Nikon Coolpix L120 review
An odd mixture of cut-price and highly capable features, but solid image quality and a competitive price add up to an attractive deal.
Review Date: 23 Mar 2011
Price when reviewed: £210
Reviewed By: Ben Pitt
Nikon's Coolpix cameras are split into three categories: P for Performance, S for Style and L for Life. Past experience has taught us that Life is a euphemism for "cheap", but in the case of the L120 it's less clear cut. The budget approach is demonstrated by the use of AA batteries, which are bulkier and more cumbersome than a Li-ion battery and carry a hidden cost because rechargeable batteries aren't supplied. The lack of an electronic viewfinder or manual exposure and focus controls also point towards this being a budget camera. The 3in, 921,000-pixel screen, HDMI output and 720p AVC video mode with stereo sound suggest otherwise, though. Ultra-zoom cameras are available for as little as £130 but the ones with these features tend to cost at least £250.
Photographic control certainly is basic. The lack of manual focus is forgivable but there isn't even any way to adjust the autofocus point. An icon in the centre of the screen suggests there's a single, centre AF point, but in use it seemed happy to focus anywhere in the frame. There's no option to use face detection in Auto mode, either. Instead, the Portrait scene preset must be selected, which prohibits all other menus options. A Smart Portrait mode includes face detection too, but its efforts to capture a shot automatically when it detects a smiling face are little more than a gimmick. There's no orientation sensor, so portrait-shaped photos must be rotated manually on the PC. At least white balance, ISO speed and exposure compensations are available, with a manual white balance option for calibrating the camera's colours by pointing it at a white or grey object. The same, slightly clumsy menu system we saw on the disastrous Nikon S3100 is used here, but it's much more responsive in this instance.
The L120 was quick to switch on, taking just 1.7 seconds between pressing the power button and capturing a shot. Shot-to-shot times were reasonable at 2.2 seconds on average, but using the flash slowed it to up to 10 seconds – a common complaint for AA battery-powered cameras. Autofocus times were quick at wide-angle settings and reasonable for telephoto shooting, but the lack of an adjustable autofocus point sometimes lead to focus errors, which were exaggerated at telephoto focal lengths. Capturing a handful of shots improved the chances of success, although the continuous mode didn't help here with its slow 0.7fps performance and fixed focus for the duration of the burst. Ultimately, though, our attempts to capture wildlife at the full 21x zoom extension were generally successful (see below), with the camera's automatic settings sensibly raising the ISO speed when necessary to avoid blur due to camera shake.
The L120's video mode is one of the better examples we've seen from an ultra-zoom camera. Autofocus was initially fixed for the duration of clips, but enabling full-time autofocus in the menu had no negative impact; neither the focus nor the zoom motor spoiled the high-quality stereo soundtrack. Videos used electronic stabilisation to reduce camera shake rather than the sensor-based optical stabilisation that's used for photo capture. This wasn't terribly successful at telephoto settings, replacing constant shakes with occasional violent jerks. Otherwise, though, picture quality was excellent, with lively colours, reasonably sharp details and restrained noise levels. The 29-minute maximum clip length and efficient AVC compression mean many people will be happy to use this instead of a dedicated video camera.
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