Best Superzoom 2014: Conclusions and WinnersEight superzoom cameras compared, 2.5 clear winners
Conclusion, results and recommendations
Whatever the purpose of any camera we test here at IR, from premium compacts all the way to full frame professional sports models, our biggest concern is always on image quality. Functionality and feel are also highly important, but IQ is the king of the hill. Novelty features may sell cameras to novices, but they don't matter at all to us if the image quality isn't sound. For that reason, we didn't pay much attention to ancillary features in this shootout, and instead concentrated our efforts on what these models are meant to do first and foremost, and that's deliver clear, sharp, low-noise and high detail images of distant subjects.
If you've read through any of the previous pages and looked at any of the image comparisons, you probably know what our recommendations will be, but we'll walk through our winners below anyway, pointing out some strengths and weaknesses of each. We found that three of these eight models can perform their primary function with a degree of image quality sound enough to recommend to even discerning Imaging Resource readers. And we'll say once again for the record - we're not looking for the image quality you'd get from a large, bulky $5000 full frame rig here, just image quality good enough to make the grade in this ~$500 superzoom category, and all three of these models definitely make the grade, although we felt two stood out as the clearest winners.
IR Superzoom Recommendations
The Nikon P600 took us by surprise from the first test we shot. Taking a quick glance for the first time on a computer monitor against the other superzooms, the 1:1 image of our model Gena simply blew us away in comparison. That first portrait shot was far superior to what we saw from any of the other cameras. We were particularly surprised, given that the P600 is also the longest-zooming of the bunch, with a max tele focal length of 1440mm eq. Going forward, the P600 held onto its crown in pretty much all of our other test shooting. Besides its great image quality, its image stabilization was among the best, especially important with such a long zoom lens. On the downside, its battery life is on the short end of the group, at 330 shots, and it doesn't come with an external charger, so you can't be charging one battery while shooting with the other. However a dedicated battery charger (MH-67P) is available from Nikon for about US$40.
The biggest limitation we found with the P600 was its full-resolution continuous shooting speed. Not so much its ~7 frames/second continuous rate as the fact that it took 30 seconds to write a burst of images to a very fast memory card, and wouldn't let you do anything with it for that entire time. This was frankly pretty maddening. When it was clearing a burst, we couldn't fiddle with menus or camera settings or work on framing our next image. The camera was basically a paperweight for 30 seconds after every burst. (We tried several different fast memory cards in it, to make sure it wasn't a fluke with one particular card.) That said, its very high-speed (60 and 120 frames/second) lower-resolution modes were much better in that respect, and a long series of 120 fps/VGA-resolution images cleared in only 8 seconds. So it's a mixed bag; we wouldn't recommend the P600 for fast-breaking sports action. We were also a little surprised to see that it didn't have a RAW mode. As we saw back on page 3 of this review, RAW processing often doesn't add a lot in terms of image quality, when you're talking about small-sensored cameras, but we'd still like to have seen the option on the P600, regardless.
Even taking its limitations into account, we felt that the Nikon was the hands-down winner in this shootout. The P600 is simply the best superzoom on the market as of this writing. It's clear from its performance that Nikon knows a thing or two about making great lenses, but they also wrung the maximum out of the small sensor required to make a 1440-equivalent tele zoom lens a practical reality. The difference in image quality between the P600 and some of its competitors is frankly astonishing. If you can live with its slow buffer clearing for full-resolution bursts and you don't need much in the way of weather resistance, there's no better choice currently on the market.
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Buy your Nikon P600 from: Amazon | Adorama | B&H
The Fuji S1 felt more "professional" and of higher quality in the hand than any of the others by a good margin. It has weather resistance built in, and virtually everything about the body and design suggests it's ready to head out into the natural world without complaint or issue. Perhaps in part due to its weather sealing, there's a sureness and solidity to all its controls, and the body as a whole just feels well-built. It also seems to have one of the better image stabilization systems of the group, and delivered by far the best-looking moon shot. The Fuji S1 also does quite well in the performance department, capturing a minimum of 9 full-resolution frames at 9.6 frames/sec, and clearing the buffer in just 4.4 seconds with a fast enough memory card. (Like the Nikon P600, it's effectively dead while writing to the card, but at least spends only 4.4 seconds doing so, after a burst that's two shots longer than the P600's.) The Fuji S1's lens is also slightly brighter than any of the competitors, with an aperture at max tele of f/5.6, vs f/5.9 for its nearest competition.
The S1 has two notable shortcomings, though, one of which is literally shorter: While all of the superzooms we tested except the Olympus SP-100 showed shorter focal lengths in our testing than they were rated at, the Fuji S1 holds the dubious distinction of being the one that came up the shortest. By our measurements, its maximum focal length is only 1,080mm equivalent at our test distance of ~400 feet, vs its stated 1,200mm equivalent. It seems to have a very good lens, just not as long a focal length in practice as advertised. (It's possible that its focal length would measure longer at true infinity, or even at some shorter shooting distance, but at least in our tests at a range of about 400 feet, it came up a good 10% short of the claimed value.)
