Plugged In: Don’t trade quality when upgrading zoom lenses

By Joe Kashi, for the Redoubt Reporter

Father’s Day seems to be a time when all sorts of expensive gifts are heavily promoted. That certainly includes new photo gear, with manufacturers large and small recently announcing an abundance of interesting new gear.

With this column’s typically relaxed attitude about deadlines, here are the first of our Father’s Day photo gear suggestions, just in time for Christmas presents. Well, perhaps that’s a bit premature, so we’ll start with high-magnification, superzoom cameras, just in time for summer activities, the opening day of hunting season or fire photos taken from a safe distance.

Superzoom cameras pack a high-telephoto-magnification lens into a relatively small package. In photography as in economics, you can’t get something for nothing. Inevitably, there are costs and tradeoffs. Except for the Panasonic FZ1000 and Olympus Stylus 1, all cameras that arguably qualify as superzooms use a very small, 1/2.3-inch sensor.

For a given magnification factor, the size of the lens is roughly proportional to the size of the sensor. Thus, the tradeoffs are the better image quality of large sensors, compact construction and very high lens magnification. You can have one of those three characteristics in a superzoom of manageable size.

There are other practical problems. Zoom lenses with a wide magnification ratio tend toward optical mediocrity, particularly at the highest magnifications. There are just too many design compromises required when a lens is supposed to cover every optical requirement from 24-mm equivalent wide angle, to 800-mm equivalent or higher supertelephoto.

Such lenses also tend to have a very dim maximum aperture. That results in exposure limitations further complicated by the high shutter speeds needed to counteract the camera shake and subject motion inherent to high magnifications, no matter how effective the image-stabilization hardware.

At high magnifications, you’ll need to use a tripod to steady that compact superzoom camera, rather contradicting the entire notion of a compact camera. You’ll probably also need to use a higher ISO sensitivity setting to ensure getting enough light through that dim lens at a fast-enough shutter speed to minimize blur.

Sounds good so far, except that image noise inevitably increases and sharpness decreases at those higher ISO settings due to the small sensors built into superzoom cameras. At ISO 400, a moderate sensitivity setting by current standards, only the two superzooms using larger sensors retain a semblance of decent image quality.

Further complicating good exposure, many superzoom cameras, though not all, record their images solely in JPEG format. That eliminates your ability to compensate for exposure and optical problems that you could otherwise later fix with post-processing software if image files are saved in an RAW file format. All else being equal, choose a superzoom camera that optionally allows you to save RAW format image files.

Superzoom cameras are fun to use and are capable of acceptable results, especially for wildlife and birding photographers. As a result, they remain one of the very few consumer-style cameras that hold their own in today’s market despite the cellphone camera onslaught and the general decline in camera sales.

Here are this week’s contenders:

  • Canon PowerShot SX60HS (about $479), an RAW-capable camera with a 1/2.3-inch sensor and 65 times zoom lens with an equivalent range of 21-mm extreme wide-angle through 1,365-mm extreme telephoto.
  • Fujifilm FinePix S1 (about $340), an RAW-capable camera with a 1/2.3-inch sensor and 50 times zoom lens with an equivalent range of 24-mm very wide-angle through 1,200-mm extreme telephoto.
  • Nikon Coopix P900 (about $600), a JPEG-only camera with a 1/2.3-inch sensor and 52 times zoom lens with an equivalent range of 24-mm very wide-angle through 2,000-mm extreme telephoto. This is a large, heavy camera, about the size and weight of Nikon’s D7200 high-end digital SLR. Don’t even think about handholding this one at high magnification.
  • Pentax XG-1 (about $169), a JPEG-only camera with a 1/2.3-inch sensor and 83 times zoom lens with an equivalent range of 24 mm very wide-angle through 1,248 mm extreme telephoto.
  • Samsung WB2200F (about $289), a JPEG-only camera with a 1/2.3-inch sensor and 52 times zoom lens with an equivalent range of 20-mm extreme wide-angle through 1,200-mm extreme telephoto. Due to its larger grip, helpful when shooting handheld, this camera appears larger and heavier than it really is.
  • Panasonic’s FZ-1000 (about $900) is a large RAW-capable camera with a relatively large 20-megapixel, 1-inch class sensor, likely Sony’s excellent model. Its Leica-branded zoom lens has a 16 times magnification range equivalent to 25-mm very wide-angle through 400-mm telephoto. That upper end doesn’t sound as spectacular as some of the others, but it’s realistically the sensible upper end of handheld magnification.
  • Olympus Stylus 1 (about $700) is a compact RAW-capable model that physically resembles the larger Olympus E-M5 interchangeable-lens models. It uses a moderately large, 1/1.7-inch class sensor and a 10.7 times lens equivalent to 28 mm wide-angle through 300 mm telephoto. This is a good general range, although probably not enough magnification to satisfy wildlife and birding photographers taking extreme-range photos.

For comparison, the Panasonic, Nikon, Canon and Fujifilm cameras are as large or larger than the prograde, large-sensor Olympus E-M5 Micro Four-Thirds interchangeable-lens models while the Pentax, Samsung and Olympus Stylus 1 are slightly smaller than the E-M5.

As we mentioned above, everything involving superzoom cameras is a tradeoff, so I’ll rank them from best to worst in several different image quality criteria, based on my review of standard test images. You’ll personally need to consider your own budget and magnification needs. Very high magnification models typically are not needed by the average casual and family photographer, so it’s best to avoid the more extreme models unless you actually need them for long-range outdoor use.

  • General lens sharpness: Nikon P900, Panasonic FZ-1000, Olympus Stylus 1, Canon SX60, FujiFilm Finepix S1, Pentax XG-1, Samsung WB2200F.
  • ISO 100 image quality: Panasonic FZ-1000, Olympus Stylus 1, Nikon Coolpix P900, Fujifilm Finepix S1, Samsung WN2200F, Pentax XG1, Canon SX60.
  • ISO 400 image quality: Panasonic FZ-1000 (clearly superior), Nikon Coolpix P900, Olympus Stylus 1, Fujifilm Finepix S1, Pentax XG1, Samsung WN2200F, Canon SX60.

Panasonic’s FZ-1000 clearly has the best overall image quality, especially at the higher ISO settings typically needed for high-magnification, handheld photography. Nikon’s P900 does fairly well, at an intermediate price. The smaller Pentax XG-1 is definitely the value leader and does reasonably at lower ISO sensitivities, with a decent quality lens. Its principal drawback is a fairly high level of chromatic aberration, but that’s easy to fix in later post-processing.

Local attorney Joe Kashi received degrees from MIT and his law degree from Georgetown University. He has published articles about computer technology, law practice and digital photography in national media since 1990. Many of his articles can be accessed through his website, http://www.kashilaw.com.

1 Comment

Filed under photography, Plugged in

One response to “Plugged In: Don’t trade quality when upgrading zoom lenses

  1. jack

    how about talking about MTF and it’s usage in determining the best lens vs
    money aspect??

    https://photographylife.com/how-to-read-mtf-charts

    my apologies if you have previously discussed MTF

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