Small body, big zoom

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.

Next >> Casio Exilim EX-100

Camera review: Casio Exilim EX-100

Casio Exilim EX-100

Casio's Exilim EX-100 is the lightest and thinnest of the three superzoom cameras in this shoot-out. Unlike many superzooms, it does not look like a shrunken DSLR camera.

With its compact size and self-opening lens cap, EX-100 is the most pocketable and convenient camera in its class.

Button layout is well conceived. The Mode dial, lens zoom lever and shutter release button are on top and easily accessible with your right index finger.

In addition to Aperture-Priority and Program modes, the Mode dial also has Art Shot, Intelligent Bracketing and Time-Lapse modes for quick switching of modes.

The EX-100 also has an aperture ring in front and a wheel dial at the back.

So, in Manual mode, you can quickly adjust the aperture with the ring and the shutter speed with the wheel dial.

Overall, the handling is good but is weaker than the Sony RX10 and Olympus Stylus 1.

The grip of the EX-100 is not as pronounced and comfortable as that of the other two cameras.

Another drawback: It lacks an electronic viewfinder. This makes it difficult to compose pictures under the glare of bright sunlight.

But EX-100's secret weapon is its dual bracketing or Intelligent Bracketing function. In this mode, you can shoot nine frames using two different parameters, such as white balance and saturation, in just 1sec. This way, you can choose the right one.

Its Make-up mode is another draw. You can smoothen your subject's complexion in the photos by adjusting its intensity (from level 0 to 12) to your liking.

The camera takes about 1.2sec to power up, but shuts down slowly in around 2.7sec.

Using an SD card with a writing speed rated at 45MB per second, I shot 30 JPEG images in 0.9sec before the buffer ran out.

Autofocusing (AF) is quick and accurate in bright light. In dim conditions, it takes around 1.2sec with the help of an AF assist light.

Image quality is good, with vivid colours and smooth skin tones, especially when you boost the intensity of the Make-up mode. Details are crisp and distinct, but could be sharper.

In noise performance, it also trails. Noise artefacts show up at ISO 400. I would not recommend anything above ISO 800.

It has the shortest battery life of the three cameras, but not by much.

On a full charge, the EX-100 manages some 390 stills - 20 to 30 frames fewer than the other two.

The Casio Exilim EX-100 is the most pocketable superzoom camera in the market. It operates fast, handles well and comes with great features, such as Dual Bracketing and Make-up modes. However, its image quality is only average for the hefty price tag.

TECH SPECS

Price: $1,299

Image sensor: 12.1 megapixels, 1/1.7-inch CMOS

Lens: 28mm-300mm f/2.8

Display: 3.5-inch tiltable LCD with 920,000 dots

Sensitivity: ISO 80 to 25,600

Shooting speed: Up to 30 frames per second

Connectivity: Wi-Fi

Weight: 389g (with battery and memory card)

RATING

Features 5/5

Design 4/5

Performance 3/5

Value for money 3/5

Battery life 4/5

Overall 3/5

Next >> Olympus Stylus

Camera review: Olympus Stylus

At first glance, the Olympus Stylus 1 looks like a miniaturised version of Olympus' flagship mirrorless camera, the OM-D EM-1.

But the resemblance is more than skin deep. The Stylus 1 handles superbly, with well-placed dials and buttons that work like the flagship model.

On top, a wheel dial, lens zoom lever and dedicated video-recording button sit at the right side. A lone Mode dial sits at the left.

In the front, a control ring and another lens zoom lever are sited to the left of the lens barrel.

You can use the control ring and the top wheel dial for speedy changes of aperture and shutter speeds in Manual mode, then turn to the desired shooting mode quickly with the Mode dial.

Overall, handling is superb and, I feel, the best of the three cameras here.

The built-in electronic viewfinder (EVF) is sharp and provides 100 per cent frame coverage.

You will probably use the EVF more often than the tiltable touchscreen display.

As the display tilts down by no more than 50 degrees, and upwards by 80 degrees at most, this camera is not meant for selfies.

It comes with a clever lens cap whose four flaps open and close as the lens extends and retracts. So, you never have to worry about losing a lens cap, as in the case of the Sony RX10.

On the downside, the grip is small and there is no space for my fourth finger and pinky.

The camera is speedy for its class - starting up in 1.3sec and shutting down in 1.9sec.

Autofocusing (AF) is equally fast. It locks on to a focus almost instantaneously in bright sunlight.

In dim conditions, it takes about 1sec to get a sharp focus with the aid of AF assist light.

