Trying out a new super-zoom

(This article was originally written in Dec 2011.)

Laid hands on one of the new models of super-zoom prosumer cameras over the weekend, and took a few photos.

A prosumer camera is a point-and-shoot (P&S camera) which has features which are supposed to be attractive to the serious photographer. Almost all prosumers have a manual mode for exposure settings, for instance, and you don't have to drill down through three levels of on-screen menus to set aperture or shutter speed. Almost all prosumer P&S cameras also come with two other humble features not found in the shiny little toy digicams: the hot-shoe for external flash, and the tripod socket.

And a super-zoom camera is typically a prosumer, not an entry-level toy, with a zoom lens which has a massive zoom range. The one I tried has a 35x zoom range, believe it or not. In the still photography world, we are accustomed to going all aflutter on seeing a zoom lens with 10x zoom range.

The camera I tried is the Canon SX40HS (DPreview, Amazon, Flipkart), which has

  • a 12 megapixel sensor
  • Full-HD video shooting capability (1920x1080, 24fps)
  • manual exposure, shutter priority, aperture priority, program exposure, and a few other modes
  • a lens with a 35x zoom range, from 4.3mm to 150.5mm. In 35mm terminology, this translates to 24mm to 840mm focal lengths
  • Canon's IS (active image stabilisation technology, to reduce shake, like Nikon's VR)

My notes here are just aimed at capturing my initial observations about this camera. I suspect this one will be very similar to other models of its class, including the Canon SX30IS and Nikon Coolpix P500. Those of you who are familiar with such models will find my article boring. Those of you who use older SLR cameras and are unfamiliar with these new types may find this article useful.

Where I come from

I am old -- I am in the second half of my life. Most of my photography has been done using SLR cameras -- film SLR cameras. All the three cameras I actively use are Canon FD manual focus film SLRs. I love clicking in B&W, though I also do colour. I usually get my negatives and transparencies scanned using a high-quality 4000dpi scanner and then touch them up. I love printing at large sizes (more than two feet in length).

That's where I come from. I have used digital cameras occasionally. I cannot afford the digital SLRs I like -- I would like something with a full-size 35mm sensor and a bright, large optical viewfinder image. I hate clicking pictures holding a camera a foot away from my face and peering at the image in the LCD screen. That alone is half the reason why I abhor inexpensive digicams.

That's my perspective when I started fiddling with this Canon SX40HS.

What I tried

I have included below the original completely un-retouched digital files from the camera. Each photo has a smaller image, linking to the large 12 MP original. The large files are more than 2 MBytes each. Browse for yourself and draw your own conclusions.

I shot quite a few of the images at full telephoto setting (840mm in my language) handheld. I wanted to see (i) the image sharpness, (ii) the degree to which the IS would help in reducing camera shake, (ii) the image contrast. Since I have uploaded all images un-retouched from the camera, you will be able to see the EXIF comments in the images and you will know the exact zoom focal length, aperture, shutter speed, etc, for each shot.

I also clicked one or two shots indoors, with no direct sunlight coming in. These were not at maximum focal length, but were fairly telephoto. This is the shot of the television screen with some text on it, from my media centre.

As I said, all shots were handheld. However, in almost all cases, I followed recommended practice of resting elbows somewhere and being careful when I squeezed the shutter button.

All shots were clicked in a span of 20 minutes. All outdoor shots were clicked at 10AM on a bright December morning in Mumbai, with the bright glare of the Bombay sun in a cloudless sky.

What I discovered

I noticed the following things:

  • The superzoom image sharpness took me by surprise. Remember, this camera sells for Rs.28,000 in India, a country where an iPhone 4S costs Rs.44,000. At this price, if I can read number plates of cars at full telephoto setting hand-held, I'm amazed.
  • The contrast is a lot lower than what I'd get with my thirty-year-old prime lenses on my film SLRs. This is probably expected, given the complexity of internal architecture of a super-zoom lens.
  • The viewfinder image is more than good enough to shoot with. It has splendid information display -- for instance it shows me the aperture or shutter speed I am setting if I set them manually. And it's clear enough to let me compose the image and shoot. I don't need to pull out the (foldable in this model) LCD screen and peer at it from a foot away. This is the first time I felt comfortable using a digital P&S camera.

If you look at the photos, you will see a lot of other details to comment about, I'm sure.

The images

The TV screen shows a few lines of text. These lines of text do not appear blurred. This was hand-held, shot indoors, not exactly brightly lit.

This image too is quite sharp. The blue tint in the image is a fallout of the auto-white-balance. The reflected sunlight entering the room had a warm glow, which the camera neutralised by its white-balance, leaving a bluish tint on the screen image.

A bunch of odds and ends in the open terrace of our apartment. Shot with the lens at approximately a normal-lens viewing angle. Here the low contrast and the washed-out shadows are very visible.

Two interesting things attract attention. First, the numbers on the number plates are readable: MH43 AF 2035 and MH01 AX 8341. Second, the low contrast. None of the white concrete surfaces are particularly white, nor are any of the shadow areas really dark. A hand-held shot from a height, at maximum telephoto setting.

Another sharp photo at maximum telephoto. The auto-rickshaw's black hood doesn't look very black. The Devanagari writing on the back of the hood is quite sharp and readable.

Another long-telephoto shot of the road with car number plates revealing their secrets. And another example of low contrast on a bright morning.

A photo of flowers and odds and ends shot from normal-lens distances. The sharpness is acceptable, but the lowish contrast has to be handled more carefully.

Updates from elsewhere

Did some reading on other forums, and here's a handy set of links to what I read elsewhere.

Happy reading.

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