Bridge Camera…what’s in a name?
Bridge cameras are cameras which fill the niche between the single-lens reflex cameras (SLRs) and the Point-and-shoot camera. And hence the name… “bridge”, as they ‘bridge' the gap between DSLRs and compact cameras in some respects, offering a longer zoom range than traditional compact cameras. They are also often referred to as superzooms. Bridge camera is the perfect answer to those aspiring photographers who are stuck between choosing a DSLR and a compact camera. A stalwart of the digital photography industry for the past decade, the bridge camera forms a bridge between a compact point-and-shoot camera and a full-blown DSLR. It typically features some, but not all, of the manual settings and even physical controls that one would expect to find on an entry-level DSLR, including occasional command dials and chunky shooting mode wheels. But it retains some of the accessibility and user friendliness of a snapshot camera, plus the lens can't be removed or swapped. Unsurprisingly, its design has aspects of the two types of camera, although the overall look and handling of a bridge camera tends to suggest what we'd term a DSLR 'lite'. Nearly every traditional camera manufacturer and electronics giant has a bridge model in its current range.
Features that makes it a bridge camera…
Like other cameras, most current bridge cameras are digital. These cameras typically feature full manual controls over shutter speed, aperture, ISO, white balance and metering. Generally, their feature sets are similar to consumer DSLRs, except for a smaller range of ISO sensitivity because of their typically smaller image sensor (a DSLR has a 35mm, APS, or 4/3 size CCD or CMOS). Many bridge cameras have long zoom lenses, so the term "bridge camera" is often used interchangeably with "megazoom", "superzoom", or "ultrazoom”. Since bridge models slot inbetween digital compacts and DSLRs by offering the finer points of both genres, this makes them ideal for photographers who like the simplicity of a compact camera, although occasionally find it rather restrictive in terms of lens range and picture taking features, but don't want to make the leap to a full-blown DSLR. The models in this category, then, offer a 'bridge' between the two camps. Clever, eh?! In most cases, a bridge camera also represents the middle ground in terms of physical size and handling ergonomics. Whereas a compact is largely about sleekness and pocketability, a bridge camera is typically a more sculptured affair with a chunky handgrip, sizeable rear LCD and large buttons that make function setting easier. While you could never describe a bridge camera as large, you'll certainly need to trade up a size or two in bags if you're currently a compact user. Lenses on bridge cameras are fixed, but offer a whopping zoom range, so it's unlikely that you'll be left wanting when it comes to taking pictures. A typical zoom range will enable you to tackle everything from landscapes at the wide-angle end through to tame wildlife and sporting action at the telephoto end. They also focus reasonably close, so you'll be able to tackle some macro shots too. While having a fixed lens may be seen by some as a disadvantage (if you do, a DSLR is more your bag), it does mean that you'll never have any problems with dust getting on to the sensor and spoiling your shots. When it comes to features, you'll find that most bridge camera have a foot firmly in the DSLR camp. While they offer the point-and-shoot simplicity of compacts, should you require it, they also have a DSLR-style set of exposure modes, metering patterns and file formats. Buying a bridge camera certainly won't prevent you from shooting using manual exposure, spot metering and the Raw file format should you so desire, such functions just maybe a little more hidden than they would be on a standard DSLR. Similarly, megapixel counts are also more likely to be in double figures, although they're not directly comparable to a DSLR as the sensors are smaller and so won't necessarily deliver the same results. In most cases, then, a bridge camera can really be viewed as a DSLR with a lens that you can't change and, as such, are a very appealing proposition. Be warned, though, if you really enjoy using your bridge camera and get more involved in your picture taking there will be a time when you'll want to make the leap to a DSLR – this photography lark can be highly addictive!
How does a bridge camera work?
