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DCRP Review: Nikon Coolpix L12
by Jeff Keller, DCRP Founder/Editor
Originally posted: August 13, 2006
Last Updated: March 26, 2008

The Nikon Coolpix L12 ($179) is an entry-level camera that includes something not normally found on cameras in this price range: image stabilization. That's on top of the 7.1 Megapixel CCD, 3X optical zoom lens, 2.5" LCD display, AF-assist lamp, in-camera redeye removal, and more.

Is the L12 a great choice for those who want image stabilization without spending a lot of money? Find out now in our review!

What's in the Box?

The Coolpix L12 has an average bundle. Inside the box you'll find:

Like most entry-level cameras these days, the Coolpix L12 has built-in memory in lieu of a bundled memory card. The L12 has 21MB of onboard memory, which holds just six photos at the highest image quality setting. So, unless you already have one sitting around, you should pick up a memory card. The Coolpix L12 can use SD, SDHC, and MMC memory card formats, and a 1GB card is a good place to start. A high speed card is really only necessary if you'll be using the continuous shooting feature frequently.

Like all of the cameras in the Nikon L-series, the L12 uses AA batteries -- two of them to be exact. Inside the box you'll find two alkaline batteries, which will quickly end up in your trash. So, do yourself and the environment a favor and buy a set or two of NiMH rechargeables (2500 mAh is good) plus a fast charger. Here's how the L12 compares to other entry-level cameras when it has decent batteries in it:

Camera Battery life, LCD on
(CIPA standard)
Battery used
Canon PowerShot A570 IS * 400 shots 2 x 2500 mAh NiMH
Fuji FinePix A610 350 shots 2 x 2500 mAh NiMH
GE A730 400 shots 2 x 2500 mAh NiMH
HP Photosmart M637 400 shots 2 x Unknown NiMH
Kodak EasyShare Z885 300 shots 2 x 2100 mAh NiMH
Nikon Coolpix L12 * 370 shots 2 x 2000 mAh NiMH
Panasonic Lumix DMC-LS75 * 460 shots 2 x Unknown NiMH
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-S700 460 shots 2 x 2500 mAh NiMH

* Has image stabilization
** Number not officially obtained using the CIPA standard

Battery life numbers are provided by the manufacturer

There are a couple of cameras that I wanted to put in this list, but their battery life numbers were not available. They include the Olympus FE-210, Pentax Optio E40, and Samsung S730. The numbers that I do have show the Coolpix L12 coming in a bit below average, but look at the batteries Nikon used for the test: they're not very powerful. If you assume that going from 2000 mAh to 2500 mAh batteries will boost the numbers by 25%, the new CIPA number is around 460 shots/charge, which is well above average.

In case you haven't heard, I like cameras that use AA batteries. They're cheap, and when your rechargeables die you can just pull some regular alkalines off the shelf to get through the day. All of the cameras I listed above use AAs.

The Coolpix L12 has a built-in lens cover, so there's no clunky lens cap to deal with. As you can see, it's a fairly small camera.

The L12 is one of a very small group of non-Kodak cameras to support ImageLink devices. The only device you'd probably use is one of Kodak's printer docks. Just be sure to attach the included adapter to the device before you put the camera on it!

There aren't too many accessories available for the L12. You can buy a pair of batteries (priced from $13) or an external charger (model MH-71, may be hard to find), though you'll find better deals elsewhere. There's also an AC adapter available (from $25), which will let you use the camera without draining said batteries. There's a camera case available by itself (from $10), or bundled with the batteries and charger (from $30).

Nikon includes version 1.7 of their PictureProject software with the Coolpix L12, and it's pretty good. The interface is reminiscent of Apple's iPhoto, and I found the software to be responsive and stable. For those of you with Intel-based Macs, I should mention that PictureProject is not a Universal application, which means that it doesn't run as fast as it could.

