Nikon Coolpix 8700 Review
Welcome to 2004, the year of the 8-megapixel consumer digicam. Sony were the first to market in 2003 with their 8-megapixel 7x optical Zoom DSC-F828. Joining Sony in 2004 are the 8-megapixel 7x zoom Canon Pro1, and the 8-megapixel 8x zoom Nikon Coolpix 8700, the subject of this review. The 8700 is the successor to Nikon's popular Coolpix 5700. In addition to its improved resolution, the 8700 has been upgraded with a larger and more resolute LCD monitor, a more resolute Electronic Viewfinder (EVF), and the addition of 12 scene modes and an AF assist illuminator. It's 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 Coolpix 8700 will please the advanced photographer with its full-featured exposure system. Exposure modes include Shutter-priority Auto with settings ranging of 8 seconds to 1/4000 second, Aperture-priority Auto with settings ranging from f2.8-8.0, Programmed Auto, and Manual Mode. Programmed Auto offers a program shift function, allowing the photographer to select different combinations of shutter speed and aperture by rotating the command dial; the camera maintains the correct exposure while displaying the selected aperture/shutter speed combination in the viewfinder. Flexible Program, Nikon's name for this feature, provides a convenient way for the photographer to exercise creative control of aperture and shutter speed, while avoiding the possibility of selecting value for either parameter that would result in over or under exposure. Manual exposure mode offers independent control of both shutter speed and aperture; it assists the photographer with choosing appropriate settings by displaying a bar graph of over/under exposure in the viewfinder. In addition, Manual exposure mode allows timed long exposures of between 30 seconds and 10 minutes, and untimed exposures of up to 10 minutes in Bulb release mode. There is a shutter-speed gap between the maximum 8 seconds available in Shutter-priority and Manual and the minimum 30 seconds available in Bulb.
In any mode other than Automatic or Scene, a rich set of exposure controls can be used. ISO settings of 50, 100, 200 and 400 are available, but you'll prefer to use the low-end of that range. The noise at ISO 400 is unacceptable even at fast shutter speeds. The noise at ISO 200 is noticeable, and at ISO 100 it's detectable. The 8700 provides a choice of metering modes, including Matrix, Center-weighted, Spot and Spot linked to AF-area. The Coolpix 8700 has a new function in its Best Shot Selector (BSS) feature, Exposure BSS. In this mode, the camera takes a sequence of 5 shots while varying the exposure, saving only the one with the smallest area of overexposure (Highlight BSS), smallest area of underexposure (Shadow BSS), or with the least combined under and over exposure (Histogram BSS). This feature can be thought of as automated exposure bracketing, saving CF memory card space and your time spent reviewing bracketed shots and selecting the best one. Rounding out the set of exposure controls are Exposure compensation (+/- 2 EV in 1/3 EV steps), White Balance Bracketing, manual White Balance settings, and Exposure Bracketing. The 8700 also offers a rich set of in-camera image processing functions, including adjustments for contrast, saturation, image sharpening. There is also a Noise Reduction feature that effectively eliminates noise from long exposures.
The 8700's advanced exposure modes and controls are accessed in either of two shooting modes: Custom 1 and Custom 2. The camera stores changes to settings you've made in each of these modes, and recalls those settings the next time that mode is selected. This makes it possible for you to create two sets of custom settings and recall either one as needed, speeding your camera setup time.
The Coolpix 8700's shooting performance is quite good. From power-on until the first shot was captured measured just over 4 seconds, while it took 3.5 seconds to wake the camera from power-saving sleep mode and capture the first shot. Shutter lag, the elapsed time between depressing the shutter and capturing an image, measured 2/10 second when pre-focused and 5/10 second including autofocus time. Responsiveness can be improved by about 1/10 second by turning on Quick response, found in the Monitor Options in the Setup menu; this setting helps overcome the delay in presenting the live image on either of the 8700's LCD or EVF viewfinders. In Single shot mode, the 8700 captured 8-megapixel Fine images at the rate of one every 2.5 seconds without flash; with flash, the shot-to-shot rate was one every 2.8 to 5 seconds, depending on the distance to the subject. Shot-to-shot performance slows to one shot every 8 seconds when recording RAW images, and one shot every 18 seconds with HI (TIFF) images. This is not surprising when you consider the size of the NEF (12-megabytes) and TIFF (23-megabyte) files.
