Compact super-zoom cameras offer tremendous telephotos in portable packages
Although photographers seem to always search for it, there’s no perfect camera. Some seek a compact size over all else, while others are willing to lug around larger camera kits to ensure they’re always ready with the right lenses. While there's no one-size-fits-all camera, there is one camera category that does a remarkable job of pleasing a lot of people in a lot of ways.
Compact super-zoom cameras find themselves squarely positioned between powerful D-SLRs and compact point-and-shoots. Typically smaller than traditional SLRs, these easy-to-use compact cameras offer one big feature that pocket-sized point-and-shoots don’t: a super-sized zoom lens.
Point-and-shoots are often equipped with a 3x optical zoom, but super-zooms flaunt lenses beyond 8x—and usually from 10x to 12x power. Often about the size of a D-SLR’s normal lens, the lenses in compact super-zoom cameras offer equivalent focal lengths easily up to 300mm and often beyond the 400mm mark. That’s a heck of a lot of magnification in a portable form.
Because these cameras are often rich in features, professionals will appreciate many of the same functions they love in their interchangeable-lens cameras—RAW image capture, hot-shoe mounts for external flashes and image stabilization aren’t uncommon among cameras in this class. Image stabilization becomes extra important. These cameras offer exponentially higher focal lengths that magnify not only the subject, but also any camera shake.
Optical (mechanical) image stabilization (IS) is key with extra-light, extra-long lenses. Most super-zooms include it, but sometimes manufacturers rely on digital image stabilization. Not unlike the term "digital zoom," the phrase can be a bit misleading. A camera without optical IS will use digital IS to automatically increase light sensitivity (ISO). This feature may be an added benefit when it’s applied in conjunction with optical IS, but on its own, the increased noise of the higher ISO can’t compete with a physically steadier lens.
While it’s not the same as actually photographing with a long lens, with enough resolution, digital zoom is an effective cheat that can provide photographers with those little 3x zooms to get closer to their subjects. In a camera with 10 megapixels and a 12x zoom, there’s enough resolution to crop out of the center of the frame (effectively lowering the resolution to, say, 6 megapixels) and simulate an even greater focal length’s effect, say, 24x power. While the photographic purist in you may prefer to avoid digital zoom altogether (otherwise known as "cropping"), the practical part of you that will be using this camera for everything under the sun may not think the idea is half bad.
The Canon PowerShot S3 IS builds on the success of the S2, upping resolution to 6 megapixels to complement the 12x optical zoom. One of the faster compact super-zooms, it has a variable maximum aperture of ƒ/2.7-3.5. With optical image stabilization, photographers can shoot in light two to three stops lower without worrying about blur from camera shake. With shutter speeds up to 1/3200 sec., you can handholdthe S3 even when zoomed all the way to 432mm (in 35mm equivalent terms) on the USM Ultra-low dispersion lens. Estimated Street Price: $349.
The Fujifilm FinePix S6000fd offers more than just a long 10.7x optical zoom. At the wide end of the zoom spectrum, the camera offers the 35mm equivalent of a 28mm wide-angle lens—wider than many compact super-zooms. At the long end, the 6.3-megapixel camera zooms to a 300mm equivalent. Though it doesn’t offer optical image stabilization, the S6000fd sports a higher ISO than most other cameras in its class, adjustable all the way up to ISO 3200 at full resolution. It even incorporates face-detection functionality to automatically find and focus on faces in the frame (though its results with animal faces are yet to be proven). Estimated Street Price: $419.
For photographers looking for a higher level of manual controls, Kodak offers the 7.1-megapixel EasyShare P712. With a Schneider-Kreuznach Variogon 12x optical zoom (equivalent to a 36-432mm lens), the P712 not only captures JPEGs and RAW files, but can even shoot TIFFs. The lens is optically stabilized and reasonably fast at ƒ/2.8-3.7. There’s even a hot-shoe for attaching external flashes for added control. Even if you're not looking for all the extra pro-type features, the camera’s EasyShare button makes e-mailing, printing and organizing a snap. Estimated Street Price: $409.