Nikon Coolpix L820 review: 30x zoom on the cheap

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The Good The Nikon Coolpix L820 has better features than you'd expect for its price, including a 30x zoom lens, a high-res 3-inch LCD, and a backside-illuminated CMOS sensor. It's one of the few cameras that is powered by AA batteries.

The Bad The L820's autofocus performance is on the slow side when the lens is zoomed in or in low light or indoors. Shooting performance is not quite fast enough for fast-moving kids and pets.

The Bottom Line For those who value a long zoom lens, AA batteries, and saving a few bucks, the Nikon Coolpix L820 might be your point-and-shoot.

7.0 Overall
  • Design 7
  • Features 7
  • Performance 7
  • Image quality 7

Considering its street price of less than $200, the Nikon Coolpix L820 boasts an attractive set of specs.

The star is obviously the 30x zoom lens, which starts at an ultrawide-angle 22.5mm and zooms out to 675mm. That covers a lot of ground and gives you great framing flexibility. Along with that you get a 16-megapixel BSI CMOS sensor (something typically found in higher-end point-and-shoots) and a high-resolution 3-inch LCD. And, it's powered by four AA-size batteries, which is becoming increasingly rare.

It is, however, still an entry-level point-and-shoot and performs like one. Yes, you can get some pretty nice pictures and movies out of it. And yes, it's not painfully slow to use, like cameras in this class used to be (its predecessor, the L810 is downright sluggish by comparison). But it's not great in low light and indoors without a flash, it can be slow to focus with the lens extended, and shooting performance in general is best suited for slow-moving or stationary subjects.

There are some positives to being entry-level, though, so if you think you can live with its drawbacks, it's worth a spot on your list of cameras to consider.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Picture quality
As with most entry-level point-and-shoots, you'll want to give the L820 as much light as possible. Photos are best at and below ISO 200. As the sensitivity increases, so do the noise and smeary details from noise reduction. Also, colors appear slightly washed-out and muddy from noise at ISO 800 and above.

This, combined with the increased softness at higher sensitivities, means the indoor and low-light photo quality without a flash just isn't very good. So again, as long as you have plenty of light and don't do more than share photos online or make the occasional 4x6-inch print, the L820 takes good snapshots and, really, better ones than other cameras at this price with similar features. (You can read more about the L820's picture quality in and download full-resolution samples from the slideshow above.)

The thing to keep in mind is that with this zoom lens the maximum aperture gets smaller as you zoom in. This means the camera has to use either slower shutter speeds, higher ISO sensitivities, or both in order to get a good exposure. Slower shutter speeds can result in blurry pictures and higher ISOs, again, increasing noise and softness. Basically, you'll want to make sure you have a lot of light if you want sharp photos while using the zoom lens. (This is the case with most megazooms, by the way, not only the L820.)

Video quality is good enough for Web use and nondiscriminating TV viewing. If you plan to do a lot of panning from side to side or shooting fast-moving subjects, you'll likely see judder and ghosting, but not enough to make clips unwatchable. The zoom does work when recording, but you may hear it moving in quieter scenes. If you use the zoom while recording you'll want to keep the autofocus set to full-time, but you might hear the lens focusing in very quiet scenes as well.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Shooting performance
AA-battery-powered cameras tend to be slower performers than cameras that use rechargeable lithium ion battery packs. The L820, however, is reasonably fast. From off to first shot is 1.5 seconds. The time from pressing the shutter release to capture without prefocusing is just over 0.1 second in bright lighting and 0.5 second in low lighting. Shot-to-shot times averaged 1.2 seconds. The time between shots when using the flash is nearly as good at 1.3 seconds, which is remarkably fast.

The camera's full-resolution burst mode is capable of capturing up to six frames at 10 frames per second, which is better than the 8fps Nikon claims. That, however, is with focus and exposure set at the first shot, so fast-moving subjects might not be in focus for all of the photos, and it takes about 8 seconds for those images to be saved before you can shoot again. Also, it takes a little longer to focus and shoot when zoomed all the way in, which can be frustrating when trying to lock on to a moving target. The same goes for indoors or low-light conditions.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Design and features
Using the L820 is straightforward. The controls and menu system are fairly uncomplicated, so it shouldn't be a problem to get started shooting. The menu system is broken into three tabs: Shooting, Movie, and Setup. The layout keeps you from having to do too much hunting through settings, not that there's all that much to adjust. (For example, you can't even turn off the digital zoom.) That's not to say it won't take a little effort to get the most from this camera, but the basics of shooting a photo or movie are easy.

Anyone who's used a point-and-shoot camera should have no trouble managing the L820. The layout is fairly standard and clearly labeled. There's also a secondary control for the zoom on the lens barrel, which is a bit nicer to use for shooting video.