How to get close to the action: superzooms rated

In November the Kuwait Times published a story about a ban on DSLRs in Kuwait. It raised a few eyebrows until they published a retraction - there was no ban after all. But by that point it was too late. Pocket-lint had already started thinking. Seven coffees later and Kuwait’s (non-)banning ran from The Wire to James Bond, wondering what you could carry around as a surveillance tool without resorting to the big fixed zooms which seem so popular in the movies. 

So here was the premise. Grab some cameras that would give you a huge zoom range in a compact-ish package and put them through their paces. Same place, same conditions, same time and see what James Bond gets to show M back at Vauxhall Cross.

Looking through the superzooms we’d reviewed in 2010, it was clear that many had performed well in testing. All the cameras we took out had been previously reviewed on Pocket-lint, so you can click through to get a little more detail on all the models. Those we decided to head out of the door with included: the Canon PowerShot SX30 IS, Nikon Coolpix P100, Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ100, and the Olympus SP-800UZ. We wanted to put the Fujifilm FinePix HS10 on trial too, but with the inclement weather, the courier decided not to deliver it.

All the warts: zoom power 

All the cameras offer in excess of 20x optical zoom: Canon 35x, Nikon 26x, Panasonic 24x and Olympus 30x, with additional “digital zooms” on the top of that. If the huge optical zoom doesn’t get you close enough to the action, we doubt the additional digital zoom will give you a result worth having. We wanted to see what the actual results were like from all these models side-by-side.

The Panasonic Lumix FZ100 also features Panasonic’s "Intelligent Zoom" extending the zoom to 32x. This uses a form of sensor cropping, but digitally processes the image to clean it up and maintain clarity and detail, especially enhancing edges. The results are pretty good, but some will argue that its just another form of digital zoom. Below are two shots, the left is the optical maximum, the right is with the Intelligent Zoom, both at 100% crop.

  

In the hand: design, size, build

Superzooms come with a lot of controls, so if minimalism is what you want, this might not be the place to start. The most compact model of the bunch is the Olympus (top left in the case below), it is also the lightest at 418g and features the cleanest lines. Buttons are kept to a minimum, but it has fewer features too and you don't get the full manual control the others offer.

The Nikon P100 (top right in the case below) is only 60g heavier with a viewfinder and vari-angle display, but like the other models on trial, it offers more direct controls – importantly it has a mode dial on the top and shortcuts for common controls.

The largest model is the Lumix FZ100 (bottom left in the case above), but with it comes more features. On the larger models you get more buttons for things like AF/AE lock and ISO (on the Panasonic) or focal point selection (on the Canon). Both the Panasonic and the Canon (bottom right in the case above) offer a hotshoe for accessories, the Panasonic trumping Canon by also offering an input for an external mic.

If you want massive zoom in a tiny package, then the Olympus or the Nikon is likely to be the choice, the latter offering more control over features. If you want control then the Canon SX30 or the Lumix FZ100 are likely to be the one you choose.

We gave each camera a good shake to see how much that big lens rattled around. The worst offenders were the Nikon P100 and the Lumix FZ100, both rattling loudly. The Canon almost had it, but the Olympus is almost rattle free.

What that zoom really looks like

Of course, you can read all about the cameras in the individual reviews of them that we’ve published through-out the year: we’re not going to return to the performance of each camera overall. But putting them side-to-side gives an interesting comparison. First of all, below we show you what that zoom gives you. We mounted each camera on a tripod and grabbed a shot at both ends of the optical zoom scale, the widest angle is on the left, the max zoom on the right. Our subject, the mounted King George IV, can be seen beneath and to the right of the spire in the centre of the wide angle picture.

Canon PowerShot SX30 IS, 24-840mm

  

Nikon Coolpix P100, 26-678mm

  

Olympus SP-800UZ, 28-840mm

  

Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ100, 25-600mm

  

After that, we wanted to see what the results were like up close, so below is a 100% crop from each camera displaying the quality, from the test above. This crop is taken from the max zoom image. Bear in mind that these photos were taken on a December day and better light may well give you better results overall. (Clockwise from top left: Canon, Nikon, Panasonic, Olympus.)

