The Nikon S9300 is Nikon's flagship travel compact as as such its highlights include: a 18x optical zoom with built in Vibration Reduction image stabilisation technology; a 16MP backside-illuminated sensor; a sensitivity range of ISO range of ISO 125-3200; Full 1080p HD movie recording at 30fps; a range of high-speed shooting and movie recording modes; a one-touch panoramic creation mode; a small selection of digital filters; a high resolution 3in, 921k-dot LCD monitor; a range of in-camera editing tools and, last but not least, built-in GPS/Digital Compass functionality. While that certainly sounds like a pretty full feature set, the travel zoom market is fiercely competitive at the moment, with all of the major manufacturers offering their own distinctive takes on the genre. So what, if anything, sets the Nikon S9300 apart and is it enough to lift it above its main rivals?
At its heart the S9300 is built around a 1/2.3in backside-illuminated CMOS sensor that produces 16MP of effective resolution. This is combined with a Nikon EXPEED C2 image processor that's able to shoot at a maximum 7fps at full resolution, or up to 120fps at VGA quality (640 x 480 pixels). Sensitivity ranges from ISO 125 to 3200, which puts it on a par with the Canon SX260HS, Samsung WB850F and Lumix TZ30, although the Sony HX20V and Fujifilm F770EXR can go slightly higher at ISO 12,800 (albeit at reduced resolutions).
The S9300's 18x optical zoom is constructed from 11 elements in 10 groups and offers the 35mm focal range equivalent of 25-450mm. While the S9300's 18x zoom doesn't offer quite as much telephoto reach as the 20x zooms found on most of its direct competitors, its 25mm wideangle setting is on a par with just about all of them. Indeed, only the Samsung WB850F, at 21mm, is wider. Maximum aperture is a fairly standard f/3.5 at 25mm, rising incrementally to f/5.9 at 450mm while minimum focus distances start off at 50cm at 25mm, rising to around 1.5m at 450mm. Thankfully, there's also a handy Macro setting that allows you to get as close as 4cm from your subject.
The zoom is controlled by a rocker switch that surrounds the shutter release and this affords fairly good control; feathering the zoom control as lightly as we could we counted around 20 individual steps in between the wideangle and telephoto extremes. When shooting at extended telephoto settings, or indeed at slower shutter speeds, the S9300 features Nikon's generally reliable Vibration Reduction anti-shake technology, which is designed to help keep your images sharp at settings where otherwise some blurring might occur.
Exposure modes are all of the fully automatic variety, however there's a fairly generous spread of exposure options available, with a generous selection of super-speedy continuous shooting and multiple capture options proving to be the S900's trump cards. There's no basic Program mode as such, however the standard Automatic mode does allow you to alter some shooting settings including ISO, White Balance and, unusually for a camera of this type, AF Area and AF Mode.
The automatic Scene selector mode simplifies things all the way down to point-and-shoot proportions with the camera deciding all settings, allowing you only to choose the image size you want. In addition, there are also 17 individually selectable Scene modes, including a useful one-touch Panoramic mode that can record 180- or 360-degree panoramas from a single sweep of the camera. You'll also find a 3D still image option here should you want to shoot 3D images for playback on a compatible screen.
Next to the Automatic, Scene and automatic Scene recognition modes, you'll find a host of exposure modes Nikon has deemed important enough to get their own slot on the mode dial, namely: Night Landscape, Backlighting and Smart Portrait. The first two of these are largely predicated on the S9300's speedy shooting abilities, allowing you to shoot multiple images which the camera then combines into a single image for better overall quality and less noise than might otherwise be possible. Smart Portrait, meanwhile, makes use of the camera's face detection technology to prioritise people in complex scenes.
Given the S9300's speedy shooting abilities Nikon has given a dedicated spot on the exposure mode dial to all of the individual sub-modes this makes possible, namely: Continuous (high and low); a Pre-shooting Cache mode that essentially starts recording images before you've fully depressed the shutter release; two super quick 60/120fps Continuous modes (that shoot at 1MP and VGA resolution respectively); a Best Shot Selector that records multiple images and then selects what the camera considers to be the best five images; and, last but not least, a Multi Shot 16 mode that shoots 16 images and displays them all together in a 4x4 grid.
Given the importance of movie capture to digital cameras these days - especially to pocketable travel compacts like the S9300 - it comes as no great surprise to find that the S9300 is able to record high definition movies at a maximum quality setting of 1080p Full HD at 30fps, which is further complemented by 720p HD - also at 30fps. In addition there's also an iFrame (960x540 at 30fps) setting for easy movie editing on Apple computers, plus a standard definition (640 x 480) quality option. Should you want to record high-speed movies for slow motion playback then the S9300 offers a choice of 60fps and 120fps recording, although resolution does take a pretty hefty knock at both of the high-speed settings. Movie files are recorded in the computer friendly MPEG4 (H.264) format with sound recorded in stereo.