The Nikon CoolPix L100 is a budget superzoom point and shoot camera aimed squarely at the broad consumer market. It offers a 10-megapixel sensor, a 15x optical zoom lens, and simplified controls that will be easy to use for even the greenest of digital camera users. Currently retailing for around $250, it's not the cheapest point & shoot on the market, nor even the cheapest superzoom, but it's a good deal cheaper than popular offerings from Canon (like the SX10 IS) and on par with Olympus's SP-565 UZ. So, how does this pint-sized peeper stack up? Let's find out!
Design and Styling
The L100 has a very professional and sleek look, clearly mimicking the style of its bigger brothers in the superzoom field as well as dSLRs. The largely matte black body has accents of shiny chrome and glossy black, as well as a rubberized grip. The body is truly tiny, and is dominated on both sides---on the front by the huge barrel of the lens and on the rear by the large 3-inch LCD.
The control layout is extremely simplified, with just five buttons and a four-way control pad on the rear and only an on/off button, the shutter release, and a zoom ring on the top. Positioned along the right side of the LCD screen, the rear controls include a button to select the shooting/scene mode, one to access image and video playback, a dedicated menu button, a trash button, and the ubiquitous OK button, at the center of the four-way control pad. The control pad itself doubles as controls for flash settings, exposure compensation, macro mode, and the camera's self-timer. The four AA batteries and SDHC memory card slot into a compartment in the base of the camera, which closes securely via a locking door. Output ports are found on the left side behind an unfortunately standard pop-out cover.
The ergonomics are good, though the camera may be uncomfortably small for those with large hands---the pinky finger will certainly be curled under the bottom of the camera rather than wrapped around the grip. A hard plastic thumb grip is placed well, but doesn't actually give much grip. The camera's built-in flash must be manually raised, without a release button, but it's pretty easy to do thanks to the grip provided by the "Nikon" emblem across the front. This is actually a plus, since it means the flash won't fire inadvertently in a no-flashes-allowed environment.
A pleasant density makes the L100 nice to hold, but the materials feel somewhat cheap in the hand; of course, this isn't surprising given the price range. The included lens cap is particularly flimsy. Surprisingly, the camera is equipped with a metal tripod mount, something uncommon for cameras in this class.
The Shooting Experience
Unfortunately, the first thing I experienced when turning the camera on was an error screen with bright red text informing me of a lens error---in my haste to get going, I'd accidentally turned on the camera with the lens cap attached. This is user error, to be certain, and given the way the L100's lens cap locks onto the lens, it's probably a wise design choice on Nikon's part. That said, there is another unfortunate aspect of this design choice: you cannot start up the camera in playback mode. This means that if you want to turn on the camera and immediately start reviewing your shots, you have to take off the lens cap, let the lens extend, and then press the playback button. Another similar issue is the camera's handling of the transition from shooting to playback and vice versa. To get back into shooting mode from playback, you must press the shooting mode selection button, unlike on the vast majority of cameras where you can simply half-depress the shutter to re-enter shooting mode. These are minor annoyances, but annoyances for sure, and ones you're going to run into over and over again.
Once you actually get the camera ready for shooting, you'll find that it's quite easy to operate. The L100 offers Easy Auto, Auto, Sports Continuous, Movie, and 14 scene modes to make it easy for you to pick the right settings for your given situation. The eagle-eyed reader will have noticed a certain mode conspicuously missing from that list: manual control. The L100 has no way for the user to control shutter speed, aperture, or ISO settings. Like most cameras in Nikon's "Life" series, the L100 is fully automatic at all times. While this might be annoying to more advanced shooters, the fact is that more advanced shooters probably won't be picking this camera. For those moving up from an automatic 35mm film camera or an even cheaper point and shoot digital, it'll be a perfect fit.
Though the camera lacks an optical viewfinder or an EVF, the large LCD makes it easy to compose shots. However, the LCD's low resolution (just 230,000 pixels rather than the 920,000 found on some competitors with 3-inch screens) could certainly be better, and makes on-the-fly assessment of image quality and focus problematic, as they appear jaggedly pixilated when scaled to fit the screen.
The L100 offers some nice bonus features, namely a distortion correction mode, which to a large extent alleviates the barrel distortion that plagues the wide end of the zoom spectrum. It works quite well, and it's nice to see it on a lower-end bridge camera like this one. A manual white balance setting is another welcome addition, and surprising to see given the camera's lack of other more common manual settings.
Beyond these finer points there's not really much to say about the L100's shooting experience. Being a fully automatic camera, all you have to do is point, shoot, and enjoy the expansive zoom range. Shutter lag is minimal and the camera responds well to input in most situations.
Like many cameras in this price range, the L100 produces a sort of mixed bag of image quality. At lower ISO settings the image quality is certainly acceptable. Noise is kept to a minimum, though the noise reduction is perhaps a bit too aggressive---even at ISO 80, the lowest possible setting, there is a visible mottling effect on solid colors. At higher ISO settings, noise quickly becomes apparent, with plentiful chroma noise in particular. This means that the L100 is definitely less than ideal for night shooting, or really any shooting in lower light situations. Since the camera has no manual ISO control, this poor upper ISO performance is a real problem in everyday shooting, as the user is unable to force the camera to choose a lower setting.
In general the lens seems to perform well, with decent sharpness throughout the range and good control of chromatic aberrations (purple fringing) in all but the most difficult shooting situations. Barrel distortion is noticeable at the wide end, but as mentioned earlier the in-camera distortion control is quite effective. The lens is somewhat susceptible to flare, particularly (as you'd expect) when shooting directly into or at a close angle to the sun. It's a shame that Nikon didn't include a lens hood, but then again, this is an entry-level camera in its class.
Even at its normal color settings, the L100 produces very heavily saturated images. Greens are neon, blues are electric, and you get the idea. Aside from going to black and white or sepia mode, there is no way to tone these colors down in-camera, so if you want a more natural color palette this might not be the camera for you. That said, I think most point and shoot users will love the saturated tones this camera produces.
What they might not love is the blown highlights that seemed to pop up with upsetting frequency in use, destroying image detail. This camera was tested in Santa Fe, New Mexico, a city blessed with particularly harsh sunlight. But even so, the L100's dynamic range and metering performed below par in this sense. While the camera does have a "D-Lighting" menu accessible in playback mode, intended to increase the dynamic range of a given shot, it unfortunately seems to work mostly to lighten dark areas rather than recover blown-out bright areas. Another quirk comes when shooting indoors with flash: skin tones tend to come out with a heavy and unnatural reddish cast.
Vibration Reduction (of the sensor-shift variety) seems to work well to control blur caused by camera shake, and the camera also offers a high-ISO setting that accomplishes much the same thing, albeit at a disappointing loss of image detail.
The L100 is a bit of an odd duck in the superzoom field. Besides their P80 and recent P90 models, which are positioned much closer to dSLR territory in terms of features and handling, this is Nikon's first real foray into the category. Frankly, I expected more of them, given their status as the second half of the camera industry's Big Two. As it is, the L100 is outperformed by some smaller, pocketable superzooms like the Panasonic TZ series (though it's cheaper and has an extra 3x reach over the TZ6) and lacks in features compared to some of its more direct competitors. Its serious, SLR-like look and relative bulk might put off users more used to small form factor cameras, while those attracted by those same looks might be let down by the slim feature set included. While the camera is fun and easy to use---presumably the goal of the designers---it is let down by inconsistent image quality, a lack of options for more advanced photographers, and a bulk unbefitting its pedigree. This will go down as a missed opportunity for Nikon, but it could be a decent start toward something better.