The 5-megapixel Nikon Coolpix 5400 delivers numerous key improvements on the , including a 4X zoom lens, enhanced image quality, and revamped controls. Nikon also added 15 scene modes, making this model more accessible to casual snapshooters. But make no mistake: with its wealth of features and manual settings, the 5400 should appeal primarily to photo enthusiasts. We only wish that the camera offered longer battery life. Though it retains the Coolpix 5000's boxy, black body; rubberized grip; and handy fold-out-and-swivel LCD, the 5400 addresses its predecessor's most glaring design weaknesses. The camera has slimmed down: it's 0.3 inch shorter and narrower, and its weight dropped by 1.3 ounces to 13.6 ounces with a battery and media. Nikon also relocated the flash sensor. Instead of staying near the camera grip, where it was all too easy to block during shooting, it moved to the other side of the built-in flash, well out of the way of stray fingers. The end result of the redesign is a great-looking, rock-solid metal-alloy camera that shoots well and feels comfortable in your hand. Unfortunately, however, the screen shrank 0.3 inch to a disappointing 1.5 inches.
Nikon also revamped the controls, generally to good effect. For example, the autoexposure/autofocus-lock (AE/AF-L) button moved from the front to the back. The new mode dial, which sits atop the camera in easy view, lets you choose quickly between seven shooting modes, such as the simple, point-and-shoot Auto. When you swivel to Scene, you press the Menu button to call up the scene modes on the screen. In conjunction with the LCD menu, the dial also provides handy access to settings for white balance, image resolution and quality, and ISO.
Some small dedicated buttons work in concert with another dial to let you cycle through options for exposure compensation, the flash and focus modes, and other key features. You can program the Func key on top of the camera to govern one of a few functions, such as white balance or continuous shooting. All in all, the controls work well enough, but operation of the various buttons, dials, and menus can seem somewhat disjointed and indirect. Plus, you'll definitely have to peruse the manual to figure out how the 5400 works. Nikon gets most of the key features right. Unlike many other 4X zoom lenses, the 5400's Nikkor lens doesn't make a wide-angle sacrifice; its 28mm-to-116mm range (the 35mm-camera equivalent) can handle both portraits and landscapes, and you can focus as close as half an inch in macro mode. Supported shutter speeds run from 1/4,000 of a second to the Bulb mode's 10 minutes.
The 5400 delivers the exposure, metering, and focus choices you'd expect from a camera on the cusp between the mainstream and enthusiast classes. It has program, shutter-priority, aperture-priority, manual, movie (including a time-lapse function), and scene modes. There are multiarea and spot autofocus options, as well as matrix, spot, and center-weighted metering. You'll also find plenty of tools for tweaking shots to your taste: the menu system provides access to image characteristics such as contrast, saturation, sharpness, and noise. The menus also lead to useful features such as automatic bracketing for exposure or white balance and numerous continuous-shooting modes.
The camera's standard hotshoe accepts external flash units, though the integrated flash will suffice for casual use. Flash options include two enthusiast favorites: slow sync and rear-curtain sync. You can also extend the 5400's optical capabilities with optional lens adapters.
However, there are a few notable omissions and disappointments. For one, the 1.5-inch LCD is too small for adequate framing, manual focusing, and in-camera editing. And the focus points, though manually selectable, are only five in number. The 5400 supports 15-frame-per-second movies with sound, but the maximum clip length is just 70 seconds at VGA resolution and 180 seconds at 320x240 pixels. You can shoot JPEG and TIFF images, but highest-resolution TIFF photos will rapidly fill your CompactFlash storage space: a 5-megapixel file occupies about 15MB. In spring 2004, Nikon released a free firmware update that gives the 5400 RAW capability; the download is available from the company's &siteid=7&edid=&lop=txt&destcat=ex&destUrl=http%3A%2F%2Fsupport%2Enikontech%2Ecom%2F">Digital Knowledge Database. By most measures, the 5400 performs pretty well. It gets up and shooting in just more than 4 seconds. When focusing is easy (that is, the scene is bright and has good contrast), shutter delay is a respectable 0.7 second. That lengthens in normal room lighting to about 1.3 seconds, which is about average for this class but still slower than smooth shooters require. Nikon follows up with solid shot-to-shot time: typically around 2 seconds and still less than 3 seconds with the flash. As with most enthusiast models, the pause between captures jumps to approximately 29 seconds when you're snapping TIFF images. The trick to getting reasonable shot-to-shot performance is to ignore the flashing light that indicates processing. Unless the buffer is full, the camera will pause processing to take another photo when you push the shutter release.
Several continuous modes cover situations in which a few seconds between shots simply won't do. Outdoors in daylight, for instance, we were able to take six pictures in 2.8 seconds using the Continuous H mode, which snaps until the buffer is full. Overall, the camera ranged between 1.4 and 2.4 frames per second during testing, depending upon capture settings.
Nikon's 110-minute life estimate for the 5400's lithium-ion cell assumes that every third shot will use the flash and that all will require a zoom adjustment. We eked out a disappointing 305 images, 50 percent of them with the flash. And the battery didn't die gracefully; the only warning we got between a full charge and depletion appeared after we'd taken 196 photos. Thankfully, the camera also supports disposable lithium 2CR5s. We suggest that you keep an extra battery on hand, just in case. The 5400 delivered the generally excellent image quality you'd expect from a model in this class. We saw slight clipping in highlights, but otherwise, dynamic range was impressive. Ditto for exposure, although the flash didn't illuminate our scenes sufficiently.
Colors were generally accurate, though as with many models, the default settings tended to punch up blue skies and brightly colored objects. The 5400 did a good job capturing brilliant red flowers that often prove difficult for digital cameras, but it obviously oversaturated bright colors in some other shots. The amount of purple fringing was typical. Noise levels were very good at ISO 50 and ISO 100, even in dark areas, but noise became obvious at ISO 200.