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Nikon Coolpix L12 Overview

by Mike Pasini
Review Date: 9/3/07

The Nikon Coolpix L12 features a seven megapixel CCD linked to a Nikkor-branded 3x optical zoom lens. The L12's lens is just a little wider than most, at 35 to 105mm equivalent. The Coolpix L12 couples this with the company's lens-shift VR (Vibration Reduction) technology, which can be very useful when shooting in poor lighting. A new Anti-Shake button, which simultaneously activates VR, High ISO, and Best Shot Selector, assures that "pictures will be steady, sharp, and stunning," according to Nikon.

The L12 body is, to our eyes, understated, stylish, and relatively compact. The Nikon Coolpix L12 offers a 2.5-inch display with 115,000 pixel resolution, but like many other small cameras these days, includes no optical viewfinder.

Nikon is also known for a few special features that are included in the Nikon L12, including D-Lighting (which enhances darker images to improve shadow detail), Red-Eye Fix (which automatically finds red-eye in your images, and eliminates it), and finally Face-Priority AF. This last feature will initially keep you, and your friends dancing around in front of the L12 to watch it put a "focus box" around your faces, but once you get used to the mode, you'll find it very reassuring to know that your loved one's faces will indeed be in focus, before you take the shot.

Other Nikon Coolpix L12 features include a wide 50 to 1600 sensitivity range, 21MB of built-in memory, a Secure Digital/MultiMediaCard slot which is also compatible with newer SDHC cards, as well as USB, and NTSC/PAL video connectivity. The Coolpix L12 draws power from two standard AA batteries, with alkaline disposables in the product bundle. The Coolpix L12 ships in the USA from March 2007, priced at U.S.$200.

Note: The Coolpix L10, L11, and L12 are very similar in their operation. You'll thus find that the User Reports for the three are very similar. Here's a brief summary of differences and similarities between the three models:

Feature
Coolpix L10 Coolpix L11 Coolpix L12
Megapixels
4.9 6.0 7.1
Lens
37.5-112.5mm 37.5-112.5mm 35-105mm
Vibration Reduction
No No Yes
LCD
2.0"
153,000 pixels
2.4"
115,000 pixels
2.5"
115,000 pixels
ISO
64 - 800 64 - 800 50 - 1,600
Printer Connection
n/a ImageLink ImageLink
Internal Memory
7 MB 7 MB 21 MB
Street Price
(Approximate)
$109 $139 $160

 

Nikon Coolpix L12 User Report

by Mike Pasini

Intro. My nephew wanted a camera for Christmas the year he started First Grade. His prudent parents, who themselves owned a couple of digital cameras, bought him a disposable film camera to see if it would outlast his interest.

The L Series Lineup for 2007. The Nikon Coolpix L12 is flanked by the L11 and L10 (lens closed).

It didn't, so the next year he got an entry-level digicam which prevented only two problems: remembering to charge the batteries between infrequent uses and remembering to download images from the large SD card. The latter was the bigger problem because he didn't have a computer of his own.

But he loves his digicam and wants to save every picture he ever took on that SD card. He likes looking through them. Especially if there are gag shots he took with his little brother. Well, at least now there's some evidence.

High tech gadgets trickle down slowly to children. The safety of having a cell phone was obvious, but putting an expensive and fragile device in small hands was just as obviously a short term solution. So the cell phone industry started making phones designed for kids.

Back. LCD (and sensor) size varies by model. The L11 has a 2.4 inch LCD (left) and the L10 has a 2.0 inch LCD.

The digicam industry hasn't been quite so swift (despite a few toys), but its low-end, entry-level offerings are approaching that market. These products repackage older technology (particularly smaller LCDs) with a frill or two in the $100 to $200 price range. None of them have a kid look, though.

Nikon's recent stratification of the Coolpix line into three series -- the Life series L models, the Style series S models and the Performance series P models -- targets different kinds of photographers with each line. The L series is designed "with the casual snapshooter in mind," Nikon says. It's the company's lowest priced line with list prices running from $120 to $200, which translates to street prices from $110 to $150 -- and I've seen the L10 for as little as $85 recently.

Compartments. With the Nikon L12 upside down, you can see the ImageLink connector to the left of the battery compartment (with two AA rechargeables) and the small card compartment on the side (with an SD card). The L12 also has 21MB internal memory.

But Nikon's L series is not just for kids. They're packed with the company's trademark in-camera enhancements: Best Shot Selector, D-Lighting, Red-Eye Fix and Face Priority Auto Focus. Every one of those is a useful tool you'll miss in cameras that don't have them. So they'd be ideal for anyone entering their second childhood, too, who might enjoy a simple digital camera to get shots of the grandkids.

