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Superzoom camera group: Image stabilization

With their ten- and twelve-times zooms, these cameras offer some impressive 'reach' in a very small package. Many of them also start wider than 35mm equivalent, helping give them astonishing flexibility in a very small package. However with this impressive reach comes a potential drawback - shaking the camera by a very small amount can result in a large movement, relative to the kind of distant subject that a long lens encourages you to shoot.

The traditional 'reciprocal rule' suggests that you should aim to use a shutter speed equal to the reciprocal of the focal length to ensure sharp shooting - so a 400mm lens should really be used with shutter speeds faster than 1/400th of a second. The reciprocal rule is only a guide, of course, and one that becomes increasingly inaccurate with small-sensor cameras but it should still be apparent that without image stabilization it'd be difficult to use a 380mm equivalent lens in anything but the best light.

Thankfully all six cameras have either lens or sensor-shift image stabilization, helping you to continue to get steady shots even when a lack of light and the small apertures available at the long end of these zooms slow the shutter speed to un-holdably long settings. Of course if you're taking a photo of a moving subject, no amount of image stabilization will stop that subject from moving during those long, slow exposures but the lens and sensor-shift systems are at least good enough to allow you to get stable shots of static subjects, despite the slow lenses.

Some models (those with lens IS) offer more than one stabilization option, usually 'continuous' and 'shoot only'. The former has the advantage of stabilizing the live preview (which makes framing a lot easier) but the latter is, theoretically, better (though in our experience the difference is minimal). The CCD shift cameras also stabilize the live preview when the shutter is half-pressed and the focus locked. These lenses aren't so long that you need IS to steady the image to ensure you've focused on the correct object, so this is no real drawback.

The amount of (unwanted) blur you'll see in your shots is affected by several factors:

  • How still you can hold the camera (your own stability and the camera's design)
  • How effective the camera's stabilization system is
  • The focal length
  • The shutter speed, which is influenced by:
    - ISO setting
    - Maximum Aperture
    - Scene brightness

In the table below you can see how the various cameras in this group compare:

 
IS type
Max Focal Length
Max Shutter Speed
Max Aperture at full tele
Canon SX 200 IS Lens
336mm
1/3200
F5.3
Olympus Stylus 9000 CCD
280mm
1/2000
F5.9
Panasonic ZS1 Lens
300mm
1/2000
F4.9
Panasonic ZS3 Lens
300mm
1/2000
F4.9
Samsung HZ10W CCD
240mm
1/1500
F5.8
Sony H20 Lens
380mm
1/2000
F4.4

To put this in perspective the slowest lens - that belonging to the Olympus - gives a field-of-view equivalent to 280mm and is nearly a stop slower (i.e. it lets in around half as much light), as the fastest - the Sony's 380mm equivalent F4.4 lens. So, despite the shorter effective focal length, the Olympus will probably need better image stabilization to achieve the same number of sharp shots as the Sony, simply because it will be forced to use longer, slower, more shake-prone shutter speeds.

Image Stabilization test

To get an idea of the effectiveness of each camera's stabilization system we performed a slightly modified version of the test we use in our SLR reviews. Because not all the cameras have the ability to manually set the shutter speed, we adjusted the settings until we were able to get all the cameras to consistently shoot at 1/30th of a second. This was the point at which most of the cameras showed evidence of shake when IS was off and some sharp images when it was switched on (at the long end of the zooms).

An image that is 'typical' of the performance you can expect was selected in each case and, as can be seen, the results are pretty similar, once you turn IS on. As such the deciding factor, in terms of how usable each camera is, is not the standard of the IS but the size of the maximum aperture. A larger maximum aperture means that you can get more light to the sensor and use faster shutter speeds. So, although the IS results are very similar, you'll need to rely on it less often on the cameras letting in more light.

Canon Powershot SX200 IS

IS OFF IS ON
The Canon hasn't done a great job but its proportion of sharp shots was very similar, overall, to the other cameras. There's slightly more sign of camera-shake in the 'slightly shaken' images, but it's essentially the same performance as its peers.

Olympus Stylus 9000

IS OFF IS ON
The Olympus has one of the shorter lens ranges, combined with with the slowest maximum aperture. So, although its Image Stabilization is around as effective as that of its peers, it should have an easier job to do (appearance of shake is exaggerated at longer focal lengths), and is likely to be needed more often because that relatively dark lens will need shutter speeds 80% longer than the brightest lens in this group, to get the same exposure.

Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS1

IS OFF IS ON
As we've seen throughout these tests, the Panasonic twins are rarely the front-runners in any specific area but tend to be amongst the best at everything. That's true here too, with some of the longest and fastest lenses in the test.

Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS3

IS OFF IS ON
The Panasonics' Image stabilization is pretty much a match for their peers and that comparatively fast maximum aperture at the long end of the zoom means it shouldn't be needed quite so often.

Samsung HZ10W (WB500)

IS OFF IS ON
Although it has used a small aperture and a lower exposure than any other camera here, it's also produced one of the brightest images, so it's possible that enthusiastic image processing will prevent the comparatively slow lens being a drawback.

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H20

IS OFF IS ON

The H20, despite having the longest zoom reach (which isn't to say the most useful range), also appears to have the most effective image stabilization. Only two of our ten test shots taken with the IS switched on had any sign of visible shake and it was extremely subtle even where it was visible.

The longer zoom should more easily show up camera shake at any given shutter speed, yet its performance was at least as good as any of the other cameras we've tested here. And, with the widest maximum aperture, the Sony shouldn't have to resort to using slow shutter speeds quite as often as its rivals.

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Comments

Matafuko

Just picked up a second hand SX200 for £35!
I bought it because I was surprised at a 12mp, 12x optical, 720p HD and manual function camera would be available so cheaply these days.
I have an SLR but wanted a smallish carry around thing. I am not - in any way - precious about it being top of the line, but the resolution, zoom and manual functions are perfectly adequate for me.
I'm in pretty much total agreement with your review and once you replace the idea that it's the most expensive in the batch test with the fact that I got it second hand for a steal - there's not a bad word I can say about it!
(It's even in the cool blue colour)

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