Big zoom, small camera

Introduction

Smaller, lighter, more feature-packed and perhaps most importantly, cheaper than ever before thanks to mobile phones eating into the lower end of the market, there’s never been a better time to buy a digital compact.

Because the market is so saturated, manufacturers are falling over themselves to offer a point of differential, but are all those additional headline functions actually worth having? High ISO (light sensitivity) speeds and mechanical anti-shake mechanisms that enable image capture in low light without flash offer real benefits, while arguably the current vogue for built-in face-recognition technology – whereby the camera automatically biases focus towards human faces, wherever they are in the frame – produces no better results than simply pointing the lens in their direction.

A definite advantage, however, is an increased lens reach beyond the standard 3x, and, thanks to improvements in technology and vertically stacked optical mechanisms – as opposed to the traditional horizontal – it’s now possible to get a camera that boasts a big zoom without it resembling a house brick.


Particularly great for reportage-style candid snaps, pioneering products such as last summer’s Kodak EasyShare V610 (£149) – which featured a slender chassis by dividing a huge 10x optical zoom range across two lenses – plus Panasonic’s latest (TZ3) have pushed the boundaries of what is technically possible when it comes to big zoom, little camera.

Of course, shooting at the extreme telephoto (close-up) end of such zooms introduces the possibility of camera shake – that is, the effects of any hand wobble becoming more pronounced, resulting in soft
or blurred images. This is a real possibility, as the latest round of compacts are so diminutive that there’s not much to grip firmly.

Counterbalancing this, more models are including some form of image stabilisation usually found in higher-end digital SLRs – with the best being either Optical Image Stabilisation (OIS – anti-shake built into the lens itself) or mechanical (otherwise known as CCD shift), whereby the camera’s internal chip moves or vibrates in direct response to a gyro sensor picking up external movement.


As with a digital (as opposed to optical) zoom – which merely crops a central portion of the image to appear that the camera has zoomed in with a drop in resolution – any form of digital anti shake isn’t as effective, as the camera simply selects a faster shutter speed and higher ISO setting, the latter increasing the possibility of image noise (like a bad TV signal).

So, armed with the above information, let’s examine the best of what six major camera companies have to offer when it comes to a large zoom capacity in a portable, pocket snapshot.

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