The lightweight, and attractive design of the L series is also something of a bonus compared to other entry-level offerings. These are good looking cameras.

And they all come with Nikon glass. The L10, and L11 use the same 38-113mm 3x zoom while the L12 uses a 35-105mm 3x zoom that adds Vibration Reduction to the package (again, a real bonus).

Top Panel. Special buttons for Face-Priority Auto Focus and Vibration Reduction.

The main distinctions between models are sensor size and LCD size. The L10 is a 5-Mp digicam with a 2.0 inch LCD while the nearly identical L11 is a 6-Mp digicam with a 2.4 inch LCD. The L12, which stands alone anyway with its VR lens, is a 7.1-Mp digicam with a 2.5-inch LCD. And it's a bit more sensitive, too, raising the maximum ISO level to 1,600 from the 800 of the other two models.

I shot with all three for a couple of weeks, and found them to be sturdy, reliable little cameras, easily pocketed, and ready for action. I found them a little slow on the trigger compared to higher end models, and had some trouble focusing in Macro mode (one of the Coolpix line's great strengths). But you expect some shortcomings at this price level.

There's one more distinction worth noting. Like the L11, the Nikon Coolpix L12 has an ImageLink connection on its base and includes a plastic dock insert for use with Kodak EasyShare dock printers. The L10 does not have an ImageLink connection.

I shot with all three for a couple of weeks and found them to be sturdy, reliable little cameras, easily pocketed and ready for action. I found them a little slow on the trigger compared to higher end models and had some trouble focusing in Macro mode (normally one of the Coolpix line's great strengths). But you expect some shortcomings at this price level.

I have an Express Review of the L10 and the L11, but here let's take a closer look at the Nikon L12.

Design. Pictures just don't do it justice. The Nikon Coolpix L12 is really smaller than it looks. The bulging grip is in just the right place for your thumb to slip between the W and T on the Zoom lever. It's very nicely balanced.

The brushed chrome look is balanced, too, by chrome highlights around the lens, on the eyelet for the wrist strap and on the top panel. It's not flashy, but it's attractive -- much more attractive than its price tag would suggest.

Controls. Pretty simple on all three models, which all have the same nice Multi Selector.

Even with a pair of AA rechargeables loaded in the grip, it isn't heavy. And yet it has enough heft that pressing the Shutter button won't jar the camera and blur the picture. Balance.

The controls on the back panel are minimal so there isn't a lot to confuse anybody who picks it up. You'll find the Zoom lever right away (with its handy Help function for any Menu option on the T side) and right below it the Menu button. Shooting options like Flash, EV compensation, Focus mode and the Self-Timer are tucked into the Multi Selector, a single ring with an OK button in the middle. A Playback button and an Erase button sit just above the small Mode switch with settings for Auto, Scene and Movie modes. Very simple.

For the extras, look on top next to the large Shutter button, which can't be missed, and the small Power button, which has a green LED to indicate it got the message. You'll find the Vibration Reduction button, and, next to it, the One-Touch Portrait button, two features you'll use frequently.

About the size of a small wallet, it fits in your pants pocket or anything else as large, ready to go anywhere. And at this price, you won't worry too much if you leave it there, either.

Display/Viewfinder. Inexpensive digicams get that way by forgoing optical viewfinders. Optical viewfinders are helpful when the sun beats down on your LCD, making it hard to see what the camera sees. But they are pretty inaccurate and not otherwise much missed. Small price to pay.

The 2.5-inch LCD itself is usable in full sun, something I can't say about every one I've tried. It also resists fingerprints very well, another rare attribute. It has just enough resolution at 115K to show you what you've captured as well as display the large text-based menus Nikon is famous for.

LCD. Big type makes it easy to read your options.

You can adjust the monitor brightness over five steps in the Setup menu from its default setting of 3 to 5 (brighter), or 1 (darker), too.

Performance. There's a trick to powering up a Coolpix. On the Setup menu, you'll find a Quick Startup option that skips the usual icon or animation and just gets down to business right away. Even with the telescoping lens, Quick Startup gets the camera going quickly. I was never bothered by the startup time when I shot with the Nikon L12.

Zoom performance was a different matter. Optical zoom was fine, smoothly ratcheting from wide-angle to telephoto. But digital zoom steps more slowly through its range. That was annoying. But a disincentive to use digital zoom isn't necessarily a bad thing.

Grip. A very comfortable grip is provided by the AA battery compartment with the Zoom lever in the back making room for your thumb.

