Nikon Coolpix L3 Point & Shoot Digital Camera
by: Jack Reikel, May 2006
Requires: An interest in photography
MSRP: US$199.95, CAN$269.95
If it's true that good things come in small packages, is it also true that better things comes in even tinier packages? While the Nikon Coolpix L3 digital point & shoot camera may not be the smallest one around, it's certainly compact enough to make even technically knowledgeable people wonder just how many features can be packed into its diminutive case. In fact, the L3 is a full-featured, 5.1 megapixel camera, built sturdy enough for everyday use, and just large enough to be handled comfortably.
In our ongoing quest for the ideal point & shoot digital camera, we've begun to refine the criteria we use to determine exactly what it is that constitutes perfection. The list is shorter than you might think: 5 megapixel resolution or higher, minimum 3x optical zoom, well-spaced controls that are within easy reach but far enough apart to prevent mistakes, a case that's easy to handle and shaped to provide a secure grip, a power supply (batteries) that can be obtained anywhere, a tripod mount, basic macro (ultra close-up) capability, internal programming to effectively control the flash, and the smarts to automatically recognize a wide variety of lighting conditions in order to quickly (and automatically) set the right exposure and get the best possible photo. Can you get all that for a buck ninety-nine? In a word, almost.
The Coolpix L3 is among the latest (as of this writing) in a long line of competent, competitively priced point & shoot cameras from Nikon. The venerated camera maker has never in its history chased after fads or directly followed what its competitors were doing. True to that history, Nikon continues to follow its own research and the advice of its own designers and long-time customers to come up with digital photography products that can be quickly and clearly identified with Nikon. If you look at the control layouts and the feature sets in each Nikon camera, you quickly begin to get a feel for exactly what it is that Nikon believes to be important for a photographer. In this case, the word "photographer" is defined as anyone with a desire or need to take a photograph: homemaker, vacationer, teenager, adult, laborer, technician, professional, office worker, etc., etc. So you'd think that I'm describing the best all-around camera ever devised? While the truth is not quite so grandiose, I was still suitably impressed by the Nikon L3.
In two weeks of daily use, I put the camera through its paces in order to capture photos of a vacation property (didn't buy it), problems with network cabling runs across/through a catwalk (got some good shots of abraded insulation), some really nifty shots from my car while waiting for a rain storm to subside, shots of a busy downtown and lots of old office buildings during a Saturday afternoon walkabout, and about 150 garden and flower shots from my backyard and the nearby lakefront. After the first two days, I found the camera in my hand more often than not. It was easy to use, deployed reasonably quickly, and offered enough features to keep me interested. I see a lot of this kind of technology, so please believe me when I state that it takes quite a bit to make my Good list. This little camera is on the list.
The built-in flash proved useful during the rather dark and gloomy crawling about while tracing network cabling problems in an office loft. Although the dimly lit area made it difficult for the camera's auto focus to lock, using a mini flashlight to bounce some light off the painted metal ceiling added just enough brightness to help the auto focus work and get the job done. The results were detailed, nicely focused, and more than good enough to serve as visual evidence of some careless and sloppy cable installation.
The built-in exposure programming did a delightful job on a rainy day. Raindrop dappled windows and reflections were nicely focused, with balanced and pleasing exposure—very moody. At the opposite end of the scale, a bright, sunny, high contrast day among the urban office tower canyons during a busy downtown sojourn proved to be a great challenge for the L3. The end result was a nice pile of photos, several of which are going to make it to my desktop. As with all digital cameras in this price range, it's important to remember that the sensor, lens and internal programming are rarely going to be able to effectively manage high contrast compositions, especially when you've got to deal with sharp divisions between dark shadow and bright sunlight reflecting from office tower windows.
Garden shots and lakeshore walks should never present a problem for any camera. On the other hand, a little bit of attention paid to the camera's macro function helps to capture photos that might otherwise go unrecorded. The macro feature in the L3 works well in a variety of lighting conditions, but finding the best macro zoom level requires some fiddling, a bit of a time-waster which can occasionally result in lost photo opportunities.
