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Compact Camera Group Test: SLR-like 'super zoom' cameras

July 2010 | By Lars Rehm

 

It's now more than a year since we published our last superzoom group test and despite the hype surrounding mirrorless system cameras such as Micro Four Thirds or the Sony NEX, and the fact that entry level DSLRs are becoming more and more affordable, superzoom cameras are as popular with consumers as ever. It is easy to see why. The combination of a large zoom range from wideangle to super telephoto, DSLR-like ergonomics and an attractive price point guarantee that these cameras appeal to a very broad audience.

All of the major camera manufacturers carry now at least one 'super zoom' in their lineup and the task of choosing between different cameras is complicated by the frequently minimal specification and design differences between them. We want to help you find the camera that is right for you and to that end we decided to look at nine of the latest models and run them through our testing procedures.

Most of the cameras in this group test offer even more zoom range than their predecessors. Both these shots were taken from the same position with the Fujifilm HS10 and represent the greatest range currently offered in a compact camera lens, 30x (24-720mm equivalent in this case).

The sensors in these cameras are considerably smaller than you will find in a DSLR or mirrorless interchangeable lens model. One of the advantages of a smaller sensor is that, compared to an SLR, you need a physically much smaller lens. As you can see from the cameras in this test, it's possible to fit a huge 20x, 24x or even higher zoom range into a body small enough to still be manageable. As far back as 2000 Sony and Olympus had models with 10x zooms that, though bulky (and expensive) compared to modern superzooms, were smaller and a lot less pricey than a digital SLR with lenses covering the equivalent range. And those key advantages - price and portability - have ensured that despite the arrival of the budget digital SLR and mirrorless cameras the superzoom camera has remained popular.

The latest generation of superzoom cameras incorporate such large zoom ranges that, if you were to try to match them for use on a full-frame DSLR, you'd end up with something so large and imposing you'd expect it to need a special weapons export licence. Even on these small-sensor cameras, the lenses are necessarily large enough to dominate the design of the cameras. The result is that most of these superzooms look pretty much like SLRs - a hand-grip with a large protruding tube at the front.

The race between manufacturers to maintain a competitive advantage has seen the average zoom range extend from 10x to more than double that figure. The good news is that, as well as engaging in an arms race to see who can put the largest zoom ratio sticker on the front of the camera, manufacturers have also started to expand the wide end of lens - as wide as 24mm equivalent focal length in the case of the Fuji HS10.

All ten models in this group offer zoom ranges of at least 18x, covering ranges from wide angle to super telephoto, and all feature some form of optical or mechanical image stabilization - essential when working at such extreme magnifications. Other common features include electronic viewfinders, full photographic control, HD video modes and, for the most part, they have a pretty similar design. Some of this latest generation of superzooms also feature backlit CMOS sensors instead of the more conventional CCDs.

Advantages of CMOS over CCD include lower noise levels, and - chiefly -higher frame rates in both still and video capture. However, the photodiodes on conventional CMOS sensors are typically smaller, due to their associated circuitry, leading to lower light-gathering efficiency and correspondingly higher noise. So-called 'back side illuminated CMOS' technology simply means that the sensors are more efficient at gathering light, due to the circuitry that accompanies the photodiodes being moved to the rear of the light gathering surface. This should mean greater efficiency, leading to cleaner output compared to conventional CMOS, especially in poor light at high ISO settings.

The test cameras

Panasonic was arguably the first major manufacturer to popularize the concept of SLR-like superzoom cameras with the FZ10 and FZ20 back in 2003/2004. However, nowadays virtually all main manufacturers have recognized the earning potential in this sector of the market and have at least one superzoom in their model line-up. We've selected nine of the most recent models for this test.

  • Canon Powershot SX20 IS
  • Casio EX-FH25
  • Fujifilm FinePix HS10
  • Fujifilm FinePix S2500HD
  • Kodak Z981
  • Nikon Coolpix P100
  • Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ38
  • Pentax X90
  • Samsung WB5000

Please note that we would have liked to include the 30x zoom Olympus SP-800UZ but unfortunately Olympus wasn't able to provide us with a camera in time for this group test.

Key Spec compared

These are sophisticated cameras with large feature sets, so the bare-bones specifications shown here won't tell you a great deal, but are a good starting point.

 
Canon SX20 IS • 1/2.3" CCD
• 12.1 MP
80-
1600
28-560mm
(20x)
Lens • 2.5"
• 230k
SDHC/
SD
• 0.44"
• 235k
• 720p
• 30fps
$350
Casio EX-FH25 • 1/2.3" CMOS
• 10.1 MP
100-
3200
26-520mm
(20x)
CMOS • 3.0"
• 230k
SDHC/
SD
not known • 720p
• 30fps
$300
Fujifilm HS10 • 1/2.3" CMOS
• 10.3 MP
64-
6400*
24-720mm
(30x)
CMOS • 3.0"
• 230k
SDHC/
SD
• 0.2"
• 200k
• 1080p
• 30fps
$440
Fujifilm S2500HD • 1/2.3" CCD
• 12.2 MP
100-
6400*
28-504mm
(18x)
CCD • 3.0"
• 230k
SDHC/
SD
• 0.2"
• 200k
• 720p
• 30fps
$250
Kodak Z981 • 1/2.33" CCD
• 14.0 MP
64-
6400*
26-676mm
(26x)
Lens • 3.0"
• 230k
SDHC/
SD
• 230k • 720p
• 30fps
$250
Nikon P100 • 1/2.33" CMOS
• 10.3 MP
160-
3200*
26-678mm
(26x)
CCD • 3.0"
• 460k
SDHC/
SD
• 0.24"
• 230k
• 1080p
• 30fps
$340
Panasonic FZ35 • 1/2.33" CCD
• 12.1 MP
80-
6400
27-486mm
(18x)
Lens • 2.7"
• 230k
SDHC/
SD
• 0.2"
• 201.6k
• 720p
• 60fps
$300
Pentax X90 • 1/2.3" CCD
• 12.1 MP
80-
6400*
26-676mm
(26x)
CCD • 2.7"
• 230k
SDHC/
SD
• 200k • 720p
• 30fps
$300
Samsung HZ25W • 1/2.3" CCD
• 12.47 MP
80-
6400*
26-624mm
(24x)
Yes • 3.0"
• 230k
SDHC/
SD
not known • 720p
• 30fps
$340

Battery lives quoted in the review are supplied by the manufacturers, based on standardized CIPA tests. The figures, unless otherwise specified, are based on the use of the LCD screen. NiMH refers to 2500 mAh rechargeable cells.

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*highest ISO settings only available at reduced resolution

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