The Nikon Coolpix L12 offers three capture modes worth exploring: Single, Continuous, and Multi-Shot 16. In Single mode, the camera reconsiders everything about the shot (focus, white balance, etc.) each time you press the Shutter button, causing quite a delay between captures. If you're trying to catch the action, Continuous is quicker, capturing a 7 megapixel High quality shot every 1.2 seconds or so, which isn't too bad for a $160 camera. Drop the quality setting to Normal, and the pace picks up to one shot every 0.8 seconds. You can capture 16 images on a single shutter press with Multi-Shot 16 mode, at 1.6 frames/second, which can be fun for stop action photography.

The Nikon Coolpix L12 can take you a little deeper into the magic of photography with its Scene modes. These include Face-Priority AF, Portrait, Landscape, Sports, Night Portrait, Party/Indoor, Beach/Snow, Sunset, Dusk/Dawn, Night Landscape, Close-Up, Museum, Fireworks Show, Copy, Back Light, Panorama Assist, and Voice Recording. Each of these settings configure the camera so you don't have to worry about how to get the shot.

Zoom Range. 35mm to 105mm to 4x digital zoom (420mm).

Sports, for example, behaves a lot like Continuous capture mode, capturing a series of shots after initially fixing the focus. (Time per shot varies between 0.65 and about 1.2 seconds with a fast card, slower cards will take longer. We tested with a Kingston Ultimate 133x SD card.) Night Landscape lets you get those National Geographic shots of ribbons of traffic light streaming through skyscrapers at night (if you use a tripod). Museum turns off the flash and enables Best Shot Selector so you can shoot in art museums without attracting a guard. Scene modes are worth trying out, they make it easy to get tough shots.

The L12 has a different lens than the L10, and L11, adding a floating element to provide vibration reduction. If you notice a slight rattle when shaking the L12 (don't shake it too hard!), that's why. VR is worth every penny it costs, and on the L12 it costs very few of them. It not only gets rid of the blur in telephoto shots, it lets you capture natural light images at shutter speeds so slow you normally would only get blurred images. That means you can skip the flash. And the red-eye, too -- even though the L12 includes in-camera red-eye removal. Flash is not natural light, not something you see in the wild. Being able to capture the actual ambience of the scene is a real virtue.

Very Little Light. Shutter fired for 1/9 second but it's still sharp thanks to VR -- even in Macro mode.

My standard shift stick shot illustrates the benefits of VR. Without VR, that shot is a blur at 1/9 second. Even the best of us can only hold a camera steady for no more than 1/30 second, and 1/60 is probably the norm. But here's a shot -- in Macro mode -- that's sharp at 1/9 second. That's VR.

Macro mode is one of the hallmarks of the Coolpix line. Focus was hard to fix in Macro mode, but when I was able to do it, I had some fun. The stick shift is one example, the flower shots are more. Our Test Shots shot how well the L12 does with the flash in Macro mode, too. Surprisingly well. Macro really adds another dimension to the fun of owning a Nikon Coolpix, no matter your age.

Macro works a little differently on this Coolpix camera than the venerable Coolpixes that established Macro as a trademarked Nikon feature. Those old digicams let you get within an inch, or so of your subject. The L12 backs you off to about six inches, and, instead, lets you zoom in for a tight shot. The zoom icon (the universal tulip-shape) turns green when you've zoomed in to the ideal focus range, whose starting point is marked with a triangle under the zoom indicator on the LCD.

While our Test Shots show higher than average barrel distortion at wide angle, almost every digicam shows some -- if it's got any wide to its wide-angle. More interesting is the vignetting, or dark corners at wide-angle that you can see in my Twin Peaks, and beach shots at 5.7mm (35mm in 35mm equivalent). That was a surprise. Not a show-stopper, but something I could live without.

Digital Zoom. Not much detail in the truck.

Digital zoom was something of a disappointment on the L12, but hardly worth complaining about. The shot of the truck on the beach is digitally zoomed, and lacks detail, although the color is true. Similarly, the shot of downtown at 68.4mm (420mm in 35mm equivalent) is digitally zoomed, and lacks detail.

The L12 cranks up the sensor's sensitivity as high as ISO 1600. My doll shot shows what happens at ISO 1600 in Anti-Shake mode, and a shutter speed of 1/30 second. There's a lot of noise, and the color is muted (although, in fairness, that was very dim light).

But there's also a good deal of detail. The eyebrows are clearly discernible as are the cracks on the doll's face. You may not be about to delve into noise reduction software to work that out, but even a modest resizing can reduce the noise. And with the L12 you can always shoot in Black & White mode to eliminate the color noise entirely. Nikon made a smart choice in preserving the detail rather than trading it away for the sake of lower noise at high ISO settings.

