Nikon Coolpix L120 User Report
by Alex Burack, Shawn Barnett, and Stephanie Boozer
Review Posted: 10/28/2011
The Nikon L120 stands atop the budget-friendly segment of the Coolpix line, with a long, wide-angle zoom lens (equivalent to a 25-525mm lens on a 35mm camera), sensor-shift Vibration Reduction, and HD video capture with stereo audio. Nikon orients the Coolpix L120's feature set around its intelligent recognition of faces, pets, red eyes, and blinking and smiling subjects. The combination of portraiture settings, optic design, and price, make the L120 a good choice for consumers shopping for an affordable, highly automated camera. Priced at $279.95 (MSRP), the Nikon Coolpix L120 is currently selling for about 5-10% less from online vendors.
Look and Feel. The Nikon L120 presents a traditional ultra-zoom form, featuring a thick lens barrel, protruding handgrip, and a pop-up flash. The simple large lens and grip design makes the L120 easier to hold, adding stability to those long zoom shots.
Nikon enhanced the grip surface with a sharp texture along inside and front of the handgrip. The texture is a bit rougher with less give than most cameras, though it really does improve the hold. In addition to the grip, another factor contributes to a more sure hold on the camera while zooming: The new secondary zoom toggle that juts out from the left side of the Coolpix L120's chunky lens barrel. Placing the zoom control on the lens barrel itself makes it far easier to adjust the focal length in shooting position. The placement also encourages users to hold the lens with their left hand, further stabilizing the camera during the shot.
Nikon mounted the stereo microphone above the pop-up flash unit on the camera's top deck, perhaps to minimize accidental recording of sound from control adjustments and hand shifting in video recordings.
The speaker is also located on the top deck, just to the right, as are the power button and primary zoom toggle surrounding the shutter button.
Viewing. Image composition on the Nikon Coolpix L120 is relegated exclusively to the camera's large 3-inch LCD screen. The screen contains 921,000 dots of resolution and features a wide viewing angle and anti-reflection coating. You can also manually alter the monitor brightness using a five-level adjustment located in the menu.
The LCD's resolution was immediately evident when I zoomed to check focus on the first image I captured. It was clearly in focus, as the very sharp screen showed. Colors displayed on screen are relatively faithful to the captured file, and the contrast is good. The viewing area is wide, and maintains contrast and visibility almost directly overhead and off to each side. The screen's only real downfall is its performance in extremely bright conditions; the LCD washes out easily and makes it difficult to compose your images. This is consistent with many competing cameras on the market, though it's nonetheless disappointing, since there is no electronic viewfinder to switch to in bright sunlight.
The Nikon L120's large screen is one of its stronger attributes.
Lens. The Nikon Coolpix L120's long, 21x optical zoom lens telescopes out from the camera, and covers a vast 25-525mm (equivalent) focal range. At 25mm, the lens starts at an impressively wide view. At 525mm, the telephoto end of the lens captures views that would cost significantly more on a DSLR. The allure of an ultra-zoom camera is the caliber of lens you can get for a fraction of the cost you would pay for the SLR equivalent. However, this range is not without its tradeoffs.
When zoomed in to telephoto, the lens is quite slow -- stopping down to a pedestrian f/5.8 -- at its max 525mm. The optic speeds up significantly at wide angle, with a max aperture of f/3.1, though that's still a little slow. The roughly two-stop difference across the focal range means that you will need about four times the light to match the exposure when zoomed-in all the way, or the camera will need to boost the ISO or slow the shutter speed to compensate. The decline in lens speed is quite common among ultra-zoom models, though it results in noisier images, with a much greater likelihood of motion blur in telephoto shots.
Autofocus is a core issue on the Nikon L120 when the lens is fully zoomed in on a subject. At max zoom, you can feel the focusing mechanism struggle to lock in on a subject. I'd say upwards of 20 percent of the shots I took at full zoom were out of focus.
In movie mode, the Nikon L120's optical zoom remains active during video recording. There is a noticeable focusing lag, however, when zooming in on a subject during video capture. It takes a second or two to catch-up when panning or tilting the camera, and is often unsuccessful at retaining focus when moving in on a subject. Nevertheless, in our testing, the full AF shutter lag was really fast, 0.24 second, but that's with a static subject with a decent target.
