Nikon Coolpix L820 £219.99
5th Aug 2013 | 15:09
Budget AA battery-powered bridge packs a 30x optical punch
If you're going to bother bringing out a non-interchangeable lens compact camera these days, you'd better provide ample reasons for someone to buy it instead of simply relying on their smartphone as a one-size-fits-all solution. Big zoom compacts also known as bridge cameras, superzooms or ultra zooms, are currently where it's at - in that these are cameras that are actually still selling in significant numbers.
With our review sample fashioned in a high gloss maroon finish, Nikon's budget superzoom Coolpix L820 certainly attempts to stand out from the handset-wielding hordes.
And that's before we've even taken into account the fact that this relatively compact, mini DSLR-styled model finds room to squeeze in an impressive 30x optical reach, supported by lens-shift image stabilisation. This is a step up from the 26x reach of the Nikon L810.
OK so next to the 42x optical zoom of Nikon's P520, which was launched at the same time earlier this year and sits above it in the range, the whopping 50x zoom of Sony's HX300, and other bridge models, the focal range equivalent to 22.5-675mm in 35mm terms appears almost modest. A maximum lens aperture of f/3 also reads as nothing particularly special.
And yet, despite the fact that it shoehorns four AA batteries into its innards to provide power instead of a lithium ion rechargeable cell - lasting up to 320 shots according to CIPA standards - this Nikon doesn't immediately seem the cheap and cheerful product that a budget price tag of £220 / AU$275 / US$280 might suggest. Current online prices shave a good chunk off that full asking price too, making the Nikon L820 seem even more of a bargain for the specification on offer.
The headline features of the Nikon L820, while not earth-shattering, aren't too shabby either: a 16-megapixel effective resolution from a back-illuminated 16.79 million pixel CMOS sensor, 8fps continuous shooting, 3-inch fixed LCD offering an impressive 920k dots resolution plus 97% frame coverage in lieu of any alternative optical or electronic viewfinder.
Added to this, the optical zoom is supported by lens-shift vibration reduction, and the Nikon L820's macro option can get as close as 1cm from your subject. Full HD 1920 x 1080 pixels video recording at a frame rate of 30fps is included as standard.
There's stereo audio too, courtesy of twin microphones situated either side of the hump housing the pop-up flash. An HDMI output port nestles alongside a USB port, under a side flap. Though a USB cable is provided in the box, the HDMI lead is an extra expense.
This camera also misses out on latest must-have features such as integrated Wi-Fi - though it is compatible with Eye-Fi X2 variety cards - and it omits touchscreen control, too.
Likewise there's no raw file format shooting option, no location mapping GPS, no tilting LCD monitor and no hotshoe-come-accessory port. Still, there is a Smarties-like range of body colours to distract us, since the Nikon L820 comes in blue, maroon, plum or the far more sensible black.
JPEG still images and MPEG4 video clips are written to all varieties of SD media, or there's a small 65MB internal memory capacity to fall back on straight out of the box.
Coupled with that backlit sensor, the Nikon L820's low light capabilities are enhanced by a light sensitivity range that is extendable from the core ISO 125-1600 to ISO 3200 when using Auto mode.
This feels like very much a beginner's bridge camera, in that it's basically pick it up, point and shoot, eyes fixed on the rear LCD panel. But luckily that is reflected in the price and the pitch. It may look like a DSLR at first glance, but the control layout is much closer to that of your compact pocket camera, even if the shape suggests otherwise. This isn't about manual control, but rather the camera giving your photography a (modest) helping hand.
Build quality and handling
Whereas a lot of budget priced bridge cameras that are powered by AA batteries feel distinctly plastic and insubstantial before the batteries are inserted, fortunately that's not the case with the Nikon L820.
OK, in fairness it does feel a little plastic, complete with clip-on lens cap, an impression accentuated rather than disguised by the ultra-glossy finish. But while a mini DSLR-shaped body isn't quite as elegant or as portable a solution as say the likes of Sony's Cyber-Shot DSC-HX50 when it comes to shoehorning an equivalent focal range into a small body, the £220 / AU$275 / US$280 price point - as opposed to £350 / AU$500 / US$450 for the Sony - reflects this.
This Nikon camera is also reassuringly weighty when gripped in the palm, and surprisingly doesn't feel as creaky, or even as squeaky, as its shiny, buffed appearance might suggest.
Despite being an entry-level bridge camera, there are plenty of controls to make you feel like you're getting hands-on too, even when, in fact, the camera is doing all the work for you.
A case in point is that the lever for operating the zoom surrounding the raised shutter release button on the upper slope of the handgrip is backed up by a second lever on the left side of the lens housing. Here it falls under, and can be operated by, the thumb of the left hand. This control option actively encourages the camera to be gripped with both hands in use, so acting as a further means of steadying the device.
The grip is of such a size that three fingers can comfortably be wrapped around it, while the forefinger hovers over the shutter release button encircled by a lever from the zoom, and the thumb comes to rest on a rubber pad at the back.
How to use your new digital camera
Also falling under the thumb, but this time the thumb of the right hand, is the red record button for instantly leading into video capture mode. As expected, you can jump to this mode no matter what other setting had previously been selected.
Here there is no actual shooting mode dial, however, so instead we call up shooting options via a press of the Scene button that we feel would be better served being merely renamed Mode button, since that's what it is, in the absence of any DSLR-like physical mode dial.
A press of this button and, among the choices on offer, there are 19 scene modes. Surprisingly, these include a MOV file format shooting 3D mode alongside regular landscape, pet and portrait options, for which there is a retouch menu built in.
Apart from scene mode, the other options here include Easy Auto Mode, Smart Portrait Mode - offering the likes of smile and blink detection as well as a skin softening feature - plus regular Auto and a selection of picture effects, of which one of the most successful is selective colour. As it sounds, this provides the opportunity to choose which colour you want to highlight by selecting it from a palette-like toolbar, with the camera de-saturating the rest of the image.
In short the options here and the control layout to go with it are straightforward enough that anyone picking up the Nikon L820 for the first time will be up and shooting within seconds.
Which is, arguably, all as it should be, given that the most apt user will be a hard-pressed mum or dad rather than an avid photo enthusiast wanting to spend time scrolling through endless custom settings - of which there are none here, incidentally.
Press the partially submerged power button next to the built-in audio speaker on the top plate and the Nikon L820 powers up in around two seconds, lens barrel extending from within its protective housing to arrive at maximum wide angle setting, while the rear LCD screen bursts into life.
Toggle the zoom lever surrounding the shutter release button, which dips forward slightly at the top of the handgrip to tease your forefinger into submission, and the lens moves through its core focal range in all of three seconds, which is fairly responsive.
Squeeze the shutter release button down halfway and the Nikon L820 visibly alters focus before settling on a subject and signalling it has completed its task of determining focus and exposure with a beep.
Press the shutter release button fully and the camera appears to take the shot nigh instantly, writing a full 16-megapixel resolution image with the least amount of compression to a card or internal capacity in all of two seconds. Again, given the camera's price and budget aspirations, this isn't bad at all.
Feint praise perhaps, but then what can we rightfully expect from a camera costing all of £220 / AU$275 / US$280 that throws a 30x zoom into the mix? A year or so ago we were paying a similar amount for a 5x optical zoom snapper, so perhaps there is something photographic enthusiasts should be thanking smartphones - specifically the increased competition that the smartphone era has brought - for.
As long as you're not constantly shooting at maximum zoom handheld, but even sometimes when you are, the results from the Nikon L820 are impressively sharp. They're sharp even when compared to the 20MP Sony HX300, which costs nigh on twice the price of this Nikon.
What camera should I buy? Your options explained
OK, so it doesn't have the Sony's consistency of performance, and the image relayed to the back LCD screen is very wobbly and juddery when attempting longer lens shots, but it's not a bad performance all the same.
Detail is maintained into the corners, and when the shot is sharp - which isn't 100% of the time on the Nikon L820, admittedly - the detail is more crisp than the more expensive Sony, perhaps because Nikon hasn't crammed quite as many pixels onto its small sensor, but has offered a sensible enough count nonetheless.
Colours from this Nikon are naturalistic rather than vivid, but you can boost them artificially in-camera if the day is a little autumnal and washed out looking and resultant images are lacking contrast and bite. Even at the top ISO setting of ISO 3200, results aren't horrible.
The screen is adequate for shot composition and review, whether used indoors or out, and, though we might have longed for a viewfinder or an articulated LCD screen, it's hardly a massive surprise to not find them included on an entry-level bridge camera.
Operation here is pretty much 'auto everything', so point and shoot all the way. It may struggle sometimes to avoid blurred results when shooting handheld at maximum telephoto zoom, and admittedly we were testing this model on a rather overcast day, but if you're not aiming at competition-quality results and would be quite happy having an everyday snapper with a bit of extra poke in the zoom department, then the Nikon L820 may well fit the bill.
Image quality and resolution
As part of our image quality testing for the Nikon Coolpix L820, we've shot our resolution chart.
If you view our crops of the resolution chart's central section at 100% (or Actual Pixels) you will see that, for example, at ISO 125 the Nikon Coolpix L820 is capable of resolving up to around 18 (line widths per picture height x100) in its highest quality JPEG files.
For a full explanation of what our resolution charts mean, and how to read them, check out our full explanation of our camera testing resolution charts.
Examining images of the chart taken at each sensitivity setting reveals the following resolution scores in line widths per picture height x100:
Full ISO 125 image, see the cropped (100%) versions below.
ISO 125, score: 18 (Click here to see the full resolution image)
ISO 200, score: 18 (Click here to see the full resolution image)
ISO 400, score: 16 (Click here to see the full resolution image)
ISO 800, score: 14 (Click here to see the full resolution image)
ISO 1600, score: 12 (Click here to see the full resolution image)
ISO 3200, score: 12 (Click here to see the full resolution image)
Noise and dynamic range
We shoot a specially designed chart in carefully controlled conditions and the resulting images are analysed using DXO Analyzer software to generate the data to produce the graphs below.
A high signal to noise ratio (SNR) indicates a cleaner and better quality image.
For more more details on how to interpret our test data, check out our full explanation of our noise and dynamic range tests.
JPEG signal to noise ratio
This graph shows that the Nikon Coolpix L820's JPEG files have significantly stronger signal to noise ratios than JPEGs from the Olympus SP-820UZ and Sony HX300 at every sensitivity setting, but slightly weaker ratios than those found in the Canon PowerShot SX50 HS's JPEGs.
JPEG dynamic range
Similarly, the Nikon Coolpix L820's JPEGs have greater dynamic range than the Olympus SP-820UZ and Sony HX300's JPEGs, but weaker dynamic range than the Canon PowerShot SX50 HS's JPEGs at every sensitivity setting. Results here are slightly less spread out than they were for signal to noise ratios, with theSony coming close to the Nikon's scores at ISO 200 and 3200.
Sensitivity and noise images
Full ISO 125 image, see the cropped (100%) versions below.
ISO 1600 (Click here to see the full resolution image)
ISO 3200 (Click here to see the full resolution image)
The 16 megapixel sensor-incorporating Nikon L820 is being pitched by its maker as 'the simpler way to enjoy a superzoom', which oddly makes for a pitch that falls somewhere between enthusiasm and almost excuse.
Certainly it would be a better fit for someone who had been considering a basic snapshot camera but felt that the one thing that they were actually missing out on was a long lens for candid shots of the kids, landscapes and everything in between.
If you can live with the slightly tacky high gloss finish of our review sample, a 30x optical reach boasting a broad 22.5-675mm focal range in 35mm terms is pretty good certainly. And while a mini DSLR-shaped body isn't quite as elegant or as portable a solution as say the likes of Sony's Cyber-Shot DSC-HX50 when it comes to shoehorning an equivalent focal range into a small body, the £220 / AU$275 / US$280 price point - as opposed to £350 / AU$500 / US$450 for the Sony - reflects this.
The Nikon L820 is inexpensive, has a broad focal range and a sensor that's not over-burdened with pixels. Its images provide a good level of detail, unless you're shooting at maximum zoom, whereby results can be more hit and miss in terms of blur.
The plastic high gloss finish can be off-putting, as can the fact that it's powered by bog standard AA batteries. It also lacks a viewfinder, accessory shoe, integrated Wi-Fi connectivity, a touchscreen and a raw shooting option, which are features we miss.
Though you won't be able to fit the Nikon L820 into the pocket of your jeans without a rather uncomfortable and unsightly squeeze, the body is sized to fit into a roomier jacket pocket. You could wear it on a strap around your neck, perhaps, but then it may just appear to casual passers-by that someone has shrunk your DSLR in the wash. Either that or you're a giant by comparison.
Lacking much if anything in the way of manual features, and not offering the ability to shoot in raw format, to wirelessly transfer images unless buying a compatible Eye-Fi card, or to add on any accessories via a hotshoe (as there isn't a hotshoe), this is not a replacement for buying a DSLR or a compact system camera.
It does feel oddly and reassuringly weighty though, even before the four AA batteries needed to power it are inserted. Power consumption is rather fair too, at just over 300 shots from a full charge, enabling you to fit in a good couple of days sightseeing and shooting between recharges. This does go some way to negating the rather plastic appearance and feel you get when handling the Nikon L820, in its high gloss incarnation at least.
Perhaps the 'worst' thing about the operation of the Nikon L820 is the wobbly screen image when trying to compose a shot at maximum telephoto setting, which seems to visibly separate the likes of this camera from a slightly bulkier and weightier bridge model costing considerably more. That and the fact that sharp results aren't delivered with quite the consistency of models further up the photographic food chain.
What anyone is buying this for, however, is better image quality and a broader range of framing possibilities than their camera phone or basic snapshot could offer, and in both those respects this plucky little Coolpix more or less delivers.
Image quality is in some respects better or at least sharper for nearer subjects than more outwardly sophisticated, higher resolution models. In not over-egging the pudding, Nikon hasn't left anyone feeling pig sick.
So which one will you choose: red, plum, blue or sensible black? Whichever one you select you're still left with the fact that the 16 megapixel, 30x optical zoom Nikon Coolpix L820 is very much a starter superzoom or bridge camera.
While modest in comparison to some of the 42x and 50x zoom bridge cameras currently on the market, the Nikon L820 is priced sensibly to reflect this. And a broad 22.5-675mm focal range in 35mm terms is certainly of greater use for more creative endeavours than the fixed lens and digital zoom on your smartphone.
Don't expect miracles of the inexpensive Nikon Coolpix L820 and upon purchase you might even be pleasantly surprised.
First reviewed 5 August 2013