Nikon Coolpix L120 Review
The Nikon Coolpix L120 is a 14.1-megapixel superzoom camera, sporting a 21x optical zoom lens (25-525mm), a unique side control lever for smooth zooming throughout the range, sensor-shift Vibration Reduction, 720p HD movie recording with stereo sound and a 3-inch LCD screen with a resolution of 921,000 dots. Other highlights include over 20 scene modes, a 1cm macro mode, AA battery power, and a Sport Continuous mode that shoots up to 20 frames at 15fps, albeit at reduced resolution. Available in a choice of wine red and black, the Nikon Coolpix L120 officially retails for £249.99 / €290.00 / $279.95.
Ease of Use
Outwardly, the L120 is very similar to last year's L110 model, though they are not quite identical to each other. The Nikon Coolpix L120 retains the fairly big and comfortable hand-grip of its predecessor, which still houses the four AA batteries needed to power the camera, but this time around it benefits from a slightly larger textured rubberised area to aid handling. As with the L110, the set of 4 commonly available R6/AA-size batteries share their home with the memory card, and given that there is nothing to keep them in place when the compartment door is open, you need to be careful when changing cards, otherwise the batteries spill out onto the floor.
The front of the L120 is dominated by the large lens, even when it sits retracted into its housing, although commendably it's no larger than the L110's 15x optic. Upon power-up, the lens extends, provided you have not forgotten to remove the lens cap beforehand. If you have, you will not only need to remove it but also to power the camera off and on again, unless you quickly remove it within a couple of seconds, whereupon the lens extends as normal. The L120's lens is not terribly fast in terms of its maximum aperture, which is f/3.1 at wide angle and f/5.8 at the telephoto end. The focal range, on the other hand, commands respect, starting at 4.5mm (equivalent to 25mm) and going all the way to 94.5mm (equivalent to 525mm).
The L120 sports a great addition in the form of a side control lever on the lens barrel. This allows you to zoom the lens in and out using your left hand, as well as the conventional method of the zoom lever. It doesn't sound like a great deal in theory, but in practice it proves to be a very useful feature, especially when operating the zoom during movie recording. Kudos to Nikon for coming up with a genuinely innovative and helpful design feature, quite a rarity these days.
Thankfully Nikon have included Vibration Reduction (VR) to help prevent camera-shake, an essential feature on a camera like this. As is the case with many other Nikon compacts, VR in the L120 is of the sensor-shift variety rather than the in-lens version used in the manufacturer's SLR system. In addition to "pure" mechanical vibration reduction, you may choose a "hybrid" form of image stabilisation, in which case sensor-shift VR is complemented by a solution that involves taking two shots in succession, which are then combined in-camera for greater effect. Naturally this takes more time, but can yield better results in certain circumstances.
There are relatively few external controls on the Nikon Coolpix L120. The top plate features a power button and the shutter release, surrounded by the zoom lever - and that's it. The flash is now raised via a small button to the left of the housing, but it's still one of the few things that the camera will not do for you automatically. Just behind the flash are a pair of microphones designed to record stereo sound when shooting movies.
Most of the L120's rear panel is taken up by the three-inch LCD screen, whose resolution has been increased from 460,000 to an excellent 921,000 dots. The L120#s screen retains an anti-reflective coating, which makes it perfectly usable for framing your shots even in direct sunlight, an important virtue given that the L120 has no eye-level viewfinder of any sort. As for image review, this is something you will still want to do in the shade of your body rather than out in the sun.
The layout of the rear controls is almost the same as on the L110, with a few minor differences. The movie record button, marked by a red dot, has been made larger and moved to the top of the rear of the camera. This button means you don't need to select a dedicated movie shooting mode from the menu, but can start filming whenever you want. Unfortunately, it still takes the Nikon L120 a couple of seconds to actually begin recording a video clip after you've pushed the movie record button. There's now a more ergonomic rubberised area where your right thumb naturally rests to help aid your grip on the camera.