Vibration Reduction. With a long 21x optical zoom lens that extends to 525mm, Nikon has wisely equipped the Coolpix L120 with a fairly robust, five-way vibration stabilization (VR) system to help ensure telephoto shots are free of hand-shake. The Nikon L120's VR design combines sensor-shift technology and electronic vibration reduction to maximize effectiveness. The system is active in both still and video capture, though the movie mode uses the electronic VR exclusively. Sensor-shift VR is quite effective and makes a marked improvement when shooting telephoto shots without a tripod, though accurate framing can still be difficult. The electronic VR system on the other hand doesn't work that well for videos at full telephoto.
Controls. The control layout on the Nikon L120 is only slightly modified from the typical ultra-zoom design. If you've used a digital camera in the past seven or so years, you're going to know how to handle most of these controls. As noted, there's an additional zoom toggle on the side of the lens barrel, or you can use the zoom control that surrounds the shutter button. Also included is a dedicated video record button to immediately engage video recording.
Modes. The Nikon Coolpix L120 sports an array of fully automatic shooting modes intended to streamline the photography and video experience. Among these settings are an Easy Auto mode, conventional Auto Mode, Smart Portrait, Sport, and Panorama options, as well as a host of other options. Those looking for Manual, Shutter-priority or Aperture-priority exposure modes should look elsewhere. Let's examine the design and intent of some of the camera's core settings.
Easy Auto Mode. Switching the camera into its Easy Auto mode configures the Coolpix L120 to bear the burden of exposure, focus, white balance, ISO, and determine the purpose of the shot. Unlike the L120's more traditional Auto Mode, the Easy Auto setting reads the scene and selects the Scene mode most adept at capturing that particular shot. We found the setting is not as effective as the full Auto mode in use, producing more erroneous color and focus than the Auto setting.
Auto Mode. Auto mode on the Nikon L120 offers user control of image size and compression, white balance, exposure compensation, focus, ISO sensitivity, color options, macro options, self-timer and continuous burst settings, though white balance and ISO sensitivity can be set to Auto. It's like Program AE mode on other cameras.
Images captured in Auto mode produced more consistent color and focus -- particularly at telephoto settings -- than photos shot using the Easy Auto setting. After experimenting with the Easy Auto mode and designated Scene settings, I found myself leaving the camera in Auto and letting it do the heavy lifting for me, with pleasing results.
Smart Portrait. The Smart Portrait mode on the Nikon L120 is based around a Smile timer feature. Just switch into Smart Portrait mode and the camera will use face detection to locate the subject. It places a yellow box around the subject, which follows them as they move in the frame. As soon as the camera detects the subject smiling (based on movements in their mouth and facial muscles), it immediately snaps a picture. You don't even need to press the shutter button. The mode is surprisingly effective.
Sport Continuous. Capturing action sequences is a tall order for point-and-shoot cameras. Nikon includes a dedicated Sports mode on the Coolpix L120 that shoots 20 consecutive images in a burst, at a rate of 14.6 frames per second (the manual says 15.3 fps). This degree of speed is rare in point-and-shoot digicams; however, the L120's pace is a bit misleading. Nikon drops the image resolution down to 3 megapixels and pushes the ISO, which ultimately sacrifices a great deal of image quality to reach the stated speed.
The image parameters across the burst sequence are fixed; similar to the camera's panorama mode, the Nikon L120 locks focus, exposure, and white balance across the sequence to maintain a constant look.
While it's laudable that Nikon includes a solution on the L120 to record rapid action, the Sports Continuous mode should not be mistaken for a true burst setting. Many cameras on the market allow you to speed up capture rates at the expense of picture quality and file size. High-speed full resolution burst sequences at baseline ISO sensitivities are generally relegated to pricier cameras; shortcuts to achieve this result are just that. The L120's full resolution burst mode is rated at only 0.7 frames per second.