ISO 400. Good detail, good color and some noise.

ISO 1,600. Good detail, muted color and more noise.

Over the years, Nikon has built a suite of in-camera enhancements that really make a difference in typical photography.

This started with Best Shot Selector, which simply checks the file size on a set of images, saving the largest (and, by definition, the most detailed). But it has continued with several other now common tools.

D-Lighting can brighten faces that were captured as shadows because of a bright light like a sunset behind them. Red-Eye Fix can find and remove any red-eye it inevitably finds in a flash image. And the newest kid on the block, Face-Priority Auto Focus can find the faces in the scene and set the focus on them. All three new L-series models have Face-Priority AF as an option, but the L12 goes a step better by providing a top-panel button that lets you immediately switch to Face-Priority Portrait mode. (Buried on the Scene menu in the L10 and L11.)

Nikon gets a lot of shots out of two AA batteries, particularly if you use NiMH rechargeables. In my usual photo safaris around here, I never had a low battery warning. You can get about 370 shots with NiMHs more than the L11, which is surprising, given the L12's higher resolution and VR lens, which has to take at least some power to operate. In any case, more photos per charge than you'll want to show anybody at one sitting anyway.

If NiMHs and a charger are too much of investment for your junior photographer, though, there are a couple of interesting alternatives. Oxyride AAs are good for 250 shots and lithium AAs for 600. The lithiums won't lose a drop of energy sitting undisturbed in the camera either. So if your photographer won't take more than 600 shots all year (well, up to 10 years), they may make sense, despite their expense.

Macro Flash. Most digicams are too close in Macro mode to illuminate the subject with flash, but not the L12.

Shooting. The most trouble I had shooting with the L12 was right at the start. I couldn't find the Mode dial. Of course, I was looking for a dial, not a switch, and I was looking for it up top near the power button. Once I found it, I got back to work.

The Mode switch has three options: Auto, Scene and Movie. Playback mode is accessed via a separate button on the rear panel. The advantage of that approach is that you can hold in the Playback button and it will power the camera on without extending the lens. Very handy for showing off your pictures.

The second problem I had was trying to tell if Vibration Reduction was on, or not. Pressing the Anti-Shake button always turns it on, but the actual setting that determines its status the rest of the time is hidden away in the Setup menu.

The only time you don't want VR active, though, is when you're using a tripod, so that's not a big deal. Set it on, and forget it.

With those two issues out of the way, I was ready to have some fun with this compact little camera.

L10

L11

L12

My first outing I took the Nikon Coolpix L12 and its siblings the L10, and L11, up to Twin Peaks for the zoom range shots. You can carry three of these, they're that small.

Many of the shots were taken from exactly the same spot, so you can compare the three cameras.

Shooting in bright sun, and trying to evaluate exposure on the LCD was not easy. The LCD doesn't show you the full range of tones to begin with (none of them do), so your images will look a lot better on a computer monitor.

A number of shots were taken into the sun on that walk. With a histogram display, I might have ratcheted the exposure down a bit, although the L12 did better than its siblings holding onto the highlights.

But the main virtue of the L series Coolpix line is how simple it is to use. Pop it out of your pocket, press the Power button a second, and line up the shot using the Zoom lever to compose the image. Then just press the Shutter button.

It's that simplicity that wins you over.

Movie mode was likewise a breeze. Just flip the Mode switch to Movie and, if you want, press the Menu button to set a movie size. And if you have Vibration Reduction set to On in the Setup menu, you get shake-free movies, too.

Click to view movie. AVI player required.

Windy. You can barely make out the bells in the wind. Unlike its siblings, the L12 captures AVI not MOV video. (Click to download 10MB AVI file.)

The Nikon Coolpix L12 offers five movie options. You can shoot broadcast quality video at 640 x 480 pixels and 30 frames a second up to two gigabytes at a time. You can also shoot at 30 fps but capture only 320 x 240 pixels. And you can capture 320 x 240 at just 15 frames per second, too. A much smaller 160 x 120 capture size is available at 15 fps for the most compact video capture.

The final movie option is a stop-motion capture at 640 x 480. Each time you snap the shutter, an overlay is created so you can line up the next shot. The final result is a silent video of up to 1,800 frames with 15 fps playback. Stop-motion animation can be a lot of fun, kids (of any age) get a kick out of animating their toys, and the Nikon L12 makes it very easy to do. And with 1800 frames worth of animation to play, it'll keep them occupied for a long time.

