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DCRP Review: Nikon
by Jeff Keller, DCRP Founder/Editor
Originally posted: September 15, 2004
Last Updated: March 26, 2008
This review has been completed using a production model Coolpix 8400. Product shots have been reshot where necessary, and all sample photos are from the production camera.
Take a look of indoor shots? Frustrated by lenses that start at 35mm or above? Sure, there are a couple of cameras that are 28mm, but if you wanted to go wider you needed to attach a clunky conversion lens.
Not anymore! The Nikon Coolpix 8400 ($899) is the first fixed-lens camera with a 24mm lens. The zoom numbers are unusual too -- it's 3.5X -- with a focal length of 24 - 85 mm. If 24-85 sounds familiar, that's because it's a pretty typical range for a starter lens on a digital SLR.
There's more to this camera than just the lens, though. It also features an 8 Megapixel CCD, rotating LCD display, full manual controls, VGA movie mode, hot shoe, and more. How does the 8400 perform in our tests? Find out now!
Since the cameras are so similar, I've reused a lot of text from the Coolpix 8800 review here.
What's in the Box?
The Coolpix 8400 has an average bundle. Inside the box, you'll find:
Continuing a trend that they started with the Coolpix 8700, Nikon has stopped including a memory card with their high-end cameras. Many people upgrading to this camera probably have a few CompactFlash cards already, but if you don't, you'll need to factor this into the purchase price of the camera. I recommend a 512MB card as a "comfortable" size to start with. The camera can use Type I and Type II CF cards, including the Microdrive.
The Coolpix 8400 uses the brand spankin' new EN-EL7 lithium-ion battery. This battery packs (no pun intended) an impressive 8.1 Wh of energy into its plastic case, which is a nice step up from the 5.0 Wh number on the old EN-EL1. Nikon says this translates into 240 shots per charge using the new CIPA battery life standard. Compare that to 140 photos on the Canon PowerShot S70 using the same CIPA standard. I'd like to know what the battery life is on the Olympus C-8080 Wide Zoom, but unfortunately it is not available.
The usual negatives about proprietary batteries apply here. For one, they're expensive -- an extra battery (which I recommend) will run you nearly $50. Secondly, if you ever run out of juice, you can't just pop in regular batteries like you can on a AA-based camera.
For more power, check out the optional MB-CP10 battery grip ($170). This holds six AA batteries and also has extra zoom and shutter release buttons. I don't know how many more shots you get out of this, but with the right batteries you can at least double the 8400's battery life.
When it's time to recharge, just pop the EN-EL7 into the included external charger. It takes about 2.5 hours to recharge the battery. This isn't one of those nice "plug it right into the wall" chargers -- you must use a power cable.
The 8400 includes a lens cap and strap to protect that nice wide lens. It's a fairly large camera, as you can hopefully tell.
Something else that comes with the camera is a wireless remote control. As far as I can tell it's only used for taking pictures (and not even operating the zoom).
There are many accessories available for the CP8400, which I've compiled into this handy table:
That's a nice selection of accessories!
PictureProject main screen
Nikon includes a brand new software product with the CP8400 called PictureProject. It's nothing to write home about. The main screen is your typical photo organizer, letting you put photos in folders, give them keywords for easy searching later, rotate them, etc.
Note that my 8400 came with version 1.0 of the software. A new version 1.1 is available from Nikon's website and I recommend the upgrade.
PictureProject edit screen
The edit screen lets you adjust a few things, such as brightness, color, and sharpness. The Photo Effects option lets you quickly change the image to black and white or sepia. You can straighten crooked images, or adjust the D-lighting feature that I'll discuss later. There are also buttons for instant photo enhancement or redeye removal.
Photoshop RAW plug-in
The software can also be used to convert RAW images into other formats, but you can't actually perform any of the adjustments that make RAW useful. For that you must use the included Photoshop plug-in, and you can use the one included with the camera or Adobe's own Camera Raw plug-in that comes with Photoshop CS. Loading RAW images in PictureProject takes an eternity, by the way, and this is on a dual 2Ghz PowerMac G5.
E-mail your photos in PictureProject
PictureProject can also be used to e-mail or print your photos, or share them online via NikonNet. A slideshow feature lets you put your photos to music.
