Editor's note: We have changed the rating in this review to reflect recent changes in our rating scale. Click here to find out more.The Nikon Coolpix 8400's plastic-clad magnesium-alloy chassis weighs a hair more than 17 ounces, almost half a pound lighter than its sibling the 8800 and, because it doesn't have that camera's huge 10X zoom lens, measures a more compact 4.5 by 3.2 by 3.0 inches. Still, it's quite a handful, and it has the same complement of controls, although they're arranged somewhat differently.
The top of the camera is dominated by a mode dial that includes choices for picture review, full autoexposure, programmed exposure, shutter and aperture priority, manual control, scene modes, and movies. Four other positions switch you into setup, image size/quality, ISO sensitivity, and white-balance adjustments. The top surface is also home to a flip-up flash, a hotshoe for attaching an external strobe unit, and a monochrome LCD status panel with backlight. The handgrip offers more controls, including a shutter-release button with power lever and buttons for adjusting flash mode and exposure-value settings. There's also a Func key to activate either of two custom user settings and to toggle between shutter speed and f-stop functions for the rear command dial when in manual exposure mode.
Although less bulky than the 8800, this is not a camera for one-handed operation. You'll want to wrap your right hand around the grip, poise your index finger over the shutter-release button, rest your thumb on the rear-panel power zoom rocker, and support the left side of the camera with your other hand.
The back panel's controls include an autoexposure/autofocus lock button located to the right of the diopter-adjustable EVF. The manual focus/autofocus control button and the EVF/LCD selector keys, located respectively on the 8800 on the left side of the lens and next to the EVF, are underneath the 1.8-inch LCD. Other controls on the back panel include buttons for menu, quick review, self-timer/trash, and display content (which can include a live histogram), as well as a four-way cursor-control pad with center OK button.
The Coolpix 8400's three-level menu system works efficiently to change shooting options or to adjust playback features during picture review. Nikon's MyMenu system lets you define which 6 of the 21 different choices in the full menu system appear on the main screen.Lacking the vibration reduction system of its more expensive sibling, the Nikon Coolpix 8400's wide zoom lens garners much of the attention. Digital cameras equipped with a 39mm (equivalent) wide-angle lens offer only about a 56-degree angle of view; this camera's 24mm (equivalent) focal length translates into a whopping 84-degree perspective, which makes even the Coolpix 8800's 35mm widest setting look like a short telephoto in comparison. Nikon kept the 8400 compact by limiting the telephoto end to 85mm (equivalent).
The maximum aperture varies from f/2.8 at the wide-angle setting to f/4.9 at the tele end, and the Coolpix's macro capabilities let you focus as close as 1.2 inches, using center autofocus or automatic multiarea focus that concentrates on one of five areas around the center of the viewfinder. Or you can choose any of nine autofocus areas manually with the cursor pad or focus manually.
You can select from four automatic exposure options or use the built-in meter to set exposure manually. Auto choices include a 256-segment matrix, center-weighted, or spot exposure, as well as an option that uses the current autofocus region to calculate exposure. Exposures are set using the optimum aperture, and shutter speeds range from 8 seconds to 1/3,000 second in manual as well as shutter- or aperture-priority modes but are limited to no more than 2 seconds in Auto and Program modes. You can fine-tune the camera's calculated exposure by plus or minus 2EV in 1/3EV increments.
If you're handing the camera to a neophyte and want to avoid lengthy explanations, there are 15 scene modes suitable for just about every snapshooting situation, including Portraits, Party/Indoor, Night Portraits, Beach/Snow, Landscape, Sunset, Night Landscape, Museum, Fireworks, Close-Up, Copy, Back Light, Panorama Assist, Sports, and Dusk/Dawn.
Sports photographers and others annoyed by wimpy flash units will appreciate the 8400's Speedlight options. Serious flash shooters will want to consider Nikon's versatile SB600 and SB800 external flash units, which slide into the flash shoe or can be linked with a cable for extra power. The 8400 can control these units' zooming flash-head capabilities.
Nikon's Best Shot Selector lets you shoot multiple exposures but automatically chooses and saves only the best one, using varying criteria. For example, standard Best Shot mode can crank out 10 shots in a row, examine them for sharpness, and save the one with the most detail.
Or you can command the camera to evaluate a series of images and preserve the one with the most highlight or shadow detail or the best overall exposure. There's also an autobracketing feature that will bracket exposure or white balance and save three or five variations for you to choose from later on.