Budding photographers who are looking to step up from a basic point-and-shoot camera but aren't ready to assume total control of their photographic destiny will find this 4-megapixel model's full exposure and focus automation comforting as they explore the pictorial possibilities of its 8.3X superzoom lens. Expansive telephoto reach means lots of outdoor photography, too, and the Nikon Coolpix 4800's bright internal electronic viewfinder takes the eyestrain out of shooting in sunlight.
Unfortunately, this camera's generally good image quality is marred by excessive noise, even at low sensitivity settings. Also, it lacks some features found in newer Nikons, such as vibration reduction and Face Priority autofocus. The marginally compact Coolpix 4800 is best suited for those with some extra carry space in their bag. It will appeal most to photographers who want snapshots of sports, wildlife, unsuspecting neighbors, and other distant subjects. Enthusiasts who demand more manual controls and better image quality should look at one of the pricier EVF models from Nikon (such as the 8-megapixel Coolpix 8400 and 8800) or slightly more upscale offerings from other vendors. The Nikon Coolpix 4800's snappy zoom response--traveling from 36mm to 300mm (35mm-camera equivalent) in a little more than a second--proved a mixed blessing. When we first started shooting with the camera, we ended up accidentally zooming each time we squeezed the shutter-release button. The most natural one-handed grip for those with larger hands places the middle of the thumb smack on the tele-zoom button, and the control's feather touch is quick to respond. Once we settled into a more balanced two-handed grasp, this 11-ounce plastic-bodied compact was easy to operate. A bit too large for most pockets at 4.7 by 2.6 by 2.13 inches, the Coolpix 4800 has a logical control layout that provides fast access to the most common settings.
Most controls reside on the Coolpix 4800's back panel. In addition to the responsive zoom rocker, there's an eight-position knurled mode dial that provides access to programmed automatic shooting, video capture, setup options, 11 conventional scene modes, and four "assisted" modes (Portrait, Landscape, Sports, and Night Portrait) that display overlays on the viewfinder or the LCD image to aid composition. Selecting Sports mode automatically activates continuous shooting.
To the right of the 1.8-inch LCD, you'll find menu, review, and trash buttons along with a four-way cursor pad with an embedded OK button. In addition to providing menu navigation, the pad's keys do context-sensitive double duty with a minimum of confusion. For example, if you've activated manual focus-zone selection in the menu system, you just press the OK button and manipulate the arrow keys to move the focus point to one of five areas on the LCD. Press the OK button again, and the cursor keys adjust flash options (up), toggle macro mode on or off (down), activate a 10-second self-timer (left), and adjust exposure (right). Unfortunately, none of these directly cycle through the settings with repeated button presses; instead, they invoke menus for the respective functions. By limiting the Coolpix 4800's optical zoom to "only" 8.3X magnification, Nikon has managed to build a shooter that's more compact than many of its 10X and 12X EVF rivals but still has useful wide-angle perspective at its 36mm setting and more than enough telephoto reach at its 300mm setting (both 35mm-camera equivalents). We tested the camera from behind the dugout at a pro softball game and were able to grab shots from home plate to the outfield.
The lens was good up close, too, with autofocus working crisply down to one-half inch at the wide-angle position. Only two apertures are available--f/2.7 and f/4.4--but you can't select them manually anyway. They're set by the 256-point evaluative exposure system, which is linked to the active focus point and chooses shutter speeds from 4 seconds to 1/2,000 second. Flash modes include auto, fill flash, off, and slow sync for balancing ambient illumination with flash exposures when the camera is mounted on a tripod.
The Nikon Coolpix 4800 lacks special features found in some more cutting-edge Coolpix models--such as vibration reduction and Face Priority autofocus--but it does offer some useful standard items from Nikon's toolbox. The Best Shot Selector lets you shoot a series of exposures and then, using varying criteria, automatically chooses and saves only the best one. For example, standard Best Shot mode can capture up to 10 shots in a row when you hold down the shutter release; it then saves only the one with the most detail. Alternately, you can set the camera to evaluate a series of images and preserve the one with the most highlight or shadow detail or the best overall exposure.
The modest selection of effects and adjustments includes selectable contrast and sharpening as well as color options including vivid, black-and-white, sepia, and cyanotype (blue tint). Minimovie fans can capture as much video footage (with monaural sound) at 640x480-pixel resolution as their SD/MMC cards can hold but only at a jerky 15fps. Most of the Nikon Coolpix 4800's performance figures fell solidly in the middle of the pack. We timed wake-up to first shot at about 3.8 seconds; thereafter, we were able to snap off pictures approximately every 2 seconds. Using the flash doubled the delay to about 4 seconds.
Continuous shooting was equally mundane. We clocked a maximum of 4 shots in 3.2 seconds--roughly a 1.3-shot-per-second clip--at full resolution. The camera did a little better snapping 640x480-resolution pictures, grabbing 93 shots in a little more than a minute. The Coolpix 4800 has a "golf swing" mode that squeezes a clutch of 16 thumbnail shots onto a single frame. There's also a three-frame buffer option that captures individual pictures at about a 1fps rate but saves only the last three when you release the shutter button.
Shutter lag was a moderate 0.8 second under high-contrast lighting but a disappointing 1.6 seconds under more challenging low-contrast illumination, even when the brilliant-red focus-assist lamp kicked in. On the other hand, this Coolpix has a snappy zoom response, traveling from 36mm to 300mm (35mm-camera equivalent) in a little more than a second.
The EVF offers decent magnification, displaying 97 percent of the actual picture area with 245,000 pixels. It's usable in the brightest scene or the dimmest dungeon. The 1.8-inch back-panel LCD also displays 97 percent of the picture area with its 118,000 pixels. It was actually quite viewable outdoors under direct sunlight, though it wasn't a match for the internal EVF.
This Coolpix's built-in speedlight has enough pop to provide even flash exposures out to 14 feet at the wide-angle setting and to 8.5 feet at the telephoto end of the scale. Although this camera doesn't have the post-shot red-eye-removal system of some later Nikons, the preflash system, which uses a series of bursts prior to the main flash, seems to do its job; we had few problems with red eyes during our tests. Although noise reduction isn't selectable, dark-frame subtraction kicks in automatically when you select the Dusk/Dawn and Night Landscape scene modes. Other modes could have benefited from automatic noise reduction too--although not from the doubling of recycle time the process involves. The shots we took with the Nikon Coolpix 4800 were plagued by noise even at the lowest ISO 50 setting and only looked worse as we bumped the sensitivity up toward ISO 400.
That's a shame, because this camera otherwise produced better image quality than we've seen on some other 4-megapixel cameras. All our images were sharp and filled with detail in the medium highlights and the midtones, even when we cranked the telephoto out all the way. Shadows, however, weren't rendered nearly as well, frequently appearing dark and murky. Most colors looked true to life, but skies often came out a garish blue, dotted with clouds that lacked detail because the whites were blown.
Chromatic aberration caused only moderate purple fringing. The white-balance system had some problems indoors under incandescent illumination, frequently giving our shots an excessively warm tone whether we applied a white-balance preset or let the auto white balance do its thing.