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.At a little more than 1.5 pounds with a chunky, 4.6-by-3.3-by-4.8-inch, plastic-clad, magnesium-alloy frame, the Nikon Coolpix 8800 has the pleasing heft of a serious photographer's workhorse. It's studded with control buttons and dials that will take a while to learn, but Nikon has significantly improved this camera's design over the 8700's. Most important, the company relocated the stray buttons from the lens barrel to a more fully featured mode dial. Once you've learned the placement and use of the controls, you'll find that trips to the menu are pleasantly few and far between.
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.