Using an SD memory card with a write speed rated at 25MB per second, I was able to shoot 17 RAW files in 3.3sec before the buffer space ran out.

With its smaller image sensor, the image quality of the Stylus 1 is not as crisp as that of the Sony RX10. However, images are vivid and good enough for up to 8R prints.

Image noise is also kept to a minimum until ISO 800.

At ISO 1,600, there is clear loss of details. I will recommend staying at ISO 1,600 or under.

The battery life of the Stylus 1 is quite good, yielding about 410 still images on a full charge.

Of the three cameras in the shoot-out, the Olympus Stylus 1 has the best balance of great pricing, compact build, superb handling and good photo quality.

TECH SPECS

Price: $888

Image sensor: 12 megapixels, 1/1.7-inch CMOS

Lens: 28mm-300mm f/2.8

Display: 3-inch tiltable touchscreen LCD screen with 1,040,000 dots; electronic viewfinder with 1,440,000 dots

Sensitivity: ISO 100 to ISO 12,800

Shooting speed: Up to 7 frames per second

Connectivity: Wi-Fi

Weight: 402g (with battery and memory card)

RATING

Features 4/5

Design 5/5

Performance 3/5

Value for money 4/5

Battery life 4/5

Overall 4/5

Next >> Sony Cybershot DSC-RX10

Camera review: Sony Cybershot DSC-RX10

Sony's Cyber-shot DSC-RX10 might have the shortest focal range - 24-200mm - in this shoot-out, but it uses a much bigger 1-inch image sensor compared with the 1/1.7-inch image sensors used by its peers.

As a result, the RX10 is as heavy and bulky as a DSLR camera, due to the big sensor and huge lens.

At 813g and 10.2cm thick, the RX10 is almost double the weight and thickness of the Olympus Stylus 1 and the Casio Exilim EX-100.

Still, the RX10 is lighter than a DSLR camera, but not necessarily smaller than one.

But among the three cameras here, the RX10 has the most solid and sturdy build, thanks to its magnesium alloy body.

Its rubberised grip and contoured rear thumb rest allow you to hold it comfortably. All my fingers are nicely wrapped around the grip.

Button layout is well thought-out, with all the controls and buttons easily accessible. You can change the aperture using the aperture barrel ring and the shutter speed with the rear dial in Manual mode.

Also, other than using the zoom lever around the shutter release, you can turn the step zoom barrel of the lens to quickly change the focal length of the lens.

Handling is good, but loses out slightly to the Olympus Stylus 1 in terms of intuitiveness.

For example, the Menu button is isolated on the top left rear of the camera. It took me awhile to get used to that, as most Menu buttons are on the rear right.

Its Oled electronic viewfinder (EVF), with 100 per cent frame coverage, is sharp and bright. It is almost as good as an optical viewfinder.

Plus, the EVF provides real-time setting updates. I prefer this EVF over the 3-inch display, which can be tilted downwards by 45 degrees or upwards by 84 degrees.

The RX10 starts up swiftly, at around 1.2sec. Shutdown takes around 1sec longer. Autofocusing (AF) is almost instantaneous in bright sunlight.

In dim lighting conditions, it is not as quick as the other two cameras here. It can take up to 2sec to find a focus even with the aid of the AF assist light.

But the RX10's image quality is excellent and easily beats the other two superzoom cameras here.

Images are vivid with sharp details and low barrel distortion throughout its focal range.

The noise performance is the best here as well. There is no visible noise up to ISO 800. Even at ISO 1,600, while there are visible noise artefacts, there is no significant loss of details. However, I would not recommend anything exceeding ISO 3,200.

The RX10's battery life is the best here at around 420 shots on a full charge, slightly edging out the Stylus 1.

The Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX10 is the bulkiest and most expensive with the shortest focal range in this shoot-out. But with its solid build, good handling and fantastic image quality, it is the best superzoom compact camera in the market.

TECH SPECS

Price: $1,599

Image sensor: 20.2 megapixels, 1-inch CMOS

Lens: 24mm-200mm f/2.8

Display: 3-inch tiltable LCD with 1,290,000 dots; Oled electronic viewfinder with 1,440,000 dots

Sensitivity: ISO 80 to ISO 12,800

Shooting speed: Up to 10 frames per second

Connectivity: Wi-Fi, Near Field Communication

Weight: 813g (with battery and memory card)

RATING

Features 5/5

Design 4/5

Performance 4/5

Value for money 3/5

Battery life 4/5

Overall 4/5

trevtan@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on July 02, 2014.
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