The camera manual is much like the camera itself: complex, but complete. You'll have to dig a little to find what you want, but odds are that your question will be answered in the manual.
Look and Feel
The Coolpix 8400 looks and feels like a serious camera. It's big, it's bulky, it's built like a tank, and it's very easy to hold thanks to a substantial right hand grip. The old CP5400 feels like a toy compared to this thing, with the exception of the same cheap plastic door over the memory card slot that Nikon doesn't ever seem to improve. Most of the controls are well-placed though the location of the zoom controller could be better. The CP8400 certainly isn't a pocketable camera but I never found its size to be burdensome.
Here's a look at how the CP8400 compares to some other cameras in terms of size and weight:
None of those cameras are as wide-angle as the CP8400 but they're worth mentioning!
Now let's take a tour of this camera, beginning with the front!
The big selling point of the CP8400 is its wide-angle, 3.5X zoom lens. This F2.6-4.9 lens has a focal range of 6.1 - 21.6 mm, which is equivalent to 24 - 85 mm. The lens itself threaded is for 48 mm filters, and you can remove that metal ring around the lens for attaching conversion lenses (appropriate adapter required).
Directly above the lens is the pop-up flash which is kind of nifty when you see it in action. The flash has an impressive working range of 0.5 - 6.0 m at wide-angle and 0.5 - 3.0 m at telephoto. If you want more flexibility, the camera's hot shoe can help (more on that later).
To the upper-right of the lens is a nice surprise. Remember the old days when you couldn't even find an AF-assist lamp on a high-end Nikon camera? Well, those days are over: the CP8400 has an external AF sensor plus an AF-assist lamp! This means fast and accurate focusing in both bright and dim light. Thank you, Nikon!
Other items on the front of the camera include the microphone (just above-left of the lens) and the remote control receiver (to the lower-right of the lens).
The LCD size has gone back up since the Coolpix 5400. Now it's 1.8 inches, a nice improvement over the 1.5" screen on the 5400. The resolution is 134,000 pixels which makes for a nice, sharp screen. Motion is especially fluid on this particular LCD. In low light, the screen automatically "gains up" so you can still see what you're looking at. It's a little grainy, but it's better than darkness!
As it could on the CP5400 and CP8700, the 8400's LCD can flip to the side and rotate. It rotates 270 degrees, from pointing at the ground all the way around (counterclockwise) to facing your subject. Rotating LCDs may sound gimmicky but they come in very handy when shooting over crowds or doing ground-level shots. The screen can also be put in the traditional position (see below) or it can be closed altogether.
Where the Coolpix 5400 had a real optical viewfinder, the 8400 has an electronic viewfinder (EVF). This is a tiny LCD screen that you view as if it was a regular viewfinder. The good news it that you see the same thing that you would on the LCD (including menus) and that it shows 97% of the frame without parallax error. The bad news is that it doesn't compare to the "real thing" and that it puts an extra strain on the battery. The EVF has a decent resolution of 235,000 pixels but it isn't nearly as good as the one on the Minolta DiMAGE A2. A diopter correction knob, located on the side of the EVF, is used to focus the image on the screen. As with the LCD, the EVF brightens automatically in low light.
To the right of the EVF you'll find the AE/AF-lock button as well as the zoom controller. I really wish the zoom controller was a little more to the right -- it's a bit of a stretch for your thumb in its current location. And why is one side of the controller larger than the other? Anyhow, the controller moves the lens from wide-angle to telephoto in just 1.3 seconds. By making quick presses on the zoom button, you can make precise adjustments to the focal length.
Continuing to the right, we find the command dial, which is what you'll use to adjust the camera's manual settings.
To the right of the LCD are four buttons plus the four-way controller. The buttons are as follows:
The four-way controller is used for menu navigation and a few other things that I'll touch on later.
Manual focus. It looks grainy because the "auto gain" due to low light levels in the room.
The last two buttons can be found beneath the LCD panel. They are for changing the focus mode, and for switching between the LCD and EVF. The focus modes include auto, macro, landscape, and manual. To use manual focus you hold down the focus button and rotate the command dial until the image is in focus. A guide is shown on the LCD/EVF but unfortunately it doesn't tell you the actual focus distance, which would've been really helpful. There's no center-frame enlargement, either, which is handy for checking focus.
Here's the top of the camera with some assistance from an Olympus lens cap.
