So, having priced a DSLR and a 600-800mm lens, and having seen a few over burdened photographers in the field, you are wondering, if you are anything like me, if there are alternatives…something less expensive…something more physically manageable as you are out and about…and maybe even something more flexible.
Enter the sophisticated superzoom Point & Shoot cameras. Superzooms are sometimes called “bridge” cameras…they are larger and more sophisticated (and more expensive) than the mostly pocket-sized P&Ss, and feature, of course, much more zoom range.
I have taken wildlife shots with my various superzoom Point & Shoot cameras over the past several years, beginning with a Sony H9 with, if I remember right, a 12x zoom, and gotten some satisfying results. My Canon SX20IS with a 20x zoom reaching to 560mm equivalent gave me reach enough for many shots, but the .8 frames per second rapid capture mode (yes that is a “.” there…a fractional frame rate) made shooting wildlife very difficult. And of course, flight shots, as the most difficult of wildlife shots, were next to impossible.
Of course, anything is possible if you have cooperative birds and shoot enough frames. This shot is from the Canon SX20IS at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge where there are, pretty much, birds in the air all the time, and where the geese and cranes, landing and taking off, present predictable targets. Putting the camera on “sports mode” pushed the ISO, shutter speed, and f-stop toward higher values to freeze the action. 560mm equivalent field of view, f8 @ 1/1250th @ ISO 320.
This shot is also from the SX20IS, at 560mm equivalent, f8 @ 1/400th @ ISO 400.
More sedentary subjects, even if still active, made easier targets. 560mm equivalent, f5.7 @ 1/400th @ ISO 200, program mode.
With these kinds of shots behind me, I was quite excited to see the first of the Back-illuminated CMOS sensor superzooms come out. BICMOS sensors feature better high ISO performance (in theory) and much faster capture time…which allows for both higher frame rates and full HD video. The Panasonic FZ100 was the first, featuring a 600mm equivalent zoom, and 5 frames per second. However, the reviews of image quality were disappointing, and the increase to 600mm over 560mm was just not enough to justify the investment.
Panasonic was the first, but most of the majors now have a BICMOS superzoom in the stable (except for Canon). I gave the Fuji HS20, with its 30x, 720mm equivalent zoom, 16mp sensor, and up to 11 frames per second, a shot (or several hundred), but, as with the Panasonic, the image quality, especially on landscapes, was simply too disappointing for me to carry it as my day-in-day-out camera. The images looked okay at smaller screen resolutions, but an 8.5×11 print, or higher resolution on the screen, they showed way too much water-color effect. Fine details were smeared and blurred. Colors that should have been even gradients were patchy, poster like, etc. The images actually looked more like paintings than photographs.
I did a fair amount of looking at sample images on the internet, and returned the Fuji for the Nikon Coolpix P500, with an 12mp BICMOS sensor, a 36x zoom (23mm to 810mm equivalent), and a rapid capture frame rate at full resolution of 8 frames per second for 5 frames, or 1.8 frames per second for 24 frames (you can actually shoot up to 240 fps at lower resolutions) and full HD video capture.
Of course I also appreciate the 2cm macro, the flip out LCD, the night landscape mode, the built in HDR mode, sweep panorama and assisted panorama, and other in-camera magic made possible by the rapid capture ability of the BICMOS sensor.
I got the camera just in time for two major trips: The first to the Florida Birding and Photo Fest in St. Augustine Florida…with a major Wood Stork, Egret, and Heron rookery and lots of flight shot opportunities…and the second, back to back, to The Biggest Week in American Birding at Magee Marsh and Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge along the Ohio shore of Lake Erie…with abundant opportunity to try the camera on the most difficult of subjects…feeding warblers.
I did have time before I left to assure myself that, while the Nikon P500 might not fully equal the image quality of my Canon SX20IS at lower ISOs, it came very close, while providing superior high ISO performance. Given all the other advanced features of the camera, especially the high frame rate and the 23mm-810mm zoom, I felt I could live with the IQ. Good to go birding!
