DigitalCameraReview.com
Nikon Coolpix L15 Review
by David Rasnake -  2/7/2008

If you're shopping for a compact camera and have between $150 and $200 to spend, there are almost too many high-style, high-function choices anymore. But if your budget is closer to $100 than $150, the camera herd from companies you've actually heard of gets somewhat thinner. In most cases, the devices in this class have tended to be anonymous and interchangeable, offering roughly similar features and performance.

Nikon Coolpix L15
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Advertising optical Vibration Reduction and a 2.8-inch LCD, the Nikon Coolpix L15, which rings up for around $120, seems to be doing something a little different, with a longer specs sheet than most of its competition. Previous Nikon L models have consistently been good, solid little cameras offering decent image quality and better than average all-around performance for not much money, and with the addition of VR, especially, the L15 provides some advanced features as well in an accessible, user-friendly package that epitomizes point and shoot.

 


IN THE BOX

 

The Nikon Coolpix L15 sports the following key specs and features:

Sensor 8.0 megapixel, 1/2.5" CCD
Zoom 3x (35-105mm) Nikkor zoom, f/2.8-4.7
LCD/Viewfinder 2.8", 230K-pixel TFT LCD
Sensitivity ISO 64-1000
Shutter Speed 4-1/1500 seconds
Shooting Modes Easy Auto, Auto, Scene, One-Touch Portrait, Movie
Scene Presets Portrait, Landscape, Sports, Night Portrait, Party/Indoor, Beach/Snow, Sunset, Dusk/Dawn, Night Landscape, Close Up, Museum, Fireworks, Copy, Backlight, Panorama
White Balance Settings Auto, Preset Manual, Daylight, Incandescent, Fluorescent, Cloudy, Flash
Metering Modes N/A
Focus Modes Center, Face Priority
Drive Modes Single, Continuous, Best Shot Selector, Multi-Shot 16
Flash Modes Auto, Forced On, Slow Synchro, Forced Off, Red-Eye Reduction
Self Timer Settings
10 seconds, Off
Memory Formats SD
Internal Memory
23 MB
File Formats JPEG, AVI
Max. Image Size 3264x2448
Max. Video Size
640x480, 30 fps
Zoom During Video No
Battery 2 AA batteries
Connections USB, AV output, DC input
Additional Features Vibration Reduction, Face Priority AF


A 1 GB SD card is good for about 250 of the L15's highest-res shots.

Nikon Coolpix L15
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(An additional note on memory formats: Nikon does not specify SDHC in additional to regular lower-capacity SD formats for the L15. In a quick test, the L15 seemed to have no trouble writing to and reading from an 8 GB SDHC, but whether the format is fully supported is not clear.)

The Coolpix L15 comes boxed with a strap, USB and A/V cables, dock insert, software CD, quick start guide and users manual, and two AAs to get you started.


IN HAND

 

Sticking to price-friendly AA power, the slimming of a budget compact is a process that can only be taken so far: those batteries have to go somewhere, and the L15 has the distinctive hand grip "hump" of many cameras in this price group.

Nikon Coolpix L15
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While it's hard to find a lot that's unique about the L15, there's not much to dislike either. The battery/memory door could be easier to close, but otherwise, in spite of its all-plastic construction the Nikon feels thickly built without any unnatural squeaks or creaks.

Display/Viewfinder

A 2.8-inch, 230,000-dot LCD is still pretty large by the standards of compact cameras, and in a class of cameras where you'll still find some 2-inch LCDs lurking around, it looks downright huge.

Nikon Coolpix L15
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Fluidity is better than expected in average light, and about par for the course when the screen gains up (there are five steps of brightness gain) in low light: jumpy, but not unusable.

The only bit of LCD-specific weirdness I encountered is the display's general optimism where exposure is concerned. When shooting outdoors and in high-contrast scenes, especially, you simply have to trust the camera's metering, as shots that look overexposed on-screen are usually about right, and shots that look closer to true are often a stop or more underexposed.