The camera's hot shoe is the place to put an external flash. While the manual only mentions the SB-600 and SB-800 (as they integrate with the camera's i-TTL flash control system), the CP8400 should support any modern flash (though you may have to choose the flash's settings manually). The manual does say that Advanced Wireless Lighting, auto FP high-speed sync, FV lock, and the AF-assist lamp features on an external flash will not operate.
Moving to the right, we find the LCD info display. This shows things like battery power, aperture, shutter speed, flash setting, shots remaining, and more. Pressing the light bulb button to its upper-right turns on a nice green backlight.
The next item over is the 8400's mode dial, which has the following options:
As you can see, the CP8400 has a nice set of manual controls. If those frighten you, don't fret: there are plenty of automatic modes too.
Some of you may say "where is the custom option on the mode dial?", but you need not be concerned, as the camera lets you store two sets of your favorite camera settings for later retrieval. To get to these saved options just use the record menu.
Back to the tour now. At the top-right of the photo above you'll find three more buttons plus the shutter release with the power switch wrapped around it. The buttons do the following:
By default the function button can do the following: In scene and movie mode, it lets you quickly changed the scene or resolution without opening the menu. In full manual mode it switches you between adjusting the aperture and shutter speed. If those don't excite you, feel free to customize its function in the setup menu. You can use it to quickly change the user setting (favorite camera settings), white balance, image quality, image size, ISO, and continuous shooting mode.
Well that's it for the top of the camera -- let's move on.
Thankfully there isn't too much to see on this side of the 8400. The only things of note are the USB + A/V out port, which is under that plastic cover near the top of the photo. The camera supports the USB 2.0 High Speed standard -- don't worry, it'll work on your old computer too.
Down at the bottom is the speaker. You can also catch a glimpse of the EVF's diopter correction knob at the top-right of the photo.
On the other side of the camera is the CompactFlash slot as well as the DC-in port (for optional AC adapter). The Coolpix 8400 supports both Type I and Type II CompactFlash cards, including the Microdrive. The door covering the slot is still plastic and flimsy, just like the 5400, 5700, and 8700.
Finally, here is the bottom of the camera. You can see the metal tripod mount as well as the battery compartment. The tripod mount is located in the center of the body. The door covering the battery compartment is fairly sturdy, but could be better.
The included EN-EL7 battery is shown at right.
Using the Nikon Coolpix 8400
The Coolpix 8400 takes just under three seconds to extend the lens and "warm up" before you can start taking pictures.
How do you like your histograms?
Focus speeds were good, with typical focus times of 0.4 - 0.6 seconds. If the subject is challenging, focus times could exceed one second. Low light focusing was quick and accurate.
Shutter lag was not a problem, even at slower shutter speeds.
Shot-to-shot speeds were average. There's a 3 second delay between photos in the JPEG modes, which jumps to 11 seconds in RAW mode and 13 seconds in TIFF mode. I used a Lexar 40X CompactFlash card for these measurements.
The CP8400 has the same, strange "camera lockdown while writing to the memory card" issue as the 5400 and 8700 before it. If the "writing to card" icon is on the LCD then you can't do anything with the camera until it turns off. You'll really notice this after taking a bunch of shots in a row.
I couldn't find a way to delete a photo as it's being saved to the memory card. You must instead enter Quick Play mode.
Now, here's a look at the image size and quality choices available on the Coolpix 8400:
Wow, that's one of the longest lists of all time! There a few things that I want to cover before we move onto menu discussion.
The first is about RAW mode, which the CP8400 supports right out of the box (unlike the 5400, which required a firmware upgrade). RAW files contain unprocessed image data that is, just like TIFF, as close to perfect as you'll get out of the camera. As an added bonus, you can edit many properties of the image (such as white balance, sharpness, and color saturation) after the photo is taken without any loss in quality. The catch is that you must process each RAW image on your computer before you can convert them to other formats and share them with friends. The included software doesn't let you edit all of the RAW properties -- Nikon wants you to buy their Capture 4.0 software in order to do that.
TIFF mode is, like RAW, uncompressed image data. It takes up more space than RAW and has none of the "virtual reshoot" benefits, either. Most software will read TIFF, though.
Images are named DSCN####.JPG, where # = 0001 - 9999. The file numbering is maintained even if you replace and/or format memory cards.