If you intend to shoot flight shots, or even just active birds, with your superzoom the place to start is probably the Sports mode. Most of these cameras have one. Setting the camera on Sports keeps the shutter speed as high as possible while maintaining relatively small apertures for depth of field, sets the focus mode to center of field and continuous, and generally selects rapid capture of some variety. It may also turn on follow focus if your camera has that feature, and it almost certainly will set the exposure metering area to center of frame. On the Nikon, it also sets the image size to medium (8mp) and the image quality to normal (medium jpeg compression) to ensure it can manage the 8 frames per second capture. After a day of experimentation with Sports Mode and some static testing I determined that the camera, with a Class 6 SD card, would still manage 8 fps on full size (12 mp) and fine image quality (low jpeg compression), so I programmed similar settings into the User Mode (memory) to create my own flight and action mode. Now when I set the camera on U (for User), it sets to full size, fine image quality, 8 fps for 5 frames, center and continuous focus, center metering with auto ISO and a minimum shutter speed of 1/125 second, hybrid Vibration Reduction, LCD off, and zoom fully extended (810mm equivalent).
As an added benefit, not having to use Sports mode on the Scene setting, I can then leave Scene mode set to Macro…my third most common setting, and have just three stops on the control dial for 90% of my shooting: Program for general shooting (with things like Active D Lighting (extended dynamic range), and Vivid Image Optimization to add punch to landscapes), User for flight and action, and Scene for Macros.
So, how does it work?
620mm equivalent field of view, f5.7 @ 1/320th @ ISO 160. Sports Mode for 8mp, normal IQ.
309mm equivalent, f5.4 @ 1/1500th @ ISO 160. Sports mode for 8mp, normal IQ.
810mm equivalent, f5.7 @ 1/640th @ ISO 160, User Flight and Action mode, 12mp and Fine IQ.
668mm equivalent, f5.7 @ 1/125th @ ISO 180. User Flight and Action mode, 12mp and Fine IQ (note that the 1/125 second minimum pushed the ISO to 180 to maintain exposure).
500mm equivalent, f6.3 @ 1/800th @ ISO 160, User Flight and Action mode, 12mp (cropped), Fine IQ.
810mm and Macro, f5.7 @ 1/100th @ ISO 160. Program mode. 12mp and Fine IQ, Vivid Processing.
None of these shots, very likely, are publication quality in the magazine sense. They might or might not look okay at 300dpi on the printed page…but that is not what I am up to. I am out there to enjoy the birds and taking pictures with equipment I can afford and am wiling to carry.
And, as an added bonus, I get to use the camera for shots like these.
Night landscape mode: three images taken automatically in a fraction of a second, and stacked in camera for sharpness and color.
180 degree assisted, full resolution, panorama…stitched in PhotoMerge in PhotoShop Elements 9.
Macro from less than 1/2 inch. 32mm equivalent, f3.7 @ 1/1000 @ ISO 160. Macro mode.
Backlight mode with HDR on…three exposures stacked for extended dynamic range in camera, processed for clarity and levels in Lightroom.
So, yes, it works. The Nikon Coolpix, standing in as the representative of the new BICMOS superzoom cameras clearly (to my mind) demonstrates the potential of the class for effective wildlife and general scenic photography. With a zoom range from 23mm and super macro to 810mm equivalent (over 900mm on some cameras), rapid capture up to 8 frames per second (even faster on some of the superzooms), and all kinds of in-camera specialty modes, today’s superzooms pack a huge range of application into a very small (comparatively) and inexpensive (relatively) package. To my mind, that makes them the ideal field companion for the aspiring wildlife and nature photographer, at least those who are in it for the fun of it.
Will a BICMOS Superzoom substitute for the professional level full frame DSLR and the 600mm IS lens with 2x extender shooting from a blind…no…of course not. Auto focus is slower and not as accurate, for one thing, manual focus is a non-starter, and the small sensor is pushing the limits of what can be done for both noise and image quality. But, they are certainly a lot of fun and will bring home, often enough, images that will satisfy any but the most demanding of photographers and viewers. To me the most important word there is fun! I am still an amateur. I do photography, specifically nature and wildlife, because I love it…it has to be fun.
In the next post, we will look at Superzooms in the ultimate wildlife test…catching feeding warblers in deep forest during migration!