PMA 2009 Goodies, Part 2 (Non-DSLRs)

In part 2 we’ll take a look at the huge realm of cameras outside DSLRs.  A boatload of compacts and ultrazooms and budget cams get announced every half-year, so I won’t highlight every single one, but we’ll take a look at some of the interesting products and general trends.

Bajillion-x Megazoom

Olympus' 26x zoom SP-590UZ

Olympus' 26x zoom SP-590UZ

An interesting thing about the “Megapixel Wars” is that the public’s fascination with megapixels as a selling point have somewhat waned.  I don’t have particular evidence of this – perhaps it’s just media emphasizing it less, or perhaps even that I’ve become so jaded with the numbers that I’ve mentally blocked it out. And in any case, I’m certain that any such effect that’s been noticed has purely been with the semi-educated consumer – there are still millions of consumers who have no idea how to evaluate cameras aside from megapixel count.

But as the emphasis on megapixels seems to recede, another emphasis over ever-skyrocketing optical zoom ranges mounts.  Back in the old days, ultrazooms hit 10x (something like 38-380mm or 36-360mm equivalent), and inched up to 12x and pretty much stopped there.  About two years ago, Olympus changed the dynamic of this race completely with its groundbreaking SP-550 UZ which packed a whopping 18x (28-504mm) zoom.  Olympus had about a 6-month monopoly on this range, but ever since then, manufacturers have been pushing their lenses to ever stratospheric heights.

A lot of people have decried this extreme push in lens design, which certainly has its drawbacks.  The SP-550’s 18x lens was universally panned for delivering terrible image quality, and no camera since then has really been able to deliver that kind of zoom range in a lens that is up to par with the previous generations’ more conservative 10x or 12x lenses.  Unlike pixel count, however, which past a certain point doesn’t given any usable advantages for most users and applications, a larger zoom range will always add more versatility.

So PMA saw the introduction of no less than 5 such ultrazooms (4 new releases and one North American re-release) having 20x+ zoom ranges.  A quick summary of them:

20x Ultrazooms

Camera MP Sensor size Focal Length Zoom Aperture Features
Pentax X70 12MP 1/2.3" 26-624mm 24x f/2.8-5 11fps in 5MP mode, 720p video
Sony HX1 9MP 1/2.4" 28-560mm 20x f/2.8-5.2 10fps at full-res, 1080p video
Olympus SP-590 12MP 1/2.3" 26-676mm 26x f/2.8-5 6fps in 5MP mode, RAW captur, wireless flash control
Kodak Z980 12MP 1/2.3" 26-624mm 24x f/2.8-5 5fps, 720p video, Vertical grip/shutter release
Nikon P90 12MP 1/2.3" 26-624mm 24x f/2.8-5 15fps in 3MP mode,
Canon SX1 10MP 1/2.3" 28-560mm 20x f/2.8-5.7 4fps at full-res, 1080p video

So we can see the zoom count is continually creeping up and up, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see an ultrazoom packing 30x in the next 6 months or so.  Depending on whether your glass is half-full or half-empty, I think one interesting aspect is that the zooms are growing in the wide-angle range as well as the telephoto, though perhaps not in equal proportions – if we take a 36-360mm 10x zoom as our baseline, from a few years ago, today’s 26-624mm (4x) cameras are about 27.8% wider on the wide-angle end, and 73% longer on the telephoto end.  This is disproportionately skewed towards the telephoto end, but it’s nice to see these cameras offering a significantly wider angle at all, compared to the earlier days of digital cameras when developing 10x lenses meant keeping the same 36mm starting point and just changing the 108mm telephoto end to a 360mm.

An interesting note is that both Canon’s SX1 and Sony’s HX1 ultrazooms are their first non-SLR cameras to feature a CMOS, rather than CCD sensors.  This isn’t an outright positive – CMOS and CCD are simply different technologies, without one being inherently superior to the other.  Historically, CCD sensors have produced better image quality, although CMOS has an inherent advantage in readout speed and Canon’s CMOS sensors for their DSLRs have beat out every other manufacturers’ CCD sensors in terms of high-ISO noise for a half-decade now.  For what it’s worth, Canon’s SX1 CMOS seems to perform slightly worse than the very similar Canon SX10, which uses the same lens but a CCD sensor, according to a head-to-head Cameralabs comparison.

