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DCRP Review: Nikon Coolpix L5  

by Jeff Keller, DCRP Founder/Editor
Originally posted: December 11, 2006
Last Updated: January 8, 2012

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The Coolpix L5 ($299) is the top-end camera in Nikon's entry-level camera lineup. There's a Coolpix L6 out there, but it's not nearly as impressive as the L5, and here's why. For one, it has a big 5X lens in a body that normally would have a 3X lens. Second, it has optical image stabilization -- lens based -- so you can get sharp photos in situations with less-than-desirable light. Other features include a 7.2 Megapixel CCD, 2.5" LCD display, numerous scene modes, and a VGA movie mode.

How does the Coolpix L5 compare with other cameras in its class? Find out now in our review!

What's in the Box?

The Coolpix L5 has an average bundle. Inside the box you'll find:

  • The 7.2 Megapixel Coolpix L5 digital camera
  • Two AA alkaline batteries
  • Wrist strap
  • USB cable
  • A/V cable
  • CD-ROMs featuring Nikon PictureProject
  • Fold-out Quick Start guide + 123 page camera manual (printed)

In 2005 Nikon started building memory into their cameras instead of putting a memory card in the box. The Coolpix L5 has a paltry 8MB onboard, which holds a just two photos at the highest quality setting. I probably don't need to tell you to buy a memory card right away. The L5 uses SD and MMC memory cards, and I'd suggest 512MB or 1GB as good starter sizes. Nikon recommends using a high speed memory card (60X or above) if you plan on using the VGA movie mode, so it's probably spending a little more for one of those.

Like all of the cameras in the Nikon L-series, the L5 uses AA batteries -- two of them to be exact. Inside the box you'll find two alkaline batteries, which will quickly end up in your trash. So, do yourself and the environment a favor and buy a set or two of NiMH rechargeables (2500 mAh is good) plus a fast charger. Now, let's put some decent batteries in the camera and see how it compares with the competition in terms of battery life:

Camera Battery life, LCD on
(CIPA standard)
Battery used
Canon PowerShot A710 IS * 360 shots 2 x 2500 mAh NiMH
Fuji FinePix F650 150 shots NP-40
Kodak EasyShare C875 250 shots Unknown NiMH
Nikon Coolpix L5 * 250 shots 2 x 2000 mAh NiMH
Olympus FE-200 290 shots LI-12B
Olympus Stylus 750 * 190 shots LI-42B
Panasonic Lumix DMC-LZ5 * 390 shots Unknown NiMH
Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ1 * 250 shots CGA-S007
Samsung Digimax L85 300 shots ** SLB-1237

* Has image stabilization
** Number not obtained using the CIPA standard
Group average: 293 shots

Battery life numbers are provided by the manufacturer

In the chart above, the Coolpix L5's battery life numbers are below average. However, Nikon used low power 2000 mAh batteries for their tests, which makes this a poor comparison. I'm going to go out on a limb here and guess that with 2500 mAh batteries, the L5 would have a number of around 310, which is above average.

In case you haven't heard, I like cameras that use AA batteries. They're cheap, and when your rechargeables die you can just pull some regular alkalines off the shelf to get through the day.

The Coolpix L5 has a built-in lens cover, so there's no clunky lens cap to deal with.

There are just a few accessories available for the L5. First up is an AC adapter (priced from $28), which powers the camera without draining your batteries. Speaking of batteries, Nikon sells those too (priced from $7), though they're really lacking in the power department -- you can do better. There's also a battery charger ($25) available for charging any NiMH cells. To protect your camera, Nikon sells a neoprene case (from $8) for the L5. There's also an accessory kit that includes the case, batteries, and charger for around $30.

Nikon includes version 1.7 of their PictureProject software with the Coolpix L5. The interface is somewhat reminiscent of Apple's iPhoto, and I found the software to be responsive and stable. The default view can be seen above, and it's your standard thumbnail setup.

A view showing shooting data is also available. Double-clicking on an image brings up the image edit window:

Here you can adjust things like brightness, color, and sharpness. You can also straighten images or use Nikon's D-Lighting feature to brighten up dark areas of your photos. Auto image enhancement and redeye removal features are also available.

