2009 Super Zoom Shootout Review
Using the 2009 Super Zooms
While earlier I mentioned that it was difficult to compare the image stabilization feature on the various Super Zooms, here's one thing I can work with: camera performance. The chart below summarizes my findings:
Overall, I have to give the slight edge to the Olympus SP-590 in this test. It has a bit of shutter lag, but only at the slower shutter speeds where you should be using the flash or a tripod anyway. The Coolpix P90 was also pretty snappy, but it just plain stinks at low light focusing. Speaking of which: it's very easy to block the AF-assist lamp on the Nikon and Pentax cameras, so watch your fingers!
How about continuous shooting performance? While some of the cameras have super fast continuous modes, they accomplish that by shooting at low resolutions and high ISOs. For this test I'm focusing on full resolution continuous shooting performance. And here we go:
The Pentax X70 wasn't included in this test because it only has a lower resolution (5MP) continuous mode. At full resolution, the Coolpix P90 is easily the winner here. Do note that you cannot shoot continuously when using the RAW format on the EasyShare Z980.
I should add that the Nikon, Pentax, and Olympus cameras all have the ability to take time-lapse photo sequences.
Menus and Features
Without going into extraordinary detail, now I'd like to show you the menu options on the four cameras, and then describe a few of them in more detail.
One feature that all four of the cameras have in common is face detection. Using the same test scene that I've used in my other recent reviews, I recorded how many faces each camera typically detected:
- EasyShare Z980: 4 or 5 faces
- Coolpix P90: 3 or 4 faces
- SP-590UZ: 4 or 5 faces
- X70: 2 or 3 faces
The Nikon and Pentax cameras both have blink and smile detection features, as well. For the Coolpix, the "blink proof" feature detects when people are in the frame, and takes two photos -- if someone has their eyes closed, it deletes that photo and keeps the other. The smile timer feature waits for one of the people the camera has detected to smile before taking up to nine photos. The Pentax versions of these features are similar, except that the blink detection feature only takes one photo and provides a warning if someone's eyes are closed.
As you saw earlier, all four of the Super Zooms have manual exposure control. They each have manual focus features as well, though some are better implemented than others. The Olympus and Nikon both have center-frame enlargement, nice distance guides, and plenty of "steps" for fine-tuning. The Pentax is similar, though it has very few focus steps to choose from. The Kodak has the center-frame enlargement feature and plenty of steps, but it's distance guide borders on useless. One last important manual control is for white balance, and all of the cameras offer this feature, except for the EasyShare Z980. The Olympus adds the ability to fine-tune white balance, which can be handy.
Alright, let's move on to the good stuff now -- photo quality comparisons. I have all the usual tests here, though some have been scaled back a little bit to keep things simpler.
All four of the cameras struggled a little with my studio lamps. The EasyShare Z980 did better than expected (considering its lack of a manual white balance function), but it has a noticeable green color cast. The Pentax and Olympus are a little too blue, with the Coolpix P90 producing the most accurate color (even if it's a little greener than I'd like). The sharpest photos are also the noisiest, with the Kodak and Pentax both having noticeable grain at their lowest ISO setting. The Coolpix P90 is just about right, with the SP-590 producing a photo that's a bit too soft for my taste. All four of the cameras are capable of being as close to their subject as 1 cm in macro mode.
Now it's time to compare how each of the four Super Zooms performed with our standard night shot. While none of the cameras did a spectacular job here, the best photo was captured by the Olympus SP-590UZ. The Pentax seems to have potential, but the slowest shutter speed (4 secs) isn't long enough for this scene to be properly exposed. The buildings are sharp in the photos taken with the Olympus and Pentax, the Kodak's just okay, with the Nikon being a little too soft. The EasyShare Z980 has a rather unpleasant color cast, that none of the other cameras seemed to pick up. You'll spot noise in all of the photos (though it's hard to see in the Pentax photo, since it's so dark) -- sometimes it's just grain-style noise, other times it actually eats away at details (the Coolpix P90 is the best example of that). Purple fringing is most notable in the Kodak and Nikon photos, and I have a feeling that you'd see it in the Pentax shot too, if it was brighter.
Now I'm going to attempt to use that same scene to compare how the cameras performed at higher ISOs. Since the shots above show how things look at ISO 50 or 64 (depending on the camera), this sequence starts at ISO 100 and goes through ISO 400. It's not easy to perfectly match composition and exposure, so bear with me. Please note that the tabs now change the ISO instead of the camera!
At ISO 100, the Olympus SP-590 retains the most deal, with the Pentax X70 in second place. The Kodak and Nikon both show a fair amount of detail loss due to noise reduction, but at least the Coolpix doesn't have the ghastly color cast of the Z980. Noise reduction becomes more obvious on all four Super Zooms at ISO 200, and you probably shouldn't go any higher than that, as the ISO 400 crops illustrate.
|The Olympus night photos were reshot on 8/5/09 to better match the composition of the images taken with the other three cameras|
Look for a normal lighting ISO comparison in a moment.
As you can see, I got mixed results when it came to redeye. The EasyShare Z980 did the best, as it has a digital redeye removal system that gets rid of this annoyance as you take a photo. The Nikon is supposed to do that too, but it only fixed it in one eye. The Olympus and Pentax cameras both rely on preflashes to shrink your subject's pupils, which usually doesn't work. The Olympus and Pentax cameras both offer a redeye removal tool in their respective playback modes.