Looking at the results, we'd have to say that the Canon acquitted itself rather well and the Panasonic was rather noisy. The Nikon shows distinct fringing around highlights, which was common in all the long zoom shots we took. In reality however, this is only really a test of one isolated feature of these cameras, and there are various other settings that may impact on the final image, for example the various levels of noise reduction that is offered, or image stabilisation.

Composing those photos, video

As we said, the Olympus doesn’t have an electronic viewfinder. Of the others, the Nikon Coolpix P100 viewfinder offers the best clarity, the Canon the worst. All feature a dioptre control to adjust it to your eye. When it comes to displays we think the Panasonic Lumix FZ100 looks the best, with great detail and realistic colours. Both the Panasonic and the Canon models have swivel displays which can be folded face-in for protection, or set at a wide range of angles for composing shots. The Nikon has a vari-angle screen that folds out too, but doesn’t have the variety that the others have. The Olympus screen is fixed.

All the zooms on review have an instant record red button, meaning you can quickly and easily get into the movies. The Nikon and Panasonic both offer Full HD capture (1920 x 1080) whilst the other two offer you the lower resolution 1280 x 720 HD. All will let you use the optical zoom during video, except the Olympus, which locks the lens at the position it is in when you press the button. All offer continuous focus in video. Only the Panasonic has an external mic input.

The camera that gets to the far end of the zoom the fastest is the Nikon P100, arriving at its maximum before the others get there. It doesn't quite have quite the range of the others which might account for this, but it might also be down to the concertina-type lens barrel construction (which almost certainly accounts for the rattling too).

What would James Bond choose?

Ok, crunch time. Which would Bond actually slip into the glovebox of his Aston Martin?

He’d almost certainly appreciate the Olympus SP-800UZ for it’s compact dimensions and affordability, especially with all those budget cuts. It offers excellent zoom range and good build quality, but lacks the direct control the other models offer. That said, performance is good.

He’d like the Nikon Coolpix P100’s compact dimensions given the range of controls on offer and the impressive array of features. He perhaps wouldn’t be taken by the rattling of the lens as he tried to sneak past those embassy guards however, and at the far end of the zoom imperfections are more prevalent than other models: it does offer excellent quality at the wide angle however.

The Canon PowerShot SX30 IS would appeal because of the easy controls – manual shooting is a breeze for those longer exposures and the 35x zoom range offers impressive performance. He might not be taken with the design, however, as it is a little bulbous and plastic in appearance. It would be our choice for zoom performance, but the lack of Full HD video capture might deter some.

Finally the Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ100. The feature set is impressive and the Intelligent Zoom does seem to work from what we saw, although the size isn't significantly different from the Canon, so you could just take the longer optical zoom. Combined with Full HD video capture and the flexibility of the screen and accessory options make it a compelling choice. Unfortunately it rattles.

Despite similar specs, there is still variety to be had in the superzoom category and there are other notable cameras from Samsung, Sony, Fujifilm, Pentax, Casio and Kodak out there. Choosing a model becomes a question of picking the features that matter the most. You’ve seen some of the direct obvious comparisons here, but there is bags more information in our individual reviews, if you’re still keen to know more.

If you're not convinced by superzooms in general, we added one more camera to one of the tests we conducted. We strapped a Canon EF 400mm f/5.6L USM on to a Canon EOS 60D (pictured above), a more typical choice for those wanting to get in on the action and added it to the comparison below, just so you can see what you get for your money (Canon 60D, EF 400mm top, then clockwise Canon SX30, Nikon, Panasonic (iZoom), Olympus). Remember the 1.6x crop factor on this lens, meaning it is equivalent to 640mm, hence the similar size result. Bear in mind that the lens alone costs £1660...