Nikon L120 Bridges the Gap Between Compacts and DSLR Cameras
Stellar pictures, powerful zoom, incredible burst rates, amazing image stablizer, and great battery life.
Weak video, burst pictures limited to 3 megapixels, and no electronic viewfinder.
The Bottom Line:
This is a versatile camera that takes professional quality pictures and has a battery life to match its many features. It is limited primarily by its video capabilities.
I bought the Nikon L120 Digital Camera as a Christmas present for my step-son. He’s been asking for a camera and he wants one that “looks like a camera” although he didn’t want a Digital SLR and the interchangeable lenses. After much searching, I decided on the Nikon L120 based on 1) brand name, 2) zoom factor, 3) resolution, and 4) use of AA batteries. I’ve done some meager testing with it and believe he will be happy with this camera for many years, although he may ask for a video camera next year.
The Nikon L120 is most aptly described as a “bridge camera.” For those unfamiliar with the term, a bridge camera bridges the gaps between point-and-shoot cameras and DSLRs. It has much of the functionality of a DSLR, without the fuss of changing lenses, cleaning sensors, and weight. It also means this camera is “ready to shoot” a little bit faster than DSLRs (though not as portable as compact cameras).
The Nikon L120 has a myriad of selectable shooting scenes, including pets, landscapes, snow, beach, night portrait, fireworks, panorama assist, and more. The default setting is the “Easy Auto,” which has proven very effective for me thus far. Rather than trying to apply a general set of shooting rules, the Nikon L120 will attempt to figure out what the shooter is taking a picture of, and automatically selects that mode (such as landscape or portrait). The identified mode is displayed in the upper left-hand corner. Regardless of the mode selected, the Nikon L120 takes beautiful pictures. Colors are accurate, contrast is good, and resolution is amazing. The white balance seems to do a great job when left alone, but can be tailored for an even better picture. Unless this camera is being used to support professional purposes, manual white balance adjustment should never be required.
The camera also has an amazing “Sport Continuous” mode. For anyone who is at all interested in capturing the perfect moment in any sporting event, this camera gives a leg up on the competition and surpasses many DSLRs in this feature. The high speed continuous shooting takes pictures at three different settings. The high speed yields 15.3 frames per second (fps) whereas the medium and low speed deliver 7.9 fps and 4.7 fps, respectively. One thing that I noted in my tests was that when using the continuous shooting function, the L120 automatically reduced the recording resolution from 14 megapixels to “PC” mode or 1024 x 768 pixels. This setting is better than VGA, but by no means high resolution. I found later that the highest resolution that can be selected in this mode is 3 megapixels (2048 x 1536). I don’t mind that the camera limits the resolution to achieve these high frame rates, but I don’t like that the default setting is a lower resolution than the camera’s maximum for that setting. The L120 can only take up to 20 shots in this mode, regardless of speed selected or class rating for the SDHC card. My card was a very old SD 1.0 GB card and I only had to wait about 10 seconds before I could take pictures again. Faster cards should have better performance.
The Panorama mode left a little bit to be desired. Although effective, it is cumbersome. To take a panoramic shot using the Nikon L120, the user sets the initial shot. Then the camera will display a ghost image of the shot to allow the user to lineup the next shot sequentially. The direction of travel can be adjusted. It is important to note that this is an “assist” function, not a creator. The camera will not perform any in-camera stitching; however, software is provided with the camera that will (not tested for this review). Based on the limited amount of overlap the camera calls for, I expect these results will be less than optimal. I was really expecting an automated in-camera stitching similar to my Sony DSC-H70 (which allows the user to perform a sweep while holding down the shutter button while the camera creates a single picture), but was disappointed. Given the fantastic image stabilization of the Nikon L120, I found this very surprising as the optics are ideally suited for this function if only the software was included.
Other than the lack of stitching, I did not find any expected features lacking. The Nikon L120 has the usual list of refinements such as self-timer (10 seconds only), red-eye reduction, an effective macro mode, a focus-assist beam, manual exposure compensation (although not bracketing), good ISO range, a strong and effective pop-up flash (must be manually deployed), and an HDMI output. The only thing that could be considered lacking is an electronic viewfinder for shooting in bright daylight. I’m able to get by without a viewfinder, but those with weaker eyes may have trouble.
The focusing of this camera is quite good. It will focus quickly and hold that focus for a quality picture every time. Working in concert with this is one of the best image stabilizers I’ve ever seen in a consumer camera. This camera can take blur-free photos with the 21X zoom fully extended without the aid of a tripod. Bear in mind that this is assuming the user is at least trying to hold the camera steady.
