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Best Superzoom 2014: True Focal Lengths and Other Observations

Eight superzoom cameras compared, 2.5 clear winners

All zooms aren't created equal:
The real focal lengths, and how we measured them

When we saw some of the differences between the images we shot at the maximum focal lengths on these cameras, the immediate question became what the focal lengths actually were, and whether or not they matched the manufacturer's claims for the lenses. Something just seemed a bit off, and our job is to separate the truth from the hype, so that's what we set out to do here.

We could have approached doing this in the lab, but also know from experience that the effective focal lengths of telephoto zoom lenses often decrease at shorter shooting distances. With equivalent focal lengths of 1,200 - 1,440 mm, anything we could do indoors would probably count as "shorter!" We wanted to test the cameras at a distance where they'd essentially be at infinity focus.

Looking at our outdoor test shots, we realized we already had the makings of a great focal length test, as there was an object in one of them (editor Dave Pardue's "ZOOM" sign) that we knew the dimensions of. But what about the shooting distance? We couldn't use a tape measure, and none of us knows a friendly surveyor, to borrow his/her laser rangefinder (and we didn't feel like spending a couple hundred dollars to buy one online). What to do? ... Aha! - Google Maps to the rescue!

We weren't sure we'd be able to discriminate fine enough detail in the Google Maps satellite views, but we were surprised by just how precisely we could identify both the target area and shooting position at Google's maximum on-screen zoom level. From there, it was easy; we expanded the max-res Google Map satellite view across two displays, took a screenshot of the expanded browser window, brought it into Photoshop, and measured the camera-subject distance in pixels. At that zoom level, the little legend on the map shows 20 feet as being 99 screen pixels. (Don't ask us why it's such an odd number; we were measuring from center to center of the two little pips on the length scale, and that's what it came out to.) The ruler tool in Photoshop showed a distance of 1962 pixels from the camera location to that of the subject, for a distance of 396 feet.

The ZOOM sign was on a piece of posterboard 20x30 inches, so we could easily calculate how many degrees of arc it was spanning (0.3614 decimal degrees). Knowing that, we could measure and calculate what percentage of the diagonal frame the sign occupied in each camera's image, and thus calculate each camera's angular field of view. From there, it was a simple matter of converting that angle of view into an equivalent focal length on a 35mm camera.

The numbers we came up with could be off by a couple percent one way or the other in absolute terms (depending on how accurate the distance value was that we picked off the Google Maps screenshot), but the relative differences we measured between the cameras should be accurate to within a few tenths of a percent; basically, the accuracy with which we could measure the width of the sign in Photoshop. To our minds, it's the relative measurements that matter most here, in making a decision as to which camera to buy, so we weren't too concerned about minor inaccuracy in the camera-subject distance number. (For those interested, though, a difference of +/- 4 feet in the camera/subject distance would translate into a focal length error of roughly +/- 1%.)

After running through the math, here's what we calculated for each camera's equivalent 35mm focal length, at maximum zoom. As you can see, there's a good bit of variation:

Camera Focal Length
Claimed Measured Difference
Canon SX50 HS 1,200 1,146 -4.5%
Canon SX60 HS 1,365 1,314 -3.7%
Fujifilm S1 1,200 1,080 -10.0%
Nikon P600 1,440 1,380 -4.2%
Olympus SP-100 1,200 1,297 +8.1%
Panasonic FZ70 1,200 1,166 -2.8%
Samsung WB2200F 1,200 1,167 -2.7%
Sony HX400V 1,200 1,110 -7.5%

As you can see, while most cameras are pretty close to their claimed values, there are a couple of standouts. In particular, the Fujifilm S1 came in a good 10% shorter than stated, while the Olympus SP-100 was a whopping 8.1% longer than the spec sheet claimed. The Sony HX400V was more than 7% short, with the rest what we'd call moderately close to spec, particularly given the slight uncertainty in our distance measurement.

Differences of a few percent aren't that big a deal, in that we don't think they'd matter much to the average user, but the difference between the S1 and SP-100 was pretty noticeable. A total difference between the two of 18.1% regardless of whether or not the distance is exact, and they're both listed as 1200mm eq. cameras!

Of course, magnification is only part of the story with these lenses; a bigger image isn't much good if it's mushy or soft, and in our testing, we found that differences in image quality easily trumped those in focal length. Interestingly, the two cameras delivering the best telephoto image quality were the two at the opposite ends of the focal length scale, the Fujifilm S1 at 1,088mm, and the Nikon P600 at 1,390mm.

