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Nikon Coolpix 800 digital camera
Most of the features of the Coolpix 950, at a (much) lower price!

("First Look" review posted 9/27/99, updated to full review 10/21/99)

 

 

 

 

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1,600 x 1,200 pixel resolution
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2X optical zoom, + 2.5X digital
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Optical and LCD viewfinder
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Matrix, Spot or Average light metering
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Excellent manual focus option
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Improved power management

 

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Manufacturer Overview
Nikon has a long-standing and well-earned reputation for photographic excellence. Their early efforts in digital photography were more oriented toward business applications (as exemplified by the "personal image assistant" of the CoolPix 300) though, and gave all appearances of being an awkward fit with their heritage in fine photography. With advancing technology though, digital photography is poised to become legitimate photography, and Nikon is applying their hard-earned photographic know-how in a new generation of digital cameras, beginning with the CoolPix 900. Probably more than any preceding unit, the CoolPix 900 is a photographer's camera, bringing many creative capabilities to the digital realm previously available only in film-based devices.



High Points

  • 2.11 megapixel 1/2 inch CCD delivering 1600 x 1200 and 640 x 480 pixel image sizes 
  • Standard ISO setting of 100, adjustable to 200, 400 or auto 
  • Newly designed 2x zoom (38 to 76mm equivalent) f/3.5-4.8 Nikkor lens 
  • Digital zoom function for magnifications of 1.25, 1.6, 2.0 and 2.5x 
  • Three JPEG compression modes, plus uncompressed TIFF for maximum image quality 
  • 480 step autofocus, including the macro range 
  • 45 step manual focus adjustment(!) 
  • Macro focusing to 2.8 inches 
  • Autoexposure, with optional manual adjustment of -2.0 to +2.0 in 1/3 EV steps 
  • Three metering modes available: 256 segment matrix, spot and center weighted 
  • Built-in five mode flash (Auto Flash, Flash Cancel, Anytime Flash, Slow Sync and Red-Eye Reduction modes) 
  • Flexible white balance includes new Preset White option 
  • Best Shot Selector automatically selects sharpest of up to 10 shots 
  • Five mode tone compensation (Standard, Contrast +, Contrast -, Lighten and Darken modes) 
  • Pause Display mode allows up to 10 second image review without switching to play mode 
  • Auto file numbering to avoid overwriting files when copied to the host computer 
  • Store and recall up to three different sets of user options 
  • Reduced power consumption, improved power management 
  • Quick start from sleep mode of around two seconds 
  • 1.8 inch 112,000 pixel low temperature polysilicon TFT LCD (sharp LCD display) 
  • CompactFlash memory for image storage, ships with 8MB unit 



Executive Overview
The Coolpix 800 is an attempt by Nikon to capture all the wonderful qualities of the 950 but with a lower price and minus a few features. The major differences lie in the mixed metal/plastic body, lesser lens, more limited exposure control, and the eliminated external flash option and reduced macro capability. The result is still a remarkably capable camera, at a substantially reduced price, relative to the Coolpix 950. Surprisingly, the designers did manage to improve a few of the 950's options on the 800 model, such as improved power consumption, improved manual focusing, faster processing and an ultra high speed capture mode. It's also our impression that the LCD panel on the 800 is more usable in bright light than that on the 950. 

Design-wise, the 800 is easy to get a grip on, with a large hand grip on the right side complete with a non-slip rubber strip on the front and thumb rest on the back. The half-aluminum/half plastic body (see "design" section of this review below), although less durable than the 950's die cast magnesium alloy body, makes the camera more lightweight. The majority of the controls are on top of the camera with just a few buttons on the back (Monitor, Menu and the arrow buttons). 

The battery compartment, tripod mount and CompactFlash slot are all on the bottom of the camera. But unfortunately, the tripod mount is all the way to the side of the camera, directly beneath the lens. While this is a nearly ideal positioning for panorama shooting (aligning the lens nicely with the tripod's axis of rotation), it leaves the camera as a whole off-center, with the mass of the batteries putting some strain on the tripod attachment. We were also somewhat dismayed by the carryover of the plastic CompactFlash flap from the 950: The new flap appears to be beefed up somewhat, but is still a flimsy accent on an otherwise solid design. . The Video Out, Digital and AC jacks are on the lens side of the camera, beneath a flexible rubber flap that snaps snugly into place. Despite the annoyances of the CompactFlash slot and tripod mount, the Coolpix 800 works very well as a camera, providing strong functionality and great image quality at an attractive price. 

Both an optical and LCD viewfinder is on the camera. The optical viewfinder features center focus marks and framing guidelines, but doesn't offer a dioptric adjustment option. The LCD monitor can be shut off to aid in battery conservation and also displays the camera settings if so desired. The 800 provides the same high level of feedback on what it's doing that the 950 did, a welcome feature that we wish more digicam manufacturers would adopt. As noted above, while we didn't have a 950 to compare LCDs with side-by-side, our impression (highly subjective) is that the 800's LCD screen is somewhat easier to see in bright light. 

Although the 800 comes with a slightly less-capable lens than the 950, the 800 still features a true optical zoom (with a 2x ratio) with a maximum aperture of f/3.5 – 4.8, depending on zoom settings. A digital zoom function provides additional "magnification" from 1.25 to 2.5x as well. 

Exposure control is pretty comfortable overall. The Automatic setting allows you to choose the flash mode, exposure compensation (EV), macro and self-timer functions. The Manual setting gives you a little more, with the added ability to adjust white balance, tone (contrast), metering, ISO, black and white mode and lens settings (telephoto, wide, normal and fisheye). A plus here are the long exposure times available (up to eight seconds), although you can't actually control them. The Best Shot Select function enables the camera to take between five and 10 shots consecutively (as long as the shutter button is held down) before examining and selecting the sharpest exposure. 

