One of the least expensive long-range-zoom compact digital cameras is also one of the easiest to use and is designed to give non-technical snapshooters a shot at taking some great photos. Here's how it works.
The Nikon Coolpix L820 is a digital camera that has gained popularity for its sub-$200 price tag, long-range zoom lens, and simple operation. You can easily take pictures and video with the Nikon L820 even if you are a total technophobe, thanks to its stripped down selection of options, icon-driven modes, and no intimidating manual settings. You don't need to know or understand f/stops and shutter speeds to snag great shots with this model. Despite its ease of use, it boasts an impressive 30x superzoom lens that can shoot super close-ups, bring distant subjects close, and zoom out to take in more of the scene.
For snapshooters, the Nikon L820 is a great travel companion because it is so light but has a long focal range, lending itself to a wide variety of photos. But despite its simplified operation, it has quality parts, from the ED glass lens elements that transmit light with minimal distortion to 16MP stills, stereo sound capture and full 1080p video.
When you unpack the Nikon L820, you will find the camera, a neckstrap (instructions on how to attach the neckstrap can be found on Page 5 of the Quick Start Guide), a Quick Start Guide, four AA batteries, a lens cap and cap keeper cord, a USB cable that plugs your camera directly into your computer, an Audio Video cable which connects the camera to a TV via the AV Out port, and two CDs. One has image editing software, called Nikon ViewNX2, which helps you fix and organize your images, and a disc with the full reference manual in four languages in PDF format.
What comes in the box is a good start, but you'll need a few more items in order to take pictures and get the most out of this camera.
Accessorizing Your Camera: What Else You Need
Memory Cards: The Nikon L820 requires a memory card to store the photos. Since it shoots big 16MP image files and full HD movies, I recommend getting at least an 8 GB card such as the SanDisk Extreme 8GB card, which is currently available at Adorama for $14.95. If you plan on shooting video, make sure the card is at least 16GB to accommodate large video files, and rated Class 10. This classification indicates how fast data transfers from camera to card; since there's a lot of data in an HD video, you want the card with the fastest transfer rate available. Slower cards can cause pauses in movie recording. The good news is that these cards are very affordable. For instance, the Lexar 16GB 400X Class 10 card is available as of this writing at Adorama for $15.95.
Microfiber Cloth: Inevitably, the front of your lens will get smudged, and this will affect the clarity of your images until it's been cleaned up. A microfiber cloth is an inexpensive way to clean up your lens. Spudz makes a good lineup of microfiber cloths that come with their own little pocketable container. Tip: If you have a stubborn smudge, be careful and don't rub the lens surface hard because that could damage it. Instead, spray lens cleaning fluid onto the lens and work it gently until the smudge comes off.
Camera Support: Even though the Nikon L820 has impressively effective shake reduction technology, there will be times when that won't be quite enough. The Joby Gorillapod serves two purposes: It can be used as a tabletop mini tripod, but you can also use its flexible legs to wrap it around any pole, stick, branch or similar surface, effectively turning it into a higher-angle tripod. (You'll also need a ballhead so you an move the camera around freely.) Prefer a more traditional tripod? Consider the 3Pod Aluminum Compact Reversable.
Rechargeable Batteries: The Nikon L820 conveniently runs on easy-to-find AA batteries, but you'll quickly discover that the cost of constantly replacing them when they run out of juice can add up, and dumping spent batteries is not great for the environment. Instead, consider getting a couple of sets of rechargeable batteries and a charger. Power2000 makes a set of four AA's and a charger for less than $20. A good idea: Buy a second set of batteries and keep them charged, so when one set runs dry, the second set is ready to go and you can keep shooting.
Setting Up The Nikon L820
Flip open the door at the base of the handgrip (push the switch up and then the door to the right) and place the batteries and memory card in the appropriate slots. Close the door and turn the camera on by pressing the on/off button on top of the camera. You'll be prompted to select a time zone, time and date, and then the camera is ready to use.
Changing Default Settings: Make This Camera Your Own!
Here are four default settings you may want to change. These are set-'em-and-forget-'em settings that you only have to change once. To get to the Settings menu, press the Menu button, found next to the bottom right corner of the LCD monitor. Scroll down to the wrench icon.
1. Change the Monitor Brightness. Although it takes more battery power, move the screen brightness from a 3 (middle setting) to a 4. This will make the image a bit more visible in sunlight. To find this, go to Monitor Settings and select Brightness.
2. Quiet, Please: As you use the camera you may notice it often gives off a double-beep confirmation signal which can be annoying and distracting to you as well as the people you're photographing. Turn it off by going to Sound Settings, selecting Button Sound, and turning it off. You may also want to turn off the shutter sound if you like to shoot candids, but if not, keep it on so you know the camera's taking pictures.