Anyhow, above you can see the standard thumbnail view that you'll get when you first start up PP. The size of the thumbnails is adjustable, and there's also a "details view" which displays shooting data next to your photos.

Double-click on a thumbnail and you'll end up on the edit screen. Here you can adjust things like brightness, color, and sharpness. You can also straighten images or use Nikon's D-Lighting feature to brighten up dark areas of your photos. Auto image enhancement and redeye removal features are also available. PP also makes e-mailing and printing your photos a snap.

PictureProject also includes a "Design" feature which lets you create various layouts (such as greeting cards) for printing out your photos. You can also e-mail your photos, share them online (though this feature did not work for me), or burn them to a CD or DVD.

Also included is ArcSoft's PanoramaMaker software. This lets you take photos that you've lined up side-by-side (using the camera's panorama assist feature helps with this) and stitch them together into one giant panorama. It takes very little work on your part, and the results can be impressive.

The documentation for the Coolpix L12 is divided into two parts. You'll get a fold-out quick start guide to get you up and running, plus a full, printed user manual for when you need more details. While not spectacular, the manuals are a little more user-friendly than most. Plan on seeing a lot of "notes" on each page, though.

Look and Feel

Being an entry-level camera, it should come as no surprise that the Coolpix L12 is made of plastic. Despite that, the camera is pretty well put-together, with even the battery door being pretty solid. While the camera can be operated with one hand, there's not a lot of room for your right thumb, so you have to be careful not to accidentally push a button. Speaking of which, the L12 has more than its share of buttons, and the ones on the top of the camera are quite small.

Now here's a look at how the Coolpix L12 compares to the competition in terms of size and weight:

Camera Dimensions (W x H x D, excluding protrusions) Volume (bulk) Mass (empty)
Canon PowerShot A570 IS 3.5 x 2.5 x 1.7 in. 14.9 cu in. 175 g
Fujifilm FinePix A610 3.8 x 2.4 x 1.2 in. 10.9 cu in. 145 g
GE A730 3.7 x 2.4 x 1.1 in. 9.8 cu in. 120 g
HP Photosmart M637 3.8 x 2.5 x 1.5 in. 14.3 cu in. 190 g
Kodak EasyShare Z885 3.5 x 2.5 x 1.2 in. 10.5 cu in. 161 g
Nikon Coolpix L12 3.6 x 2.4 x 1.0 in. 8.6 cu in. 125 g
Olympus FE-210 3.5 x 2.5 x 1.2 in. 10.5 cu in. 122 g
Panasonic Lumix DMC-LS75 3.7 x 2.4 x 1.2 in. 10.7 cu in. 138 g
Pentax Optio E40 3.7 x 2.4 x 0.9 in. 8 cu in. 130 g
Samsung S730 4.0 x 2.5 x 1.0 in. 10 cu in. 136 g
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-S700 3.6 x 2.4 x 0.9 in. 7.8 cu in. 149 g

The Coolpix L12 is one of the smallest and lightest cameras in its class. It'll fit into all but your smallest pockets with ease.

Let's start our tour of the camera now, shall we?

The Coolpix L12 uses a different lens than its L-series counterparts. This F2.8-4.7, 3X zoom lens has a focal range of 5.7 - 17.1 mm, which is equivalent to a standard 35 - 105 mm. The lens is not threaded, and conversion lenses are not supported.

Deep inside the lens is Nikon's lens-shift image stabilization, which they call Vibration Reduction. Sensors inside the camera detect the small movements of your hands that can blur your photos. The VR system moves an element in the lens to compensate for this motion, resulting in a better chance of a sharp photo. Now it won't stop a moving subject, nor will it work miracles (no handheld one second exposures), but it will let you take sharp photos at shutter speeds that would be blurry otherwise. Here's an example showing what the VR feature can do for you:


Image stabilization off


Image stabilization on

Since the camera boosts the ISO automatically, I had to work extra hard to get a good test photo. I finally got one, with the lens at the full telephoto position, with the camera selecting a shutter speed of 1/30 sec. In theory, this shot should be blurry, and what do you know, it was. Turning on Vibration Reduction got rid of that blur, producing a nice photo.

