Sales of 8-megapixel compact cameras have no doubt taken a hit from the ever-tumbling prices of digital SLRs. Although an 8-megapixel model has a higher resolution than an entry-level 6-megapixel SLR, the physical size of the sensor is much smaller, so tonal smoothness and noise levels suffer as a result, and outright definition is no better.
The 8400 has to be good, then, in order to make its mark, but Nikon has helped it along its way with shrewd pricing which undercuts D-SLR prices, and some of its established 8MP rivals.
The 8400 doesn't have the wide zoom range of camera like Sony's F828 or the Canon PowerShot Pro 1, but it does offer a superior wide-angle capability. The 24-85mm equivalent zoom goes wider than any other, and will suit those people keen on architectural, interior and landscape photography.
It's versatile, too, with a macro mode that can shoot right down to 3cm. The fold-out LCD display makes shooting at awkward angles easy, and the in-built flash has a wide range of modes, including first and second-curtain synchronisation options. If you need more power, you can slot an SB600 or SB800 into the camera's accessory shoe and still get TTL flash control.
Other interesting features include a good movie mode capable of recording at 640 x 480 pixels (VGA resolution) and at 30fps, while the playback mode has a couple of particularly interesting options. One of these is the D-Lighting adjustment that brightens shadowed areas without altering the rest of the image and the other is Nikon's red-eye reductions system, which reckons to identify and fix pupil discolouration automatically.
It's disappointing to discover that the 8400's still not especially quick at starting up, taking around three seconds to get going. This is at a time when many other makers have got start-up times down to one or two seconds.
The zooming action is pretty fast, with lots of 'in-between' positions for precise framing. The AF system is mildly disappointing, though. The hybrid external/internal system should minimise shutter lag, but the Nikon still took around half a second to confirm focus at normal focal lengths and in good light. Oddly, a series of test shots taken of distant subjects at night with the focusing set to 'infinity' didn't come out sharp, but with the AF system rest to automatic, they did.
Manual focusing is quick to activate - you just press the MF button and then turn the control wheel. As usual with electronic viewfinders and LCDs, though, there simply isn't enough resolution for accurate focusing except with long telephoto settings and macro shots where the depth of field is lower. At everyday focal lengths and distances, the apparent sharpness of the image on the LCD or EVF just doesn't change, despite big adjustments to the focus distance.
The LCD display quality is good, but it's not especially sharp. Images displayed straight after shooting always look 'soft'. At first you think they're out of focus, but after a while you realise that it's the camera's playback mode that's at fault. Full-resolution images take a couple of seconds to render, and only then do they look crisp. This means that the instant review feature is useful only for checking composition and exposure.
The control system on this camera does take a little working out, but makes very good sense once you've done so. When you press the Menu button you're presented with an abbreviated My Menu, which doesn't appear to offer all the options you want. To display the full menu system you have to move the cursor to the final option right down at the bottom of the list.
In fact, three important everyday adjustments (WB, ISO and image size/quality) have their own settings on the main mode dial. You turn the dial to the appropriate position, and then rotate the command dial to choose a setting. It's quick and intuitive, and better than having to plough through the menus.
The handling and ergonomics of the 8400 are pretty good once you've grown accustomed to the control layout. The command dial is a little stiff to turn, but it's in the perfect position, right where your thumb falls.
However, the 8400 does display some surprising deficiencies. First, it takes an age to write RAW files to the memory card. Do you really want to wait 15 seconds after each shot, during which time the camera is unusable?
There's worse to come. While the bundled PictureProject software can convert RAW files into JPEGs, it offers only minimal control over the conversion process, and it's not enough to justify the inconvenience of shooting RAW files in the first place. For proper RAW conversion options, you'll have to buy Nikon's own Nikon View software or, if you're a Photoshop CS or Elements 3 user, wait for Adobe to add RAW file support for this format.
Nikon has a built-in option to convert RAW files into TIFFs in-camera, using the camera settings at the time of shooting as the processing parameters. This in itself isn't without its frustrations: first, the conversion process takes an age; second, it produces TIFF files that are even larger than the RAW files on the memory card.
Most of us only stop shooting when the card's full, so where are those TIFF conversions going to go? You're faced with the ludicrous prospect of transferring all your RAW files to your computer, then copying them back in smaller batches for conversion.
One of the main reasons for buying an 8MP camera is outright image quality, and here the CoolPix 8400 doesn't disappoint. Detail rendition is very good indeed, though there's a slight loss of sharpness towards the edge of the frame. Colour fidelity and saturation are extremely good. There's some colour fringing around silhouetted shapes, but it's not obtrusive. Overall, the 8400's image quality is certainly right up there with the best of its 8MP rivals.
There are just a couple of things preventing this camera getting top marks, though. First, it's still not as quick and responsive as a digital SLR, and the electronic viewfinder is no substitute for an SLR's optical pentaprism. Second, the 8400, like the other 8MP models, is in a kind of no man's land.
You can get almost the same image quality from smaller and cheaper 6MP and 7MP cameras, or you can pay a little more and step up a whole photographic gear with a digital SLR. Rod Lawton