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Nikon Coolpix 8800

By: Shawn Barnett & Dave Etchells

Nikon improves on its flagship 8 megapixel prosumer camera with a longer zoom and vibration reduction to improve long handheld shots.

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Page 2:User Report

Review First Posted: 09/16/2004, Updated: 11/23/2004

User Report

There are those who want nothing more in the world than a BMW 7-series sedan. That wide stance, the low quiet engine that purrs like a lion about to pounce, and a crafted interior that can only be found in a select few automobiles around the world: these traits and a thousand other minute details leave such a person atwitter at the very shadow of a passing 760i. Most with this desire are forced to settle for less. Thankfully, quality BMW sedans are available at lower prices, and that same spirit can be harnessed by a person of reasonable means with the purchase of an excellent BMW 3-series sedan.

Nikon cameras are a little like that: Prestigious refinement that is available at many price levels. There is a difference, however. While some who kick the tires of a Nikon Coolpix 8800 do so because they can't afford (or justify) the full Nikon SLR experience, quite a few more prefer the compact performance package the smaller EVF-based camera offers, as well as the myriad abilities this more traditional digital camera has that the likes of an D100 or D70 SLR cannot hope to achieve. Just as many BMW M3 owners would never trade the rush of their 3-series speed demons for the comfort of a BMW 7-series, Coolpix 8800 owners might look with pity on the pro with his bulky $10,000 rig, bag of fine lenses, and woefully uncool safari vest.

Having now spent time with a production model Nikon 8800 I can say that it is more like a BMW M3 (for those who don't know cars, the M-series of BMW sedans are tuned for speed and peak excellence) than the 7-series. Building on the heritage of the Coolpix 8700, the 8800 has been souped up enough that it's both a good first choice for a serious intermediate photographer as well as a good upgrade for the (currently) happy 5700 or 8700 owner.

Let's start with the lens. It imposes itself on the camera's profile from nearly every angle. From the front it looks like it wants to swallow something. Some of that is illusion from the large bezel surrounding the lens, but there is a little more glass there than we've seen on past models. It is a nice Nikkor 8.9 to 89m lens. To those of us needing that 35mm comparison (myself included), that's equivalent to a 35 to 350mm zoom, pretty significant increase from the 8700's 280mm maximum telephoto measurement. In multiples, it's now 10x compared to the 8700's 8x.

What makes all that zoom more exciting can be described in two letters: VR. Nikon has built their sophisticated Vibration Reduction technology into the 8800 to make handheld shots with such a long zoom enter the realm of the possible. To make these long-zoom EVF cameras practical, it's an almost essential ingredient. You can actually see your heartbeat affect a shot when you're zoomed in to maximum, but just turn on VR and press the shutter halfway: You'll see the image on the LCD begin to float and stabilize as if in an alternate universe, as the camera's Vibration Reduction removes the shakiness inherent in most pulse-driven mammals. You can also expect to see much sharper low light images, as when shooting indoors. I wouldn't expect to do a lot of zooming to 350mm indoors without a powerful external flash, but your mid- to wide angle shots will exhibit much greater clarity than they would without the VR technology.

And here's where we start to discuss what the Nikon 8800 can do that a camera like the D70 simply cannot. I'm talking about features like movie mode, continuous modes, and voice recording; but what comes foremost to mind after all that talk about vibration reduction is BSS mode. BSS stands for Best Shot Selector and has to be one of Nikon's most innovative tools to get a usable shot in a bad situation. This mode uses digital to its greatest advantage. The truth is that even with VR, you can still get motion blur if the light is too low, but BSS can help you pull it off without filling up your card with multiple attempts. Just select BSS mode via the Record menu, brace yourself as well as you can, hold down the shutter, and fire off up to 10 shots. The camera will look at each, decide which of the shots has the most detail, and save just that one good shot to the card, discarding all the others. I can't tell you how many times I need this mode on other cameras when I haven't brought enough flash power along, or when flash just wouldn't give the right look for the subject I was shooting. Combined with VR, BSS is sure to have more winners to choose from, which can only mean better results at even lower shutter speeds.

