With a wide-angle view that equals the perspective of a 35mm-film camera's 24mm lens, or 18mm with optional converter, the Nikon Coolpix 8400 is perfect for shooting indoors in tight quarters or for grabbing shots outdoors of an exquisite 18th-century monument when you're backed up against a 21st-century fruit stand. Add the optional 0.75x converter attachment, and you're in 18mm (35mm equivalent) bliss. Yet, the 3.5x optical zoom also extends out to 85mm -- perfect for portraits and some sports.
Priced £100 less than its bigger (literally) sibling, the Nikon Coolpix 8800, this model incorporates most of the best features, missing only Nikon's built-in vibration reduction system, which, unfortunately, would be perfect for those shooting wide-angle pictures indoors at slow shutter speeds without a tripod. Other downers are pronounced barrel distortion at the widest zoom settings and a viewfinder that tends to freeze and blank out during use. If you need a wide-angle shooter and want a smaller package than you'll find in the most petite dSLR, the Coolpix 8400 may fill the bill.
The Nikon Coolpix 8400's plastic-clad magnesium-alloy chassis weighs a hair more than 400g, around 200g less than its sibling the 8800 and, because it doesn't have that camera's huge 10x zoom lens, measures a more compact 114 by 81 by 76mm. 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 46mm (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 six 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 30mm, 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.