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Nikon Coolpix L6 Digital Camera Review
by Howard Creech -  11/24/2006

Digital camera manufacturers unfailingly boast that their point & shoot digicams are user friendly and easy to operate, but in reality many of those claims are exaggerated. That's not the case with Nikon's "L" series digicams, which eschew seldom-used features and complex functions in favor of traditional design, operational simplicity, and enhanced usability.

nikon coolpix l6
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Nikon's Coolpix L6 could be the poster child for a whole new generation of "back to the basics" digital cameras. The L6 isn't just easy to use; it also produces (in good light) dependably excellent 6 megapixel images. L6 purchasers will also love the bright, hue accurate, and fluid 2.5 inch TFT LCD screen and the sharp and contrasty 3X zoom. The L6 is an almost perfect traveler's camera - it's cheap, relatively tough, compact, lightweight, and it produces consistently excellent images. If all that isn't enough, the L6 features Nikon's Face Priority AF and automatic in-camera red-eye fix (for exceptional portraits), D-Lighting (which automatically lightens dark underexposed images), and it offers the best battery life of any camera in its class. Nikon claims the L6 has the best battery life of any compact digicam currently available (up to 1000 exposures from a pair of high capacity Energizer e2 Lithium AA batteries or up to 400 exposures from a pair of cheap and available anywhere alkaline AA batteries).

The L6 isn't perfect; it's a bit slow across the board, a little weak in the macro department, users can't change sensitivity settings, it doesn't provide an optical viewfinder, and it doesn't allow much user input, but casual photographers, travelers, hikers/bikers/backpackers, snap-shooters, and real estate agents will love this camera.

NUTS & BOLTS

Viewfinder/LCD

The L6 (like many auto exposure only digicams) doesn't provide an optical viewfinder so the large 2.5 inch (115,000 pixels) TFT color LCD screen must handle all framing/composition, image review, and menu access chores. Optical viewfinders and Electronic Viewfinders (EVFs) narrow the photographer's vision of the world (by eliminating everything except the field of view of the camera's lens) and that's a good thing - because it forces shooters to see photographically. Arms length LCD composition causes shooters to see their images as a picture within a picture, a smaller part of the whole rather than as a completely self-contained mini-environment and that is a very important distinction, in creative terms.

nikon coolpix l6
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The L6's LCD screen is bright, hue accurate, and fluid, but it isn't as sharp as it could be. The L6's LCD screen gains up (brightens) automatically in dim/low light, but screen images look a bit flat and somewhat grainy. The LCD info/status display provides all information the L6's target audience is likely to need. The L6's LCD screen is so shiny that in basically any type of (daytime) outdoor lighting it behaves almost like a mirror, making it virtually useless for framing and composition -- and that may be a deal breaker for some potential purchasers since there's no optical viewfinder - The screen does feature a non-glare coating, but it doesn't seem to be very effective.

Zoom

The L6 features a surprisingly good f3.2-f5.3; 5/6.3-19.2mm (38mm-116mm - 35mm equivalent) all glass 3X optical Zoom-Nikkor lens. When the camera is turned on the lens telescopes out of the camera body. When the camera is powered down the lens telescopes back into the camera body and the built-in lens cover slides into place to protect the zoom's front element. Zoom operation is quick and quiet, but the tiny zoom switch is fiddly and hard to get used to which makes incremental zoom movements less precise than they ought to be. Minimum focusing distance (in macro mode) is 3.9 inches (10 centimeters) - close enough for ebay shots, but not tight enough for dramatic bugs and flowers shots.

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nikon coolpix l6 sample image
(view medium image) (view large image) This caterpillar shot (made at the L6's maximum telephoto setting, rather than in macro mode) illustrates the L6's excellent resolution.

The L6's zoom is a bit slower than average (f3.2 vs f2.8) but optical performance is slightly above average (for entry-level compact digicams). Images are hue accurate and slightly over saturated with virtually no noise in well-lit scenes. Resolution (sharpness) is excellent throughout the zoom's range, but corners are a bit soft. There is barely noticeable barrel distortion (straight lines bow out from the center) at the wide-angle end of the zoom range, but no visible pin cushioning (straight lines bow in toward the center) at the telephoto end of the zoom's range. I didn't notice any vignetting (darkened corners), but there is some visible coma and chromatic aberration (purple fringing) is higher than average at the wide-angle end of the zoom.