A bevy of ruggedized cameras

Olympus has been hammering away at this niche market for years now with its mju line of waterproof cameras.  The other big players seem to have finally jumped on the bandwagon, with Canon’s D10, Fujifilm’s Z33, and Panasonic’s TS1.

It’s a bit sad to see another innovative market or feature that Olympus found, targeted, and penetrated first, only to eventually lose that ground to other bigger players who seized on their innovation.  Then again, this is a huge boon for consumers, not only because it offers more selection, but frankly because Canon, Fujifilm, and Panasonic know how to execute and produce quality cameras in a way that Olympus can only dream of.

Fujifilm's ruggedized Z33

Fujifilm's ruggedized Z33

Canon introduces the compact ultrazoom SX200 TZ-killer, Panasonic one-ups everyone again with the ZS3/TZ7

Canon SX200 IS

Canon SX200 IS

Panasonic has had a long and successful run with its TZ series of ultrazoom cameras.  They first introduced their 10x, 1.6in thick TZ1 in 2006, back when the only 10x+ cameras on the market were huge, bulky ultrazooms like the Canon S3 (3in. thick), Sony H5 (3.6in.), or Panasonic’s own 5.4in. FZ30 behemoth.

The TZ was an ideal blend of versatility and compactness, which more or less made it the ideal travel camera, especially as one of the few cameras (much less ultrazooms) to offer a 28mm wide-angle lens at the time.  Even when Canon and Sony attempted to mount some competition with their own ~2in. ultrazoom releases in the past year, they were still significantly bulkier and lacked the all-important 28mm wide angle end.

Finally, 3 years after the release of the original TZ, Canon appears to have come out with a viable contender in the SX200 IS, a 1.5in compact sporting a 28-336mm (12x) f/3.4-5.3 lens.  It’s also got the ability to record 1280×720, 30fps video (720/30p).

Panasonic ZS3 (aka TZ7)

Panasonic ZS3 (aka TZ7)

But like clockwork, Panasonic’s already rolling out the next generation of cameras that, on paper at least, offer more innovative features and better performance. The newest TZ7/ZS3 continues Panosonic’s recent trend of setting 25mm as the new wide-angle standard, featuring a 25-300mm 12x lens at f/3.3-4.9.  The ZS3 also features a 1280×720, 60fps video mode (720/60p) (though with this level of processing throughput, one wonders why 1080p couldn’t be offered), and even allows you to utilize the optical zoom while recording (something which many cameras, Canon SX200 included, surprisingly can’t).  Following the trend of some other high-end Panasonics lately, the ZS3 also seems to be offering an oversized sensor, which allows it to deliver “full-frame” coverage for its lens and offer the same angle of view irrespective of aspect ratio (so you won’t get cropped off images when shooting 16:9 video on a native 4:3 sensor).  The Panasonic ZS3 also offers a 2.3fps burst, and 6fps burst in a 3MP mode, compared to the SX200’s paltry 0.8fps.

Sony, meanwhile, just pumped out its H20 compact ultrazoom, which still tips in at a bulky 1.9in and features the same boring restrictive 38-380mm zoom.  On the other end of the spectrum, Samsung introduced the HZ15, which features a 24-240mm 10x zoom.

Oh, and in case you were wondering about image quality (and the oft-repeated stigma that Panasonics can’t do low-light), here’s a comparison between last generation’s Panasonic TZ5 at ISO1600 and dcresource’s recent review of the Canon SX200 IS at ISO1600.

So for now, it seems, Panasonic still rules the roost as king of compact ultrazooms, and on paper the ZS3 appears to be the perfect camera for anyone looking for maximum versatility and portability in a single package (i.e. travel photographers).

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