Although none of us here at Imaging Resource are crazy about the electronic viewfinder aspect of long-zoom cameras in general, we were particularly impressed by EVF on the Coolpix 8800. We found an unusually high eyepoint that made use by eyeglass wearers downright easy, and the diopter correction had enough range to adjust for the uncorrected vision of all here at the office. Nobody's glasses even came in contact with the rubber guard surrounding the viewfinder. The higher res screen inside the 8800's EVF makes manual focusing and focus confirmation easier, especially in bright outdoor light. I still think EVFs are an unfortunate but necessary compromise in digital camera design. I prefer the live action and honesty of a real image optical viewfinder in rangefinder designs, but realize it's not possible to create a practical secondary optic that will match the capabilities of a 10x zoom lens, at least not at a price that any of us would want to pay. If you want a live display on a long zoom camera, you simply have to forego the real image viewfinder and embrace EVF. Nikon has done a great job with this one.

In fact, this is the first digital camera where I found myself actually preferring the EVF over the larger LCD about 50% of the time. This may have as much to do with the EVF's relative excellence as the camera's overall big-camera feel that tricks me into thinking I'm using an SLR. Of course, one of the benefits of traditional digital camera design is that live LCD, and having a tilt/swivel LCD gives you yet another leg up on that pro photographer with the girl-repellent safari vest. (Though I jest, tilt/swivel LCD designs are beneficial enough that I know pros who own and prefer such cameras for certain assignments.) The screen on the 8800 has a swiveling that now appears to have become almost an industry standard, swinging out 180 degrees and rotating 270 degrees. This offers pretty well every angle necessary to capture all manner of shots with a new perspective. For anyone who shoots once a week or more, I heartily recommend just about any camera with this ability. Knowing that the EVF is also good means a photographer will have a greater range of comfortable options at his disposal.

The Nikon Coolpix 8800 does seem to be all about having more than one way to do certain critical things. You can set Resolution, ISO, and White balance in at least three different places. I use all but one when shooting, mostly because the other two are more obvious. The first location is the Mode dial. Though I'm glad these functions were moved from their location on the left side of the lens on the 8700 (where they could be accidentally activated--or else forgotten completely), I'm actually not crazy about their being relocated to the Mode dial. I love that they've included a Mode dial on the 8800, but a Mode dial is for modes; settings belong on a button that can be overridden by the system with a half-press on the shutter button when a shot arises. If I'm fiddling with the White Balance setting, ISO, or Resolution to get an upcoming shot, I'm three to five clicks of the Mode dial back to a suitable capture mode: not exactly speedy, nor conducive to emergency setting changes. The anticipated shot is missed in these situations, and all the adjustments I was trying to make in preparation are suddenly wasted effort.

As a result, I more often adjust these settings in the more tedious but less dangerous LCD menu. But there are two other ways: one is My Menu on the LCD, where you can pick five sub-menu items important to your shooting style for quick access; the other is the Function button, which can be assigned one of these functions for instant access. I would most likely select ISO for this button, since this is what I adjust most often when shooting with any digital camera. The My Menu is actually useful if you take the time to analyze your own usage of the camera, but I do wish there were a way to turn it off and just allow me full access to the menu immediately.

Honestly though, while I don't like the ISO, WB, and Res on the Mode dial, I don't myself see a better place to put them. So I have to say that I really like the controls and overall interface of the Coolpix 8800. Nikon got it as close to right as I think is possible given the limited space on the camera body.

Hold the Coolpix 8800 in two hands or one hand, and you feel like a pro, holding a camera just the way it's supposed to be held for the most stable shot. Though the lens is bigger and adds a little more heft, the hand grip is in close enough proximity to the lens that there's little perceptible twist-away toward the lens as we've seen in other cameras of this type. With a two-handed grip, your left hand sits comfortably around and under the lens housing. Every time I hold the camera this way I find I want to pull the camera to my eye like an SLR! Since I shoot vertical so often, and because this camera feels and fits like a pro SLR, I tend to wish for one enhancement: a vertical grip. Nikon does offer a battery grip as an option for the 8800, but as I write this, I don't know whether it includes a vertical grip and shutter release or not. Bottom line, I'm just used to having a vertical grip/release on a camera that feels like this.