Okay, now we can move on to the menus!
The Coolpix displays a customizable "My Menu" that is shown before the full menu. You can put whatever you want in this menu. The full menu can be entered by choosing the "show all menus" item on that first page. The menu system is more complex than most, and it takes some digging to find some options.
Here are the options that you'll find in the full record menu:
Time for some further explanation on some of those.
The Coolpix 8400 has impressive white balance controls. First, you can use the white balance preset feature to use a white or gray card as a reference for accurate color in any lighting. Also, for all modes except auto and preset, you can fine tune the white balance, from -3 to +3 in 1 step increments. As you lower the number, the colors move toward yellow and red. As you raise the number, images tend to be more blue. There are also three fluorescent white balance settings: white, daylight/neutral white, and daylight.
One thing I wanted to mention about the high speed continuous shooting mode is that the LCD/EVF is off during shooting, making following a moving subject impossible. The screen isn't shut off entirely at regular speed, but it's still blacked out for far too long, in my opinion.
Nikon's trademark Best Shot Selector (BSS) does double duty on the 8400. The original BSS feature is still here: take up to 10 pictures in a row, and the camera magically picks the sharpest one, and tosses the rest. But wait, there's more: now there are three exposure-related BSS modes:
Do note that the camera takes five, rather than ten, images in the exposure BSS modes.
The auto bracketing feature will take 3 or 5 shots in a row, each with a different exposure compensation value. You can choose from ±0.3EV, ±0.7EV, and ±1.0EV. White balance bracketing works in a similar way. One shot is taken with the currently selected white balance, another with a reddish cast, and one more with a bluish cast.
A setup menu is also available, and you get to it via the mode dial. The options found here include:
Well, enough about menus, let's do photo tests now.
The Coolpix 8400 has a very good macro mode, as is usually the case with Nikon cameras. By putting the lens in the macro "sweet spot" (when the little flower on the LCD turns green), you can get as close to your subject as 3 cm.
Our usual test shot came out very well. The subject is very sharp, with accurate color. You can practically count the specks of dust on the figurine!
Since the CP8400's lens is so wide, I couldn't take the usual close-up of the SF skyline. Instead I've got a nice wide-angle view of the city and Bay Bridge. And the camera did a good job with this photo, taking in plenty of light, with low noise and purple fringing.
Using that same scene, let's take a look at how adjusting the ISO sensitivity affects the noise levels in images. You can click on the thumbnail to see the full size images.
At higher ISOs, things start to go downhill. While ISO 100 is usable and ISO 200 is decent, ISO 400 isn't so hot.
There's some pretty heavy-duty barrel distortion at the wide end of the 8400's lens -- and that's not surprising, given how wide it is. While the right side of the test image seems darker than the left, I think it's the lighting rather than the camera, as my real world test shots look good.
No redeye -- way to go Nikon!
Overall, the photo quality on the Coolpix 8400 was very good. Those of you used to lower Megapixel cameras or digital SLRs will notice that the images are noisier than what you're used to, but that's normal for 8 Megapixel cameras like this. Images were well-exposed, colors were accurate, and purple fringing was well-controlled. I would probably crank the in-camera sharpening up a notch, but that's just me.
Don't just take my word for it, though. View our photo gallery, print the photos if you'd like, and then decide if the 8400's photo quality meets your expectations.
The good news is that the Coolpix 8400 can record VGA (640 x 480) movies at 30 frames/second, with sound. The bad news is that the clip length is limited to just 60 seconds, regardless of the size of your memory card.
To take longer movies, you can downsize to 320 x 240, 15 frames/second -- at this setting you can record until the memory card is full. You can record in color, black & white, or sepia tone.
A "time lapse movie" mode is also available. The camera takes a still photo at a set interval, and throws it into a silent movie up to 35 seconds in length (at the VGA resolution). The interval can be 10 sec, 30 sec, or 1, 5, 10, 30, or 60 minutes. You can use the AE lock feature to base the exposure on the first shot taken.
But wait, there's more. The CP8400 actually has an electronic image stabilization system for movie recording (not for stills). Turn this on to reduce the effects of camera shake. Could this one day find its way into still shooting as well?
You cannot use the zoom lens while filming. Movies are saved in QuickTime format.
