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Superzoom Shootout

Canon SX30 IS
Vs.
Panasonic Lumix FZ100

What This is Not

Before we jump into the deep end of the pool, let's be clear that this is not a feature-by-feature, pixel-by-pixel comparison of these two cameras. Today's cameras are so chock-a-block with features, gadgets and gizmos (some useful, some meaningless) that I'd expire from boredom and you'd tune-out long before I listed any sort of comprehensive feature comparison.

So, I'll start by assuming that you are passingly familiar with the basics of both cameras and move on from there. If you're not, this is a link to Canon's product page and this to Panasonic's product page. Here, on Snapsort, is a side-by-side feature comparison (though there are some inaccuracies).


The Contenders

I've narrowed the field down to two contenders. This is a somewhat arbitrary decision, since this is a hot category, and all of the camera companies are players. But I decided to only include the latest models to come to market in Q4, 2010. Competitive cameras from Nikon, Olympus and Fuji which have been on the market for some six months have already been reviewed and discussed ad nausium elsewhere.

Leaf Flow. Toronto, October, 2010
Panasonic FZ100 @ ISO 100

What's a Superzoom?

This class of camera is a fascinating cross between a body the size (and price) of an entry level DSLR and a sensor of the size usually associated with pocket cameras. The reason for this type of hybrid is that the small sensor used allows for huge focal length ranges to be accomodated. For example, the Panasonic FZ100 features a 24X (25mm–600mm equivalent) zoom while the Canon SX30 achieves an astonishing (24mm–840mm) range.

What makes this new model generation unusual is that these cameras both now feature a 14.1 Megapixel sensor. A 1/2.3 sized sensor, which both cameras utilize, has a pixel density of 50 MP/cm². This compares to an APS-C sized sensor of the same Megapixel count that would typically have a density of 5 MP/cm²; a 10X increase.

Needless to say a tiny sensor is typically noisy, especially at anything other than its base (lowest) ISO rating. Go to ISO 400 or higher and till now image quality has typically been unsuitable to anything except the most casual use. Note the use of the phrase – till now.

Indeed, I recently tested another company's Superzoom that had just a 10.3 Megapixel sensor with a 36 MP/cm² density and found the image quality so poor, even at base ISO, that I decided not to even bother writing a review. It would have been too cruel.

So – what we have with a latest-generation Superzoom is tremendous image capture potential, but what also appears to be mission impossible. Is it though? Can we have a 14 Megapixel camera that fits in the palm of one hand, that can be carried on a wrist strap, and which offers a focal range from medium wide to oh-my-god telephoto, all with decent image quality?

Read on.

Red Undergrowth. Toronto. October, 2010
Canon SX30 at ISO 80

Who is it For?

Of course not everyone wants or needs a focal range from 24mm to 840mm. Or, do they? I don't know about you, but I'm always looking for a few more inches (of focal length). In fact I subscribe to and teach my students the philosophy that "If your photographs are not good enough, you're likely not close enough".

Photography is largely the art of exclusion. We take the messy and confusing world and create images by removing those things that do not contribute to what we want the shot to be about. This is the way our brain and eye work. We see the overall scene, but our attention is focused on just a small part of it. This is why amateurs are so often frustrated with their photographs. Their shots end up including much more than they were actually interested in recording. We as photographers are aware of this issue and therefore move in closer if possible, or otherwise use a longer focal length lens.

Of course there are photographic pursuits that absolutely require long lenses. This includes shooting sports, birds, and other wildlife. A 300mm lens is usually the shortest that serves, and 400mm, 500mm and 600mm are the tools of choice for serious birders and wildlife shooters.

But these focal lengths mean bulk and weight. Walking through the woods with a 400mm lens on a 35mm camera is possible, but only if it isn't a fast prime. Once you get to 500mm, you'd better have the strength of a body builder, because a 500mm f/4 is a beast, and a 600mm isn't going to be usable too far from the trunk of your car unless you have a Sherpa along (and never hand-held). An 800mm f/5.6? Fugetaboutit.

The Panasonic FZ100 offers up to 600mm at f/5.2, while the Canon SX30 goes out to 840mm at f/5.6, and both can fit in a jacket pocket. Take an afternoon walk in the forest with either and you'll hardly know that they're there. Do the same with a 35mm DSLR and a super telephoto, and you'll need a hernia operation when you get home.

