Will this be the decade of the superzoom?

How modern cameras and better technique can make variable-aperture superzooms more useful than ever...

After years of photographers lusting after specialist zoom and prime lenses, is it time for a rethink? Sure, you can’t deny the appeal of working with glass that’s designed for exacting circumstances, the finest image quality and the widest apertures – it will always have its place – but let’s not forget the drawbacks of those lenses, too. Size and weight, limited focal range, and not least, cost.

Smaller, lighter, all-in-one lenses have never been so useful to photographers. © Matty Graham

Superzoom lenses of course are the opposite. They’re versatile, light, and – for the most part – affordable. But can a lens designed to do almost anything really deliver on its promises? Well, where once the compromises of superzooms were laid bare, modern cameras and lens design does a lot to mitigate those shortcomings. So, here are a few reasons why superzooms more relevant than ever – have a think about them next time you’re looking to buy a new lens or packing your bag for a shoot…

What is a superzoom? 

Before we get stuck in, what do we mean by a superzoom lens? For the purposes of this article, we’re talking about lenses that offer a greater zoom range than typical dedicated wide-angle, standard or telephoto models. So, while a 24-70mm or 70-200mm would be roughly a 3x zoom, and a 70-300mm close to 4x, superzooms are lenses with zoom ratings like 8x, 10x, and even more. For instance 14-140mm, 18-150mm, 18-200mm, 18-250mm, 24-200mm, 28-300mm, or even greater zoom ranges, like 18-400mm. You’ll notice that these lenses span all the way from wide angle to long telephoto, while others like 60-600mm go from short telephoto to super telephoto. They’re superzooms, too. 

Because they have such a huge range of focal lengths, these lenses also have variable maximum apertures, meaning that the maximum f/number available will get higher as you zoom in. 

With a superzoom lens you have more focal lengths to choose from, in most cases spanning wide angle all the way to long telephoto. © Kingsley Singleton

Superzooms give you choices

Here’s an easy one to start with. Having a greater range of focal lengths means you get to shoot many different types of scene or subject without changing lenses. Many pros get around this by carrying two or more bodies with different lenses attached, but with a superzoom, you’ll have it all instantly to hand. 

So, in a typical travel zoom lens like an 18-135mm or 24-200mm, you’ll be able to shoot not only scenes that suit wide-angle framing, like cramped interiors, but also target more distant subjects or parts of a scene you want to focus attention on. You can shoot portraits, and some of them give great close-ups, too. Aside from versatility, this lets you add more texture to your storytelling, gaining a blend of shooting styles that can be more interesting for the viewer. 

The Nikkor Z 24-200mm f/4-6.3 VR weighs only a little over 500g, a lot less that the combined weight of a 24-70mm and 70-200mm.

Lighter and more portable

Most of the time, all those focal lengths won’t come at a cost on your shoulders, either. For the mix of focal lengths you get in a single package you’re most likely looking at a big saving in terms of weight. For instance, a Nikkor Z 24-70mm f/2.8 S and Nikkor Z 70–200mm f/2.8 VR S together weigh well over 2kg, but a Nikkor Z 24-200mm f/4-6.3 VR lens tips the scales at around a quarter of that. Less weight across a range of focal lengths means you can travel further, climb higher and do more – or if you still want to take other lenses, pack more into you bag. 

Modern image stabilisation and high ISO performance means ‘slow’ variable aperture lenses are less of an issue for freezing motion. © Kingsley Singleton

Superzooms can be sharp, too

Typically we think of fast lenses being vital in freezing subject movement and offsetting camera shake in low light, but the latest generations of cameras can give you that without the heft of big, heavy glass. With in-body or lens-based image stabilisation, you don’t need the fast shutter speeds that wide lenses allow to beat camera shake. Five stops of image stabilisation is typical and many cameras go beyond that.

But slow shutters will still blur moving subjects even if the camera is static. That’s where  the benefit of high ISOs come in. Only a decade ago, shooting at 1600 or 3200 ISO would have led to results marred by noise, but here again modern cameras deal with this far better, so you can use higher ISOs to bump up shutter speed without worry, and freeze subject movement more easily.

Shoot in the right way and you can still get a shallow depth-of-field from your superzoom. © Kingsley Singleton

Refine your technique to mitigate aperture loss

There’s no denying that faster apertures allow more control over depth-of-field. But, as you improve your technique, you’ll find that it’s perfectly possible to get decent subject separation even at smaller apertures. To get the most blur behind the subject, just use the longest focal length you can, set the widest aperture, then focus as close as your composition allows. Have them step further from the background if possible, too. You may need to stand further from the subject than you’d like, but it’s a small price to pay for everything else superzooms provide. 

Despite the optical compromises in superzoom lenses, in-camera processing can resolve some optical defects. © Kingsley Singleton

Improved optical quality

The compromises made in lens design to achieve the versatility of a superzoom’s huge zoom range mean that image quality can suffer. You might find vignetting, reduced sharpness, and chromatic aberrations at the extremes of focal length and aperture. But most modern digital cameras now include some form of in-camera lens correction, which is often applied to Raw files, too. Basically, this means that flaws are, if not completely corrected, then disguised and mitigated. 

Carry fewer accessories 

As well as the general improvement in lightness you’ll get from carrying one superzoom rather than several larger lenses, you can carry fewer accessories. There’s no denying the ease – and savings – of only needing one size of filter, or filter holder for the creative effects you want to try. Smaller, lighter lenses mean that you won’t need such a heavyweight tripod either, and the same goes for gimbals, or other supports.