Nikon’s “L” series digicams bear a striking resemblance (in both form and function) to Canon’s “A” series digital cameras, and there’s nothing wrong with that - imitation is, after all, the sincerest form of flattery. Canon’s “A” series digicams are justly famous for their practicality, flexibility, class leading performance, reasonable pricing, impressive build-quality, and amazing ease of use. The new Coolpix L12, the flagship of Nikon’s “L” family of entry-level digicams, is a sort of doppelganger for Canon’s nifty Powershot A550.
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NUTS & BOLTS
The L12 doesn't provide an optical viewfinder so users are obliged to use the 2.5 inch (153,000 pixels) LCD screen for all framing/composition chores, plus image review and menu access. The L12’s LCD screen is fairly sharp (images look a bit grainy), relatively bright, hue accurate, and fluid. The LCD screen gains up (brightens) automatically in dim/low light (LCD brightness can also be adjusted via the set-up menu). The L12’s LCD info/status display provides all information the L12's target audience is likely to need. The L12’s LCD screen fades radically in bright outdoor lighting, but it is usable.
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The L12 features a slightly below average quality f2.8-f4.7/5.7mm-17.1mm (35mm – 105mm equivalent) all glass 3X optical Zoom-Nikkor lens. When the camera is turned on the lens automatically telescopes out of the camera body. When the camera is powered down the lens fully retracts into the camera body and a built in lens cover slides into place to protect the front element.
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The L12’s predecessor, the Coolpix L6, had an unexpectedly good f3.2-f5.3/6.3mm -19.2mm (38mm-116mm equivalent) Zoom-Nikkor. I’m not sure why Nikon switched out that marginally slower, but much better quality L6 zoom for the slightly faster mediocre optic that graces the L12. Operation is relatively quick and fairly quiet, but zooming is not very precise (I counted only 7 steps from wide-angle to telephoto). The L12's zoom exhibits very noticeable barrel distortion (straight lines bow out from the center at the wide-angle end of the zoom range). The L12 also displays some minor softness in the corners and very minor pin cushioning (straight lines bow in toward the center) at full telephoto. Chromatic aberration (purple fringing) is slightly above average at the wide-angle end of the zoom range, but I didn’t notice any vignetting (darkened corners). Minimum focusing distance (in macro mode) is 5.9 inches/15 centimeters (the L6’s zoom macro focused to 3.9 inches/10 centimeters) - close enough for e-bay shots, but not tight enough for dramatic bugs and flowers shots.
(view medium image) (view large image) Barrel distortion is noticeably higher than average (notice the curved appearance of the ovens).
Vibration Reduction/Optical Image Stabilization
Nikon calls their optical image stabilization system (OIS) Vibration Reduction (VR), but “…a rose by any other name” is still OIS. Built-in motion sensors detect camera movement and automatically shift lens elements to reduce or eliminate blurring. For example, if a shutter speed of 1/500th of a second is required to avoid the effects of camera shake (without OIS/VR) the L12 can capture a reasonably sharp image of the same subject, everything else being equal, at 1/125th of a second. Vibration Reduction/optical image stabilization provides an important benefit when shooting handheld outdoors in good light at maximum telephoto, where even the slightest camera movement is magnified. It can also be very helpful when shooting indoors - where higher shutter speeds (to overcome dim indoor lighting) may not be possible or would result in dark images with poor shadow/highlight detail. In addition, VR combined with higher sensitivity settings (like the L12’s ISO 1600 setting) significantly increases exposure options in low/natural light and dimly lit indoor venues - where flash is often prohibited. Unlike Canon’s image stabilized digicams (which provide four image stabilization options) the L12 provides only two VR modes – on or off.
Auto Focus (AF)
The L12's contrast detection AF system is a bit wonky, it will occasionally refuse to lock focus – for no apparent reason. Generally though, AF is accurate and relatively quick in good light. From scratch, the L12’s AF isn’t fast enough to capture serious action – but with pre-focus and a little planning (the shooter has to know what is going to happen and precisely where it is going to happen) it is possible to capture really fast action with the L12.
(view medium image) (view large image) Pre-focused and pre-framed mid-air shot of a BMX biker
Shift the L12 into Portrait mode and Nikon’s Face Priority AF function (which recognizes and focuses on faces in the image frame) is automatically activated. In Face Priority AF mode the L12 will track and continually focus on the nearest face in the frame, but FPAF only works when the subject faces the camera directly – it won't work with profile shots and it does slow AF lock a bit.
Manual Focus (MF)
The L12 provides no manual focus capability
The L12’s built-in multi-mode (Auto, Red-Eye Reduction, Fill Flash, Slow Synch, and Off) flash is adequate, but it’s somewhat underpowered. Nikon claims the maximum range is 26 ft. 3 in. (8.0 meters) which is outrageously optimistic – a more accurate figure is somewhere in the neighborhood of half what Nikon claims. Anything beyond 10-12 feet is going to be pretty dark unless the subject is shot against light a colored background with lots of ambient lighting. The flash is fairly close to the zoom so redeye could be a problem, but the L12's automatic In-Camera Red Eye Fix eliminates or ameliorates most red eye problems (in red-eye reduction mode). Flash re-cycle (during which the camera is locked up) is 7-8 seconds.
Image File Storage/Memory Media
The L12 saves images to SD/SDHC/MMC memory cards (Nikon doesn't include a starter card) and provides users with 21MB of on-board (internal) image storage.
