The ultrazoom for travel – maybe a compact digital will suit some better than Micro Four Thirds?

Written by Gary on May 8th, 2010

I was asked by a friend this week to recommend a camera for travel that is relatively light and compact and unfortunately, her main priority was that without changing lenses, she wanted to be able to do wide angle landscapes as well as shoot super telephoto shots of eagles whilst riding on a donkey across America.

BUT, BUT, I protested, you can’t do this unless you get an ultra-zoom digital compact, and you will be forced to sacrifice image quality and be limited to prints of 11″x14″ or computer screen display, and well lit scenes as image noise at ISO higher than 400 would become intolerable.

Why don’t you just get a Panasonic GH-1 with 14-140mm 10x zoom, and know that you can deal with lower light levels, and you will have image quality capable of very good 20″x30″ prints, and you could do HD video, and buy a Panasonic 20mm f/1.7 lens for those times when light levels are too low?

She said, she didn’t really care about image quality – she wanted just one lens and 30x zoom range so she could document her travel.

So, that meant both dSLRs and Micro Four Thirds were out of her picture as the longest zoom range options for these cameras are combinations such as either:

  • Micro Four Thirds with Lumix 14-140mm f/4-5.8 10x zoom (28-280mm in 35mm terms)
  • Micro Four Thirds with Olympus 14-150mm (28-300mm) +/- Olympus 9-18mm (18-36mm)
  • Micro Four Thirds with 14-45mm (28-90mm) + Lumix 45-200mm (90-400mm)
  • Micro Four Thirds with 14-45mm (28-90mm) + Olympus 70-300mm (140-600mm)
  • Sony NEX-5 with Sony E 18-200mm f/3.5-6.3 (27-300mm)
  • Four Thirds with 12-60mm (24-120mm) + 70-300mm (140-600mm)
  • Four Thirds with 14-54mm (28-108mm) + 50-200mm f/2.8-3.5 (100-400mm) + 2x TC (200-800mm)
  • Canon APS-C dSLR with Tamron 18-270mm f/3.5-6.3 15x zoom with macro (29-432mm) – 560g lens
  • Canon APS-C dSLR with Canon 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6 (29-320mm)
  • Canon full frame with Canon 28-300mm L lens (28-300mm)
  • Nikon DX dSLR with Sigma 18-250mm f/3.5-6.3 13.9x zoom (27-375mm) – 628g lens
  • Nikon DX dSLR with Nikon 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6 (27-300mm)

That left her with the 30x ultra-zoom compact digitals with their tiny sensors and lower image quality:

Essentially that came down to two current models:

Olympus SP-800UZ:

  • 28-840mm f/2.8-5.6 30x ultra-zoom introduced in Feb 2010
  • 14mp 1/2.33″ sensor with up to 10fps burst rate, 3″ fixed LCD, SD memory card
  • 720p HD video
  • limited shutter speed range 1/4sec – 1/2000th sec but thankfully can do up to 4sec in night scene mode albeit without any manual control
  • sensor shift IS?
  • no EVF, no RAW mode but does have option of Olympus Art Filters
  • timelapse with interval settings of 1-99 minutes and number of shots from 2-99 with sleep mode during intervals
  • 435g, 110 x 90 x 91mm

Fujifilm Finepix HS10:

  • 24-720mm f/2.8-5.6 30x ultra-zoom introduced in Feb 2010
  • Sony 10mp back-illuminated 1/2.3″  sensor at up to 10fps via mechanical shutter
  • 1080p/30fps HD video with stereo sound, various video capture rates even 1000fps but tiny images at that rate
  • sensor shift IS
  • electronic viewfinder but no where as good as the EVF for the Panasonic GH-1 or the Olympus E-P2
  • fold out LCD – not flip and swivel though as with a Panasonic GH-1
  • a very limited shutter speed range of 1/4 sec to 1/1400th sec but this should not limit her photography needs but may impact on other’s needs
  • RAW or jpeg; AA batteries
  • 636g, 131 x 91 x 126mm

Unfortunately, I could not comment on comparative image quality of the two but as image quality was not that important to her, I think she quite wisely chose the more expensive and heavier Fuji HS10 as it best matched her needs, in particular:

  • if shooting at long telephoto without a tripod, holding the camera to the eye is critical in stabilising the camera, and the lack of EVF in the Olympus could be seen as a major shortcoming in design.
  • the wider field of view of 24mm on the Fuji  vs 28mm on the Olympus is more likely to be useful for travel than more telephoto.
  • the flip out LCD on the Fuji will come in handy for ground level or waist level shots
  • more video shooting options including up to 1000fps in low res frames, plus 1080 HD instead of just 720p.
  • a much more sensible 10mp sensor than the silly 14mp sensor in the Olympus

Would I buy a 30x ultra-zoom?

Well, no… for me, image quality, high quality EVF, ability to use external TTL flash, have more control over shutter speed and lens selection  is far more important than super compact ultra zoom capability.

I would much rather carry around a Panasonic GH-1 with 14-140mm lens and an Olympus E-PL1 with Panasonic 20mm f/1.7 lens and maybe an Olympus 9-18mm lens or Panasonic 7-14mm lens for some ultra wide work – and I would sneak in an Olympus OM 135 f/2.8 lens to allow low light telephoto work (ie. 270mm f/2.8) – of course, this kit would cost a LOT more than a Fuji HS10, but then at least I could be confident those treasured moments will be captured in an image quality I could be proud to show others and not appear to be just snapshot quality full of noise and smeared details which I would forever regret.

The most important possessions most of us have are our travel and family photos – I for one do not mind spending a bit more and carrying a bit more to ensure that these are of high  quality without the equipment becoming a burden, and this is where the Micro Four Thirds system excels – although it is still an immature technology with much development to follow in the next 2-5 years.

You can’t have your cake and eat it too – cameras are always about compromise – that is why there is not one perfect camera.

If you don’t need 30x zoom, perhaps one of these more compact travel 12-15x zoom cameras may be more your cup of tea:

In May 2009, compared 6 of these cameras and the clear winners were the Panasonic TZ-7 (ZS-3) 12x zoom and its cheaper version, the TZ-6 (ZS-1).

Since then, Samsung have added their WB650 sporting a 15x zoom, 920K AMOLED screen, and GPS tagging to go up against the latest Panasonic version – their TZ-10 which has remained with their successful 12x zoom, and added GPS tagging as well.

In June 2010, compared 13 of these travel zoom compact cameras and the winners were the newer Casio Exilim FH-100 and Samsung HZ35W while the Panasonic cameras which had won the previous year, were not far behind.


4 Comments so far ↓

  1. Bill Mill says:

    This is my kit exactly: Four Thirds (e-520) with 12-60mm (24-120mm) + 70-300mm (140-600mm)

    It was wicked cheap, and I get great image quality out of it, as far as I’m concerned. It’s light and not bulky.

  2. admin says:

    Hi Bill, your kit is indeed a favorite among many – no other 2 lens dSLR kit can cover 24-600mm let alone still being reasonably small and not too expensive.

  3. Michael says:

    If you just want 30x zoom, and don’t care about image quality, just crop the middle 1/3 of the 14-140mm.

  4. admin says:

    thanks Michael, that was also my suggestion to her, but she can’t use editing tools 🙁