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Nikon Coolpix L1 Overview

By: Mike Pasini
Review Date: 12/21/2005

The new Nikon Coolpix L1 is the latest in a line of user-friendly models that emphasize a wide range of Scene modes and special "assist" features to help novices bring back good photos from tricky shooting situations.

From a feature standpoint, the Nikon Coolpix L1 is similar to previous models such as the Coolpix 7900 and P1, with all automatic controls and a small form factor. But the Coolpix L1 focuses on simplicity, providing three Record modes (Auto, Scene and Movie) supported by sophisticated automatic features like in-camera red-eye elimination, Face Priority autofocus (using face recognition software), D-Lighting to improve dark shots and the venerable but still unsurpassed Best Shot Selector (for low light shooting). Selected Scene modes are further refined by a set of assist options and a Guide feature helps even novices find their way around the camera. The Nikon Coolpix L1 is compact and very light; and though it has a plastic body, it still has a no-nonsense feel of quality. With its excellent range of user-friendly, almost fail-proof point & shoot exposure modes, the Coolpix L1 can handle just about any photo opportunity you're likely to throw at it. Read on for all the details!

 

Nikon Coolpix L1 User's Report

Portable and compact, the Nikon Coolpix L1 ranks among the smaller digital cameras currently on the market. Slightly taller than a credit card (just about as wide), and a little under two inches thick, the Nikon L1 is designed to fit into shirt pockets and small purses, perfect for travelers. It's so tiny (weighing just 8.0 ounces or 227 grams with the battery and memory card loaded), I'd highly recommend keeping the included wrist strap securely around your wrist when shooting. The automatic lens cover makes it quick on the draw, and eliminates any worry about keeping track of a lens cap. The camera's black body with shiny silver highlights is attractive and understated. Built into the Nikon Coolpix L1 is a 5x optical zoom lens and a 6.2-megapixel CCD for capturing high quality images, a macro mode capable of focusing as close 1.6 inches, and no fewer than 15 preset shooting modes. Since the camera operates under automatic control, its control layout and menu display are very user friendly.

The Nikon Coolpix L1 features only a 2.5-inch color LCD monitor for composing images, no optical viewfinder to use as a backup. The camera's 5x, 6.3-31.4mm zoom lens (equivalent to a 38-190mm lens on a 35mm camera, a moderate wide angle to medium telephoto) offers maximum apertures from f/2.9 to f/5.0, depending on the zoom setting, and is made up of nine elements in seven groups. The Coolpix L1 uses contrast-detection autofocus in normal mode, which ranges from 1.67 feet (50 centimeters) to infinity. Multi-point AF chooses among five autofocus points to find the nearest object. The chosen AF point is then illuminated in the LCD display. In Macro mode, the camera focuses as close as 1.6 inches (4.0 centimeters), and automatically switches to continuous AF mode, focusing constantly when the Shutter button is not half-pressed. (Note that closest focusing is possible only when the lens is set to a fairly narrow range of focal lengths toward the wide-angle end of its range. The zoom indicator that appears at the top of the LCD when zooming and the "tulip" macro icon both turn green when the zoom is set within the optimal range in Macro mode.) Turning on the camera triggers the shutter-like lens cover to open, and the lens to extend forward another half inch to about a full inch from the body. In addition to its 5x optical zoom, the Nikon L1 offers a maximum 4x digital zoom, which lets you "zoom" in even closer (equivalent to a 760mm lens on 35mm camera). As always though, keep in mind that the digital zoom simply enlarges the center pixels of the CCD, resulting in lower image quality. The 6.2-megapixel CCD produces high-resolution images, good enough for printing to 11x17 inches with good detail, as well as lower-resolution images for sending via email or printing as 4x6-inch snapshots.

In keeping with the tradition of the entry-level Coolpix line, the Nikon L1's exposure control is straightforward. Operating under automatic control, the Coolpix L1's user interface is easy to learn. Most of the exposure options are controlled through the multi-page LCD menu system, although a handful of external controls access basic features. A Mode switch on top of the camera controls the Recording mode, with an Auto setting, a Scene mode setting for selecting from among a range of 15 other specific shooting situations, and a Movie setting. The Framing Assist modes are optional in Portrait, Landscape, Sports, and Night Portrait modes, each offering a range of framing scenarios. For example, under Portrait mode, you can set up the framing for a centered single subject, a single subject off to the right or left, a close-up portrait, two subjects positioned side-by-side, and a figure shot with the camera held in portrait (tall) rather than landscape (wide) orientation. Once a specific setup is chosen, faint yellow subject outlines (these used to be quite bold on earlier models) appear in the LCD monitor to help you line up the shot for the best focus and exposure. Sports mode offers enhanced options for capturing fast-paced action, such as a rapid fire mode that captures 16 tiny images in two seconds that form a single 4x4 image mosaic. The Scene position of the Mode switch provides access to 15 preset "scenes," which optimize the camera for what would normally be more difficult shooting situations. Available Scenes are Party/Indoor, Beach/Snow, Sunset, Dusk/Dawn, Night landscape, Close Up, Museum, Fireworks Show, Copy, Back light, and Panorama Assist. Each scene mode sets multiple camera options to configure it for the specific type of subject and shooting condition chosen. These tools make the Coolpix L1 extremely flexible in a variety of conditions, providing almost worry-free operation.