A footnote on the accuracy of this test:
Bothered that almost all the cameras were measuring shorter than their specs said they should, IR Chief Techie Dave Etchells couldn't rest until he'd double-checked the figures. To do so, he and Editor William Bailey ran one more test, outside our offices. They set up the sign, carefully measured off 325 feet (about the maximum distance available here), and grabbed a bunch of shots with the Nikon P600. With this much more precisely measured distance as the basis of the focal length calculations, they came up with a value for the P600 at maximum zoom of 1,380mm, +/-0.3%, including variations in the pixel measurements between shots, and an estimate of distance inaccuracy of +/- 5 inches or so. The results came out 0.8% shorter than what we'd calculated from the shots at the lake, surprisingly accurate, given that we'd measured the distance from a Google Maps satellite-view screenshot. The numbers in the table above are corrected from the originals to account for the 0.8% shortfall.

We're still a little nonplussed that all the focal lengths (save that of the Olympus SP-100) came up noticeably short. One remaining possibility is that we were measuring a span of a thousand pixels or so, located fairly near the center of the frame, which was only about 20% of the total frame width. Even that far into the image, we noticed just a hint of pincushion distortion, though. It's possible that pincushion distortion could make objects along the edges of the frame relatively larger than ones near the center, so maybe that's a factor in how the manufacturers calculate focal lengths. We stand by our numbers, though; for subjects near the center of the frame, we believe that our results are accurate to better than 1%.

Performance

When it comes to responsiveness, none of these cameras are going to hold up to even an entry-level SLR or mirrorless model, especially at their extreme telephoto ends, where focusing might best be called a little languid. You're going to do far better with objects crossing the field of view rather than either rapidly approaching or receding from the camera. (At least at middle- to short distances; for subjects a couple of football fields away, this won't matter a lot.) Also, picking out a small subject against a big background can be challenging.

If you haven't used a super-zoom before, you may not be prepared for just how tricky it can be to track and keep a moving subject in the frame. Their image stabilization systems make it easier to at least keep your (stationary) subject in the frame and compose your shot, but if you're trying to track something moving, it can be difficult to keep the subject well enough centered for the camera's relatively slow contrast-detect autofocus to figure out where it is and focus on it.

All this to say that, while birds and wildlife are natural subjects for these cameras, photos of birds on the wing will be pretty difficult to pull off. A tripod with a smoothly-operating ballhead or smooth tilt-swivel controls will be your best friend here. Don't let this discourage you, but we want to set appropriate expectations. You'll surely manage to get some good bird-on-the-wing photos, but not with every shot.

At focal lengths of 1,200 - 1,440mm equivalents, if you lose your subject at maximum tele, it can be quite difficult to recapture it. The Canon models have a nifty feature called "Zoom Framing Assist", that lets you momentarily zoom out, to find your subject, and then quickly zoom back in for the shot. The Olympus SP-100 has a very cool "Dot Sight" feature, basically a holographic laser-dot sight, as you'll see on some rifle sights. A red dot in the pop-up sight shows you where the center of the frame is, regardless of your eye position. It's a really cool feature, and is definitely a help in acquiring and tracking subjects, but the camera unfortunately didn't do so well in our image quality tests. For the others, even when the subject is far away, keeping both eyes open while one looks through the viewfinder can be helpful for staying oriented.

So, none of these cameras are especially quick to focus out in the field, but none stood out as being particularly slower than the others, at least in our real-world shooting with them. Below are our standard lab test results for full autofocus shutter lag, taken on a sturdy tripod of a static, bright, high-contrast target.

Camera Full AF shutter lag (wide) Full AF shutter lag (tele)
Canon SX50 HS 0.48 sec 0.41 sec
Canon SX60 HS 0.40 sec 0.32 sec
Fujifilm S1 0.13 sec 0.22 sec
Nikon P600 0.24 sec 0.43 sec
Olympus SP-100 0.16 sec 0.23 sec
Panasonic FZ70 0.12 sec 0.11 sec
Samsung WB2200F 0.47 sec 0.59 sec
Sony HX400V 0.34 sec 0.14 sec

In the lab, the Panasonic was the fastest overall at focusing and taking a shot, while the Samsung was the slowest. But all of them autofocused in under 0.6 second and as mentioned, in the real world when hand-held, differences in focusing speed felt negligible. Where we did find some significant differences was in burst-mode shooting, and how the cameras recovered from a burst while writing to the memory card.

