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The top surface houses the flash hotshoe and the flip-up internal flash unit, plus a monochrome LCD status panel (with eight-second backlight option) that displays 12 indicators, including number of exposures remaining, flash status, shutter speed, and battery condition. To the right of the LCD panel is a mode dial used to set exposure modes, image quality, ISO, and white balance; to play back images; to set up the camera; or to activate minimovie mode.
Atop the handgrip is the shutter-release button with concentric on-off lever, an EV adjustment button, a flash-mode key, and a Function button (Func) that can activate a user-defined feature, such as white balance or ISO setting. You can operate some buttons by pressing them repeatedly and others by holding them down while rotating the command dial, so you'll definitely need to study the manual before attempting to fly the 8800 solo.
The most comfortable way to operate this camera is with your right hand curled around the handgrip, your index finger resting on the shutter release, and your thumb alternating between the rear-mounted command dial and the zoom rocker.
The back panel has a full set of controls of its own, starting with the diopter adjustment wheel next to the deep-cupped EVF viewfinder. A selector button adjacent to the viewfinder toggles between the EVF and the swing-out, rotating 1.8-inch LCD (although if the LCD is docked facing the camera, the EVF is selected automatically). Running down the center right of the back panel are five buttons for Autoexposure/Autofocus Lock, Menu, Quick Review, Self-timer/Trash, and Display Information. The traditional four-way navigation rocker switch has an embedded OK key.
No surface of this camera escapes unscathed: the left side accommodates a plastic door that covers the CompactFlash slot; the right side hosts a speaker, the DC power connector, and USB/AV-out ports; the bottom is home to a metal (not plastic) tripod socket; and the front is the site of the infrared receiver, the microphone, and the focus assist lamp, which was awkwardly placed on the flip-up flash in the Coolpix 8700.
With all these external controls, you'll need to access the three-level menu system chiefly to access playback features when reviewing your photos or to change setup options. If you don't care for the default menu structure, you can use Nikon's MyMenu system to predefine which 6 of the 21 different choices in the full shooting menu appear on the main screen.The Nikon Coolpix 8800's vibration-reduction (VR) system dynamically shifts lens elements to compensate for camera shake when shooting stills and movies. This effectively lets you use shutter speeds three stops slower--1/30 second instead of 1/250 second, for example--than you would otherwise need. (By contrast, Nikon's chief competition in the vibration-resistant, 8-megapixel EVF arena, the Minolta A200, builds its antishake technology into a floating CCD.)
Nikon's system takes care of everything from normal camera shake, which is magnified when the zoom is cranked all the way out to the telephoto setting, to overenthusiastic stabs at the shutter -release button. Although VR has been a notoriously poor choice when panning the camera, Nikon designed its implementation to detect intentional horizontal camera moves and apply VR in only the vertical direction. When camera motion is particularly egregious (as when shooting from a moving car), VR can be switched into a VR Active mode that cancels the compensation for panning. The feature also works as expected when auxiliary wide-angle or telephoto add-ons are attached but not when a fish-eye adapter is used.
The 10X zoom is wide enough at 35mm to be useful in tight quarters and long enough at 350mm (both are 35mm-camera equivalents) to really benefit from the VR. The maximum aperture of f/2.8 drops to f/5.2 in the tele position, and autofocus operates from about 20 inches to infinity in normal focus mode and as close as 1.2 inches when switched to macro. You can choose from center focus, automatic five-area multifocus (with the selected focus area indicated in red), or manually select from any of nine autofocus areas using the cursor pad. If you want to focus manually, you'll need to hold down the focus button on the left side of the lens and rotate the command dial. Unfortunately, there's no central-area magnification to make manual focusing easier.
