Nikon Coolpix L100 Review
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The Nikon Coolpix L100 is a new super-zoom digital camera. This 10 megapixel model has a 15x wide-angle zoom lens, providing an equivalent focal range of 28-420mm. Four different anti-blur technologies should ensure that the majority of your pictures are sharp, with Sensor-shift VR, High ISO, Motion detection and Best Shot Selector all on offer. The L100's new Scene Auto Selector automatically picks the optimum Scene mode for popular photographic situations, while Easy Auto mode rally does make using the Coolpix L100 a point and shoot experience. There's also a large 3 inch LCD screen, 1cm macro mode, smile, blink and face detection, plus a Sport continuous shooting mode that shoots up to 30 3 megapixel continuous shots at 13 fps. The Nikon Coolpix L100 costs £239.99 / €269.00 / $279.95 - carry on reading to find out if the Nikon Coolpix L100 deserves a place in your camera bag.
Ease of Use
It may be surprising but Nikon, a company whose SLR division turns 50 this year, can be considered something of a newcomer to the superzoom segment. Putting aside the Coolpix S4 of 2005 and its successor the S10, both of which sported a 10x zoom lens, the first 'real' Nikon superzoom camera was the P80, launched in 2008. The subject of this review, the Nikon Coolpix L100, was introduced along with the P80's successor, the P90, earlier this year.
The 'L' in the product name indicates that the Coolpix L100 belongs to the 'Life' series of highly automated, easy-to-use point-and-shoot models. A first look at the camera seems to contradict this. A bulky appearance combined with a sober black finish lend an air of earnestness to the L100, to the point that it may well look intimidating to some of its target customers. Most of the bulk is due to the lens and the hand-grip, the latter of which has to accommodate the four AA sized batteries that power the camera. The bright side of this is that the L100 is very comfortable to hold, as the sizeable grip provides an excellent means of purchase for your fingers. The camera does feel plasticky to the touch, but the overall build quality is good.
The front of the Nikon Coolpix L100 is of course dominated by the large lens, even when it sits retracted into its housing. Upon power-up, the lens extends, provided you have not forgotten to remove the lens cap beforehand. If you have, you will not only need to remove it but also to power the camera off and on again. Once extended, the lens' length remains essentially constant, as all the zooming appears to take place inside. The lens is not terribly fast in terms of its maximum aperture, which is f/3.5 at wide angle and f/5.4 at the telephoto end.
The focal length range, on the other hand, commands respect, starting at 5mm (equivalent to 28mm) and going all the way to 75mm (equivalent to 420mm). Thankfully Nikon have included Vibration Reduction (VR) to help prevent camera-shake, an essential feature on a camera like this. Interestingly, while VR is lens based in the Nikon SLR system, it is of the sensor-shift variety in the L100 (and the P90 too, for that matter). I found that the VR system makes a noticeable difference to the sharpness of the images, as shown in the examples on the Image Quality page. You can hear a slight mechanical whirring noise when it is turned on, but otherwise you don't really notice it, except that that you can use slower shutter speeds than normal and still take sharp photos. To the left and right of the lens, you will find the AF assist / self-timer lamp and the camera's microphone, respectively.
There are relatively few external controls on the Nikon Coolpix L100, even though the size of the body would have allowed more. The top plate features a power button and the shutter release, surrounded by the zoom lever - and that's it. The flash has to be popped up manually, using your fingertips - there's no button for this, and it is one of the few things the camera will not do for you automatically, either.
Most of the camera's rear panel is taken up by the three-inch LCD screen, whose resolution is 230,000 dots - nothing special but perfectly adequate. The rear controls are restricted to a Shooting Mode and a Playback button, a standard four-way navigation pad, Menu and Erase buttons. The arrow buttons give quick access to four oft-used functions, which thankfully include exposure compensation. The other three are the macro, self-timer and flash modes, although as noted earlier, you have to manually raise the flash in order to be able to use the latter. A centred OK button is used to confirm changes to settings.
