Overall construction is pretty good with the outer shell of the S9300 constructed from a mix of metal and tough plastic. In the hand the camera feels pretty solid, with a reassuring weightiness to it as well. In terms of size, the 18x zoom does mean that its overall dimensions are a little larger than a regular short-zoomed compact, however it still remains small enough overall to easily slip inside a coat pocket, or even a larger trouser pocket.
As is common with Nikon compacts a riased ridge on the front of the camera body acts as a makeshift finger grip. While it does help to give the camera a clean look it's not particularly pronounced nor particularly grippy. That said it does give you something to (just about) brace your middle finger against, which is surely better than nothing at all. Thankfully the large rubberised thumb grip on the back does go some way towards improving overall grip. There is, of course, an eyelet on the side of the camera for attaching a wrist-strap that should ensure no harm comes to the camera should the camera slip from your grasp. As always, our advice is to use it.
Nikon has done a goo job keeping button clutter to a minimum. In total there are only four buttons on the back, all of which fall within easy reach. The directional-pad is surrounded by a control wheel (in the style of Canon), which makes easy work of navigating through menus. Speaking of the in-camera menus, the S9300 sports the usual unfussy menu system that has become something of a Nikon trademark so finding and selecting what you want using the D-pad, control wheel and OK button becomes second nature before long.
As with many compact cameras performance is something of a mixed bag. On the plus side, the camera switches on and is ready to shoot in at a fraction under 3.5seconds. Autofocus is pretty snappy too, at least when the camera is being used in good light. Used in dim to dark conditions, however, and the S9300’s contrast-detect AF module does begin to struggle – although this is fairly normal for a camera of this type and price.
The camera offers a good range of AF options including a user-controlled Single-point option that lets you position the AF point wherever you want on the screen, with relatively good coverage available from the 99 points. In addition, there are also Center AF, multi-point Automatic, Subject Tracking and Face Priority AF options to choose from.
Used in Single-shot drive mode we managed to reel off six images within a 10-second timeframe, which equates to a framerate of 0.6fps. Shooting full-res JPEGs using the Continuous (High) setting the camera is able to reel off a fairly impressive 7fps, however the camera does lock up after seven images have been captured. From here it takes seven seconds to process all of the captured images during which time you’re unable to shoot any more images. With the camera set to Continuous (Low) the framerate drops to around 2.5fps. Processing times when using any of the camera’s multiple-shot features (for example, the HDR-like Backlighting mode) are a little on the long side too.
Battery performance is a little on the poor side too, and certainly isn’t helped by keeping the battery-sapping GPS switched on at all times. Even with it switched off though, we struggled to get 250 shots from a single charge. The actual GPS performance isn’t bad, although lock-on times will of course depend on atmospheric conditions and the number of satellites in view at any given time. The digital compass, while arguably a bit of a gimmick, is a nice touch too.
Sadly, we have to report that we were actually slightly disappointed with overall image quality, with our main gripe being a lack of consistency with regards to general image sharpness and rendering of detail. All too often images displayed a displeasing softness, along with the trademark smearing of fine detail that’s admittedly common to many small-sensor cameras with densely populated sensors. Even Nikon’s generally effective Vibration Reduction anti-blur seemed unable to solve the issue, meaning we were left with more than our fair share of slightly soft images.
On the plus side though metering is generally quite accurate and we didn’t notice any particular tendency for the camera to either under or over-expose. Even lighting conditions certainly help in this respect, but in the high-contrast scenes we shot we were generally quite impressed with the S9300’s ability to tread a consistent line between hightlight retention and shadow detail.
Unusually for a camera of this type and price, there are no preset JPEG processing options (what Nikon calls ‘Picture Controls’) to choose from either, which essentially means that the colour, tone, contrast and sharpness of images shot by the S9300 are delivered on ‘a one size fits all’ basis. Hopefully Nikon will rectify this with any future models so that you can easily alter the look of your images to better suit the subject.
As things stand the S9300 delivers fairly lifelike colour (for those familiar with Nikon cameras think ‘Standard’ Picture Control setting) along with generally acceptable levels of contrast. You can always boost things in a digital darkroom using dedicated image editing software of course, although the fact that the S9300 is JPEG-only does limit your scope to process your images.
ISO performance is pretty much in keeping with what we might have expected, which is to say good at the lowest settings but not-so-good at the higher ones. At ISO 125 and ISO 200 the S9300 produces images with no visibly intrusive noise, although by ISO 400 some image degradation begins to take hold with a slight softening of detail, even when images are viewed at less than 100%. This becomes more pronounced at ISO 800 and by ISO 1600 images have become noticeably soft. The top setting of ISO 3200 produces fairly noisy images with a clearly visible lack of detail and loss of saturation. Automatic white balance performs well outdoors in natural light, although indoors under mixed lighting it does become easy to fool, resulting in slightly cold images, often with a displeasing colour cast.
While the S9300's 18x optic is a little lacking in zoom power compared to its 20x rivals, the camera does distinguish itself in other areas – most notably with its high-speed shooting abilities. Sadly this is somewhat undone by image quality though, which isn’t as good as that produced by some of its rivals. Overall then, while the S9300 certainly has its merits, it’s not quite enough to keep up with the competition.