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.
How to Use a Superzoom
Holding the camera out at forearm's length may be okay if you're shooting at an equivalent focal length around 35mm. But not with 420mm! With or without image stabilization, that's just about the shakiest way to hold a long lens. Use the electronic viewfinder instead-and glom the camera tight against your face for extra steadiness.
We know whereof we speak. In our image stabilization tests, in which a number of photographers shoot the same target, those who can hold the camera steadiest without stabilization consistently get sharper results with stabilization.
In fact, you can use image stabilization as a kind of biofeedback to hold the camera steady. As you look through the camera, press the shutter button lightly to engage stabilization. The image will stop jiggling and begin to float smoothly (beware--it makes some people seasick). Don't try to counteract this movement--it'll only make it worse. Instead, concentrate on one detail in the center of the frame. Like driving, you tend to steer where you look. Keep your elbows tucked into your body, and breathe slowly--don't hold your breath. When the detail is steadiest in the frame, squeeze the shutter smoothly. Don't jab it or jerk your finger off the shutter. With some practice, you can get up to one stop more steadiness.
Some cameras have a stabilization mode that activates only when the shutter fires, and camera engineers say this mode can give you a higher percentage of sharp shots. That may be true for a stabilization newbie, but our tests indicate that a practiced shooter does better previewing. So practice.
A Pan of Panning
The problem with viewing a video image-which is exactly what EVF finders are-is that the image has to redraw when you move the camera. With static subjects, this isn't an issue, but with moving subjects, it can be mildly annoying, even exasperating.
The good news is that the redraw rate on the latest EVFs has been improved greatly-for single-frame operation, anyway. We were able to pan at fairly brisk rates with these four featured EVFs, and their shutter responses were fast enough that we could usually capture the composition we wanted.
The bad news: Tracking action during multiple frame bursts at full resolution is still nearly impossible with an EVF. After the first frame is captured, the EVF will either freeze on that frame or black out entirely, so you shoot in the dark. (The low-res, multiburst, "golf swing mode" on those like Sony's Cyber-shot DSC-H5 let you view continuously-but the individual files are tiny: 320x240 pixels.)
So, ironically, the best choice for action is usually single-frame rather than burst mode. The superzoom EVFs are better suited to sports with fairly predictable motion, like baseball or motorsports, rather than those with sudden erratic motion, like football or soccer.
Canon PowerShot S3 IS
The third generation of Canon's S-series has the most video capability in its class (including stereo sound and a high-speed frame rate of 60 fps) and a panning mode for its image stabilization. While the LCD is the smallest and lowest-res of the group, it swivels and tilts for any-angle shooting.
Smart: Movie Snap lets you take a high-res still frame any time while shooting movies.
Fun: Various color adjustments let you accent single colors or swap colors, etc.
Imaging: 6.0MP (effective) CCD. Lens: 12X 36-432mm (35mm equivalent) f/2.7-3.5. LCD: 2.0-in., 115,000 pixels with tilt and swivel. EVF: 0.35-in., 115,000 pixels. Image stabilization: Lens-based, continuous or shoot only, normal or panning mode. ISO range: 80-800. Storage: SD/MMC card; JPEG format. Output: Hi-Speed USB 2.0; NTSC/PAL video. Power: 4 AA batteries. Size/weight: 4.5x3.1x3.0 in.; 1.1 lb with card and batteries. Video: 640x480 at 30 fps, 320x160 at 60 fps; image stabilization and zooming; stereo sound. CIPA battery life rating: 110 shots (alkaline), 550 shots (2,300 mAh NiMH), 50% with flash. In the box: alkaline batteries, 16MB SD card, neck strap, AV and USB cables, software (Canon Digital Camera Solution). Auxiliary wide and telephoto lenses, slave flash available.
NEW & NOTEWORTHY
• Has panning stabilization.
• Tilt and swivel LCD.
Certified Test Results:
Noise: Low at ISO 80 (1.75), Moderately Low at ISO 100 (2.175), Moderate at ISO 200 (2.915), High/Unacceptable at ISO 400 (3.99), ISO 800 (5.325) and HI (3.755)
Color: Excellent. Average Delta E: 7.48. ISO 80, AWB
Resolution: Extremely High at ISO 80 (1636), ISO 100 (1591), and ISO 200 (1546), Very High at ISO 400 (1495), ISO 800 (1366) and High (1391)
Lens Distortion: Visible Barrel at 1x (.45%), Imperceptible Barrel at 5x (.02%), Imperceptible Pincushion at 10X (.02%)
Kodak EasyShare Z612
The lightest of the bunch, at just over 12 ounces ready to shoot, this Kodak has pretty heavy capabilities, including image-stabilized movies with stereo sound. With the highest-resolution LCD (as many pixels as the Sony's larger one), viewing and playback are noticeably finer-grained.
Smart: In-camera editing lets you do things like crop or adjust local brightness without firing up the computer.
Fun: Like lots of other Kodak cameras, it fits on the EasyShare Printer Dock for one-touch, no-brainer 4x6s.
