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Compact Cameras and Digital Zoom lenses - are they any Good?

Disclaimer:

The test results and my conclusions are due to one specific example of each camera. This may or may not be typical of the camera model, brand, or even type, or other similar cameras or even other samples of the same camera. Consider my opinion amateur in nature.

First, I have to admit I have a bias against digital zooms, and for my compact cameras, I always turn that feature off as I believe it results in an inferior photo. To prove my theory, I tested five different cameras. I will have to admit, I was a bit surprised at the results - in both digital zoom quality as well as overall optical quality of the images. At least from a lens perspective, there is definately a quality difference between compact cameras.

I tested 6 cameras that I own. However, these may or may not represent a good cross section of the market:

  • Nikon CoolPix P7000 (10Mp), Nikon's flagship compact camera - Street Price: $400-$500
  • Nikon CoolPix S570 (12Mp), medium grade compact camera - Street Price: $150
  • Nikon CoolPix P310 (16Mp), Nikon's f/1.8 low light compact camera - Street Price: $250
  • Olympus Tough 8010 (14Mp), waterproof, crushproof, shockproof camera - Street Price $300
  • Fuji S2950 (14Mp), bridge camera - Street Price $180
  • Canon SX130IS (12Mp), medium grade compact camera - Street Price: $190

Testing:The test was conducted photographing the above scene with the different cameras set to auto. I used auto as some cameras (Nikon P7000, Nikon P310, Canon SX130, and Fuji S2950) had advanced manual modes, which meant they could be set for a more favorable aperture. But to be fair, all cameras were set to Auto mode, since the aperture settings on some cameras cannot be changed by the user. This resulted in arbritrary aperture settings, but perhaps better reflects the results in real-world conditions.

The yellow box in the lower right is the cropped area for each photo shown below. While this isn't entirely scientific as one should sample the center and all corners - I don't have that much ambition - and the corners should show the worst-case scenario.

This is just a simple test I used to compare my lenses. Also, you will notice some variance in the lighting as well as the apparent focal length of the photos. This is a result of testing over several days. Since the testing concerns lens sharpness in the corners, all other differences should be discounted as simply different shooting conditions, and my best attempt at replicating the tests.

28mm (35mm equivalent)

Nikon Coolpix P7000 (optical zoom)

Olympus Tough 8010 (optical zoom)

Nikon Coolpix S570 (optical zoom)

Fuji S2950 (optical zoom)

Nikon Coolpix P310 (optical zoom)

Canon SX130IS (optical zoom)

100mm (35mm equivalent)

Nikon Coolpix P7000 (optical zoom)

Olympus Tough 8010 (optical zoom)

Nikon Coolpix S570 (optical zoom)

Fuji S2950 (optical zoom)

Nikon Coolpix P310 (optical zoom)

Canon SX130IS (optical zoom)

200mm (35mm equivalent)

Nikon Coolpix P7000 (optical zoom)

Olympus Tough 8010 (digital zoom)

Nikon Coolpix S570 (digital zoom)

Fuji S2950 (optical zoom)

Nikon Coolpix P310 (digital zoom - 150mm)

Canon SX130IS (optical zoom)

300mm (35mm equivalent)

Nikon Coolpix P7000 (digital zoom)

Olympus Tough 8010 (digital zoom)

Nikon Coolpix S570 (digital zoom)

Fuji S2950 (optical zoom)

Nikon Coolpix P310 (digital zoom - 200mm)

Canon SX130IS (optical zoom)

600mm (35mm equivalent)

Nikon Coolpix P7000 (digital zoom)
 
 

Nikon Coolpix S570 (digital zoom)

Fuji S2950 (digital zoom)

Canon SX130IS (digital zoom)

Beyond 600mm (35mm equivalent)

Fuji S2950 5,000mm (digital zoom)

Fuji S2950 10,000mm (digital zoom)

Canon SX130IS 600mm (digital zoom)

Canon SX130IS 1,200mm (digital zoom)

Test Results: As expected the Nikon P7000, being the most expensive camera in the bunch had the best image quality. And oddly enough, it has the lowest MegaPixel count. The P7000 also has a sensor about 40% larger than the other cameras, and I have to assume better optics. Here is a good object lesson for those that believe more MegaPixels and higher power zooms are better.

What was surprising was the Canon SX130IS, being one of the least expensive had lens quality that rivaled the P7000.

Not surprisingly, as the cameras went into digital zoom, the quality dropped off rapidly. However, I was impressed with low end digital zoom quality. If you must use digital zoom, you should limit yourself to moderate lengths. I was very surprised at the Fuji S2950, having a crazy 10,800 maximum digital zoom focal length. I was also amazed that at 5,000mm, the Fuji's digital zoom was no worse than in it's optical ranges. You can either conclude the digital zoom on this camera is good, or the lens itself is not very good. When comparing lenses, I'll go with the latter conclusion.

Finally, the color balance was quite a bit different between cameras, and even shots. I took these photos on a partly cloudy day, with the sun often being blocked by clouds. The auto color balance in all of the cameras struggled to provide consistant results.

No test can be complete without comparing these images to a benchmark reference to see exactly how good these cameras are as a whole. The shot below was taken with a D90 and a Nikon 80-200mm f/2.8 zoom lens @ f/5.6, which approximates the lowest aperture any of the compact cameras can go at 100mm.


Nikon AF 80-200mm f/2.8 @100mm/f5.6

If you look at the "end grain" in the logs used for the steps, you can clearly see more detail in the logs. But this is to be expected as this is a $1,200 lens.

Conclusion: Well, my opinion has not changed. I was impressed with the Nikon P7000's digital zoom at 300mm, and I should be amazed that the Fuji's crazy 10,000mm digital zoom can even result in a photo. However, my beliefs still are:

  • Avoid using Digital.
  • MegaPixel count by itself does not result in a better photo.
  • Larger sensors provide better images.
  • The camera's Auto Color Balance setting often results in inaccurate colors.
  • Compact camera image quality varies significantly from camera to camera.

Those are my conclusions, you are free to make your own.