A long lens doesn't always go hand in hand with a high price. Buy one as part of a bridge camera like the Pentax X-5, for example, and you can pick up a serious bargain. In terms of specs alone, this chunky consumer device rivals the best pro models, and yet you can get hold of one for only £180. Putting it to the test, though, reveals the cuts that have been made to make it so affordable.
The first thing you'll notice is the size of this camera's lens arrangement. At 26x it very much qualifies as a super zoom, equivalent to 22-580mm on a conventional 35mm camera. At full telephoto, the maximum aperture stands at f/5.9, which is respectable enough, but comes nowhere near to matching the f/2.8 at 24x zoom sported by the Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ200 -- which admittedly is around twice the price.
The sensor is a back-illuminated CMOS chip with an effective resolution of 16 megapixels and a maximum sensitivity of ISO 6,400. Compensation runs to +/-2EV in steps of 1/3EV.
The 3-inch LCD is articulated, but can only be tilted up and down, so while you can use it to frame otherwise tricky low-down or overhead shots you can't use it to shoot around corners. Neither can you flip it around so that it's facing forward for self portraits.
This is supplemented by an electronic viewfinder with diopter adjustment, but there's no proximity sensor, so if you want to switch from one to the other you'll have to do so manually by pressing the EVF button beside it.
All of the controls are clearly laid out, and there's a mode selector on the top plate. This doesn't sport the full range of options I'd like to see in a camera of this class however. While there's quick access to portrait, landscape and handheld night shooting scene modes there's no dedicated slot for aperture or shutter priority.
There is allowance for program and manual modes, although here you may still find the X-5 lacking. If you switch to manual mode to tweak the aperture, for example, you'll find that you can only select two settings at any zoom level. At wide angle you have the option of f/3.1 and f/9.7, and at full telephoto it's f/5.9 or f/18.5, so flexibility isn't great.
It's powered by four AA batteries, so you'd be advised to invest in a set of rechargeable cells and an external charger to save on waste and the long-term cost.
These are housed in the hand grip and contribute considerably to the weight of the camera. At least it gives you a nice chunky lump to hold on to, so it's unlikely you'll find it slipping out of your hand unexpectedly.
I performed my tests with the X-5 set to Auto mode so that it could make up its own mind about how to achieve the best results in any situation.
On the whole, the results were good with strong, realistic colours throughout and a responsive system making it easy to frame, focus on and capture the shots I was after.
The lens was sharp overall, but there was some fall-off in the level of focus when comparing the centre of the frame with the corners, both at wide angle and full telephoto. As the image below shows, the finer branches in the corners of this shot of a water tower lack some clarity as you move away from the central part of the frame. It was taken with the lens fully retracted.
Likewise, in this frame shot at 26x zoom, comparing Mercury's finger with the wings on his helmet shows the degree to which the image has been softened at the extremities.
Despite this, there was no evidence of unwanted colour fringing, which can manifest itself as a coloured halo effect along sharp contrasts if the lens doesn't manage to focus the differing wavelengths of each tone of light in sync.
Close examination of areas of flat colour do reveal some dappling where you might expect to see a smooth finish, such as the sky in the image below.
It's still visible, but less obvious if you don't zoom in post production, so it shouldn't be an issue unless you perform a considerable crop. Fortunately it doesn't have a detrimental impact on finer elements within the image, such as the blades of grass growing from the top of the tower, here. There is evidence of a vignette effect, though, with a darkening off of the corners of the frame.
The dappling seen above has manifested itself in an image shot at just ISO 100, so it's not surprising that the effect becomes stronger as the sensitivity increases. At ISO 1,600 it's particularly obvious in the background of this shot of five candles. Despite this, the icons on the wall can still be clearly made out -- as can the surface detail of the golden candle holder.
Minimum focusing distance is just 1cm, and here the X-5 puts in a particularly strong performance. The depth of field is very shallow and the parts of your subject that fall within it are razor sharp, with individual hairs on the flower below clearly captured. Beyond the subject matter, the defocused surroundings make for an attractive backdrop.
Still life test
The X-5 did an extremely competent job of the still life test when shooting under studio lighting. It kept its sensitivity down to ISO 100 and opened up the aperture to f/3.2 to produce a bright, punchy result with very clearly defined edges. The lettering on the miniature whiskey bottle was particularly clear, while the skins of the fruit and veg were realistic.
When using the available regular light in the room, however, things were less appealing, with an almost sepia tinge to the scene. There was still plenty of detail, such as the pitting in the skin of the satsumas, but because it had increased the sensitivity to ISO 800 there was also noise in the captured shot.
With assistance from the flash it was able to trim that sensitivity back to ISO 320, which naturally had a beneficial result on the level of noise. It also recovered much of the realism that was evident in the studio-lit shot where the colours were concerned. Shadows were subtle and didn't overwhelm the image, and the flash had good throw, so evenly lit the whole scene. Overall, then, a good performance.
The X-5 can shoot at 1,080p, 30fps, 720p at 60 or 30fps and 640x480 at 30fps. I chose the best of those options for my tests -- 1,920x1,080 at 30fps.
The results were impressive. It maintained an accurate balance between various light levels, and compensated very quickly for changes in the level of incoming light. This largely masked the fact that the compensation was slightly stepped.
The soundtrack was cleanly recorded and low-light performance was good. Starting the recording does lock off the optical zoom however, so you can't zoom out from your current position at all, and any zooming in you perform will only be undertaken using the digital zoom.
While this means that there's no zoom noise captured on the soundtrack it does lead to a serious degradation of the image quality and seems a terrible waste when you have such a powerful lens at your disposal.
It's easy for forgive the X-5 its shortcomings when you consider what you're getting for the money. It costs comfortably less than £200, despite having the kind of zoom that would cost several thousand pounds if bought it as a separate lens.
The images it captures are certainly up to being printed out or used online -- particularly if you're able to stick to lower sensitivities.
In that respect, then, if you're after a long zoom on a low budget, this is the camera for you. If you can afford to splash out though, the f/2.8 offered at every level of zoom by the Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ200 remains a more tempting proposition.