The Coolpix 8700 has several Continuous shooting modes. In Continuous H, the 8700 captured 5 images in 2 seconds, then after a delay of 7 seconds continued to capture images at a rate of one every 3.7 seconds. The viewfinder blanks during Continuous H image capture, so you will be unable to follow a moving subject in this mode. In Continuous L, the 8700 captured 12 shots in 11 seconds, then continued at a rate of one shot every 7.5 seconds. In this mode, the viewfinder briefly displays the last captured image, helping you to follow a moving subject. While the long telephoto zoom lens and fast continuous capture rate beg to be used for sports shooting, the limitations of the 8700's LCD and EVF prevent you from seeing a live viewfinder image during continuous image capture. The use of any Continuous shooting mode prevents recording HI (TIFF) or RAW images; the best quality available is Fine. Performance measurements were made while using a Transcend 45X CF card, shooting 8-megapixel images in Fine quality.
While the 8700's Electronic Viewfinder (EVF) has its limitations in Continuous shooting mode, you'll enjoy using it in Single-shot or Movie mode. Nikon increased its resolution over the predecessor 5700 version, offering 235,000 pixels versus the 5700's 180,000. While you won't mistake it for an optical viewfinder, its resolution, brightness, and refresh rate make it quite easy to view. Camera settings and exposure information can be seen along with the live image, allowing you to keep your eye at the viewfinder while you make exposure changes. It is as fully-functional as the LCD viewfinder, but easier to use when following a moving subject. The large 1.8" LCD viewfinder is equipped with a very good anti-reflective coating and brightness/hue controls; it is very easy to view outdoors in bright sunlight. Both the LCD and EVF brighten, or "gain-up", in low ambient light, allowing you to compose shots in dimly-lit interiors.
The 8x Zoom-Nikkor is an excellent piece of glass and gives the user a versatile range of focal lengths from moderate wide angle to super-telephoto, 35mm to 280mm in 35mm-equivalence. I was quite impressed with the color rendition and sharpness of this lens; it is excellent. The 8700 continues the Coolpix tradition of excellent macro performance; it focuses as close as 1.2-inches. The motorized zoom is quick, taking only 2 seconds to go from W to T, but it has a very audible high-pitched whirring sound. The zoom motor is very responsive and offers a nearly-continuous zoom range; I counted about 30 steps between the wide angle and telephoto extremes, more than adequate for shot composition. There's a menu option to set the zoom speed but I could not detect a difference between high or low speed. There is only a slight amount of Chromatic Aberration (purple fringing) present in high-contrast areas at wide angle; CA is nearly absent at telephoto. There is also noticeable barrel distortion at full wide angle and a bit of pin cushioning at the telephoto end of the zoom range.
The 8700's autofocus system complements the lens nicely in producing sharp images. Settings are available to select one of the 5 AF areas for focusing, or the camera can automatically choose the AF area containing the subject closest to the camera. The AF system worked very well outdoors in bright sunlight. The 8700 is equipped with a focus-assist lamp that improves autofocus performance in dim lighting; it was very effective at the wide angle end of the zoom range where the variable aperture lens is at its fastest. Autofocus performance drops off in low ambient lighting at moderate to telephoto focal lengths where the aperture is slower; it frequently hunts for focus through its entire range, and sometimes fails to focus. The 8700 can also be focused manually, but it offers no graduated distance scale, and it fails to magnify the live viewfinder image so that critical focus can be observed.
The 8700's controls are ergonomically located with the exception of the four control buttons located on the left side of the lens barrel. In normal use your left hand is "palm up" with your thumb resting near these controls. It's far too easy to inadvertently push a button and change something without knowing it. Most of us are concentrating on framing the subject, not monitoring the information status displayed in the EVF. My thumb came to rest on the "Size" button and more than once I found myself on the wrong quality setting. A simple "lock out" control over these buttons could easily prevent this from happening. The Coolpix 8700's data LCD can be illuminated, allowing it to be used at night. The zoom control is well-placed for operating comfortably with your right thumb. The Vari-angle LCD can be placed in virtually any position, allowing you to shoot from overhead, waist or ground-level, and even facing forward for self-portraits.
