Nikon Coolpix S3 Digital Camera

Reviewed by: Howard Carson, June 2006
Manufactured by: Nikon Canada, Nikon USA
Requires: Windows 98, 98SE, Me, 2000 Professional, XP Home and XP Pro; 200MB of available hard disk space, Microsoft Internet Explorer 5.5 or later, DVD or CD drive
MSRP: US$379.95, CAN$359.95

The Nikon Coolpix S3 digital camera is a slim, portable device designed to be carried anywhere you might encounter an opportunity to take a photo. At six megapixels it's nothing to sneer at and it also offers a range of features and functions which make it worthy of consideration for anyone who needs a good quality, full featured point & shoot camera without the cost associated with the higher-end models.

I used the camera for two weeks at a variety of functions, family get-togethers, weekend outings, and walks. Although we usually review products which are aimed at SOHO and small business users, the S3 just touches that particular category. I found the camera was more appropriate for casual use, ready at hand almost anywhere and certainly easy to carry. It's lightweight enough to carry in a shirt or jacket pocket without dragging, and it's certainly small enough to easily fit in most purses, most belt pouches, pant cargo pockets, rucksacks, backpacks and so on.

Here are the highlights. The Coolpix S3 is slim at 3.4" (19.7mm)—there are sport wristwatches thicker than that—with an aluminum body containing a 3x (35mm-105mm equivalent) Nikkor ED zoom lens. It features a 6 megapixel sensor. There's no viewfinder. At 2.5" (63.5mm) the rear LCD screen is large and bright. Functions are selected using a series of option buttons on the back of the camera and Nikon has thoughtfully provided a Help button as well which provides context sensitive information about the currently selected function or setting. The Nikon D-Lighting function is available during playback to rescue insufficiently exposed shots.


Nikon Face-Priority Auto Focus is built into the camera which automatically focuses on human faces in the foreground of any scene Red-eye removal is built in. Blur Warning is built in and notifies you on-screen if the current shot is out of focus, which means you can either keep, delete or of course re-take the shot. There are 17 preset scene modes including an underwater selection which can be used with the optional Nikon Waterproof Case WP-CP5. There are also scene mode assists for four of the presets to help compose shots. Uniquely in the Nikon line of digital cameras, the S series is supplied with the Cool-Station dock. When the S3 is in the dock, the battery charges, you can download photos from the SD storage card and also connect directly to a television to view photos. Last but not least, the S3 has a versatile movie mode which includes a time lapse selection (we had a lot of fun with that one).

The S3 is comfortable to use. Although the camera body is thin, the matte black finish provides a secure grip. The power and shutter buttons are completely different sizes, positioned adjacent to each other on top of the camera. But I found it easy to keep my eyes on the LCD while composing a shot, without the need to glance away to make sure I had my shutter finger on the right button. The zoom control is positioned properly on the back of the camera in the top right corner, making it easy to control the zoom using your right thumb, again without having to take your eyes off the LCD. In normal outdoor and bright indoor lighting conditions, taking photos of people, the S3 excels. The face-priority autofocus mode is remarkable and you'll often be surprised at how quickly the camera focuses and sets so you can take the photo. Shutter lag is noticeable but brief. As always with these comparatively inexpensive point & shoot cameras, the best technique is to frame your shot in the LCD, depress the shutter halfway to focus, then all the way as soon as the autofocus light is locked. The main reason for the quick reaction after focus lock is that these cameras often expose automatically using the fastest possible shutter speed. That means the aperture is often quite large, which also means that depth-of-field (the area in front of and behind the main subject which is also in focus) is shallow. If you're standing there with the shutter half-pressed, recomposing your shot, chances are that you're going to move slightly forward or backward, and you'll end up with far too many photos with an out of focus main subject. So the trick with the S3 (and almost all other point & shoot cameras) is to take your photos as quickly as possible.

Cons: The camera is a truly slim design and certain sacrifices are currently necessary in order to keep the price reasonable. For example, the zoom lens does not protrude from the camera body—it's all internal—which a lot of people will like. On the other hand, to some extent that design limits the zoom range to 3x, which is really useful but not competitive with the 6x zooms offered by other camera makers in this price range. The movie mode quality is acceptable, but not up to Nikon's usual standard. I found a little bit of focus hunting in some lighting conditions.

Pros: The time lapse movie mode was a riot and we caught everything from lilies unfolding in the morning sun to children building a crazy sand castle on the beach. Wonderful stuff. Forget about movie mode for a moment though, because the camera's main function as a digital still camera is the main reason for this review. With 6 megapixels to work with, any sharp, full resolution image can printed at up to 16" x 20". The S3 is capable of capturing sharp photos, with well saturated color and tons of detail. Nikon's built in scene modes are something more people should use, especially considering how fast and easy it is to choose a scene mode and take the photo. Nikon has put decades of knowledge into the internal programming for these scene modes and the results will impress you. The S3 worked well in a range of outdoor lighting conditions and we were surprised and gratified by the results we got on dull and cloudy days. The results we got when shooting early morning and late afternoon were equally impressive for a camera of this type. The Cool-Station dock is handy and multipurpose because you can store the camera in the dock so it's always fully charged and ready to go. Battery life was good too, ranging between 175-230 shots per charge depending on flash use. If you're looking for a small digital camera with lots of resolution and lots of automation, the Coolpix S3 is a very good choice.

KSN Product Rating:

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