The Nikon Coolpix S31 sticks out oddly in the entry-level point-and-shoot segment. Priced below Rs 6,000, it’s the most affordable digital camera that can take a lot of beating and shoot underwater. This means, be it shooting in a swimming pool or while you’re snorkeling, this shooter will happily be at your service. Let’s find out what it packs in its weather-sealed shell and how it performs.
Waterproof, shockproof and dustproof
Design and features
The Coolpix S31 is a subtle upgrade over the S30, which used a pair of AA batteries. The S31 uses a lithium-ion battery pack and hence manages to shed around 30 grams of weight. It’s a tad heavy at 185 grams and doesn’t quite fit snugly in the trouser pocket due to its relatively large form and more so because of the protruding lens cover that seals the optics. Carrying the camera in a pouch or using the bundled wrist strap would be more practical.
Apart from the use of a lithium-ion battery pack, the specs of the S30 and S31 are almost identical, including the sensor and optics. The CCD sensor is of the 1/2.9-inch type, which is slightly smaller than the usual 1/2.3-inch type used in most mainstream digital cameras. This has allowed Nikon to use a smaller lens so that it doesn’t jut out much at full zoom. Note that the lens cover protrudes only about 13 mm from the body and the entire zoom and focus mechanism has very limited room to function. This is why the optical zoom isn’t much—the lens starts from an effective focal length of 29mm and extends to 87mm, which translates to a mediocre 3x zoom. A wider lens (say around 25mm) would have been nice to shoot wider landscapes and group photos, but nevertheless, here you gain on the telephoto end. The largest aperture at the wide and telephoto ends is f/3.3 and f/5.9 respectively.
Conveniently placed button for video recording
The design of the S31 is similar to the S30 but it isn’t as boxy thanks to a slight hump on the top that houses the flash. The focus-assist lamp is placed just next to the flash and a tiny aperture for the microphone is placed at the bottom right corner. Right there it’s mentioned that the camera is waterproof till up to 16.4 feet (5 metres) and shockproof if dropped accidentally from up to 3.9 feet (1.2 metres). This doesn’t mean that the S31 can survive underwater indefinitely or will continue functioning normally if you hurl it to the ground in a fit of anger. The specs clearly state that the camera can shoot underwater for up to 60 minutes. That said, the S31 complies to IPX-8 (waterproof) and IPX-6 (dustproof) standards.
The top panel and the controls cluster of the S31 sport a minimalistic design. The top panel has a large, round shutter release button and another button of the same size on the left side for video recording. The rear of the camera is dominated by a 2.7-inch LCD monitor, which is slightly raised from the shell. The left side has a stack of four buttons for selection and to the right of the LCD monitor you have the 4-way D-pad and playback button. Things would have been simpler had Nikon used a 5-way D-pad, however, even this controls too is as simple to use, not needing anytime to get used to.
The lithium-ion battery pack, SD card slot and USB port are housed in a compartment at the bottom. The compartment is rendered waterproof by a rubber gasket that seals the borders.
“Easy to use” is one of the highlighted features of the S31, and it’s indeed very user-friendly. The stack of controls appears on the left side corresponding to the four buttons present to the left of the LCD monitor. The first button from the top activates auto mode and also takes you to the previous page of the menu. The second button is for setting the flash mode and self-timer. The options available are very limited to avoid confusing the user. The flash modes include auto, off and always fire. The self-timer can be set to 10 seconds, smile timer or disabled. There are only a few instances where you have to use the D-pad to scroll. Most of the options are very limited and selectable using the buttons on the left.
A few effect filters are included under scene presets
The scene mode includes the usual bunch of scene presets like close-up, food, underwater, interval shooting (good for time lapse), burst and fireworks as well as effect filters like mirror, soft picture and diorama (similar to miniature). The ISO speed ranges from 80 to 1600 and the shutter speed ranges from 4 to 1/2000 sec. However, these are taken care of by the camera depending on the scene you select. For example, firework mode will use slower shutter speeds in order to capture light trails. Likewise, the ISO and aperture values also depend on the lighting conditions. Higher ISO values are used in low light and ISO 80 with faster shutter speeds are used in bright lighting. Since the user doesn’t have any control over the exposure, scene presets like Night and Sports/Action, which are missing, would have been useful.
The settings section is very well done. It’s divided into three sections—Change sounds, Choose a size and Camera settings. The change sounds section could have been done away with except for the “Turn sound off” option that activates silent mode. Other than that you can change the shutter sound to various sorts of beeps and chimes and sounds of dog and chicken—just to add some fun for children. The next section allows setting the size of photo (10, 4 and 2 MP) and video (720p and 640 x 480). The Camera settings section has options to set the screen brightness, date and time, toggle electronic VR (image stabilisation) and menu background colour. A noteworthy addition here is the support for some regional languages for the user interface, which includes Bengali, Hindi and Marathi.
Filter effects can be added to photos in the playback mode
The playback menu is quite action packed. You can add filter effects to the photos you’ve shot, view photos in a slideshow and create albums which are simply collages. The effect filters aren’t the same you get under scene presets. Here, you get Starbursts (star filter), Fisheye, Toy camera, Change colors (black and white, sepia and cyanotype), Highlight colors (selective colour) and Decorate (using frames).
Overall, the user interface is quite well designed but at times we found it a bit laggy. Also, the buttons feel a bit squishy, which could be because of the protection used internally.
Build quality and ergonomics
The S31 is waterproof, shockproof and dustproof. This pretty much explains how rugged it is. But that doesn’t mean it will look sparkling new forever unless you take good care. The glossy shell is a fingerprint magnet and isn’t resistant to scratches, and the same goes for the LCD screen. It’s advisable to keep a piece of lint-free cloth handy to restore the sheen of the camera from time to time.
Nikon has tried its best to make the S31 as user-friendly and comfortable to use. We particularly like the addition of the large video recording button on the top. You also have the option to fasten the wrist strap to the left or the right eyelet on the top corners. Using the S31 single-handed is very convenient. A dimpled thumb grip above the D-pad and a slight recess on the sides of the lens lend a good grip. Children and those with small hands will like the handling of this camera. If you have large hands, you will find yourself struggling to grip it firmly as there’s little space to hold it and you cannot curl your fingers over the sides while shooting.