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Only Average in an Increasingly Crowded Field
on May 15, 2014
Suddenly, a Glut of 60x Bridge Cameras
When the Canon SX-50 appeared, it was largely heralded as an industry-leading small-sensor bridge camera, with the its massive 1200mm, 35mm focal length optical zoom. Since then, similar extremely long reach cameras have appeared from Sony, Fujifilm, Samsung, Olympus, Panasonic, and Nikon. Even the latest offerings of larger pocket cameras feature 24x to 30x zoom, such as the Olympus Stylus SH-50 iHS (24x), the Canon PowerShot SX700 HS (30x, 25-750mm 35mm equivalent), the 30x Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS40, and the 30x Nikon Coolpix S9700.
It is easy to be misled about what a "SuperZoom" is supposed to be. PC Magazine has the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX10 classified as a "SuperZoom," despite its 8.3x (24-200mm) diminutive focal length range. While you might feel the camera is super, as is its price, its zoom range is clearly not.
As long as you don't expect miracles, given lots of light all of these cameras capture good to very good images, so long as you accept that small-sensors, though vastly improved, are a severe limitation on what is often called "critical image quality." At moderate zoom lengths, most do no better than many pocket cameras that have the same, or similar sensors and fairly dim lenses. It shouldn't be a great surprise, for the sensor size and lens brightness have a lot to do with what can be done.
Yet, for outdoor and wildlife use, the appeal of getting in really close is undeniable. Faster shooting performance, longer battery life, RAW capture, and a larger, more stable camera in the hands is part of the appeal. To date, the only camera that I'm thoroughly pleased with in the majority of shooting circumstances isn't a super-dooper mega-zoom: it is the Panasonic FZ-200, that offers a constant F2.8 lens that the others cannot compete with, yet the 600mm reach of the FZ-200 while formidable and usable, isn't as attention-grabbing or hyperbole-grabbing as the 60x or 70x zoom.
The latest offerings add features (or gimmicks) that offer appeal, but have little to do with images. The Fujifilm S1 offers weather-proofing, the Olympus SP-100 offers a built-in dot sight, to cite two more recent examples. While the approximately $500 retail Sony HX400/B used to be considered pricey, more and more models are at least introduced at the $500 price-point.
Based on the last thirty or so non-system cameras I've evaluated, the actual image quality falls into a narrow range. This shouldn't surprise anyone, as the "bridge" small-sensor long zoom cameras all use dinky sensors and most have dim lenses as the focal length increases, with the exception of the FZ-200 constant F2.8 lens array Panasonic previously reviewed.
Currently selling at or near its $399, aside from the "red dot" gimmick, the Olympus SP-100 has little to offer compared against many similar cameras. The Fuji FinePix SL1000 sells for over $100 less, yet has a higher resolution LCD that tilts, and slightly better battery life. The Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ70 offers an even wider zoom range, 60x, yet also sells for $100 less. For the same dollars, the Canon PowerShot SX50 HS offers an articulated LCD, a weaker video specification, but generally lower-noise, punchier images. In this class of camera, the value winner, the Fuji FinePix SL1000, although substantially less dollars, is a better featured camera. For that reason, the SP-100 that would have broken new ground three years ago, can only be considered middle of the road and a bit over-priced at this juncture. Like many cameras in this class they do almost everything except take great pictures.
The lack of a swiveling, fold-out, or articulated LCD is a stopper for the Olympus, as far as I'm concerned, for this type of camera, one of the reasons that the currently pricey SP-100 and the now-discounted Panasonic FZ-70 are less than desirable cameras. For the money, it is the Fuji SL1000, for images, the Canon SX-50 gets the nod (if you can live with the poor EVF and weak HD video spec), but for all-around use the Panasonic FZ-200 is still my most-often used camera in this form factor, due to the constant f2.8 lens and excellent video.