Depending on the exposure mode, the Nikon Coolpix L1 offers a wide range of exposure options. Though no mode allows the user to control the aperture or shutter speed directly, the Exposure Compensation adjustment can be set in any mode to deal with high contrast, dark or light subjects. (This is a nice touch. Exposure compensation is a pretty essential control, but it's disabled on the Coolpix L1 in the Scene modes of many digicams.) The Exposure Compensation adjustment optionally increases or decreases overall exposure from -2 to +2 exposure equivalents (EV) in one-third-step increments. It is not reported on the LCD display, but the Coolpix L1's shutter speeds range from 1/2,000 to four seconds. A White Balance adjustment offers five preset modes, an Auto setting, and a Custom setting for manually determining the color balance. The Nikon L1 uses a Matrix metering system to determine exposure, evaluating the contrast and brightness across the frame to determine the best exposure. Through the LCD menu, you can also access a Center-Weighted metering option. ISO light sensitivity is rated at 50 during normal shooting, but the Coolpix L1 automatically raises it as high as 200 when conditions require it. You can also access Nikon's Best Shot Selector mode, which automatically chooses the least blurry image in a series shot while the Shutter button remains pressed. (The Best Shot Selector feature is one of my all-time favorite digicam features, as it makes it possible to hand hold even very long exposures by taking multiple shots and playing the odds that during one of those moments you're going to be still enough to get a sharp image.)

The Nikon L1's built-in flash is rated as effective to approximately 1.67 to 11.5 feet (0.5 to 3.5 meters) depending on the lens zoom setting, although in my own tests, I found it usable to 14 feet with ISO automatically set at 194 and with the lens set toward its telephoto position. The L1's flash operates in Auto, Red-Eye Reduction, Off, Fill Flash, and Slow Sync modes. An option in many modes, Slow Sync combines the flash with slower shutter speeds, letting more of the ambient light into the exposure, making for brighter, more natural-looking night shots. In some Assist and Scene modes though, the Coolpix L1's flash mode is automatically set for you. Portrait Assist, for example, defaults to Red-Eye Reduction mode but can be overridden. Some Scene modes may also enable an automatic Noise Reduction feature to eliminate excess image noise resulting from the higher ISO sensitivity and longer exposure. Flash is also not available in Sports or Landscape modes. While this panoply of default flash modes and constrained options may sound complicated, the net result is that the camera's scene modes let average users bring back good-looking photos from tricky shooting conditions, while enjoying point & shoot simplicity.

Most digital cameras these days have special red-eye reduction flash modes, which pop the flash (or shine a bright LED) a few times before the shot itself, to make the pupils of your subject's eyes contract a little. This reduces the likelihood that light from the flash will reflect off the insides of the subjects' eyes, causing the dreaded red-eye. The Nikon Coolpix L1 goes quite a bit beyond the simple pre-flash red-eye reduction approach though, as it also incorporates special software inside the camera that can look for and remove red-eye before it saves the images to the memory card. While I don't have a standardized anti-redeye test (for whatever reason, our eyes here at IR just don't seem very prone to redeye), I can attest that the Coolpix L1's system does indeed seem to remove red-eye very well when it's enabled, vs when it's disabled. The one downside to the L1's approach though, is that the post-processing that the camera uses to search for and remove any remaining red-eye takes an appreciable amount of time, resulting in a rather long delay before you can capture the next shot. Thus, the "cycle time" between shots stretches to on the order of 6-7 seconds when the Coolpix L1 is operating in red-eye reduction mode.

Another really unique feature of the Nikon L1 is its innovative "D-Lighting" option. This is a playback-mode option that could be thought of as a "virtual fill-flash," in that it brightens shadow areas. There are a couple of important differences between D-Lighting and on-camera flash though. First and foremost, it brightens all the shadowed areas in the image, regardless of how far they were from the camera (that is, there's no light falloff as you'd have with a flash). A second point is that this is a post-capture option, one that makes a copy of the image with the D-Lighting effect applied, so your original image is undisturbed. On the downside, a third key factor with D-Lighting is that it will make image noise more apparent in the areas that it's brightened.

D-Lighting Examples
With Without
(as-shot)

D-Lighting's effect on images is generally pretty subtle, as you can see from the two examples above. In the situations where you'd want to use D-Lighting though, subtle is good, you ideally want the image to look natural, as if nothing unusual was done to it. An icon near the five-way navigation cluster on the Coolpix L1 indicates that pressing the OK button in Playback mode (indicated by its blue color) will launch D-Lighting.