Power is provided by Nikon's EN-EL1, a 7.4v 680mA lithium rechargeable pack. The 8700 managed to capture an average of 160 shots before exhausting its battery, including a lot of time spent testing and exploring the camera's menu system. Your use of the internal flash, continuous-AF, and motorized zoom will determine battery life. An extra EN-EL1 would be a very wise first purchase and is highly recommended. The EN-EL1 battery pack is charged outside of the camera with the supplied MH-53 charger. This small and compact (100-240 VAC) charger can fully replenish a depleted pack in about 120 minutes. The 8700 can also be powered by a one-use 2CR5 lithium battery but using this type of battery frequently can get quite expensive. I do recommend carrying one in your gadget bag for emergency use though. Nikon offers the optional ($169.95) MB-E5700 battery pack/handgrip that uses six 1.5v (AA) batteries. In addition to supplying more power, it provides a portrait mode shutter release and grip. It gives you more camera to hold onto which is especially handy when using an external speedlight or an add-on lens. And finally you can use the DC IN plug to connect an external battery pack like the Maha PowerBank which provides a lightweight power source with 2-3 times the capacity of the EN-EL1.
Indoor shooting is limited by the range of the built-in speedlight (13.5 feet at wide angle) and the limited field of view produced by the 35mm focal length of the lens at its widest setting. As a result, the 8700's indoor sweet spot is portraits of moderate-sized groups, and shots of small rooms; you won't be able to capture a banquet hall with the 8700's standard equipment. If your indoor shooting needs exceed the 8700's abilities, the addition of Nikon's WC-E80 wide angle converter will increase field of view and the attachment of an external speedlight to the built-in hot shoe will increase flash power. Unfortunately, the 8700 does not exploit the motorized zoom or focus-assist lamp features of Nikon's own external speedlights. The 8700's internal flash must be popped-up to use an external speedlight, both for its focus-assist lamp and because its sensor (located next to the flash tube) is used to control the external flash's output.
Image quality is always the bottom line, and the 8700 provides few disappointments. As I've already discussed, there's some lens distortion at wide angle and telephoto, purple-fringing in high-contrast areas, and noise present at higher ISO's. But sharpness and color saturation are excellent, and it's 8-megapixel images will produce prints as large as 20x30 inches.
But in a world where most digital images are viewed on-screen or printed at 4x6 inches, are 8-megapixel images really necessary? Is the megapixel marketing war improving our enjoyment of photography, or simply selling more high capacity memory cards? I like to draw an analogy to film; stepping-up to a higher resolution digicam is similar to increasing the format in film cameras. You never know when you'll need the extra resolution for that big print, or, more likely, need to do a massive crop to enlarge a small portion of the original image. In this case more is better, especially when the cost of today's 8-megapixel digicam is less than its 5-megapixel predecessor when it was introduced.
And what of the seemingly shrinking difference between the high-end 8-megapixel prosumer digicam and the low-end digital SLR? If it's features you crave, the family-friendly prosumer digicam like the 8700 is your answer; you'll not find a dSLR with the 8700's smooth VGA-sized 30fps movies, built-in macro capability, Best Shot Selector, or flexible vari-angle LCD viewfinder. But the 8700's feature advantages have less value if you need the versatility of interchangeable lenses, dSLR shooting performance, an optical thru-the-lens viewfinder and superior image quality (especially at high ISO).
The Nikon Coolpix 8700 is a worthy competitor in the prosumer digicam market.
Its features are rich and the image quality excellent. A beginner will get
terrific results in automatic mode, while the advanced photographer will be able
to push the envelope; it's a camera that will grow your photographic skills.
Please have a look at our sample images, some having comparables taken under
identical conditions with the
Sony DSC-F828 and the
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