Stop the megazoom insanity

Note: If you are not familiar with basic photography terms like exposure, sensor, aperture, depth of field, shutter speed, ISO and focal length, this article will make a lot more sense after you read a primer on photography. I recommend Lesson #1 and Lesson #2 of the Photo Basics Series. Really, the whole series is worth a read if you’re a beginner.

Trouble of their own making

The camera industry is in trouble once again, and camera manufacturers only have themselves to blame.

Just as the advent of digital photography killed the film business, the advent of smartphone cameras is taking a major bite out of demand for dedicated consumer cameras. Smartphone cameras have gotten so good, in fact, that the best ones can replace entry-level “point-and-shoot” cameras.

Enthusiast and professional photographers seem to be undeterred from buying and upgrading high-end gear, but the mass market is shifting.

What went wrong?

A comparison of various sensor sizes. The dark orange square represents a 35mm "full frame" camera. The light orange square represents the 1.6X crop APS-C sensor found in Canon's entry-level camera line, and the light green square represents Four Thirds and Micro Four Thirds. Meanwhile, the smaller sensors are what you would find in point-and-shoot cameras and, at the smallest point (the dark blue), the cameras in smart phones. Image courtesy of http://www.macrumors.com/2014/07/17/iphone6-sony-13-megapixel-imx220-sensor/
A comparison of various sensor sizes. The dark orange square represents a 35mm “full frame” camera. The light orange square represents the 1.6X crop APS-C sensor found in Canon’s entry-level camera line, and the light green square represents Four Thirds and Micro Four Thirds. Meanwhile, the smaller sensors are what you would find in point-and-shoot cameras and, at the smallest point (the dark blue), the cameras in smart phones. Image courtesy of http://www.macrumors.com/2014/07/17/iphone6-sony-13-megapixel-imx220-sensor/

For years, digital camera manufacturers sold new point-and-shoot models in droves and then convinced consumers that they could take much better pictures if they only upgraded to a new model with a longer zoom lens and more megapixels. For example, the Nikon Coolpix P600 has a 16-megapixel sensor and a 60X zoom lens.

While there were indeed some legitimate improvements in consumer camera technology during that period — the move from CCD-based to CMOS-based sensors led to huge gains in low light performance — consumers would need to dive deep into the spec sheet to notice gains in ISO flexibility. The megapixel counts and the zoom ranges, on the other hand, were printed right on the camera itself.

Yet these were exactly the wrong things for consumers to key in on when buying a camera. I’ve already written about the pitfalls of ever-increasing megapixel counts on consumer cameras, including smartphones. But now I want to talk about why you probably don’t want a point-and-shoot camera with a 60X zoom lens.

What you should know about super-telephoto lenses

We’ve all seen the professional sports and wildlife photographers standing behind their massive telephoto lenses mounted on monopods, and maybe we wanted to be just like them.

A pro like this is most likely operating a DSLR camera with a full-frame sensor (24 x 36mm) to match the image size on a roll of 35mm film, so just to keep things consistent, I’ll talk about lenses in terms of full-frame equivalency.

If a professional wildlife photographer with a Canon camera wanted a really long telephoto lens, he or she might buy this one: the Canon EF 600mm f4 IS II USM. Purchase price: $11,999.00. The lens is a massive 17.6 inches long and weighs in at 8.64 pounds, and the focal length is fixed at 600mm…no zooming.

Let’s compare that to the 60X lens on the Nikon Coolpix P600: when fully extended, it reaches out to 1440mm of focal length in 35mm terms: that’s more than twice what the long, $12,000 pro lens can do, and of course it’s much smaller and covers the whole focal range below 1440mm all the way down to 24mm while being much smaller.

Sounds great, right? A quasi-telescope that fits in your hand and takes pictures…all for under $400. Unfortunately, all that glitters is not gold, and there’s a reason that the pros buy huge $12,000 telephoto prime lenses to mount on their $7,000 full-frame DSLR camera bodies.

For the best possible image quality, a prime lens — that is, a lens with a fixed focal length and no zoom — is the way for a photographer with an interchangeable lens camera to go. Of course, sometimes pro photographers are willing to trade off a bit of image quality for the focal length versatility of a zoom lens. For example, the Canon 70-200mm f2.8L USM lens. If you divide 200 by 70, you get 2.86. That’s not even a 3X optical zoom, and yet the sticker price is $1,449.00.

So why doesn’t it cover a longer focal length range? There are three reasons:

  1. Size. This lens is already 7.6 inches long and weighs 2.86 pounds. Increasing the focal length would make the lens nearly unbearable to carry. Lenses attached to cameras with full-frame sensors have to be wide, and the focal length is dependent on the distance of the lens from the sensor as well as the width. That’s why point-and-shoot cameras with smaller sensors can pack on very long lenses while still being able to fit in your hand…if the sensor is small, the lens does not have to be as wide to cover the sensor.
  2. Aperture. There are zoom lenses available for full-frame SLRs that are cheaper and smaller than that one with longer focal ranges, but that is because they have narrow apertures. For example, the Canon EF 70-300mm f4-5.6 IS USM lens is only 5.6 inches long, weighs 1.39 pounds and costs “just” $649. Because of the laws of physics and light, the wide f2.8 aperture makes the 70-200mm lens even larger at a given focal length. (You may sometimes hear photographers refer a lens being “fast” or “slow.” A lens with a wide aperture like f2.8 across all focal lengths is considered to be “fast” because it’s more accommodating for fast shutter speeds.)
  3. Barrel distortion. Moving from a prime lens to a 2.86x zoom like this is already a tradeoff because zooms inherently distort the picture a little as compared to prime lenses. The longer the zoom range of a lens from the wide end to the telephoto end, the more the image is distorted, generally speaking. By distortion, I mean the image is actually bent out of shape a little. Some lens manufacturers, most notably Tamron, manufacture “all-in-one” zoom lenses for people (usually amateurs just starting out with an entry-level DSLR) willing to make this distortion tradeoff in exchange for not having to carry multiple zoom lenses, but even those compromised lenses tend to hover around the 10X to 12X range. And you never see these all-in-one lenses with constant fast apertures like f2.8 because they would have to be absolutely massive.

So, circling back to the Nikon P600, how good is that long zoom lens? Not very. First of all, the maximum aperture ranges from f3.3 at the wide end to f6.3 at the telephoto end. That f6.3 is a killer in low-light situations, and with a compact camera, you can’t raise the ISO much to compensate because your images will get noisy very quickly. And barrel distortion rears its very ugly head toward the wide end of the focal length range…turning your nice, straight vertical lines into slanted lines to the point where you might be reminded of the opening text crawl from the Star Wars films.

Back to that huge Canon 600mm f4 lens…there’s also a reason (besides just keeping it from tipping over) that photographers often mount super-telephoto lenses on monopods or tripods. It’s to keep the lens from shaking while taking a photo. At wide, normal, and even short telephoto focal lengths it’s not much of a concern, but in the super-telephoto range, a little shake of your hand can totally ruin your image. So if the professionals need help stabilizing a 600mm lens, do you really think you can keep your hands steady enough to shoot reliably at a 1440mm focal length without a tripod or monopod? (And, yes, that professional lens has image stabilization — hence the IS in the name.)

Better alternatives

Fortunately, there are some newer fixed-lens cameras on the market that can really help you take better photos with a viewfinder and plenty of zoom…by emphasizing more important specs than megapixel count or extreme zoom range. Unfortunately, they do tend to cost more than more ordinary megazooms like the Nikon P600.

  • Panasonic DMC-FZ200 (MSRP $599) offers a somewhat more reasonable 24X zoom (25-600mm in full-frame terms) with a constant bright f2.8 aperture across the focal length range. Because this is still a point-and-shoot camera with a small, 1/2.3″ sensor, you should probably consider anything above ISO 800 as a last resort due to noise concerns. This becomes especially important when you’re trying to capture fast-moving subjects at long distances, like sports or wildlife because those require fast shutter speeds in order to avoid motion blur. So having an extra stop or two of light at the telephoto end can make a big difference — and the f2.8 aperture delivers. Even at the reduced focal length of 24X, you still get to the super-telephoto length of 600mm. Barrel distortion would still be a significant issue with a 24X lens, just not as much as it would be with a 60X lens.
  • At an MSRP of $899, the Panasonic DMC-FZ1000 is the FZ200’s big brother. Instead of a 1/2.3″ sensor, it has a larger 1″ sensor for improved image quality and cleaner photos at higher ISO settings. A larger, wider sensor requires a larger lens for the same focal length and aperture, so this one only manages a 16X zoom (25-400mm focal length range) with an f2.8-4 aperture across the focal length range. A 400mm zoom is still a lot — this is typical for the long lenses you see on the sidelines of soccer or football games, and f4 is a full stop brighter than f5.6, so it’s still somewhat “fast.”
  • The excellent Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX10 has dropped from its original sticker price of $1,299.00 to a slightly less shocking $999. Like the Panasonic DMC-FZ1000, the Sony RX10 has a 1″ sensor. The RX10 has an 8.3X zoom, which provides a focal range of 24-200mm and a constant aperture of f2.8 across the focal range. The shorter zoom may cause you to miss out on some distant shots, but the photos you can get should look great. Another advantage of cameras with larger sensors and wide-aperture zoom lenses is that you can get shallow depth-of-field effects so you can have those dreamy defocused backgrounds with the foreground in focus.
  • The Olympus Stylus 1 (MSRP $599) falls somewhere in between the Panasonic FZ200 and the Sony RX10. It has a 1/1.7″ sensor, which is larger than the 1/2.3″ sensor in the FZ200 but smaller than the 1″ sensor in the RX10 and FZ1000. It also has a 10.7X zoom with a constant f2.8 aperture across the 28-300mm focal range.

Cameras like these will inevitably fall in price as technology improves, and that’s good for everyone. Right now, for about the same price, you can also get an entry-level DSLR or mirrorless interchangeable lens camera and maybe even a 2-lens kit for long zooming. Changing lenses isn’t all that difficult as long as you don’t mind carrying two lenses with you. You won’t get f2.8 lenses anywhere near this price range, but with big DSLR sensors, you can dial up the ISO with a lot less of a noise penalty than with a point-and-shoot camera, so you may not need such a fast lens. Those are for the professionals.

Just remember, that when it comes to megapixels and zoom, more isn’t always better.

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