Auto Focus (AF)

The L6's very basic Contrast Detection AF system is consistently accurate and relatively fast in good lighting, but it hunts a bit in dim/low light. The L6's AF is fast enough to capture generic action, but it is not fast enough to freeze really fast action. Shift the L6 into Portrait Scene mode and Nikon's Face Priority AF function (which recognizes and focuses on faces in the image frame) is automatically activated. In Face Priority AF mode (a square happy face icon appears) the L6 will track and continually focus on the nearest face(s) in the frame. Although it takes a little getting used to Face Priority AF does work, but it only works when the subject faces the camera directly, so FPAF won't help with profile shots and it does slow AF lock a bit.

Manual Focus (MF)

The L6 has no manual focus capability

Flash

The L6's on-board multi-mode (Auto, Red-Eye Reduction, Fill Flash, Slow Synch, and Off) flash is adequate, but it's tiny and somewhat underpowered. Nikon claims the maximum range is between 9 and 10 feet, which seems fairly accurate based on my limited testing. Optimum range is about 6 - 7 feet (just about right for lighting classic head and shoulders portraits). Anything beyond 6 or 7 feet (2 meters) is going to be a bit dark unless the subject is shot against light colored backgrounds with lots of ambient lighting. The flash is fairly close to the zoom so redeye will likely be an ongoing problem, but the L6's In-Camera Red-Eye Fix is automatically activated in the Redeye Reduction flash mode. Flash coverage is a bit uneven at the wide-angle end of the zoom (especially in macro mode), but it functions properly at the telephoto end of the zoom. Flash-lit shots show a very faint but consistent pinkish cast. Flash recycle time is about 7-8 seconds.

Image File Storage/Memory Media

The L6 saves images to Secure Digital (SD) memory cards (Nikon doesn't include a starter SD card) and also provides users with 23MB of internal image storage.

Image File Format(s)

JPEG

Connectivity

USB 2.0 and A/V out

Power

Battery life is the Achilles' heel of many compact digital cameras, but that is definitely not the case with the company's "L" series digicams. The L6 draws its power from a pair of relatively cheap and universally available AA batteries. Using Energizer e2 Lithium AA batteries (like those included with the camera) provides enough juice for up to 1000 exposures (NiMH re-chargeables are good for up to 550 exposures and OTC Alkaline AA's are good for up to 400 exposures) according to Nikon - giving the L6 the best battery life in its class (and significantly better battery life than the vast majority of digital cameras, regardless of class). The L6's above average battery life is one of its greatest strengths - but I doubt that many users will actually see a pair of Energizer e2 Lithium AA batteries last for 1000 exposures.

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EXPOSURE

The L6 is a fully automatic digital camera that provides a very arbitrary range of exposure options - Auto (point & shoot mode) and program AE (point & shoot mode with some user input). Auto mode includes 4 Scene Assist modes - Portrait, Landscape, Sports, and Night Portrait - Scene Assist modes provide a selection of LCD framing guides to simplify framing and composition. There are also 11 basic scene modes - Party/Indoor, Beach/Snow, Sunset, Dusk/Dawn, Night Landscape, Close Up, Museum, Fireworks Show, Copy, Back Light, and Panorama Assist. In all scene/scene assist modes the camera's CPU automatically optimizes all exposure parameters (aperture, shutter speed, white balance, sensitivity, etc.) for the specific image type selected. Users can also opt for BSS (Best Shot Selector) which automatically selects and saves the best shot from a sequence of 10 shots. There's also a voice notation mode. Based on my experiences with the camera, the L6 delivers dependably accurate exposures in most lighting, but there is a slight tendency to burn out highlights in bright outdoor lighting.

nikon coolpix l6 sample image
(view medium image) (view large image) This tricky lighting shot of backlit fall leaves nicely illustrates just how good the L6's auto exposure system really is.

Manual Modes

The L6 doesn't provide any manual exposure options

Movie Mode

The L6 captures video (with monaural audio) at 640x480 @ 15 fps and a selection of lower resolutions. If video capability is an important purchase criteria, the L6 is probably not the best choice.

Metering

The L6 features a fairly standard evaluative metering (multi-pattern) system that is dependably accurate in most lighting situations. Nikon's Matrix Meters are calibrated to preserve shadow detail, which requires sacrificing highlight detail. Neophyte photographers and snap-shooters won't have to worry about metering, but more demanding photographers won't like being locked into just one metering option.

nikon coolpix l6 sample image
(view medium image) (view large image) This shot demonstrates the L6's ability to automatically capture good photos, even in tricky lighting (shade and bright light) - but some highlight detail is lost (look for burnt out whites).

White Balance (WB)

The L6 provides an adequate selection of user selectable WB options, including Auto, Daylight, Incandescent, Fluorescent, Cloudy, Flash, WB Pre-Set (manual). The L6's auto white balance is accurate in outdoor lighting, but auto WB images show a very slight warmish cast.