Nikon Coolpix L15
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For example, I compensated the above shot down a full stop to get what appeared on the display to be correct highlight exposure, only to find on review that a fair amount of shadow detail was lost instead. Several otherwise good outdoor shots suffered a similar fate.

Holding and Shooting

The Coolpix L15 has good balance and weight in hand – not exactly light with a set of batteries dropped in, but not heavy enough to be an irritation.

Controls are about as basic as it comes these days, with a four-way selector, menu and trash buttons, and a well-sized, well-positioned zoom toggle on the back panel.

Nikon Coolpix L15
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Up top, power and shutter buttons are joined by two small buttons for switching between playback and the various shooting modes. This simple layout that, in a move that's more and more common on small cameras, eliminates the mode dial completely works well with the L15's ultra-simplicity. Button feel is good for a budget camera, with a solid click coming under moderate pressure.

While you won't find a lot on this camera that hasn't been done elsewhere in terms of design and construction, it's a proven layout that works for this target audience. If you're interested in pointing and shooting, there's nothing to complain about here.


IN THE MENUS

 

I've often referred to cameras in the past as "true point-and-shoots," meaning a limited offering of manual controls. As with previous iterations of the L series, however, the L15 takes this stripped down concept to new levels.

Nikon Coolpix L15
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Press the mode access button (remember: no dial) and five basic options present themselves in the sidebar menu (with playback functions accessed via their own button):

Given the limited range of modes and options, the L15's interface is appropriately easy to navigate. All options within any given shooting mode (save those changes – timer settings, macro mode, flash settings, and exposure compensation – that are made directly on the d-pad) are accessible within the shooting menu. As on other newer Nikons tested, icon-based menu configurations are a snap to intuit your way through.

The L15 does suffer somewhat in terms of interface responsiveness, with the camera taking a comparatively long time to respond to button presses. A minor concern in the overall evaluation scheme, but it can be irritating if you're in a hurry to grab a quick shot.

Easy Auto Mode

User adjustments in this mode are restricted primarily to image size. However, the L15 does allow the use of the d-pad functions in nearly every shooting mode, including this one, meaning that flash modes and exposure compensation can still be changed as needed. Otherwise, the camera uses default auto setting, including color modes and white balance, across the board in this shooting mode.

It should be noted, however, that the L15 does not seem to automatically evaluate for face detection AF in easy auto mode; if you're shooting pictures of people and want to get the benefits of the L15's face recognition system, choose the One-Touch Portrait mode instead.

Movie Mode

Like the rest of the camera, video settings on the L15 are basic, but with a 30 fps 640x480 setting the camera is capable of taking acceptable clips with sound. A stop-motion movie mode is also fun, but note that there's no auto frame-rate setting: the user has to compose each shot and manually fire the shutter. In all movie modes, optical zoom is locked down.

Scene Mode

Scene-mode shooting is about as much user control as exists on this camera, and the L15's well-chosen list of scene presets seems to do alright in a variety of situations. Other than a backlight preset (helpful for into-the-sun portraits, especially), the list covers basics only. The one interesting absence is a high sensitivity mode or preset for using the upper reaches of the L15's ISO range, meaning that in low light the user is often left depending on the camera to be smarter than it usually is.

One-Touch Portrait

Essentially a quick jump into the face recognition and red-eye reduction modes, the One-Touch Portrait setting boasts two effects settings. A Brighter effect brings out skin tones and appears to make the entire shot slightly smoother. The more obvious Softer setting applies a basic softening effect.

Auto Mode

As noted, what limited user adjustments the L15 offers are all available within this shooting mode. Basic control options include selectable white balance and drive mode, as well as a choice of color modes (the default standard mode, a saturated vivid mode, and black and white, sepia, and cyanotype effects). In general, unless you want to play with the color settings or need to use something other than auto white balance (i.e. under fluorescent lights), there is no added benefit to shooting in Auto versus Easy Auto mode.

