Last summer, Sony announced a new eight million-pixel sensor for compact cameras, and we’re now seeing a rash of new models all hitting the market together. Sony was first, naturally, with the excellent semi-pro DSC-F828 that arrived late last year. It was followed by 8mp announcements from Canon, Minolta, Olympus. Nikon joined the queue with the CoolPix 8700.
The Sony and Canon cameras are new models, but the Minolta, Nikon and Olympus are essentially their previous 5mp bodies, fitted with the new CCD and updated electronics. This is no bad thing, as all three 5mp models are fine cameras.
The CoolPix 8700 is essentially a higher resolution version of 2002’s 5700 model, which is still available at £600. The 8700 outputs images up to 3,264-x-2,448 pixels, which occupy 22.9MB when uncompressed. The 5700 was notable at the time of its release for its long 8x Nikkor ED zoom lens in a surprisingly compact and tough magnesium body. Sensibly, Nikon hasn’t changed a winning shape, and has just tweaked the components and firmware.
The LCD monitor uses Nikon’s now familiar Vari-angle system, where it can be flipped out to the side of the camera and then rotated for viewing from virtually any angle. There’s a new option to switch on framing lines in the monitor that can help line up horizons or place objects at interesting points in the frame.
The EVF (Electronic Viewfinder) has been improved with higher resolution, greater contrast, and clearer images. This makes it a useful feature, especially for telephoto work where it’s more stable to press the shutter when holding the camera close to your face.
Less wisely, Nikon has retained the 5700’s chaotic scattering of control buttons which pop up all over the place. Last year’s short-zoom CoolPix 5400 introduced a more rational control set with a sensible main command dial. This saved a lot of button prodding – so it’s a pity Nikon didn’t adopt this for the 8700. Of course, if previous form is followed, there will be an 8mp short-zoom 8400 later this year.
There are some feature modifications compared to the 5700 though. Basic operations are improved, with faster start-up time, faster data recording and shorter shutter release time lag. The pop-up flash now doubles as a lower-power illuminator for autofocus operation in low light – this comes on automatically when needed but can be switched off.
As with the 5700, useful setting options include BSS (Best Shot Selector), AE-BSS (Auto Exposure-Best Shot Selector) mode, Noise Reduction mode, Saturation Control, and White Balance Bracketing. There’s a five-shot buffer mode, and a run-of-the-mill movie facility including audio. As usual, this is no match for a dedicated DV camcorder. Probably of more interest is the time-lapse movie mode, where you can set the camera to shoot at variable intervals between 30 seconds and 60 minutes, and play back in high speed. Just as useful is a new live histogram that shows you the complete exposure graph before you hit the shutter.
There’s a built-in pop-up flash, which is adequate for fill-ins or emergencies. It pops up automatically in low light, although you can turn this function off. More importantly, a standard hotshoe is included, which can interface directly to Nikon Speedlights or a third-party flashgun.
Burst modes let you take up to five full-res shots at 2.5fps or 12 at 1.2fps. QuickTime movies of 640-x-480 pixel shots are captured at 30fps with sound, for 35-second clips. Half-res movies can be captured for up to three minutes.
The shutter response may be improved, but the autofocus is still too slow to capture action shots – the manual focus relies on an on-screen distance bar and is basically useless. Both exposure and white balance can be bracketed.
The lens is equivalent to 35-280mm on a 35mm camera, but retracts to an impressively compact format when you switch off. The maximum aperture of f/2.8 is only available at the 35mm end – it falls to f/4.2 at the telephoto end. Many photographers prefer a wide angle around 28mm, so Nikon has produced a 0.8x wide angle adaptor for an extra £150, though this adds to the size of the camera considerably. There’s a huge £209 0.2x fisheye lens called FC-E9 to fit the 5400, 5700 and 8700. This can be used to capture images for spherical immersive applications such as the iPix system.
If you need a longer telephoto lens than the 8700’s 280mm, Nikon sells a 1.5x converter for £150. Finally there’s an optional £20 lens hood with a front screw thread to take filters.
With file sizes this big, you’re going to need a hefty Compact Flash II memory card to accompany the camera. Nikon doesn’t supply one in the standard package, but 256MB and 512MB cards are fairly affordable now, and there’s the option of 1GB and new 4GB Microdrives if you have deeper pockets.
There’s an option to save two levels of JPEG compression, uncompressed TIFFs (occupying 22.9MB each on your card), or Nikon’s NEF raw format (a mere 12.9MB). NEF can be opened and converted by Nikon’s own Nikon View 6.2 software included with the camera. This software provides a standard file browser, organizer and camera downloader. Even the latest version of Adobe Photoshop CS’s RAW Converter can’t open these NEF files directly. However, Nikon supplies a Photoshop plug-in to handle them.
While the CoolPix 8700 is undoubtedly a good all-rounder with impressive resolution, it’s overshadowed a bit by some of its competitors. Its image quality is perfectly adequate, but it never seems pin-sharp despite all those pixels. Sony’s 8mp Cybershot DSC-F828 professional camera produced sharper results, and its focus and shutter response is much faster. The Sony is similar in price to the 8700, and while it is bigger and heavier, it ultimately produces better photographs.