Exposure options include 256-segment matrix, center-weighted, spot, and spot-AF metering. Shutter speed ranges from 2 seconds to 1/3,000 second in Auto and Program modes and from 8 seconds to 1/3,000 second in Manual, Shutter-Priority, and Aperture-Priority modes. In ultra-high-speed (30fps) burst mode, the shutter speed can be as brief as 1/8,000 second. You can tweak exposures up to plus or minus 2EV in 1/3EV steps. Alternatively, choose from among 15 scene presets, including Portrait, Party/Indoor, Night Portrait, Beach/Snow, Landscape, Sunset, Night Landscape, Museum, Fireworks, Close-up, Copy, Back Light, Panorama Assist, Sports, and Dusk/dawn.
As usual, Nikon's very cool Best Shot Selector proves to be an attractive way of capturing the optimal shot from a series of exposures. In standard BSS mode, the 8800 snaps off as many as 10 shots as long as the shutter release is depressed and saves only the sharpest one. Similarly, Highlight or Shadow BSS will save the shot that best preserves highlights or shadows, respectively. Histogram BSS mode compares the highlights and shadows for as many as five shots and saves the one with the widest tonal range. This Nikon's exposure autobracketing is versatile as well, letting you take either three or five shots, bracketed in your choice of 1/3EV, 2/3EV, or full EV steps. Autoexposure bracketing works in low- and high-speed burst modes, too. If you prefer, you can opt to bracket white-balance settings instead.
The brawny built-in flash reaches out to nearly 20 feet at the wide-angle setting, but you can slide an external flash such as Nikon's SB600 or SB700 into the hotshoe for full control, including zoom flash.
Movie buffs can capture 640x480-pixel clips at 30fps for as long as 60 seconds, and 320x240-pixel movies in full color or black and white at 15fps for as long as your memory card holds out. Nostalgic Charlie Chaplin fans can shoot sepia-toned movies at a herky-jerky 5fps and 320x240 resolution, too. A time-lapse mode captures as many as 1,050 images at any of five preset intervals ranging from 1 to 60 minutes.
You can also perform a limited amount of postshot editing in-camera. For instance, a Small Pic option creates e-mail-friendly 640x480, 320x240, or 160x120-pixel copies of selected shots. A D-lighting option brightens shadows postcapture, adding a kind of fill-flash effect to pictures you've already taken.
Except for a sensational ultra-high-speed burst mode, which snapped 100 low-res (640x480) shots at 30fps, most of the Nikon Coolpix 8800's performance figures ranged from middle-of-the-road to pretty good. For example, wake-up to first shot was a middling 4.8 seconds, as were the 2.8-second pauses between exposures (6.4 seconds with flash). As expected, it took more than 9 seconds to store a raw file to a memory card and a tad more than 22 seconds to save one of this 8-megapixel shooter's huge TIFF files. However, shutter lag was shorter than average at 0.6 second to 0.9 second, depending upon lighting, thanks to the autofocus-assist LED.
Low-speed burst shooting at full resolution rewarded us with five shots at a one-per-second clip, while the 8800 cranked out five images in 1.8 seconds when notched down to 640x480 resolution.
Viewfinder performance was a mixed bag. The 1.8-inch, 134,000-pixel articulated LCD was usable in all but the brightest light. The larger view afforded by the EVF, with 235,000 pixels, was a better choice most of the time, but both displayed some ghosting when the moving the camera for framing. The viewfinders also tended to freeze during autofocus and went completely blank during burst exposures. Both viewfinders showed only 97 percent of the area captured, though you can adjust them for brightness and hue.
If you make nothing larger than 5x7-inch prints, you'll be tickled at the image quality produced by the Nikon Coolpix 8800. At normal sizes and viewing distances, these 8-megapixel shots are sharp and full of detail. Flesh tones are accurate, colors are a bit muted but pleasing, and the camera manages to dispense with most unwanted red-eye effects.
Take a closer look, however, and you'll see some noise apparent even at ISO 50 and veritable swarms of multicolored speckles at ISO 400, even with noise reduction switched on. Highlights did retain detail better than we expected, but purple fringing was atrocious around backlit subject matter. We noticed some barrel distortion at wide-angle settings and a hint of pincushioning at the tele setting.