Nikon Coolpix L3 Overview
by Dan Havlik and Shawn Barnett
Review posted: 08/22/2006
Features are also pretty impressive in a camera this small and relatively inexpensive. Along with a 5.1MP CCD image sensor, the Nikon Coolpix L3 has a 3x optical zoom lens, a 2-inch LCD screen and Nikon's helpful Feature System which includes D-Lighting to improve underexposed photos; In-Camera Red-Eye Fix; Face Priority AF; In-Camera Cropping; and Best Shot Selector which lets you take a series of photos and picks out the one with the sharpest focus. Because it's aimed at beginners, the Nikon L3 also has oodles of Scene Modes, 15 in all with four with Scene Assist to help you compose your pictures. What do you give up on an entry-level camera like this? Read on and find out more.
Note: This review is nearly identical to the Coolpix L2 review, so if you've already read that, we recommend you scroll down to the Pro/Con and Conclusion, and check out the test results in the Optics, Exposure, and Performance tabs.
Nikon Coolpix L3 User Report
Nice Curves. Along with being about $150 less than last year's L1, the Nikon Coolpix L3 is almost an inch slimmer than the older model. This is largely due to the Nikon L3's 3x optical zoom, while the L1 had a longer 5x zoom. But it's also a result of the new camera's more ergonomic design. The Nikon L3 nips and tucks its edges to give a much more generally curvy look compared to the L1's boxy traditional body. This wavy profile is echoed across the new Coolpix line and is best exemplified by the ultra-slim S5 and S6 models.
Though it's made primarily of polycarbonate, the Nikon Coolpix L3's gun-metal grey chassis has a nice ceramic-on-metal feel to it, accentuated by a stainless steel band that loops over the left side and top of the camera. The slight swell on the right side of the Nikon L3 -- from the user's perspective -- provides a good handgrip and the solid metal shutter button is satisfying to press. At 3.6 x 2.4 x 1-inches (91 x 60.5 x 26mm), the Nikon Coolpix L3 is small enough to fit in a purse or handbag, and at just 5.4 ounces (153 grams) with the batteries and memory card, it won't weigh you down. For my money, this is one of the best looking and best designed cameras in its price range. On the flip side, its buttons are a bit small, and the zoom rocker really could have been wider to make zooming easier.
The screen is a bit disappointing, not for its size but for its resolution. Though it's a two-inch LCD, it only has 86,000 pixels, so pictures in playback have a muddy, slightly oversaturated look to them. Where most digital cameras hide the image data after showing it to you for a few seconds on the screen, the Nikon Coolpix L3's LCD defaults to a setting that only shows the photo with the info. Because there's so much data -- good for photo junkies but not necessarily the typical novice Nikon L3 user -- it clutters up the screen making it difficult to see the picture. Though you can change the setting in the menu system, it's more complicated than it should be, requiring you to go to Set Up and then choose Monitor Setting and then make the adjustment. The alternative, however, is to have playback of images without any info. A "show and hide" setting would have been preferable. On the other hand, scroll speed is pretty quick and the camera transitions into its multi-frame playback with just a tap on the zoom rocker. It's also very easy to add voice memos to your pictures -- if that's your thing -- by simply pressing and holding the shutter button during playback. The L3 also serves as a voice recorder.
No Speedy Gonzales. Unlike the L2, the L3 powers on a little more slowly, taking 3 seconds to power on and capture a first shot. After you snap a shot, the camera takes about a second to write the image to the SD memory card. Playing the image back on the screen after it's captured also seems to take eons -- 3.6 seconds actually, according to our lab tests. This might have been excusable a couple of years ago but in these days of the revved up image processor, it is noticeably slow. Images already stored on the card take more than a second to be shown; surprising given the LCD's lower resolution. The Nikon Coolpix L3's shutter lag numbers when capturing images at its widest zoom setting are below average for this category at 0.79 seconds.
Things improved at the full zoom, though, with shots captured at just 0.48 second. A word about the zoom though. It's one of the slower and noisier zooms I've tested recently, emitting a high-pitched whine as it slowly zooms out -- almost like an old video security camera. While the Nikon Coolpix L3 is a lower-end model and I wasn't expecting top-of-the-line Nikkor Silent Wave technology, other cameras I've tested in this class have had quieter and quicker zooms.