Imaging: 6.1MP (effective) CCD. Lens: 12X 35-420mm (35mm equivalent) f/2.8-4.8. LCD: Fixed 2.5-in., 230,000 pixels. EVF: 0.2-in., 202,000 pixels. Image stabilization: Lens-based, continuous or shoot only. ISO range: 80-800. Storage: SD/MMC card slot, 32MB internal storage; JPEG format. Output: Hi-Speed USB 2.0; NTSC/PAL video. Power: Proprietary Li-ion rechargeable, CRV3 lithium, or 2 AA batteries. Size/weight: 4.1x2.9x2.7 in.; 12.1 oz with card and batteries. Video: 640x480 at 30 fps; image stabilization and zooming; stereo sound. CIPA battery life rating: 250 shots with supplied Li-ion battery, 50% with flash. In the box: Li-ion battery, charger, neck strap, camera insert for EasyShare camera and printer docks, AV and USB cables, software (EasyShare browsing and editing).
NEW & NOTEWORTHY
• Takes multiple battery types.
• In-camera editing controls.
*This camera is so new, we haven't gotten ahold of one for our PopPhoto Lab! Check back here soon for our Certified Test Results.
Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ7
It may look like an SLR, but hold the tiny, 12-ounce-and-change Z7 and you know it's not. And it has the fastest lens of these cameras: f/3.3 all the way out at 420mm. Video (a sore point on some earlier Z-series EVFs) is now an industry-standard VGA resolution at 30 fps. But the 2.5-inch LCD and the EVF are both only 114,000 pixels. Pretty gritty!
Smart: Panning mode switches stabilization to single axis, slows shutter speed for streaky action shots.
Fun: Flip animation makes a herky-jerky movie from still frames.
Imaging: 6MP (effective) CCD. Lens: 12X 36-432mm (35mm equivalent) f/2.8-3.3. LCD: Fixed 2.5-in., 114,000 pixels. EVF: 0.33-in., 114,000 pixels. Image stabilization: Lens-based, continuous or shoot only, normal or panning mode. ISO range: 80-1600. Storage: SD/MMC card slot; JPEG and TIFF formats. Output: Hi-Speed USB 2.0; NTSC/PAL video. Power: Proprietary Li-ion rechargeable battery. Size/weight: 2.8x4.4x3.1 in.; 12.6 oz with card and batteries. Video: 640x480 at 30 fps; image stabilization; mono sound. CIPA battery life rating: 340 shots, 50% with flash. In the box: Battery, charger, lenshood and adapter ring, neck strap, 16MB card, AV and USB cables, software (ArcSoft PhotoImpression, Panorama Maker, and PhotoBase). Auxiliary wide and telephoto lenses available.
NEW & NOTEWORTHY
• Well-spaced buttons and dials.
• Beefy Li-ion power supply.
Certified Test Results:
Noise: High/Unacceptable at ISO 80 (3.05), Moderate at ISO 100 (2.93), High/Unacceptable at ISO 200 (3.45) and ISO 400 (4.5)
Color: Excellent. Average Delta E: 8.02. ISO 80, AWB
Resolution: Extremely High at ISO 80 (1603), ISO 100 (1583), and ISO 200 (1541), Very High at ISO 400 (1493)
Lens Distortion: Visible Barrel at 1x (.48%), Imperceptible Pincushion at 5x (.02%), Imperceptible Pincushion at 10X (.07%)
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H5
Sony bested its competitors with one more megapixel of resolution and an LCD one notch bigger--a sharp, fine-grained 3-incher. The biggest of these cameras, the H5 has very good ergonomics and well-located controls (except for the peculiarly placed eyepiece diopter). It goes up to ISO 1000 (with lower noise, according to Sony), and a macro mode focuses to 3/4-inch.
Smart: Function Guide explains almost every setting as you use it. Fun: Beach mode, for "waterside scene with rich blue color."
Imaging: 7.2MP (effective) CCD. Lens: 12X 36-432mm (35mm equivalent) f/2.8-3.7. LCD: Fixed 3-in., 230,000 pixels. EVF: 0.2-in., 201,000 pixels. Image stabilization: Lens-based, continuous or shoot only. ISO range: 80-1000. Storage: MemoryStick Duo/PRO Duo card slot, 32MB internal storage; JPEG format. Output: Hi-Speed USB 2.0; NTSC/PAL video. Power: 2 AA batteries. Size/weight: 4.5x3.3x3.7 in.; 1.3 lb with card and batteries. Video: 640x480 at 30 fps; image stabilization and zooming; mono sound. CIPA battery life rating: 340 shots with supplied NiMH batteries, 50% with flash. In the box: Rechargeable NiMH batteries, charger, lenshood and adapter ring, AV and USB cables, neck strap, software (Cyber-shot Viewer). Wide-angle and telephoto lenses available.
NEW & NOTEWORTHY
• Biggest LCD screen.
• 7.2MP capture
Certified Test Results:
Noise: Low at ISO 80 (1.42) and ISO 100 (1.71), Moderately Low at ISO 200 (2.23), Moderate at ISO 400 (2.46) and 800 (2.68), High/Unacceptable at ISO 1000 (3.29)
Color: Extremely High (Average Delta E: 8.31, Auto ISO 80)
Resolution: Extremely HIgh at ISO 80 (1682), Excellent at ISO 100 (1705), Extremely High at ISO 200 (1668), ISO 400 (1640), ISO 800 (1610), and ISO 1000 (1545)
Lens Distortion: Visible Barrel (45.00%) at 1X, Imperceptible Barrel (.02%) at 6X, and Imperceptible Pincushion (.03%) at 12X.