Here's your assignment: Find yourself a nice 400mm f/3.5 lens, with image stabilization. While you're at it, make it a zoom--say, 35-420mm. Get a 6MP (or better) digital camera to go along with it, with through-the-lens viewing. Got all that? Now do it for under $500.
Impossible? Here's four of them-including a $348 bargain. They are the latest generation of electronic viewfinder (EVF) superzooms, each one boasting a bright 12X optical zoom, lens-based image stabilization, and at least 6MP capture. If that isn't enough bang for your buck, they also all do image-stabilized video--two of them with stereo sound, no less.
Two things make the superzooms possible. First, unlike SLRs, their viewfinders forego a bulky, complex optical viewing system. Instead, they show the image directly from the image sensor on a tiny eyepiece LCD. The electronic viewfinder also makes for very quiet, vibration-free shooting--the "ker-chunk" of the shutter is, in fact, an electronic sound effect.
Second, these cameras achieve their high magnification through small image sensors-0.4-inch, about the size of a fingernail. With a capture area this small, the normal focal length comes out to about 8mm. The actual focal length of the 12X zooms on these cameras is 6-72mm (equivalent to about 35-420mm on 35mm). And so they don't need a huge diameter to gather plenty of light for the sensor. The very slowest (dimmest) of the lenses here is f/2.8-4.8; the fastest (brightest) is f/2.8-3.3.
Those two factors, however, also lead to the two biggest drawbacks of EVF superzooms. While electronic viewfinders are highly accurate (routinely close to 100 percent), they provide--let's face it--a jumpy video image. Looking into them gives none of the real-world crystal clarity of an SLR viewfinder, and worse, makes following a moving subject tricky.
In addition, packing an imaging sensor that small with 6 million pixels means those pixels must be very tiny, and therefore less sensitive to light. That, in turn, means that their signal must be amplified a lot, especially at ISOs of 400 and above--a perfect prescription for digital noise. While we've seen some improvement in the noise department recently, superzoom EVFs still come up short here against digital SLRs. But remember, the four cameras featured here also have image stabilization, allowing you to shoot at lower ISOs with less risk of blur from camera movement.
Now that superzooms have hit 6MP and higher, the obvious question is whether an enthusiast might substitute one for a digital SLR. We make an item-by-item comparison in the following pages, but the short answer is no. For the serious shooter, a superzoom is a great adjunct to an SLR, not a replacement. It's great for those times when you don't want or need to carry a bag full of stuff, or are traveling, or just keeping a low profile.
But for an amateur stepping up from a compact, who wants to experience SLR-like capability--including supertele reach--at a reasonable entry price, we think they are sensational buys.