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Nikon Coolpix S4 camera

Digital photography aficionados may find the Nikon Coolpix S4’s distinctive design advantageous: With its swiveling lens, you can angle the screen away from the lens to take self-portraits or shoot above your head. The S4 is a little expensive, however, priced at $400.

The design also leaves more space for the lens, a characteristic Nikon has taken full advantage of by including a long 10X zoom lens, equivalent to a zoom range of 30mm to 380mm on a 35mm film camera. This lens is by far the longest of the zoom offerings on a point-and-shoot model, and it would be useful for getting closer to the action. Unfortunately, the camera doesn’t offer image stabilization to go with the long zoom: The S4 is very prone to camera shake at longer zoom settings.

The S4 also bucks the trend for built-in lens covers, as it includes an attached lens cap that you can flip to the side when the camera is in use; the cap stays in place, not flipping back when you’re in the middle of composing a shot. The 2.5-inch LCD screen is easy on the eye—a good thing, since the camera lacks an optical viewfinder.

Bulky body

While the swiveling lens design works pretty well and the camera feels comfortable to use, the S4 is a lot bulkier than other point-and-shoot models (at 4.4-by-2.7-by-1.4 inches), so it takes up more room in a bag and is a little too big to fit comfortably in a pocket.

The four-way control knob falls under the thumb for quickly changing Flash and Focus modes and navigating the on-screen menu, which you access with the Menu button. A three-way switch on the top of the camera allows you to move between Playback, Scene, and Movie modes. Included are 14 Scene modes plus four of what Nikon calls Scene Assist modes, in which the camera provides guides to help you frame images (such as a head-and-shoulders outline to frame a portrait shot).

Well-exposed images

The S4’s image quality was about average; I saw accurate (if a little gloomy) color and exposure. Sharpness was problematic, as many edges in our test images had a slightly soft feel to them, and some fine details were lost on close examination. Our test images were well exposed under both natural light and the built-in flash. The flash is located rather close to the lens, which can cause some problems with red-eye. To combat this, Nikon includes a Red-Eye Reduction mode that combines a preflash with software processing, and it does an effective job. However, there is no hot shoe to attach a separate flash.

Battery life

In our battery tests, the S4, powered by two AA batteries, ran out after a disappointing 175 shots. It supports lithium and NiMh rechargeable batteries, but they can’t be charged inside the camera.

Like most of Nikon’s recent cameras, the S4 includes the D-lighting processing feature. This function processes the image after you’ve taken it to bring out shadow details, and it performs well, albeit at the cost of adding a small amount of noise. The camera also preserves the original image so you aren’t stuck with the altered result if you don’t like it.

Performance

Image Quality Very Good
Battery Life Unacceptable

Scale = Excellent, Very Good, Good, Flawed, Unacceptable

How we tested : The image-quality rating of the camera is based on a panel of judges’ opinions in five categories: exposure, color, sharpness, distortion, and overall. Battery life testers follow a precise script, including shots with and without flash, until the battery dies.—Tested in conjunction with the PC World Test Center

Specifications

Resolution 6.1 megapixels
Zoom/Focal Length (35mm equivalent) 10x optical (38-380mm)
Battery Type AA
Media Slots SD Card (1)
Size (wxhxd) 4.4 x 2.7 x 1.4
Weight 9.2 oz.

Macworld’s buying advice

The S4 is an interesting camera, but its unusual design is only partly successful. The rotating lens makes shooting from up high (or from down low, such as from a pet’s-eye view) simpler than with a normal camera, and the long lens is nice. But both of these features make the S4 larger and bulkier than most point-and-shoot competitors, and most casual shooters will likely prefer a smaller camera. Its long zoom, pivoting design, and easy one-handed operation make shooting with the S4 fun, but its high price and short battery life limit its appeal.

[ Richard Baguley is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in PC World, Wired, and JIWire.com. He also maintains a Camcorder blog.]

Nikon Coolpix S4
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