"Burst" mode is only meaningful for most of them when shooting JPEG-format files. The four that are capable of shooting in RAW mode at all are pretty slow in RAW+JPEG mode. The exception is the Panasonic FZ70, which shoots RAWs as fast as JPEGs, but it can only capture 3 shots in quick succession in either mode, before it has to wait for almost 11 seconds to clear its buffer when shooting RAW+JPEG (and that with a fast memory card, slower cards will take longer).

In continuous-shooting mode, all of these cameras show you the shot they just captured rather than a truly "live" viewfinder display. This can make it pretty tricky to follow a moving subject. Worst in this respect is the Nikon P600, which completely blacks-out the viewfinder in its continuous-high mode.

The two Canons stood out with deeper buffers and faster clearing, and the SX60 was the only camera of the group that would stay "live" while it was clearing its buffer memory, though its full-resolution capture rate was the slowest of the group (6.6 fps). All the others will make you wait until they can empty their buffers before you can do anything with them. No composing your next shot, no fiddling with controls; these are cameras that you'll really want to have fast memory cards to use with them!

Buffer clearing times varied really widely, from a low of 3 seconds for the Panasonic FZ70, after only 3 full-resolution shots to almost 30 seconds(!) for the Nikon P600, after a series of 7 shots. Its very slow recovery after a burst of shots was one of the few significant strikes against the P600 in our testing.

Camera Fastest full-res JPEG burst rate JPEG buffer depth Buffer clearing time Camera "live" during buffer clearing?
Canon SX50 HS 13.0 fps 10 6.5 sec No
Canon SX60 HS 6.6 fps 19 4.2 sec Yes
Fujifilm S1 9.6 fps 9 4.4 sec No
Nikon P600 6.9 fps 7 30 sec No
Olympus SP-100 8.3 fps 6 4 sec No
Panasonic FZ70 10.0 fps 3 3 sec No
Samsung WB2200F 6.8 fps 7 6 sec No
Sony HX400V 9.9 fps 10 12 sec No

The table above shows the fastest full-resolution burst rate along with buffer depths and clearing times, using our standard SanDisk Extreme Pro 95 MB/s memory card, one of the fastest on the market. As mentioned earlier, you'll really want to have fast memory cards with these cameras; some of them are rather slow to clear their buffers. Several models can capture more shots more quickly at reduced resolutions, but we didn't delve into those too deeply, figuring that full-resolution bursts would give a pretty good idea of how quickly each camera could write to the memory card. As mentioned above, the Canon SX60 HS is the real winner here, with a much larger buffer depth, a very fast buffer clearing time, and the ability to continue to respond to user input while it's writing to the memory card. Unfortunately, its image quality left a lot to be desired and its burst rate was the slowest of the group (but still not bad at 6.6 fps).

At the other end of the spectrum, the Nikon P600 had arguably the best image quality of the group, but was just ineffably slow writing to the memory card, and remained unresponsive to users input until its buffer was fully cleared. For shooters needing performance of this kind, perhaps a happy medium is the Fuji S1, which had a fast burst rate, reasonable buffer depth, good image quality and a fast buffer clearing time.

RAW file formats

This doesn't really fit under "performance," but truth be told, we didn't know where else to put it. We suspect few of the target users for these cameras will care too much about the ability to record in RAW file format (and the cameras that can have essentially no burst capability in that mode), but enthusiasts know that processing RAW files in Photoshop or another photo editor can often deliver better detail and overall image quality than the cameras themselves can achieve internally, when saving data in the JPEG file format.

Of the eight cameras in this roundup, four of them support RAW shooting (the two Canons, the Fuji S1, and the Panasonic FZ70), while the others do not. We're honestly not sure how to weight this feature for cameras in this category, as we suspect the vast majority of users would only shoot JPEG format images anyway. Those who care about RAW recording will want to look towards the four models mentioned, though, and we've posted RAW conversions for you on Page 3 of this review.

 

Handling and build quality

Grip ergonomics and build quality are very subjective measures, but sharing our own observations may help you decide which to lean towards, if other factors are equal. For us, the key issue with grip ergonomics is that the camera be comfortable to hold for people with both large and small hands. Given the relatively compact form factors of these cameras, it's unlikely that people with small hands will have difficulty holding any of them, so the grip evaluation largely comes down to how they'll feel for users with larger hands.