Playback Mode

Arguably the most useful feature in what is otherwise a pretty conventional playback mode is Nikon's D-Lighting dynamic range enhancement. This in-camera processing tool brings out shadow and mid-range detail without altering highlights. Compared to other in-camera dynamic range tools currently around, D-Lighting's ability to salvage pictures with a wide contrast gap is impressive.

Nikon Coolpix L15
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Nikon Coolpix L15
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It's probably not the kind of feature that will make or break purchasing decisions, but I find in testing cameras that I end up using Nikon D-Lighting much more than I ever consistently use any other in-camera processing tool from any other manufacturer. If you're not interested in doing any out-of-camera post-processing of your images (and it's probably safe to assume that most L15 customers aren't), having this feature is a nice addition that makes taking images straight from camera to printer that much easier.

I do wish, in a similar vein, that Nikon would move the color mode effects (black and white, sepia, and cyanotype) out of the shooting menu as time-of-shot effects and into the playback menu, so that they could be added post-shot without altering the full-color original, but this really is getting down to the nitpicky.


IN THE FIELD

 

Because the L15 is so simple, shooting really couldn't be much easier. It exhibits some sluggishness common to its class, but for grabbing basic snapshots, there's a lot to like about the L15.

Timing and Shutter Lag

Pre-focused shutter lag with the Coolpix L15 averaged just over .3 seconds, making the camera acceptably if not blazingly fast in this regard. Lag timing without pre-focus, however, indicates the work of a predictably slow auto-focus system, with the camera taking a second or more to take the shot after pressing the shutter. Under ideal conditions, the best times I could manage were in the .7 to .8 range. While these numbers sound slow, two things should be noted: first, these timings were the norm for much more expensive (this is, after all, a $120 device) cameras a few years ago; additionally, even the more expensive Nikon compacts aren't known for particularly fast AF, putting this kind of performance in some kind of context. Still, this makes the L15 a challenge to use for action shots – especially in low light, where AF systems tend to not work as efficiently

Shot-to-shot times in continuous shooting mode reflected this general sluggishness, with the L15 unable to pull off continuous shooting speeds consistently under one frame per second.

More broadly, while quantitative data suggests that the L15 isn't as pokey as it feels, a combination of random delays of several seconds in writing files to the card, slow-ish AF, and an interface that's less responsive than most modern cameras does make the camera seem slow – frustratingly slow, at times. For snapshots, family photos, and vacation pictures, the L15 should do just fine most of the time, but if you're looking for a pocket camera to take action shots or pictures under indoor lighting, the Nikon will probably disappoint. Then again, to put the limitations of the L15 in perspective, these kinds of shooting conditions are challenging in varying degrees to every compact camera I know of.

Lens and Zoom

The L15's zoom is a pretty conventional 3x Nikkor unit, with an equivalent range of 35 mm to 105 mm. There are nine clearly defined steps between full wide and full tele, and the zoom picks up pretty quickly when the toggle is pressed. The toggle itself is short and sits low in the housing, but is simultaneously both reasonably wide and easy to press. As with all the L15's buttons, it feels like it will hold up well to repeated use.

Moving the zoom through its range, lens operation is reasonably quiet with no abnormal noises. The retractable barrel itself, while made primarily of plastic, feels solid, and our test unit was rattle free in this regard.

Focus Settings and Performance

There are no focus settings to speak of on the L15. By default, the camera uses some kind of basic contrast-detection AF system. As noted previously, AF performance and speed take a step backward from the current industry standard in this area. In low light, especially, the L15 was prone to hunting for what felt like an eternity; timings indicate focus hunt, even under more adequately lighting, of 2 to 3 seconds is not uncommon.

Similarly, precision in scenes with subjects at widely varying distances, in particular, was not particularly good, often requiring multiple attempts to get a correct lock. How much all of this will rain on your picture taking parade depends largely on what kind of shots you take. In spite of the fact that the L15 feels a little outdated and clunky in this area next to more advanced cameras, in most situations, for subjects that aren't moving (or aren't moving quickly), the L15 does just fine – meaning your typical range of vacation shots should come off without a hitch.

