I’ve been itching to replace my Nikon CoolPix 5700 for a while now. It has been a very dependable camera on the go and for technical photography. When looking for a replacement my first thought was one of the new SLR body styles. They have many features  but the form factor is bulky like my 5700. I wanted something more compact.

I decided that this time I’d get a point and shoot model, but with some specific requirements.

  1. at least 10MP sensor
  2. at least 5x optical zoom
  3. at least a ISO rating of 1000
  4. a reasonable shot to shot cycle time

Let me explain each of these requirements.

At least a 10MP sensor, this was really a ‘nice to have’ rather than a ‘must have’ feature. Once you get in to the 5MP plus sensors, the size of the sensor does not really have much impact on the quality of the images created by the camera. It does affect how large of a blowup you can make or if you can crop your images and still print a decent 4×6 or 5×7 print.

At least a 5x optical zoom, this was a must have. Many of the point and shoot cameras have only a 3x (35 mm – 105 mm). This really limits how well you can frame a shot for distant subjects. A 5x (33 mm – 165 mm ) zoom lets pull in those distant subjects and allows for more flexibility in framing.

At least and ISO rating of 1000, this was a must have. The higher the ISO rating the better the camera should be able to take pictures in low light conditions or fast action subjects.

A reasonable shot to shot cycle time was also a must have. Often with my 5700 I’d get only one shot off. By the time it cycled for the next shot everyone was gone or the event passed. This is especially important when taking pictures of children. They move so fast and hardly stand still long enough to take a picture, so you have to be ready and a good shot to shot cycle time helps.

So after looking at Sony, Olypmus and Nikon chose the Nikon CoolPix s630. Here are It’s basic specifications:

12.0 million effective pixels (MP)
37 mm – 260 mm (7x) zoom lens
ISO range 64-6400
Aperture range F3.5 – F5.3

You can get detailed specifications at DPReview.com

I have read some reviews on the internet about the Nikon CoolPix s630. They are mixed. Some like it and those who don’t make many quality issue claims. You cannot make a decision on opinion alone but it can help push you in one direction or another.

I want to say upfront, I like this camera and would recommend it to anyone with a budget of around $300 for a new camera.

Things I like, (pros):

  • It meet or exceed all the specifications I was looking for.
  • It turns on quickly, at least compared to my 5700.
  • It has 4 major modes: camera, scene, face recognition, movie. This makes it easy to switch from camera to macro and back or camera to landscape and back. Scene mode has 17 presets available i.e. macro, landscape and such.
  • It has 2 metering settings matrix or center weighted. This makes a huge difference when shooting dark subjects on light or bright backgrounds. e.g. center weighted will make better exposure settings if your subject is in a shadow or has dark completion in day light setting.
  • The multi-select wheel makes menus easy to use.
  • It has some manual setting so you can be technical with your photography. It is not an SLR but does offer some manual settings.

Things I don’t like (cons):

  • I was hoping for better low light photography without a flash. That is sort of subjective. In many cases it takes great shots with fill flash.
  • It can have trouble focusing in low light or if the subject is too close.
  • The zoom is super fast. When framing a shot you have flick the zoom lever otherwise it will zoom in all the way or out all the way. Flicking the level in either direct allows for some framing control but not very precise.
  • When setting the ISO to 3200 or more the image size is dropped back to 3MP from 12MP.

There are some claims by other reviews of noise in the images but I’d have to say that this could be compression artifacts and are only visible when you are zoomed in 1to1 when viewing the resulting picture on a computer. I did some testing and it looks like the camera will produce noisy images when it is shooting over ISO400. To counter this the can camera does allow for setting a ISO range. I think many of the issues other reviews make can be attributed to user error, i.e. knowing when to use a tripod, when change settings for metering or turn off features like motion detection. I have made a few prints at our local CVS at the Kodak station. The prints were sharp and very clear, even when cropping the original 50% the 4×6 prints came out clear and crisp.

I have bought a Swiss Gear case for the camera and now carry it around on my hip like my cellphone.

Update 7/08/2009:

After posting this review I thought I should look into the image noise issue in more detail. So I took some indoor photographs from ISO 100 to 6400 with flash off in low indoor light. Pictures taken with ISO100 to ISO400 looked reasonable ISO100 had some blur due to long shutter exposure. Pictures taken with ISO400 to ISO6400 had an increasing amount of noise with ISO3200 and ISO6400 pretty much useless they were so grainy and the camera falls back to 3MP from 12MP for these ISO settings.

I returned this camera to store where I bought it. I replaced it with a Canon PowerShot SD960 IS Digital Elph. Basic specifications:

12.0 million effective pixels (MP)
28 mm – 112 mm (4x) zoom lens
ISO range 80-1600
Aperture range F2.8 – F5.8

You can get detailed specifications at DPReview.com

Basically I had to give up the zoom if I wanted to stay in a compact point and shoot form factor that can take reasonable pictures in low light. I have only done some spot testing to see how images from the SD960 compare to those of the s630. My spot tests confirm that the Canon is much better in low light than the Nikon. I’ll play with the camera over the next few weeks and post a write up on the  Canon PowerShot SD960 IS Digital Elph.

Caveat Emptor just because it is in the specializations does not mean that it performs well at those specifications.