Build quality is also somewhat subjective, in that we don't really know much about the internal construction of any of these cameras; what engineers would consider to be their true "build quality." There are distinct differences in how each camera feels in-hand, though; some convey a sense of solidity, while others have a "plasticky" feel to them. It's hard to distinguish fine degrees of gradation in this area, and we won't try to here, speaking in fairly general terms.

Here are our notes on the ergonomics and in-hand feel for each of the cameras tested, in bullet-point format:

  • Canon SX50: A somewhat shallow grip, it feels a little cramped for those with larger hands. Decent in-hand feel, roughly in the middle of the range in this respect.

  • Canon SX60: A bit better grip, we'd call it medium-good. Very good build quality, feels nice in the hand.

  • Fuji S1: A nice, deep grip, and by far the best build quality of the group. (Also the only one that's weather-sealed, an important consideration for some users.)

  • Nikon P600: A pretty good grip, not as generous as the best, but better than most. Oddly, the texture on the rubber of the grip was almost too much of a good thing; it's so strongly textured it verges on being a bit uncomfortable in your hand. Good build quality, but not quite at the level of the Fuji S1.

  • Olympus SP-100: A decent grip design; more towards the middle of the pack, rather than particularly good or bad. Good in-hand feel.

  • Panasonic FZ70: A slightly shallow grip, a bit cramped if you have larger hands. Good build quality.

  • Samsung WB220F: Most of us liked the grip on this one, particularly the built-in second grip for portrait-format shooting. DaveE felt that the grips were a bit on the shallow side, though, and all agreed that the camera body had a distinctly plasticky feel to it.

  • Sony HX400V: A very nice grip, with plenty of finger room without being too big for smaller hands. Also a very nice, solid feel in the hand.

 

Battery Life

The longest lens in the world won't help you take any pictures if your batteries are dead, so we wanted to take a look at the CIPA-standard battery life figures for the cameras in our shootout. Note: For models that didn't specify which display was used (denoted with an asterisk), we assumed battery life was the same with either display.

Camera CIPA Battery Life
LCD
(Shots)
EVF
(Shots)
Ext.
Charger?
Canon SX50 HS 315 335 Yes
Canon SX60 HS
(450 in "eco mode")
340 340 Yes
Fujifilm S1* 350 350 No
Nikon P600* 330 330 No
Olympus SP-100* 330 330 No
Panasonic FZ70 400 Not given Yes
Samsung WB2200F* 600 600 No
Sony HX400V 300 380 No

There don't appear to be any major 'gotchas' here; the battery life numbers range from 300 shots with the Sony HX400V using the LCD to 600 shots with the much larger Samsung WB2200F. Most users will probably find battery life adequate, but we always advise buying and packing along a second battery. (If you've ever had your camera battery run out at the end of a long day of shooting, you'll have developed a healthy paranoia about battery life. The best shots are invariably the ones that present themselves after your battery has gone dead. Buy a second battery; you'll thank us :-)

Speaking of second batteries, we've also noted above which cameras include an external battery charger and which do not. In-camera charging is a feature for some, as it means you don't need to lug along a separate charger on trips. On the other hand, if you do have a second battery, in-camera charging means you can't be shooting with one battery while you're charging the other. And while you don't have to deal with the (minor) bulk of the charger, you do have to keep track of the camera's particular (and sometimes proprietary) cable. It's also not even a matter of bulk, either, unless you're traveling with your computer, as you'll still need to bring along the USB wall-wart to provide the camera with charging voltage.

After initially having felt that in-camera charging was a great thing, we've all pretty much come to prefer separate chargers. Essentially all of us who have lost a custom cable or cables, the separate chargers seem easier to keep track of, as well as offering the option of charging while shooting. (A couple of us are pretty well convinced that there's something out there that eats custom camera cables. There seems no other explanation for how easily and quickly they vanish.) Of course, you might feel differently, which is why we showed which cameras do and don't come with a dedicated charger in the table above. Also keep in mind that dedicated battery chargers are often available separately.


Best Superzoom 2014 Index:

1) Meet The Competitors / Introducing Gena

2) Searching for the Early Seventies Guy

3) The Ultimate Image Quality

4) Handheld Image Stabilization Testing

5) Shooting The Moon!

6) What's The Real Max Focal Length?

7) Conclusions and Winners!

 


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