The image tone adjustment feature in Manual mode allows you to alter image brightness and contrast for optimum results. (More on this later - it's a more sophisticated image adjustment than the basic exposure compensation.) The metering function brings Nikon's trademark 256 matrix metering into the mix along with spot and center weighted measurements. In both Automatic and Manual modes, the Pause Display function gives you up to 10 seconds to review an image after its capture and either keep it or delete it. (The default is to keep it.) There are also continuous shooting modes that allow you to capture up to 40 sub-VGA images (320 x 240 pixels) at around 30 frames per second in the Ultra High Speed capture mode, or fewer frames at higher resolutions in "continuous", "16 shot", and "VGA sequence" modes. 

Playback mode allows you to view images on the LCD display or on a TV screen with the included video cable. You can view one, four and nine images at a time, zoom into an image and delete unwanted images in this mode. Images are stored on the Nikon-branded CompactFlash media, an 8MB card being included with the camera. 

Overall, we enjoyed the Coolpix 800, despite some of the drawbacks we pointed out. It's a close cousin to the 950 without the extra cost and worry over more complicated exposure control. An excellent choice for those wanting the good features of the 950 on a more easy going camera. 


Design
As we indicated in our preliminary First Look examination of the camera, the 800 provides an option for admirers of the 950 model with smaller budgets. Unlike the 950, the 800 apparently features a mixed aluminum/plastic body which makes it more lightweight than its fancier predecessor. Other changes between the two models include a less impressive lens, less exposure control, no external flash and a lesser macro function. But despite these changes, the 800 is a good solution for those wanting an easy to use point and shoot camera with just a few manual controls. 

A note about the camera body, to head off the inevitable email we'll get on the topic. In our "first look" review, we portrayed the camera as having a plastic body. We very shortly received a call from the Nikon product manager, who stated that the body was a mixture of plastic and aluminum, with aluminum being used in the front of the camera, where the lens/sensor alignment is most critical, and also where the camera is the most likely to receive unfortunate knocks. We updated our first look review to reflect this new information, but examined our evaluation unit more closely in writing this review. What we found confirmed our first reaction: At least the outer shell of the evaluation unit is entirely plastic, as compared to the magnesium shell of the earlier 950. Our guess is that the internal construction uses a mix of metal and plastic, as described by the Nikon product manager, while the outer, non-structural shell is plastic, as we observed. 

A hefty grip on the right hand side of the camera likens it to familiar 35mm styling and the small, red rubber strip on the front and circular thumb rest on the back panel further improve your grip. (The red accent on the front of the camera echoes similar design touches on Nikon's high-end 35mm SLRs, almost certainly a deliberate invocation of Nikon's legendary reputation in the professional photo world.) A nylon wrist strap comes with the camera as well as a padded cloth protective case for easier traveling. 

The 800 is reasonably compact, but its larger handgrip and non-telescoping lens design will prevent it from fitting into very small pockets. Overall, it's slightly larger than the general run of digital cameras today, with overall dimensions of 4.7x2.7x2.4 inches (119.4 x 68.6 x 61.0 mm), and weighs in at a fairly light 9.5 ounces (269g) without batteries. 

The view from the back of the camera is relatively spartan, with a grand total of four buttons in view: The two arrow buttons, used to control the zoom lens and navigate the LCD menu system, and the Monitor and Menu buttons under the LCD display. The optical viewfinder is at upper left. 

The majority of the controls reside on top of the camera, with a couple exceptions: two arrow buttons (for zoom control and menu navigation), Monitor and Menu buttons. A mode dial, shutter button and the remaining controls sit on top, with a small black and white LCD status display panel. A 1.8 inch LCD monitor occupies the back of the 800 and can be turned on and off for use as a viewfinder. One of the features of the Coolpix 800 we particularly like is the extent to which you can control the camera via the top-mounted status display, saving the power consumption required by the larger LCD display screen. 

As noted earlier, the battery compartment, CompactFlash card and plastic tripod socket are all on the bottom of the camera. The tripod mount sits directly beneath the lens, good for panorama shooting, but awkward otherwise. The CompactFlash slot is protected by a somewhat flimsy plastic door with questionable durability (an only slightly upgraded carryover from the 950 the previous version having been known to break under stress). We like the positioning of the battery compartment, as it makes the nice hand grip, and the mass of the batteries makes for a camera that balances nicely in the hand. The Video Out, DC and I/O jacks are conveniently located on the side of the camera, protected by a small but flexible rubber flap. 

The front of the 800 features just the lens, optical viewfinder, flash, and a tiny sensor window for flash exposure control. A tiny lens cap protects the lens, meaning you have a little something to keep up with but that can be easily stowed in the carrying case. 

Viewfinder
The 800 offers both an optical viewfinder and LCD monitor to assist in shot composition. Optical viewfinder accuracy is about typical for the digicams we've tested, while the LCD viewfinder is somewhat more accurate than most, falling just short of 100% coverage. (We measured it at 98% in wide angle and 99% in telephoto.) The optical viewfinder features a center autofocus/exposure setting circle and framing guidelines representing approximately 80.5 percent frame coverage at wide angle and 88% at telephoto. The LCD monitor can be turned off and on via the Monitor button below it. The same button also controls the information display on the monitor. A nice feature here is that the monitor tells you the shutter speed and aperture settings on a real time basis. This real-time exposure-information display is a feature we heartily endorse, and one that we really wish more digicam makers would adopt. By default, the LCD monitor automatically comes on when you turn the mode dial to a capture position. Hitting the Monitor button once takes away the information display and hitting it a second time gets rid of the viewfinder. The third hit recalls it. 