Images taken with this camera can be saved in various modes. The highest is the 14M* setting (14 megapixels with a star). According to the manual, a 4 GB SD cards should hold about 550 images at this resolution. The next step down is the 14 M without the star, with file sizes about half that of the images taken at 14M with the star. I’ve reviewed pictures taken with both and there is a noticeable difference when cropping and zooming in, but I doubt it’s significant for everyday usage. Oddly, the manual specifies that both can be enlarged to 14 x 10.5 inches (or 36 x 27 centimeters). Realistically either of those settings should yield beautiful enlargements a little larger than that. The settings step down 14M*, 14M, 8M, 5M, 3M, PC, VGA, 16:9 10M, and 16:9 2M (sport continuous mode only). The precise resolutions are 4320 x 3240 (for both 14M* and 14M), 3264 x 2448, 2592 x 1944, 2048 x 1536, 1024 x 768, 640 x 480, 4224 x 2376, and 1920 x 1080, respectively.
Video for this camera proved less than satisfactory. I have unofficially compared this camera to my own Sony DSC-H70, which I love and consider a great camera. The Nikon L120 was blowing the doors off of my DSC-H70 until I got to the video settings. Although this camera records at 720P, the clarity of resolution is not there. When recording at 720P, video looks more like standard definition TV (maybe even a little worse). When recording at 480, it looks even worse than that. Videos are extremely grainy for the resolution setting. Also the image stabilizing feature for the video (shown in the menus as “Electronic VR” or electronic vibration reduction) is ineffective. My results with video are that better videos are made when this feature is disabled.
One oddity of this camera is the video setting for “iFrame 540,” which records video at 960 x 540 pixels and with an enormously high bit-rate of 24 Mbps (megabits per second). According to the User Manual, this is “a format supported by Apple Inc.” I’ve looked at videos using this format and compared them to the 720P videos using both QuickTime and Windows Media Player. I do not see any appreciable difference in the quality, although the file sizes for the iFrame 540 are substantially larger for equivalent length videos. A quick web search indicates that this is a new format being driven by Apple to facilitate fast editing and sharing by keeping video in its native recorded format. Part of the plan behind this format is to keep the file sizes small, which apparently is not working as planned. According to the Nikon L120 User Manual, the 102 MB internal memory is capable of storing 1 minute 32 seconds of video recorded at 720P versus 34 seconds in iFrame 540 (and 4 minutes 32 seconds at 640 x 480). As I haven’t edited any videos with iFrame 540, I can’t speak to that functionality, but I expect this is a rather useless mode that Nikon has included.
Another note about the video: video recordings are started by depressing a small button near the top right-hand corner of the camera on the rear side near where the user’s right thumb might be – it is not a “mode” that is selected as I’m used to with other cameras. As such, the user doesn’t know without going into the menus what the current video settings are. Only after a recording is started does the LCD display how much time remains for the available memory. This would only be a minor annoyance for me or anyone who doesn’t frequently change the settings and use video, but anyone who will record videos to be emailed one day and then other videos to be edited for a presentation the next might find this more irritating. Because of the extremely poor quality of the video, I doubt this will be a concern for most users.
The Nikon L120 also performs photo and video editing in-camera. Photos can be edited for brightness and contrast, and can also be cropped using the camera. Videos can be trimmed in one-second intervals, but only once (if the same video is to be edited again, the original file must be selected and re-edited). Also movies captured using the iFrame 540 setting cannot be edited in camera (which begs the question “What is the point?” and I don’t have an answer).
When it comes to battery life, this camera is going to be hard to beat. The Nikon L120 utilizes 4 AA batteries. I tested the camera using Duracells. I’m well over 100 shots and the meter still shows a full battery. According to the manual, alkaline batteries should be good for 330 shots, while lithium batteries will deliver close to 900. If using for video, then alkalines yield 3 hours 45 minutes whereas lithiums deliver close to 8 hours. Despite the lower quality of the video, that is some of the best battery life I’ve seen in a similar camera and I believe the manual on this specification. Obviously your mileage will vary with lower quality batteries (you get what you pay for). Keep in mind that the camera uses the AA batteries to charge an internal battery used to keep the date and time. If the camera’s batteries are removed for several days, then the internal battery will lose charge and the date and time will need to be reset the next time it is used.
In summary, this camera is very good at taking photos, but falls short of the competition when recording videos (as compared to similar cameras, not camcorders). In the areas where it performs well, such as focusing, tracking, resolution, and battery life, it squashes the competition. If video is a requirement, then this camera is a poor choice.