You can also use PictureProject to e-mail or print your photos, and you can burn them to a CD as well.

The documentation for the Coolpix L5 is divided into two parts. You'll get a fold-out quick start guide to get you up and running, plus a full printed user manual for when you need more details. The main manual seems a little more user friendly than other Nikon documentation that I've seen lately -- maybe since the L5 is supposed to be more of a beginners camera.

Look and Feel

The Coolpix L5 is a compact (but not tiny) camera made mostly of plastic. Despite its plastic body, the camera feels quite solid, especially given its sub-$300 price tag. Heck, even the battery compartment cover is pretty solid. The camera's important controls are easy to reach, and the L5 can be operated with just one hand.

Now here's a look at how the Coolpix L5 compares to the competition in terms of size and weight:

Camera Dimensions (W x H x D, excluding protrusions) Volume (bulk) Mass (empty)
Canon PowerShot A710 IS 3.8 x 2.6 x 1.6 in. 15.8 cu in. 210 g
Fujifilm FinePix F650 4.1 x 2.4 x 1.2 in. 11.8 cu in. 170 g
Kodak EasyShare C875 3.6 x 2.5 x 1.4 in. 12.6 cu in. 177 g
Nikon Coolpix L5 3.6 x 2.4 x 1.8 in. 15.6 cu in. 170 g
Olympus FE-200 3.9 x 2.4 x 1.1 in. 10.3 cu in. 155 g
Olympus Stylus 750 3.8 x 2.1 x 1.0 in. 8 cu in. 120 g
Panasonic Lumix DMC-LZ5 3.9 x 2.4 x 1.8 in. 16.8 cu in. 186 g
Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ1 4.4 x 2.3 x 1.6 in. 16.2 cu in. 234 g
Samsung Digimax L85 4.3 x 2.5 x 1.1 in. 11.8 cu in. 190 g

The first conclusion you can draw from the above table is that the Olympus Stylus 750 is really in a class by itself in this group. It packs a 5X zoom lens into a very small body. If you ignore that one, you'll find that the Coolpix L5 is around average in terms of size and weight in this category.

Alright, let's stop talking about numbers and start touring the L5 now.

The Coolpix L5 has an F2.9-5.0, 5X optical zoom lens. The focal range of this lens is 6.3 - 31.4 mm, which is equivalent to 38 - 190 mm. Yep, this isn't a camera for wide-angle lovers, that's for sure. The lens isn't threaded, and conversion lenses are not supported.

Deep inside the lens is Nikon's lens-shift image stabilization, called Vibration Reduction. Gyroscopic sensors inside the camera detect the small movements of your hands that can blur your photos. The VR system moves an element in the lens to compensate for this motion, resulting in a better chance of a sharp photo. Now it won't stop a moving subject, nor will it work miracles (no handheld one second exposures), but it will let you take sharp photos at shutter speeds that would be blurry otherwise. Want to see how well it works? Have a look at this?

Want to see how well the system works? Have a look at these:

Image stabilization off

Image stabilization on

The camera chose a 1/7 second exposure (a number which sounds a little awkward to me) for both of these photos. The difference between the VR on and off shots should be quite obvious. If you need another illustration of how the VR system works, have a look at this short movie.

At first glance, it looks like the L5's small flash is going to be weak. However, Nikon has somehow managed to squeeze some serious light out of its diminutive size. The working range of the flash is 0.5 - 5.5 m at wide-angle and 0.6 - 4.0 m at telephoto (both at Auto ISO), which is quite a bit better than average. You cannot attach an external flash to the L5.

To the left of the flash, next to the VR logo, is the camera's self-timer lamp. Sadly, there's no AF-assist lamp on the Coolpix L5, and we'll see how that affects low light focusing later in the review.

Below the self-timer lamp is the microphone.

The main event on the back of the Coolpix L5 is its large 2.5" LCD display. While big on size, the LCD is low on resolution, with just 115,000 pixels (this is an entry-level camera, after all). While the screen isn't terribly sharp, I don't think the average L5 buyer will really notice. Outdoor visibility was good, as was viewing in low light, as the screen brightens automatically in those situations.

