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Three things I learned about high zoom cameras

Using the Canon PowerShot SX260 HS on a tour of England

I edit the home A/V and pro audio articles on It's a cool gig for a guy who's been seriously into audio since way before 1974. I started buying records, guitars, and gear with the money I made mowing lawns and delivering newspapers. Now the way I earn my money has changed for the better, but where it goes hasn't changed too much. Just give me the proverbial three chords and the truth. I'll do my best to help you feel it, too.

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I’ve never been a serious shutterbug, but I have owned an SLR or two. Lately, though, the only camera I’ve had at my disposal is the one in my phone. When I booked a 17-day trip to England, I knew I’d need something much better than that.

I asked our camera buyer for a recommendation, and he hooked me up with a Canon PowerShot SX 260 HS. He said the 20X optical zoom would be perfect for the kind of sightseeing I had planned. I was thrilled with the opportunity to try a pocket-size camera with that much reach. But I wondered how well the physics-defying mashup of long zoom and small camera would work.

The SX-260 does more than shoot long, of course. Its lens provides a wide-to-zoom equivalence of 25-500mm – a mind-boggling range that accommodated every type of shot I wanted to take during my travels in the U.K., from panoramic landscapes to macro shots of blossoms in the English gardens.

Using the SX-260 was so easy and so much fun that I returned to the states with over 500 photos. Along the way, I learned a few things about strengths and weaknesses of high zoom cameras. Here are my three big takeaways:

Big%20BenBig Ben from about 270 feet.

1. High zoom works wonders with distant stationary subjects

The clock faces on Big Ben are 180 feet above ground. To get the shot at right, I stood roughly 200 feet away from the tower, which (if my math is correct) put my lens about 270 feet from the subject. With the benefit of Canon’s image stabilization circuitry (but without the help of a tripod to steady the camera) I snapped a close-up that’s sharply focused and richly detailed.

The SX 260’s digital zoom extends to 80X. And I must confess that there’s something very geek-a-licious about using a small camera to reach out that far. In fact, it’s downright addictive. I took dozens of ridiculously long shots, and the novelty never wore off.

2. High zoom is also great for close-ups of not-too-distant subjects

DuckDuck, shot from across the pond, a distance of about 100 feet.

If you’ve been using your camera phone or an old point-and-shoot that doesn’t have much zoom, you’ll be pleased with the ability of the SX 260 to reach 100 feet across a pond and capture a nice close-up of a duck or catch the water beading up on the feathers of a swan. You can get close to a wild animal without scaring it off or putting yourself in danger.

I enjoyed zooming in on details of sculpture. Your naked eye can’t get close enough to fully appreciate the details of the carvings that decorate the ancient cathedrals. Display your close-up shots on a large screen when you get home, and you’ll see things you didn’t see when you were there, such as the hellhound delivering a painful bite to the neck of the gargoyle below.

From about 30 feet, I was able to catch the water beading up on the feathers of a swan.
This gargoyle is suffering from a real pain in the neck.

3. High zoom is hit-or-miss with distant moving subjects

Framing a shot of a distant moving subject is a challenge. With the lens zoomed way in, it takes a very steady hand to keep a moving bird centered on the LCD screen. The further you zoom (and the more your hand shakes), the harder the image stabilization circuit has to work. Sometimes it can’t get it together in time to get the shot you want.

GrouseI had fun pushing the camera to its limits.

The grouse in the failed shot at right scampered across a golf course between the tree branches in the foreground and the tree trunks beyond. From a long tee shot away, the camera had a hard time figuring out where to focus. It was dusk, and the fading light further complicated the challenge I posed to the circuits responsible for properly exposing, stabilizing, and sharpening the image. The opportunity was fleeting, and the moment asked too much of the SX 260. Then again, as I recall, the photographer had just tossed down a pint of bitters. Perhaps he shouldn’t blame the camera.   

I spent my final night in England in a hotel room at Heathrow Airport. As the sun set, I watched the planes rise above the terminal building and disappear into the clouds. I grabbed the camera and snapped away through the dirty hotel window. Zoom. Focus. Fire! Long live the long zoom! 

AirplanePlane departing Heathrow, shot from an airport hotel window.

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