Nikon seems determined to cover all their bases with innovations and models different enough to keep both consumer and professional interested. Their last major release was the D70, a universally well received sub-£1000 SLR system. Now, the Coolpix 8800, once again, offers a lot of camera for not a vast amount of cash.

Immediately noticeable is the vast 10x optical zoom, currently the largest on the market. Optics fans will note that the lens is made up of 16 elements, 2 of which are Nikon's ED molded glass, arranged in 10 groups. The zoom is equivalent to 35-350mm on a 35mm camera. Offering scalability, the lens can also have adapter rings added and either a 7mm fisheye or a 600mm telephoto converter attached. To make a lens of this size practical, Nikon have included, for the first time on a digital camera, a derivation of the pro-series lens vibration-reduction system. When activated this VR system detects, and automatically compensates, for movement in the CCD sensor. Heavy camera shake will need to be corrected by a tripod, but everything helps when at shooting at maximum focal length.

The body is a combination of a black magnesium alloy body shell, with battery and flash card doors made of matching plastic. The familiar red flash of the more professional Nikon cameras adorns the front of the rubberized grip area. The body is almost the right size to hold comfortably, measuring 116x85x121 and weighing 700g (inc Battery and compact flash). Those used to the feel of larger-bodied SLR cameras will not be quite so out of place with the 8800 and you can add bulk, grip and juice with the additional battery pack (MB-CP11) that's attached to the bottom. The viewing screen is Nikon standard top-end tilt n' swivel 1.8inch concealable TFT mounted on the reverse of the body, allowing free movement as shooting angles dictate. The layout of the buttons, rockers and releases is also improving. For some reason I always found myself reaching for the power button, that rotates around the shutter release, believing it to be the zoom rocker, as past cameras I've seen have also had this configuration. The zoom rocker is in fact located on the reverse plane of the body and could do with being made more prominent, for speed of use.

Another big sell is the effective 8Megapixel CCD sensor. When going through the set up process to select the size of image you wish, the 8800 is the first camera to allow you to change no only the quality of the image (RAW, HI, EXTRA, FINE, NORMAL & BASIC) but also the related megapixel usage of the files depending on the size selected (8M 3264x2448, 3:2 3264x2176 5M 2592x1944, 3M 2048x1536, 2M 1600x1200, 1M 1280x960, PC quality1024x768, TV quality 640x480). This level of flexibility over the image parameters means that you do not end up wasting memory by taking image large enough to be billboards when not needed.

Verdict

The menus are a little messy and need to be worked through to discover important functions. It should be noted that a number of core features are located in the ‘set-up' menu, which is located off the main control dial rather than the menu button of the reverse of the cameras body. The 8800 offers the usual array of professional shooting modes, although no pre-sets such as landscape or portrait, and digital camera user will have no real problems getting up and running as soon as the battery has charged. The accompanying literature suggests you will squeeze 240 shots out of a single charge and I must cincture that the battery does hold an impressive charge.

As far as practical grumbles when using it for extended periods, I found the auto focus could be very slow and occasionally the AF illuminator, the orange light, failed in perfectly well lit environments. The built-in speed light is a little on the mean side and although it claims it can throw up to 19feet it does so in a rather uneven manner. The 8800's ability to deal with wedding guests outside in late afternoon winter sunshine left much to be desired, with flare in the white areas rendering no detail on the image. In this case I suspect more care full configuration of the camera and better use of the in screen histogram might have helped, but I wonder how much?

Overall the 8800 has a lot more plus points than minuses. The huge zoom and additional lenses makes it ideal for the serious photographer who still wants the easy of a more compact frame. The functions are generally easy to use although some diligence and instruction scrutiny will be needed to get all the finer nuisances down on pat. The sub £650 price tag will also go a long way towards to securing it as one of the most attractive camera this Christmas, even if it won't quite fit in your stocking.