Bridge cameras work in much the same as any other digital camera that doesn't use a DSLR-style mirror box mechanism. That's because bridge cameras have been developed as digital cameras from the get go - not as adaptations of existing 35mm film camera bodies, like the early DSLRs. Even now, DSLRs owe a lot of their handling and performance to analogue SLRs. While not a professional tool, the bigger piece of glass when compared to the lens on your average pocket camera does arguably provide better quality images from a bridge camera, even if the sensor inside is just as small as your standard point and shooter. So it won't replace that DSLR just yet. Like any other dedicated digital camera costing £100 and up, the hub of the bridge camera is a large LCD screen around the back with continuous live view. Depending on the model, it may even be angle-adjustable. This enables formerly tricky low or high-angle shots to be taken, and helps improve visibility by angling the screen away from direct sunlight. Indeed, bridge cameras were the first to introduce a tilting and swivelling rear monitor, which has over the past two years begun to also feature on CSCs and full DSLRs. In addition to this screen, on a typical bridge camera there will also be a separate, smaller viewfinder, more recently an electronic viewfinder (EVF), offering a 100% field of view, like the screen. This eye-level finder is another core bridge camera feature that is steadily finding its way into higher-end compact system cameras around the £1,000 mark (Nikon V1, Panasonic GH2, Sony NEX-7). But it's worth noting that bridge cameras got there first, acting as a test ground for all this new technology. Aside from that whopper of a lens, a built-in viewfinder is another way a bridge camera now distinguishes itself from your typical pocket point and shoot. Because of the longer focal range of the zoom lenses on bridge cameras, built-in image stabilisation (IS) - usually optical or sensor-shift rather than the software-enhanced cheat of digital IS - is a must to aid handheld shooting at anywhere near maximum telephoto setting without blur. Gyro motors prompt the sensor to move to counterbalance any external motion. Such a camera providing all the lens power most casual photographers will ever need sounds alluring. Not everybody wants to have to buy a shed-load of lenses and accessories to get a wide variety of picture-taking options. The all-in-one ethos of the bridge camera has been further extended in the high-definition era, with most now offering Full HD video capture at cinematic frame rates of 24fps, 25fps or 30fps. Capture commences with the press of a dedicated record button on the backplate or top plate, no matter which other stills shooting mode has been selected on the typically chunky top dial. The larger body proportions than your average point and shoot also offer more room for stereo microphones, typically placed either side of the lens barrel or directly above. More expensive models offer a vacant hotshoe for the attachment of accessories, including auxiliary flash. While all bridge cameras enable the use of removable media - SD, SDHC and SDXC cards - some Olympus models also feature integral memory capacity. This has largely died out elsewhere in the market now that affordable removable media is sold in supermarkets.
The “market” and reception of bridge cameras?
The market for bridge cameras is gradually being squeezed from both ends of the range. Inexpensive DSLRs often overlap with bridge cameras, and manufacturers give priority to DSLRs since they can enjoy further profits from the sale of aftermarket lenses and accessories. Compact cameras are also released with advanced functionality and large zoom ranges, features that could previously only be found in bridge cameras. However, compacts generally rely on automation and the menu system, lacking the multiple dials, rings, pushbuttons or other direct controls that allow efficient manual operations for users who study their bridge camera. Third-party manuals are available for particular popular models, as they are for DSLRs, but they are scarce for classic compacts. A recent category is the mirrorless interchangeable lens camera, which features a large sensor and an interchangeable lens, but no mirror. These occupy a niche at the top end of the bridge camera range, and in many respects (such as live view or electronic viewfinder only) are similar to smaller ones. They differ in that the larger sensor provides advantages (as noted above), but makes super-zoom lenses more difficult, hence the interchangeable lens.
