It's now more than a year since we published our last superzoom camera group test and after having, again, spent a long time shooting and evaluating this latest generation of superzooms we can conclude that in terms of image quality the situation is similar to last year's. The difference between the best and worst in class, at least at base ISO, is so tiny that for a large proportion of users it is essentially irrelevant.
At higher sensitivities and in low light the gap widens but the fact that it requires a tiny sensor to squeeze such large zoom ranges of up to 30x into a fairly compact body means that even the best cameras in this test struggle to produce usable results at anything over ISO 800. If it is your intention to shoot a large proportion of your images in low light a superzoom is probably not the camera for you.
If we assume that the output from these cameras is more likely to be viewed in small prints and on computer screens, the feature set of these cameras, and the performance of their core systems are much more important than pixel-level performance when deciding between them. Compared to the previous models, this new generation of superzooms boasts two major improvements. Firstly, almost inevitably, the zoom ranges have been increased. While last time around the Canon SX10's 20x lens was the longest zoom on offer, in 2010 the lenses range from 18x (Fujifilm S2500HD and Panasonic FZ35) to an almost incredible 30x (720mm equiv. at the long end) on the Fujifilm HS10.
Secondly we've seen the introduction of back-illuminated CMOS sensors which allow for the capture of high-speed still and videos (the latter resulting in slow motion videos when played at a standard 30fps). Casio was the company to pioneer this technology with the EX-F1 but it has been adopted by other manufacturers and of our test sample three models come with a CMOS sensor (Casio EX-FH25, Nikon P100 and Fujifilm HS10). Consequently the question of whether you can make use of the CMOS high speed features and what zoom range you require for your type of photography are likely to play an important role in your buying decision.
In our test we have looked at, and where possible analyzed, the cameras' performance, ergonomic, user friendliness, image stabilization systems and video capture capabilities, all of which may, depending on your preferences, be important criteria. You'll find a summary of our findings below on this page but we would recommend reading all sections of this review to make sure you choose the model that is right for you and your specific requirements.
Overall we can confidently say that none of the nine cameras in this group test are horrible in any way, but we recommend some over others simply because they perform that little bit better in some areas. As always, there are plenty of studio and real world samples available here from which you can draw your own conclusions.
Image quality: outdoors / daylight
In good light and at base ISO all cameras in this group test will do the job. The difference between the best and worst in class is relatively small and only visible at large magnifications (close to 100%). The contestants can roughly be split into three groups. At the very bottom only the Fujifilm S2500HD is, with its excessive application of noise reduction and consequent smearing of fine detail really visibly worse than the rest. At the other end of the scale the Panasonic FZ35 and Canon SX20 IS deliver images that are a little sharper, more detailed and cleaner than the competition. Between there's a large group of cameras that are very close to one another in terms of performance. The Nikon and Casio capture a little more detail than the HS10, Pentax, Kodak and Samsung but essentially the differences are impossible to spot unless you zoom in to 100% view.
- Best of the bunch: Canon PowerShot SX 20 IS, Panasonic FZ35
- Middle of the road: Nikon P100, Casio EX-FH25, Fujifilm HS10, Pentax X90, Kodak Z981, Samsung HZ25W
- Bottom of the class: Fujifilm S2500HD
Image quality: Low light / High ISO
None of the nine cameras in our group are capable of producing great results at ISO 800 and higher but some are worse than others. Again the differences are not massive but definitely larger than at base ISO which should be kept in mind by regular low light shooters. The grouping here represents the performance in the ISO 400-1600 range. Some cameras offer higher sensitivities than that but mostly at reduced resolution and the results are frequently unusable.
- Best of the bunch: Panasonic FZ35, Canon PowerShot SX 20 IS
- Middle of the road: Nikon P100, Fujifilm HS10
- Bottom of the class: Kodak Z981, Samsung HZ25W, Pentax X90, Casio EX-FH25, Fujifilm S2500HD
Image quality / performance: Flash
It's good to see all the latest superzooms produced perfectly usable results in this test and the differences between models are really marginal, mainly depending on the ISO that was chosen by the cameras' auto modes. The rankings below represent the small differences between the best and worst based on flash exposure, low light focus, recycle time, red eye removal and exposure.