There are actually a number of LCD screen operating options that can be controlled via the camera's "Setup" sub-menu, shown at right. These options include the following: 

  • On & C - AF: LCD on whenever in record mode, and autofocus operates continuously, whether the shutter button is pressed or not. This makes for shorter shutter-lag delays (since the lens is always focused), but at the cost of higher power consumption and shorter battery life. 
  • On & S - AF: LCD on whenever in record mode, but the autofocus mechanism only operates when the shutter button is pressed. (Activates with a half-press, for prefocusing when needed.) 
  • Fast Review: ? - This apparently didn't work on our evaluation unit, as it appeared to offer no review at all, but rather quickly reverted to the "live" viewfinder display. (Our unit was apparently an almost-final pre-production version, so it's possible this feature hadn't been enabled yet. It's also possible we simply didn't know how to use it properly, as we had no documentation with the test camera!) 
  • Review Only: LCD illuminates only after a picture is taken, to provide a review of what you've just shot. 
  • LCD Off: LCD screen defaults to off, but can be turned on by the "Monitor" button on the back panel. (Note that whenever the LCD is off, you'll need to turn it on first before you can access the menu system.)


Optics
A 2x zoom Nikkor lens comes on the camera with a focal length range from seven to 14mm (equivalent to a 38 to 76mm on a traditional 35mm camera). Aperture maximum is f/3.5 – 4.8, depending on the focal length setting. The lens features filter threads also good for connecting telephoto, wide angle and fish eye converters, or other accessories such as macro lenses, polarizing filters, etc. The built-in filter threads are a benefit of the non-telescoping lens design: With no delicate telescoping mechanism to worry about, Nikon could provide permanently-attached filter threads on the lens itself, a handy feature. The autofocus system allows for 480 AF steps, including macro range which shoots up to 2.8 inches. In common with the 950, the 800 offers many more AF steps than is common in consumer-level digicams, potentially increasing focus accuracy. Both continuous and single AF modes are available, adjustable in the setup menu. (Curiously, on the "LCD ON/OFF" screen, as noted above.) A big plus is the manual focus function, which allows a 45 step focusing distance presetting. (Few digital cameras offer manual focus at all: Those that do frequently have only a few steps, making for problems when a subject's distance falls between two focus steps.) 

In response to reader requests, we now routinely measure lens distortion and aberrations in our testing. The Coolpix 800 does fairly well in this department. At the wide angle end of the lens' range, it shows moderate barrel distortion, measured at 1.2% in our tests. This isn't the worst we've seen, but is enough that architectural photographers will want to consider post-capture adjustments. (The PhotoGenetics program that we're so fond of by Q-Research now has an optional add-in to remove barrel distortion. This would be a useful accessory for Coolpix 800 owners concerned about barrel distortion.) At the telephoto end of the lens range, the barrel distortion is greatly reduced, to value of only 0.4%. Chromatic aberration is quite good, with only the slightest color fringe showing around black objects at the edges of the frame on our resolution test target. This lens characteristic is hard to come up with a quantitative measurement for, but we'd judge the amount of aberration to be somewhere between one and two pixels at wide angle settings, slightly less at telephoto. This would correspond to numeric values of 0.05-0.1%, a good performance.

Digital Zoom
The Coolpix 800's digital zoom function magnifies at 1.25, 1.6, 2.0 or 2.5x, but as always, achieves this "magnification" by interpolating data from only a portion of the CCD's active area. Digital Zoom may be useful for web projects at low resolution, but is fundamentally not a "zoom" function in the same sense as an optical zoom lens. 

Digital zoom on the 800 is controlled by the same arrow keys that control the optical zoom. In either capture mode, if the optical zoom is at the furthest end of the telephoto capability, continuing to hit the up arrow will activate the digital zoom. The amount of digital zoom will be displayed on the LCD panel at each increment, 1.25, 1.6, 2 or 2.5x. You'll notice some changes in quality with the digital zoom such as a loss of image sharpness. It's visually better to utilize the optical zoom or macro functions and you'll see the difference if you compare images. 

The two arrow buttons above the LCD monitor control both the optical and digital zoom, which may seem somewhat confusing at first. The LCD monitor clues you in to which type of zoom you're using. The digital zoom only picks up when the lens is all the way at the telephoto end of its range. You activate digital zoom by running the lens out to its maximum telephoto setting, and then hold down the up-arrow for a few seconds. The LCD screen will show you what the current digital zoom setting is. (Note that digital zoom is only available when the LCD screen is activated.) 

Exposure
The 800 shares the unusual flexibility of the 950's special capture modes, although it gives up the aperture- and shutter-priority metering options the 950 had. We'll cover basic exposure options in the first section below, and then move on to the more esoteric capture modes. 

The 800 features both automatic and manual capture modes, selected by the mode dial on top of the camera. Automatic gives you control over the flash mode, image quality (compression level) and manual focus. Manual capture mode gives you more options, with the ability to adjust white balance, flash, exposure compensation (EV), manual focus, metering mode, continuous shooting mode, ISO, AE lock and black & white mode. (We were surprised to find that "Automatic" mode allowed access to both manual focus and exposure compensation, as most digicam "auto" modes greatly restrict user controls.) 

When using autofocus in either capture mode, halfway pressing the shutter button sets both focus and exposure. You can use this fact to "lock" the focus on an off-center object by framing that object, half-pressing the shutter button, and then reframing the image while still holding down the shutter button. Manual focus is controlled by pressing down the Macro/Self-Timer button and at the same time pressing the up and down arrows and sets focus in 45 steps from about 0.26 feet to infinity. The distance is displayed on the LCD monitor in English or metric units, helpful in those situations where distance is the best way to gauge focus. 