Guiding a buyer: As we wrote earlier, a bridge is a bit like a compact camera disguised as an SLR. They have the same bulky lenses, chunky grip handles and, more often than not, electronic viewfinders. The main advantage of a bridge is usually its lens, as these can be faster and more powerful at zooming than regular compact camera lenses. As bridges are technically similar to compact cameras, you should use the same basic criteria to pick a model. The only difference is that there's no such thing as a good entry-level bridge—a good lens with a wide focal range never comes cheap. Here are a few things to look out for when shopping for a bridge camera:
Sensor- Look for a BSI CMOS rather than a CCD sensor, as pictures taken in low light will come out better and look less grainy. The number of Megapixels doesn't have much importance these days.
Zoom - Bridges usually have wide-angle settings of 25 mm or under and telephoto settings of 700 mm or over. A good bridge should be a versatile camera, suitable for everything from landscape photography to snapping far-off subjects. Look at the aperture too (f/)—the lower this number, the faster the lens.
Screen. The onscreen image shouldn't look black when you look at the screen from below (a common problem with TN screens) and the LCD should have a resolution of at least 460,000 dots for pictures to look sharp and precise.
Viewfinder. To be honest, these are all pretty bad. It's been a good few years since we've seen a decent electronic viewfinder in a bridge camera (it was in the Minolta A2, as it happens). -
Responsiveness. We'd love to see a bridge start up in under two seconds but unfortunately these cameras tend to be rather slow! The autofocus should work in well under a second too, otherwise you'll be hanging around waiting for the camera to catch up.
Few best bridge cameras of 2011-2012:
With a huge 30x (24-720mm) optical zoom lens, Fuji's HS20EXR superzoom is comparable to little else on the market thanks to its manual zoom control that works much like a DSLR lens. This bridge camera's 16MP EXR CMOS sensor is backed up by a sensor-shift image stabilisation system (not optical) and can capture shots from ISO 100-12,800. There's even an 8fps burst mode to reel off images, Full HD 1080p movie capture, and Raw capture that few competitors are able to offer. The HS20's price has also dropped like a bomb in recent months, so it's a steal.
Nikon's latest bridge camera, the Coolpix P500, cranks things up a gear compared to Nikon superzooms of old. It comes with a massive 36x zoom that equates to a super-wide 22.5mm through to a superzoom 810mm - great for extra wideangle shots without sacrificing the top-end zoom. The P500's 12.1MP sensor is also back-illuminated by design which means its low light performance is better than much of the competition, indeed this Coolpix's images are of top quality and only let down by the lack of an optical stabilisation system (as per the HS20 this bridge camera depends on sensor-based Vibration Reduction).
The newest superzoom to hit the shelves, Canon's latest has a long-reaching 35x zoom with a maximum focal length of 840mm. That gives it the ability to reach just that bit further than the competition, certainly an attractive prospect for a bridge camera. Although updates are limited compared to the previous SX30 IS, the Canon has got all the important things right: big zoom; optical image stabilisation and the best superzoom picture quality. The 2.7in LCD screen's even mounted on a tilt-angle bracket to allow for more unusual framing. The only thing missing here is Raw capture.
Sony's HX100V - the ‘V' stands for the Global Positioning Satellite (GPS) unit in the body - is a great superzoom camera. With a dual control to zoom the 30x (27-810mm) lens the HX100V feels different to its competitors: either use the zoom toggle around the shutter or the power zoom to the side of the lens or, at the flick of a switch, adjust manual focus instead. It's an innovative system that gives bags of user control. A variety of extra modes such as Sweep Panorama, Full HD 1080p50 movie and 3D mode further ice the cake.
Although Panasonic's best-specified bridge camera has a lesser 24x zoom than most of its competitors, it still offers a rangey 24-600mm equivalent. But where this superzoom truly excels in in the performance department: the FZ150 has far faster and more precise focusing than any of the competition and that's integral to getting the right shot. Add an exceptional optical image stabilisation and there's nothing else out there that can match up to this bridge camera's abilities. Other modes such as a super-fast 12fps burst mode can even be used in continuous autofocus and Raw shooting is available. If the shorter top-end zoom isn't an issue than look no further than the FZ150 - it's how superzooms should be.