3. Auto Off: After a predetermined time of inactivity, the camera turns off automatically. The default is 30 seconds, which saves battery. You may want to increase the time to 1 or 5 minutes.
4. Battery Type: If you switch from the supplied Alkaline to a lithium rechargeable battery or Nikon's NiMH batteries, you need to let the camera know. Otherwise, it may not work well. Go to Battery Type and make your selection.
What Do The External Controls Do?
Let's take a quick look at all the buttons on the Nikon L820, starting with the top of the camera. The shutter release, surrounded by a zoom lens operating ring (indicated by a T and a W), sits atop the handgrip. Interestingly, you can also zoom the lens with your left hand, using an up/down switch located on the left side of the lens barrel. Press the On/Off button to start up the camera. You know it is on when it is shining steadily green, and in sleep mode when blinking green. Press the shutter release partway down to exit sleep mode. A speaker/microphone is located to the left of the on/off button, and the flash housing is on the left side of the camera's top; press the flash button just to the left of the flash housing to flip up the flash.
The back of the camera has most of the camera's controls, all of which are located on the right side. From top to bottom:
The button with the red circle in the middle is the video-record button. Press it once to record video, and again to stop. (While the default setting is to record 1080 dot resolution at 30fps, you can choose lower resolution and higher frame rates for slow-motion by going into the video menu options and selection Movie Options.)
The green Scene button, when in shooting mode, calls up five options: Auto mode, Easy Auto Mode, and a variety of scene settings as well as color intensity control that ranges from saturated to monochrome. More about this feature later in the Guide to Scene Modes. To the right of the Scene button is the Image Preview button. Press it to access images on the memory card or in the camera's internal storage.
Then there's the round, five-button Multi Selector. When scrolling through the Menu options, use the up, down, right and left buttons to navigate and the OK button to select the desired feature. When in normal shooting mode, you can control (from the top moving clockwise) flash settings, exposure compensation (overall darkness or brightness of the image), macro mode, and time exposure.
Want to dig further into the camera's features? Use the Menu button, located below to the left of the Multi Selector. What you see on the LCD monitor when you press this button will depend on what scene mode you've chosen. To access all of the camera's controls, be sure you're in regular Auto Mode. This will let you access and control image resolution and aspect ratio, white balance, single exposure or burst exposure mode, ISO sensitivity, and color intensity. You can also access the Movie modes, which include resolution and frame rate changes, a choice between AF-S Single AF and full-time autofocus, and camera set-up tools (most of which you will only set once or twice).
If you need the flash, you first have to pop it up. There's a button on the left side, above the lens housing, with a lightning bolt icon. Press that and the flash pops up. It will fire or not depending on which exposure mode or scene mode has been selected.
Finally, the Delete button is located on the bottom right of the camera back.
The Zoom Lens: What do the numbers mean?
This is for newbies only. The Nikon L820 has a 30X lens, which means that when the lens is zoomed to its longest telephoto setting, it magnifies the images 30 times the size of the image you see when it is at its shortest wide-angle setting. The lens is marked as a 4.0-120mm lens, which its actual focal length. However, since its sensor is small, its actual area of coverage (what you actually see in the image) is expressed in “35mm equivalent” numbers. So, its widest setting is equivalent to a 22.5mm lens on a 35mm camera, and it zooms out to 675mm—which means you can bring distant subjects in very close.
The lens also indicates that it has an aperture range of f/3.0-5.8. Since wider apertures (indicated by smaller numbers) let in more light than smaller apertures, this indicates that if you're shooting in low light and want to avoid using flash, you probably want to use wide-angle settings to take advantage of the additional light that the lens will let in.
A Camera For Snapshooters: Guide To Scene Modes
The Nikon L820 offers 19 scene modes. Rather than learning how to use apertures and shutter speeds, this camera lets you choose a scene and it will do all of the calculations behind the scenes for you in order to get the best possible image. (Helpful hint: Put the camera in Easy Auto Mode and it will automatically select the scene for you, by matching the scene to its on-board database in order to find and expose for similar-looking scenes.) Additionally, there are separate controls that let you alter the color intensity and other aspects of your image that are presented in non-technical jargon.
Here's a quick look at each of the camera's scene modes:
Portrait: The camera finds and focuses on faces in a picture, uses skin-softening and other settings to provide a flattering image.
Landscape: Keeps camera focused on infinity. Use this when shooting through windows, since a window can mislead the camera's autofocus system.
Sports: Captures action. Hold the shutter release down all the way and the camera will shoot six shots in rapid sequence, then automatically choose the one that best depicts the action. The camera constantly focuses on moving subjects so they're in focus at the moment of exposure.
Night Portrait: Combines flash with a longer exposure for more natural light. Be sure the flash is flipped up into the on position. You will be given a handheld or tripod option; if you're shooting handheld, Vibration Reduction will be turned on. If you plan to use a tripod, select that option to disable Vibration Reduction since the camera's sensor may move while the camera is on a tripod, defeating the purpose of putting the camera on a tripod!
Party/Indoor: Good for photographing your friends indoors. The camera only focuses on the center of the frame so if you're photographing two people, be sure to focus on one of them with the focus point centered on them, then with the shutter release pressed halfway down, re-compose and shoot.
Beach: Exposure is adjusted to compensate for bright sand, which would normally mislead the camera into taking a picture that's too dark.
Snow: Exposure is adjusted to compensate for white snow, which would normally mislead the camera into taking a picture that's too dark.
Sunset: The camera focuses on infinity and exposure is adjusted in order to get the best possible exposure of sunset. Normally the concentrated light from the Sun in the scene would mislead the camera into taking a picture that's too dark. This mode also works for sunrise!
Dusk/Dawn: Increases ISO and activates Vibration Reduction in order to minimize camera shake in the lower light of dusk or dawn. Focus is on infinity.
Night Landscape: Optimizes exposure for photographing a cityscape at night so the lights are exposed properly.
Close-Up: Macro mode is enabled and the camera focuses to the closest possible distance. Press the shutter halfway down to fine-tune focus. Since the shutter speed is generally longer for macro and the image is more magnified than usual, a tripod is highly recommended (with vibration reduction turned off) for the steadiest possible photo.
Food: Realistic color setting and macro focus are enabled. Based on the kind of lighting in the restaurant (most food photos are shot in restaurants) you may need to adjust the overall color cast, or Hue, using the multi-selector.
Museum: Disables flash. Hold the shutter release down for a few seconds and a series of photos will be shot and the camera will select the best of the batch.
Fireworks Show: A tripod is a requirement for this setting. This mode lets you shoot four-second exposures with the camera focused on infinity. Aperture and other settings are optimized for better quality captures of fireworks.
Black and White Copy: Use this to photograph documents. The result will be a high-contrast image so the document can be clearly seen.
Backlighting: This setting expands the camera's dynamic range, allowing for more details to be visible in both shadows and bright areas of a high-contrast scene. You can turn HDR on in this setting, or keep it off for a more dramatic look that will have less shadow detail. When HDR is turned on the camera quickly captures two exposures of the same scene, one brighter than the other, and combines the two for a better overall exposure.
Easy Panorama: Press the shutter release all the way down and start shooting, slowly moving the camera across the scene. While you're doing this, the camera takes a series of images. Press the shutter release again when you're done. The camera then seamlessly stitches the series of images together.
Pet Portrait: Camera selects a fast shutter speed to catch speedy critters, and is programmed to recognize and focus on an animal's face. In Pet Portrait Auto Release, the camera locks up until it sees a n animal in the frame. If there's more than one animal in the scene, the camera gives focus and exposure priority to the largest face in the frame.
3D: In this image the camera records two images that can be played back on compatible 3D displays. The first image is also recorded as a standard photograph. Press the shutter release to capture the first image (this locks focus and exposure), then move the camera slightly to the right and take the second one. The two shots are combined into a standard 3D MPO-format file.
You can also change quality of the color in the images captured with your camera. SO Soft is the default setting and provides good image quality for people pictures. Other options are SE (adds a sepia tone so your photo looks like an old-fashioned one), high-contrast monochrome (for a gritty film look), high key (for overall brighter images), low key (for overall darker images) and Selective Color (captures a black-and-white image with one colorful highlight in the scene).
In Smart Portrait Mode, the camera waits for your subject to smile, then takes the picture.
The Nikon L820 is a good camera for amateur movies. It offers a handful of controls, including AF-S (focus locked while shooting a movie) and AF-F (focus while shooting movies). The advantage of AF-S over AF-F is that you may hear the sound of the camera focusing in the audio portion of the video if you select AF-F. Conversely, you may need to refocus in the middle of a scene, and that's where AF-F is handy. There's a wind noise reduction mode as well, which I recommend keeping on since it will improve overall sound quality.
That's it—the Nikon Coolpix L820 is a great camera to get you started but remember that if you want higher quality images, greater flexibility and are ready to grow as a photographer you may want to consider stepping up to a DSLR such as the Nikon D5200.