Enormous zooms usually force you to make trade-offs -- usually sluggish shooting speeds and grainy (or over-smoothed, fake-looking) photos. But the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-HX50V (Est. $450) strikes a remarkable balance, experts say: The world's smallest camera with a 30x optical zoom, it delivers surprisingly impressive photos and full HD video. "The HX50 is tough to be beat," says Callum McInerney-Riley of Amateur Photographer, where it's the top-rated ultra-zoom in its class.
Although it's a tight squeeze into a trouser pocket, the Sony HX50V is still extraordinarily small, fitting comfortably into your palm. Its lengthy lens zooms out -- and out, and out -- capturing everything from 24 mm wide angles to long-distance 720 mm telephotos. That's "enough width and reach for virtually any photographic situation that you'll encounter," says Mark Goldstein at PhotographyBlog.com, where the Sony HX50V earns a nearly perfect rating.
Testers wring striking details out of the 20.4-megapixel sensor, too -- like the mint leaves Callum McInerney-Riley shoots for Amateur Photographer, where even the tiny hairs on the stems stand out sharply.
Finally, the HX50V comes absolutely crammed with features -- even full manual controls and a hot shoe (rare for a camera this small), plus three user-friendly auto modes. Sony loads it up with Wi-Fi, GPS, 3D and 360 panorama and more. Whether you're a beginner or a serious photographer, reviews say the Sony HX50V is almost the perfect long-zoom camera.
Critics' former favorite, the Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ200 (Est. $520) , is an aging model that Panasonic will probably replace soon. Still, top experts -- and satisfied owners -- highly recommend it. It packs a few features the Sony lacks: RAW image capture, an electronic viewfinder and a super-bright Leica lens. However, it's also bulkier than the Sony, with a shorter zoom (24x), and no GPS or Wi-Fi.
One of the longest zooms you can buy, the 50x-zoom Canon PowerShot SX50 HS (Est. $370) astounds reviewers. It packs an amazing 1,200 mm zoom lens into a normal-size camera that you can just toss into your bag. To put this in perspective, Canon makes a 1,200 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). The 12-megapixel photos look pleasantly lifelike, even at high ISOs in dim light or at full zoom (the downfall of most mega-zooms), although they're not perfect. Experts 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. Testers at PhotographyBlog.com and EPhotoZine.com both tag the SX50 Highly Recommended.
The runner-up Fujifilm FinePix HS50EXR (Est. $395) can't quite match the Canon SX50 camera in reviews. Photo quality and features are similar, but the Fujifilm is substantially bigger and heavier than the Canon camera, with a shorter 42x zoom.
An outrageous 60x ultra-zoom -- the Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ70 (Est. $400) -- had just hit the market at the time of this update. With its record-breaking zoom plus similar image quality and features, it might knock the Canon SX50 off its perch. PhotographyBlog.com had already tested and awarded it the same 4.5-star Highly Recommended rating the Canon gets, but no other source had reviewed it yet.
Stuff a monster zoom into a tiny, pocket-sized camera, and something's got to give -- usually image quality. But the Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS30 (Est. $400) does the seemingly impossible: It shoots impressive photos with its 20x zoom lens, and then collapses into a tiny package that's smaller than an iPhone and just an inch thick.
It's the best pocket zoom, period, reviews say. Every single one of our sources that has tested the Panasonic ZS30 names it a top pick (and at PhotographyBlog.com, it wins the rare perfect 5-star Essential award). Owners are equally crazy about it -- it's a customer favorite at BHPhotoVideo.com.
Other travel zooms might match the Panasonic ZS30's 18.1-megapixel photo quality. But none can match its feature set: touch screen, Wi-Fi (with Near Field Communication, so you can merely tap a wireless device to link up), GPS, full manual controls, full 1080p HD video and more.
There's no room for a viewfinder or hot shoe, and no RAW mode on these little cameras. You'll be using the pop-up flash and LCD screen instead, and you'll be shooting JPEGs only -- the price of pocketability.
At first glance, the runner-up Canon PowerShot SX280 HS (Est. $180) camera looks like a tempting alternative. For over $100 less, it offers the same 20x zoom as the Panasonic camera, along with GPS, Wi-Fi, full HD video and a pocketable, durable metal body.
It drops a few features (you won't get in-camera panorama, for example), but the real problem is the battery. Testers say it runs out of juice way too fast, and many owners complain of a glitch in the camera, where it mistakenly thinks it's out of power and shuts down. A firmware update was supposed to fix the problem, but some owners say it hasn't.
Reviews overwhelmingly prefer the Panasonic ZS30 ultrazoom camera. The extra cash buys you more features -- and a more reliable camera.