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Nikon Coolpix 8400

By: Shawn Barnett & Dave Etchells


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Page 2:User Report

Review First Posted: 09/16/2004, Updated: 12/13/2004

User Report

Introduced at the same time as its larger brother, the Coolpix 8800, the Nikon Coolpix 8400 is both similar at heart and vastly different in purpose, as different as two brothers can be. While the former is far-sighted and stable with its long zoom and vibration reduction, the latter is more circumspect with its extremely wide angle zoom lens, yet it reacts more quickly when you want it to. Deep down, however, they've the same basic set of guiding principles, down to the level of menu options.

The body designs and very purpose of both these cameras are so different that it's important to have your use for each camera clearly defined before you commit to either. The good news is that both are feature rich offerings from a company that has had some time to figure out what works and what doesn't.

I have to admit that after spending time with the Coolpix 8800 before it, the 8400 seemed a little unexciting. After all, everyone loves a big zoom, and you can't get more gee-whiz than vibration reduction, both major features of the 8800. But when you realize the implications of a digital camera with a lens that reaches out to 24mm at its wide-angle end, something changes. When you realize that this is the only such digital camera on the market (as of December, 2004 anyway), the value of the 8400 comes to the fore. Most of us are so used to digital cameras and even film cameras that start at about 35mm equivalent and zoom in from there that we never knew anything was missing.

The widest lens available on the Coolpix 8400's nearest competitor is a 28mm equivalent, only reaching 24mm with an external adapter and accessory lens. Those of us who scrimped and saved for our first 24mm lens remember the bliss of seeing the world through that wide eye. Your perspective changes completely. Mere dirt on the ground becomes an interesting part of a greater canvas, and the mundane takes on new significance if you put it in the foreground of a scene that reaches beyond the trees to the sky. 24mm really is the entry level to this world, but you can do amazing things with your photography when you have this powerful--some would say essential--tool. In some situations (real estate photography comes immediately to mind), truly wide-angle capability is an outright necessity.

Every pro has at least one wide angle lens in their bag. If they don't, they're saving for one. Up until now, that lens had to be for an SLR, or else an accessory lens for a prosumer digital camera. Now, for the first time, a digital camera with a built-in zoom has one as its main lens. When you add the .75x wide angle accessory lens, we're looking at a Coolpix capable of 18mm. Suddenly this short-zoom digicam doesn't look so boring.

The Coolpix 8400 has an excellent swivel LCD, and an electronic viewfinder (EVF). We've made no secret that we view EVFs as a necessary evil in camera design, but it is peculiar to see one on a wide angle digicam. However, just as it is difficult to build a rangefinder optic that will match a 350mm equivalent zoom, it's tough to make one that will handle 24mm equivalent wide angle without having the camera's own lens get in the way. Add an accessory lens, and you can forget about the rangefinder altogether. So Nikon took the smart way out and eliminated a lot of customer complaints. They gave us an excellent and versatile swivel screen, and added a higher resolution EVF for when it's too bright out to use the LCD panel. The eyepoint relief of the EVF is excellent, by the way. I can see the entire frame without my glasses even touching the rubber guard around the EVF's opening. Excellent. The big diopter correction wheel to the left of the EVF is powerful, able to correct for all of the various eyeballs here in the office. We were also pleasantly surprised at the EVF's low light performance, still showing at least some detail in a nearly dark room.

Like its brother, the Nikon Coolpix 8400 has comprehensive capabilities, including Nikon's standard set of continuous modes. I'm not a big continuous mode user, but those who are will have even more fun than I did with both of these cameras. My favorite continuous mode, Ultra High Speed, captures up to one hundred 640 x 480 images in just over three seconds. That's 30 frames per second. Your Coolpix could help analyze and improve your golf swing, and with that wide angle lens you could even catch the ball as it heads for the trees.

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.

Best Shot Selector mode is another of my favorite modes, because it allows you to get a great shot in low light without a tripod, and without filling up your card with multiple attempts. The camera fires off up to 10 shots, analyses each, and picks the sharpest one. It then saves only that one shot to the card. In the Nikon 8400 and 8800, the Best Shot feature has been extended to handle exposure bracketing as well, with a clever implementation that lets you shoot for best detail in either the highlights or the shadows, or split the difference between the two.

Another bonus to consider with the Nikon Coolpix 8400 is its comparative superiority to most digital video cameras for certain applications. After all, most video cameras--digital or otherwise--have fallen victim to the same market forces that digital still cameras have: that of the battle of the X's. Long zoom reigns supreme in the video marketplace, and if you know zoom design, you know that to increase your X number (as in "40X zoom!") you have to compromise on the wide angle portion. Not with the Coolpix 8400. You can take wide angle videos that your camcorder couldn't do even with a lens attachment. The limiting factor is that you only get DV-quality movies for 60 seconds. Believe it or not, that's long enough to videotape all the way through the Happy Birthday song and see your kid blow out her candles (with a little left over to capture the glow on her cheeks and part of the fight about who gets the biggest piece). Switch to the lower-quality 320 x 240 mode, and you can record until you fill the card.