As a snapshot camera with relatively tiny optics, it's hardly surprising that the L15 doesn't capture superb levels of fine detail. With a minimum macro-mode focusing distance of around 6 inches, the usability of macro mode for true close-up shooting is further limited. For the occasional nature shot, the L15's macro capabilities are sufficient. Just don't expect razor-sharp, frame-filling performance.

Nikon Coolpix L15
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Flash Settings and Performance

The Coolpix L15 has a surprisingly comprehensive range of flash modes (including forced fill and slow sync options) given its generally limited set of controls. The L15's flash system as a whole feels sluggish in a way similar to the AF system. It consistently takes more than a second to lock and fire a flash shot, compared to a little more than half this time without flash. And with power from two AAs, flash recharge/recycle times averaged around 7 seconds. While the L15 doesn't do a complete blackout during this time, it is essentially locked until the flash recharges, which, as we've observed with other cameras exhibiting this issue, can be quite an irritation.

Flash shots are pretty typical by compact-camera standards, making skin tones a little cooler than is probably preferable.

Nikon Coolpix L15
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Auto white balance does a good job with flash pictures under mixed lighting, however, and with red-eye reduction enabled, most of these kinds of issues were well controlled. The L15 also offers in-camera, post-shot red-eye reduction just in case.

Image Stabilization Settings and Performance

As noted, one of the L15's headline technologies is the inclusion of Nikon's lens-stabilizing Vibration Reduction system. The entire system is active by default (an on-screen icon indicates when it's working), and can be disable for tripod shots and the like via the setup menu. Otherwise, it's completely transparent.

With limited controls, it was difficult to get controlled test shots to check the VR system's effectiveness. What I did observe is that with VR disabled, the L15 seems to struggle more to lock and maintain focus when hands are shaky.

Battery Life

Running on a pair of alkaline AAs, the L15 is rated to 160 shots. With a fresh set of batteries, I was able to come very close to these numbers. Of course, there's no optical viewfinder, so limiting power-hungry on-screen composition and review isn't an option.

Switching to 2300 mAh rechargeables, my observed numbers more than doubled, meaning that factoring a good set of rechargeable NiMH batteries and a charger into the purchase price may be a wise move.


IN THE SHOTS

 


General Image Quality

Our studio test shot shows off both the L15's image quality strengths and weaknesses.

Nikon Coolpix L15
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The L15 doesn't allow user-adjusted sensitivity, but per the EXIF data, I was able to get the L15 to shoot at its baseline ISO 64 for this test shot. While metering is reasonably accurate here, the test shows a slightly shifted exposure across the board as well as the L15's somewhat limited dynamic range compared to step-up models.

Nikon Coolpix L15

Detail capture is acceptable, if a little soft and smeared across the board even at ISO 64.

Nikon Coolpix L15

While there's some blotchiness in the reds, especially, and edge definition isn't great, it should go without saying that these issues won't even be close to apparent in 4x6 or 5x7 prints. I even made some high-quality 8x10 test prints from the L15, with results that only serious photography buffs would pick at. The moral of the story, then, is that so long as you're not expecting sharp 20x30 prints from your L15 (I won't even touch on how unreasonable this kind of expectation from a budget camera would be), there's nothing to worry about in terms of detail capture or sharpness.

Exposure, Processing, and Color

What bothers me more in terms of overall image look is the odd-looking (to my eye at least) exposure and contrast processing choices, which give the whole image a slightly washed out, slightly hazy look. As a result, blues tend to be a little grey, and reds tend to be a little pink. Again, nothing serious, but the overall vibrancy isn't quite up to the standards of more expensive cameras (but nor is the saturation excessive).

Crops also show some sharpening halos (see the boundary around the red spade in the crop above, for example), and while sharpening is obviously not adjustable on the L15, it's really nothing to get bent out of shape about. High-contrast shots do look a little jagged, but again, in normal prints this will be barely visible at worst.

