Nikon Coolpix 8800 Review
By Movable Type Admin
The Coolpix 8800 is an upgrade to Nikon's 8MP Coolpix 8700 that we reviewed earlier this year. It provides a more powerful 10x optical zoom lens, adds Vibration Reduction, Extra quality JPEG mode, and a more powerful battery, but retains the 8700's flexible features and exposure system. Like its predecessor, the Coolpix 8800 is designed to appeal to the advanced user, but its automatic and scene modes will allow even the most inexperienced photographer get great results.
Nikon has improved the camera's ergonomics. Rather than the two-fingered button and dial operation of the 8700 to select the shooting mode, the Mode Dial now directly selects the shooting mode as identified by icons imprinted on its surface. In addition, the Mode Dial provides direct access to White Balance, ISO and Image Size/Quality settings, making it both easier and more foolproof to effect changes to these frequently varied shooting parameters. I had complained about the lens barrel location of the Size, ISO and Focus buttons on the 8700; they were simply too easy to inadvertently activate because of their location. With the ISO and Size functions relocated to the 8800's Mode dial, only the AF button remains on the lens barrel now.
The substantial handgrip and well-placed controls make the 8800 comfortable to use, and the vari-angle LCD viewfinder makes it easy to get shots that would be impossible to compose using an optical or fixed EVF type viewfinder. The EVF (Electronic ViewFinder) has a dioptric adjustment and a deep eyecup offset far enough from the camera body for comfortable viewing. Both viewfinders are effective in conditions ranging from bright Florida sun to dimly lit interiors, where the live image will "gain-up" so you can properly compose the shot. Weighing in at over 1.5 pounds ready to shoot, the 8800 is no lightweight, but its size, weight and comfortable grip provide stability - especially with an external flash attached.
The full-featured exposure system will be familiar to 8700 users. It offers the same set of Automatic, Programmed Auto (with shift), Aperture-priority, Shutter-priority and Manual exposure modes, but the fastest shutter speed has been reduced from 1/4000 to 1/3000 second. At 1/3000 second, the aperture is restricted to f/7.4 at maximum telephoto, and between f/5 and f/8 at wide angle. ISO settings of 50, 100, 200 and 400 are available, but you'll prefer to use the low-end of that range.
The Coolpix 8800 incorporates Nikon's innovative Exposure Best Shot Selector (BSS) feature; 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 8800 also offers a rich set of in-camera image processing functions, including adjustments for contrast, saturation and image sharpening, and Noise Reduction for long exposures.
The Coolpix 8800's shooting performance is quite good, slightly improved from the 8700 in most respects. From power-on until the first shot was captured measured just under 4 seconds, while it took 3.3 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 1/10 second when pre-focused and 6/10 second including autofocus time. There is a very slight, almost imperceptable, delay present in the live image of the 8800's EVF and LCD viewfinders, giving it an advantage over the 1/10-second delay present in most of its competitors. In Single shot mode, the 8800 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 3 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 15 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 8800 has several Continuous shooting modes, and its performance varied with the chosen image quality. In Continuous H, the 8800 captured 5 Fine images in 1.8 seconds, then after a delay of 7 seconds continued to capture images at a rate of one every 3.7 seconds. In Extra quality, 5 images could be captured in the same 1.8 seconds; subsequent images could be captured at 4 second intervals after an initial delay of 6.5 seconds. In RAW mode, the 8800 captured the initial 5 images in the same 1.8 seconds, with subsequent images captured at 14 second intervals after an initial delay of 40 seconds. HI (TIFF) mode is not available in any continuous shooting mode; if Hi is selected, the 8800 steps down to Extra image quality. In Continuous L, the 8800 captured 14 Fine images in 12 seconds, then continued at a rate of one shot every 7 seconds. In Extra quality, 8 shots could be captured in 7 seconds, with subsequent shots coming at 7 second intervals. Neither RAW or HI images can be captured in Continuous L mode; if RAW or HI is selected, the 8800 will capture Extra quality images. Size matters, both in terms of image quality and delay; choose your image quality settings with care!
The 10x 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 350mm in 35mm-equivalence. The lens versatility, including its macro focusing capability down to 1.2 inches, is matched by its image quality; it produced consistently sharp results corner to corner from wide angle to telephoto, and from 1.2-inches to infinity. The zoom motor is very responsive and offers a nearly-continuous zoom range; I counted 32 steps between the wide angle and telephoto extremes, more than adequate for shot composition. 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 quite noticeable barrel distortion at full wide angle and a bit of pin cushioning at the telephoto end of the zoom range.
With its 10x zoom lens and robust shooting performance, the Coolpix 8800 begs to be used as a sports shooter, but there are several aspects of its performance that impose some difficulty. The 8800's EVF and LCD viewfinders "freeze" briefly during autofocus, making it difficult to track and focus fast moving subjects. The viewfinders present yet another issue during continuous shooting; they go blank during Continuous H, and only briefly display the last captured image during Continuous L, again limiting your ability to pan with a moving subject. Finally, the 8800's buffer is written to the CF memory card relatively slowly (even with a hi-speed CF card), and you are prevented from reviewing images or using the menu system until the last one has been cleared from the buffer; this becomes especially annoying when using Extra or better image quality.
