I'll admit it: I didn't get it. Back in the days when DSLRs were largely a fantasy, playthings of the independently wealthy, I owned what we'd now call an ultrazoom. At the time, the term "pro-sumer" was preferred – an intertwining of professional and consumer that suggested by its very existence that the market was headed for some kind of permanent fracture: I think most of us thought that large-sensor DSLRs would remain too expensive for too long, keeping them truly in the realm of professional equipment for the most part. DSLRs would be to this generation what high-end medium-format film systems had been to the last one – something expensive and arcane enough to discourage most users who didn't plan to make a living taking pictures from getting involved.
In this same vein, pro-sumer fixed lens cameras were a bundle of compromises and we all knew it. Few serious amateur photographers that I knew who moved up from the comparatively affordable advanced 35mm SLRs of the time came away impressed by what these bulky, slow, expensive long-zoom cameras – basically digital point-and-shoots on steroids – had to offer, but what could we do? The convenience and power of digital capture were undeniable, and early ultrazooms seemed the only way to get it in a (reasonably) proficient, (reasonably) cost-effective package.
The advent of low-cost DSLRs changed everyone's outlook, and did so much more rapidly than almost anyone expected. Suddenly the kind of performance offered by the best advanced amateur 35mm SLRs was back in digital, and in a sub-$2000 (and in rapid succession, then sub-$1000) form that many regular folks could afford. In the interest of full disclosure, when the consumer DSLR revolution hit, I largely held onto my grudge against the overpriced, under-speced ultrazooms that, in light of cheaper of cheaper DSLR performance, seemed to have done me so wrong. My Sony DSC-F707 was a good digital camera for its day. And leeches were considered high-tech medical equipment in the Dark Ages. Not to get down on Sony at all: they really did build arguably the best camera in this class at the time, but when the "Rebel Renaissance" came along, I didn't feel much remorse in letting that monster camera with its snout of a lens fall by the wayside in favor of something better.
In the years since, I'll also admit to being part of the chorus that's constantly surprised anew at continued growth in the ultrazoom segment – in the face of DSLRs getting cheaper and cheaper. With the memory of my old Sony – its huge lens barrel, its questionable optical quality, its not-a-DSLR shutter lag – hanging around, it's always been a bit unthinkable to me that someone might actually prefer an ultrazoom. I secretly assumed it was just a matter of time before cheap 10x consumer zoom lenses and adequate live view systems for DSLRs sent ultrazooms the way of the Dodo.
All of that changed last week. On my way out the door of the office for a quick weekend jaunt out to a friend's wedding, I made a split-second decision: with everything else I was carrying along, my standard DSLR travel kit was more extra stuff that I didn't feel like hauling. So I picked up the first small camera from the review unit stack – a Fujifilm FinePix S8100fd. After coming away unimpressed with the S8100fd's baby brother, the S1000fd, I wasn't entirely sure what to expect, but after my first extended shooting experience with one of the latest crop of mega-ultrazooms, I feel like I've come around to "getting" the whole ultrazoom thing for the first time.
Shooting with the S8100fd is still an experience that shares more in common with a compact camera than a DSLR, but the fact that compact cameras have been slowly but steadily gaining in performance over the last few years means this isn't the limitation that it once was. And for certain kinds of shooting – like grabbing informal snaps at a wedding reception – what you give up in responsiveness is more than made up for in convenience. While I was positively impressed with the Fuji, though, the point is less about this particular camera's performance (I'll have a write-up on my initial impressions with some sample photos in a few days), and more about the idea of an ultrazoom generally. When it came to snapping off some quick shots, the 18x zoom Fuji was always ready to go – no need to change lenses! – and with a smaller, less visually imposing device in my hands than I'm used to with a DSLR, I found I wasn't inadvertently becoming my own center of attention when trying to capture candids.
I've always known (and suggested to others) that these are the primary benefits of an ultrazoom, but I guess I didn't really understand just how liberating it could be until this weekend. If I'd been hauling around my DSLR on the trip, I would have invariably spent lots of time and energy worrying about lenses and flashes, worrying about what I needed to get "the shot." For whatever reason, a point-and-shoot camera puts you (or me, at least) in a different, more laid back frame of mind – one that can be beneficial for situations where it's at least as important to be involved in what's going on as it is to be involved in photographing it. As much as I love taking pictures, it's easy to miss participating in what's happening around you at times if you're too concerned with capturing the best possible image.
As much as I like the flexibility of having a huge zoom at my disposal in a small, unobtrusive package, I'm not ready to trade in my DSLRs just yet: for situations where image quality is the first concern, nothing else will do, and the ability to get different looks with different lenses is what makes an interchangeable-lens camera so powerful. Plus there's the speed differential to consider. Overall, I still stand by the position that it's hard to find more power for less than in the current generation (or perhaps better still, the last one, now available at fire sale prices) of consumer DSLRs.
That said, if you haven't fired off a few shots on an ultrazoom in awhile, I'd suggest giving them another go. Performance improvements combined with ever-decreasing size and weight have made them arguably the perfect complement to (or for some shooters, even substitute for) a DSLR, especially for taking pictures in social situations.
After several years of misguidedness and the scars of early digicam technology behind me, I can proudly say that when it comes to ultrazooms, I get it – finally!
Round Up is a regular editorial column published weekly on DigitalCameraReview.com.
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