By now you probably noticed that there's no optical viewfinder on the camera. Whether this is a problem is up to you. Some folks (like yours truly) really like them, while others could care less. I should mention that only one camera in L5's class has a viewfinder, and that's the Canon PowerShot A710 IS.

Up at the top of photo is the L5's mode switch, moving the camera between auto record, scene mode, and movie mode. So what scene modes are available on the camera? Plenty, as you'll see:

  • Portrait Assist
  • Landscape Assist
  • Sports Assist
  • Night Portrait Assist
  • Party/Indoor
  • Beach/Snow
  • Sunset
  • Dusk/Dawn
  • Night landscape
  • Close-up
  • Museum
  • Fireworks show
  • Copy
  • Backlight
  • Panorama Assist

Five of those scenes are what Nikon calls Assist Modes. In addition to using the right settings for the situation, the camera will also display framing guidelines on the screen, so your photo will be properly composed. The Panorama Assist feature helps you line up photos for later stitching on your computer.

At the top-right of the photo you'll find the camera's zoom controller, which moves the lens from wide-angle to telephoto in about 2.5 seconds, which is on the slow side these days. I counted a whopping nineteen steps in the L5's 5X zoom range. it'

Below that we find the menu button as well as the four-way controller. This controller is used for navigating the camera's menu system, as well as:

  • Up - Flash setting (Auto, auto w/redeye reduction, flash off, flash on, slow sync)
  • Down - Macro (on/off)
  • Left - Self-timer (on/off)
  • Exposure compensation (-2EV to +2EV in 1/3EV increments)

The last items of note on the back of the Coolpix L5 are the playback mode and delete photo buttons.

On the top of the camera you'll find four more buttons, plus the speaker.

The VR button changes the vibration reduction mode. You can choose from regular, active, or off. Regular is the VR mode you'll want to use for everyday shooting. Active mode is for situations where the camera is really being jostled -- but do note that panning is not supported in this mode. You can also turn the whole system off, which you'll want to do when the camera is on a tripod.

The L5 detected three of the five faces It locked focus on the center face

The next button over serves two purposes. In record mode it turns on the L5's One-Touch Portrait Mode, while in playback mode it activates the D-Lighting function. The One-Touch Portrait Mode has three components: the portrait scene mode, face-priority AF, and auto redeye reduction. I wasn't terribly impressed with the face detection feature on the Coolpix S10, and it's no better here. Using my "test scene" (a photo on my LCD monitor), the camera captured three faces at most. Other cameras from Fuji and Canon with similar features can usually get four or five of them. I should also mention that face priority AF is only available in this one-touch portrait mode.

The D-Lighting feature is used to brighten up dark photos. This most often occurs when there's a strong backlight behind your subject. Here's an example for you:

Straight out of the camera

After D-Lighting

Wow, that's a whole lot better, no? Your original image is saved, in case the new and improved one doesn't suit your fancy.

Jumping over the L5's speaker, we see the last of its buttons: power and shutter release.

On this side of the camera you'll find its I/O port, which is kept under a plastic cover. The port is for both A/V out as well as USB. The camera does not support the USB 2.0 High Speed standard, so file transfers will take longer than they could (or should).

The only thing to see here is the hole through which you'll thread the AC adapter cord. The AC adapter uses a "dummy battery" (called a DC coupler) to power the camera, instead of plugging into an I/O port.

The lens is at the full telephoto position in this photo.

On the bottom of the L5 you'll find a plastic tripod mount and the battery/memory card compartment. The latter is protected by a plastic door of decent quality. As you can tell, you will be able to swap memory cards while the camera is on a tripod.

Using the Nikon Coolpix L5

Record Mode

It takes the Coolpix L5 about 2.7 seconds to extend its lens and "warm up" before you can start taking photos. That's pretty slow these days.

No live histogram here

Autofocus speeds were average. At the wide end of the lens, expect to wait between 0.3 and 0.5 seconds to lock focus. At the telephoto end, or if the camera has to "hunt" for focus, wait times can be closer to one second. Low light focusing was poor, due in part to the lack of an AF-assist lamp.

Shutter lag wasn't noticeable at faster shutter speeds, and minimal at slower speeds.