White Balance

The L15's auto white balance setting does as good of a job as any camera I've tested across the spectrum of lighting scenarios. The studio test shot was taken in auto mode, and while there's a slight tannish tint, it's nothing like the brown or yellow casts usually seen from auto-mode compacts. Outdoor white balance settings showed no apparent difference from what I observed in auto-setting shots, with only intense fluorescent-only and incandescent lighting requiring compensation.

Interestingly, the L15 has a user-set custom white balance mode. The purpose of this kind of advanced feature on a camera like the L15 is probably worth questioning in any case, and the fact that it performed surprisingly poorly (our card-calibrated test shots were consistently too cool) makes its inclusion even stranger.

Lens Faults

The nightmarish chromatic aberration/purple fringing I was expecting with this lens never really materialized, which speaks well of the Nikkor optics paired with this sensor.

As seen in the shots above, the lens is pretty soft across the board, and as the following shot demonstrates, sharpness fall-off at the corners of the frame is pretty pronounced.

Nikon Coolpix L15
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Nikon Coolpix L15

Pincushion (lines bow in, usually in telephoto shots) and barrel (lines bow out at wide angle) distortion were both more pronounced than I've become accustomed to seeing.

Nikon Coolpix L15
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Barrel distortion, especially, was pronounced enough to be noticeable in real world architectural shots.

I was also able to induce some pretty wild lens flare with the L15 that gave an interesting, avant garde touch to several of my outdoor shots. For some reason, I'm doubting that this is what Nikon had in mind for this camera, however.

Sensitivity and Noise

You won't find our usual noise progression crops here, as sensitivity isn't user-selectable on the L15. What is clear is that the L15 has noise levels at ISO 64 (see the studio test shot above) roughly equivalent to the ISO 200 settings on more advanced cameras.

In checking the info on some of my test shots, it's pretty clear that detail loss at ISOs higher than 200 is severe by objective standards (though the L15 retains better color rendering than many compacts at high ISOs). The following test shot and detail crop, taken in a very dark room, show the L15 at its worst.

Nikon Coolpix L15
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Nikon Coolpix L15

Clearly, while you could make acceptable small prints or web-res images from this capture, the overall quality is a step down from the low-light performance we're used to anymore. Perhaps an even bigger issue is that while the L15 indicates when it's shooting at elevated ISOs, without user controls of this kind, there's not a lot the shooter can do to lock it down. With the camera boosting sensitivity to increase flash range, flash pictures suffer especially in this area.

Coupled with its focus and flash challenges, if you're looking to shoot indoors under ambient light and can spend a little more, there are plenty of step-up compacts that do a much better job and offer some much-needed control in this area.

Additional Sample Images

Nikon Coolpix L15
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Nikon Coolpix L15
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Nikon Coolpix L15
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Nikon Coolpix L15
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Nikon Coolpix L15
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Nikon Coolpix L15
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CONCLUSIONS

 

While the L15 is a great budget compact in many ways, I certainly came away from the review experience not knowing entirely how to accurately sum up the Coolpix's performance – in part because holding the L15 to the standards of $200 compacts simply isn't fair. If its performance was roughly equal to a $200 device, the L15 would be one of the most outstanding deals around. Put differently, at its current price and with its set of features, buying the L15 is less like getting a great deal on a $200 camera, and more like getting good deal on a $150 one. On the one hand, what I think should be emphasized is how much it does do as well, or nearly as well, as the $200 devices.

On the other, the L15 is also in many ways a demonstration of just how much you give up in features and performance to save $50. For less than $200 these days, Nikon's entry-level Style series model, the S500, is in a different photographic league, as are similar offerings from Canon, Sony, and Panasonic.

The basic message, then, is this: if you have less than $150 to spend, the L15 is a solid camera and a good value. If you can afford to pay a little more, the extra features gained by moving up add some speed, some style, some ease of use, and a few headache-alleviating conveniences. That's the bottom line. The choice is yours.

Pros:

Cons: