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You just can't expect a whole lot from a $200 camera. Budget-priced shooters might be reliable, but they very seldom offer anything unique or high-end. The 7-megapixel Nikon Coolpix L12 bucks this trend by including two premium features in its unassuming, inexpensive form.
With a plain, silver plastic shell that measures an inch across, the 6-ounce L12 isn't the most slim or stylish shooter. Its compact body curves slightly outward on the right side to make room for two AA batteries that power the camera. The camera's back panel holds a 2.5-inch LCD screen and a handful of controls, including a joypad and a sliding mode switch. The joypad and buttons loom large on the camera and can be manipulated easily, though the mode slider and zoom rocker feel slightly too small to be comfortable.
Like most budget cameras, the 7-megapixel L12 focuses more on automation and simplicity than on customization. Besides white balance and a handful of scene presets, the camera automates most shooting settings, including ISO sensitivity. When shooting in low light, the L12 automatically boosts sensitivity up to ISO 1600, a potential problem for noise-wary shooters. Surprisingly, the L12 offers manual white balance along with the standard selection of incandescent, fluorescent, cloudy, sunny, and flash white balance presets.
Despite its otherwise unimpressive attributes, the L12 boasts two high-end features we were surprised to see in a budget camera. Nikon's optical Vibration Reduction shifts the camera's 35mm-to-105mm equivalent lens to help reduce shake. Face-priority autofocus identifies subjects' faces and adjusts camera settings to best capture them. Both of these features are usually found on higher-end cameras like Nikon's Coolpix S500, and it's good to see them appear on a $200 shooter.
An extremely long recycle time renders the L12's flash almost unusable. Once you take a photo with the onboard flash, it takes an arduous 8.6 seconds to reset. During that time the screen blanks out, preventing you from reviewing your photo, changing settings, or even just disabling the flash so you can shoot without it. Even with the flash turned off, the L12 simply fared poorly in our lab tests. After a 2.5-second wait to power on and capture its first image, the camera could fire off one shot every 2.4 seconds without the flash enabled. The shutter lag measured an adequate 0.7 second with our high-contrast target, but a painful 2 seconds with our low-contrast target. Burst mode captured 15 full-resolution shots in just under 10 seconds for a rate of 1.5 frames per second.
Because the L12 automates ISO sensitivity, we couldn't perform our full litany of noise tests. This automation also means that indoor and low-light shots can vary wildly in quality, depending on how much the camera decides to boost sensitivity. In good lighting, the L12 takes very nice, colorful photos. In low lighting, the camera's ISO-boosted grain, and the noise reduction algorithms that try to keep it in check, destroys much of the detail in the captured images. Since the flash takes so long to recycle, and its high ISO noise is so obtrusive, the L12 is rendered almost useless in low light.
Even though it includes features I was surprised to see on a budget camera, the Nikon Coolpix L12 simply has too many problems for me to recommend it. While face detection and optical image stabilization are both very nice, they can't make up for the camera's slow shooting, painfully long flash recycle time, and inconsistent low-light shots. If you want an affordable camera with more options, consider the much more flexible Samsung S850 or Canon PowerShot A630. If you simply want an easy-to-use, reliable camera, consider the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-W55.
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