Shot-to-shot speeds were average, with a delay of roughly two seconds before you can take another shot.

To delete the photo you just took, you need not do more than press the delete photo button.

There are just a few image sizes available on the Coolpix L5. They include:

Resolution Quality # images on 8MB built-in memory # images on 512MB SD card (optional)
3072 x 2304
High 2 140
Normal 4 270
2592 x 1944
Normal 6 380
2048 x 1536
Normal 10 600
PC Screen
1024 x 768
Normal 36 2050
TV Screen
640 x 480
Normal 74 4400

See why it's a really smart idea to buy a memory card along with the camera?

The RAW and TIFF image formats are not supported on the Coolpix L5, nor would I expect them to be.

Images are named DSCN####.JPG, where # = 0001 - 9999. The file numbering is maintained even if you replace and/or format memory cards.

Now, onto the menus!

The Coolpix L5 has a pretty simple menu system. There are two ways to display the menu items: by text or by icon. For each of the menu items you can press the "zoom in" button to get a description of what that item does. Keeping in mind that not all of these options are available in the scene modes, here is the complete record menu:

  • Setup - opens setup menu, see below
  • Image mode (see chart above)
  • White balance (Auto, preset, daylight, incandescent, fluorescent, cloudy, flash) - see below
  • Metering (Matrix, center-weighted)
  • Continuous (Single, continuous, multi-shot 16) - see below
  • BSS [Best Shot Selector] (on/off) - see below
  • Color options (Standard, vivid, black and white, sepia, cyanotype)
  • AF area mode (Auto, center) - the former is 5-point autofocus

That preset white balance option is the only true manual control on the camera. This lets you use a white or gray card to get accurate colors, even in the most unusual lighting conditions.

The L5's continuous shooting mode leaves much to be desired. While the camera keeps shooting until the memory card fills up, it does so at a very sluggish 0.7 frame/second frame rate. There's also a lengthy LCD blackout between shots, which makes tracking a moving subject a bit difficult. The multi-shot 16 mode takes sixteen shots in a row and assembles them into a single 7 Megapixel collage.

The Best Shot Selector feature takes up to ten shots in a row and then saves the sharpest one. This feature has been a Nikon exclusive for some time now.

One menu item that's missing in action here is ISO sensitivity. That means that the noise levels of your photos are determined by the camera, since it will boost the ISO automatically. I must prefer the option to set it manually to keep noise levels as low as possible.

Now here's what you'll find in the setup menu, which is accessible from the record or playback menus:

  • Menus (Icon, text)
  • Welcome screen (Disable, Nikon, animation, select an image) - the "select an image" mode lets you use your own photo
  • Date
    • Date (set)
    • Time zone - choose a home and travel time zone
  • Monitor settings
    • Photo info (Show info, auto info, hide info, framing grid) - what is displayed on the LCD
    • Brightness (1 - 5)
  • Date imprint (Off, date, date & time, date counter) - print the date/time on your photos; the date counter shows the numbers of days that have elapsed since a date you have chosen
  • Sound settings
    • Button sound (on/off)
    • Shutter sound (Off, normal, loud)
    • Startup sound (Off, normal, loud)
  • Power saving
    • Auto off (30 sec, 1, 5, 30 mins)
    • Sleep mode (on/off) - camera goes to sleep if idle
  • Format memory/card
  • Language (too many)
  • Interface
    • USB (PTP, Mass Storage)
    • Video mode (NTSC, PAL)
    • Auto transfer (on/off) - whether photos are automatically transferred to your PC by default
  • Reset all
  • Battery type (Alkaline, NiMH, lithium)
  • Firmware version

Well that's it for menus, let's continue with the photo tests now. Since I can't control the ISO or shutter speed on the L5, some of the tests you may be used to will be omitted.

The L5 did a pretty nice job with our standard macro test subject. The colors generally look good, though the red cloak is a little orange. The subject's sharpness is just about right -- not too sharp, not too soft. The L5's custom white balance feature was a must for taking this shot with my studio lights.

You can be as close to your subject as 4 cm in macro mode. To do that you need to get the lens in the optimal position (near the wide end), and you know that you're there when the "macro flower" on the LCD turns green.

