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.