A new breed of digital superzoom compact cameras is taking centre stage. This group uses lenses with a large constant aperture of f/2.8.
These are digital cameras with fixed lenses of long focal lengths, possibly 50x optical zoom lenses with focal lengths ranging from 24mm to 1,200mm.
Their major advantage is that they let you take a wide landscape picture of a forest, then immediately zoom in on a beautiful bird perched on the tree canopy - all without having to change lenses.
Professional photographer Aaron Lim, 33, sometimes cycles around Singapore to photograph wildlife. He takes his Olympus Stylus 1 with him, because this superzoom compact camera takes up so little space in his bicycle saddle bag.
"I do not have to take extra lenses or bother with changing lenses along the way," he said.
Superzoom compact cameras are sometimes called ultra-zoom camera or bridge cameras because they bridge the gap between compact cameras and DSLR cameras.
They tend to look like DSLR cameras as their bodies need to accommodate those large long zoom lenses.
Their biggest downside though is that their lenses often have small apertures no larger than f/6.5 or f/8, at the maximum focal length.
No more lugging lenses around
Canon's PowerShot SX50 HS, for instance, with a 50x optical zoom lens, has an aperture no bigger than f/6.5 at the maximum focal length of 1,200mm.
With such extreme focal lengths, this is almost a sure way to get camera shake and end up with a blurry picture. The longer the focal length, the higher the chances of camera shake, because the slightest movement gets magnified as the angle of view narrows.
The smaller the aperture, the slower the shutter speed required. Large aperture lenses are also known as fast lenses as they allow in more light. Using faster shutter speeds can reduce camera shake.
But all this changed when Sony released the Cyber-shot DSC-RX10, the first superzoom with a lens that has a constant f/2.8 aperture throughout its focal range of 24mm to 200mm.
Olympus soon joined the party with the Stylus 1 with its 28mm to 300mm lens that has a constant f/2.8 aperture throughout.
Then Casio followed with the slim Exilim EX-100, which sports a lens of similar focal range and aperture.
Mr Gerard Tan, market research GfK Asia's technology account director, said: "Consumers buy such cameras for this special technical feature. At f/2.8, it can allow more light to enter the camera so that a faster shutter speed can be used, thus reducing blur images caused by a user's unsteady hands."
For years, DSLR camera users paid an arm and a leg (well, at least $2,000) for fast zoom lens with a constant f/2.8 aperture.
Usually, their focal ranges were quite limited - typically 16mm to 35mm, 24mm to 70mm, and 70mm to 200mm. So, you needed several to cover the 16mm to 200mm range.
Now, superzooms with fast zoom lenses can save you plenty of money. The Sony RX10 is the most expensive superzoom at $1,599, but it still beats buying a bunch of fast zoom lenses.
Moreover, you do not need to lug around several lenses when just one superzoom camera will do.
Sales 'better than expected'
Mr Mark Chan, 38, a management consultant, who uses a Sony RX10, is glad not to have to carry around extra equipment when he travels.
"I also do not have to worry about leaving an expensive lens behind when I travel, which is what gives people the most grief," he said.
The only downside is that the superzooms have much smaller image sensors (from 1/1.7-inch to 1-inch) than mirrorless cameras or DSLR cameras. But it is a trade-off many are willing to make for the convenience.
Mr Wesley Han, 33, a business owner, said he bought the Casio EX-100 because of its compact size and great functionality, even though its image sensor is smaller.
"I am not a pro user and prefer to have a camera with similar functions without the hassle of learning how to use a pro DSLR camera," he said.
Sales of superzooms have soared. Between January and May this year, this segment accounted for 9.2 per cent of all camera sales here. In the same period last year, its share of the market was just 7.6 per cent.
In May, Casio Singapore sold some 100 units of the EX-100 during the four-day SG Tech Show alone.
Without revealing sales figures, Mr Melvin Pang, Sony South-east Asia's head of field marketing, said the Sony RX10's sales number has been better than expected.
"We anticipate that the camera will continue to sell favourably in this market," he said.
Similarly, Olympus Singapore shared no sales figures but said the Stylus 1 was doing very well globally and locally. "We have even run short in certain months," said Mr Jimmy Loh, general manager of Olympus Imaging Singapore.
Digital Life put these three digital superzooms through their paces.