Printing. Printing has never been as simple as it should be, however. And mistakes can be quite expensive. Yet, no matter the age of the photographer, a print is the reward for a picture well taken. The Nikon Coolpix L12 gives you a lot of options when it comes to printing.

Before you even get near a printer, you can mark the images in your Nikon L12 for printing. Any DPOF-compatible printer will recognize which images to print, and how many copies of each to make.

ImageLink. The Nikon Coolpix L12 is mounted on a Kodak EasyShare dock here.

To do that, you simply press the Menu button in Playback mode, and choose the Print Set option. There are two options displayed after that: Delete Print Set, and (the one you want) Print Selected.

An index of 12 of your images is displayed for you to scroll through with the Right, and Left arrow keys. When you come to one you want to mark, press the Up arrow key. For more than one copy, press the Up arrow key again. To unmark the image, press the Down arrow key until the check mark disappears. Simple.

You can also choose to print the date, and some exposure information on the image. When you connect to a DPOF-compatible printer, your print, order will be fulfilled.

ImageLink at Work. The Nikon L12 is powered by the dock and displays your print options automatically.

Even more impressive is the Coolpix L12's ability to connect to an ImageLink printer like the Kodak printer dock plus series 3 pictured here. A clear plastic dock insert is included with the L12 to attach to the printer. The L11 is also ImageLink capable, but not the bargain-basement L10.

Make sure you change the USB option in the Setup menu to PTP rather than Mass Storage. I used a SanDisk Ultra II SD/USB card so I can leave the USB setting to PTP, and just pop the card into a USB port rather than change the USB setting to Mass Storage, and connect the camera to a USB cable.

With the camera off, you attach it to the dock insert, which has a small USB connector to connect to the camera. The camera will initialize the printer (as its LCD will explain), and then display the first stored image. Use the arrow keys on the camera to scroll through your images, select them for printing, and set the print options.

It's so easy, a child could do it.

Appraisal. The virtue of this well-balanced compact camera is its simplicity. You could hand this to anyone, and they'd be able to take pictures. They'd know just how to hold it, and which button to press to get a picture. The big LCD would give them the picture. Slide the Mode switch and they could take movies. And show them the Scene mode for a Voice Memo and they'd be able to record their thoughts, too. It isn't the absolutely sharpest lens on the shelf, but the VR mode is a real bonus, bringing home more natural shots than non-stabilized cameras. And it offers several key Nikon technologies, including Face-Priority Auto Focus, that are really quite useful. All in all, a very nice little package, a real camera, with Vibration Reduction thrown in, all at a surprisingly affordable price.

 

Basic Features

 

Special Features

 

In the Box

The Nikon Coolpix L12 ships with the following items in the box:

 

Recommended Accessories

 

Conclusion

Pro: Con:
  • High resolution sensor
  • True optical image stabilization in the lens (surprising at this price!)
  • ISO sensitivity to ISO 1600
  • Large LCD with good resolution
  • Face-Priority Auto Focus joins D-Lighting, Red-Eye Fix, and BSS enhancements
  • Good Macro performance, even with flash
  • Easy to use broadcast quality Movie mode
  • Voice memo recording
  • Good power management of two AA batteries
  • 16:9 aspect ratio available for stills (Matches HDTV screen shape)
  • Poor digital zoom performance
  • Higher than average barrel distortion at wide angle
  • Slow flash recharge
  • Average USB download speed
  • No manual control of ISO sensitivity, ISO can get run up pretty high (increasing noise levels) in dim lighting
  • No optical viewfinder

 

Of the three L-series Coolpixes, the L12 stands out for its higher resolution sensor, higher ISO, and (most of all) optically stabilized lens. The L12 also captures AVI movies rather than the MOV movies of the L10 and L11, which may or may not be a factor for you. (AVI came from the Windows side of the world, MOV came from the Mac, players for both types are available on both platforms these days though.) The L12, like the L11, can be used with printer docks. And the L12 delivers all that for just $20 or so more than the L11, with a similar body style.

At this modest price level, you can't expect high-end performance but you do get good performance along with a suite of in-camera image enhancement tools that really matter. And you get Nikon's excellent Macro performance, too (including a flash that works very well in Macro mode).

I do miss manual control of aperture, shutter, and even ISO, but no child will. And certainly not an adult whose main interest is just in catching the moment. They'll find the camera easy to carry and use, especially with the large type in the LCD menus. The Vibration Reduction, and Macro mode are going to be a real treats, too. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, Vibration Reduction is a really useful camera feature, and to find it in a $160 camera is an unexpected bonus. For all its virtues, and its very modest price, the Nikon Coolpix L12 is an easy Dave's Pick.