For the rest of the controls, I wouldn't change a thing. I really didn't like the buttons on the lens barrel on past models, as I mentioned, but though a button and switch remain on the left, at least they're the right buttons. The AF mode button should be on the lens barrel, as should the Vibration Reduction switch; they're lens functions and you'd expect to find them on the lens. I would have liked to see a three-stage VR switch, allowing the user to select between Active and Normal mode as conditions change; instead you have to go into the menu to make this change. But all the other buttons on the back--the Five-way rocker, the zoom control, and Command dial--all work very well. I even like the CF door, which, though it doesn't latch, does stay out of the way without opening until you want it to. Perfect. This is a well-constructed and well-thought-out design, small in all the right ways, and big where necessary. Despite their already excellent record in this area, Nikon should be proud of the Coolpix 8800.

I also like a few things about the flash system. One is that you don't have to depend on a button-activated servo to pull up the pop up flash, you can just grab and pull it up with your fingers. The other huge improvement is that you can use a key SB-600/800DX flash feature that went unsupported on past cameras of this kind: zoom of the external flash head. Now you need only attach the SB-600/800DX, fire it up, zoom the lens, half-press the shutter release and the flash head zooms to roughly match the field of view of the lens. With a zoom this long, you're going to want a big flash that will reach out at least part of that distance, and now you take advantage of one of the critical features of Nikon's high-end speedlights: the ability to follow the lens out to a tighter angle. Finally, a major feature of the SB-600/800/Coolpix 8800 combo is that either flash offers true Through The Lens (TTL) flash metering when used with the camera. This is a really significant benefit, particularly with a long-ratio zoom lens, as it makes it possible to get accurate flash exposures, even when zoomed way in on a subject that's a significantly different color/reflectance than the background. Very few prosumer-level digicams offer true TTL flash metering, and even fewer do so when used with external flash units.

Shooting the Nikon Coolpix 8800 has been a great experience. It handles well, feels great in the hand, has a ton of features, a great lens, oodles of resolution, and an effective anti-shake system. As we're "going to press" with this review update, we've had a string of dull, cloudy days here in Atlanta, so we haven't had a chance to shoot many "Gallery" shots with it yet. My experience with using the prototype 8800 for family photos was very positive though, and Luke and Dave's work with the production model to collect the test images was good as well. Though I've had some trouble with focusing speed in very low light situations, I found shooting in good light to be no problem at all. (I also learned that the camera was much more responsive to the shutter if I selected a single AF point, rather than letting it choose the closest part of the subject to focus on.) The camera focused quickly enough and obeyed my commands to shoot quickly after I pressed the shutter. There is a minor post-focus LCD freeze that seldom lasts long enough to be noticed when holding the shutter down. I really don't like this normally, but in this case I don't think it's a problem; I only noticed it after someone pointed it out.

I've also had fun with the extensive Continuous capture modes. I'm not a big motor-drive guy anymore. The ability to fire off three or more shots per second is seldom useful in the real-world shooting that I do. It's fun, no question, but not usually necessary. In people shots, particularly, it's more distracting to the subject than helpful to the artist. But I found the Ultra High Speed mode to be excellent for some types of people shots. Though they're only 640 x 480 in size, you get to capture up to 100 images at 30 frames per second. If you're looking for a sure way to catch a fleeting expression or solve the problem of a chronic blinker (these folks do exist, blinking more than 70% of the time just when the photographer and camera decide to take a picture), and can handle the reduced resolution, this is a great mode to play with.

A recent trip to a baseball game showed a more obvious reason to use the Ultra HS mode: catching the moves of a pitcher at 30 frames per second. It's amazing to see how unnaturally the pitcher's arm seems to twist back, then slingshot the ball forward when he's throwing a 95 mph fast ball. Remember, these were only 640 x 480 images, so I'm not able to count the hairs on the pitcher's arm, but I was shooting from up in the cheap seats, and my frame was covering the circumference of the mound; imagine what I'd have gotten from a first base seat! It takes a zoom of this power to get anything approaching an interesting shot from anywhere in the bleachers, so if you want to do that for your hobby or for your child, this is a good camera for the job.