Sensitivity

The L6 doesn't provide any user access to ISO settings - sensitivity is fully automatic. Nikon says the range is from ISO 50 (default) to ISO 800. Noise in outdoor shots captured in good light is very low, but noise rises noticeably in dim/low light shots. Overall, noise is slightly lower than average, across the board.

In-Camera Image Adjustment

Nikon's Picture Effects Mode is a very basic set of in-camera image adjustment options. Users can select Standard Color, Vivid Color, Black-and-White, Sepia, and Cyanotype (gives images a retro blue-hued monochromatic look).

The L6's exposure compensation function (exposure can be adjusted through a +2/-2 EV range in 1/3 EV increments) can be used to help manage difficult lighting by allowing users to quickly and easily lighten or darken exposures.

DESIGN, CONTROLS, & ERGONOMICS

The L6 is an attractive, but rather chunky silver digicam with a very traditional look. The L6 is small enough to drop in a jacket pocket or small purse. The body is mostly polycarbonate and construction seems to be fairly robust. Ergonomics are good with all controls logically placed and easily accessed. The integral grip (which houses the batteries) provides a secure comfortable hold and nice balance. The rocker switch for the zoom is small and somewhat fiddly, which makes precise zooming difficult.

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Creative Photography Options

The Nikon Coolpix L6 provides a really nice selection of simple but effective in-camera creative photography options, including: Nikon's Automatic In-Camera Red Eye Fix which eliminates or at least ameliorates most red eye problems. Face-Priority AF, which automatically locks on faces, making for improved portraits and better "people" snap shots. Nikon's proprietary D-lighting automatically lightens dark underexposed images and adds some subject lightening to back-lit images. Last, but certainly not least is the L6's nifty trimming (cropping) feature, which allows in-camera (post exposure) cropping of images. All these features help raise the "keeper" picture ratio for beginners and casual photographers without the need to manipulate/modify images in Photoshop.

PERFORMANCE

Image Quality

The vast majority of entry-level and mid-level digital cameras produce color that is more highly saturated (more intense) than the actual colors seen in the original scene and that's because most camera purchasers like bright intense colors. Outdoors, the L6's images are slightly over saturated with hard default contrast, a classic example of what some veteran camera testers call consumer image interpolation. Reds and blues are especially bright, which leads to somewhat "ruddy" Caucasian skin tones and a slightly "cool" look in pictures where blue dominates. Overall, the L6's color is quite pleasant and essentially hue accurate.

Images are generally very good to excellent with sharp resolution and lots of snap (although some very minor pattern noise is visible in shadow areas). ISO 50/100 images are consistently excellent with very good detail and virtually no noise. ISO 200 images are surprisingly good, essentially the same as lower ISO sensitivity images. Noise levels rise noticeably at ISO 400 - images are a bit flat and some fine detail is lost (Noise comes through as an overall soft graininess reminiscent of high speed film). ISO 800 images are quite noisy, but equal to or better than the L6's competition. I did see some minor blotching (chroma noise) in a couple of images.

Timing/Shutter Lag

The L6 is slightly slower than average - starting with its 3 second boot up cycle. Shutter lag can be agonizingly slow (as much as 1 second + in good lighting and more in dim/low light) and shot to shot timing is also slow at between 2 and 3 seconds. Enable the built-in flash and everything slows down even more. Pre-focused shots are pretty quick, but not instantaneous. The Nikon Coolpix L6 is not the best choice digicams for action shooters.

nikon coolpix l6 sample image
(view medium image) (view large image) This shot of a BMX biker in mid-air shows that the L6 is capable of capturing action - if the shooter pre-focuses on the spot where the action is going to peak and trips the shutter about half a second before the decisive moment.

A Few Concerns

The L6's greatest fault is its slow performance. Other areas of concern are its fully automatic (no user input) ISO sensitivity function and the lack of an optical viewfinder.

Conclusion

Overall, I'm very impressed with the Nikon Coolpix L6 - the camera is clearly designed to appeal to a specific target audience and it does a very good job of meeting the needs of that demographic. The camera is very user friendly and it consistently delivers surprisingly good images. It's an excellent choice for busy folks and casual photographers who want a camera that's compact enough to drop in a pocket and take along everywhere they go, tough enough to stand up to the rigors of modern life, cheap enough to be a real bargain, and if all that's not enough, the L6 has the best battery life of any digicam in its class. I wouldn't buy an L6 for me - but I would seriously consider buying one for my wife (who is a lifetime member of the L6's target audience).

Pros: Cheap, user friendly, compact and light-weight, 2.5" LCD screen, very impressive battery life, and nice ergonomics

Cons: Slow, no optical viewfinder, no ISO control, tiny zoom switch is hard to use, very slow flash recycle time.