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In this report

Zooms can take a toll on image quality

Ultra-zoom cameras put the power of a huge zoom lens in the palm of your hand. To get potent zooms like this on a digital SLR (single-lens reflex) camera (covered in a separate report), you'd have to spend more than $5,000 and drag around a hefty lens.

Outrageous zooms take a toll on image quality, though. Ultra-zoom photos suffer from more blown-out details, purple fringing and other flaws than similarly priced point-and-shoot digital cameras with smaller zooms up to about 12x (also covered in a separate report). Still, we did find a few outstanding ultra-zoom cameras that manage to satisfy even the toughest experts.

There are three main types:

Ultra-zoom cameras are about the same size as a compact DSLR, but without the separate lenses. They have DSLR-like features, too (like manual controls, a viewfinder and a hot shoe). Zooms usually fall in the 30x range (about 24 mm to 720 mm), so you'll be able to shoot both wide-angle and close-up photos. Prices range from about $400 to $500. A steeper sticker price buys more features and stronger image quality.

Mega-zoom cameras can shoot photos from a mile away or more, with staggering zooms up to 60x (20 mm to 1,200 mm). These are also DSLR-like cameras (without the separate lenses), but image quality lags behind regular ultra-zooms. Expect to pay $350 to $450.

Compact ultra-zoom cameras fit in your pocket. They cram long lenses (16x to 24x) into tiny bodies slightly more than an inch thick. The best ones offer robust manual controls, but not a full set. There's no room for a viewfinder or hot shoe, either. We found good pocket ultra-zooms for about $300 to $400.

To find the best ultra-zoom cameras, expert testers shoot photos and videos under a variety of conditions -- wide angle, full zoom, sunny daylight, dim rooms -- and then scrutinize them for flaws. They judge which cameras are the toughest, easiest to use and most feature rich. Owner reviews chip in valuable information about how each camera performs in real life. We analyze reviews to discover which ultra-zoom cameras impress experts and owners the most.

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