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This will probably be the last camera I ever buy but not because it is perfect and has everything I will ever likely need. This camera replaced a Sanyo Xacti that was awarded to me for 20 years' service by my former employer. That was 6 years ago. If I wait another 6 years before replacing this one, I strongly suspect that the cameras integrated into mobile phones will provide everything that anyone could need in a single package, and who wants to carry two devices around with them when they can make do with just one.
We are getting close to that now: the latest Nokia 808 Pureview mobile has an astonishing 42mp camera that virtually eliminates the need for an optical zoom; pity it uses the Symbian OS, which has been dead in the water for years!
I had been debating replacing the Sanyo for a while but hadn't found The One. To be honest, I would have preferred a pistol-grip style camera, like the Sanyo, and had been looking at some Panasonic models, especially the waterproof one (HX-WA20). However, all of them seemed to be very weak in the area of the built-in flash; I really did want one that had good low light performance, either by way of the quality of the image processor itself, and/or in the quality of the flash.
In the end I decided that I had waited long enough. The Nikon Coolpix S9300, whilst a standard format compact digital camera, did seem to have just about everything I wanted, and more besides, and came out well in comparative reviews. At £300 RRP, it was beyond my budget however. I found that Jessops were selling it for just under £219 but, best of all, I found a seller on Amazon who was offering it for just under £200, so that's where I bought it. I also bought a hard-shell case for it on Amazon for £8, virtually identical to versions from Lowepro at less than half the price.
The basic features of the camera are: 16mp CMOS CCD; 18X Optical Zoom; Full HD (1080p) Movie mode; an automatic Panorama mode; and GPS capability for geo-tagging. The rear screen is 7.5cms but is not moveable, which is probably the one feature I would have liked which it didn't have. These are the features that were my primary requirement and sold the camera to me. The camera does not come with an SD data card but I bought a 16GB one to use with it, a Integral Ultima Pro, rated at 20MB/s.
As with most cameras like this it's designed for right-handed people: all of the controls are on the right, on top or at the back. The main control on the top, apart from the on/off button, is the shutter button. Switching on the camera causes the lens to pop out of the body about 3cms. On full optical telephoto, this extends to 5cms.
Immediately in front of the shutter button is the telephoto lever, and in operation you would use these with one finger, to take your photos. I did find that the telephoto operation was a little imprecise: the slightest touch would change the focal length a lot; fine adjustment is not a strength and no manual over-ride is available. It does take a bit of getting used to but you are usually able to frame a picture satisfactorily.
Focus is pretty fast and has a range of options for different types of point focussing, including face recognition. There is no manual focus option. In operation you have two choices: press the shutter button half-way, to set and check the focus; simply press the button all the way and trust the camera to do its job. I practice I found the auto-focus very reliable, even in fairly low-light conditions, although there will always be extreme situations that challenge the camera's capabilities to the limit. There are few compact cameras with a manual focus option and if you need this then you probably need to be looking at an SLR.
The other main control on the top of the camera is the operation mode wheel. As with most cameras of this type, there is a green symbol on the wheel that indicates full-auto operation, where you trust the camera to work it's magic. I used this setting most of the time and found the camera did a good job almost all of the time. Of course, even full-auto can be over-ridden in certain respects, such as flash control, white balance and macro mode.
In addition to full auto, the dial also gives immediate access to an auto Scene selection, where the camera tries to identify the best scene settings for the picture it sees. There is also a manual Scene selection setting, where pressing the Menu on the rear of the camera allows you to choose amongst around a dozen different scene types, such as Dawn/Dusk, Firework show, Sports and, the one I use most, Panorama mode.
I am really impressed with this and have used it many time with good results. Previously I had discovered a French website - Demandar - where you can create panoramas on-line from multiple individual shots. The results were quite good but, of course, the final outcome is very much dependent upon the number of overlapping shots taken. Nikon's panorama feature is pretty well flawless. The only issue I had with it (and that based only, so far, on the 180 degree option) is that I remain to be convinced that it does actually cover a complete 180 degrees. The guide on the sweep is a bar that progresses across the bottom of the screen but it doesn't seem to relate to the actual rotation of the camera; it seems to be time-based.
Also, quick selected on the dial, is an Effects option such as Soft focus and Sepia. There is also a multi-shot option, which takes several shots in rapid succession, for capturing movement. There's what's called Smart Portrait, which searches for faces and releases the shutter when identified.
There's a Backlight option, which fires the flash to counter the brightness coming from behind the subject. I was less happy with this, preferring to play with the white balance to enhance the subject. The flash tends to give a little bit of a washed-out effect.