- Best of the bunch: Panasonic FZ35, Nikon P100,
- Middle of the road: Canon SX20 IS, Casio EX-FH25, Pentax X90
- Bottom of the class: Fujifilm S2500HD, Fujifilm HS10, Samsung HZ25W, Kodak Z981
Ratings and recommendations
Looking at the previous pages and the rankings above it becomes obvious that there are two cameras that are consistently performing better than the rest: the Panasonic FZ35 and the Canon SX20 IS. The Nikon P100 lags a little behind those two in terms of speed of operation and user friendliness, but comes with an impressive feature set. The only camera we'd advise you to steer clear of is the Fujifilm Finepix S2500HD. It's the cheapest camera in this test and it shows. It is outperformed by its rivals in almost all categories and for only a relatively small extra amount you can get yourself a camera that's much more enjoyable to use.
So on, then, to the recommendations. Just as last year we found it impossible to pick a single winner from our group of contestants. So the cameras we liked most from the 2010 group of superzooms are:
Recommended: Nikon P100
The Nikon P100 squeezes a very comprehensive features set into a compact body. The 26x zoom lens goes from very wide (26mm equivalent) to 678mm at the long end which is the second longest reach in this group test. Put a 1080p full HD video mode and high-speed still and video capture on top and you've got yourself an extremely versatile imaging device at an affordable price point. We cannot complain about its image quality either. It's not quite as good as our two winners below but not far off.
This small difference in image quality, a sometimes slowish operation and a user interface that is not quite as refined as the Canon's or Panasonic's are the reasons why the P100 fails to make it all the way to the top. Nevertheless it's a massive step up from last years's Nikon candidate, the P80, and the last generation P90. It can't be beaten on features for money and is certainly worth a very close look if you are after a good superzoom that is also capable of recording high-speed and full HD video.
Joint winners: Panasonic FZ35 (FZ38) and Canon SX20 IS
It seems not too much has changed since our 2009 superzoom group test, when the Panasonic FZ28 and Canon SX10 IS, the predecessors of this year's winners, jointly grabbed the title. Despite the introduction of ever longer zoom ranges and, with back-illuminated CMOS sensors, even a completely new technology in competitive cameras, the Panasonic and Canon are still the most refined models in this test. Both are fairly minor upgrades to successful and popular models in long established product lines and have, just like a fine wine, over the years matured almost to perfection.
Both models score lots of points points with their refined and ergonomic user interfaces, reliable metering and focusing systems, lenses that are sharp across the zoom range, responsive operation, good quality HD video modes and, for this class of camera, excellent image quality. Nevertheless these are two quite different cameras and which one is the one for you will almost entirely be down to personal preference. The Canon is, at least partly because of its size and weight, in terms of handling and operation much closer to an entry-level DSLR than the Panasonic. It also comes with an articulated screen, by far the best viewfinder in this test, a slightly longer zoom and a flash hotshoe.
The Panasonic on the other hand is small and light enough to carry it with you at all times and comes with a user interface that is, despite offering plenty of manual controls, arguably better suited for less experienced users. It's a reliable and responsive camera that works equally well in auto or manual modes, offers a RAW format and on top of that is available at a very attractive price point.
While in terms of base ISO image quality the two cameras are extremely close, producing very sharp and detailed output, at higher sensitivities the processing engines take slightly different approaches. The Canon opts for a very clean image that blurs more fine detail than the Panasonic output. The latter preserves visibly more detail but this comes at the cost of higher noise and artifact levels. None of the superzooms in this test are capable of producing particularly appealing high-ISO output but the FZ35 and SX20 IS definitely represent the best of the bunch albeit by adopting slightly different approaches.
Overall, both the Panasonic FZ35 and the Canon SX20 IS perform very well in most areas. With its excellent viewfinder and well designed control layout the Canon is arguably more of a 'photographer's camera' while the Panasonic is ideal if you need bags of zoom in a small package. Which one is better for you depends entirely on your requirements but in any case you can't go wrong with either of these cameras.
Group test written by Lars Rehm.