Expert Recommendation

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Best Digital Camera for Action Photos Under $500
Expert (97 Recommendations and 21 Compliments)
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January 11, 2010 Updated: January 14, 2010
Overview

Action photography is about speed and zoom, and Sony’s HX1 packs plenty of both. With one of the largest telephoto zooms on the market (20x, extending to 560mm), the HX1 is more than capable of action close-ups, and its 10fps burst mode means never having to worry about precise timing in order to get that perfect moment of action.

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My Best In Class Pick
Sony Cybershot DSC-HX1

Sony’s HX1 packs two of the most important features for action and sports photography - big zoom, and high speed. With a huge 20x zoom that stretches to 560mm, the HX1’s telephoto lens is well-suited for taking close-ups of far away action, which is often the case while taking photos from the sidelines or seats of an event.

The HX1’s key feature is its CMOS sensor, which gives it an incredibly fast capture rate - the HX1 can capture up to 10-shot bursts at 10 frames per second, nullifying one of the trickiest aspects of action photography - timing. With the HX1, you won’t have to agonize over just missing the perfect peak moment of action - just take a quick burst of shots whenever you anticipate action, and choose the right moment afterwards.

The HX1 is solid in other action areas. Shutter lag and autofocus times are some of the fastest found in an ultrazoom. High ISO on the HX1 is average - shots will be somewhat noisy and lacking in detail in low-light situations, which will make it more difficult to get quality shots indoors or in low-light.

Comparison with Casio EXILIM EX-FH20

While the HX1 offers a blazingly fast capture rate, Casio’s FH20 kicks it up by four gears - the FH20’s incredible 40fps shooting rate and unique backwards-in-time capture practically ensure that you’ll never ever miss a shot due to timing. That said, the HX1’s 10fps is no slouch either, and the HX1 has significantly better high ISO performance compared to the Casio, if you’re planning to take action photos in low-light situations.

Comparison with Canon PowerShot SX1 IS

Canon’s SX1 and Sony’s HX1 both use CMOS sensors, allowing them to achieve high capture rates - 10fps for Sony’s HX1 and 3.8fps for Canon’s SX1. Other than the high framerate, the SX1 and HX1 are fairly similar, with the same 560mm telephoto range and similar autofocus, shutter lag, and high-ISO performance.

Pros
  • +
    Big 560mm telephoto lens
  • +
    Fast 10 fps continuous shooting
  • +
    Fast autofocus
Cons
  • -
    10-frame buffer lasts just 1 second at full speed
Sony Cybershot DSC-HX1 is the Best Digital Camera for Action Photos Under $500
Where to buy
Sony Cybershot DSC-HX1
  • Best Price: $429
    Amazon See It »
Specifications
  • Zoom: 20.0x
  • Resolution: 9.1MP
  • AF Shutter Lag: 0.2 - 0.3s
  • Burst Speed: 10.0 fps
More
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Website Reviews (3 reviews)
  • Recommended at DPReview.com
  • Dave's Pick at Imaging-Resource.com
  • Rated Very Good by CNET.com

Comparing My Best In Class Pick with Other Good Choices

Product
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Sony Cybershot DSC-HX1
2
Casio EXILIM EX-FH20
3
Canon PowerShot SX1 IS
Customer Rating
Price $429.99 $1999.00 $605.57
Size (W x H x D) 4.6 x 3.4 x 3.6 in. 4.8 x 3.2 x 3.3 in 5.0 x 3.5 x 3.5 in.
Weight (without batteries) 16 oz 17 oz 20.6 oz
Max Shooting Speed (burst) 10 frames/sec 40 frames/sec (7MP) 3.8 frames/sec
Max Consecutive Burst Frames 10 frames 40 frames 14 frames
?
Min Focal Length (35 mm equivalent)
28 mm 26 mm 28 mm
?
Max Focal Length (35 mm equivalent)
560 mm 520 mm 560 mm
Optical Zoom 20.0x 20.0x 20.0x
?
Max Aperture (wide-angle)
f/2.8 f/2.8 f/2.8
?
Max Aperture (tele-photo)
f/5.2 f/4.5 f/5.7
Battery Life 390 shots 430 shots 420 shots
High ISO quality Average Poor Average
Shutter lag Superb Superb Average
Fast Action Rating Superb Good Good
2
Casio EXILIM EX-FH20

Casio’s FH20 is an exceptionally speedy camera - while most cameras top out around the 3 fps rate or so, and even the fastest professional DSLR cameras shoot at a 10fps clip, the FH20’s capture rate is an astounding 30 fps when running at a slightly reduced 8MP mode, and an even faster 40fps at 7MP. At this rate, the FH20 essentially takes photos at the same rate as video, more or less capturing every moment in an action sequence and allowing you to simply pick out the perfectly timed shot afterwards.

The FH20 features a big 20x zoom lens, stretching to 520mm, which will get take great close-ups of far-away action.

