Nikon Coolpix 8400 Review
By Movable Type Admin
At year-end 2004, Nikon is providing a choice of top-of-the-line consumer digicams, you'll just need to ask yourself if your shooting style favors the telephoto or wide angle end of the focal length spectrum. The Coolpix 8400 is the little brother of the recently-reviewed Coolpix 8800 only in terms of its lens, having a wide angle range of 24-85mm in 35mm-equivalence versus the 8800's mega zoom range of 35-350mm. All other features of the 8800, with the exception of Vibration Reduction, are present in the 8400. Rather than restate its often identical results, this review will focus on its likely use as a wide angle zoom. Like the 8800, its features and price are clearly aimed at the advanced amateur photographer, but beginners will enjoy the automatic and scene modes that provide point-n-shoot simplicity.
The 8400's lens will please interior, landscape and street photographers with its wide zoom focal length range of 24-85mm in 35mm equivalence. With at diagonal field of view of at 24mm of about 84-degrees versus the 63-degrees of a 35mm focal length, the 8400 can "see" nearly twice as much as your typical consumer digicam. At its full telephoto 85mmm, the 8400 offers an ideal focal length for capturing portraits, neither flattening nor exaggerating facial features.
The lens is much smaller than that of the 8800, and the camera is much lighter as a result, weighing-in at slightly over 1-pound ready to shoot versus the 8800's 1.5 pounds. While the 8400 is not "pocketable" you will notice its smaller bulk and lighter weight while using it. The 8400's smaller size is a disadvantage only when there is an external flash unit mounted on the hot shoe; it feels less stable than the 8800 with a flash attached. Because of its sizable grip, the 8400 was very comfortable to hold, and its controls were well located - easy to use but difficult to accidentally activate.
The optical qualities of the lens are very good. Barrel distortion at its full 24mm wide angle was quite noticeable, but I could find no distortion at its 85mm telephoto extreme. The lens produced sharp results throughout its zoom range, with the exception of some softness at the corners at full telephoto with its widest aperture. Chromatic aberration was well controlled; images were virtually free of purple fringing at all focal lengths.
The 8400's shooting performance is essentially identical to the 8800 with one slight exception, flash recycle time; the 8400 was able to take flash shots at a rate of one every 3 to 6 seconds depending on the distance to the subject versus a rate of one every 3 to 5 seconds with the 8800. While shooting performance was good, the 8400's LCD and EVF viewfinders exhibited the same problems as the 8800's: a momentary "freeze" during autofocus, and blanking during continuous shooting. While its EVF is bright and resolute, I think that the 8400 would have been better with an optical viewfinder instead, giving the photographer an alternative to the electronic viewfinders which all exhibit freezing, blanking and delay to some extent.
I found the 8400's outdoor results just as pleasing as the 8800's, but with ability to be more scenic because of the wide field of view at 24mm; test images were sharp, well exposed and richly saturated. Image noise at various ISO settings was similar to the 8800: almost non-existent at ISO 50, detectable at ISO 100, noticeable at ISO 200, and objectionable at ISO 400. For challenging conditions, the 8400 has the same rich set of exposure controls as the 8800, including its Exposure Best Shot Selection (BSS) feature. If you are shooting architectural subjects, you'll notice some barrel distortion at wide angle, but that's about the only flaw I could find.
I expected the 8400 to shine indoors, and it did if there was enough available light to help its autofocus system. If you frequently find yourself with your back pressed against a wall or into a corner to compose indoor shots of rooms or people, you'll appreciate the field of view offered by the 8400's wide zoom. Its powerful (by consumer digicam standards) flash covers the wide field of view fairly well, with only a slight drop off in illumination at the corners of the image. For consistent corner-to-corner flash illumination at full wide angle, you'll need to use an SB-600 or SB-800 speedlight.
At full wide angle, the 8400's autofocus system worked well in conditions of moderate available light. The camera is equipped with a focus-assist lamp, but in dim ambient lighting its range is limited to about 10 feet at full wide angle, and about 3 feet at its telephoto extreme. This is a disappointing result for such a high-end camera, especially at its optimum portrait focal length of 85mm. Its poor low light focusing ability is not improved when using Nikon's external flash units; the camera will control the zoom head of a hot shoe-attached SB-600 or SB-800 speedlight, but it will not activate the powerful focus assist lamp.
The 8400 continues the Coolpix tradition of excellence for macro photography. It doesn't have the Vibration Reduction feature of the 8800, but its Best Shot Selection (BSS) feature is effective for capturing shake-free macro images. The 8400 also does a good job throttling-down flash power for macros. Focusing can be an issue in marginal lighting; the 8400's focus-assist lamp is powerful enough for close subjects, but it illuminates them off-center while using only the center AF point for focusing - the result is that AF-assist is ineffective for macro photography of subjects closer than about 5 inches.
I was hopeful that the 8400 would be a good tool for creating panoramic, or virtual tour, images. Its 24mm wide angle extreme promised, and delivered, a lot. Its vertical field of view in the landscape position is 53-degrees, about the same as a 35mm lens horizontal field of view; you'll be able to create similar 360-degree panoramas from only 8 landscape-oriented 8400 images versus about 18 images from a 35mm lens-equipped camera used in portrait orientation.
The 8400 has a panorama scene mode that locks white balance and exposure to the first image in the sequence, and transparently displays about 1/3 of the previous shot in the viewfinder as a guide to line up your next shot. This works reasonably well hand held if you will be stitching only a few shots together, but is ineffective for a full 360-degree panorama; for that you'll need a tripod, a bubble level and perhaps a specialized panoramic tripod head.
But you need more than just a good tripod and wide angle lens to create great panoramas, you need exposure flexibility as well, especially when coping with the enormous variation in lighting when shooting interiors with open sun-lit windows. Exposure bracketing is necessary to capture the dimly-lit interior details and bright windows in separate frames for later blending; I typically shoot 3 images of each indoor pano frame, -2, 0, and +2 EV. Unfortunately, the 8400 does not automate the exposure bracketing required by professional Virtual Tour photographers:
In other words, the 8400 does not allow you to both fix the baseline exposure/white balance settings AND use exposure bracketing for the sequence of images comprising the panorama. However you can get good results in Panorama scene mode if the lighting conditions are fairly consistent throughout the 360-degree view. I have included a 360-degree panorama created from an 8-shot landscape-oriented sequence of images in our Sample Photos. The camera was in Panorama scene mode, tripod-mounted and leveled, but not on a specialized panoramic tripod head; the stitching software was the Nikon-provided ArcSoft Panorama Maker 3.
The 8400's EN-EL7 battery provided enough power to capture about 250 shots. Because it has no off the shelf equivalent, you should obtain a spare and keep it fully charged to avoid missing a unique photo op due to a dead battery. The included MH-56 charger takes over two hours to fully charge a depleted battery, further justifying the purchase of a spare. You should also obtain a sizeable CF memory card; the 8400's Fine quality images averaged about 2.5-megabytes, Extra quality averaged about 6-megabytes, and RAW images were over 12-megabytes in size.
The Nikon Coolpix 8400 enters the prosumer digicam market with a unique combination of 8-megapixel resolution, super wide angle zoom and excellent image quality. Its rich set of exposure controls will please the advanced shooter, while its easy to use automatic and scene modes will help even the neophyte capture great images. The 8400 is at its best shooting outdoor scenics. Its indoor results are also terrific if there is sufficient available light for autofocus, but in dim lighting the limited range of the AF-assist lamp was a disappointment. Have a look at our Sample Photos to help you determine if the Coolpix 8400 belongs under your Christmas tree this year.
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