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Nikon Coolpix 8400

By: Shawn Barnett & Dave Etchells


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Page 3:Design

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


Similar in concept and programmed features to the new Coolpix 8800, but much smaller with its 3.5 x 6.1-21.6mm (35mm camera equivalent 24-85mm) zoom lens, the Coolpix 8400 is a function-rich, but very compact camera, well suited to travel and general photography. Its most salient characteristic is perhaps the wide-angle capability of its zoom lens. Most modern point-and-shoot digicams start at around 35mm, but the Coolpix 8400 starts at a groundbreaking 24mm, great for realtors, builders, and anyone looking to explore wide angle photography. The tradeoff of course, is that the 8400's 3.5x zoom stops a little short of true telephoto territory, with its maximum 85mm equivalent focal length. This camera packs a lot of pixels (8 million) and features into a midsize package that is not quite shirt- or pants-pocketable, but still very portable. The Coolpix 8400 controls are nicely laid out, with all buttons and dials except the Manual/Autofocus button within reach of the right index finger or thumb, although the Command dial is recessed more and a little harder to turn than those on some other Coolpix cameras, the larger 8800 model prominent among them. The Coolpix 8400 has a "Vari-angle" LCD design that swivels, very useful for getting the shot from various angles, including from directly in front of the camera. (Good for self-portraits, or working with a model.) The camera has a well balanced, all-black plastic body that weighs in at only 16.8 ounces (478.8 grams) with battery and memory card included. The 8400 is definitely stowable in a jacket pocket or purse, with dimensions of 4.4 x 3.2 x 3.0 inches (113 x 82 x 75mm).

Visible on the front panel are the lens and metal lens ring, built-in speedlight, Autofocus-assist illuminator and Self-timer lamp, Autofocus ranging sensor and Infrared receiver. The lens extends about 1 1/4" when set to either the wide or telephoto extreme, but shortens to just under 1" at the middle settings, an unusual pattern apparently caused by the way lens element groups are moved inside the lens barrel to change the angle of view. A cap clips over the end of the lens and stays in place even when it telescopes out when the camera is turned on, a useful feature because the front element is only very slightly recessed. At the base of the lens, a removable metal ring covers threads for attaching an adapter for accessory lenses. Accessory wide, fisheye, and telephoto lenses are available, the telephoto being especially of interest given the built-in lens's maximum 85mm equivalent focal length. Adjustment to an auxiliary lens is not automatic; users must tell the camera which add-on lens is mounted via a Record mode menu option. The flash pops up in the center of the body, a little off line with the lens. To the right of the flash head, at the extreme upper right of the front panel (as viewed from the front of the camera), is the Autofocus-assist illuminator, which does triple duty as a self-timer lamp and as a shot-confirmation lamp as well. Just under it is the Autofocus ranging sensor that helps the camera quickly focus to near the range necessary so that the camera's contrast detection method can more quickly take over and refine focus (this would have been helpful on the Coolpix 8800, which is sometimes a little slower getting to focus in low light). At the bottom right of the front panel, the Infrared receiver accepts signals from the camera remote. A large hand grip, coupled with the deep recess between the grip and the lens barrel, provides a reasonable hold on the camera, but you'll have to be a bit more careful not to drop this camera due to the lack of a straight inside angle for the pads of the fingers to really grip, as we saw on the Nikon Coolpix 8800.

The camera's right side (as viewed from the back) houses the memory card compartment (a Type I and II Compact Flash slot) and an eyelet for the neck strap. The positioning of the neck strap eyelet relative to the controls on the camera's top is one aspect of the 8400's design that I really didn't care for. With the camera hanging from a neckstrap, the strap comes up right where your index finger wants to come around to reach the shutter button and other top-panel controls. You have to reach around it either fore or aft, a somewhat awkward arrangement. I like the positive snap-action operation of the memory compartment cover: The spring action is apparently contained in the hinge mechanism, and it feels much better than the usual friction snap-latch I commonly find on the outside edges of these flaps on most cameras I test. The ejection button can be a little confusing if you get out of sync with it though. It works like a pen plunger: In order to extend the release so that it can push the card out, you first have to press in to make it pop out. Once it's extended, you can press in again and it releases the card and then stays pressed in, as long as you pressed it back in far enough. When it doesn't stay in, you'll find that the door will not close after inserting a new card.

The left side of the camera holds the second neck strap eyelet, a connector compartment, and the speaker. A rubbery flap covers the connector compartment, which houses the USB and A/V Out jacks. The flexible but substantial flap remains fastened to the camera body and folds out of the way easily. Also visible from this angle is the diopter adjustment dial on the viewfinder eyepiece.

The top of the camera has a handful of controls and a small status display panel. You can set the flash pop up feature to "manual" to pop it up using the Flash button, or the camera will pop it up automatically when needed. The hot shoe has the standard five-contact design used by the Nikon Speedlights, but should also host some third-party flash units. The small status display panel reports a number of camera settings, including battery power, and is very useful for making quick camera adjustments. Top panel controls include the On/Off switch and Shutter release, and the Function, Flash control, and Exposure compensation/Voice record buttons, along with a button to illuminate the small control panel. A Command dial just below the Mode Dial top panel of the 8400 is used in conjunction with various buttons on the body of the camera to change settings.

The remaining controls and user interface elements for the Coolpix 8800 are on the back of the camera. At top left is an impressively high-eyepoint electronic viewfinder (EVF) eyepiece, with a diopter adjustment dial on the left side and a nice rubber guard, important for wearers of glasses. To the right of it is the Autoexposure/Autofocus Lock button. A rocker button in the top right corner controls optical and digital zoom, as well as playback viewing options. Right of the LCD are the Menu and Quick review buttons, Five-way controller, and the Erase and Display buttons. Just below the LCD are the Manual Focus-Auto Focus button--easily reached only by the left hand--and the monitor select button (this switches between the EVF and swivel LCD). When the Manual Focus button is held in, the right thumb can be used to make manual focus adjustments with the Command Dial.

The Command Dial on the Coolpix 8400 was another design element that I found myself less than happy with. On the Coolpix 8800, the Mode Dial is set back slightly on the top panel, so its edge sits in a different plane than the Command Dial. On the 8400 though, the two controls are more or less directly in line with each other, and I found it more awkward to adjust one without jiggling the other. Not a huge point, but this was one of the factors that left me liking the 8800 quite a bit more than the 8400.

The 8400 has a "vari-angle" LCD monitor, which lifts off of the back panel and swings outward. Once out, the monitor swivels 270 degrees. In addition to facing a variety of angles, the LCD can flip around and face the back of the camera when closed, protecting it from scratches.

The bottom of the Coolpix 8400 is nice and flat, with several slightly raised inserts of resilient plastic that increase the camera's grip on tripod mounting plates. The tripod socket itself is a rugged metal unit. The tripod socket is also roughly centered on the camera body, which is good for mounting stability, but which does put the lens a little off-center from the mount. This isn't an issue for normal shooting, but does mean that a special tripod head will be needed to shoot panoramic images, to compensate for the parallax error introduced by the offset between the lens' optical center and the center of rotation for the tripod mount. Having the tripod socket centered also means that some tripod mounting plates will prevent you from removing the battery while mounted to the plate. (Again, not an issue for most users, but something I'm attuned to given how much I shoot in the studio with cameras I test.) The small plastic door to the battery compartment can be removed completely to allow connection to the optional battery pack/grip unit. Unfortunately, there is no retaining latch to keep the battery in place when you open the battery door, so be careful when opening. Batteries can become unusable after only one drop depending on how hard they hit.


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