On the left side - when viewed from the back - there are the USB / AV OUT and DC IN ports sheltered behind a door. Above these are the camera's speakers and a neck strap eyelet. On the bottom plate is a metal tripod socket, which is not aligned with the optical axis of the lens. Right next to it is the battery/card compartment door. Designing a single compartment for the batteries and the memory card was not the greatest idea, as the L100 runs on four AA sized batteries that have nothing to prevent them from falling out - you have to remember this when changing memory cards. Interestingly, the manual warns that you can only use disposable alkalines and FR6/L91 lithium batteries but no rechargeables - despite this, the camera happily took the four Eneloops provided to me by Nikon themselves. Images are recorded on SD cards, with 44MB of internal memory provided to fall back on, should your card fill up.
This concludes our quick tour of the camera's exterior, so let us now move on to its features and functions. The Nikon Coolpix L100 is one of the most highly automated cameras we've tested so far. Once it is powered up, you can use the Shooting Mode button on the rear panel to select from Easy Auto, Scene, Sport Continuous, Movie and Auto modes. Yes, this means that there are no manual, shutter or aperture priority modes on this camera - and what might not be so obvious is that you cannot control the ISO sensitivity either. Shutter speed, aperture and ISO are taken care of by the camera in all shooting modes, whether you like it or not. In Easy Auto mode, the only things you have access to are the flash and resolution settings. The camera assumes control of everything else by analysing the scene in front of the lens, and choosing one of the six most commonly used scene modes, i.e. Portrait, Landscape, Night landscape, Night portrait, Close-up and Backlight.
The next item in the Shooting Mode menu is Scene, where you get to choose the scene mode you want to use. These include, on top of those mentioned above, Beach/snow, Museum, Food, Party/indoor, Sunset, Dusk/dawn, Copy and Panorama assist. In these modes, you typically get access to the flash and self-timer modes as well as exposure compensation, and with some, the macro mode as well.
In Panorama assist mode, you take the first picture after applying flash mode, self-timer, macro and exposure compensation settings as required, and then the camera superimposes a third of this photo on the live image. This helps you compose the next shot with a decent amount of overlap for easy stitching on the computer. You can repeat this step until you have taken enough photos to cover the scene. The camera locks the exposure, white balance and focus at the values set with the first shot. The photos taken for the panorama can be stitched on the computer with the aid of the supplied Panorama Maker software.
One of the more interesting features of the Nikon Coolpix L100 is the Sport Continuous shooting mode. The highest selectable resolution is restricted to three megapixels, but you can shoot at a speed of up to 13 frames per second for up to 30 frames in a row. This can be helpful with capturing fast motion, although there is no guarantee that the subject will actually be in focus. At the wide end of the zoom range, the vast depth of field might cover up any focusing errors, but not at the telephoto end, which is unfortunately where you are more likely to be when shooting sports. Note also that the camera will automatically pick a high sensitivity setting of at least ISO 720 in order to keep the shutter speed high - and we all know what this entails with a small-sensor digital camera like the L100.
There is a separate High Sensitivity shooting mode for those times when you do not need to shoot continuously at high frame rates but you still require a high sensitivity setting to be able to use a fairly high shutter speed - typically when taking hand-held shots in low light. This mode also imposes a three-megapixel limit on the resolution of the photographs you can take, and again, the camera will pick a sensitivity setting of ISO 720 or higher. The flash mode, self-timer, macro and exposure compensation functions are all available.
The year being 2009, it is not surprising to find a Smile mode on the Nikon Coolpix L100. Face detection is automatically activated in this mode, and the camera puts frames around all of the faces it has been able to detect (up to three). The face nearest the centre is marked with double frame lines, indicating that this is the face the camera is monitoring. Once it detects a smile, it fires off the shutter, without you having to press the shutter release button. After the shot is taken, both face and smile detection resume, so that the camera can take more shots of smiling faces. If the flash is popped up though, you cannot take another shot until it is fully recharged.
