves easily, you can feel stops.
The S8100 is powered by a lithium ion rechargeable pack that is rated for a measly 210 shots; this was supported in testing, though it was a mix of stills and movies. Plus, the camera doesn’t give you a battery life reading until it needs to be recharged. The battery is charged in the camera by connecting via USB to a computer or the included wall adapter. The battery and card compartment are on the bottom behind a locking door. Next to it is a Mini-USB/AV port. A covered Mini-HDMI port is on the right side of the camera for connecting to an HDTV or monitor; you’ll need to buy a cable, though.
In the end, I’m considerably more impressed by the S8100 than I was by its predecessor, the S8000. It’s very competitive in price, features, and performance with other compact megazooms with BSI CMOS sensors, and its low-light photo quality is much improved over the S8000–even if these improvements rely on some high-speed shooting and digital manipulation.
Shooting speed (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)
Time to first shot
Typical shot-to-shot time
Shutter lag (dim)
Shutter lag (typical)
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