What the best ultra-zoom digital cameras have

  • Optical image stabilizer. Long zooms magnify every tiny tremor of your hands, but optical stabilizers inside the camera steady the image to reduce blur.
  • LCD screen. The best ultra-zoom cameras have bright, sharp LCD screens, so you can frame shots and review photos accurately even in glaring sunshine.
  • Manual controls. Even pocket-size ultra-zoom cameras allow you some manual control over your photos -- and the best models provide full manual control over focus, shutter speed, aperture and more.
  • HD video. The best ultra-zoom cameras can record video in full 1080p HD.
  • Self-timer. All ultra-zoom digital cameras let you set a time delay, so you can set the camera and then hop into the photo.

Know before you go

What's your budget? For $400 or less, you can get the top-rated ultra-zoom with robust manual controls, full HD video and a 20x to 60x zoom lens. More advanced features and better photo quality can drive the cost up to $450 or more.

How much zoom do you really need? 20x to 30x strikes a sweet spot in reviews: It's long enough to zoom in really, really close (for example, you'll be able to sneak close-ups of shy songbirds from dozens of yards away) while still preserving image quality. Mega-zooms up to 60x are fun -- you'll be able to shoot photos literally from a mile away -- but image quality suffers.

Do you want a pocket-sized zoom? Compact ultra-zoom cameras squeeze long-zoom lenses (up to 20x) into tiny bodies little more than an inch thick. You'll have to forego niceties like a viewfinder and hot shoe, though. Ultra-zooms with those features are too big to pocket, so you'll need to carry them on a neck strap or in a shoulder bag.

Do you want a viewfinder? Holding an ultra-zoom camera up to your eye can help steady the shot. Full-sized ultra-zooms usually include an electronic viewfinder, but tiny pocket zooms don't have space for this feature. All ultra-zoom digital cameras have an LCD screen on the back, so you can frame your shot that way, too.

How many megapixels do you really need? The top-rated extreme zoom camera in our report has a modest 12-megapixel image sensor. This allows the sensor to capture more light for better photos in dim situations (a notorious weakness for ultra-zooms). More megapixels theoretically promise sharper detail, but in tests with ultra-zooms, it doesn't always work that way.

Do you shoot fast action? The best ultra-zoom cameras can fire off 10 full-resolution frames per second (fps) or more. But numbers don't tell the whole story: Only hands-on tests can show which cameras autofocus promptly, minimize shot-to-shot delays and other tasks that separate the snappy shooters from the sluggish.

Do you want to shoot RAW files? Pocket-size ultra-zooms shoot only JPEG image files, which are pre-processed in the camera. The best bigger ultra-zooms can shoot both JPEG and RAW files, which you can process later on your computer (sharpening edges, smoothing away grainy image noise, etc.) for maximum editing control.

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