Like we mentioned above, the L120 boasts fully automatic operation. That means there are no manual, aperture priority, or shutter speed priority exposure options. Some may miss them, but I bet most won't even notice. Along with a plethora of selectable Scene modes (19 to be exact), the L120 offers their Easy Auto and standard Auto shooting modes. These are all selected by pressing the Scene button on the back. Easy Auto is Nikon's answer to other manufacturer's iAuto or intelligent Auto exposure mode. Here the camera no only chooses the appropriate exposure settings for the shot you are framing, but it will also analyze the scene and apply specific Scene settings to get you even better results. Auto mode is more like the Program mode we see on most all digital cameras. Here the camera still operates with full auto exposure (camera chooses the shutter speed and aperture settings), but now you have access to a few more advanced settings. These include ISO, White balance, exposure compensation, etc. Whichever mode you choose, you can rest assured that you won't have to deal with difficult settings or controls.
While the camera sports a dSLR-like body design, the L120 is quite compact. Sure, it won't fit into your pocket, but a smaller handbag or camera bag will be no problem; it will even fit in your fanny pack / bum bag. The body measures about 3.1x4.4x3.1 inches (HxWxD), weighing in at about 15.3 ounces with four AAs and an SD card inserted. When it's in your hand, it has a good weight to it, giving the camera a well built feel. The enlarged handgrip on the right hand side is very comfortable, even when nested in my large hands. All of the camera controls are labeled and positioned well, just within reach of your right thumb. One feature we found both cool and odd was the zoom control on the lens barrel. This gives you a "neat" way to zoom, however at the same time they still have the zoom controls mounted around the shutter release. So, essentially you have two zoom controls. I think this is a bit redundant, and might confuse some at first. Either way you look at it, the zoom control located on the barrel is a pretty handy feature, that makes zooming extremely comfortable.
The L120's only viewfinder is a high-quality 3.0-inch LCD screen, which makes framing and viewing your images is easy, and enjoyable. This is an ultra high resolution display with 921,000 dots. Detail and contrast is very pleasing when shooting indoors, and in low-light situations it gains up well. In very dark conditions, it can get grainy or noisy, but that's to be expected. Outdoors the display is viewable thanks to an anti-glare coating. However, the surface is still quite reflective, and many angles will show glare. While I never had any issues seeing my subject at the factory brightness setting (3), you can enter the Setup menu and adjust the brightness by 5 degrees. Just remember, as you increase the brightness you increase power consumption. The menu interface is similar to past Coolpix models, which is straightforward. You have three options in Record mode; Camera, Movie, and Setup. Because this camera focuses on ease of use, there are very few options available in the Camera and Movie menus. The Setup menu still has several options, however most are typical and needed settings.
Image quality is pretty average for a 14-megapixel camera that costs under $300. When shooting outdoors under the bright summer sunlight, we saw bright exposures, vivid colors, and a good amount of detail. Exposure is a bit strong for my tastes, as you can see some blown out highlights from overexposure even at simple fullscreen viewing. This is common under the harsh summer sun, however some cameras handle it better than others; and the L120 is not one of the better ones. The majority of images are nice and sharp from edge to edge, with pleasing contrast. I did notice that when the camera chose a smaller aperture, there was more edge softness than when compared with wide open apertures; which is kind of odd. Easy Auto mode seems to capture slightly more vivid colors when compared to Auto, which is something we've found with the majority of point-n-shoots. Overall, the L120 can capture pleasing photos outdoors, which should have no problem creating usable prints.
The most impressive feature on the L120 is the NIKKOR 21x optical zoom lens. This unit offers a 35mm equivalent zoom range of 25-525mm, which is sure to cover almost all of your framing needs for various types of photography. The 25mm end of the zoom is nice and wide for vast landscapes and hassle free interior shooting, while the telephoto capabilities allow you to get as close to the action as you want or need. The lens zooms smoothly, but not continuously. There are about 18 steps from wide angle to telephoto, which doesn't give you the ability for real precise framing. You might still find yourself moving your position slightly to get the shot framed just how you want it, as the zoom might jump to far when you simply bump the control. There is also a digital zoom option, however we highly recommend you only use this option sparingly; if at all.