One thing that sets the Nikon Coolpix L120 apart from the competition, especially at this price point, is that you can use the full extent of the optical zoom while filming. Zooming is slower than in stills mode, but that's actually a good thing - most videographers like to zoom slowly. A side benefit of this is that the sound of the power zoom is not really picked up by the microphone. Note however that the image is likely to go out of focus when you zoom in or out, and the L120's AF system adjusts quite slowly.
The other rear-panel controls are the same as the ones found on the L110, including a Shooting Mode and a Playback button, a standard four-way navigation pad, plus the indispensable Menu and Delete buttons. The navigation buttons give quick access to four oft-used functions, which thankfully include exposure compensation. The other three are the macro, self-timer and flash modes, although as noted earlier, you have to manually raise the flash in order to be able to use the latter. A centred OK button is used to confirm changes to settings. You can switch from Playback to Record mode simply by lightly tapping the shutter release, so you don't have to use the dedicated Shooting Mode button (although you can if you want to).
Frustratingly, as on the L110, you still have to enter the main menu to access the ISO sensitivity settings - there's no dedicated button for that - and you have to be in Auto mode to make that menu option available. Also note that you still can't control the other exposure variables, i.e. aperture and shutter speed. This is reserved for the more expensive models in Nikon's compact camera range.
In addition to the Auto and Easy Auto shooting modes - the latter of which makes use of the scene auto selector feature to figure out what the best settings are in any given shooting situation - the Nikon Coolpix L120 offers up 17 user selectable scene modes, including Portrait, Landscape, Night portrait, Party/indoor, Beach, Snow, Sunset, Dusk/dawn, Night landscape, Close-up, Food, Museum, Fireworks show, Black and White Copy, Backlighting, Panorama Assist and Pet Portrait. In these modes, you typically get access to the flash and self-timer modes as well as exposure compensation, and with some, the macro mode as well.
The camera has a panorama assist feature too, which is also found among the scene modes. It works like this: you take the first picture after applying the flash mode, self-timer, macro and exposure compensation settings as required, and then the camera superimposes a third of this photo on the live image. This helps you compose the next shot with a decent amount of overlap for easy stitching on the computer. You can repeat this step until you have taken enough photos to cover the scene. The camera locks the exposure, white balance and focus at the values set with the first shot. The photos taken for the panorama can be stitched on the computer with the aid of the supplied Panorama Maker software. The camera won't auto-stitch them for you though, so it's a far-cry from the sweep panorama modes that several rivals now offer.
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One of the more interesting features of the Nikon Coolpix L110 is the Sport Continuous shooting mode. The highest selectable resolution is restricted to three megapixels, but you can shoot at a speed of up to 15 frames per second for up to 20 frames in a row. This can be helpful with capturing fast motion, although we found that focus tracking does not work in this mode, meaning your subject may go out of focus if its distance to the camera changes while it moves.
A number of other continuous shooting options are available in Auto mode. At full resolution, the camera can take up to 19 frames at a rate of about 0.7fps. In addition to that, the L120 also features Nikon's Best Shot Selector (BSS) and Multi-shot 16 modes. The former automatically chooses the sharpest of up to 10 photos taken in succession with the shutter release held down, while the latter involves taking 16 shots at approximately 22fps and arranging them into a single 5-megapixel image.
Like the L110, the L120 has a Smile mode in which the camera hunts for smiling faces and fires off a shot whenever it detects one, without user intervention. After the photo is taken, both face and smile detection resume, so that the camera can take more shots of smiling people. Do note though that if the flash is raised, you cannot take another shot until it is fully recharged.
The Nikon Coolpix L120 provides a rather limited scope of editing functions in Playback mode. These include D-lighting and resizing. D-lighting lifts the shadows in a picture of a contrasty scene without affecting the highlights - head to the Image Quality section for a demonstration. On the L120, it is strictly a post-capture thing - this camera does not offer the Active D-lighting function of Nikon's DSLRs. The L120 still annoyingly lacks both a live and post-capture histogram.
This concludes our evaluation of the ergonomics, handling and feature set of the Nikon Coolpix L120. Let's move on to the image quality assessment.