While it looks okay when downsized (as seen above), the L5's night shot wasn't great. That's because the camera basically picks all the settings, from shutter speed to ISO. In this case the camera cranked the ISO all the way up to 400, resulting in a fairly noisy image, with noticeable detail loss. The camera was able to take in plenty of light, though, and purple fringing was not an issue. The take-home message here is that the L5 isn't the best choice for long exposures -- you'll want a camera that lets you control both the shutter speed and ISO.

There's quite a bit of barrel distortion at the wide end of the Coolpix L5's 5X zoom lens. If you want to see what this means in real world usage, look no further than this photo. While vignetting (dark corners) wasn't a problem, you will encounter some blurriness around the edges of the frame.

The Coolpix L5 has a two-stage redeye reduction system. The camera first uses preflashes to shrink your subject's pupils, and if it still detects redeye the camera removes it with software. As you can see, this system did a pretty good job at eliminating redeye from our flash test shot. Nice!

Overall, the L5's photo quality was just okay. The good news is that the camera took well-exposed photos, with pleasing colors and not much purple fringing. The bad news is that photos are on the soft side, especially fine details (example), and there's no way to adjust this on the camera. Furthermore, since the camera adjusts the ISO automatically, photos may end up being noisier than they could be. For smaller-sized prints none of this should matter, but for "big prints" you may want to consider another camera.

Don't just take my word for it, though. Have a look at our photo gallery, printing the photos as if they were your own, and then decide if the L5's photo quality meets your expectations.

Movie Mode

The Coolpix L5 has a nice movie mode, though it suffers from the same audio/video sync bug as the Coolpix S10 that I recently reviewed. You can record video at 640 x 480 (30 fps) with sound until you run out of memory. That happens after just five seconds using the built-in memory, so a large memory card is recommended for longer movies. A 1GB memory card holds around twelve minutes worth of video. A high speed card is recommended.

For longer movies you can also lower the resolution to either 320 x 240 or 160 x 120.

As you'd expect, you can use the image stabilization while recording videos. While you cannot use the optical zoom, the digital zoom is available, up to 1.9X.

You can choose between single and continuous autofocus while in movie mode. I would probably use single AF as the microphone may pick up the focusing sounds otherwise.

Here's a sample movie for you, taken at the highest quality setting. You'll see the A/V sync bug in action when the sound cuts out a few seconds before the clip ends.ni

Click to play movie (15.3 MB, 640 x 480, 30 fps, QuickTime format)
Can't view them? Download QuickTime

Playback Mode

The Coolpix L5 has a pretty basic playback mode. Basic features such as slideshows, DPOF print marking, image protection, voice captions (up to 20 seconds worth), thumbnail mode, and zoom and scroll are all here. This last feature lets you enlarge your photo by as much as ten times so you can make sure everything's in focus. The D-Lighting feature which I described earlier is also available.

While photos can be resized and cropped in the camera, there's no way to rotate a photo.

A copy function lets you move photos from the internal memory to a memory card and vice versa. One other feature that I always appreciate is the ability to delete a group of photos, instead of just one at a time (or all at once)>

Unfortunately, the L5 doesn't tell you much about your photos. What you see above is all you get!

The cameras move through photos at an average clip, showing a low resolution image instantly, with the higher resolution image arriving about a second later.

How Does it Compare?

While it has its share of nice features, ultimately I was disappointed with the Nikon Coolpix L5. I like its build quality, 5X zoom lens, image stabilization, and powerful flash, but its sluggish performance, low resolution LCD, lack of manual settings, and so-so photo quality make it a camera that I'd recommend passing over.

The Coolpix L5 is a compact (but not tiny) camera that packs a 5X zoom lens. Despite being made almost entirely of plastic, the camera is pretty well built, without the "cheap" feeling that entry-level cameras usually have. The L5 uses Nikon's lens-shift vibration reduction system to produce sharp images at shutter speeds that would give you a blurry photo on cameras without image stabilization. Unlike the Coolpix S10, the L5's VR system can be used for both still and movie shooting. On the backside of the camera you'll find a large 2.5" LCD that's easy to see indoors and in low light. Unfortunately, it's resolution is lacking, so images aren't terribly sharp when viewed onscreen. As with most cameras in this class, the L5 lacks an optical viewfinder. While it looks small, the L5's flash is actually quite powerful -- and redeye wasn't a problem either thanks to the camera's advanced redeye reduction system.