If you want to see another example of VR in action, check out this quick sample movie.

Back to the tour now. To the upper-left of the lens is the camera's AF-assist lamp, which also serves as a visual countdown for the self-timer. The AF-assist lamp helps the camera focus in low light situations.

Above that is the camera's built-in flash, which has quite the working range, probably because the camera boosts the ISO so high (to 1600). The listed range is 0.5 - 8.0 m at wide-angle and 0.5 - 4.5 m at telephoto. You cannot attach an external flash to the L12.

The last item of note on the front of the camera is the microphone, which can be found to the upper-right of the lens.

On the back of the camera you'll find a large 2.5" LCD display. While the screen is big, the resolution is not -- there are just 115,000 pixels. Thus, images on the screen are not as sharp as they could be. This didn't really bother me in real world use, though. Outdoor visibility was fairly good, and in low light the screen "gains up" automatically, so you can still see your subject.

By now, you probably noticed that there's no optical viewfinder on the Coolpix L12. Whether this is a problem is up to you. Some folks (like yours truly) really like them, while others could care less. Unfortunately, it's getting harder and harder to find an optical viewfinder on an entry-level digital camera.

Now let's cover all that stuff to the right of the LCD, starting with the zoom controller at the top. This moves the lens from wide-angle to telephoto in just 0.9 seconds. There are ten steps in the camera's 3X zoom range.

Below that is the Menu button, with the four-way controller beneath it. The four-way controller is used for navigating the menus, and it also does the following:

Continuing our trip down the right side of the above photo, we find the playback and delete photo buttons. Under that is the mode switch, which moves the camera between auto record, scene mode, and movie mode.

As you'd expect on an entry-level camera, there are plenty of scene modes to choose from, and almost no manual controls. By pressing the "zoom in" button, you can get a description of each scene. The available scene modes include:

With one exception, the "Scene Assist" modes from previous Coolpix cameras is gone on the L12. The exception is Panorama Assist, which helps you line up photos side-by-side for later "stitching" on your Mac or PC.

You'll also find a voice recording mode in the scene menu, which allows for hours of continuous audio recording.

The top of the camera doesn't photograph well due to its mirrored surface, so it's hard to see some of the buttons clearly.

At the far left of the photo is the camera's speaker. Next to it are a pair of buttons -- one enters Anti-shake mode, while the other activates One-touch Portrait mode. Anti-shake mode turns on Vibration Reduction (if it's not on already), boosts the ISO (even higher than in Auto mode), and turns on the Best Shot Selector feature (which I'll describe later). It's probably worth skipping this particular feature, as it can produce some pretty noisy images (compare these two photos to see what I mean).


The camera detected just one face here, which was typical

One-touch Portrait mode activates the portrait scene mode, face-priority autofocus, and auto redeye reduction. Face-priority AF is Nikon's term for face detection, and their implementation of this feature has never impressed me. In my tests (using a photo of people), the camera was never able to find more than two of the six faces, which is worse than most other cameras with this feature. Face-priority AF seemed slower than other face detection systems that I've used, as well. Continuing to the right, we find the power and shutter release buttons.

Nothing to see here.

On the other side of the camera you'll find the USB+A/V port (one port for both), the memory card slot, and the hole through which you'll thread the AC adapter cord. The plastic door over the memory card slot is of average quality.

Unfortunately, the Coolpix L12 does not support the USB 2.0 High Speed standard, so you can expect slow file transfers to your computer.

The lens is at the full telephoto position in this photo.

On the bottom of the camera you'll find the battery compartment, ImageLink dock connector (for connecting to a Kodak printer dock), and a plastic tripod mount.