Also in either capture mode, the camera allows you to review and confirm images immediately after shooting. You have to be quick on your feet though, because the option is only available for a few seconds. Once an exposure has been taken, a trashcan and pause symbol appear on the LCD monitor. If you hit the trash can button, the camera asks you if you want to delete the image or not. Hitting the pause button gives you a little time (10 seconds) to study the image before the image is saved anyway. Pressing the same button throws you back into record mode, saving the image. 

Exposure Range
Like the 950, the 800 has an unusually broad exposure range, with a variable ISO rating (see the section below) of 100, 200, or 400, aperture values ranging from f/3.5 to f/11, and shutter speeds from 1/750 to 8 seconds. Using the (as it turns out, incorrect) EV terminology of our past reviews, this would translate into a usable light range of EV 4 to EV 21. More properly, this is a range of 0.13 to 16,000 foot-candles, or 1.4 to 175,000 lux. In practice, the extreme lower end of this range isn't usable, as the combination of the "pushed" ISO 400 rating and an 8 second exposure time result in unacceptable amounts of image noise. Nevertheless, the lower usable light limit of somewhere around 0.3 to 0.5 foot-candles or roughly 3-5 lux is right up there with the best of the digicams we've tested to date. (October, 1999) 

Flash
The 800 offers five flash options, all selected by the Flash button on top of the camera. Auto lets the camera make the decision whether or not to use the flash by gauging light conditions. Flash Cancel means the flash never fires. Anytime Flash means the flash always fires, regardless of lighting conditions. (More commonly known as fill-flash.) Slow Sync fires the flash while using a slow shutter speed (to let in more of the ambient light) and is best for night and backlit subjects (use a tripod here). Finally, Red-Eye Reduction emits a preflash before unleashing the full flash power to reduce the effect of Red-Eye. For each flash mode, a small icon appears on the status display and LCD monitor. 

We recently began testing the usable range of digicam flash systems, as some cameras have proven to be underpowered in this respect. Not so the Coolpix 800! When we got our evaluation unit of the 800, Nikon had only a preliminary data sheet for it, which didn't include a spec for the flash's range. Accordingly, we tested somewhat blindly, and were surprised to see no significant falloff up to the 14 foot maximum that our studio's layout allows for this test. When we received the final data sheet for the product though, the reason became clear: Nikon rates the 800's flash as being effective all the way out to 26 feet at ISO 100! (Presumably, it would reach twice as far with the camera set to ISO 400.) We didn't directly test this rating, but the flash on the Coolpix 800 is clearly more powerful than any other digicam we've tested to date. (October, 1999) 

As noted in our overview, flash operation is one area where the 800 was scaled back from the feature set of the 950: The 800 doesn't provide for direct connection of an external strobe unit. 

Self-Timer
The Self-Timer on the 800 is controlled by the Macro/Manual Focus/Self-Timer button on top of the camera. In either Manual or Automatic capture modes, simply set your exposure and press the shutter button down all the way. The only indication you receive of the 10 second countdown is a flashing light just beneath the flash on the front of the camera (no countdown on the status display or LCD monitor). Once the camera counts down, it snaps the picture and then automatically cancels the Self-Timer mode. The mode can also be cancelled by hitting the shutter button a second time. 

We have to say that the combination of the self-timer function with that for macro focusing is a design decision that we don't much care for. The reason for our displeasure is that we frequently find ourselves with poorly-supported cameras when working in Macro mode: It is often very handy to use the self-timer in lieu of a cable release, to avoid the camera shake associated with pressing the shutter button. By configuring the self-timer and macro function as separate options on the same control, the ability to combine them is lost. 

Macro
As just noted, the same Self-Timer/Manual Focus/Macro button also controls the Macro function. Press the button until the flower symbol appears in the LCD monitor and/or status display panel. Macro allows you to shoot subjects as close as 2.8 inches from the camera and all flash modes are available. Cancel the mode by simply pressing the button again. As with the Coolpix 950, there's a "sweet spot" in the lens' focal length range that allows the greatest macro magnification. This sweet spot is just past the center of the zoom's range, in the direction of telephoto settings. When you're in Macro mode, the 800 informs you when the sweet spot has been reached by turning the flower symbol green. Macro focusing is one area where the 800's performance is a bit more modest than that of the Coolpix 950, although it still outperforms most digicams on the market. Minimum capture area is an impressively small 2.05 x 1.54 inches (52 x 39 mm). 

Continuous Shooting
Three continuous shooting modes are available on the 800. Ultra High Speed Continuous allows for up to 40 QVGA size (320 x 240 pixel) images at up to 30 frames per second. (!) Continuous gives you up to 1.5 frames per second for full size images in Normal compression mode, capturing up to 10 frames. (Capture speed and maximum sequence length are a function of image quality, with higher image quality settings producing slower and shorter sequences than lower quality ones.) Multiple Continuous takes up to 16 exposures in 1/16 size, "tiling" the resulting images into a single normal image frame. Finally, VGA Sequence mode captures VGA-resolution images (640x480), much as the normal Continuous mode does for full-size images. All of the continuous shooting modes are only available in Manual capture mode and flash options are not available. 

Exposure Compensation (EV)
In both Automatic and Manual capture modes, the +/- button on top of the camera allows you to adjust the exposure compensation by holding it down and pressing the up and down arrows to change the amount. EV can be set in 1/3 increments from +2.0 to -2.0. We like Nikon's implementation of EV compensation on the Coolpix 800 very much, for two reasons: First, it's very easy to access and quick to set, since you don't have to delve into a menu system to do so. Second, if the LCD screen is turned on, it always shows the current setting in the viewfinder display. Overall, an implementation that other manufacturers could do to take a few notes from. 