It may sound contradictory, but the shooting mode that lets you access the highest number of settings is the Auto mode. On top of controlling the flash mode, self-timer, macro mode and exposure compensation, you can enable or disable the VR system - disabling it is recommended for tripod work - switch the Motion Detector on and off - when it's on, it automatically boosts the ISO sensitivity upon sensing camera or subject movement - engage Distortion Control to digitally reduce the geometric distortion of the lens, set white balance from a choice of presets or even create a custom WB setting, pick a colour option (standard, vivid, black and white, sepia or cyanotype) and access a number of drive modes. These include single shot, continuous shooting at a rate of 1.2 frames per second for up to seven frames at full resolution, Best Shot Selector, which automatically chooses the sharpest of up to ten photos taken in succession with the shutter release held down, and Multi-shot 16, a unique mode in which sixteen photos are taken at a rate of about 7.5 frames per second, which are subsequently arranged in a single picture. Honestly, I struggled to find a use for this.
The Nikon Coolpix L100 provides a limited scope of editing functions in Playback mode. These include D-lighting, cropping and resizing. D-lighting lifts the shadows in a picture of a contrasty scene without affecting the midtones and the highlights - head to the Image Quality section for a demonstration. Do note that on the L100, it is strictly a post-capture thing - this camera does not offer the Active D-lighting function of Nikon's DSLRs. Cropping and resizing - the latter of which is called 'Small picture' in the menu - are self-explanatory. The originals are preserved in both cases.
|Battery Compartment||Memory Card Slot|
Using the Nikon Coolpix L100 has left us with mixed impressions. Not having any control over shutter speed, aperture or ISO in any of the shooting modes does mean that you can concentrate more on the other aspects of picture taking - such as composition - but it may have the consequence that you cannot take the type of picture you have envisioned. No control over the ISO sensitivity may also mean that you are not getting the most out of your camera in terms of image quality, as the L100 will usually boost the ISO if it thinks light levels are low, even if you have the camera mounted on a tripod. And of course your exposures might be off too - having exposure compensation at your disposal is a good thing, but without a live histogram it is not as useful as it could be.
The L100 has a few other idiosyncrasies that can potentially cause frustration to its users. For instance, returning from Playback to Record mode is strictly only possible by pressing the Shooting Mode button, whereas on most other digital cameras, a second press of the Playback button or a half-press on the shutter release will also do the trick - when using the L100, I often found myself staring dumbly at the camera when I could not go from Playback to Record by lightly tapping the shutter release like I am used to doing with other cameras.
While this might be a personal thing, my other source of frustration - a frequent inability to lock focus on the subject in moderately low light, despite the camera having a focus illuminator - is bound to be of concern to a broader group of users, too. Finally, I haven't liked the fact that there are no display options for full-frame viewing of your photographs - invariably, the camera will overlay a lot of shooting data (though not necessarily of the type you are most interested in), and you have to wait quite a long time before they disappear so you can view the photo without them. The addition of a Display button would have been a good idea.
In addition to capturing stills, the Nikon Coolpix L100 can also be used to record video. The options are 640x480 pixels at 30 frames per second and 320x240 pixels at either 30 or 15fps. High-definition recording is not supported, but for standard definition, the quality is quite good. And while VR does not work when recording movie clips, the electronic stabilisation system employed appears very effective. The optical zoom cannot be used while filming, but of course the lens can be preset to the desired zoom position before you start recording. Exposure compensation is, unfortunately, not available for movies.
The Nikon Coolpix L100 comes with a surprisingly detailed, 136-page PDF manual that is very well cross-referenced. Nikon also supplies a Software Suite, including Nikon Transfer and Panorama Maker, on a CD-ROM. The programs have Windows (XP SP3 and Vista SP1) and Macintosh (Mac OS X 10.3.9, 10.4.11 and 10.5.5) versions.