And since the two cameras that we're looking at here offer a moderately fast f/2.8 at 25mm (Panasonic), and f/2.7 at 24mm (Canon), neither camera is disadvantaged in more normal shooting situations. This makes them not just speciality cameras for long lens users, but quite usable in everyday situations as well.

Sounds like Nirvana, doesn't it? But only if they can deliver the shooting capabilities and image quality that we need, otherwise they're just toys, not tools.

Prop – Toronto. October, 2010
Canon SX30 at ISO 80

What They Share

The SX30 and FZ100 are quite similar in size and weight. Though the Canon is somewhat bigger and heavier, in the flesh there isn't much to choose between them. Both cameras are selling in the US in the low-to-mid $400 range, with the Canon costing about $15 more than the Panasonic – not enough of a difference to matter. 

Both cameras have built in flash, and also hot shoes that can take their company's speciality stand-alone accessory flash units. Both have articulated LCDs, and electronic viewfinders. Neither of these on either camera is state-of-the art, but both are adequate at this price point.

The user interface on the Canon and Panasonic are each very much in keeping with the gestalt of their company's product lines, providing the usual strengths and weaknesses of each. 

These cameras offer both the full range of PASM shooting modes and all of the usual (to my mind gimmicky) speciality modes. Face detection (and would you also believe wink detection) and such are to be expected, but I won't be looking at these in any depth here.

Both cameras use rechargable lithium ion batteries and take SD cards. Both have power zooms, activated by a lever surrounding the shutter release, and both have very effective optical image stabilization. The SX30's battery is higher capacity then that for the FZ100 and should therefore provide more shots per charge.

From a basic handling and operation point of view these cameras are more similar than they are different. While one can pick nits with each, nothing much stands out as game stoppers on either camera. These models are now mature offerings in this category and it would be surprising to find serious operational deficiencies from the cameras of either company at this point.

Branch Office. Toronto, October, 2010
Panasonic FZ100 @ ISO 160

How They Differ

Notwithstanding their similarities there are quite a number of areas where these cameras display feature and operational differences that will be either important or even deal breakers for some users.

Raw

Surprisingly, while the Panasonic offers raw mode, the Canon does not. It's hard to imagine why Canon short-changes their customers by denying them raw on a camera that is clearly targeted at the more knowledgable user. The FZ100 is already supported by the latest versions of Adobe Lightroom and Camera Raw, so you don't even need to bother with the provided Silkypix software – unless of course you really want to.  Score one for Panasonic.

If the advantages of shooting in raw mode are unfamiliar to you, have a read of this essay.

Video

Panasonic also trumps the Canon model when it comes to video. The FZ100 provides 1920X1080/30i HD video while the Canon has 1280X720/30P. But, the "win" for Panasonic isn't that clear, since it uses AVCHD at 13 MBPS while the Canon produces easier to handle .MOV files at 24 MBPS.

But, if you wish to record 720P with the Panasonic, you can, at 720/P60, 17Mbps.

If all of this is so much mumbo-jumbo to you, relax, it simply means that while the FZ100 does higher resolution video, it does so in interlaced mode and at a lower data rate. The Canon's progressive 720 HD mode is very good though, and the advantage of higher temporal resolution over the Panasonic's higher spatial resolution will appeal to some.

For serious video shooters the FZ100 also has a major advantage in having a fully manual video mode, with the ability to put the camera into any PASM shooting mode, including full manual when taking videos. Well done Panasonic! 

Frankly, I wouldn't choose one camera over the other for their video performance or specs, but because of its fully manual mode the FZ100 is the winner in this category. Score two for Panasonic.

Panasonic gets extra brownie points for also having a stereo microphone jack for an accessory mic that attaches to the accessory shoe, just as with the higher-end GH1 and GH2 cameras. Nice! Panasonic obviously takes the video capabilities of their cameras seriously. Canon? Not so much.

Stabilization and Frame Rates

Of greater importance for still photographers are things like stabilization and shooting speed. The latter is another area where the FZ100 trumps the SX30, big time. Panasonic's camera can shoot at up to 11 FPS at full resolution, and in raw mode, (while the Canon, even though it only shoots JPGs, is limited to about 1 FPS). The FZ100 can even shoot at up to 40 FPS in a reduced 5MP mode and 60 FPS at 2.5MP. Quite a difference, especially for someone planning on shooting sports or wildlife. Score three for Panasonic.

We've already mentioned the basic lens specs. Panasonic provides a 25–600mm (equivalent) f/2.5–5.2 lens, while Canon's is somewhat wider and quite a bit longer at 24–840mm f/2.7–f/5.8. The 1mm difference at the wide end and in maximum aperture at the wide and long ends aren't all that significant, but the stretch out from 600mm to 840mm will be for many users looking at this class of camera. Score one for Canon.