Tone Compensation
In Manual mode, the Tone Compensation function (listed as Image Adjust on the settings menu) allows you to adjust the contrast and brightness of the image if necessary. Five options give you the choice between Standard, Contrast +, Contrast -, Lighten and Darken. Although we didn't play with this much, this adjustment is quite different from the EV compensation adjustment we just discussed. While exposure adjustment basically moves the overall image brightness up or down, the 800's tone compensation controls can adjust contrast separately from brightness, and the brightness of the midtone and shadow portions of the image separately from the highlight portions. While we didn't play with this extensively, the subtle effects struck us as potentially useful, particularly if you planned to print directly from the camera or memory card, without passing through a computer in the process. 

Metering
In Manual capture mode, the 800 allows you to select the type of metering appropriate to the subject. From the settings menu, you can choose between 256 Matrix, Spot and Center Weight. The 256 Matrix setting is one of Nikon's trademark features. It evaluates 256 different spots within the image, and judges the contrast, etc. to determine exposure settings. This works well for off center subjects, or for subjects with odd contrast or lighting. Spot metering focuses literally on one spot (at the center of the frame) and Center Weight reads exposure from the whole image, but weights its decision more heavily based on what it sees at the center. Also in the settings menu is the ability to turn on AE lock and WB lock, locking exposure and white balance settings to those determined by the first picture taken after the "lock" option is selected. (This feature is very useful for capturing multiple images to be used as part of panoramas.) 

White Balance
White balance on the 800 is only adjustable in Manual capture mode, from the settings menu. There are six selections to choose from: Auto Adjustment, Sunny, Cloudy, Incandescent, Fluorescent Light and Flash. The 800 also allows you to store settings or recall previously saved settings through the White Preset option. (The ability to recall White Preset settings strikes us as particularly handy.) 

The White Preset white balance option is particularly powerful and useful, one we'd like to see on many more digicams! (This feature was present on the Coolpix 950 as well, but not functional yet on the early evaluation units we received.) The way White Preset works is you select the option, point the camera lens at a pure white object (like a white card or piece of paper), and press the shutter button. The camera reads the light coming from the subject, and makes whatever adjustments are required to render that particular color pure white in subsequently captured images. We found that the White Preset was very effective in removing even strong color casts, and the ability to store and recall several such presets (via the "User Set" menu option) is potentially very useful. If anything, the White Preset sometimes acted too strongly for our preference, removing *all* of the coloration of the original scene lighting, when in fact we may have wanted to retain a little of the cast, to convey a mood. Here's a tip though: You can use the White Preset function to gain incredible control over white balance, through the use of a few lightly-tinted "white" cards! The trick here is that the Coolpix will try to make whatever you point it at appear white, even if it wasn't white to begin with.(!) Thus, if you point it at a card that's slightly blue, it will compensate accordingly, producing a slight yellowish tint in subsequent pictures. In similar fashion, a slightly yellowish card will produce a bluish tint in your later shots. We didn't experiment very much to learn the limits of the 800's adjustment capabilities, but this strikes us as opening a whole realm of subtle color control not otherwise possible in digicams! 

ISO
You also have a choice of ISO settings on the 800 while in Manual capture mode. Through the settings menu, you can select either Auto, 100, 200 or 400. As with traditional film, the higher the ISO, the more grain (noise) you will detect, but it's an excellent bonus for exposure control. The 100 speed works best in bright conditions while the 400 setting would be better for low light situations. In Auto ISO mode, the camera seems to try pretty hard to avoid the higher ISO settings, only opting for a higher ISO value when the shutter speed would fall below 1/4 second. 

Best Shot Select
Another useful carryover from the 950 is the Best Shot Select (BSS) feature. With this feature enabled, the camera shoots between five and 10 shots (depending on resolution and quality settings) for the entire time the shutter button is held down. Once the shutter button is released, the camera examines the images and determines which one is sharpest. Overall, this is perhaps our favorite single feature of the 800 and 950: It's almost magical the way it can pull a sharp exposure out of a handheld situation you'd never have a ghost of a chance at normally. We're not sure how it does it ('bet a lot of the competition would like to know too!), but our guess is that it's using a part of the JPEG compression processing to tell: Part of the JPEG process involves evaluating the "spatial frequency" content of the image. Images with sharp edges in them will have more of the higher frequencies than ones which are blurred. Thus, the camera could use the JPEG software to quickly look at portions of the images to figure out which has the sharpest edges. However it works, BSS is a huge boon to the available light photographer. (The downside of course, is that you don't know which of the several images will be in focus, so it may not work well if you care about capturing a precise moment in time. If that's what you need, you'll still have to use a tripod...) 

Shutter Lag/Cycle Times
Shutter delay on the 800 has been improved from the 950 version, measuring 0.70 seconds with full autofocus and 0.13 to 0.14 seconds with prefocus. Nikon states that startup time is around two seconds, but our best times were about 2.5 to three seconds from 'sleep' mode and around four seconds from the off position. Both shutter delay and startup times are better than most cameras currently on the market. (October 1999) 

Shot-to-shot cycle times are quite fast for the first 3 or 4 images, as the data is written to the large "buffer" memory. The first 3 or 4 images at maximum resolution can be captured at intervals of only 3.0 to 3.5 seconds. Once the buffer is full, cycle time increases to 6 to 10 seconds. At minimum resolution and image quality, cycle time is also about 3.3 seconds per image, although you can capture many more images before the buffer fills up. (We didn't test to see how many images could be accommodated before the response slowed: It was at least 5 or 6, and likely many more.) 