Lastly, on the quick selection wheel, there's a Night Landscape option, which I used a fair bit and with which I was quite impressed. It takes lots of underexposed pictures, to help avoid camera shake, and then combines them to produce a normal exposure picture. Not perfect but pretty impressive.
The other feature on top of the camera is the flash. This is recessed in the body normally but pops up on the left-hand side when required, so you need to make sure you keep your fingers out of the way in order to avoid preventing it emerging. The flash is very impressive, with a very bright light and a long throw, far, far better than the weedy flash on most cameras.
The primary feature on the rear is the 7.5cms screen. It isn't touch-sensitive so you can't use it to select options, and it is quite shiny so can be difficult to see in bright light. It also doesn't swing out to enable you to see it no matter what angle you are holding the camera. However, the resolution is very good and the pictures it displays, very detailed.
To the right of the screen are the remaining controls. In the top right-hand corner is the separate video button, marked with a red dot. You press this to take video and again to stop the recording. Video can be shot right up to full 1080p at 30 frames per second and the results are excellent. It shoots in sound as well; the stereo mics are on top of the camera, each side of the GPS module. For shooting in windy or moving situations, a wind noise reduction option exists.
On holiday, I shot a video of my wife learning to water-ski. The video was truly impressive. Individual video shots can have a length up to 30 minutes but, of course, the size is very dependent upon the size of the data card you are using.
The major control on the back of the camera is a wheel with an "OK" button in the middle. This is a selector wheel for options. Immediate access is provided by pressing the edge of the wheel in the direction of the four points of the compass to determine options for the Flash, Timer, Macro mode and White Balance. All other options are selected via the Menu button just below the wheel. Selection of options with the wheel can be done simply by pressing the edge of the wheel or by rotating the wheel in the clockwise or anti-clockwise direction.
There are a vast number of possible options and I have to confess that I have yet to try more than a few of them. However, of the ones I have tried, the Flash control (switching off, select red-eye reduction, white balance control for unevenly lit scenes) have been very successful.
Of course, once you have taken your pictures and videos you will want to preview them. The Playback button is just above the wheel and, in combination with the telephoto lever flicked towards wide-angle, can enable you to preview them either one at a time or progressively in grids of more and more pictures at a time to a maximum of 9x8. Flicking the lever towards telephoto, with a single picture displayed, enables you to zoom into the picture and the wheel enables you to move around in it. A Dustbin button alongside the Menu button enables the deletion of pictures.
With the camera comes a charger and a USB cable. The cable attaches to the charger, which comes with a fold-away US style connector, plus adaptors, and plugs into a socket concealed beneath a flap on the side of the camera.
A full re-charge does take a fair amount of time, as long as 3 hours, so if you have an immediate need then it would probably pay dividends to buy an extra battery. The provided one is the EN-EL12, rated at 1050mAh, which you can buy on the Web for around £10. Battery life is probably not the S9300's strongest point. It would pay dividends to ensure that the battery is topped up whenever the opportunity arises, even if the battery isn't completely depleted.
The same connector can be used to plug the camera into a computer to access the photos. Of course, you could also remove the data card from the camera and plug it directly into the computer, to access them as well.
Under the same flap is also a mini HDMI slot, to attach the camera to a TV and play back photos and video directly but for this you will have to buy a suitable cable as none is provided with the camera. You can get them on the Web for around £10.
So, what's it like to use?
I have now had an opportunity to use it extensively on our recent holiday, with shots taken in just about all conditions. I have been impressed with the shots it has taken and there have been few conditions that have seriously challenged it. Probably the only time you will get problems like camera shake is when taking photos in very low light conditions, without the flash and not using one of the specialist scene settings designed for use in such conditions.
The panorama mode is brilliant and produces really impressive pictures. I have taken loads of these now and have posted a few on Facebook, along with standard stills and videos from our holiday to Turkey. I find the colours strong and realistic, even when taken with the flash.
The 18x optical zoom is also brilliant; no previous camera has given me the ability to get up close and personal with distant subjects. I'm not a part-time paparazzo but I feel that I could take good quality photos from a considerable distance without the subject being aware. The camera does also include a digital zoom, which will operate beyond the optical zoom limit, adding another 4x. However, here the quality of the resultant picture will be impacted although the 16mp CCD does help to reduce this. I have taken a couple of photos with some degree of digital zoom and have not been unsatisfied with the result.
All in all I have been very impressed with the Nikon and feel that, at the price I paid for it, it represents good value. The only really weak point is the battery. So far I have been unable to discover if a higher capacity one exists. I may have to buy a second battery for those occasions when the one in use runs dry.