Which camera(s)/lens to buy if you want the most extreme possible zoom factor?

Some variables for me:

Do not need ultimate quality,

Do not need video,

Do not take photos in darkness,

Do not take photos in short distances,

Do not care about weight/size,

May sacrifice image quality in favor of zoom level

I've seen some super zooms here http://snapsort.com/learn/super-zooms but I want more zoom. Please don't point me to review articles, I don't understand the jargon (don't want really) and that's why I'm asking here.


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    Out of curiosity, why do you want the most extreme zoom possible? The greater the zoom factor, the more likely you'll have optical quality issues. Zoom lenses, unlike prime lenses, must make trade-offs between optical quality and functionality...the farther you push zoom factor, the more extreme those trade-offs often have to be. If money if of no consequence, you can get some pretty amazing zoom lenses, but it will definitely cost, and it will never be ideal optical quality. – jrista Dec 29 '10 at 0:01
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    ... and just to make it clear - do you really mean zoom, or (telephoto) focal length? Many newcomers mistake the two, thinking large zoom multipliers mean long telephoto range. – ysap Dec 29 '10 at 0:24
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    Boy, I'm tempted to post this as my answer: wired.com/gadgetlab/2008/02/biggest-canon-t. But I fear the downvotes :-o. – Tom Dec 29 '10 at 2:49
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    Now I've realize it is very hard to clarify my question. I didn't knew nothing about telephoto and focal length but after reading some articles I've learned about perspective, magnification, etc. and I understand your questions. Let's say I want to "discover" subjects which are in a very long distance from myself. That's why I said I don't care too much about perspective or wide angle. As I've seen in this article digital-photography-school.com/… , telephoto zoom lens are the best choice for me – Ray Doyle Dec 29 '10 at 5:51
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    Based on your question and comment, you are not necessarily looking for a "zoom" lens. You are looking for a lens or lenses that will give you "far reach", or the ability to bring up close things that are far away. A telephoto zoom may only be telephoto at the long end, and could quite likely be very wide at the wide end. The 70-200mm lens, a popular telephoto zoom range, is a "normal" lens at the wide end, and short telephoto on the long end. It is, however, by no means the longest focal length you could get, and offers only moderate reach at 200mm. If you really want to get close: 400mm+ – jrista Dec 29 '10 at 8:02

The greatest zoom range of any camera is the Canon Powershot SX30 IS. It has a 35X optical zoom lens, equivalent to 24 to 840mm. The Olympus SP-800 reach just as far but does not start as wide. It's a simple search to find this out on Neocamera, just select the biggest value for the longest focal on the Camera Search page. This is the result which shows you both of these cameras.

You can do the same search in the Lens Search page to find out that 800mm is the maximum focal-length available among major manufacturers. If you put such a lens on a Four-Thirds body it will be equivalent to 1600mm. You can always add a tele-extender if that is still not enough for you.

EDIT: Since you may not be familiar with what focal-length is, here are the specifics: From the lenses this means you would need the Sigma 300-800 F5.6 for Four-Thirds on a camera like the Olympus E-5, basically any of these. Between the ultra-zoom and the lens+DSLR, the lens goes further but you are looking at $369 USD vs $8500+ USD.

  • Thanks, that's very clear. However I don't know how lenses match with cameras... Is there a compatibility chart out there? How do you know they will "fit/match"? – Ray Doyle Dec 29 '10 at 6:24
  • The Canon Powershot SX30 IS and Olympus SP-800 have their lenses built in, so there's no questions of compatibility for those two. – drfrogsplat Dec 29 '10 at 14:42
  • @Ray - Anything that is called an ultra-zoom has its lens built-in, so no issues there. On the other hand DSLRs use separate lenses which is why you don't see (3X or whatever zoom on their box). They match with what is called a mount. Canon lenses will fit on Canon cameras, Nikon (called Nikkor) lenses fit on Nikon, etc. It's a little more complicated than that because there are other limitations. Companies like Sigma/Tokina/Tamron make lenses in various mounts so you have to buy the right one. – Itai Dec 29 '10 at 15:43
  • @Ray - If you are on the specification page of a camera at Neocamera (say neocamera.com/camera.php?id=239) and you click on the Lens Mount link (it's light blue), then you'll get a list of all lenses that fit. You can than click on the Focal Range header to sort them by focal-length. The bigger the number, the longer the reach. – Itai Dec 29 '10 at 15:47

If you're looking for the highest focal length for the least money, I'm going to basically repeat an answer I gave just a bit ago:

A catadioptric lens utilizes a mirror in addition to glass optics, giving you high focal length (500mm, 600mm, or even higher), in a very cheap, compact, and light package. You can get an 800mm version which will work with an adapter on a micro 4/3rds camera as suggested in Itai's answer, giving you the a 1600mm focal length lens for about $275. Pair that with a $400 micro-4/3rds body (whatever is cheap today...) and there you go, for way less than 8500 USD.

  • yep my first thought when I read "maximum reach" in conjunction with "image quality not important" was mirror lens! Such a long focal length without a sighting scope would be almost unusable for most situations however, makes me wonder what the questioner has in mind! – Matt Grum Dec 29 '10 at 22:42
  • That should be <$850, not 8,500. – ysap Dec 30 '10 at 22:35
  • Not a typo. ~$675 is way less than the $8500 number given in an earlier answer, for a high-quality high-focal length setup. – mattdm Dec 30 '10 at 22:42

The smaller the camera sensor size, the higher the crop factor, and thus the higher the effective focal length. So, getting a crop-factor camera like a Micro 4/3, Nikon DX (D90/D7000), or Canon 1.6x APS-C (Digital Rebel T2i) will help.

They're also cheaper than full-frame cameras, so you can sink the extra money into a monster lens.

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