The Coolpix 800 also has several "sequence" modes, operating like a motor drive on a film camera: The camera will capture a series of images as long as you hold down the shutter button and there's room in memory. For high-resolution images, the "continuous" capture mode produced frame rates of about 1.3 frames per second, while the "VGA Sequence" mode showed a slightly higher speed of 1.56 frames per second. (The principal difference between these two modes is that the VGA Sequence mode will capture longer sequences of images.) Finally, the "16-shot" mode captures 16 1/4-resolution shots in a single normal-sized image, at a rate of 2.19 frames per second. 

User Interface/"Walk around the camera"
We found the 800 easy to operate and navigate, although one handed operation is not possible unless you want to shoot in straight Automatic capture mode with an auto flash. All the buttons are clearly labeled and pretty easy to comprehend without referring too much to the manual. The mode dial turns pretty easily, but doesn't always give a hard click into place so it's easy to turn past your desired stop. 

Shutter Button
Located on the top right of the camera, encircled by the mode dial. When halfway pressed, sets focus and exposure settings and when fully pressed, discharges the shutter. In any of the camera mode menus, the shutter button confirms menu selections. 

Mode Dial
Located on the top right of the camera, the mode dial lets you select between: 

  • Off: controls the camera's power.
  • Automatic Record Mode: puts the camera into point and shoot mode.
  • Manual Record Mode: puts the camera into Manual record mode for more exposure control.
  • Playback Mode: allows you to view captured images.


Manual Focus/Macro/Self-Timer Button
Sits on top of the camera, right beside the optical viewfinder, and is marked with mountain, flower and self-timer symbols. 

  • Both capture modes: Lets you choose between infinity focus, the macro function and the self-timer by hitting it multiple times.
  • Manual capture mode: When pressed at the same time as the arrow keys, it controls the manual focus function. The focus distance is displayed on the LCD monitor.


+/- /Delete Button
Located directly to the right of the Manual Focus/Macro/Self-Timer button, the button itself is marked with a +/- symbol. 

  • Both capture modes: The +/- button in conjunction with the up and down arrow buttons allows you to change the exposure compensation in 1/3 EV increments from +2.0 to –2.0. Also in both capture modes, this button allows you to delete an image just exposed during the 10 second Pause Display window.
  • Playback mode: This button acts as the delete key and allows you to erase images from the CompactFlash card. This function of the button is denoted underneath by a gray trash can symbol.


QUAL/Multi Display Button
Located on the right side of the +/- button on top of the camera. 

  • Both capture modes: Allows you to change the image quality from Basic to Normal to Fine. For each quality distinction, the number of available image captures changes according to how much space is available on the media.
  • Playback mode: Accesses the multi image display function (as denoted underneath the button by the gray grid symbol). It allows you to alternate between one image on the screen, four images or nine images. To scroll around the multi image display, hold the QUAL button down while pressing the up and down arrows.


Flash/Playback Zoom Button
Located on the top of the camera, to the right of the QUAL button. It is marked with a flash and an eye symbol. 

  • Both capture modes: Lets you select between five flash modes: Auto, Flash Cancel, Anytime Flash, Slow Sync and Red-Eye Reduction. Each time the button is pressed, the corresponding mode is displayed on the status display and LCD monitor.
  • Playback mode: Accesses the playback zoom function, which allows you to zoom into the image up to 3x. A gray magnifying glass symbol denotes this function of the button.



Arrow Buttons
Located side by side on the back panel of the camera, just above the LCD monitor. 

  • Both capture modes: The up and down arrows control the optical and digital zoom functions. Also, when pressed in conjunction with the +/- button, the arrow buttons adjust the exposure compensation (EV) values.
  • Manual capture mode: When pressed with the Manual Focus button, the arrows allow you to manually focus the camera based on distance.
  • Playback mode: The arrows scroll through the captured images, and when pressed with the Playback zoom button, allow you to zoom into an image up to 3x.
  • In any mode: The arrow buttons help navigate through the settings menus.



Monitor Button
Located beneath the LCD monitor, this button controls the LCD display. Hit once, it turns the information display off, a second time turns off the image display and a third time brings both back up. 


Menu Button
In any camera mode, turns the settings menu for that particular mode on and off. 

Camera Modes and Menus

Automatic Mode
Marked on the mode dial with an A, this mode lets the camera choose all the exposure settings with the exception of flash, exposure compensation (EV), Macro and Self-Timer. You also have control over both the optical and digital zoom functions. 

Hitting the Menu button in Automatic mode brings up the settings menu with the following options: 

  • Folders: The Coolpix 800 lets you organize images into "folders" on the CompactFlash memory card. We ourselves have rarely found need for this function, but could see it being useful when dealing with large numbers of images on very large CF storage cards. A total of four different folders apparently are allowed. 
    • Options: Allows you to make a new folder, rename or delete a folder. 
    • Nikon: Sets the camera to use the default Nikon folder for image storage. 


  • LCD Bright: Allows you to adjust the brightness of the LCD monitor with the arrow keys. (Only three settings are provided, and the differences in brightness are fairly subtle, IOHO.) 
  • Auto Off: Allows you to select the time for the camera's auto-off function to 30 seconds, one, five, or 30 minutes. 
  • Card Format: Formats the CompactFlash media card (erasing all images). 
  • Seq. Xfer: Allows sequential numbering of captured images, to prevent accidental overwriting when copying them to your computer's hard drive. Options are On, Off or Reset. 
  • Date: Lets you change the date and time settings. 

Manual Mode
Marked on the mode dial by an M, puts you in a capture mode with slightly more control over the exposure settings through the Menu button. 

