Review: Nikon Coolpix S51

If you don’t have a camera, you’re probably on the look-out for something that suits your personality. Something small, sleek and dependable. The Nikon Coolpix S51 might just be that.

With the holidays just around the corner, it’s always great to know that you can depend on a camera for capturing those fun moments that you never want to forget. It’s the sort of thing that you can just get out and when you aim it someone, it doesn’t matter whether you get that “if you take my picture, I swear I’ll kill you” frown or the “wait! no! don’t take my picture!” laugh.

So it’s a good idea to make sure that you have something small and dependable because really, not everyone has a big hulking camera around their necks at all times. I mean sure, I do… but I’m nuts.

So if you don’t have a camera, you’re probably on the lookout for something that suits your personality. Something small, sleek and dependable.

The Nikon Coolpix S51 might just be that. Aside for the depth and weight, it’s a little larger than a credit card which means it’ll probably fit in that top pocket or handbag without a problem.

It’s also quite fashionable provided you have no problems with simplicity. Looking down from the top, you’re greeted to a sleek curvature that’s only noticed when you look down at it. Look at it from the front and all you’ll see is a simple rounded rectangular shape which is something we’re all accustomed to in the iPod Generation.

The S51 also feels great in the hands. If you’ve got smaller hands, it’s likely to take up just a little bit more than what your palm has room for and if you’ve got bigger hands, encompassing it probably won’t be a challenge. At around 125 grams, it’s certainly not heavy so it won’t be weighing your wrist down nor is it likely to drag pockets down with it.

But it’s when you turn it on that you actually see the camera for what it is. Where other manufacturers have been known for making cameras that only look good but lack substance, the Nikon S51 takes the slim Coolpix formula of the previous S models and brings it up a step.

Turning it on, you’re greeted with a variety of modes to suit your tastes. Nikon have adopted the click wheel mechanism which lets you make your way through the modes quite easily. You’ll get to choose between Setup, Movie, Voice Recording, Shooting, Hi-ISO, and Scene with the latter three probably being the three most important.

Let’s first tackle what most people will be using: scene. Scene is the mode most people should probably go for if they just want an ease of use shooting mode for a given situation. When you’re in it, simply hit the menu button and use the click wheel to navigate to the shooting mode you want. Whether this is portrait, landscape, party, sunset, or close-up photography, chances are you’ll be set. Really, these are you basic settings that no point & shoot ships without.

Click to enlarge

It’s in the Shooting and Hi-ISO modes where things start to get interesting.
Shooting allows you to get down and dirty with your shooting options with the ability to change the type of colour you use, ISO, shutter settings, and sensitivity. Basically, it’s the advanced mode. Hi-ISO takes that one step further by forcing you to shoot in 1600 ISO, a setting that’s coupled with a lot of noise but also allows you to shoot in darker environments without needing to spoil the shot with flash.

There is a fair amount of customising that can be done quite easily with the S51 and the image quality produced by the 8.1 megapixel sensor is actually pretty decent. It’s not the fastest of cameras and it won’t come near what the a Digital SLR is capable of, but people looking at this camera probably aren’t looking for that level of speed.

Two excellent features thrown into the mix are Nikon’s Vibration Reduction technology (also known as VR) and their face recognition technology. Coupled with the Hi-ISO feature, VR works a treat. In case you weren’t aware, Vibration Reduction works in situations where there isn’t enough light for the camera to take a shot without blurring the image. Compact cameras have slowly been getting this technology and together with a decent low-light mode, Nikon really seem to have made a strong feeling that this camera excels in that area. Settings like restaurants and outside parties at night shouldn’t be too hard an environment to use the S51.

Then there’s the facial recognition technology which can be turned on by holding down the small button on the left-hand side of the top. This mode actively seeks out the dominant face in the picture and attempts to track it. So if you’re shooting friends or family, the camera can easily track the heads of the people you want to take the picture of.

If you’re like me, you’re probably feeling that the Nikon Coolpix S51 is coming together as a nice, stylish and small package for people who want that sort of thing. Like all things however, it’s not perfect.

Click to enlarge

For one, the design of the controls could use some tweaking. If you hold the camera the way most people hold compact cameras, you’ll find that the entire body will rest in your right hand with your forefinger on the top near the shutter and the power switch and the weight of the S51 being held by your cupped hand. This means that your thumb will either be resting on the click wheel or the zoom button.

Now most people will probably opt for their thumb on the zoom, but if they wanted to change quickly, it’s an uncomfortable switch for me and my hands are smaller than most people’s so it should be easier for me. I’m a little surprised the zoom isn’t on the top with the control wheel in a different spot. This isn’t a major issue, just a niggle.

What is major is the software. In a day and age where plug & play should really be as simple as the term is, it’s surprising to note that the Coolpix requires the installation of its own software before you can even use it to read the SD cards you put into it. A lot of the devices (cameras included) out on the market just require that simple action of plugging it in and maybe selection an option or two… the S51 doesn’t use that.

Perhaps the S51c has it better with its wireless control. All I know is that software installs should only be needed if you plan on doing things to the images. If all you want to do is upload them to Facebook or print them on your computer, then you shouldn’t really need to touch the supplied software.

The facial recognition technology feels like it could be better too. While it’s lack of speed isn’t surprising, it doesn’t do too good of a job tracking the head. The moment your subject turns their head, it’s likely to lose the capture and will have to acquire the recognised face once again. This makes this technology really only useful if someone is facing your direction… which means it’s completely useless because chances are you’ll have made focus lock on them anyway.

Consumer facial recognition technology is really still in its infancy, mind you, but with the level in the S51, I’m kind of surprised it’s there in the first place and what it could be used with.

Click to enlarge

It is probably worth noting that while not a flaw, the S51 doesn’t feel like it’ll take that much of a beating. It did survive a test drop from about 6 centimetres onto carpet which is decent and I’d expect it to survive a fair amount more onto carpet, but I probably wouldn’t want to see it go ten rounds in a good camera drop test with cement, rocks, asphalt, and anything else that’s likely to leave a scar. It’s certainly not a shockproof camera like some of the Olympus models, but with credit to Nikon, some of the metal components actually feel better and more durable than what I found in my short stint playing with the heavy duty Olympus point & shoot cameras.

When all is said and done, however, the Nikon Coolpix S51 wraps itself up as a good and well-priced fashionable little camera. Yes, it does have its quirks but if you’re in the market for something small stylish, easy to use as well as being able to produce great quality images, I would certainly suggest taking a wander down to your local photography or consumer electronics store and playing with either the Nikon Coolpix S51 or its wireless brother, the S51c.

Click to enlarge

Product: Nikon Coolpix S51

Vendor: Nikon Australia

RRP: $399

Website: Nikon Coolpix S51

Reviewed by Leigh D. Stark