Nikon Coolpix S4 Digital Camera

Reviewed by: Howard Carson, July 2006
Published by: Nikon Canada, Nikon USA
Requires: N/A
MSRP: US$349.95 (after $50 instant rebate), CDN$349.95

The Coolpix S4 presents in one small package most of the best features found in the Nikon line of point & shoot digital cameras. With a strong, 270º swivel-mount 10x (38-380, 35mm equivalent) constant F3.5 Nikkor zoom lens, a 6 megapixel sensor, a large rear LCD and sturdy construction, this camera looks and feels like it's ready for extended use right out of the box.

Nikon states that the S4 is aimed at the active, outdoor crowd and we concur. In particular, the outdoor working crowd is what we're most concerned with in this review. Our previous all-time favorite Nikon point & shoot digital is the L3 mainly because of it sturdiness, consistent image quality and general usability. The S4 however, has us looking in a new direction. The L3 remains a terrific little camera, but the S4 edges it out in business and work versatility.

The Coolpix S4 contains all of Nikon's built-in image features including D-Lighting to correct improperly exposed images, Face Priority Auto Focus which automatically focuses on human faces to help create better portraits, Red-Eye Fix, Blur Warning to let you know a shot may have been spoiled by camera shake so you can shoot it again, 16 Scene Modes (four of which are controlled by Nikon's Scene Assist programming which helps compose more interesting shots), Voice Recording Mode (up to 5 hours with a 256MB SD card), and four Movie Modes (three with sound, one for time-lapse). The camera is easy to grip, at 7 ounces/205 grams it's light enough to wear on the supplied neck strap, it's only 1.4"/37mm deep, and start up time is excellent at approximately 1.5 seconds (which is among the fastest startups we've seen recently in any point & shoot from any camera manufacturer). In the box also you'll find a pair of rechargeable Nikon 'AA' batteries, a charger, a wrist & neck strap, an A/V cable for connection to a TV, the Nikon PictureProject software on CD, the printed manuals, and a USB cable to connect the camera to your Windows, Mac or Linux computer.


Most of the real estate on the back of the S4 is occupied by the 2.5"/63.5mm LCD, except for a horizontal row of buttons (display info, delete, menu, playback), a navigation joystick/selector, and a small grouping of raised studs to give your thumb some traction when gripping and swiveling the body. There's no room for a rocker zoom control on the back, so Nikon opted for a rotary zoom ring lever positioned around the shutter button on the camera's top panel. Also on the top panel you'll find the Still/Scene/Video slider switch, mic/speaker grill and the on/off button. The bottom panel of the camera has a spring loaded locking battery cover. The bottom panel is also pre-threaded for a tripod mount. The right side panel contains the SD card slot and the A/V port. The left side of the camera is the actual lens barrel which is attached to the main body with a vertical 270º swivel assembly. It also features a finger grip/groove on the top. The barrel is not detachable.

In keeping with the Kickstartnews tradition of "real reviews by real users" we put the S4 through its paces in daily use over a period of three weeks. The camera spent about ten days at my side, five days with an engineer working on a number of building projects, and five days in the hands of a craft shop owner. I used the camera as a daily companion to take shots of landscapes, sunsets, points of interest, people and various other things I encounter in my business travels. The engineer has helped us with digital camera reviews before, so he was ready with a number of photo opportunities on job sites (interior, exterior and subterranean locations). The craft shop owner used the camera to create product shots for her web site. The positive comments and general enthusiasm over the S4 were voluble and universal. Everybody liked this one, including me.

The most important assets for any camera being used in the field, on job sites, in the office, handled by many different people during any given month, is its resistance to bumps and bangs and how well it's designed to protect its own lens and LCD display. The fact is, shared cameras often take a bit of a beating because most people don't treat shared items as well as they treat their own property. The battery compartment cover must have a twist resistant hinge and a locking mechanism that's secure but at the same time relatively easy to open and close. The same thing is true for the door on the SD card slot. The LCD screen must have a scratch and glare resistant coating but still be crystal clear. The lens cover must be integrated with or attached in some way to the camera itself. Keeping in mind that in some environments a camera can go for weeks with a missing lens cover before anyone thinks to mention it, anything which prevents the lens cover from being lost is also going to help prevent scratches and the accumulation of dust. The S4 has a snap open/close lens cover which is attached to the front of the lens barrel by means of a pressure fit circular collar. It's a replaceable item. The LCD has a very tough scratch resistant coating which shows no marks or even hairline scratches after several weeks of use (Apple could take some lessons from this to improve its scratch-prone iPod screens). The battery compartment cover and the SD card slot door do not slip or pop open under any circumstances that we tried.

Cons: All digital camera makers should start including a reasonably large data storage card with each model—a fast 256MB card if you please—along with some sort of usable camera bag. The cost of storage cards has dropped significantly and a decent sized card will improve the initial shooting experience. A basic camera bag included in the box will prevent a lot of early damage until people get used to handling the device. I'm well aware of the potential for additional storage card and gadget bag sales, but we receive a lot of consumer complaints about the fact that the final cost of a new digital camera from Nikon, Canon, Olympus, Sony and so on is not just the sale price of the camera. It's actually the price of the camera plus a storage card plus a proper case or gadget bag. If you're going to add a 1GB card and decent Billingham, Camera Care, Case Logic, Crumpler (which company also has my vote for the most entertaining and interesting web site), Domke/Tiffen, Keisel, Kinesis, Lowepro, Lightware, M-Rock, Roadwired, Tamrac, Targus, Tenba, or ThinkTank bag, plan on spending an additional $75-$100. You have to remember to open the hinged, plastic, snap-shut lens cover all the way so it's flat against the side of the lens barrel. Fail to do that and you'll might get shadows and partially blocked shots. The front of the lens barrel is not threaded for filters.

Pros: This is now our favorite point & shoot. If you want something that deploys fast, remains fully featured, comes with a good lens, shoots clear and watchable video, offers a voice recorder for annotations, and which works well in a wide variety of lighting conditions indoors & out, the Nikon Coolpix S4 fits the bill. Business people of all kinds can rejoice too because the S4 is tough enough to be tossed around a bit without fear of damaging or denting it. For sure it will show signs of wear & tear, but it's hard to break it. The big LCD is bright and clear at all times except under direct sunlight, but even then it's still viewable. Although the optical zoom range does not give you a true wide angle, Nikon has provided this particular 10X range at a constant and moderately fast F3.5 aperture to give most travelers, technicians, vacationers, amateur photographers, hobbyists, nature lovers, city lovers and almost anyone else you can think of a powerful and useful lens and imaging system. The digital sensor provides detailed, bright, colorful, accurate photos suitable for the web, presentations, photo albums and (if you get some really sharp shots) printing at any size all the way up to 16"x20". Start up time is excellent. The swivel mounted lens and the large LCD combine to help you make good shots at even the most awkward angles and in difficult conditions. Just before completing the review, I took the camera down to the lakeshore near my home to photograph some birds and driftwood on the beach and discovered that the hinged lens cover could double as a partial hood to block some unwanted glare and light reflections in certain situations. All in all, the Nikon Coolpix S4 is a terrific little camera and an excellent value. Highly recommended.

KSN Product Rating:

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