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Nikon Coolpix 8700 - digital camera review: Nikon Coolpix 8700 - digital camera

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The Good Excellent, highly detailed images; impressive 8X ED-Nikkor zoom lens; sturdy magnesium-alloy body; RAW-file capture.

The Bad Easy to accidentally activate some controls; long RAW shot-to-shot time; slow low-light AF; no live histogram in manual mode; 30-second limit on video clips; full RAW-file editing software costs $99 extra.

The Bottom Line It shoots good photos, but mediocre performance and a serious design flaw may keep this 8-megapixel camera out of the hands of enthusiasts.

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7.2 Overall
  • Design 6
  • Features 8
  • Performance 6
  • Image quality 8

Review summary

An 8X ED-Nikkor zoom lens distinguishes Nikon's Coolpix 8700 from the rest of the 8-megapixel competition but not much else. It shoots great pictures with loads of detail, and it offers enthusiasts a solid feature set, but those same photographers will probably grumble about its lackluster performance and some aspects of its design. Like nearly all the megazoom digital cameras we've reviewed, the Coolpix 8700 sports a chunky faux-SLR design. Nikon doesn't make this look work any better than anyone else does. But the camera is surprisingly compact, and it weighs 1 pound, 3 ounces with battery and media installed--fairly light for this class. In addition, the fit and finish of its sturdy black magnesium-alloy body looks and feels top-notch, and it's easy to get a comfortable, secure hold on it, thanks to its rubberized grip.

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The right-hand side controls are intelligently placed and relatively easy to understand.

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Though we appreciate Nikon's attempt to save space by putting many of the buttons on the left side of the camera's lens barrel, they're too hard to tell apart by feel and too easy to press accidentally.
As befits an advanced camera, discrete buttons on the Coolpix 8700's body control most of the frequently needed settings, a design decision that we applaud. We also like the easily accessible Func button, which you can program to correspond with several different features (we set it to handle white balance). The right-hand controls, which include a main command dial and a four-way rocker switch, are intelligently placed, but the clustering of four buttons (which manipulate eight different functions) on the left side of the lens barrel is a big mistake. When using the classic left-palm-under-the-lens SLR grip, your thumb will naturally fall on top of those buttons, and as a result, you'll end up accidentally pushing one. Also, the buttons all feel alike, so it's hard to distinguish among them without looking.

Typical of our experience with many of Nikon's enthusiast cameras, the operating logic of some features is difficult to figure out without the manual. But once we learned them, we found operation quite efficient. We also like the Coolpix 8700's menu system; it's adequately labeled and reasonably easy to navigate.
Though the Coolpix 8700 isn't quite the megazoom champion of the 8-megapixel set--the current title probably belongs to the Konica Minolta Dimage A2--advanced photographers will find almost nothing lacking from this camera's feature set. Its impressive 8X Nikkor zoom lens, which includes ED (extralow dispersion) glass elements, covers a range from 35mm to 280mm (the 35mm equivalent), and it opens to a maximum aperture of f/2.8 to f/4.2. We favor the 28mm-to-200mm range of some other megazooms, but Nikon's optional supplemental wide-angle and telephoto converters can expand this camera's range from 28mm to 420mm. There's even a fish-eye converter with a 7mm-equivalent focal length.

The Coolpix 8700 stores photos on CompactFlash cards, and you can capture images in JPEG, TIFF, or RAW (NEF) file formats. JPEGs can be recorded at three compression levels and eight resolutions. The included Nikon View 6.2 software installs a Photoshop plug-in for converting RAW files, but the plug-in offers rudimentary adjustments; for an extra $99, you can get Nikon Capture for true NEF editing.

In movie mode, the camera can record 640x480-pixel QuickTime video with sound at 30 frames per second in clips up to 30 seconds long. There's also a time-lapse movie mode that will take as many as 1,050 still images at specified intervals and join them together into a QuickTime clip.

As for exposure options, the Coolpix 8700 offers 12 scene modes to complement the standard options of programmed auto, aperture-priority, shutter-priority, and manual modes. Though there is a good metering display in manual exposure mode, Nikon made the knuckleheaded decision to enable the live exposure histogram in only the three autoexposure modes. There are four metering modes: matrix, center-weighted, spot, and spot AF area (links spot metering to the active autofocus patch). Exposure compensation to plus or minus 2EV is easily accessible, and you can also use three- or five-frame autoexposure bracketing.

The camera also provides a standard hotshoe for external flashes and can perform TTL exposure control with compatible Nikon Speedlite units.
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Using flash about half the time, we managed 300 shots from a single charge of the Coolpix 8700's relatively low-powered 680mAh EN-EL1 lithium-ion battery. That's acceptable but not stellar.
Though the Coolpix 8700's performance ranks as roughly average for a non-SLR digital camera, it's still disappointing for this class. The frustration begins at start-up, which takes just more than 5 seconds. Shot-to-shot time with JPEG files is a lackluster 2.5 seconds with or without flash, and it climbs to more than 8 seconds with RAW files and almost 20 seconds with TIFFs. In good light, we measured shutter delay at about 0.7 second, which is decent but not great.

The camera's lens zooms relatively quickly and precisely. Autofocus is fast and decisive in good light, but it's slow in low light, where it causes unacceptable shutter delays of up to 2 seconds. In manual focus mode, you use the main command dial to set focus distance, which works fine.

For this class, the electronic viewfinder (EVF) is fairly standard: it's adequately sharp and usable in good light but generally not very comfortable to use. The 1.8-inch LCD flips out and rotates--a very handy feature--and it offers a reasonably sharp image. It also works well outdoors. Both the EVF and the LCD show about 97 percent of the actual image.

The built-in flash's maximum range is 13.5 feet with auto ISO or 9.5 feet at ISO 100-- nothing special. But the flash shots from our sidelit test scene looked extremely well exposed, with fewer hot spots than we usually see.
The Coolpix 8700 produces very good images with generous detail--visibly more than the 4- and 5-megapixel models that previously set the resolution benchmark for consumer digital cameras. Even so, the 8700's photo quality isn't at the head of its class.

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You can crop in very close (right) without losing any detail from the original.

The camera's lens maintains sharpness over most of the field of view, with only a little bit of falloff in the corners. In addition, the Coolpix 8700 displays excellent white balance, broad dynamic range, and accurate color reproduction. As is typical of Nikon's cameras, the Coolpix 8700 shows a modest tendency toward underexposure. While underexposing images can improve detail retention in the highlights, the darker photos are less direct-to-print-friendly.

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Competitors do a better job of capturing detail; you can tell that this is a grosgrain ribbon only by looking at the shadowed area.
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The Coolpix 8700's images exhibited more purple fringing than we like to see but not enough to be a serious problem.

With respect to noise, the Coolpix 8700 manages very well at light-sensitivity settings of ISO 50 and 100. At ISO 200, noise becomes more visible onscreen and in prints, but it's still moderate compared to that of many of its competitors. Once you hit ISO 400, the noise becomes quite obvious.

We noticed that the 8700 produced modest purple fringing in shots with dark foreground objects against bright backgrounds, and our test shots showed moderate green and magenta chromatic aberration at the edges of the frame, which was exacerbated by the decrease in focal sharpness for those areas. Still, neither was enough to be a deal breaker.

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