Having a compact camera can be a great boon to those who are looking to capture as much action as possible, while still having the luxury of quickly dropping the camera in a pocket once you are done. But sometimes the standard compact camera has a lens that just don’t do the trick, and something a bit longer is needed.

But by their nature, compact cameras don’t afford casual photographers the ability to swap out lenses as DSLR cameras do. In that situation, a compact that has a better zoom than most, like anywhere from a 20x and up, will be able to get in tight to capture fine details before losing image quality.

While we have tested a number of compact cameras, for this month’s grouptest we have a look at which compact with a kicking zoom will be the best to capture those wildlife pictures with ease.

Canon SX 700 HS (approx. R3 200)

canon-sx700-red-3

Canon is known for its high-quality imaging products, most notable its expansive range of DSLR cameras, but that doesn’t mean that its compact cameras have been neglected. On the contrary, its compact models pack just as much a punch as the big guys – if not better, in a size to quality ratio. So couple a good zoom onto one of its flagship compact models, and you have yourself a brilliant camera that will be ready to capture just about anything.

Handling

It would be a bit of stating the obvious if one had to say that the camera can fit perfectly in your hands, as by nature of any compact camera build, it has been designed to do so. But the SX 700 HS is slightly different, in the sense that it has a bit more weight to it. So it does feel like it means serious business – and it does. Compact cameras a built in such a way that all the controls and buttons are easily reachable, and this one is no different. With the shutter, zoom and power buttons located on the top of the unit, the rest of the functions are situated on the right of the 3.0-inch TFT colour LCD screen. Everything that you might need in terms of functionality will be located here, like the mode selection, the picture review button and meu options.

Image quality

In terms of image quality, which is the most important thing when taking photographs, the 16.1 megapixel high-sensitivity CMOS sensor will provide you with crisp images under ideal lighting conditions. For different scenarios, the camera has an option to change the white balance (as most cameras do), so there might be some quality loss. In low light conditions, the camera performs rather well as it makes use of the Canon HS System, which has been designed specifically for those conditions. But if you aren’t familiar with all the camera modes, or just don’t feel like tinkering around with the setting, you can swap over to the Smart AUTO, which will automatically select the right camera settings based on 58 predefined shooting situations.

Performance

Not only does the SX 700 HS have the pretty powerful 16.1 megapixel high-sensitivity CMOS sensor combined with Canon’s proprietary DIGIC 6 Image Processor, it has a 30-times optical zoom to boot as well. The zoom is the key here, as it endeavours to bring things closer before losing image quality – which is what you want in a high-zoom compact. But besides the nice zoom length, you will also be able to capture videos at full 1080p at 60p. One of the other great things about the SX 70 HS, is the fact that it has a Hybrid Auto function. This mode lets the camera take a short video clip before and after a still image is taken, just to make sure that you capture the entire moment. And just in case you miss your target, it has Zoom Framing Assist to help you keep you subject in the frame by following it throughout a scene. But one of the niggles that we had, was that the pop-up flash was rather flimsy and not as sturdy as we would have liked it to be.

Nikon COOLPIX S9500 (approx. R2 300)

Nikon-COOLPIX-S9500

Compact cameras are really great companions when you are looking for a small solution while going on holiday or just to throw in your bag. At 205g and measuring only 110.1 x 60.3 x 30.7 mm, it’s one of the smallest capture units around – but you shouldn’t form your opinion based on its size. Available in funky colours, the S9500 is one of those models that will serve you well wherever you are – and will provide image quality to match.

Handling

They say that dynamite comes in small packages, and this couldn’t have been truer for the S9500. While it might be smaller than other compact digital cameras, it pack a rather big punch for its size. Fitting perfectly in your operating hand, the camera’s controls are located in such a position that it is easy to navigate and operate with just one hand – while it’s not ideal, it’s totally possible. As per usual, the shutter button, zoom and power button is located on top, as well as the selection wheel which you’ll use to selected the modes. On the left of the 3-inch OLED monitor is where all the other controls are housed, which includes the menu and review buttons. The only thing about the selection buttons, is that they could have been made a bit more prominent. But other than that, it operates rather beautifully.

