The 6-megapixel Nikon Coolpix L1 is a bare-bones, pocket-size camera that delivers slow performance but very good photos for snapshooters who don't mind the slightly high price. More advanced users looking for manual settings such as ISO sensitivity and exposure parameters should consider other cameras. The same goes for parents who want to snap toddlers or sports matches.
A compact and attractive camera, the Nikon Coolpix L1 comes clad in black plastic and fits in a loose jacket or trouser pocket. At 179g with two AA batteries and an SD card, it's fairly lightweight. In keeping with Nikon's simple design, it has only the most basic buttons: power, shutter, menu, playback and delete. It also has a zoom rocker and a four-way directional pad that doubles as a control for flash, timer, macro focus and exposure compensation. A three-way slider puts you in full-auto, scene or movie mode. Consistent with the rest of the camera, the menu system offers a rather standard palette of options in large text on a bright 64mm (2.5-inch) LCD.
Besides the longish zoom range of its rather slow f/2.9-to-f/5.0 38mm-to-190mm (35mm equivalent) lens, the Nikon Coolpix L1 has a minimal feature set. It has only one basic exposure mode -- full auto -- with no manual, shutter-priority, or aperture-priority options. The 15 preset scene modes allow you to guide the camera's exposure and focus choices a little; the modes include common choices such as Portrait, which uses a wide-open aperture for blurred backgrounds. The L1 doesn't even let you change the amount of JPEG compression -- only image size. You can, however, turn flash and macro focus on and off. A measly 10MB of internal memory holds three pictures at the camera's highest resolution. The L1 also incorporates standard Nikon features such as Face Priority AF, D-lighting for in-camera repair of dark images, and Best Shot Selector, which takes a quick series of five shots and saves only the sharpest one. There is no optical viewfinder.
The Nikon Coolpix L1 is not a fast camera. Since all operations cease while it writes an image to its built-in storage or to an SD memory card, it takes an excruciatingly long 6.8 seconds between shots in single-shot mode; make it 9.5 seconds if you're using flash. Continuous-shooting speed is a little less than 0.7 frame per second, so catching frenetic sports action with this camera is not an option. While the L1 takes about 5 seconds to fire off a shot after you press the power button, it has an adequate 0.9-second shutter lag in high-contrast lighting.
Where the Nikon Coolpix L1 shines is its image quality. It produces sharp, well-exposed images with natural colour balance and pleasing flesh tones. At its widest angle, there is minor vignetting, in which corners of a picture are darker than the centre, and barrel distortion, in which straight lines curve outward at a picture's edges; such distortions are almost invisible at the telephoto end, though. The L1 is very strong in macro photographs, where the detail and the sharpness of the lens-and-sensor combination really show. Blue fringing occasionally appears around high-contrast lines but only under extremely challenging shooting conditions, such as taking pictures of bare tree branches or shooting into the sun.
If you don't need or even want manual controls or speedy responsiveness, the Coolpix L1 will reward you with sharp photos, excellent macro performance, an extended 5x zoom range, and a 2.5-inch LCD screen. But that's a big if.