Using the Nikon Coolpix L12

Record Mode

It takes the Coolpix L12 a little over two seconds to extend its lens and prepare for shooting. That's about average.


No live histogram here

Autofocus speeds were nothing to write home about. In good lighting, expect to wait between 0.4 and 0.6 seconds for the camera to lock focus. In more challenging situations, especially at the telephoto end of the lens, focus times frequently exceeded one second. Despite having an AF-assist lamp, low light focusing was quite poor.

I did not find shutter lag to be a problem, even at the slower shutter speeds where it sometimes crops up.

Shot-to-shot speeds were average without the flash, and just plain slow with it. With the flash disabled, you'll wait a little over two seconds before the camera will let you take another shot. If you're using the flash, you might as well go get a coffee, as the wait time is more than five seconds.

You can delete the photo you just took by pressing the -- get this -- delete photo button. This feature is a bit slower than I'd like, but it's better than nothing.

There are just a few image sizes available on the Coolpix L12. They include:

Resolution Quality # images on 21MB built-in memory # images on 1GB SD card (optional)
7M
3072 x 2304
High 6 280
Normal 12 560
16:9
3072 x 1728
Normal 16 740
5M
2592 x 1944
Normal 17 780
3M
2048 x 1536
Normal 27 1220
PC Screen
1024 x 768
Normal 93 4180
TV Screen
640 x 480
Normal 175 7860

In case you didn't believe me about needing to buy a memory card, have a look at the chart above. Not surprisingly, the camera does not support the RAW or TIFF image formats (and I wouldn't expect it to).

Images are named DSCN####.JPG, where # = 0001 - 9999. The file numbering is maintained, even if you replace and/or format memory cards.

Let's talk about menus now, shall we?

The Coolpix L12 has a pretty basic menu system. There are two ways to display the menu items: by text or by icon. For each of the menu items you can press the "zoom in" button to get a description of what that item does. Keeping in mind that not all of these options are available in the scene modes, here is the complete record menu:

That preset white balance option is the only manual control on the camera (even the ISO cannot be set manually, which can be a problem). This lets you use a white or gray card to get accurate colors, even in the most unusual lighting conditions.

The L12 has an unremarkable continuous shooting mode, which isn't entirely unexpected, given its price. The frame rate was all over the place (it averaged 0.9 frames/second), but you could keep shooting until your memory card fills up (assuming that it's fast enough). The LCD keeps up with the action reasonably well. The multi-shot 16 mode takes sixteen shots in a row and assembles them into a single 7 Megapixel collage.

The Best Shot Selector feature takes up to ten shots in a row and then saves the sharpest one. This feature has been a Nikon exclusive for some time now.

Now here's what you'll find in the setup menu, which is accessible from the record or playback menus:

Well that's it for menus, let's continue with the photo tests now. Since I can't control the ISO or shutter speed on the L12, some of the tests you may be used seeing are not present here.

The Coolpix L12's performance in our macro test is a perfect illustration of why automatic ISO control is a bad thing. In its downsized form above, the photo looks great. Colors are accurate (thanks to the camera's custom white balance), and the subject is sharp. However, if you view the full size image, you'll see noise -- and plenty of it. That's because the camera boosted the ISO to 400, which is something that you'd never do when shooting on a tripod (as I do for these tests). Why Nikon left out manual ISO control is beyond me.

Most Nikon cameras let you get really close to your subject, but not the Coolpix L12. When you get the lens in the proper position (when the macro flower turns green), the minimum focus distance is a lengthy 15 cm.

The night shot didn't turn out terribly well either. To take a long exposure, you'll need to use the night scenery mode. The camera automatically boosted the ISO to 400, which A) didn't bring in enough light and B) made the photo quite soft and noisy. Detecting a pattern here? About the only good thing I can say here is that there's no purple fringing to speak of.