Startup time is about 6 seconds which is something we can live with. For the most part, I left the auto-off setting at three minutes. This longer setting tends to be harder on battery life but it also offers the chance to grab a quick shot in some situations where I'd normally be fuming as a photo opportunity disappears while I'm waiting for the camera to start. Shutter lag is mercifully brief, and most noticeable when taking flash photos. As with all point & shoot cameras, the key to getting the greatest number of in-focus photos is to move smoothly and quickly through the framing, composition and shutter press process. The longer you hold the shutter halfway as you compose and focus, the more likely it is that you'll move the camera enough to end up with a blurry photo. Brace yourself. It's good advice and it goes for casual users and vacationers as well as business and trade users. In difficult lighting conditions, I got the best results by pointing the camera at a specific subject in order to get a quick focus lock, then moving the camera slightly to adjust the composition. If you're going to use this technique, remember not to move the camera forward or backward as you recompose. If you do, your subject will be out of focus.
Nikon L3 uses "AA" alkaline batteries or "AA" rechargeables.
Nikon obviously recommends its own "Coolpix" branded
rechargeables, but we tried a half a dozen major brands
without any problems. Any standard alkaline, rechargeable
Nickel Cadmium (NiCAD), rechargeable Nickel Metal Hydride
(NiMH), or rechargeable Lithium Ion (Li-Ion) batteries
that are warranted for use in digital cameras will work
in the L3. For the record, our current favorites include
the Panasonic Li-Ion (over 360 shots), the Sony NiMH
(over 260 shots), with the Coolpix-branded NiMH (over
240 shots) running a close third. Never buy off-brand
Li-Ion batteries—too many things can go wrong during
the manufacturing process and we recommend only name
brand units from Panasonic, Mallory, Eveready, Sony,
Nikon and Canon. When purchasing rechargeables, look
for their milliamp/hr (mAH) rating—anything over
700 is good. Anything over 1,000 is great. Li-Ion batteries
are expensive and have somewhat shorter lifecycles than
NiMH units. However, Li-Ion batteries can be recharged
at any time without first draining them, so-called voltage
memory effects are almost nonexistent, and they lose
very little charge when stored for weeks and months at
a time. NiCAD and NiMH batteries require a full discharge
before recharging and drain quite quickly when stored
for days or weeks in the camera. Standard Alkaline batteries
(which are note rechargeable) are not recommended except
in situations where there's no other choice. (Ed. Note: Some
CR-V3 and RCR-V3 Li-Ion batteries can output as much
as 3.6-3.7 volts, well in excess of what some digital
cameras require or can cope with. Be careful. Authorized
dealers supply brands which output the correct voltage
and which are specifically recommended for use in digital
cameras. Protect your camera!)
Cons: We really couldn't find any significant faults at this price point. The lens could be a bit wider at the short end and a bit longer overall, but this is not supposed to be the camera you use to take professional shots of landscapes or money shots of a rare bird perched on a branch 50 yards/meters away. If you want great results from that kind of action, you've got to pay more money to get more camera. We could wish for better Face Priority Auto Focus in difficult lighting conditions, but then again we really don't want to pay any more for it. You're going to need some practice to adjust to the sensitivity of the rocker-bar zoom control—it's got a bit of lag.
Pros: Very easy to use. The camera does exactly what it's supposed to do, meets all of its advertised specifications, and provides easy access to all of its advertised features and functions. You get a genuine Nikon at this price. Image quality is respectable and more than good enough to provide your desktop photo printer with plenty of output suitable for framing. In good lighting conditions, the Face Priority Auto Focus feature works very well. The ergonomics are surprisingly good, with a big fat top-mounted shutter button that's easy to feel, a nice grip bulge on the front of the case, thumb zoom control mounted properly on the upper right corner of the case back, a thumb slider for camera/scene/video mode well away from the other controls but still within easy reach, and a top-mounted on/off button shaped differently and positioned well away from the shutter button. All the little things that make a difference help make the Nikon L3 a really pleasant experience. Once you've used it a few times, you'll find yourself carrying it with you constantly, pulling it out and snapping away at every opportunity. Buy large capacity SD storage cards because you'll find yourself taking more photos than ever before. It's a winner. Highly recommended.
KSN Product Rating:
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