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Little cameras with big eyes

Little cameras with big eyes
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First Published: Tue, Jul 14 2009. 11 54 PM IST

Updated: Wed, Jul 15 2009. 10 06 AM IST
The ultra-zoom species of point-and-shoot digital camera is identified solely by its large optical zoom. Most point-and-shoots, because of their shirt-pocket size, have optical zooms that top out at around 8x.
The product information on the website may tell you that the camera has, say, a 32x zoom, but most of that is done by blowing up the pixels of the image (known as digital zoom) and making everything look like a Seurat painting. For a real optical zoom, you need a lens that can be moved in relation to the image sensor—and that requires a camera larger than the latest ultra-compact models.
But cameras with big optical zooms suffer from a few problems that manufacturers have been trying to solve. First, the closer you zoom in to a scene, the more the image is affected by movement. Automatic image stabilization can take care of most of the blur. Images can also look slightly odd because of lighting or exposure problems when zooming. All of the cameras we tested, however, performed admirably while zooming in bright sunlight.
There are currently two types of ultra-zoom cameras: the full size and the compact. The full-size models resemble those digital single lens reflex (SLR) cameras carried by professionals; compact ultra-zooms look more like pumped-up standard point-and-shoot cameras. I pitted four models against each other in an ultra-zoom showdown. The average ultra-zoom I tested weighed about 15 ounces (420g) with a battery—the lightest weighed in at 8 ounces (224g). All the cameras had 3-inch LCD screens.
Aside from comparing the basic specs, we shot two scenes with each camera, using the same lighting and auto mode without flash. The indoor shot was a small, colourful still life; outside, we took photos of a backyard and then a close-up of a planter about 30ft away.
These ultra-zoom models had similar zoom ranges and features. The real difference was in onboard software—the features and modes that let the camera perform tricks such as smile- and blink-detection—and in photo quality when zoomed.
In this test, the Sony offered the sharpest zoomed picture, followed by the Nikon. All the cameras allowed me to count the leaves on the potted plant at a distance of about 30ft, although with varying levels of blur and distortion.
In terms of size and portability, the Canon won in the compact range while the Sony won in the full-size class. The Sony is hardly a pocket camera, but it was the most compact in the round-up, ensuring you won’t be weighed down while spotting faraway subjects.
Nikon CoolPix P90
12 megapixels, 24x optical zoom
Fun features: Better wide-angle shots mean you can grab an entire stage without cutting off the sides. One of the fastest cameras we tested, it also has a sports mode that shoots 15 frames a second at 3 megapixels. The blink and smile modes ensure you don’t get sad, squinty pictures at your next family outing. But the large lens and small grip on the right side might not work for people with large hands.
The Z980’s zoomed image quality was probably the worst—the scene with the planter had an odd, blurry cast. The still life photos, however, were quite sharp, if a little washed out in auto mode. The camera weighs only about 16 ounces (448g), but seems bigger because of the large lens.
Rating: B
Olympus SP-590UZ
12 megapixels, 26x optical zoom
Fun features: Face detection can track up to 16 mugs and ensures that everyone is in focus.
The Olympus ultra-zoom had the highest optical zoom among our test models, maxing out at 26x, and nice colour reproduction. The Olympus, like the Sony model, offered a bright and realistic colour range. It has a number of odd modes, but the “beauty” mode takes the cake. This mode “softens” facial features and adds virtual Vaseline to the lens for a more attractive portrait. It also reduces visible girth, making everyone look like a model.
Rating: B+
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-HX1
9 megapixels, 20x optical zoom
Fun features: A 10-image-a-second burst mode ensures you’ll get at least one good shot. At 16 ounces (448g), the Cyber-shot DSC-HX1 was the most compact of all of the full-size cameras we tested. The camera has a hinged LCD screen that swings up and down, but doesn’t swivel. The shots were quick and sharp even in low light and without flash. The camera had some minor issues with close-up photos—mainly focusing on the wrong part of the scene and creating a messy blur —but in terms of shooting speed, the Sony won hands down.
In identical test situations, the Sony also had brighter colours in auto mode, offering a more nuanced photo. Interestingly, this model had the best viewfinder LCD: The image looked sharper in the viewfinder than on the large LCD screen.
Rating: A+
Canon PowerShot SX200 IS
12 megapixels, 12x optical zoom
Fun features: Blink detection notifies you if a subject blinks during the shot. A smart auto mode changes settings for close-ups and long shots. The SX200 is about 2 inches thick and weighs about 8 ounces (224g). The 12x zoom lens pops out of the front and takes up most of the camera’s face, making it a bit hard to grip when taking action shots. In bright sunlight, the camera performed admirably and the odd features—including colour replacement, which allows you to, say, swap pink for blue in every photo—are sure make some people happy.
The test shots showed excellent colour reproduction, although the indoor shot looked a little washed-out. This camera is similar in size and shape to the average point-and-shoot circa 2001. It also fits into a pocket, which can’t be said for the larger ultra-zooms.
Rating: A-
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First Published: Tue, Jul 14 2009. 11 54 PM IST