Digital Cameras: Optical Zoom Lenses – Is Bigger Better?


“Ultra-zoom” capabilities are currently all the rage in the consumer compact digital camera market. But does that mean a compact camera with a 26X optical zoom is a good bet for you? Quite possibly. Ultra-zoom technology has come a long way in the last two years, and later we’ll show you some of today’s best models. However, there are a few tradeoffs you need to consider before you jump onto the ultra-zoom bandwagon.

canon_70-200_l02Take a look at the zoom lenses available to SLR owners. In comparison to the retractable zooms on compact cameras, they’re not only much bigger, but also much more expensive. There are a number of highly valid reasons for this that we can’t get into within the scope of this article, but suffice it to say that you can’t expect the same level of quality with an ultra-zooming compact. Yes, you can zoom like crazy, and certainly the results will be perfectly acceptable for standard print sizes and online photo galleries. But the photos from an ultra-zoom compact at full telephoto won’t look as clean or as bright as those from an SLR camera.

Moreover, unlike an SLR, where the lenses are generally of much higher quality and can be swapped out to suit the situation, compact camera lenses are fixed. In other words, you’re stuck with the lens that’s built onto the camera. And the fact of the matter is that many compact camera lenses that feature lengthy telephoto distances generally aren’t physically capable of “opening up” sufficiently at the other end of the spectrum to deliver a truly satisfying wide angle. And a spacious wide angle is important because it better captures the world the way we as humans perceive it. As an analogy, think of a 4:3 versus a 16:9 TV set. In the end, it’s important to note that, contrary to current marketing and hype, the camera with the largest zoom doesn’t always win the “best photograph” contest.

olympus-ultra-zoom-2One other thing – most ultra zoom models in the 20X-plus range (such as our favorite, the Panasonic DMC-FZ35) are almost as physically imposing as an SLR. Though they aren’t nearly as pricey as SLRs – particularly when you factor in the SLR lenses you’ll inevitably purchase – the truth is that many of today’s larger ultra zooms lose one of the primary advantages of a compact camera – compactness. There’s no way you’ll be pocketing one of these babies.

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