The longest zoom you can buy, the 50x-zoom Canon PowerShot SX50 HS (*Est. $435) astounds reviewers. It packs an amazing 1200 mm zoom lens into a normal-size camera that you can just toss into your bag. To put this in perspective, Canon makes a 1200 mm lens for its digital SLR (single-lens reflex) cameras; it's about the size of a 3-year-old toddler and costs $120,000.
Granted, the SX50 can't boast DSLR quality. You probably won't be able to read road signs from a mile away. But fill the frame with sharp-looking buildings from two miles away? Yes, you can do that, expert tests demonstrate. Shoot the moon and scrutinize every crater? Daniel Bell does that in his test for EPhotoZine.com. Sneak close-ups of rare, shy songbirds without scaring them away? Plenty of happy owners at Amazon.com use the SX50 to do just that.
The SX50 largely avoids the typical mega-zoom pitfalls. It's not overly huge -- no bigger or heavier than a compact DSLR. It's not slow; in fact, it can fire off 10 frames per second (fps). Photos look pleasantly lifelike, even in fairly dim light (the downfall of most mega-zooms), although they're not perfect. Experts do detect flaws like color fringing and over-sharpening around the edges.
Finally, the SX50 doesn't skimp on features. RAW image capture, full manual controls and a hot shoe all come standard. A flip-out, swiveling LCD screen makes it especially easy to frame your shot when using a tripod. Full 1080p HD videos look good, Bell says. Early tests at PhotographyBlog.com and EPhotoZine.com both tag the SX50 Highly Recommended, and DigitalCameraInfo.com awards it the title of Best Super-Zoom Camera for 2012.
Its main rival, the Nikon Coolpix P510 (*Est. $350) , can't measure up. It's "a perfectly respectable and agreeable camera, considering its pricepoint," say editors at DPReview.com. But it lags behind the Canon with a shorter zoom (42x), no RAW mode or hot shoe, and balky autofocus that struggles to keep up with action photography and video. Photos look fine in good light, but "sub-par" in dim light, DPReview.com says: "Judged purely by its image quality ... the P510 does sit towards the bottom end of the current superzoom field, something which is especially obvious at its higher ISO settings."