Panorama. A Panorama setting is included among the L120's selection of Scene modes, located within the Shooting menu. It superimposes a portion of the previous shot over the live-view composition to help you manually align multiple frames in the panoramic sequence. The camera locks exposure, white balance, and focus settings for fluidity across the final, stitched photo. Stills from each sequence are grouped into a designated folder to make it easy to determine which images belong together for a particular panoramic view.
Nikon's semi-automatic setting on the L120 is not nearly as intuitive or efficient as intelligent, sweep Panorama modes available on competing models, as well as other Nikon cameras. These more complete alternatives automatically merge the sequenced photos, generating an instant panoramic file within the camera. Using the Coolpix L120, you will be required to independently merge the photos using the supplied Panorama Maker 5 software.
Movie Mode. Nikon makes a halfhearted attempt at hybrid capture with the Coolpix L120's Movie mode. Recording 720p (1,280 x 720) HD video in MPEG-4 and AVC H.264 format at 30 frames per second (fps), the L120's video footage is enlivened by the camera's long, 21x zoom lens that remains fully functional during capture. Unfortunately, the autofocus struggles in telephoto shots, and when capturing video, that difficulty plays out in the video.
Video quality looks okay, if a little soft, when recording static subjects, with a nice range of tones rendered in the footage. However, moving objects throw the camera off, producing blocky, jagged movements with a lack of continuity. This is also the case when panning the camera during video recording.
In bright daylight, a vertical band -- extending from the top to the bottom of the frame -- is projected out from overexposed objects in the shot, like reflections of the Sun or the Sun itself. This "smearing" of bright light sources in video mode is not unusual for CCD sensors, but with so many CMOS options on the market we thought it worth mentioning. The manual warns the same phenomenon can also happen in Sport Continuous mode, as it too doesn't use the mechanical shutter that prevents smearing in other still modes.
The saving grace of the Nikon L120's Movie mode, however, is its audio quality. Recording AAC stereo audio, the sound quality from the L120's audio is quite good for a digicam. The audio is well-rounded, capturing a decent range in its low-end, unlike most compact cameras. Since the left and right microphones are positioned close together -- on the camera's top deck -- there is limited separation of the channels, though the collective sound is broad and full. One caveat here is the limited effectiveness of the camera's built-in wind filter, resulting in pronounced noise in direct gusts.
Video capture is activated with a dedicated Record button on the back of the camera. An HDMI output is also fit into the ports on the left side of the Nikon L120 to easily view video footage on an HD television.
Pet Portrait. Nikon incorporates a provision within its Scene modes for photographing pets. The L120's Pet Portrait setting is similar to the camera's smart portrait mode; however, rather than snapping an image upon detecting a smile, it locates the animal in the frame, and automatically captures an image once it has achieved focus. The mode works well on cats and dogs and recognizes animals as well as it detects human faces.
D-Lighting. Now a staple of Nikon digital cameras, D-Lighting is an in-camera adjustment tool that brightens dark, underexposed areas of a captured photo. In Playback mode, you simply select the underexposed images and click to apply the D-Lighting correction. A copy of the original file is made on the card, with the adjustments rendered to the duplicate version. The correction will illuminate dark, muddy regions and increase the contrast to retain the punchy look and apparent tonal range of the original shot, only with a more favorable overall exposure.
Color Modes. Nikon integrates a handful of options for you to color shots on the fly: Black & White, Sepia, Cyanotype, Standard, and Vivid. All of the settings tint the entire image and are fairly typical among most digital cameras. Since the camera doesn't shoot RAW files, for the best results, I'd suggest shooting photos in Standard color mode and toning them after-the-fact using a software application. However, for those looking for the immediacy of in-camera effects, here's an example of what to expect from the color settings.
Blink Warning. A blink warning option on the Nikon L120 will indicate when the camera thinks a person has blinked during the exposure (based on the lack of visible eyes on a detected person within the composition). The camera will then signal you to retake the shot, displaying a "Did someone blink?" warning across the screen. You can heed the camera's suggestion, or keep the original shot.