I was pleased with the 8800's indoor results. Its moderately-wide 35mm focal length and relatively powerful built-in flash (19 feet at wide angle) combine to allow photos of moderately large groups and interiors. If your shooting requires more flash power, Nikon's SB-600 or SB-800 speedlights can be attached via the flash hot shoe. The camera can control the motorized zoom head but does not make use of the more powerful onboard focus- assist lamp. With the 8800's 10x lens you need a high power AF-assist lamp, the builtin one barely covers to five feet at telephoto focal lengths. It took several years of complaining before the top-end Coolpix cameras controlled the zoom head so I guess it will be another couple of years before they can use the AF illuminator. I sure wish the 35mm film, dSLR and Coolpix engineering and design people at Nikon were all on the same page. Unlike the 8700, the 8800's internal flash does not need to be popped-up to use an external speedlight. Indoor flash portraits produced pleasing skin tones, and the red eye reduction flash mode was effective.
Coolpix cameras have long been known for their macro capability, and the 8800 does not disappoint. It throttles down flash power at close range quite well, but the flash illumination area is partially blocked by the lens if closer than about 8 inches from your subject. The 8800 excels at natural light macrophotography because of its Best Shot Selector (BSS) and Vibration Reduction (VR) features. With BSS enabled, the 8800 takes a series of up to 10 pictures, which are compared and only the sharpest one is saved. The 8800's VR feature reduces or eliminates the efect of camera shake to produce sharp images at slow shutter speeds. BSS and VR can be used concurrently, providing an industry-leading low-light hand-held macrophotography solution. Note however that I would still recommend the use of a tripod and the wireless remote to trip the shutter when doing extreme macro work.
The 8800's VR feature is quite remarkable. Nikon claims this gives users the ability shoot at shutter speeds up to three stops slower without the risk of camera vibrations blurring the image, and my experience with this camera is in agreement. The VR feature will help you blur the background of moving subjects by using a lower shutter speed. It will also help you capture images at theatrically-lit concerts and other performing events; the combination of VR, 10x zoom lens and 8-megapixel resolution is unique among consumer digicams. See our Sample Photos for an example, the image of gymnasts holding form on the parallel bars.
The Coolpix 8800 was fun to use outdoors where the versatility of the 10x zoom could be fully exploited. VR will also benefit you outdoors when ambient lighting would require a shutter speed slower than the 1/350-second - standard for avoiding camera shake at full telephoto; you'll be able to use a slower shutter speed rather than compromise image quality by increasing the ISO. Speaking of ISO, I found noise objectionable at ISO 400, noticeable at ISO 200, and detectable at ISO 100; overall image quality was excellent at ISO 50, with rich saturation and good exposure. The 8800's Extra quality JPEG mode is effective in reducing artifacts, but you'll pay a price in terms of file size for using it; Extra quality images averaged about 7-Megabytes in our testing versus and average of about 2.5-Megabytes for Fine quality. The 8800's Noise Reduction feature was effective in removing image noise from long exposures; when you view the long exposure of the statue in our Sample Photos, be advised that the few bright spots of light seen in the sky are actually stars, not image noise.
The 8800's autofocus system complements the lens nicely in producing sharp images. Settings are available to select one of the 9 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 8800 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 8800 can be focused manually, but it offers only an ungraduated distance scale, and it does not magnify the viewfinder image so that critical focus can be observed. This is a major mistake for a prosumer level camera of this caliber to lack an essential feature that is found on many lesser cameras.
The 8800's 10x zoom lens and Vibration Reduction add a great deal of fun to the camera's movie mode. The TV movie option (640x480, 30fps) produces very nice clips of up to 60 seconds, be sure that you use a sizeable CF memory card; the MOV file size is about 1MB/sec in this mode. 320x240 movies are recorded at 15fps and more memory-efficient, consuming under 300KB/sec of recording. Sepia movies are captured at 5fps to produce that jerky "old-time cinema" look.
The review mode has a unique D-Lighting function that can brighten under exposed subjects. Simply depress the shutter button in review mode, select D-Lighting and the 8800 will brighten under exposed areas of the image while leaving properly exposed areas untouched, effectively performing a digital fill-flash on a copy of the image. The resulting image is somewhat noisy, but the you'll find the function useful in salvaging under exposed shots. The 8800 also offers a "Small pic" function in review mode, allowing you to create a 640x480, 320x240 or 160x120 copy of an image in-camera for later web posting or emailing. Both of these functions can be performed more flexibly by an image editing application, but some users will appreciate the convenience and ease of use of the 8800's in-camera processing.
The 8800's EN-EL7 7.4V 1100mAh battery lived up to Nikon's claims during our testing, capturing about 240 images with full-time use of VR before its capacity was totally consumed. As always, I recommend that you purchase a spare and keep it fully charged to avoid the disappointment of missing a unique photo op. This is a proprietary type battery and no "off the shelf" type can be used in its place.
Bottom line - the Coolpix 8800's combination of image quality, resolution, zoom range and
Vibration Reduction are unmatched at the time of this review (December 2004). With an MSRP
of about $1,000, the Coolpix 8800 competes with consumer-class dSLR's like the D70 and
Canon Digital Rebel. If it's digicam features you crave, the family-friendly 8800 is your
answer; you'll not find a dSLR that captures smooth VGA-sized 30fps movies, built-in macro
capability, Best Shot Selector, or flexible vari-angle LCD viewfinder. On the other hand
if you need the versatility of interchangeable lenses, shooting performance, optical TTL
viewfinder and superior image quality (especially at higher ISOs) then you'll want a
digital SLR. The value equation tilts favorably to the 8800 if you need Vibration
Reduction. Most dSLR's implement VR or Image Stabilization in the lens, and in it costs
dearly; the Nikon 70-200 f/2.8D Autofocus Lens with VR lists for about $1,500, while you
can get the entire Coolpix 8800 camera and its VR lens for under $1,000. It's great to
have choices, but sometimes the decision is difficult; have a look at our Sample Photos to help your decision making process.
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