Shot-to-shot in its largest file setting, we clocked the Nikon Coolpix L3 at 2.19 seconds which is slower than average for a camera in this class. In Continuous mode, the Nikon L3 fired off 1.63 frames per second, according to our results, which is about average, though slightly better than the L2. Though the Nikon Coolpix L3 is by no means a snail when it comes to shooting, there are faster competing models on the market.
Good Quality, Limited Control. Despite its speed issues, image quality on the Nikon L3 under adequately lit conditions is excellent. The camera also showed great dynamic range for an entry-level model. Though it was loud and not a particularly fast zoomer (as mentioned earlier), the 3x Zoom-Nikkor (38-116mm, in 35mm format) had good overall sharpness.
With the Nikon L3, the camera pretty much stays locked into ISO 50. However, when lighting is poor and the flash is not engaged, the camera will show an ISO icon on the screen and automatically boost the ISO. The range is limited, though, capping off at just ISO 200. With most entry-level cameras offering ISO of up to at least 400 -- and some higher-end compact models offering ISO 1,600 and beyond -- it's disappointing that the Nikon Coolpix L3 offers the same limited light sensitivity range as the previous generation model, the L1. Though ISOs and light sensitivity might seem complicated to beginning users, with picture-takers getting tired of blowing out their subjects with flash, it would have been nice for Nikon to offer more low-light shooting capabilities on the Nikon L3. At the very least, a manually selectable ISO sensitivity rating of up to ISO 400 would've been acceptable. The Nikon Coolpix L3's flash range of 1 - 9 feet (0.3-3.9m) at the wide end and 1 - 5 feet, 9 inches (0.3 - 1.75m) telephoto is adequate for snapshooting purposes.
Special Nikon Settings. A strong selling point for the Coolpix line is Nikon's Feature System which includes In-Camera Red-Eye Fix, Face Priority AF and D-Lighting. In-Camera Red-Eye Fix combines a pre-flash with in-camera processing to reduce red-eye in portraits. In Face Priority AF, which is the real gem of the system, a yellow smiley face appears on the screen and then locks into a box when it detects a face. The only apparent blip in the technology is that since it detects the presence of two eyes, it cannot lock in a profile, only a face that is looking straight at the camera. On the Nikon Coolpix L3, Face Priority AF is accessed through the Portrait Mode. D-Lighting works in playback mode as a virtual "fill-in flash" to increase brightness and clarity in underexposed areas of a picture by automatically adding light and detail where needed. This is also a fairly effective feature for beginners but should only be used for images that are slightly underexposed. Images with extremely dark shadow areas will become noisy after being adjusted with D-Lighting. The Nikon Coolpix L3 also has a blur warning setting -- which is the default -- that tells you if your images are out of focus before you save them.
Though manual controls, particularly ISO adjustments, are extremely limited on the Nikon Coolpix L3, the camera still has a rich and varied group of special scene modes. Switching into Scene Mode is simple -- just adjust the mode switch on the back to where it says SCENE, and you're ready to shoot. Because there are so many scene modes -- as well as variations on a few -- make sure you know which setting you're in. The new Coolpix line features a revamped GUI (Graphic User Interface) that's an improvement on the previous version. The GUI is pleasing to look at with black and gray selections highlighted yellow as your scroll through, or you can select your own colors. Thought some of the iconography is difficult to understand, there are descriptions at the top of the screen in fonts that are easy to read. There's also a setting to make the menus text-driven rather than icon-driven, depending on the user's preference. I recommend the Text setting because it's clearer.
Four of the special scene modes on the Nikon L3 have Scene Assist -- Portrait, Landscape, Sports, and Night Portrait. Scene Assist is a selection option that helps the user compose pictures with the help of framing guides displayed on the monitor. There are also 11 advanced Scene Modes -- Party/Indoor, Beach/Snow, Sunset, Dusk/Dawn, Night landscape, Close up, Museum, Firework show, Copy, Back light and Panorama assist. There's also a Voice Recording mode, BSS (Best Shot Selector) and Exposure BSS. Though actual manual control is lacking, these tools make the Nikon Coolpix L3 extremely flexible in a variety of conditions, providing relatively worry-free operation.
The Nikon L3's Movie mode, which is accessed by turning the mode switch to the movie camera icon, is decent for an entry level camera offering up to 640 by 480 resolution at 30 frames per second with mono sound in its "TV Quality Movie Mode."
