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Nikon Coolpix L18
8.0MP | 35-105mm (3X) ZOOM | $97 US, £80 UK

The Coolpix L18 is, like the Kodak C1013, part of a large (7 model) range of superficially identical cameras offering a series of specification variations (5.0 to 8.0 megapixels, LCD sizes from 2.0 to 3.0 inches and a bewildering array of minor feature differences). The L18 is one of the most popular, presumably because it offers an excellent balance of features at that all-important sub-$100 price point. For that you get an 8 megapixel camera with a 3x optical zoom and, unusually for a camera at this level, a 3.0-inch screen with a decent resolution. The L18 is, again like the Kodak C1013, an all-plastic affair with what could politely be termed 'conservative' styling (though to be fair it looks less 'free with 10 gallons of unleaded' than the Kodak). It's not unattractive, but is hardly likely to get pulses racing either.

  • 8.0 effective Megapixels
  • 34-102mm equiv lens with 3x Optical zoom
  • 3.0 inch LCD with 230,400 dots resolution
  • Electronic Image Stabilizer
  • ISO sensitivity up to 1600 (auto only)
  • Face Priority AF and D-Lighting
  • 2 shooting modes, 11 scene modes
  • In-Camera Editing
  • 23MB internal memory
  • Expeed Image Processing
  • Available in Ruby Red, Navy Blue and Silver
  • Optional Accessories available

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Overview

The L18 sits amongst the larger cameras in this group. Its design is a subtle evolution of the shape introduced in the L2 in early 2006, carefully re-styled to incorporate a 3" LCD (the largest in this test). It's not the best looking camera we've ever seen, but we suspect its subtle appearance and comparatively restrained number of buttons will be interpreted as being unthreatening to potential users. It offers a name that customers will recognize and the promise of an uncomplicated experience, which is likely to appeal to some of the buyers of cameras in this class.

And the L18 is not a camera for people who want to take control of their photography - its non-scene modes are called 'Auto', for when you want the camera to do the intellectual heavy lifting, and 'Easy Auto' for times when a mode called 'Auto' sounds a bit challenging. Auto mode allows control over a limited number of settings, including white balance, but there are no modes in which ISO sensitivity (a key factor in image quality) can be manually selected.

Key Features

The L18 is an updated version of the 'L series' design that goes back a couple of years. It sits somewhere between the cameras with lumpy grips and its completely cuboid competitors. The bulge along its right-hand edge really improves handling.
The back of the camera is fairly minimalist in its approach (which is a good thing at this level). All the key features are there at your fingertips.
Rather than having a a dial, the L18 has a button that brings up an options menu. (Auto, Movie, Scenes or Easy Auto). It's not quite as obvious which mode you're in as having a dial pointing to the symbol, but it's quick enough to switch if you find yourself in the wrong mode.
One area Nikon certainly hasn't cut corners on is the screen - it's a high resolution (230,000 dot) 3.0" unit, which really helps both in terms of previewing and reviewing the images you've taken
There are four main shooting modes, Auto, Movie, Scenes or Easy Auto. As the names suggest, Easy Auto is a strictly point-and-shoot mode, while Auto allows a limited degree of control. None of the modes allow any control over the ISO setting (which is a problem, as it's a major determinant of image quality)

Image quality and performance

Overall impressions of the Coolpix L18 are generally very positive; the results don't look that nice close up (softness combined with over sharpening and evidence of noise reduction even at base ISO), but for standard sized prints (up to 5x7 inches, say), you're not going to see any of that. Color is excellent, and far more natural than many of the budget cameras we've tried (so much so that you may want to increase the saturation using the Vivid color option) and exposure/white balance/focus seem to be very reliable. This is important as the L18 offers little in the way of photographic control. As mentioned previously the L18 is unusual in that it doesn't even allow you to select your own ISO setting, something that made it impossible to include it in several of our tests (the L18 seems loathe to go above ISO 400).

Our limited experience with higher sensitivity settings was that at ISO 400-800 the output is actually very good (see the night shot test later in this article), and even at ISO 1600 (which the camera very, very rarely uses) the results are surprisingly good, with fine grained luminance noise and little obvious noise reduction smearing. Given this the lack of a manual ISO setting is all the more frustrating (see the examples below, all taken in very, very low light).

From a camera performance point of view the L18 is also pretty impressive, with pretty much every aspect of operation feeling fast and responsive. Focus in very low light and at the long end of the zoom can be slow, but it's no worse than any other compact camera. As with all AA powered cameras the flash recharge time could be better (it's normally around 2.5 seconds unless your batteries are very low), but it's quicker than many and does have the advantage of being incredibly reliable (exposure wise), even at very short subject distances.

ISO 400 ISO 800 ISO 1600

Summary

The Coolpix L18 is an unassuming little budget camera that offers little in the way of frills but does its job - taking pictures - remarkably well. Our biggest frustrations during testing (the lack of ISO control and custom white balance) almost certainly won't be a concern to the kind of user looking to spend under $100 on a point and shoot camera. The large, relatively high resolution screen is a real bonus and there are a few neat features hidden away in the clear, simple menus (color options, D-Lighting in playback mode), but this is about as basic as digital cameras from major manufacturers gets. We didn't expect a lot from the L18, so were pleasantly surprised that it's quite nice to use and can be depended on to produce decent results under a wide range of shooting conditions.

  • We like: Simple, reliable point and shoot operation, good results across the ISO range
  • We don't like: Relatively slow flash recycling, frustrating lack of ISO control, few manual controls at all
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