The one drawback to Ultra High Speed mode is that no matter how many pictures you capture in other modes after doing an Ultra HS shot, that set of UHS images will always come first when you switch to playback mode--and with the ability to capture 100 images in just over three seconds, you're going to be wasting a lot of time looking at nearly identical 640 x 480 images just trying to get back to the 8 megapixel image you just shot. This turns out to be a problem with folders, because each sequence captured in UHS mode gets saved into its own folder. Each folder name ends up with a name that puts all the photos in front of any subsequent photos captured into the default NIKON folder. This is potentially very handy, because it groups all your UHS shots together, and can keep them tucked out of the way if you just do a little preliminary housekeeping with folder names on the memory card you're using. The problem is that the separate folders created to hold the UHS images are ahead of the main "Nikon" folder alphabetically, so any (and all) UHS images will always appear in playback mode before the most recently shot normal images stored in the Nikon folder. There's unfortunately no complete solution to this problem. The simple workaround is to go into the Folder sub-menu in Playback mode and select only the NIKON folder (or other folder you may have created yourself) for playback. This will effectively hide any UHS files from view during normal browsing of images on the memory card. The downside is that you'll have to go back to the Folder sub-menu to re-enable viewing of the other folders any time you decide you want to look at your UHS shots. What would really help would be a feature in the Playback mode where you could zoom back out past "Index" view into a Folder view where you could more easily switch between folders, without having to venture into the LCD menu system.

Other continuous modes are plentiful enough that the curious user will spend a lot of time with this digicam and get interesting results. Most popular will be the Continuous High, which captures up to five full-res images at 2.3 fps. The 5-shot buffer mode is a good concept, but I can't say that Nikon's implementation of it in the 8800 is terribly useful. The idea is to have the camera continuously capture images at a high rate, then save only the last five when you release the shutter button. If the camera is fast enough from shot to shot, this can help make up for slow reflexes on the part of the photographer, catching the action from just before he/she could react to the critical moment.

The problem with the Nikon 8800's 5-shot buffer mode is that it's slow, at about 1.4 seconds/shot (0.7 frames/second). I may be getting old, but my own reaction time is certainly quicker than 1.4 seconds, so the 5-shot buffer really doesn't do much for me. If the 5-shot mode could capture at the Continuous "Hi" speed of 2.3 frames/second, it'd be useful. As it is, I don't see any particular value in it.

The one performance-related aspect of the Nikon 8800 I didn't like though, was how slowly it wrote to the memory card. Just prior to publishing this update, there had been some speculation on the internet that the camera actually performed faster with slower memory cards, the theory being that these cards better matched the camera's internal operating speed. I'm not sure where this rumor got started, but it clearly wasn't the case with our production sample. We tested it with a wide range of memory cards, and found that, while cards faster than 4x produced only very slight improvements in buffer-clearing times, the faster cards were in no instances slower than slower ones.

There is a lot more to this fine camera which you can explore elsewhere in this review. Overall, I'd say it's Nikon's best prosumer camera to date. It goes up against a handful of other long-zoom EVF prosumer designs from other manufacturers. I don't think any particular model has shown itself to be the clear leader in this category, despite some remarkable efforts and features. Judging by design, feel, and overall usability though, I think the Coolpix 8800 is the embodiment of what Nikon does well. It has all the best features they've included in other digital cameras over the years, with the key components--most notably the lens--pushed a little further. The result is a camera with an impressive zoom that's tamed and made much more usable by a very effective vibration reduction system, but that's still small enough to stuff in a light jacket pocket. It is certainly more compact than many of its competitors. With all these features packed into one small package, the Coolpix 8800 user gets a camera that--for most prosumer purposes at least--easily rivals that pro photographer's heavy camera bag bulging with lenses. It's a lot like a complete Nikon photo system in one camera, with a camcorder stuffed in one pocket. (Safari vest optional.)

 

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