Autofocus and shutter lag performance are good, and shutter lag, in fact, is rendered almost a non-issue due to the FH20’s unique continual buffer that constantly records images. This feature allows you to save up to 39 images continually from before the shutter is pressed - so if you see a moment of action, then press the shutter a half-second late, you’ll still have gotten the shot. Combined with the 40fps continuous shooting rate, the FH20 not only nullify the timing and reflex challenges of sports photography, but actually enhance a photographer’s natural reaction capabilities.

The Achilles’ heel for the FH20 is poor high-ISO performance, which produces noisy, blotchy images in low-light situations. In any situation other than bright daylight, the FH20’s images will be nearly unusable with the amount of graininess and discoloration. However, if you plan on only using the camera for daytime events, the FH20 offers the top blend of zoom range and capture speed currently available.

Comparison with Canon PowerShot SX1 IS

While the SX1 is fast, the FH20’s capture rate abilities are simply in another league by comparison. For daylight photography, the FH20’s speed and pre-buffer capabilities give it an incredible timing advantage over the SX1 - it’s not just incredibly easy to get the shot, it’s near-impossible to miss one. However, in low-light the FH20’s advantages are quickly outweighed by its poor image quality at high-ISO, which makes it almost unusable for indoor or night photos.

Pros
  • +
    Big 520mm telephoto lens
  • +
    Incredible 40 fps continuous shooting (at 7MP)
  • +
    Pre-buffer photos before taking shot
Cons
  • -
    Poor high-ISO (low-light) quality
Casio EXILIM EX-FH20 is one of the Best Digital Cameras for Action Photos Under $500
Where to buy
Casio EXILIM EX-FH20
  • Best Price: $1999
    Amazon See It »
Specifications
  • Zoom: 20.0x
  • Resolution: 9.1MP
  • AF Shutter Lag: 0.1 - 0.8s
  • Burst Speed: 1.0 fps
More
Want More Opinions? See:
Website Reviews (1 review)
  • Rated Good by CNET.com
3
Canon PowerShot SX1 IS

The PowerShot SX1 is a variant of the SX10 ultrazoom that uses a fast CMOS sensor instead of the conventional CCD. This gives the SX1 a faster-than-average capture rate: 3.8 frames a second, with a 14 frame buffer, which works well for taking bursts and choosing the best moment afterwards. Unlike the faster 10fps or more cameras however, 3.8fps isn’t quite enough to guarantee you won’t miss the shot.

The other features of the SX1 are typical for an ultrazoom camera - 20x lens extending to 560mm. Autofocus, shutterlag, and high-ISO ability are about average.

Comparison with Pentax X70

The Pentax X70 has a speed advantage over the SX1 - 11fps vs. 3.8fps - that comes at the cost of resolution. The X70 produces only 5MP images in burst mode, and doesn’t have any continuous shooting capabilities at full resolution, making it strictly a one-shot-at-a-time camera. Overall, the SX1 is more versatile if you need higher resolution images for printing, but otherwise the X70’s higher capture rate make it a more capable camera for producing web-quality images or images for small-to-medium size prints.

One additional sticking point for the X70 is its extremely poor battery life - just 170 shots. This is on the low side, especially if you plan to cover a long sports event and utilize the burst mode frequently.

Pros
  • +
    Big 560mm telephoto lens
  • +
    3.8 fps continuous shooting
Cons
  • -
    Average high-ISO quality
Canon PowerShot SX1 IS is one of the Best Digital Cameras for Action Photos Under $500
Where to buy
Canon PowerShot SX1 IS
  • Best Price: $605
    Amazon See It »
Specifications
  • Zoom: 20.0x
  • Resolution: 10.0MP
  • AF Shutter Lag: 0.6 - 0.7s
  • Burst Speed: 3.8 fps
More
Want More Opinions? See:
Website Reviews (3 reviews)
  • Recommended at DPReview.com
  • Rated Very Good by CNET.com
4
Pentax X70

Pentax’s X70 is another solid ultrazoom camera, featuring a 24x zoom range that extends to a whopping 624mm - long enough to shoot end-to-end on a playing field or to take photos while sitting high up in bleachers far away from the actual action.

The X70’s continuous shooting mode operates at a fast 11fps, for 21 frames - good enough to cover about two seconds of action. The X70 does need to operate at a lower resolution 5MP mode, however. This puts image quality a bit lower than other cameras, though it’s still plenty of resolution for typical uses such as posting images on the web or getting small 4x6 or so prints made.

High ISO, autofocus, and shutter lag are all decent, though not spectacular on the X70. While battery life usually isn’t too important for sports photography, the X70 has an embarrassingly low life of just 170 shots, which won’t last very long if you plan on covering a long sporting event and make frequent use of the burst mode.

Pros
  • +
    Big 624mm telephoto lens
  • +
    11 fps continuous shooting (at 5MP)
Cons
  • -
    Average high-ISO quality
  • -
    Very low battery life (170 shots)
Pentax X70 is one of the Best Digital Cameras for Action Photos Under $500
Where to buy
Pentax X70
Specifications
  • Zoom: 24.0x
  • Resolution: 12.0MP
  • AF Shutter Lag: 0.7 - 1.4s
  • Burst Speed: 0.3 fps
More
Want More Opinions? See:
Website Reviews (1 review)
  • Rated Very Good by CNET.com

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