Hitting the Menu button in Manual mode gives you the following options: 

  • White Balance: Lets you set the white balance on Auto, White Preset, Sunny, Incandescent, Fluorescent, Cloudy and Flash settings. 
  • Metering: Lets you select between 256 Matrix, Spot and Center Weight metering modes. 
  • Continuous: Choose between Single, Continuous, 16 shots, VGA Seq. and Ultra HS continuous shooting modes. 
  • Image Adjust: Lets you control the tone of the image with choices between Standard, Contrast +, Contrast -, Lighten and Darken. 
  • Sensitivity: Select the ISO setting from Auto, 100, 200 and 400. 
  • Best Shot: Turns on the camera's Best Shot function. 
  • VGA: Optionally selects VGA resolution (640x480) for image capture. 

  • Folders: (same as in Automatic mode) Choices are Options and Nikon. 
  • Lens: Gives you the options of Normal, Wide, Telephoto and Fisheye. This setting apparently adjusts the automatic exposure program, weighting it toward higher shutter speeds when telephoto auxiliary lens is attached. May also affect the matrix exposure-evaluation algorithm itself. 
  • AE Lock: Turns AE and WB lock on and off. (Will lock-in the settings of the next image snapped after the option is enabled, stay locked until it is turned off. Very useful for panorama shooting!) 
  • B&W: Enables black and white capture mode. 
  • User Set: Allows you to save multiple camera settings and recall them later. Saved settings include Metering mode, white balance setting, continuous-exposure mode, tone adjust, ISO speed, best shot select, VGA shooting mode, Lens selection, white balance and exposure lock settings. (!) A total of three sets of options may be saved, providing a way to very quickly switch between radically different shooting modes as the need arises. Particularly useful for saving custom White Preset settings. 
  • Format: Formats the CompactFlash media card and erases all images. 
  • Reset All: Resets all the menu settings to the factory defaults (except date and time). 
    • LCD Bright: Adjusts the LCD monitor's brightness with the use of the arrow keys. 
    • LCD On/Off: Turns the monitor on at startup with these options: 
      • On with Continuous Autofocus 
      • On with Single Autofocus 
      • Fast Review 
      • Review Only 
      • LCD Off 
    • Controls: Allows you to save various control settings when the camera is shut off and turned on again: 
      • Flash Save 
      • Macro Save 
      • EV Save 
      • Menu Dir. 
      • Dist. Ft. (Save Metric/English units preference) 
    • Auto Off: Lets you adjust the auto off timing function (30 seconds, one minute, five minutes and 30 minutes). 
    • Seq. Xfer: Turns this function on and off and resets. 
    • Date: Changes the camera's date and time settings. 
    • Language: Lets you choose the camera language from German, English, French and Japanese. 

Playback Mode
Marked on the mode dial by the word 'Play.' This mode allows you to review and delete images. 

Hitting the Menu button in this mode brings up the Playback Menu with these options: 

  • Delete: Lets you delete selected images, all images, a folder and print a set. 
  • Folders: Choose between folder Options, All or Nikon 
  • Slideshow: Turns on an image slideshow and lets you adjust the frame interval. 
  • Protect: Allows you to protect selected images from being erased. (NOTE that this does *not* protect them from erasure when the memory card is formatted!) 
  • Hide Image: Lets you hide selected images. 
  • Print Set: Lets you select images to be printed. 
  • Set Up: Calls up the same camera setup sub-menu as in the other two settings menus. 

Image Storage and Interface
The Coolpix 800 utilizes standard CompactFlash storage media for image capture. An 8MB Nikon-branded card comes with the camera, but you'll almost certainly want to buy a (much) larger card immediately, given the size of the camera's Fine quality images. The only complaint we have with the image storage interface is the location of the card, on the very bottom of the camera next to the tripod mount. This makes it difficult (actually, "a royal pain in the neck" would be more accurate) to remove the card when working with a tripod. Additionally, the plastic cover appears very similar to that on the Coolpix 950, which was prone to breakage after heavy use. 

As noted earlier, images may be captured in either 1600x1200 or 640x480 resolutions, and can be saved in either uncompressed TIFF format (high-resolution images only), or a choice of three JPEG compression levels. Here's the breakdown of image size/resolution/storage capacity for the various resolution/quality options. (Normally, we take these figures from the manufacturer's literature. In the case of the Coolpix 800, we derived these numbers from the actual file sizes our test sample captured, as Nikon hadn't published the "official" numbers yet.) 

Resolution/Quality vs Image Capacity
High Resolution
Standard Resolution
Images
Approx.
Compression
Images
Approx.
Compression
Uncompressed
1
1:1
N/A
N/A
Fine Quality
11
8:1
61
7:1
Normal Quality
18
12:1
106
12:1
Basic Quality
34
25:1
222
25:1

You can protect individual images on the CompactFlash card and prevent them from being accidentally erased in the Playback Menu. You can also format the entire card in any camera mode, via the Set Up menu. This erases all images on the card, including protected images. 

Computer interface is via a standard RS-232 serial connection, meaning you'll almost certainly want to buy a CF card reader to attach to your computer. We didn't receive any software with our early evaluation unit, so couldn't test and report on actual transfer times here, but take our word for it, serial downloads of 2 megapixel image files will be *slow*. - Typical transfer times for other cameras we've tested have been on the order of 1-2 minutes per image. (Where's the USB port?? USB has been a standard interface on most computers for at least the last year, we're surprised so few digicams support it as yet.) 

Video Out
An NTSC video out jack lives on the lens side of the camera, beneath a thin rubber flap that snaps into place. We assume the foreign models will have PAL compliant output. The video cable allows you to view images in Playback mode on your TV screen, without disabling the LCD monitor. Unlike some cameras, the 800's video output is active in all camera modes (record, play, and on the setup screens). This means the video output could be used as a "remote viewfinder" for those situations where the camera is placed in a awkward position. (Studio work, with the camera atop a ladder, etc.) 