When shooting indoors, you have the benefit of a nice wide angle lens and powerful built-in flash. Even with the ISO set to 80, the L120's flash was able to put out a good amount of light. This is quite impressive, as most built-in flash units are quite weak. I found that using Auto mode indoors produces the best results, as Easy Auto had some real issues. First off, Easy Auto throttles down the flash output for some reason, and then has some horrible white balance issues. This is especially clear under typical tungsten lighting. Images have a strong orange tint to them, and look horrible. For our indoor photos, I got the best results using either Smart Portrait or Auto mode with the flash set to Auto. Smart Portrait uses face detection to quickly locate, and lock focus and exposure onto up to three faces in the frame. When the camera detects a smile, it will automatically snap a picture. You can also press the shutter release to capture an image there's a moment or expression you want to capture when the camera may not see a smile. Smart Portrait mode helped us capture bright indoor photos from about 5 feet or more away, that show a good amount of fine detail, and pleasing skin tones. Either way (Auto or Smart Portrait), you'll be able to capture some great people photos of your friends in family indoors thanks to the L120's capable flash and face detection systems; just remember NOT to use Easy Auto.
Looking over our M&M man series of photos shot at each ISO settings, the L120 does well with noise up until about ISO 800. Even the max full resolution settings of ISO 1600 looks usable for small prints. Like mentioned above, we again saw some white balance issues with the L120, this time under Fluorescent lighting. The images are just a bit too warm, with whites showing a yellowish tint to them. The L120 does boast an ISO 3200 and 6400 setting, however these options drop resolution down to 3-megapixel; and they look horrible. Quality at these settings is comparable to a 3-megapixel cell phone camera; and not as good as current day smart phones. We recommend you keep the ISO set to Auto, as it will likely serve you best. We never saw the camera choose ISO 3200 or 6400, so you're likely never going to have to worry about extremely high image noise in your photos. .
Video mode on the L120 is a breeze to use, just press the dedicated Movie record button, and you can start shooting 720p HD video no matter what exposure mode you are in. You have three resolution settings to choose from (720p 1280x720, iFrame 960x540, and VGA 640x480), and the frame rate is locked at 30fps. You have full use of the 21x optical zoom lens while recording, and you do have an option to enable their "electronic VR system". If you plan on zooming often, we recommend you set the Autofocus mode to Full-time AF. Just remember that you will pick up some focusing noise in your video. If that's unacceptable, we recommend you set the desired focal length before hand, and stick to single AF. Video quality is average for a point-n-shoot camera; nothing that will replace even a lower-end camcorder. The stereo microphones are very sensitive, and they pick up all kinds of background and wind noise; however there is a Wind noise reduction setting to help reduce this.
Battery life from the L120 was quite impressive. The camera uses four AA batteries, so you can choose from a wide variety of different type of cells. We highly recommend PowerGenix NiZN or high-capacity NiMH rechargeable batteries, however you can also use Alkaline and one-use Lithium batteries. Nikon states that with Alkaline cells, you can capture up to 330 shots, or up to as many as 890 shots with one-use Lithiums. We used a set of PowerGenix 2500mAh NiZN cells for our tests, and after 200 plus photos, a dozen or more short video clips, and extensive use of the menu and playback systems, the battery icon still shows a full battery. One thing we do want to note is that Nikon has a setting in the L120's setup menu to help the battery gauge show more accurate ratting with different types of cells. Each type discharges differently, so you can tell the camera which type of battery you are using. The options are for Alkaline, "Coolpix" Ni-MH, and Lithium. So, be sure to set the camera to the cells you are using to get the most accurate reading from the batter level indicator.
Bottom Line - Nikon's Coolpix L120 is a very appealing compact super-zoom for those looking for an affordable, easy to use, yet versatile digital camera. The L120 captures images that are up to par with most 14-megapixel cameras on the market, and as long as you are using Auto mode, or one of the 19 Scene modes, I think you'll enjoy the photos it produces. We noted some issues, mainly with Easy Auto and white balance, but each camera has its downfalls. With a street price of just $279.95 US or less, the L120 does provide good bang for your buck if you need the reach of a 21x optical zoom.
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