Menu & Interface. The Nikon L120's graphic interface is easy on the eyes and will be intuitive for new users to navigate. Options are organized into folders, with three sections available in capture modes: Shooting, Movie, and Setup. There is also a dedicated Playback menu that's utilized when reviewing stills or movies.
Users can easily pilot the various sections or settings within each category using the directional controls on the back of the camera. Menu options shift from gray to white text when the settings are available. The text itself is easy to read, with a distinguishable font and clean design.
Battery & Storage. There are three options to powering the Coolpix L120: You can use AA-type alkaline, nickel metal hydride (Ni-MH), or lithium cells. Nikon ships the Coolpix L120 with four alkaline batteries. The AA-compatible power is convenient if you find yourself on an extended outdoor shoot that prohibits you from recharging. With AA alkalines, the Nikon L120 captures about 330 still images per set of alkalines. That's not bad, but you will get more shots (520 according to Nikon) from a set of quality Ni-MH batteries because the cost of alkalines will add up in a hurry.
Images and video segments are recorded to SD, SDHC, and SDXC memory cards. SD media is relatively cheap and easy to find, and is extremely compact. There's also about 102MB of internal memory available.
Shooting. In use, the Nikon L120 is quick, with virtually no shutter lag (0.23 second at wide-angle). The camera includes a range of continuous shooting settings that improve shot-to-shot times significantly. The camera isn't quite as fast as its purported speed; the L120 shoots roughly 14.6 frames per second when set in its 3-megapixel sports mode, according to our lab tests.
After a shot, the camera slows down a bit; and after making a setting, sometimes the L120 just won't respond until you've pressed and released the shutter button at least once. Odd behavior. Shot-to-shot times are also not very fast, clocking 2.18 seconds between frames in single-shot mode.
The Nikon L120's Vibration Reduction isn't quite matched to the lens, making it a little hard to frame images at the extreme focal length of 525mm equivalent. The image can jerk around quite a bit when you're framing stills, but we didn't have many motion-blurred images. But the big disappointment is how much camera shake is introduced into videos. The electronic image stabilization just doesn't work well at full telephoto.
Image Quality. Photo quality from the Nikon L120 is decent for the price and zoom range, though corners are somewhat soft and low contrast, mainly due to the chromatic aberration. The optic performs well across its focal range, showing limited corner softness and even less geometric distortion throughout the zoom. Color balance is accurate when set to its auto setting, with a slight yellowish tint on indoor photos taken under tungsten illumination. White balance does shift some in consecutive shots when not locked from a burst or panoramic setting.
Image quality is most affected by chromatic aberration and errant -- often bright -- exposures. The tendency for the camera to slightly overexpose shots impacts photos taken in bright daylight by blowing out highlights, while the exposure is set too high to capture the ambiance of the setting in low light scenes, and slows the shutter speed down too much for handheld shots. I found the best results were often a result of bumping the exposure down 1/3- to 2/3- of a stop. While this is not an unusual expectation of photographers, it is a bit counterintuitive for a camera that's designed around full automation for consumer use.
The placement of the Nikon L120's pop-up flash directly over the lens axis conceals shadows behind the subject; however, using the on-camera flash as a primary light source presents some complications. In telephoto shots, the camera yields accurate exposures, though the ISO is raised to 720, producing noise in the dark and solid tones within the frame. Flash exposures at wide-angle are treated differently by the camera; the Coolpix L120 utilizes much lower ISO sensitivities, and frequently underexposes the image.
Nikon reports the L120's Macro mode is effective down to 0.4 inches from the lens' front element. I found this to be a slight embellishment, as I could only lock focus on subjects about an inch from the barrel. Macro shots were also a bit soft, skewing some image details.
Ultimately, the strength of the camera -- its lens -- is best used away from its extreme wide and telephoto settings.
In all, print quality from the Nikon Coolpix L120 is adequate for a sub-$300 camera. Indicators of aggressive JPEG processing show in photos taken at ISO 200 and beyond; details are softened from noise reduction at ISO 400 up through ISO 1,600. Boosting the sensitivity to ISO 3,200 and 6,400 automatically drops the file size down to 3-megapixel resolution and limits quality prints to 4x6. If you plan to print images larger than 5x7, you should work to keep the ISO at 800 or lower.