Power
The Coolpix 800 runs on four AA batteries or via an optional AC adapter. The batteries live inside the hand grip, beneath a plastic cover that slides in and out of place before flipping open. The cover can be slightly difficult to close at times, but overall works fine. Alkaline, NiCd, NiMH and lithium AA batteries can be used. Nikon asserts that one set of alkaline batteries gives you approximately 100 minutes of operating time. This obviously will depend somewhat on the camera's operating mode and option settings: Normal usage with the LCD panel set to "review only" should make it possible to reach this mark. We doubt you'd get there though, with the LCD panel on all the time and continuous-autofocus selected. 

As we pointed out in our First Look, the 800 engineers worked hard to optimize battery consumption wherever possible, without cutting in on the camera's features. Power drain in most of the camera's operating modes was 10 to 30 percent lower than that of the 950 model. With the LCD active, the continuously operating autofocus combines with the drain of the panel itself to produce a moderately high power consumption fluctuating between 500 and 700 mA. Most importantly though, there is essentially no power drain when the camera is in a capture mode with the LCD off. We estimate that you should get about a day's usage on one set of batteries when you keep the LCD off. The table below summarizes our power-consumption measurements. 

Operating Mode
Power Drain
Capture Mode, w/LCD
540-720 mA
Capture Mode, no LCD
<10mA(!)
Capture, half-pressed shutter w/LCD
540 mA
Capture, half-pressed w/o LCD
300 mA
Continuous Autofocus
720 mA
Memory Write (transient)
340 mA
Flash Recharge (transient)
800 mA
Image Playback
330-450mA
"Sleep" Mode
~0 mA

The 800 also has an auto off feature for power conservation. The camera goes to sleep after being unattended for either 30 seconds, one minute, five minutes or 30 minutes, depending on the amount of time you set in the LCD menu system. 

Included Software
The test unit we received from Nikon included no software, so we aren't able to comment on this portion of the product. Nikon's official data sheet for the product indicates it will ship with Nikon's standard "NikonView" application, version 2.5 (Mac and PC), as well as the Hotshot image-manipulation and cataloging application from PictureWorks, and the IPIX panorama application from Interactive Pictures. 

Test Results
In keeping with our standard policy, our comments here are rather condensed, summarizing our key findings: For a full commentary on each of the test images, see the CoolPix 800's "pictures" page.
As with all Imaging Resource camera tests, we encourage you to let your own eyes be the judge of how well the devices performed: Explore the images on the pictures page, to see how well the CoolPix 800 performed, and how its images compare to other cameras you may be considering buying.
Overall, the Coolpix 800 is a very impressive camera: It captures many of the unique features of its "big brother" the Coolpix 950, yet at a price that's a couple of hundred dollars lower. What's there are many features that will for an excellent shooting experience for the "advanced point & shoot" photographer: High resolution, good low-light capability, good-quality optics, excellent image quality, accurate exposure, and a host of nifty "special" features like the "Best Shot Select" that makes it feasible to hand-hold the camera even for very long (1/2 second or so!) exposures.
As noted, image quality is very good: Colors are bright and clean, with exceptional detail, as befits a 2 megapixel camera. In this respect, the Coolpix 800's pictures are nearly identical to those from the '950. The camera's "preset" white balance option works particularly well for difficult lighting conditions, and the "user settings" capability lets you save special presets even when the camera is turned off.
Detail and resolution are exceptional, with visual resolution approaching 800 line pairs/picture height horizontally and 650-700 vertically. (The horizontal number is at the top of the current (October, 1999) field, while the vertical resolution is about typical of the 2 megapixel digicams we've tested.) Performance in the outdoor far-field shot was very good as well.
The LCD viewfinder is quite accurate, showing almost 100% of the final image area. The optical viewfinder is more average, showing 80% of the CCD's field of view at the wide angle end of the lens' range, increasing to 88% at the telephoto end. The lens shows moderate barrel distortion at the wide angle end (1.2%), decreasing to a fairly low level (0.4%) at the telephoto end.
The Coolpix 800 doesn't quite have the "microscopic" macro capability of the '950, but it does very respectably nonetheless. Minimum capture area is better than most, at only 1.5 x 2.0 inches (39 x 52 mm).
The on-board flash seems quite powerful, particuarly when the variable-ISO feature of the camera is used to boost it's light sensitivity. While it lacks the 950's ability to use external strobe units, we feel that's a reasonable tradeoff for the price, and the 800's likely market.
Conclusion
The Coolpix 800 is a great camera for those wanting many of the features of the 950 model, at a lower price point. We miss the rugged all-metal body of the 950 but understand that costs have to be cut somewhere. Overall though, the optics are good, power consumption is better managed and it takes quality pictures with accurate color representation. Nikon has done a good job of reducing costs while still providing unique capabilities that will be appealing to many users: Advanced features like Best Shot Select and White Preset white-balance setting give the Coolpix 800 top-tier functionality despite its affordable price. 
Reader Sample Images!
Do you have a Coolpix 800 camera? If you'll post an online album of your samples with one of the online photo-sharing servicesand email us at web@imaging-resource.com, we'll list the album here for others to see!

 

Click to Buy Now at Ritz Camera!

 

For More Info:

View the Imaging Resource Data Sheet for the Coolpix 800
See the Coolpix 800 Pictures Page

Other Reviews:

Steve's Digicams Coolpix 800 Review

John Cowley's Lonestar Digital Coolpix 800 Review

Visit the Nikon home page for the Coolpix 800
Visit the Nikon Dealer Locator page to find a dealer near you!

 

Reader Comments!
Questions, comments or controversy on this article? Click this link to see what other Imaging Resource readers have had to say about Nikon CoolPix 800, or add comments of your own!


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