If you like automatic controls, then the L5 is your camera. Even the ISO sensitivity is automatic -- and that's not a good thing. If it's manual controls you're after, you'll want to pass on the L5 for sure, as it has only one, and that's for white balance. The camera does offer full set of scene modes, including several "assist" modes that go beyond the call of duty. There are help screens for each scene mode and menu option as well, so you'll actually know what you're adjusting. The D-Lighting feature is also quite handy, brightening up dark photos at the push of a button. While the camera has a face detection system, I didn't find it to be as robust as the systems offered by Canon and Fuji. The L5 has a nice movie mode that's marred by an audio/video sync problem -- the same one that I found on the Coolpix S10.

Camera performance was average. The L5 took nearly three seconds to start up, which is nothing to write home about. Autofocus speeds were average in good lighting, but in low light the camera had a terrible time focusing due to the lack of an AF-assist lamp. Shutter lag and shot-to-shot delays were minimal, though. The L5's continuous shooting mode did not impress, with a sluggish 0.7 fps frame rate. Battery life was about average.

Photo quality was a mixed bag. While the L5 took well-exposed photos with accurate colors, I found them to be soft, with fuzzy details. Since there's no in-camera sharpness adjustment, there's not much you can do about that, either. And, since the camera adjusts the ISO automatically, photos may be noisier than they need be, with the night shot serving as a fine example of that. As I mentioned before, redeye was not a problem in my testing.

There are a few other negatives that I want to point out before I wrap things up. First, the camera doesn't support the USB 2.0 High Speed standard, so transferring photos to your computer will take a while. Second, there's no way to see any information about a photo you've taken, aside from the date it was taken. And finally, the 8MB of built-in memory is not nearly enough for a camera with this resolution.

All things considered, the Nikon Coolpix L5 came out being pretty average. While there is much to like about it, it has more than its share of flaws. What I'm getting at here is that while the L5 isn't a bad camera per se, there are are better options out there. If you can give up image stabilization, I've found Kodak's EasyShare C875 to be a capable -- not to mention less expensive -- little camera. If you want to keep image stabilization but want an all-around better camera, I'd recommend spending a little more money to get the Canon PowerShot A710 IS. Look below for links to those two cameras, plus a few others working looking at.

What I liked:

  • Decent photo quality (but see issues below)
  • 5X zoom lens in a fairly compact body
  • Optical image stabilization
  • Large 2.5" LCD
  • Powerful flash
  • Redeye not a problem
  • Tons of scene modes; in-camera help system
  • Handy D-Lighting and Best Shot Selector features

What I didn't care for:

  • Soft photos with fuzzy details
  • Since ISO is automatic, photos can be noisier than desired
  • No manual controls (save for white balance)
  • Audio/video sync problem in movie mode
  • No AF-assist lamp; poor low light focusing
  • Low resolution LCD
  • No optical viewfinder
  • Exposure info not available in playback mode
  • Tiny amount of built-in memory
  • Plastic tripod mount
  • No USB 2.0 High Speed support

Some other cameras in the L5's class worth looking at include the Canon PowerShot A710 IS, Fuji FinePix F650, Kodak EasyShare C875, Olympus FE-200 and Stylus 750, Panasonic Lumix DMC-LZ5 and DMC-TZ1 (with the latter offering a 10X zoom), and the Samsung Digimax L85.

As always, I recommend a trip down to your local reseller to try out the Coolpix L5 and its competitors before you buy!

Photo Gallery

See how the photos turned out in our photo gallery!

Want another opinion?

You'll find another review of the Coolpix L5 at CNET.com.

Feedback & Discussion

If you have a question about this review, please send them to Jeff. Due to my limited resources, please do not e-mail me asking for a personal recommendation or for technical support.

To discuss this review with other DCRP readers, please visit our forums.