Sunday, September 23, 2007

VIDI: To Zoom or not to Zoom

Yes, those pesky super zooms. They keep getting bigger and bigger and bigger. Not in camera size, but in zoom ratio. Once upon a time in the middle ages of super zooms the 38-380mm equivalent was the trend. Any sort of image stabilization was a luxury or a cult camera (Olympus C2100, E100RS).

Then came the 12x superzooms with MegaOIS from Panasonic, and soon everybody else followed suit. Fuji took a slightly different approach with their superzooms starting at 28mm and being "only" 10.7x

But just like the megapixel wars, someone was bound to jump ahead again, and this time it was Olympus with 18x and Sony with 15x. After that Panasonic and Fuji jumped on 18x as well, while for the moment Canon and Kodak remain at 12x. Casio added a new twist to the zoom wars by pre-announcing a 60fps/300fps 12x superzoom camera. This may perhaps reboot not only the megapixel wars, but also the Zoom Ratio Wars (and start the FPS wars).

Those familiar with camcorders are not particularly impressed with these zoom ratios as they have seen even wilder optical zoom ratios. Of course digital cameras and camcorders have different demands on their lenses, so you can't expect an apples to apples comparison. It's more like apples to chocolate cake.

These superzooms had their impact on the market, but not all was positive:
1) Smaller sensors were used. Once upon a time any camera worth its salt was either 1/1.8" or 2/3". The zoom wars have pushed this down to 1/2.5". Smaller sensor area, smaller pixels, smaller lenses, RAW not as helpful if available, ...
2) The traditional prosumers got seriously squeezed from underneath. With a number of traditional SLR manufacturers operating on SLR priority, the traditional prosumers already had a ceiling. But the advent of super zooms may have been what really took them out. While the camera enthusiast may like things like RAW, hot shoe, pc sync, add-on battery grip and converter lenses, the average consumer was faced with the choice of paying $400 for a 12x super zoom IS camera or $600 for a traditional prosumer with a smaller zoom ratio. So the average consumer/buyer went with the lower price and the bigger zoom ratio, thus causing traditional prosumers an existential crisis. A classic example is the critically acclaimed (see Phil's review at dpreview) Olympus C8080 with "only" a 5x zoom lens.
3) Even SLR lenses got wind of the zoom wars, and we already have 18-250 digital superzoom lenses, trying to out-do the 18-200 (28-300) digital lenses. ("digital lenses" is merely a shortcut referring to lenses with smaller image circles designed for use with APS-C DSLRs)

To find an explanation of VIDI and read previous editions, see here

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