Nikon Coolpix L1 Review

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Nikon Coolpix L1

Steve's Conclusion

Filling out Nikon's 6-megapixel consumer digicam family for 2005, the Coolpix L1 with its 5x zoom lens falls in between the swivel-bodied Coolpix S4 with its 10x zoom and the diminutive Coolpix S3 with its 3x zoom. Geared to the novice to intermediate user, the L1 offers a multitude of scene exposure modes for special shooting conditions as well as scene-assisted modes that display helpful framing outlines on the LCD. It also provides an Auto exposure mode that offers a limited number of focus and exposure settings.

The feature that distinguishes the L1 from its siblings and competitors is its 5x optical zoom lens with a 35mm-equivalent focal length range of 38-190mm. While it's not a super zoom, the 190mm telephoto focal length adds a fun factor to using the camera, and it really brings your distant subjects closer. The field of view at wide angle, however, is limited; I'd prefer a 5x range in the vicinity of 28-140mm, providing both greater magnification and wider field of view than 3x lenses. The lens produced acceptably sharp results throughout its range, but with noticeable softness at the corners. There was a moderate amount of barrel distortion at wide angle, but no pin cushioning at telephoto. The lens moves smoothly and quietly, but not continuously; I counted 20 steps between wide angle and telephoto, sufficient for most shot composition needs.

The L1's controls are well-placed and easy to use. With two exceptions, the plastic body is well constructed: it is equipped with a plastic tripod socket, and the USB connector cover is not hinged - you will eventually lose it. Having no optical viewfinder, the L1 includes a high quality, 2.5-inch LCD. It was very usable outdoors, its anti-reflective surface making it viewable even in the brightest conditions. The LCD was also an effective viewfinder indoors, intensifying the live image in dim lighting to aid in shot composition.

The L1's responsiveness was disappointing. Power up to first image captured measured 4 seconds, much of that consumed by extending the lens. Shutter lag measured a liesurely 3/10 second when pre-focused and 1 second including autofocus time; both measurements include the slight delay in the LCD viewfinder's live image. The shot to shot delay averaged about 3 seconds between frames without the use of the flash and between 5 and 9 seconds with the flash, depending on subject distance. When using red eye reduction flash mode, the viewfinder blanks during the pre-flash, a critical period of about one second. The LCD also goes blank and the camera freezes while the flash is recharged.

There are two Sequential shooting modes to choose from; Continuous and Multi-shot 16. Continuous mode was slow, capturing 6-megapixel Fine JPEG images at 1.6 second intervals. Buffer clearing was not an issue at such a slow capture rate - the buffer never filled! Multi-shot mode captures 16 frames in 4.2 seconds and combines them into a single 6M/Normal image. The LCD viewfinder only briefly displays the last image captured in Continuous mode, making it difficult to follow moving subjects; this is when an optical viewfinder would come in handy. All tests were done using a high performance SanDisk Ultra II 256MB SD card, using 6M/Fine size/quality, welcome screen off, and all other settings at default (unless otherwise noted.) Times may vary depending on lighting conditions, camera settings, media, etc.

I was fairly satisfied with the overall image quality when using 6-Megapixel Fine mode. The metering system had a tendency to overexpose outdoor images by about 1/2 EV, although colors were nicely saturated. The L1 does not provide an exposure compensation adjustment, so you'll have to accept the camera's automatic exposure setting. Sensitivity is also set automatically; no manual adjustment is provided. Noise levels were very low at ISO 50, while ISO 100 produced a slight amount of noise in shadow areas. At ISO 200, noise is noticeable throughout the image. Chromatic aberration, aka "purple fringing", was very well controlled, with only very slight amounts present around highlights.

Our indoor portrait images were sharp, well exposed and the skin tones look very natural. You can include yourself in group portraits thanks to the tripod socket and self-timer. Beginners will find the Portrait Assist modes handy, offering help with shot composition for several types of situations. The AF system worked well when shooting in low light conditions despite the absence of a focus-assist lamp. Nikons unique "Face-priority AF" portrait mode had difficulty with frame-filling head shots, but was otherwise effective. The redeye reduction flash mode was also very effective, helped by both the pre-flash and the camera's automatic Red Eye Fix feature.

The flash has an effective range of nearly 12 feet. This range coupled with the 38mm (equivalent) field of view was adequate for portraits of individuals and small groups, but not for moderate sized rooms or groups. Like most Coolpix models, the L1 excels at Macro photography. You can focus on a subject as close as 1.6-inches from the lens. It also controls the flash well, "throttling down" to ensure that the subject is not overexposed. When shooting with natural light, the L1's macro mode is complemented by the Best Shot Selector (BSS) feature, which captures a sequence of up to 10 images and saves only the sharpest one. BSS is an effective alternative to image stabilization for minimizing the blur that can occur at slow shutter speeds.

The L1 includes two unique features that help you overcome common causes of poor images.

  1. Blur Warning detects camera movement during the exposure, warning you that the image is blurred and giving you the choice of saving the picture or not. If you are satisfied, you can save it; if not, you can retake it with flash or Best Shot Selector on, ensuring that you leave with a better image.

  2. D-lighting solves a different problem, one of underexposure due to back lighting or insufficient flash coverage. D-lighting operates in image playback mode; if you find an underexposed subject, simply hit the OK button and the image will be brightened and displayed on the LCD monitor. If you like the result, confirm that you want it saved; it will be recorded with a different file name. You can see an example of D-lighting on our Sample Photos page.

Movies can be recorded at resolutions of 640x480, 320x240 or 160x120. The length of these clips is limited only by the amount of available memory. The L1 includes a microphone and movies are always recorded with sound; as a result, the optical zoom can be used to compose movies before recording starts, but not during recording. The Digital zoom can be used, but image quality will be degraded. The L1 allows you to set Continuous AF in movie mode, but it the noise it produces ruins the audio track. Movie recording was fairly memory-efficient, consuming only about 700KB per second, but clips were only average in quality, with visible compression artifacts.

The L1 is powered by a pair of AA batteries. Using NiMH 2500mAh rechargeable batteries, I was able to capture about 150 shots before a low battery warning occurred. We always recommend using NiMH batteries when possible, they last longer, save you money, and you should always have an extra freshly-charged set on hand to avoid the disappointment of a unique photo op meeting a dead battery.

The bottom line - The Coolpix L1 has a lot of appeal to those wanting ease of use and more powerful than average telephoto magnification. It offers several unique features that distinguish it from the competition, including D-lighting, Red Eye Fix and Best Shot Selector. But it suffers from sluggish shooting performance, a tendency to slightly overexpose outdoor images, and mediocre movie quality. At a street price of around $250, it's a tempting value if you can live with its limitations.

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