Here's a sample movie for you, courtesy of Amtrak.
Click to play movie (15.8 MB, 640 x 480, 30 fps, QuickTime format)
Can't view it? Download QuickTime.
The Coolpix 8400 has a very nice playback mode. All the basic features are here, including slide shows, DPOF print marking, image protection, voice captions, thumbnail mode, and zoom and scroll. The camera is PictBridge-enabled for direct printing to a compatible photo printer.
The zoom and scroll feature (my term) lets you zoom into your photo by as much as 10X, and then scroll around in the image. This feature is well-implemented on the 8400. Once you're zoomed in, you can crop images into a new file.
A very interesting new feature on the CP8400 is known as D-Lighting. This is similar to the "digital flash" feature on some HP cameras in that it brightens dark areas and improves detail in the highlight areas. You can see an example of how this feature works toward the bottom of my Coolpix 8800 review.
Other features include a resize image function (down to 640 x 480 or smaller) and the ability to convert RAW images to TIFF format right on the camera.
One thing I've always liked about Nikon cameras it their ability to delete a group of images, rather than just one or all. That's still a feature on the 8400.
If you like extra info about your photos, then this is your camera. Normally you don't see much, but by rotating the command dial you can get a lot more, including the screen on the right.
The camera moves through images at a leisurely pace. It shows a low res version instantly, with the high res image appearing about 2.5 seconds later.
How Does it Compare?
If you want an ultra wide-angle camera, the Nikon Coolpix 8400 is the only game in town. And thankfully, it plays a pretty good game. While it could be faster in terms of performance, the bottom line is that the 8400 takes good quality pictures with a larger field-of-view than any other fixed-lens digital camera on the market. As expected, a lens that wide will result in some distortion, most notably when you take pictures of buildings or interiors. While its 8 Megapixel images are noisier than what some are used to, they're competitive with other cameras using this sensor. Be warned that at high ISOs, the noise levels may be unacceptable, especially compared to a digital SLR. Nikon has done a good job keeping purple fringing levels low on the 8400, and redeye was not a problem.
Performance is a mixed bag. The camera starts up fairly slowly, menus and playback are sluggish, and shot-to-shot speeds leave something to be desired. Important things like shutter lag and AF lag are low, thankfully. I found the 8400's focus performance to be very good, and quite a lot better than the CP8800 that I reviewed. In low light the camera focused well, and both the LCD and EVF were visible.
The 8400 offers a full suite of manual controls, and then some. The D-Lighting feature helps brighten dark areas of your photos, without adding too much noise. For those who want to shoot in RAW mode, it's available, though Nikon's included software doesn't take full advantage of the format. The camera is very well built, and it feels like it should for the price, save for the door over the memory card slot. It's not the easiest camera to use, with a fairly clunky menu system and numerous buttons on the body. Other nice features on the 8400 include its macro mode and VGA movie mode (which is time limited, unfortunately). The camera also supports numerous add-on lenses and filters, plus an external flash.
I buried most of my complaints about the 8400 in those paragraphs. I should also mention that the manual focus feature isn't great, since there's no distance shown on the LCD, nor is there a center-frame enlargement feature. Also, the continuous shooting mode isn't that hot, as the LCD and EVF are either off briefly or entirely during shooting. And finally, with a price of $900, the 8400 isn't cheap.
Despite that, I did really like the Coolpix 8400. Most people who need the ultra wide-angle lens probably don't care about action shooting, so the somewhat sluggish performance isn't a huge deal. For people who want to capture as much of the world as possible in the picture, the 8400 is a great choice.
What I liked:
What I didn't care for:
Some other high resolution, wide-angle cameras to consider include the Canon PowerShot Pro1 and S70, Konica Minolta DiMAGE A2 and A200, Olympus C-8080 Wide Zoom, Ricoh Caplio GX, and the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-F828.
As always, I recommend a trip down to your local reseller to try out the Coolpix 8400 and its competitors before you buy!
Want to see how the photos turned out? Check out our gallery!
Want a second opinion?
Read more at Steve's Digicams, Digital Photography Review, and Imaging Resource.
Feedback & Discussion
If you have a question about this review, please send them to Jeff. Due to my limited resources, please do not e-mail me asking for a personal recommendation.
To discuss this review with other DCRP readers, please visit our forums.
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