Camera makers are trying everything to revive the tanking market of low-end shooters. Their latest gambit? Insanely long zooming cameras that reach across vast swaths of land. But zoom is just another sweet-sounding spec that could leave you with crappier pictures.
Way back in the recesses of time—about five years ago—sales of consumer-oriented cameras took a nose-dive. This was due to things like the rise of higher quality smartphone cameras, touch interfaces that made even point and shoot cameras seem clunky, and social media sharing that only worked well using a phone. Ever since, the likes of Canon and Nikon have been scratching their heads and trying to come up with the magic bullet that is going to rescue this once-lucrative market.
It used to be that the megapixel count was the marquee feature of every camera. People bought in to the idea that more was better, and it led to each company trying to one-up each other with more and more resolution, even though it didn't always mean better quality pictures.
Although the megapixel war is being revived in the professional space with cameras like Canon's 5Ds, it has largely been abandoned in cameras marketed toward beginners. If there's one thing that smartphones have proved, it's that people don't necessarily care about huge image sizes—as long as they look fine on the web and maybe in an 8x10 print, there's no need for super huge megapixel counts.
While it's a relief to see the megapixel spec finally de-emphasized, another figure is taking its place as the latest attention-grabbing spec: zoom factor. It's exactly what smartphones lack that companies are exploiting. A pretty smart move, except when it's taken way too far. Case in point:
This week, Nikon announced the Coolpix P900. Seen above, it's a $600 camera with a zoom factor of 83x. That number may mean nothing to you, but trust me, it's insane. The 35mm equivalent focal length is 24-2000mm. Here's what a 2000mm lens looks like for a Nikon DSLR:
The P900, and other superzooms like it, have small sensors which allow the lenses to be small as well. Still, cramming those kind of optics into such a small package has unavoidable effects on image quality. The longer a lens's focal length, the harder it is to maintain a sharp, clean image. With cheap superzooms that keep stretching the limits of zoom, what you end up with are foggy-looking photos with high levels of smeary refraction, and low levels of detail and contrast.
Perhaps even more of a detriment is the difficulty in actually holding a camera steady enough to capture a sharp image at long telephoto distances. Again, the longer the focal length, the more your trembling movements are amplified. The only thing you can do to avoid shaky images is ramp up the shutter speed, which beginners often don't realize, and is also not always possible in scenarios other than bright daylight.
The effect is that people buy these camera in order to see far far away, but end up with low quality photos that no amount of tweaking or photoshopping can save.
You can't have it all. Beginners looking for a new camera need to realize that magic-sounding specs come at a price. Camera makers need to realize that selling features that are at best a gimmick, and at worst deceptive, is not going to save their sales numbers.