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.
The Leica V-Lux 1 is based on the same mechanics as the Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ50—although the more expensive Leica utilizes its own image processing and comes bundled with Adobe Photoshop Elements (and, of course, the prestige that comes with that little red Leica dot). The high-res V-Lux 1 offer 10.1 megapixels and a 12x Leica optical zoom lens, along with a swiveling LCD, hot-shoe and optical image stabilization. The features are similar to those found on D-SLRs, but the look and feel of the camera is a lot like those of an SLR. Estimated Street Price: $849.
Though Nikon cameras often offer extensive manual controls, the Coolpix S10 takes a simpler automated approach—and it brings a lower price, too. The swivel design gives the camera a unique form factor compared to most super-zooms, helping photographers to more easily put their cameras in trickier positions for more interesting angles. The S10 incorporates 6 megapixels, a 10x optical zoom lens with vibration reduction and face-priority autofocus into a compact 7.8-ounce package. Estimated Street Price: $349.
On budget and style points, the Olympus SP-510 UZ scores high. This 38-380mm-equivalent 10x optical zoom is packaged nicely with a 7.1-megapixel CCD. It doesn’t include optical image stabilization, but in Bright Capture mode, the ISO increases to 4000 to help quicken the shutter speed (though the resolution at this high speed drops to about 3 mega-pixels). Estimated Street Price: $249.
For photographers who put a bit more priority on compact size, there’s the Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ3. This 7.2-megapixel camera is a super-compact super-zoom. Weighing in at only 8.16 ounces, it doesn’t even have room for a viewfinder. Ideal for travelers, this small camera utilizes folded optics technology, which, through the use of a prism, gets a 10x optical zoom into roughly the same-sized space as that in which you’d expect to find a 3x lens. Leica glass helps make the most of every pixel. Estimated Street Price: $349.
The Samsung Digimax Pro 815 SE is tailored for photographers
who want a big zoom and don’t mind a big package. The two-pound, 8-megapixel camera sports a 15x optical zoom, providing an equivalent focal-length range of 28-420mm. It’s fast at the short end, too, with a maximum aperture of ƒ/2.2-4.6. A big zoom deserves a big screen, so Samsung added a 3.5-inch LCD. There’s also a smaller color LCD on top of the body, so you can brace and still see your composition. Estimated Street Price: $599.
The Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H5 isn’t for those who want a tiny camera, but it will appeal to those who want a long zoom. A Zeiss Vario-Tessar lens offers a 12x optical zoom, equivalent to 36-432mm in 35mm terms. Also included are a three-inch LCD screen and the ability to macro focus as close as 2cm. The 7.2-megapixel H5 uses optical image stabilization and Memory Stick storage, as well as usable ISOs from 80 to 1000. Estimated Street Price: $429.