There's fairly mild barrel distortion at the wide end of the Coolpix L12's 3X zoom lens. There's some vignetting here, which barely showed up in a few of my sample photos. There was also some corner blurriness, though it was only really noticeable in this shot.

The Coolpix L12 has a two-stage redeye reduction system. The camera first uses preflashes to shrink your subject's pupils, and if it still detects redeye the camera removes it with software. As you can see, this system did a pretty good job at eliminating redeye from our flash test shot. Pretty good for a compact camera, if I do say so myself.

Give the camera enough light, and it can produce very good quality photos. They're well-exposed, with pleasing colors and minimal purple fringing. Photos are on the soft side -- especially fine details like grass, leaves, and hair -- probably due to noise reduction. There's also the corner softness that I mentioned above. Not a big deal for small prints, but for larger prints you will notice these issues. There's no noise to speak of when the camera is using its lowest ISO setting, but when it boosts the ISO automatically, look out. Photos aren't particularly noisier than other cameras in this class, it's just that the camera is forcing the noise on you. If most of your shooting is in less-then-ideal lighting, then you should really find a camera that lets you adjust the ISO sensitivity manually.

Now, I invite you to have a look at our photo gallery, printing a few photos if you can, and then decide if the L12's photo quality meets your expectations.

Movie Mode

The Coolpix L12 has a nice movie mode, though it suffers from the same audio/video sync bug as several other Nikon cameras that I've reviewed. You can record video at 640 x 480 (30 fps) with sound until you run out of memory, or hit the 2GB file size limit. You can fill up the internal memory in just 19 seconds, so you'll want a large, high speed memory card for longer movies. A 1GB card holds about 14.5 minutes of VGA video.

For longer movies, you can lower the resolution to 320 x 240 or 160 x 120, though the latter has a very choppy 15 fps frame rate. There's also a stop-motion movie feature, which lets you take up to 1800 still photos and then put them all together into a silent VGA quality movie at 15 frames/second.

As you'd expect, you can use the image stabilization while recording videos. While you cannot use the optical zoom, the digital zoom is available.

You can choose between single and continuous autofocus while in movie mode. I would probably use single AF, as the microphone may pick up the focusing sounds otherwise.

Here's a sample movie for you, taken at the highest quality setting. You'll see the A/V sync bug in action when the sound cuts out a few seconds before the clip ends.


Click to play movie (8 MB, 640 x 480, 30 fps, AVI format)
Can't view them? Download QuickTime
.

Playback Mode

The Coolpix L12 has a pretty basic playback mode. Basic features such as slideshows, DPOF print marking, image protection, voice captions (up to 20 seconds worth), thumbnail mode, and zoom and scroll are all here. This last feature lets you enlarge your photo by as much as ten times so you can make sure everything's in focus. I don't like how you can't smoothly scroll around the photo, though -- it just jumps from one area to the next.

While photos can be resized and cropped in the camera, there's no way to rotate a photo.

Straight out of the camera Photo after D-Lighting

One handy feature, which you'd never know about without reading the manual, is called D-Lighting. This feature brightens up dark areas of your photos in seconds, simply by pressing the One-touch Portrait button on the top of the camera. The catch is that your photos get noisier -- and since the camera is already noisy in low light, that can be a bad thing.

A copy function lets you move photos from the internal memory to a memory card and vice versa. One other feature that I always appreciate is the ability to delete a group of photos, instead of just one at a time (or all at once).

Unfortunately, the L12 doesn't tell you much about your photos. What you see above is all you get!

The cameras move through photos at an average clip, showing a low resolution image instantly, with the higher resolution image arriving about half a second later.

How Does it Compare?

The Nikon Coolpix L12 is one of a very select group of entry-level cameras to offer image stabilization for under $200. Its closest competitor is probably the Panasonic Lumix DMC-LS75 which, up until recently, I didn't even think they sold in the U.S. The Coolpix L12 is a decent camera if you're doing mostly outdoor, bright light photography. If you'll be doing a lot of low light shooting, or want to minimize noise, then I'd steer clear of the Coolpix L12.

