Sometimes, the appeal of simplicity is too hard to ignore. That could explain why we've seen a growing number of cameras that combine a very short list of features with lots of automation to provide a relatively thought-free shooting experience. This should definitely appeal to people who are confused by the various settings on most cameras and have no interest in learning about them, though as you'd imagine, tweakers will want to steer clear. Nikon's Coolpix L5 isn't as bare-bones an experience as Olympus's FE series or even Nikon's own Coolpix L6, but it's still fairly basic.
Top among its features is its 7.2-megapixel CCD sensor and a 5X optical, 38mm-to-190mm, f/2.9-to-f/5.0 zoom lens with optical (a.k.a. lens shift) vibration reduction (VR). This method of VR is the most effective offered by Nikon. Other variations on the theme include electronic, which combines info from sensors at the time of image capture with internal processing to try to remove blur from images that have already been shot; and mechanical, which shifts the CCD to compensate for shake. Unfortunately, Nikon doesn't specify on its packaging which type is included with which cameras because it thinks that consumers don't want to know, but if you check the technical specifications on the Nikon USA Web site, you can find out which type each camera has. The 2.5-inch LCD is a decent size but has only 115,000 pixels, so images appear coarser on it than on cameras that include LCDs with higher pixel counts.
You won't find any manual exposure controls, but there are 15 scene modes, as well as exposure compensation of up to plus or minus 2EV in 1/3-stop increments. You can also choose between matrix and center-weighted metering, as well as auto and center-point autofocus. If you're shooting something that you expect may turn out blurry, you can try Nikon's Best Shot Selector (BSS). With this turned on, the camera will shoot as many as 10 photos while you hold down the shutter release, then automatically select the one it thinks is the least blurry. Since we can't see the ones that it rejects, it's hard to say if the camera is making the right decision, but the idea is sound since the initial camera shake that occurs when you press the shutter button should dissipate a bit during the course of the 10 photos. You can't select your own ISO, and since the camera tops out at ISO 400, low-light shooting without flash will be nearly impossible, so BSS may come in more handy than you'd expect.
A button atop the camera lets you enter one-touch portrait mode, which sets a wide aperture to blur the background and make your subject stand out. It also activates face-priority autofocus, which finds your subject's face and focuses on it. We found that it wasn't quite as sensitive as the face detection in Fujifilm's recent cameras, such as the FinePix S6000fd, though that is a much more expensive camera. The Nikon was slower to find faces and more reluctant to find ones that were not looking straight at the camera. Once it located a face, it did a good job of tracking it if the subject moved or if we changed our composition.
The Coolpix L5 performed slowly in our lab tests. It took 3.5 seconds to start up and capture its first image, then 3 seconds between subsequent images without flash. With flash turned on, it slowed to 4 seconds between shots. Shutter lag measured 1 second in our high-contrast test and 1.5 seconds in our low-contrast test, which simulate bright and dim lighting conditions, respectively. One reason for its slow shutter lag may be the camera's lack of a focus-assist lamp. Continuous shooting yielded an average of 0.7fps, regardless of image size.
Image quality from the Coolpix L5 was no better than average. Images weren't as sharp as the ones we saw from the Coolpix L6 and had noticeable artifacts. The automatic white balance did a fine job in natural sunlight, but turned in very warm results with our lab's tungsten lights. The tungsten preset was better, but still noticeably warm. The manual white balance we set provided the most neutral results. Since you can't select specific ISOs, we were unable to run our usual battery of noise tests.
Given the Nikon Coolpix L5's horribly slow performance and its so-so image quality, it's particularly difficult to recommend it, especially since Nikon's own 6-megapixel Coolpix L6 provides better image quality, though similarly slow performance, at a lower price. Canon's 6-megapixel PowerShot SD600, also in this price range, doesn't have image stabilization but offers much better performance and image quality. Plus, if you like the idea of simple operation, all you have to do is leave the Canon in auto mode and you'll still likely get better results than you would with this Nikon.