Overall, while we liked using the Nikon L120, its image quality wasn't as good as we'd like to see. We think a snapshooter who doesn't enlarge or inspect his images much will be mostly happy, but the noticeable chromatic aberration and lens flare will turn off the discerning photographer.
Nikon Coolpix L120 Lens Quality
The Nikon Coolpix L120 features a 21x zoom lens spanning a 35mm range equivalent to 25-525mm. Because the extremely long zoom, our indoor telephoto test shots were taken at 19x.
Wide: Sharp at center
Wide: Soft, upper left
19x Tele: Sharp at center
19x Tele: Soft, upper left
Sharpness: The wide-angle end of the Nikon Coolpix L120's zoom shows moderate blurring in the corners of the frame compared to what we see at center, and blurring extends far into the image area. The sense of blur is increased heavily by the chromatic aberration that reduces contrast noticeably. At full 19x telephoto, performance isn't much better, with blurring in the corners that extends far in toward center.
Wide: Very slight barrel distortion; hardly noticeable
Tele: A tiny amount of pincushion distortion, though barely visible
Geometric Distortion: There is very little barrel distortion at wide-angle (~0.1%), and almost no perceptible pincushion distortion (<0.1%) at telephoto. The Nikon Coolpix L120's processor is no doubt hard at work here.
Wide: High and bright
19x Tele: Also quite high
Chromatic Aberration: Chromatic aberration at wide-angle is high in terms of pixel count, and pixels are very bright. Telephoto also shows strong distortion, with very bright pixels on both sides of the target lines.
Macro with Flash
Macro: The Nikon Coolpix L120's Macro mode captures a soft image at its closest focusing distance. Blurring is more pronounced in the corners of the frame, as is chromatic aberration (a common limitation among consumer digital cameras in macro mode). Minimum coverage area is 0.96 x 0.72 inches (25 x 18mm), which is quite good. The camera focuses so closely that the flash is completely useless at this range. Stick to external lighting for shots this close.
Nikon Coolpix L120 Viewfinder Accuracy
Wide: LCD Monitor
19x Tele: LCD Monitor
Viewfinder Accuracy: The Nikon Coolpix L120's LCD monitor showed about 98% coverage at wide-angle and closer to 99% at telephoto. Not bad, and a little better than Nikon's 97% specification.
Nikon Coolpix L120 Image Quality
Color: Overall color looks good, with fairly accurate saturation, though bright blues are strongly oversaturated. Bright reds are also pushed a bit. Hue is also off for colors like cyan (presumably to produce bluer skies) and some oranges. Darker skin tones are just about dead-on accurate, and lighter skin tones show only a small nudge toward magenta.
Reddish tint overall
Incandescent: Manual white balance handled our incandescent lighting best overall, as the Auto setting resulted in a reddish tint and the Incandescent option produced more of a yellow cast.
Horizontal: 2,000 lines
Vertical: 1,900 lines
Resolution: Our laboratory resolution chart revealed sharp, distinct line patterns down to about 2,000 lines per picture height horizontally, and about 1,900 vertically. Extinction of the pattern occurred at around 2,600 lines per picture height.
Flash: Our manufacturer-specified testing (shown at right) doesn't work well at wide angle when the specified distance goes beyond 16 feet, because that takes the camera out of the main lab, so the wide-angle result at 19 feet is inconclusive. The telephoto test came out pretty well at 9.8 feet, though ISO was increased dramatically to 720.
Auto flash produced overly bright results in our indoor portrait scene, though some ambient light is retained by using a slower shutter speed of 1/13 second, and raising ISO to 400. The Nikon Coolpix L120's vibration reduction system should help with the slower shutter speed, but any movement of the subject could be problematic at this shutter speed. Shot taken at ~5 feet (~1.5m) on a stable tripod.
ISO: Noise and Detail: Detail is quite good at ISO 80 and 100, with some visible softening beginning as early as ISO 200. Some slight chroma (color) noise is noticeable as low as ISO 100, and becomes a little stronger at the higher settings. Luminance noise and noise suppression are more problematic in terms of loss of detail, however. Despite the camera limiting resolution, results at the 3,200 and 6,400 settings are quite blurry overall. See Printed section below for more on how this affects printed images.