And now, it's time for our studio test scene, where you can see how the four Super Zooms performed at high ISOs in normal lighting. Since nobody's really going to use these at ISO 3200 and above, I stopped the test at ISO 1600. Remember that the crops only tell part of the story, so be sure to view the full-size images to get the entire picture (no pun intended)!
|Kodak EasyShare Z980 (ISO 64)|
|Nikon Coolpix P90 (ISO 64)|
|Olympus SP-590UZ (ISO 64)|
|Pentax X70 (ISO 50)|
|Kodak EasyShare Z980|
|Kodak EasyShare Z980, RAW - > JPEG conversion (ACR)|
|Kodak EasyShare Z980, RAW -> JPEG conversion + NeatImage|
|Nikon Coolpix P90|
At each camera's base ISO, the results are more-or-less the same. The only thing I noticed is a bit of grain-style noise from the Kodak EasyShare Z980. At ISO 100, that noise can be seen on all four cameras, though it's still very mild. When we reach ISO 200, the Kodak is showing a fair amount of noise for this relatively low ISO setting, with the other three cameras staying close to where they were one stop earlier. At ISO 400 noise levels continue to rise, with noise reduction starting to eat away at fine details on the Kodak. You can shoot RAW on that camera and, as the crops show, get better results. All four cameras are noisy at ISO 800, though you may be able to use the Olympus and Kodak shots if you do some post-processing (and shoot RAW for the former, as well). As for ISO 1600, forget about it -- it's not usable. Some of the cameras can go even higher, but there's no point in even showing you how bad the photos look.
Here's my overall assessment of the image quality on the four Super Zooms:
Exposure: I have no major complaints about the Kodak, Olympus, or Pentax in this area. The Nikon tended to overexpose by about a third of a stop, though that's easy enough to deal with. Like all compact cameras, the four Super Zooms clipped highlights at times, especially in our purple fringing torture tunnel.
Color: The Nikon produced the most satisfying color of all the cameras. Kodak cameras always have oversaturated color, and that's the case here as well. The Pentax X70 was fine, and I found the Olympus color to be a bit dull.
Sharpness/detail: The sharpest photos are undoubtedly produced by the EasyShare Z980. That said, they also show visible noise, even at the lowest ISO. The Pentax is next in line, followed by the Nikon. Straight out of the camera, the Olympus SP-590's photos are slightly soft. High Megapixel cameras like these all have heavy noise reduction, and the Nikon and Kodak are the worst offenders in that regard. Our church interior shot wasn't great on any of the cameras, though I think the Coolpix P90 had the best color and most detail.
Lens stuff: The cameras that share the same lens (Kodak, Nikon, and Pentax) all had issues with corner blurriness at wide-angle. The Olympus did better in this regard. I saw slight vignetting on all of the cameras, but it wasn't enough to concern me. Big zoom cameras usually have purple fringing problems, but that wasn't the case here.
Alright, enough talking! Check out the photo galleries to see how each camera's photos look with your own eyes!
I can't think of a better way to tell you about the movie modes on the four Super Zooms than show you yet another comparison chart!
Based on that table, the Kodak sounds pretty darn good (aside from the lack of image stabilization). As you'll see in the sample video below however, its video quality is unimpressive. Use the tabs below to see the samples from the various cameras. I will be reshooting at least two of the videos in the days ahead.
|While the Z980's movie mode sounds good on paper, it's quality is mediocre at best.|
Click to play video (1280 x 720, 30 fps, 17.3 MB, QuickTime format)
|The Coolpix P90 has good quality video, but it suffers from the same A/V sync bug that has plagued Nikon's compact cameras for years now -- the sound cuts out early.|
Click to play video (640 x 480, 30 fps, 13.9 MB, AVI format)
|The SP-590's VGA-sized movies are pretty average in terms of quality.|
Click to play video (640 x 480, 30 fps, 16.9 MB, AVI format)
|The Pentax X70 records choppy 15 fps video at its top resolution of 1280 x 720. The resolution may qualify as high definition, but the quality and frame rate are disappointing.|
Click to play video (1280 x 720, 15 fps, 10.3 MB, AVI format)
All four of the Super Zooms in this test share the same basic features. They include slideshows, DPOF print marking, image protection, thumbnail view, and zoom and scroll (playback zoom). I did want to point out that this last feature was especially sluggish on the Pentax X70. All of the cameras except for the Kodak can rotate, resize, and crop images.
So what interesting playback features does each camera have in playback mode? I'll tell you:
- EasyShare Z980: Easy image tagging, slideshows with music/transitions, PerfectTouch image enhancement, RAW image editing, movie editing, image undelete
- Coolpix P90: Quick retouch, D-Lighting
- SP-590: Perfect Fix, Beauty Fix, color edit, calendar creator, face focus
- X70: Filter effects, virtual picture frames, movie editing, redeye removal, image undelete
The EasyShare Z980's PerfectTouch feature brightens up photos and improves their colors. It's automatically applied when you shoot in Smart Capture (Auto) mode, but you can use it here in playback mode as well. The Z980 can also edit the RAW images its capable of producing. You can change the image size and quality, the exposure compensation, color mode, sharpness, and white balance. The resulting image is saved as as JPEG.
The Coolpix P90 is fairly light on playback mode extras. You can quickly improve image quality using the "Quick Retouch" feature, or brighten shadows using D-Lighting.
On the other hand, the Olympus SP-590 is loaded with extra stuff. The Perfect Fix feature can brighten shadows, remove redeye, or both. The somewhat silly Beauty Fix feature can remove skin blemishes, make eyes larger, and even make them sparkle. A "face focus" option blurs the rest of the image, except for the face. The color edit feature lets you quickly turn a photo into black & white or sepia, or increase the color saturation. Finally, there's a tool that lets you create calendars using photos you've taken.
The Pentax X70 also has quite a few features, including virtual color filters and a handy image undelete function (which the Kodak has, as well).
All four of the cameras move through images instantly in playback mode. They can all display shooting information and histograms, as well, though you'll have to go through the menu on the Kodak to see that.