Accessories

On the nit picking side of the ledger, the Pany comes with a lens shade, while the Canon doesn't. One has to purchase an extra cost proprietary Canon or third party shade, and if you want to use filters, also a filter adaptor, while the FZ100 takes standard 52mm filters. Frankly, I find not having these provided with the camera quite chinzy on Canon's part. Is the economy that bad that they have to save pennies by withholding basic accessories?

On the other hand the SX30 comes with a small pouch that attaches to the camera strap, designed to hold the plastic cover that protects the accessory hot shoe. The FZ has neither cover nor pouch. But if asked to choose which I would prefer, lens shade and standard filters or shoe cover and pouch, you know what the answer would be. Panasonic scores another (smallish) win on this one.

EVF / LCD Switching

The FZ100 has an EVF/LCD switch. The SX30 switches between the two using the Display button, which also serves to change display modes. This is a less direct method and can also be confusing, because in some situations, for example when exposure compensation is active, switching between EVF and LCD isn't even possible because this button also doubles as an exposure bracketing control. I often have found myself unable to activate one screen or the other because of this. This is simply not a well thought out design.

The Display button on the Canon also cycles though plain and populated display options, so that between the EVF and the LCD there are four settings for this button, three of which you're likely not going to want at any one time. Sorry Canon, not a good design.

Both camera default to the EVF when the rear LCD is folded face in, and also both default to the LCD for image review, even when the EVF is the active screen. 

Frankly, in trying to minimize button profusion I feel that Canon has overloaded the Display button with too many functions, and would have much preferred a dedicated button for switching viewing modes. Better yet, an autoswitching eye sensor would have been most preferable on both cameras, but then this would have added to the cost somewhat.

On the subject of viewfinders, I found the one on the FZ100 to have a larger image and a brighter display than the SX30's, though frankly neither is going
to win any awards in this area. Score five for Panasonic.

Riders – Toronto. October, 2010
Canon SX30 at ISO 160

Fit, Finish, and Controls

In terms of fit and finish both cameras have strengths and weaknesses. The textured front grip on the FZ100 makes for more comfortable handholding, but the thumb rest on the back of the SX30 has its benefits when it comes to secure handling.

One feature of the SX30 that is unique to it, and most welcome at very long focal lengths, is an automatic zoom-out button. If you've ever tried finding a subject with a pair of 15X or 20X binoculars you know how frustrating it can be to get centered. This dedicated button, when pressed and held, will zoom the lens back a couple of hundred millimeters in focal length so that the subject can be identified. This is helped by an on-screen outline that shows the center of the frame. Line it up, release the button and you're centered. A very cool and welcome feature. Score two for Canon, though I often found myself missing a shot while the camera zoomed in and out, because it's all too easy to press the zoom-out button accidentally.

Both cameras have an off-center tripod mount, making nodal point stitching difficult, and both have their combined battery compartment / SD card slot at the bottom of the grip, making it necessary to remove the camera from the tripod or even a mounting plate to change either cards and batteries.

Stabilization

Effective Image stabilization is a major concern when using long lenses, especially when, as we'll see, clean very high ISO isn't an available option. Comparing and judging stabilization is difficult though, because it requires subjectivity and a human element.

My seat-of-the-pants judgement is that both cameras are similar in the effectiveness of their stabilization, with at least a three stop gain, and possibly with a slight advantage to the Canon, especially when shooting video. On the SX30 I even managed to do some almost perfect hand-held stills at 1/30 sec at 840mm equiv. Remarkable.

Manual Focus

Both cameras offer manual focus as well as AF. MF activation is more straightforward on the FZ100 with a switch on the side of the camera, while on the SX30 it's accessed via a button press. I really liked that the Panasonic has a single press AF button. This is the way I like to work with my DSLRs, and I miss it on the SX30.

On both cameras though MF doesn't work very well because its fly-by-wire rather than physical, and difficult to set exactly, particularly on the Panasonic where a stiff thumb wheel is used. On the Canon one uses the rear circular wheel, which jiggles the camera less, but overall neither is all that satisfactory. I therefore regard both cameras as essentially autofocus cameras.

I found that one can also use the left and right control keys for manual focusing the FZ100. This makes body shake much less than using the stiff thumb wheel. Another example of Panasonic's thoughtful user interface design.