Focus with the Coolpix 8400 is also pretty fast. This is partly due to the camera's Hybrid autofocus system. A passive "AF Ranging" sensor located on the upper left of the camera (as viewed when holding the camera from the back) does the rough focus work so that the camera's usual contrast-detection method can more quickly refine the focus to sharp. As a result, the Coolpix 8400 has a noticeably shorter AF shutter lag than the 8800 when using its Hybrid AF system. Unfortunately, the sophisticated AF Area Mode options that let the camera determine focus from specific parts of the frame, under either automatic or manual control require the Hybrid AF system to be disabled, stretching shutter response to match the more leisurely pace of the 8800.

You should be more like your brother...

While I like a lot about the 8400 from a technical standpoint (features, lens, and performance), I'd have been happier if more of the rest of the Coolpix 8800's ergonomic niceties had made it to the 8400. Buttons and crucial controls that are perfect on the 8800 are just a tad out of reach on the Coolpix 8400, requiring the user to stretch too much, especially to oft-used controls like the zoom rocker and AE/AF lock button. The right-side camera strap lashing point is right where the web of my index and middle finger wants to rest, and the triangle-shaped ring often pinches my fingers when I'm trying to hold the camera. Were a strap attached, I'd have to thread it through my two fingers and up out of the way as I shot. Since I don't shoot with a strap, I would most certainly "accidentally" snip this ring off with my Leatherman(tm) in a freak accident.

Finally, the grip could be a little better contoured. As it is, the balls of your fingertips can't get a really solid purchase on the inside. I can't imagine what happened here, because the Nikon D70 and Coolpix 8800 both have excellent grips, with just the right angle to support the weight of the camera. The Nikon 8400, despite the large size of the grip, always felt like it wanted to slip out of my hand. This is true despite that all four fingers find a comfortable home on the grip; the index on the shutter, and the remaining three below that. The 8400 and 8800 both use the same battery, so the bulk of the battery can't account for this difference between the two models.

The good news is that all of the above can be adapted to. If any of the items I mention are truly important to you, then you were warned, but I honestly wouldn't let any of them get in the way of my own purchase of this camera. Own any camera and you'll get used to its quirks.

The first market I'll be recommending the Nikon Coolpix 8400 to is obvious: Realtors. A wide angle lens is critical to their work of photographing home interiors (or exteriors, at short shooting distances). Interior designers and contractors will also need such ability. No other non-SLR digital camera is up to the task as well as the Coolpix 8400, at least at the time of this writing. As I mentioned, others require an external lens adapter and lens. That's not a bad thing, but it is an additional purchase, and usually makes the camera quite a bit bigger, most often blocking the real-image optical viewfinder. That won't be a problem with the 8400, because of its EVF viewfinder. I also often tell Realtors that having a swivel screen can be important as well, because they can back themselves into a corner, hold the camera over their head, and use the swivel LCD to frame an unusual and often beautiful shot from the furthest possible corner of a room. With the Nikon 8400, the wide angle lens will make the most of every extra inch.

Naturally, those who've been frustrated by the lack of a truly wide angle digital camera in the marketplace should also give the Coolpix 8400 a closer look. Because the 8400 fulfills the one mission that the 8800 does not, a few true enthusiasts (fanatics?) might invest in both and hang them around their necks to cover all possibilities. Admittedly, that's a big investment, but add up the cost of a Nikon D70 with a very wide angle zoom and a very long zoom with VR to surpass the capabilities of these two cameras, and the combination exceeds $4,300. The combo of the Coolpix 8400 and Coolpix 8800, costing less than half that amount and covering the 24mm to 350mm range might start to make sense. After all, you can't take video with a D70, and you can't shoot 30 fps, either. These high-end prosumer cameras do still have their purpose.

Nikon has given you a choice. Go for a long zoom with vibration reduction with the 8800--an excellent choice for sports fans, bird watchers, or zoom lovers--or expand your vision with a wide angle lens to help you capture everything you need in a tight space while retaining some moderate zoom capability out to 85mm (great for portraits). Remember that the 8400 isn't exactly incapable of good telephoto either, thanks to its accessory lens mount. The two main accessory lenses can extend your vision out to 18mm with the WC-E75 Wide-angle Converter or in to 255mm (3x) with their new TC-E3PF "Phase Fresnel" Telephoto lens (we can't wait to see this, by the way).

Our impression of the 8400 is that it's a solid performer that breaks new ground for digicams. Now that we've had the opportunity to test a production model, we can say that its image quality holds up to that of the 8800 as well, making it a solid choice for anyone needing the ultimate in a wide-angle digital camera.


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