The popular Nikon L120 comes with some nice features and a great 21X zoom in a reasonably small package, but the lack of manual controls, no viewfinder, AAA batteries, and lackluster picture quality combine for underwhelming results overall.
I’m a big fan of super-zoom digital cameras and recommended this category in my travel writing book for writers and bloggers who want to publish good photos consistently, but don’t want to lug around a big DSLR and various lenses. These cameras let you zoom in far closer than you can with a basic point-and-shoot, they have a better lens, and usually have a faster shutter release time. They offer a good trade-off between convenience and quality.
I must say it’s mixed bag with this Nikon Coolpix L120 one I picked up recently, on sale at Best Buy for $238 plus tax. I was under pressure to buy something in a hurry after my beloved Kodak Z1012 wigged out on me recently and started putting itself into Sport mode at random moments and getting finicky about when it was ready to shoot or not. I had very few beefs before with that camera besides so-so resolution in low light on auto mode (much better with manual tweaks) and a battery that required lugging around a too-big separate charger. It took photos great enough for print magazine spreads and I published hundreds of shots on the web I took with it, some in award-winning articles.
I’m ready to ditch this Nikon after two weeks, however. I’m still fiddling with the few manual controls there are to improve image quality, but I’m not optimistic this will meet my needs. I need to go back to the drawing board and do more research this time before buying a better camera. This one seemed the best of what was on offer when my wife called on the phone saying she needed to buy a new camera in an hour to have at the wedding she was attending. “Get the Nikon one,” I said. “The price is right and it should be reliable.”
Wrong. I’ll get to the quirks in a moment, but the main problem is, this camera just plain doesn’t take great photos half the time. If the light is not perfect, the photos comes up short. If you’re in low light conditions and trying to get a shot that’s not full of noise/distortion, you may as well be using an iPhone: forget the 14 megapixels and the high-ISO settings touted in the specs as they won’t do anything except give you big file sizes to store. It’s like this camera’s sensor just throws up its hands and says, “Sorry!” Since there are very few manual overrides (I had plenty on my Kodak), you’re mostly stuck with what the camera gives you automatically unless you drill down to the right situation mode, these mostly being for cases where you’ll use a flash.
It also dials back the shutter speed quite a bit if the light isn’t bright (again, you can’t adjust this), so I’ve been ending up with blurry photos in conditions where I’ve never encountered them with far cheaper cameras. There’s anti-shake technology supposedly, but I now don’t trust it unless it’s sunny where I’m shooting. I feel like I have to hold this camera like it’s a sleeping newborn. Video quality is just okay. It’s higher resolution than my Flip camera and records in stereo—plus there’s a handy wind noise reduction feature—but you have to pan more slowly with this one to keep it from being blurry, especially indoors. It’s better suited for outdoor pursuits.
This Nikon also uses 4 AA batteries instead of a rechargeable lithium ion battery, which makes it heavier than it should be considering all the plastic parts, and requires lugging around a charger that holds 4 AA batteries, plus an adapter if you’ll be in a country with different voltage. The memory card is under the same flap as the batteries, which means all 4 can spill out when you’re just trying to switch out a card. Dumb design.
There’s also no optical viewfinder, which drives me batty. Looking at a screen while trying to shoot in bright sunlight, all while holding the camera steady away from your body, is asking for trouble. It’s like shooting blind sometimes. I know this is a common problem with compact point-and-shoots, but it shouldn’t be with a camera this size.
The Plus Sides of the Nikon L120
We’ll keep this camera for family snapshots and day trips though because it does do some things very well. The 921,000 dpi 3-inch screen on the back is beautiful and it’s easy to tell if you got a keeper shot or not. The buttons are few and the menus are fairly intuitive, though all the non-automatic options are groups under “night landscape” except for “smart portrait” (detects eyes for focusing) and “sport continuous.” The latter function works quite well, at up to 20 frames at 15fps, but the resolution goes down.
The main reason to get this kind of camera—the 21X optical zoom—is smooth and impressive, allowing you to get up close and personal without getting in anyone’s face. It’s fast too. One nice feature with this Nikon is that you can control that zoom from two places: the usual spot by the shutter release, plus an extra button on the left side of the lens. Keep in mind though that 21X is a pretty shaky shot to hold, especially with no viewfinder besides the screen on the back. It’s hard to get a shot in focus when extended full length without a tripod.
This camera performs better than any other I’ve used when the flash is on, even without the situational overrides. It illuminates without washing out, red-eye reduction works well automatically, and the colors don’t get too distorted. If you take a lot of photos of your friends partying, this will do the job well.
Overall though, since I so seldom use a flash, I’d give this Nikon L120 a C- because to me it feels less than average. Looking at the Amazon reviews I’m in the minority, so maybe if I weren’t comparing it to my past Kodak and Casio cameras it would rate higher, but I guess I’ve been spoiled.
This camera is gifted in some areas, plus it’s hard to complain too loudly when the price is this good (under $250 at some merchants). There’s a lot crammed into that price, which is probably why it is selling so well. But the main reason you buy a camera—especially one you take traveling—is to end up with better than average photos. With the definition of “average” rising higher each year, Nikon fell behind on this model. It’s a good value if your budget is tight and you want a serious zoom. But spend a bit more for something better if you need high-quality results you will publish or frame on a wall.