In Green – Toronto. October, 2010
Canon SX30 at ISO 160

Digital Zoom

I started by writing that I would not be discussing either camera's gimmicky features, not because I don't think anyone wants or needs them, but simply because they don't interest me personally.

But one that should be mentioned is both camera's digital zoom capability. This allows the SX30 to reach out to 140X and the FZ100 to 127X, which is the equivalent to 3,360mm for the SX30 and 3,175mm for the Panasonic.

If you own Photoshop or any program that allows for ressing-up, you'll do just as well limiting yourself to the camera's optical zoom capability. But for those that don't have competent post processing software, in-camera up-ressing can be fun to use, even if the results usually look like a mushy pointillist painting.

One plus for the SX30 is that Canon has imprinted 35mm equivalent focal lengths on top of the lens barrel. An appreciated touch.

On this topic I should mention something that the FZ100 offers something called Intelligent Resolution Technology. This produces a noticeable enhancement to image quality (including with raw images), and while I haven't fully explored its pros and cons, it seems to be an option worth turning on. It also is associated with a form of digital magnification called iZoom, which Panasonic claims provides no deterioration in image quality, and which extends magnification by 1.3X to some 800mm equivalent. It isn't completely without  artifacts, but is quite decent when some extra reach is needed.

There is also an accessory lens available for the FZ100 that provides 1.7X optical magnification, so shots of the pimple's on the butt of that cute lady sunbathing on her balcony 2 miles away now become possible.

Autofocus

Both cameras use contrast detection AF, and are roughly comparable in speed and sensitivity. In other words, adequate, but not a patch on a DSLR's phase detection AF.

The SX30 has just a single center AF point (movable) while the FZ100 has 21 points with available focus tracking, and is therefore more akin to a DSLR is its AF versatility if not speed.Another plus for the Panasonic.


Image Quality

The comparisons below are based on my subjective evaluations. If you need numbers, charts and graphs you know where you can find them. Elsewhere.

Noise

I see little to choose between the Panasonic and the Canon when it comes to noise performance. Both are quite clean at ISO 100 (the SX30 also has ISO 80, and it's a bit better than 100). Below are side-by-side crops at 100%, with the first example at ISO 100 and the second at ISO 1600. The Panasonic is on the left and the Canon on the right. Focal lengths were within 1mm and exposure within less than 1/3 stop of each other.

As is always the case saturation is reduced at higher ISOs, as is resolution due to in-camera noise reduction. The Canon seems to hold up a bit better in the saturation department. In this example there is little difference to be seen in resolution, though that is not always the case.

During a couple of weeks daily use with both cameras I found that shots at up to ISO 200 needed no noise reduction in post processing, and at ISO 400 only a moderate amount. 400 is quite usable.

ISOs 800 and 1600 get noisy and need NR in post, but I was frankly quite impressed by how well both cameras did at 1600. I wouldn't use it every day (both cameras should be shot at ISO 80-100 for optimum image quality) but if getting the shot is what counts, all of the available speed settings are usable with just a bit of work, and especially if not destined for large display prints.

Resolution

Torn Curtain Toronto. October, 2010
Canon SX30 at ISO 80

I've struggled with how to present this topic, because I know it's one that a lot of photographers hang their decision and product loyalty hats on. The problem that I have is that I can show examples of where the SX30 clearly outresolves the FZ100, and also examples that show the opposite.

After going near blind looking at 100% crops on screen and on prints, I've decided that there are too many variables related to focal length, scene contrast and the like to declare a winner. I'm therefore willing to call this a draw and let the fanboys fight it out on the forums. I wouldn't choose one camera over the other based on the issue of resolution.

Chromatic Aberration

"UD glass effectively suppresses chromatic aberration ... further aberration is controlled with the inclusion of a double-sided aspherical glass-molded lens and ultra-high refraction index lens".

So says Canon's promotional material for the SX30. Frankly, this just isn't the case, or while it may be it simply isn't good enough. The SX30 suffers from occasional chromatic aberration and colour fringing. It isn't visible in every shot – far from it. But, at certain focal lengths and aperture combinations, and with certain subjects, it's easily visible on-screen let alone on a large print.

That's the bad news. The good news is that there are software tools in programs like Lightroom that can quickly fix the problem, at least to the point where one is not bothered by it. But, this takes a bit of work, and if you're the type of person who just likes their JPGs fresh out of the camera and doesn't want to bother with post processing, then the Canon SX30 may occasionally frustrate and disappoint.

