Zoom Lens and Image Stabilization
Inexpensive cameras often lack a powerful optical zoom lens, but that's changing. Among the new breed of $200-range cameras are a few pocket megazooms: compact cameras with optical zoom lenses as powerful as 10x optical zoom.
If we had to choose between a point-and-shoot camera with more optical zoom and one with higher resolution, we'd take the model with the more powerful zoom lens--it means you won't have to magnify your subject and then use software to crop the image (and discard some of the resolution as a result).
If you're buying a DSLR or a compact interchangeable-lens camera, both the zoom range and the stabilization features depend on the lens you're buying. A few DSLRs and interchangeable-lens compacts have in-body image stabilization, meaning that your images will be stabilized by in-camera mechanics regardless of which lens you attach. If your camera doesn't have in-camera stabilization features, optically stabilized lenses are available, but they're often a bit more expensive.
Fixed-lens cameras now offer zoom ratings of up to 36X. These lenses are great for nature or sports photography, but unless the camera has good image stabilization (look for a camera with optical image stabilization) or a very fast shutter, you may need a steady hand or a tripod to avoid blurry pictures at extreme telephoto lengths. You should try a camera's autofocus at full zoom: We've tested some models that were slow to focus at full zoom in low light.
Also note that not all high-zoom cameras are created equal. You know how you have to ask everyone in your group shot to gather in close to get in the shot? A wide-angle lens can solve that problem, so pay attention to the wide-angle end (lowest number) of the optical zoom range, not just the telephoto end (highest number). If you take a lot of group shots or landscape shots, the wide-angle end of the lens is even more important; it lets you capture more of the scene when you're zoomed all the way out. A good wide-angle lens starts at about 28mm or less on the wide-angle end; the lower the number, the wider-angle the lens.
Be wary of advertised zoom ratings--many vendors combine the optical zoom (which moves the lens to magnify the subject) with digital zoom, which merely captures fewer pixels and magnifies those. Optical zoom gives you all the benefit of the camera's maximum resolution, combined with the ability to focus in tight on faraway action.
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