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Image File Format(s)
USB 2.0 and A/V out
The L12 draws its power from a pair of cheap and universally available AA batteries. Nikon claims 150 exposures with alkaline AAs, 600 exposures with lithium AAs, or just under 400 exposures with re-chargeable NiMH AAs. Battery life numbers are based on best case (lab test) scenarios - real world battery life numbers are generally from one third to one half less than what’s claimed- I got 97 exposures with the included alkalines.
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The L12 is an automatic digital camera that provides a limited range of exposure options - Auto (Point & Shoot mode) which is actually Program AE mode (Point & Shoot mode with user input), Scene modes including – Portrait, Landscape, Sports, Night Portrait, Party/Indoor, Beach/Snow, Sunset, Dusk/Dawn, Night Landscape, Close Up, Museum, Fireworks Show, Copy, Back Light, and Panorama Assist, and Movie mode (see below). In all scene/scene modes the L12's CPU automatically optimizes all exposure parameters (aperture, shutter speed, white balance, sensitivity, etc.) for the specific image type selected. Users can also opt for BSS (Best Shot Selector) which automatically selects and saves the best shot from a sequence of 10. The L12 delivers accurate exposures in most lighting, but there is a slight tendency toward overexposure in bright outdoor lighting.
The L12 captures video (with monaural audio) at 640x480 @ 30 fps and a selection of lower resolutions and slower fps rates.
The L12 features Nikon’s well known Matrix (multi-pattern) evaluative metering. The L12’s light metering system is dependably accurate in most lighting, however Nikon’s Matrix Meters are calibrated to preserve shadow detail and that often requires sacrificing highlight detail. Casual photographers and snap-shooters (the L12’s target audience) won't have to worry about metering at all, but more demanding photographers will need to use the L12’s exposure compensation function to avoid burnt out highlights in bright outdoor lighting.
White Balance (WB)
The L12 provides an adequate selection of user selectable WB options including Auto, Daylight, Incandescent, Fluorescent, Cloudy, Flash, and WB Pre-Set (manual). The Auto White Balance setting is accurate in outdoor lighting, but indoors Auto WB images show a very slight warmish cast.
The L12 doesn’t provide any user access to ISO/sensitivity settings - sensitivity is fully automatic. Nikon says the range is from ISO 50 (default) to ISO 1600. When the camera increases sensitivity an ISO icon is displayed as part of the LCD info/status display.
(view medium image) (view large image) This image from “Thunder Over Louisville” was shot in the L12’s Fireworks Scene Mode – note heavy noise in the lighter areas of the image
In-Camera Image Adjustment
Nikon's Picture Effects Mode allows users to tinker with a very basic set of in-camera color saturation options. Users can select Standard Color, Vivid Color, Black-and-White, or Sepia tone.
The L12’s exposure compensation function provides direct access (via the compass switch) to a +2/-2 EV (in 1/3 EV increments) exposure adjustment range - used to help manage difficult lighting by allowing users to avoid underexposure/overexposure by easily lightening or darkening exposures.
Press the L12’s One Touch Portrait button and the L12 automatically shifts into Portrait Scene mode and activates the Face Priority AF function and red-eye reduction flash mode.
When shooting action, press the Anti-Shake button and the L12 activates Vibration Reduction and the High ISO mode. In review mode the anti-shake button links to Nikon’s nifty D-Lighting function. D-lighting automatically lightens the dark areas of underexposed and back-lit images while leaving the properly exposed areas alone and then saves a corrected copy of the image.
DESIGN, CONTROLS, & ERGONOMICS
The L12 is an attractive somewhat chunky traditional looking digicam. It’s small enough to drop in a shirt pocket or a small purse. The L12’s body is mostly polycarbonate and construction seems to be fairly robust. Dedicated controls are few and some do double duty, but all controls are logically placed and easily accessed. Ergonomics are quite good and the integral grip (which houses the batteries) provides a secure hold and a nice balance point.
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The vast majority of entry-level digital cameras produce color that is more intense than the actual colors in the scene. Outdoors, the L12's images are highly saturated with slightly hard default contrast - reds and blues are especially bold. Images are hue accurate with little or no noise in well-lit low ISO scenes. Noise rises noticeably in dim/low light shots (as sensitivity is automatically increased). Overall, the L12’s noise levels are slightly higher than average. Resolution (sharpness) is about average, but corners are a bit soft (especially at the maximum aperture). I did notice some minor blotching (chroma noise) in a couple of images with lots of blue sky.
(view medium image) (view large image) The L12 is capable of producing excellent images, especially with static subjects like this Mourning Dove with hatchling
The L12 is slower than average – across the board. AF lag can be as long as 1/2 second in good lighting and more in dim/low light. Shutter lag is also longer than average and shot to shot times run between 2 and 3 seconds. When the camera opts to fire the built-in flash everything locks up while the flash re-cycles. Pre-focused shots are near real time, but not instantaneous.
A Few Concerns
The L12's greatest faults are its slow overall performance, its mediocre zoom, its fully automatic (no user input) ISO sensitivity, and its lack of an optical viewfinder.
The Nikon Coolpix L12 presents something of a quandary - on the plus side of the ledger it’s currently the cheapest 7 megapixel digicam available featuring optical image stabilization. It is also very easy to use, fairly compact, tough enough to stand up to the demands of modern life, powered by cheap universally available AA batteries, and capable of delivering consistently decent images. On the negative side of the ledger, the L12 is a bit slow across the board, the optics aren’t top quality, there’s no optical viewfinder, and it doesn't allow much user input.
Pros: Cheap, optical image stabilization, user friendly, AA batteries, and compact
Cons: Slow, no optical viewfinder, mediocre zoom, and no sensitivity (ISO) control
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