Home > Opinion > In the storm of smartphone cameras, megazooms help…

In the storm of smartphone cameras, megazooms help batten down the hatches

Panasonic_FZ70

In a race to see who can build a camera with the longest zoom (a race that you probably aren’t following that closely), Panasonic unveiled the 16.1-megapixel Lumix DMC-FZ70 (shown above) last Thursday, which has a 60x optical zoom lens – 35mm equivalent to 20-1200mm. The zoom is much more powerful than last year’s champ, the Canon PowerShot SX50 HS, which has a 50x 24-1200mm zoom.

What’s more impressive about these long zooms is that they aren’t attached to an interchangeable lens body like a DSLR or compact system camera (CSC). They are fixed to the body, known as a “bridge” or “megazoom” camera (you’ll also see the names “superzoom” and “ultrazoom” bounced around). They offer the advanced shooting features and versatility of a DSLR/CSC (most of them even look like mini DSLRs) but retain some of the ease-of-use of a compact point-and-shoot. Megazooms are great for travelers since one package lets you go from macro to super telephoto with just one device – no need to lug around 50 pounds of lenses. Megazooms are one type of product that’s helping camera companies stay in the game, which is why nearly every manufacturer makes one (or three).

The bright side of the point-and-shoot

The reason why long zooms are important to a camera maker is because of smartphones. Cameras with a “long-zoom lens will continue to be pushed as a point of differentiation from smartphones,” InfoTrends Ed Lee told us.

If you’ve been following the camera industry, then you’re well aware that it’s reluctantly been on a roller coaster ride as it figures out how to deal with smartphones that, with each new model, continue to chomp away at their profits. One reason is that there hasn’t been much innovation in the basic, compact point-and-shoot. Meanwhile, smartphone camera picture quality not only continues to improve, but users are embracing the convenience and social experience they offer – giving people less reason to carry two devices.

While smartphones have turned the lower-end of the point-and-shoot segment upside-down, the camera makers are faring better at the higher-end, where you’ll find cameras like megazooms and point-and-shoot models with very large sensors. If you’re a casual user who is looking to step up in image quality from a basic point-and-shoot or smartphone, a megazoom is an attractive option. Not only is the telephoto zoom getting longer, but they offer more features without going to into DSLR/CSC territory. In the case of the FZ70, you get a lens with a f/2.8-5.9 aperture, optical image stabilization even at full telephoto, high-def video recording, RAW image capture, a new high-sensitivity sensor, burst mode of 9 frames per second, and a stereo mic with Dolby sound. Plus, automatic features like scene modes, creative effects, and Panasonic’s Intelligent Auto mode help take the intimidation out of using a camera with more dials, buttons, and menus. The best part: megazooms are relatively inexpensive; the FZ70 will retail for $400.

The need to keep advancing

As advanced as megazooms seem, don’t expect the same quality that you would from a DSLR or CSC. While the zooms may be long and the shooting options varied, at heart they are point-and-shoots like their compact cousins, with small sensors that are prone to more digital noise. Still, a megazoom will outperform a smartphone on many levels – having a 60x optical zoom, not the crappy digital variety, is a convincing reason to carry two devices (if more zoom is what you’re looking for).

While megazooms may help camera makers fend off smartphones, they face a problem from within: CSCs. Small mirrorless cameras and lenses are popular, and they are a growth area for manufacturers. Unlike megazooms, CSCs have large sensors that produce better image quality and are strong in low-light situations, and they have the added versatility of lens options. The advantage of megazooms is the price, which will always appeal to step-up users on a budget.

As long as camera makers can continue to advance the megazoom while keeping prices affordable, this niche segment could continue to stick around. How long before smartphone camera tech catches up is another question, but we predict not anytime soon, since the optical zoom glass gives megazooms a major advantage. Otherwise, megazooms may face the same fate as their lower-end cousins if camera makers rest on their laurels.

(Additional reporting by David Elrich.)