A bigger issue (at least to our eyes) is the extent to which its JPEG images appear over-sharpened and over-processed. While individual tastes may vary, we found the images it produced in all our shots other than the one of the moon to be overly contrasty, with finer details blurred by the noise-reduction processing, and then grossly oversharpened to compensate. This again could be somewhat reflective of the proclivities of its target market, as oversharpened images like those produced by the S1 tend to pop when printed at smaller output sizes. We do wish, though, that Fuji had given users the ability to dial back the sharpening and processing in-camera, via a menu option of some sort. Alas, there's none such, so JPEG users have to simply accept what the camera gives them.
Note that we said "JPEG shooters," though. The Fuji S1 can optionally save files to RAW format, allowing for processing its RAW files through Lightroom, Photoshop, or other RAW-processing software which can yield dramatically better-looking results. If you want to go that route, though, you may want to invest some time and effort in creating (or finding online) a color profile for it; Adobe Camera RAW's (ACR's) default color mapping produces images with significantly lower-contrast and less-saturated color. That's a shame, as Fuji does have some special magic in their color management, and the S1's JPEG color looks really great as a result. Still, even without a dedicated color profile, we suspect you could get into the right ballpark with ACR if you fiddled a bit with its selective color controls.
If you either print your photos at smaller sizes, or routinely downsample them for online display, the Fuji S1's overprocessing may not bother you very much (although its excessively high contrast would remain). If you tend towards a RAW workflow, that could also raise the S1 in your sights. Finally, if you're looking for a camera to use for sports photography or other applications where there's a lot of fast-paced action, the S1's 9.6 frames/second with 9-shot buffer and 4.4 second clearing time would make it a strong contender, as would its weather resistance and solid overall build and design.
Purchasing your S1 through one of the links below directly supports our efforts!
Buy your Fuji S1 from: Amazon | Adorama | B&H
Ah, the SX50. It's "only" 12.1 megapixels, zooms to a nowadays modest 1200mm eq., and yet is still making headlines. None of us at IR expected the SX50 to take the third (and final) slot in our competition (except for our lens specialist Rob Murray, who said "I told you so" with a conspiratorial wink afterwards). The Canon SX50 doesn't have quite the image quality of the Nikon P600, and certainly can't match the latter's 1,440mm equivalent (actually 1,380mm in our tests) maximum focal length. It also isn't weather-resistant like the S1, and doesn't have a lot in the way of gee-whiz gimmicks, but it's still a really great little superzoom camera, even now a full two years after its initial release.
The fact that its recently released and popular successor didn't do very well here is of no consequence to the reputation of the SX50, as it remains in our book one of the most recommended cameras in this class. Looking for a fun, family superzoom, or just a good, all-around reliable performer? The SX50 is a safe bet for any of these needs and has our wholehearted seal of approval. As we stated earlier in this review, it's a tried and true workhorse and deserves to be in the consideration of anyone looking for a solid performer in this class.
Purchasing your SX50 through one of the links below directly supports our efforts!
Canon SX50 HS: Amazon | Adorama | B&H
Make your own comparisons! Would you like to look at how some of these cameras stack up feature-wise? We have a comparison tool that lets you view one model vs another. We've given you links to some of the more popular match-ups in the table at right, but if you'd prefer a different comparison of your own choosing, just click one of the camera model names at the top of the comparison page and type in your own!
Wrapping it up
The Nikon P600 sports the greatest zoom range at 1440mm eq., while the Fuji S1 features the only real weather-resistance of any model and also sports a very good onboard image stabilization system and responsive burst shooting. Both models were able to back these highly useful features with good image quality and usability. And while the SX50 comes off a bit more vanilla by comparison, any of us here at IR would be more than happy to take it out for a weekend excursion and proudly say we were shooting with a 2012 model (and then wink at whoever was asking, just like Rob did to us, as in "Sorry... but we know something that you don't.").
Unfortunately, we are unable to recommend its replacement model, the Canon SX60, as it simply doesn't deliver the goods in the image quality department while zoomed out optically, either handheld or on a tripod. The FZ70 is not bad in certain situations, and has a fairly bright lens compared to most others, but it has strange mottling that occurred in too many areas on most of our test images and therefore didn't make it onto our recommended list. (Being an older model, we're hopeful that the team at Panasonic will be unveiling a new superzoom model soon!)
And for the rest? The three remaining models all have at least one thing about them that makes them interesting on paper, from the unique and nice-feeling portrait grip on the Samsung WB2200F, to the "eagle eye" holographic dot sight on the Olympus SP-100, and the renowned Bionz X processor housed inside Sony's HX400V. Despite their interesting features, though, none of these models showed sufficient image quality to make our recommended list.
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Nikon P600: Amazon | Adorama | B&H
Fujifilm S1: Amazon | Adorama | B&H
Canon SX50 HS: Amazon | Adorama | B&H
Judge for yourself... Follow the links below, for a full set of images showing just how well each of the cameras tested in reaching waaay out to pull in distant subjects!
Best Superzoom 2014 Index:
[Note to Pentax fans: We requested but did not receive a Pentax X-G1]
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