Phone makers have touted the virtues of the advanced zoom of their cameras lately. Some of them are better than others, but the hard truth is that the lenses of a tiny mobile camera just can’t reproduce zoom, even at a decent point-and-shoot. If you want real zoom, you need to upgrade to a real digital camera.
The problem is, smartphones can’t really ‘zoom in’ in the traditional sense – their tiny, thin bodies don’t have room for true zoom with moving glass to adjust the focal length. While multiple sensors can give you different focal lengths, most of the spectacular “zooms” in recent smartphones are just high megapixel sensors using digital zoom. Essentially, they use sophisticated cropping, and while some new software zooms are extremely impressive, there’s no way to beat the image quality that comes with the focus adjustments dedicated to moving glass lenses.
The good news is, even if you ditched your old Rebel for your iPhone, dedicated digital cameras have never stopped getting better. Now you can get a low-cost compact camera with a huge zoom lens, or a versatile mid-range mirrorless camera with interchangeable lenses, or break the bank with a high-end DSLR that records video and footage. incredible still images. There are tons of options out there, so let’s see the best ones.
For beginners and those on a budget: point-and-shoot superzooms
Compact cameras are generally designed to be small and easy to use, with lenses that aren’t much longer than a regular portrait lens. But there is a sub-category called “superzooms” which contains a gigantic lens for taking pictures far away while keeping the price below a dedicated body + lens combo.
Budget choice: Canon Powershot SX540 HS
This 2015 Canon model can be found for a song, and it packs an impressive 42x optical zoom. Compared to a traditional lens, it ranges from 24mm to a whopping 1200mm, fully optical. It can take 20 mega-pixel photos with a decent aperture range of 3.4 to 6.5 and shutter speeds of up to 1/2000 seconds. The camera has a built-in flash, but unfortunately you won’t get a viewfinder at this price – you’ll have to stick to the rear screen. It can record Full HD videos at 60 fps and comes with Wi-Fi to easily transfer photos to your phone or PC.
Best Budget Superzoom Camera
Improved choice: Sony CyberShot DSC-HX99
Thanks to remarkable engineering, this little Sony crams a 24-720mm optical lens in a body barely larger than a pack of cards, and still finds room for a pop-up flash and an OLED digital viewfinder. If you want video, it can shoot 4K at standard frame rate or slow it down to 120fps for HD slow motion. Despite its small size, it has removable batteries (for those long days of filming) and accommodates a standard SD card. Basically, the lens includes optical stabilization, which is what you need with a long range and a small, lightweight body.
Best Superzoom Upgrade
Switching to high power lenses: mirrorless cameras
Mirrorless cameras incorporate the image processing power and lens switching flexibility of DSLR cameras into smaller frames that do not need the complex mirror mechanism for the viewfinder. This makes bodies and lenses much smaller and easier to carry, but not as convenient as aiming and photographing them. Mirrorless cameras are a great step forward for novice photographers, and some are powerful enough that even professionals like them for traveling.
Oh, one more thing: you might notice that the zoom factors of the cameras below, expressed in millimeters, are much lower than those of the cheaper cameras above. This is because they use bigger, better lenses and larger digital sensors. The physics of optical photography means that the larger your glass, the smaller your zoom factor. So while the more powerful cameras don’t offer the same kind of insane zoom factors, the quality of the images you shoot far outweighs this drawback.
Budget choice: Sony Alpha a6000 + 55-210mm lens
Sony’s Alpha series is a bestseller. This older model doesn’t come with all of the latest features, but it’s still a fantastic, super-fast shooter compatible with a wide range of E-mount lenses, and you can still find new ones cheaply. It takes 11 frames per second – great for sports photos! – at a maximum resolution of 24 megapixels. For zoom shooters, we recommend the base Sony 55-210mm lens, which extends the range of the camera by an order of magnitude at a great price. It’s hard to find the zoom lens paired with the housing, but you can find combo packs with the kit lens (a compact 16-50mm, ideal for portraits and other close-up photos) for a mid-range combined price.
Best budget mirrorless camera
Best budget mirrorless zoom lens
Upgrade choice: Canon EOS RP + RF 24-240mm lens
If your budget can stretch, so will your options. This Canon model uses a huge full frame sensor, as seen in the best full-size DSLR cameras, while still being about half the size and weight. The 26.2-megapixel sensor can take photos at five frames per second with a maximum shutter speed of 1/4000, with ISO speeds of up to an impressive 40,000 allowing photos to be taken in much lower light. Canon uses RF lenses for its mirrorless cameras, but with a first party adapter, this camera has access to the full range of EF and EF-S lenses used on full size digital SLRs. For those specifically looking for zoom, we recommend pairing the EOS RP body with the RF-24-240mm lens. It’s a big one, but its massive reach can be used in almost any situation. Add a cheap 50mm prime lens for taking portraits and low-light photos.