The Nikon L3 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. Based on CIPA standards, the Nikon Coolpix L3 can capture up to 200 images with a pair of alkaline batteries. With AA NiMH rechargeable batteries, however, capacity rises to 330 images. AA lithium batteries on the L3 yielded even better results at 630 images.
Does It Stack Up? Compared to some competing entry-level models that take AA batteries the new Nikon Coolpix L3 has very limited manual control particularly when it comes to ISO light sensitivity adjustment. The L3 makes up for its lack of control, however, with a robust automatic feature set that's helps make picture-taking easier for the entry-level shooter. While it's not the fastest camera in its class, the Nikon L3 does capture very nice images in adequate lighting conditions with its 5.1MP sensor and 3x Zoom Nikkor lens, making it a decent, if somewhat limited, snapshooter.
- 5.1 megapixel CCD delivering image resolutions as high as 2,592 x 1,944 pixels
- 2-inch color LCD display
- 3x, 6.3-19.2mm zoom lens (equivalent to a 38-116mm lens on a 35mm camera)
- Maximum aperture f/3.2-f/5.3, depending on lens zoom position
- Shutter speeds from 1/1,500 to four seconds
- 4x Digital zoom
- Automatic exposure control
- Built-in flash with five modes
- Built-in mic and speaker for including sound in videos and playback from the camera
- 23MB internal memory
- SD memory card storage
- Power supplied by AA rechargeable batteries, or optional AC adapter
- Nikon Picture Project software for both Mac and Windows
- Icon or Menu interface with Help button
- Face Priority AF to focus on faces automatically
- QuickTime movies (with sound)
- Continuous Shooting, and Multi-Shot 16 mode
- Fifteen preset Scene modes, including four with scene assistance
- Red-Eye Fix automatic red-eye correction
- D-Lighting for in-camera optimization of dark images
- Best Shot Selector for handheld shots
- Blur warning tells you if your images are out of focus before you save them
- Self-timer for delayed shutter release
- Best Shot Selector mode
- Macro (close-up) lens adjustment
- White balance (color) adjustment with seven modes
- 256-Segment Matrix and Center-weighted metering
- ISO equivalent sensitivity 50 with auto gain to 200
- PictBridge compatibility
- DCF, DPOF, and Exif 2.2 support
- USB cable for quick connection to a computer
- Video cable for connection to a television set
In the Box
The Nikon Coolpix L3 ships with the following items in the box:
- Nikon L3 digital camera
- Wrist strap
- Audio Video cable
- USB cable
- Two alkaline AA batteries
- CD-ROMs loaded with Nikon Picture Project software and reference manual, and drivers
- Quick Start Guide, Guide to Digital Photography and registration kit
- Large capacity SD/MMC memory card. These days, 256 to 512MB is a good tradeoff between cost and capacity.
- Two sets of NiMH AA batteries and a charger
- AC Adapter
- Small camera case for outdoor and in-bag protection
For an entry-level camera, the Nikon Coolpix L3 has a lot going for it, including a good quality 5.1-megapixel CCD sensor, a sharp 3x Nikkor optical zoom and improved overall ergonomics, making it the slimmest and best looking digital camera I've seen that takes AA batteries. For the novice shooter, the Nikon L3 has a very robust feature set which along with Nikon's D-Lighting, In-Camera Red-Eye Fix, Face Priority AF and Best Shot Selector, has 15 scene modes including four with Scene Assist. As a basic snapshooter, the L3 performed well, capturing sharp images with a good dynamic range and punchy color.
The camera is a bit on the slow side, however, lagging behind some of its competitors in shot to shot speed and overall shutter response. The camera's lens is also slow and noisy when zooming out to the full 3x. While automatic controls were impressive, there's very little manual override on the Nikon Coolpix L3, particularly relating to ISO light sensitivity adjustment. Anyone who likes killing the flash and cranking up the ISO so they can take pictures in low light will be disappointed with the Nikon L3 which has its default ISO set to 50. In poor lighting when flash is turned off, the camera will auto gain up -- there is no manual adjustment -- to a maximum of ISO 200, which is less than adequate for shooting in most low light situations.
While I understand Nikon is aiming this camera at novice and first-time users who might not want much manual control, some flexibility would be appreciated especially considering that many competing models not only offer manual ISO control these days, but even Shutter and Aperture Priority in their entry-level models. So overall the Nikon Coolpix L3 is a mixed bag with enough good qualities to warrant a modest recommendation, but enough cons to keep it off the Dave's Picks list.