Nikon Coolpix L3 Review

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Nikon Coolpix L3

Steve's Conclusion

The Coolpix L3 and L2 are the latest models in Nikon's ultra-compact "L" line. These simple to use models include various fully automatic exposure modes that are great for those who are just now getting their feet wet with digital or like the ability to just point and shoot. The L3 offers many high-end features such as a 5-megapixel imager, a Nikkor 3x optical zoom lens, a high quality VGA (640x480) sized movie mode, and Nikon's exclusive D-lighting, Red eye fix, and Face-priority AF technologies.

Ergonomics are good. The "L" models are very compact, being able to be tucked away in almost any size pants pocket or purse, the enlarged handgrip ensures a secure grip while shooting and makes one-handed shooting very easy. Although neither the L2 or L3 include an optical viewfinder, they do feature a high-quality 2.0-inch glare-resistant LCD display. I found it worked very well outdoors, with the anti-reflective surface making it usable even in the brightest conditions. Indoors or whenever shooting in marginal lighting conditions, the display "gains up" to help aid in framing; this is something that isn't possible with 35mm film cameras.

The L3's shooting performance was a bit sluggish for a camera in this class. Power up to first image captured measured 3.2 seconds, much of which is consumed by extending the lens. While the shutter lag averaged just /10 of a second when pre-focused, it slowed to a leisurely 1.3 seconds including autofocus time. When shooting in single exposure mode, the shot to shot delay measured approx. 2.1 seconds between frames without use of the flash and between 6 and 8 seconds with the flash, depending on subject distance and battery life. I also noticed that when using the camera's red-eye reduction flash mode, the viewfinder blanks during the pre- flash, a critical period of just under one second.

You can choose between two Sequential Drive shooting modes (Continuous or Multi-shot 16.) Using Continuous mode, I was able to capture 7 5-megapixel Fine JPEG images in about 4.6 seconds, before the buffer filled. It then only took about 3 seconds before I was able to continue shooting. Multi-shot mode captures 16 frames in 7.3 seconds and combines them into a single 5M/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 5M/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.

The overall image quality of its 5-megapixel Fine mode was very good. Our outdoor samples were sharp, well exposed and had pleasing color saturation. The exposure system did a great job of capturing sky detail, which will make your outdoor landscape shots look awesome. Like we saw on the L1 from last year, ISO sensitivity is fully automatic; there's no manual adjustment available. I saw very little noise when the camera was using a lower ISO setting, but as with most consumer models, these levels will become more noticeable as the sensitivity is increased. Its Nikkor 3x optical zoom lens offers the typical amount of versatility when composing your shots, and covers a 35mm equivalent range of approx. 38 - 116mm. Though it favors the telephoto end of the zoom range, the 38mm wide angle extreme will be sufficient for most indoor shooting as well as landscapes. It exhibited noticeable barrel distortion at full wide angle, but relatively no pincushioning at the telephoto end. Chromatic aberration, also known as "purple fringing", was very well controlled, with only very slight amounts present around highlights or brightly lit subjects.

Like the L2, the L3's flash range was also disappointing. While it was sufficient for some individual and couple portraits, it lacks the power to illuminate small to mid sized rooms. While Nikon's D-lighting feature really helps brighten the background (see our samples page) of your indoor or marginal lighting shots, image noise does become much more noticeable. However, you'll still be able to produce pleasing 4x6-inch prints. I found the flash works best using its fill-in or forced on mode and shooting in rooms with plenty of ambient light. Its "Face-priority AF" portrait mode did well at finding the subject face when doing close-up portraits, but it did tend to have some problems when shooting a screen filling head shot. I noticed some traces of red-eye in our subjects when using the Auto flash mode, luckily it does feature an effective red-eye reduction mode; unfortunately the pre- flash does add at least 1 second to the capture time, so you have to ensure your subject keeps still. You can include yourself in group portraits thanks to the tripod socket and self-timer.

One thing we like about Nikon's Coolpix models are all of the helpful Scene modes. The Portrait Assist modes are great for newbies, offering help with shot composition for several types of portrait situations. I was surprised at how well the AF system worked when shooting in low light conditions, despite the fact that this model does not feature a focus-assist lamp. When shooting available light shots of our M&M man, I noticed the White balance system had some troubles with mixed lighting, producing images that were a bit too warm. However, this is easily corrected by using any of the White balance pre-sets of the manual set function.

Like the L2, the L3 includes many unique features that help you overcome common causes of poor images, like.

  1. Blur Warning, which 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, which 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.

Movie mode allows you to record video at resolutions of 640x480 (30 or 15fps), 320x240 (30 or 15fps) or 160x120 (15fps.) The length of these clips is limited only by the amount of available memory. The L3 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. You can also set Continuous AF on in movie mode, but the noise it produces ruins the audio track. Our movie samples were average, with typical amounts of compression artifacts.

I was very impressed with the L3's battery life, especially when you consider it is powered by a pair of AA batteries. Using NiMH 2500mAh rechargeable batteries, I was able to capture about 110 samples (with several short movie clips) and conclude many of our other test before a low battery warning occurred. We always recommend using NiMH batteries when possible, they last longer, and will save you money in the long run; just be sure you have an extra set charged and ready.

The bottom line - the Coolpix L3 is pretty much identical to its 6-megapixel L2 "big brother". It offers good image quality as well as lots of user-friendly exposure options, however it too had disappointing performance and a very weak flash range. With a street price of $199 or less, it does however offer a good value if you don't need blazing fast speed and take the majority of your pictures outdoors in the bright sun light. Be sure to also check out the 6-megapixel Coolpix L2, it includes all of the features found on this model for about $50 more.

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