Best mirrorless camera upgrade
Best upgrade mirrorless zoom lens
The Deep End: full-size digital SLRs
If you’re ready for the most powerful cameras on the market, DSLRs are still your best bet. These full-size cameras use an old-fashioned SLR camera for optical aiming, but more importantly, they are compatible with an incredible variety of lenses with decades of options from major proprietary and third-party manufacturers. If you want to get pro-level shots or just learn the basics with enough room to develop your gear with your skills, DSLRs are the way to go.
Budget choice: Canon Rebel T6i + Tamron 18-270mm lens
DSLRs can get extremely expensive, but if you’re on a budget, Canon’s Rebel series is what you want. The Rebel T6i is the basics in terms of features and controls, with a few extras like Wi-Fi capability, a flip-up LCD screen, a dedicated mic input port for video, and an HDMI output. The 24-megapixel sensor is nothing fancy for DSLRs, and it is limited to 1080p for video, but its shutter drops to 1/4000 seconds.
The kit lens for the T6i is an 18-55mm trooper, but if you want a long range without ever needing to switch, we recommend a third-party option. The Tamron 18-270mm lens offers incredible versatility at an affordable price without adding too much bulk. It also includes optical image stabilization, which you might not expect at this range.
Best budget DSLR
Best budget DSLR zoom lens
Upgrade choice: Nikon D610 + Nikkor 28-300mm lens
For a mid-range DSLR option, check out the Nikon D610. This camera is a bit more expensive than the budget option, but it is among the cheapest on the market for getting a larger, sharper full frame digital image sensor. This is important not only because of the improved image quality, but also because it gives you access to a wider choice of lenses: the smaller Nikon DX and the FX line more elaborate and of high quality. To take advantage of this, we recommend pairing the D610 body with the Nikkor FX 28-300mm lens.
This versatile zoom lens can handle almost anything on a typical shooting day, although you may want to use a prime lens for low light or portraits. The creature comfort on the body of the S610 includes a surprisingly compact layout with a secondary settings screen, a blazingly fast autofocus system, and built-in Wi-Fi for connecting to PCs or mobile devices. The only thing missing is high end video performance. They are still limited to 1080p, 60 frames per second.
Best DSLR Upgrade Camera
Best DSLR zoom lens upgrade
Money is not an object: Canon EOS 5d Mark IV + EF 70-300mm L series
For those who have an unlimited number of bank accounts and are new to full power photography, we recommend the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV. This premium full frame shooter is way more expensive than most new buyers are willing to consider. But what a body it is: it packs a 30.4 megapixel sensor, ISO levels up to 32,000 for incredible low-light shots, 4K video recording, seven frames per second (beating most DSLR options). on the market) and Wi-Fi, NFC and GPS built into the camera itself. The 5D can handle the cheaper EF-S and full-frame EF lenses, and we recommend sticking to the latter if you’re spending that much money.
There are some absolutely crazy EF lenses for professional photographers (some of them cost more than a car), but we recommend the EF 70-300mm L series to start with if you want great zooms. Pair it with a shorter zoom or primary lens if you also need to take pictures up close.
Best high-priced digital SLR
Best high-priced DSLR zoom lens
Even crazier digital SLR lenses!
If your budget allows, you can go even longer on DSLR lenses. This Tamron lens going from 150mm to 600mm is relatively inexpensive, and it is available in different mounts for cameras from Canon, Nikon and Sony. The first party options tend to be even more expensive: Sony has a 200-600mm lens for its mirrorless cameras, Canon sells a 100-400 mm for the standard EF mount, and Nikon has an 80-400mm FX lens it’s quite versatile. There are even more elaborate zoom and prime (non-mobile) lenses out there, but we’re venturing into pricing territory far beyond the reach of most people.
Note that for anything over approximately 300mm, you are going to want a monopod or a tripod for shooting. As impressive as modern stabilization systems are, they can’t do magic.
If you’re already invested in a brand of camera not listed above, like Olympus, Fujifilm, or Pentax, check out electronics stores or photography suppliers. Most of them sell glasses in competing sizes and formats.