Image quality

Being such as small camera, one would think that the image quality couldn’t possibly come close to anything bigger – but you would be wrong. Gone are the days where cameras were measured by their size (which then translated to images quality). As technology started to provide smaller chips and image processors, the quality of compact cameras increased – and this model is no different. The S9500 shouldn’t be seen as a substitute to any professional camera, but it does have a number of tricks up its sleeve in order to increase (or at least maintain) the image quality, no matter where you are. Primarily a pick-up-and-go cameras, it has a plethora of modes (like Close-up, Food, Museum, Fireworks show, Black and white copy) that will pre-set the camera for you. Then all that you have to do it point and shoot.

Performance

Before we get to the monster zoom that the S9500 hides under its tiny body, the camera has an 18.1 megapixels Backside illumination CMOS image sensor – in short, it will capture as much detail as it can, while providing crisp imagery. Those who have a bit of a shake in their step, there is no need to worry as it has a lens shift and electronic VR (Vibration Reduction) built in. This will try to minimise the shakiness when taking still images or video clips. As part of the system to provide great images, it was Nikon’s EXPEED C2 image-processing engine, which is some of the best in the industry. But the biggest start of this model is the 22x optical zoom. While it might not sound that impressive, it is about the same focal length as a 550mm lens – which is great. By having such a long lens at your disposal, you will be able to capture subjects that are pretty far away. There is one downside though, and that is image capture with that length will inherently suffer from some form of image degradation.

Fujifilm FinePix F800EXR (approx. R3 100)

Fujifilm

Fujifilm has been around for any year, and part of its repertoire is its ability to release compact cameras and medium-range models every year – and with each model upgrade it includes some really cool features that will entice casual photographers to pick up its models. The market for compact cameras are actually a very tight one, with a host of different companies vying for domination, and competing with smartphones. But as you will see a bit further down, the new F800EXR from Fujifilm is rather good.

Handling

With a sturdy handhold on the right side of the body, the F800EXR feels very comfortable to hold – and it should as it only weighs 212g. Compact cameras all seem to follow the same design aspects, but there is actually a reason for that. The units are small, so it is easy for you to operate with one hand while walking down a road or needing to just quickly capture something and then moving on. But the most unique thing about the F800EXR is that the mode selection wheel is located at a slight angle on the top. Where others will be placed either on top of the housing or next to the screen, this one straddles the top and back panels. But that isn’t a bad thing – in fact, it’s incredibly comfortable to use, and it makes you wonder why more manufacturers aren’t placing it there.

Image quality

Under normal shooting conditions the camera performs rather well, but the true measure of a great model is how it performs when taken out of its comfort zone. In low-light conditions, the F800EXR has one of the highest ISOs that we have seen – an astonishing ISO12800 sensitivity. That means that it will be able to capture images in almost complete darkness, but there will naturally be some image quality loss. The 16 megapixel EXR CMOS sensor will indeed help with that, and the EXR Auto with Motion Detection will help you to determine what the right shooting mode should be to make the most of its power. The mode has been designed for compact camera users who don’t have enough know-how to fiddle with individual or creative settings, and will select the right parameters including exposure, white balance, switches and sensor mode.

Performance

For the purpose of the grouptest, the compact cameras had to have a zoom that would make a telescope proud, and the F800EXR doesn’t disappoint. For standard operation, you will be able to bring that lion hiding in the bushes right to your feet with the 20x optical zoom. That is about the same equivalent as a 500mm (the lens is also a 25mm wide angle). In the event that you want to go even further, the model has a sneaky mode available – a 40x intelligent digital zoom. Granted, by nature a digital zoom’s image quality isn’t as good as an optical zoom, but the 40x flavour does provide for a 1000 mm equivalent. And to review your images you will need a screen, which is where the 3-inch LCD monitor comes into play. The same as the Canon model, the flash was a bit flimsy – if it had to pop out while in transit, we fear that it could possibly snap off.

The winner

Taking all the factors into consideration of the models for this grouptest, the winner is the one who we felt provided a better value for money proposition, had great zoom qualities and generally performed just slightly better than the other two – the Fujifilm FinePix F800EXR. The unit just felt better when operated, and while it has slightly less pixels than the Canon model, the two different zoom functions was the ticket for us. And we have to admit, placing the mode selection wheel at an angle also played a huge role in the decision. Compact cameras are designed for those that aren’t into it as a serious hobby, so handling comfort coupled with great image quality is incredibly important – and the F800EXR just ticked the right boxes on that.

[Image – CC by 2.0/Sam Sherwood]