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Compact but Capable
on March 6, 2010
I owned the very good Sony DSC-W350 (which I liked very much), but I managed to leave it in a rental car. Between the time I bought my Sony and now, Nikon released a new line, so I figured I'd give one of their best compact point and shoot cameras a try. I use a lot of Nikon's DSLR equipment, but their point-and-shoots have been a bit disappointing to me over the years. But I liked the S8000 and decided to give it a try - and I'm glad I did...it's a wonderful point-and-shoot, even better than the Sony in every way.
First, I place a lot of emphasis on the size and shape of the camera and whether it just feels natural in my hands. The S8000 is very small and light, and sometimes really petite cameras just feel awkward to me. I'm happy to say that the S8000 gets it about perfect - it's easy to hold, the controls feel like they're where you expect them, and I never accidentally hit say, the power button when I'm looking for something else. I also tend to like designs that put the lens in the middle of the camera, as opposed to some designs (like the otherwise very good Panasonics) that tend to put the lens off-center. With very little practice, I feel like I can work the Nikon with my eyes closed, and I never feel awkward with it.
The built-in LCD monitor is also very good and easy to read under most conditions, except maybe in very bright direct sunlight. Still, my eyes aren't fantastic, but I have no trouble navigating the menus or reviewing shots after I've taken them. As an added plus, the menus are structured in a way that's similar to Nikon's DSLR cameras, so if you're familiar with Nikon's other products, you'll feel right at home here.
It's also a fast camera. I don't find the start-up time to be particularly quick, but once you have it on, focus, zooming, shutter lag, flash recycle and so on are very, very fast indeed. The autofocus system seems to be about as fast as the system in my Nikon D3 most of the time, which is really impressive to say the least. With some of the older point and shoots I've owned, I felt like I'd miss shots because of shutter lag or how long it took to focus...not so with the S8000.
As for image quality, I have to say that I was skeptical that a 10x lens could perform as well as I want. Honestly, I'd rather have a super sharp 4x than a mediocre 10x, and this was my biggest concern with the Nikon. Well, I'm happy to say that I've been pleasantly surprised by the wide zoom range in the Nikon - this is one really high performance lens, at least when you look at it in combination with all the other features the camera offers. It does great close-ups, letting you focus up to about half an inch from your subject. It seems to have a great optical anti-shake capability, permitting you to hand-hold the camera in fairly dark situations without resorting to a flash. The wide-angle end of the spectrum looks natural without some of the distortions you sometimes see on this type of camera. The worst thing I can say about the lens is that it has some purple fringing at the long end of the range - nothing that can't be fixed in Photoshop, but it is noticeable.
Overall, I don't see much difference in the 10x lens on the Nikon versus the excellent 4x lens on my former Sony in terms of image quality. The Nikon seems to produce slightly warmer colors with more saturation and just a generally more vivid appearance. The Sony was more natural looking, but not a lot of difference otherwise. I do notice that Nikon seems to apply slightly less digital sharpening than Sony, but this again is easily corrected in whatever editing software you use if you want to. Frankly, some cameras tend to push the sharpening a bit too far, and portraits tend to come out looking a bit harsh as a result. The Nikon gives you a more natural look that most people will find pleasing - plus you can always add sharpening after the fact if you need to.
If you're a novice, one thing to keep in mind is that at the telephoto end of the zoom range, the S8000 is equivalent to a 300mm on a 35mm camera. This offers quite some magnification - but it also amplifies your tendency to get blurry pictures by inadvertently shaking the camera (for instance, as you press the shutter release). Nikon's vibration reduction system helps a lot, but you really need bright lighting (hence, high shutter speeds) to get consistently sharp pictures with this end of the zoom range. I'm sure we'll see subsequent reviewers complaining about fuzzy images at the long end of the zoom range, and no doubt this will be why. As a side note, the camera includes a tripod socket, so it's possible to get perfect pictures in low light, even at the 300mm end of the range - but I rarely see people carrying around a five pound tripod for their six ounce camera.
The camera goes out to ISO 3200, but in my use so far, I'd only recommend up to ISO 400 for images you intend to print, maybe 800 for email/web images. Higher ISO than 800 get to look pretty poor, in my opinion. Of course, this is the nature of the beast - these compact cameras have compact image sensors, and that means you just can't boost the sensitivity without introducing lots of noise.
The built-in flash is okay, but not super powerful. It does offer uniform lighting over the frame, even when using wide angle views - a pet peeve of mine on other cameras. The S8000 also has automatic red-eye reduction built in, so you rarely see people pictures having lots of red-eye. Of course, I'd rather have great noise-free performance out to ISO 3200 so I don't need the flash in the first place, but absent that, the flash is a reasonable compromise.
Nikon includes their venerable D-lighting system, which is essentially a way to bring detail back into the picture when there's a huge contrast variation. It works well, for instance, with many flash shots, or when you have a person standing in the shade against a sunny background. Since you can also add these effects post-processing, I tend to turn the feature off in my cameras, but it does work well overall.
There are a few other included features I don't get much use out of. One is the video mode. I suppose if I want to take videos, I'd use a video camera, not a tiny point-and-shoot. Nikon doesn't seem to have put a lot of thought into the video mode anyway...it's "only" 720p, and in what seems like a poor design choice, you can't zoom the lens while filming. Another included feature I just don't find myself using is the burst mode that lets you take up to 16 lower quality (3MP) images in a very rapid sequence...generally, if I'm doing high-speed action photography, I'm doing it with my DSLR, not the point-and-shoot. Compared to the Sony I recently owned, there are also no panorama or HDR modes, but honestly, I don't miss either of these.
Overall, I think Nikon has a winner here and I absolutely recommend it for anyone wanting a compact but capable point-and-shoot.