ISO 80 and 100 images made a surprisingly good 16x20-inch print; 13x19-inch prints looked a little better, but only on close inspection.
ISO 200 shots started to decay quickly when printed at 13x19, but looked better at 11x14.
ISO 400 prints were usable at 11x14, but were somewhat darker and detail was a little soft. Printing at 8x10 looked a lot better.
ISO 800 prints looked good at 8x10. There was softening in the reds and on some detail, but these went away when printed at 5x7.
ISO 1,600 prints were better at 4x6.
ISO 3,200 shots were just usable at 4x6 inches.
ISO 6,400 prints were a little too fuzzy at 4x6 inches.
Print quality was not as good as we're used to seeing from most cameras we review, but for a lower priced long zoom digital camera, the Nikon L120 did reasonably well.
Nikon Coolpix L120 Performance
Startup Time: The Nikon Coolpix L120 takes about 1.5 seconds to power on and take a shot, which is pretty fast for a long zoom.
Shutter Lag: Full autofocus shutter lag is very good, at 0.23 second at wide angle and 0.24 second at full telephoto. Prefocused shutter lag is quite speedy at 0.006 second, among the fastest on the market.
Cycle Time: Cycle time is just okay, capturing a frame every 2.18 seconds in single-shot mode. Full resolution burst mode is quite sluggish, rated at only 0.7 frames per second. In Sport Continuous mode, the Coolpix L120 captured twenty 3-megapixel frames at 0.07-second intervals, and thus managed 14.6 frames per second, just shy of the 15.3 fps claimed in the manual.
Flash Recycle: The Nikon Coolpix L120's flash recycles in about 5.8 seconds after a full-power discharge, which is about average.
Low Light AF: The camera's AF system was able to focus down to just below the 1/8 foot-candle light level without AF assist enabled, though the camera was able to focus in complete darkness with the AF assist lamp enabled.
USB Transfer Speed: Connected to a computer or printer with USB 2.0, the Nikon Coolpix L120's download speeds are moderately fast. We measured 4,282 KBytes/sec.
In The Box
The Nikon Coolpix L120 ships with the following components:
- Nikon Coolpix L120 digital camera
- Lens Cap
- Neck/Wrist Strap
- USB Cable
- Audio/Video Cable
- 4 x AA Alkaline Batteries
- NikonView NX 2 CD-ROM
- 1-Year Limited Warranty
- Nikon EN-MH2 batteries or other rechargeable Ni-MH batteries, and a good charger.
- Large capacity SDHC or SDXC memory card. An 8GB or 16GB card offers ample storage at a reasonable cost.
- Mini HDMI cable
- Protective case for the camera
Nikon Coolpix L120 Conclusion
The strength of the Nikon Coolpix L120 is its lens versatility and affordable price tag. It's a decent all-purpose camera, with a nice selection of auto modes oriented around snapshots of friends, family, and pets. Headline controls include the intelligent placement of a zoom toggle on the lens barrel, dedicated movie record button, stereo microphone, and HDMI output. Drawbacks include autofocus difficulties in telephoto shots and limited effectiveness in low light, despite claims to the contrary by Nikon. Image quality is adequate, though not stellar, and video footage struggles to maintain focus and fluidity. The stereo soundtrack is crisp and more robust than most digital cameras; however, the built-in wind filter was not able to keep wind noise from overtaking outdoor audio.
Carrying an MSRP of US$279.99, the Nikon L120 ultra-zoom camera's 25-525mm zoom lens, 720p HD video, and streamlined automation is good for snapshooters in search of flexibility and intelligent automation. The Nikon L120 is a good people and pet recorder with effective face recognition and automatic shutter settings. Burgeoning photographers in search of peak image and video quality, however, will be better served by some slightly more expensive alternatives, but for the budget photographer, we think the Nikon L120 will do well enough. While we don't think it's a bad camera, it doesn't rise to the level of a Dave's Pick.
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