Other camera features include a Self-Timer mode, which provides a 10-second delay between the time the Shutter button is pressed and when the image is actually captured. The Nikon L1's Continuous Shooting mode captures a rapid series of images while the Shutter button is held down, with the actual number of images dependent on the size and quality settings, as well as the amount of memory card space. There's also a Multi-Shot 16 mode, which captures 16 thumbnail images in sequence, arranged in rows of four within a full-sized image. The Coolpix L1's Movie mode offers three options: TV Movie 640 (640 x 480, 15fps), Small size 320 (320 x 240 pixels, 30fps), and Smaller Size 160 (160 x 120, 30fps). The actual length of recording time depends only on the amount of available SD card space (there is no arbitrary limit set by buffer capacity), and appears in the LCD monitor.

The Nikon Coolpix L1 stores images on SD memory cards, but the standard retail package in the U.S. includes no memory card. There is enough onboard memory, however, to hold up to three full resolution pictures. Files saved to internal memory can be easily copied to an SD card, and vice versa. Given the camera's beefy 2,816 x 2,112-pixel maximum image size, I'd recommend picking up at least a 256 to 512MB memory card so you don't miss any important shots. Images are saved in JPEG format, with three compression levels available. A CD-ROM loaded with Picture Project software accompanies the Coolpix L1, compatible with both Windows and Macintosh platforms (including Windows XP and Mac OS X). Nikon Picture Project provides organization and image editing tools for enhancing images.

The Coolpix L1 uses two AA-sized batteries for power, either alkaline or NiMH type. Two alkaline batteries come with the camera, but I strongly advise picking up a couple of sets of rechargeable batteries and a charger, and keeping a spare set freshly charged at all times. Click here to read my "battery shootout" page to see which batteries currently on the market are best, or here for my review of the Maha C-204W charger, my current favorite. The optional AC adapter might be useful for preserving battery power when reviewing and downloading images, and plugs straight into a DC In jack on the side of the camera, but good-quality rechargeable batteries really eliminate the need for it. The optional AC adapter uses a "dummy battery" that slides into the battery compartment. This could be useful for offloading pictures after a long day of shooting, but really isn't necessary for the vast majority of users. Also included with the Coolpix L1 is a video cable for connecting to a television set for slide shows, and a USB cable for downloading images to a computer.

The Nikon L1 combines a fine Nikkor 5x glass optical zoom lens, a 6.2-megapixel CCD, and a range of automatic, preset shooting modes in a very consumer-friendly digicam. Automatic exposure control lets the camera take charge of all the picky details, although a handful of exposure options provides a little creative control when you want it. With its diminutive dimensions, the Coolpix L1 is great for travel, and the range of preset shooting and framing modes anticipates most common shooting conditions. The 2,816 x 2,112-pixel maximum resolution is high enough for making sharp 11x17-inch photographic prints (or sharp 8x10 prints with considerable cropping), while the 640 x 480-pixel resolution setting is perfect for sending email attachments over the Internet. The uncomplicated user interface means you won't spend much time learning the camera. Perfect for novice users or anyone looking for a bundle of extra features, great ease of use, and sharp, colorful photos, the Nikon Coolpix L1 could also serve as a great take-anywhere snapshot camera for more advanced shooters.

 

Basic Features

 

Special Features

 

In the Box

The Nikon Coolpix L1 ships with the following items in the box:

 

Recommended Accessories

 

Conclusion

Pro: Con:
  • Attractive design, well-built
  • Good quality lens
  • Excellent macro performance
  • Loads of helpful "assist" options for novices
  • Handy explanations from context sensitive Guide
  • D-Lighting corrects underexposed images right in the camera
  • Best Shot Selector very helpful for low-light shooting
  • Face Priority AF knows how to take a portrait (very slick!)
  • Red-Eye eliminated in camera with post processing
  • Slower than average shutter response
  • No optical viewfinder
  • Max ISO sensitivity limited to 200 and always set automatically
  • High image noise in dim light and when flash is used at distances much beyond 11 feet
  • Modest battery life
  • No Shutter, Aperture priority, or manual exposure modes (common in entry-level cameras though)
  • Only average speed from shot to shot
  • A little slow to clear the buffer memory, and very slow shot to shot after buffer fills
  • Contrast is a little high, tends to lose highlight and shadow detail under harsh lighting

 

Nikon's Coolpix line of consumer digicams has always been well-received, appreciated for their image quality and ease of use. The Nikon Coolpix L1 continues that trend with a 6.2-megapixel CCD and firmware goodies like Face Priority AF, D-Lighting and BSS while simplifying the user interface. The Coolpix L1 is a good choice for anyone who wants an easy to use camera that delivers good-looking pictures with pleasing color and plenty of resolution. For those willing to delve just slightly deeper than "just pushing the button," its extensive scene modes and unique framing-assist options greatly extend the camera's capabilities, making it easy to bring back good-looking shots of what might otherwise be difficult subjects. And if you forget what an option does, help is only a button press away with the Guide feature. While we liked The Coolpix L1's rich and very practically-oriented feature set, we would have liked the camera much more if it had done better under dim lighting, and if its shutter response had been a bit faster. This isn't a camera for capturing fast action, or for extensive use after dark, but it has a lot to offer under the shooting conditions most consumers will be most interested in. All in all, a very nice little digital camera, albeit one that doesn't quite make it into the hallowed ranks of the Dave's Picks list.