The Coolpix L12 is a compact camera made almost entirely of plastic, as you'd expect considering its price. While not "tiny", it's still very compact, and it should fit in almost any pocket. Build quality is fairly good. The camera has a run-of-the-mill 3X optical zoom lens that has some problems with vignetting and corner blurriness. As I mentioned, the camera has lens-shift optical images stabilization, something you just won't find on most entry-level cameras. It does its job well, though you'd get better output from the camera if you could control the ISO manually. On the back of the camera you'll find a 2.5" LCD display and no optical viewfinder. The LCD resolution is low (115,000 pixels), but then again, this is a no-frills camera. The screen was visible in both bright outdoor light and in dimly lit rooms. The L12 has a powerful flash for a compact camera.

The L12 is a point-and-shoot camera, with just one manual control, though it's a useful one (white balance). There are plenty of scene modes to choose from, though the "scene assist" modes of past Coolpixes are mostly gone here. The camera has two unique shooting modes, called Anti-shake and One-Touch Portrait. The former boosts the ISO too high, so I'd avoid using it. The One-Touch Portrait feature is better, though Nikon's face detection system leaves much to be desired. If you're confused about any of the shooting modes or menus on the camera, you can press the "zoom in" button to get a help screen. While the L12's movie mode is good on paper, it has the same audio/video sync bug that I've seen for well over a year (come on and fix it already, Nikon!).

Camera performance was mixed. The camera's startup, autofocus, and shutter lag speeds were about average. The camera had great difficulty focusing in low light situations, despite having an AF-assist lamp. Shot-to-shot speeds are okay if you're not using the flash, but if you are, be prepared to wait up to five seconds before you can take another picture. The camera's continuous shooting mode was decent, and battery life is above average if you put in some powerful NiMH batteries. The camera does not support the USB 2.0 High Speed standard, so transferring data to a computer will be slow.

Photo quality really depending on the situation. In good light, it was fairly good, with accurate exposure and color. Images were on the soft side -- especially fine details -- and corner blurriness was a problem. Purple fringing was not a major problem. If lighting levels drop just a bit and "ISO" appears on the LCD, look out: the camera is boosting the ISO sensitivity automatically, which can greatly increase the amount of noise in your images. Since there's no way to turn this feature off, even photos taken on a tripod will be noisy, as our test shots illustrated. This is not a camera for low light, night, or tripod shooting! The one thing the Coolpix L12 really handled well was redeye, due to a software-based tool that runs if the camera detects this annoyance in your flash photos.

If you want a compact, easy-to-use, and inexpensive camera for mostly outdoor shooting, then the Nikon Coolpix L12 is worth a look. If you do any low light shooting then I'd find a camera with manual ISO control, and hopefully that one will focus better than the L12 as well. While I applaud Nikon for bringing image stabilization to the masses, they left out a few too many features for me to recommend it to everyone.

What I liked:

What I didn't care for:

Some other entry-level cameras worth considering include the Canon PowerShot A570 IS, Fuji FinePix A610, GE A730, HP Photosmart M637, Kodak EasyShare Z885, Olympus FE-210, Panasonic Lumix DMC-LS75, Pentax Optio E40, Samsung S730, and the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-S700. Of those, only the Canon and Panasonic have optical image stabilization.

As always, I recommend a trip down to your local reseller to try out the Coolpix L12 and its competitors before you buy!

Photo Gallery

See how the photos turned out in our photo gallery!

Want another opinion?

You'll find more reviews of the Coolpix L12 at CNET, Pocket-lint, and Steve's Digicams.

Feedback & Discussion

To discuss this review with other DCRP readers, please visit our forums.

If you have a question about this review, please send them to Jeff. Due to my limited resources, please do not e-mail me asking for a personal recommendation or technical support.

 

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