The Panasonic FZ100, like most camera lenses, shows some CA from time to time, but nothing as bad as the SX30. 

Sidebar:

Before someone goes of running in all directions thinking that the sky is falling on the SX30 – chill for a minute. Yes, the SX30 displays more CA than the FZ100, but it doesn't show up in every shot. It depends on the focal length, the subject, the aperture, and who knows, maybe even the phases of the moon.

If you use Lightroom or Camera Raw the Defringing and CA tools do a decent job of fixing whatever CA may be visible.

But, I have to ask – why are Canon cameras of this lineage prone to so much CA? The SX20 was also widely criticized for this failing.

Overall IQ

Before you sell your DSLR and buy either of these cameras for all-around use, consider that while they each represent an advance in small-sensor photography, overall image quality is compromised compared to that from a larger sensor camera, whether 4/3 or 1.5X APS-C, and certainly full frame.

To quote The Bard – "There is no free lunch". A $400 14MP camera with a medium wide to 600mm or 840mm lens simply isn't going to equal a DSLR in image quality. While good, these two cameras, even at their lowest ISO, show their small-sensor origins from time to time. Not all the time. Not in every shot, especially with good technique and when the light is right. But on the margins their IQ falls apart much more quickly than cameras with larger sensors.

Dynamic range is one of the areas where high resolution small sensor cameras (with very small photo sites) are disadvantaged. These have reduced well capacity, and the laws of physics are not easily repealed. That's why these cameras are at their best in good light, and why having raw mode is so important – so that optimum exposure can be used.  (See – Expose to The Right).

But, when small size, versatility, and really long reach are what you need, either of these cameras is capable of producing 13X19" prints that can be shown with pride, assuming that you and your technique are up to the task – especially in decent light.

Color Riot. Toronto, October, 2010
Panasonic FZ100 @ ISO 100


Conclusion

The winner of this contest is the Panasonic Lumix FZ100, by a moderate margin. While these two cameras are quite similar at first glance, they differ enough in features and capabilities to create a real horse race. Raw mode (shame on Canon for omitting it on the SX30), high frame rates, superior EVF, and multi-point focusing all add up to the FZ100 being my preferred choice. The FZ100 is also the winner in the video category because of the availability of fully manual mode, and for some users 1920X1080i over 1280X720P.

From an image quality perspective the cameras are pretty evenly matched, but the SX30 suffers from occasional chromatic aberration – mostly fixable, but requiring some post processing work. The cameras are also similar when it comes to high ISO noise.

The likely deciding factor will be whether you need the extra reach to 840mm that the Canon offers or the Panasonic's operational features. 

In the end, if you're considering the purchase of one of these two new Superzooms, you should think about those characteristics that are most important for the kind of shooting that you do. If you can, visit a retailer that has both in stock and see how they fit in your hands and to your eye. You really won't go far wrong with either camera.


Memo to Canon and Panasonic

When you make a camera targeted at the more serious photographer, why be timid? Cost is a factor for almost everyone, but I believe that if you delivered a higher spec product in this category photographers would willingly pay for it.

Take the focal length range of the SX30, the high frame rates and raw mode of the FZ100, put in a solid manual controlled video mode with decent bit rate, add a terrific EVF like the one in the GH1 or GH2, and you'd have a category killer. Sure cost would be higher, but the market would understand and accept a price hundreds of dollars higher that where they are now. And profit margins would be very high because of the perceived additional value.

Alas, I fear that neither company has the cojones to tackle this challenge. Market segmentation through feature castration appears to be the name of the game throughout the industry.

Maybe next year.

October, 2010

 


 

FZ199 Firmware Update

On Oct 25, 2010 Panasonic released a firmware update that address some potential banding and shadow noise issues. This can be downloaded here.


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Concepts: Focal length, Digital single-lens reflex camera, Photographic lens, Digital camera, Raw image format, Camera, Leica Camera, Film speed

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Tags: camera, focal length, image, image quality, mode, raw mode, button, sensor, post processing, chromatic aberration, video, pasm shooting mode, show, occasional chromatic aberration, DSLR, Display button, stiff thumb wheel, Camera Raw, high frame rates, Canon cameras, sensor cameras, Megapixel sensor, small, cost proprietary canon, decent, manual mode, small sensor cameras, focal range, shoe, Panasonic scores, shooting sports, focal length lens, zoom-out button, hot shoe, pocket cameras, sd card, dedicated button, larger sensor camera, Competitive cameras, huge focal length