some updates 2017
IntroBridge cameras are fun, but do they really have a future? Is there any way they can be improved?
Could a bridge camera ever meet the performance of a DSLR?
And finally, the $64,000 question: how can bridge cameras hold out against smartphones?
These are some of the questions we'll look at (and hopefully answer) in this article.
See also: Bridge Camera Comparison (2014) / Original Bridge Cameras article
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In This ArticleWhy Bridge Cameras?
The Market Now
The Market Tomorrow
Choosing a Bridge Camera
Why Bridge Cameras?Or, today the question might be "Why Not Smartphones?"
A number of pro photographers are very happy with the image quality of their phones, yet at the same time they regard bridge cameras to be little more than amusing toys.
Actually the sensor size is comparable.
In fact, some smartphones have even smaller sensors than bridge cameras do. The Apple iPhone 6 Plus is a case-in-point; its 1/3" sensor is considerably smaller than the 1/2.3" sensor that's in almost every bridge camera.
Many people find the smartphone to be all the camera they need. Nothing wrong with that, but of course some people want a camera that handles like a camera and has the full feature set. (And then there's that sensor difference again. )
Quite simply, the bridge camera cannot be replaced by anything else, not even a smartphone.
Smartphones and bridge cameras are two very different tools. You can't zoom optically to 1200mm on your smartphone, but then again, I can't listen to MP3's on my bridge camera.
Now, what about bridge cameras vs. DSLR's?
The bridge camera or "superzoom" has smaller pixels than a DSLR. Photos taken with bridge cameras may have very high acutance (apparent sharpness), but the detail fineness is potentially better on a DSLR. However, the bridge camera has something the DSLR doesn't. That is, a large range of focal lengths in a self-contained camera. The better bridge cameras have a max focal length much higher than would be practical on a DSLR.
A stand-alone 1200mm lens would be prohibitively expensive for the average enthusiast, but you can zoom to 1200mm equivalent on some bridge cameras. And the image quality is actually pretty good.
Bridge cameras also tend to have special features to make them stand out from other cameras. For example, the Canon SX50 has user-programmable Custom banks, like Canon's pro-level DSLR's. The top-end Rebel DSLR's don't even have those.
Hiker TrailCanon SX50 HS
f/5.6 @ 1/30th
Oh, and when you're visiting the Grand Canyon or something with your family, a bridge camera will invite fewer impatient glances than would happen with a full DSLR kit. You can count on that one. All your focal lengths are already on the camera, no fumbling required.
And you don't need a pack mule, either.
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Even a small step-up in sensor size would theoretically give better low-light performance. There would also be lower diffraction-losses, meaning that detail would be sharper.
Unfortunately, there are two things in the way of larger sensors:
1. Physics. A larger sensor means you'll need a larger, heavier, more expensive lens to accomplish the same zoom range. This is why you don't see a bridge camera with an APS-C sensor and a 1200mm zoom range. Such a thing could be made, I guess, but not many people would be able to afford it. And probably, few would want to lug it around.
Unless you want to spend almost twice the money for 600mm equivalent, the Panasonic FZ1000 offers the best you're going to get in a large-sensor bridge camera: 400mm zoom equivalent. To me, that's not even really "superzoom" territory anymore. (That I would place somewhere around 500 to 600mm.) I say this because you can actually surpass the FZ1000's 400mm zoom equivalent by getting a refurbished Nikon D3200 body and this lens. That gives about a 450mm zoom equivalent, and you'll be shooting with a comparatively huge sensor.
If the FZ1000 were $499 new, then I might recommend it over that D3200 combo. But at $700+, not so much.
That brings us to the next problem:
2. Camera company pricing structures. It wouldn't be that difficult to make a bridge camera with a 1/1.7" sensor, because 1/1.7 is not that much larger than 1/2.3. Canon, Nikon, or Panasonic could easily do this with stellar results. They probably won't, unless some competitor does it first. The 1/1.7 sensor is firmly in their premium-priced territory. In fact, anything larger than 1/2.3 seems to command a premium price, unless you buy a DSLR.
For example, the Canon G16 is a nice camera, but at four to five hundred bucks, that's no steal. To me, that should be a $200 camera. Its zoom range is very limited, even when compared to much cheaper zooms elsewhere in the Canon lineup. I would like to have a Canon G16, but even a cheap Rebel is way more camera for the money.
Fujifilm makes the X-S1 with a 2/3 inch sensor, but image quality is no better than the 1/2.3 sensor models from Canon and Panasonic. This proved to be one of the major issues with the X-S1: for having so much larger a sensor, it somehow managed to give worse detail quality than those other cameras do.
Fujifilm is a great camera maker, but it just proves that Canon and Panasonic are really on top of their game with 1/2.3 sensors. From what I've seen, the X-S1 isn't even as good as the second-tier bridge cameras with 1/2.3 sensors.
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The Market Now
Superzooms have had about the same imaging capability for several years; not much has changed.
They are self-contained zoom cameras. Most of them have built-in viewfinders. (I wouldn't consider something a real "bridge camera" unless it has a viewfinder). Nearly all of them have 1/2.3" sensors. The best ones hover at about 12 megapixels.
As 4K video starts to take over, you'll probably find that 12 megapixels is the best resolution for that, as well. (I'm talking about the 1/2.3 form factor again.)
To underscore a point made elsewhere on this site, you'll probably find that Canon and Panasonic have the most capable bridge cameras in terms of image quality.
As of summer 2015, Canon makes the SX50 HS and SX60 HS. Panasonic has the FZ70 and the FZ200. As of September 2015, Panasonic also started selling the new FZ300K (order yours through this link and help keep my site on-line. Thank you!).
There are several other bridge cameras from the other companies.
Let's take a closer look at what's on the market, as we're already halfway to 2016.
The Canon SX60Following the success of their SX50 HS, Canon had a tall order to fill. When they released the SX60, they offered what they probably think camera buyers want: more megapixels.
The SX60 is by all accounts not a bad camera; its image quality is still ahead of many competitors in the bridge camera category.
Unfortunately, the SX60 is widely acknowledged to have lower image quality than the SX50. If I had to assign a number-- something that's really tough to do-- I'd say the images look about 10% lower in sharpness and detail quality.
I don't want to say the SX60 was a flop, but as a bridge camera enthusiast, I haven't even bothered to review the SX60. I'm not saying I never would, but I'd rather wait to see Canon make an SX70 HS superzoom. Either that, or just keep selling the SX50 forever.
To do an SX70 right, that would probably mean staying at 12 megapixels. That's really all you need for a bridge camera. It was never meant for making wall-sized enlargements, or photographing stuff at night without a tripod.
I'm glad the folks at Canon had the sense to keep making the SX50. Aside from its not-so-great EVF, the SX50 may well be the "best bridge camera of all time". At the very least, it is tied for that distinction. Read my review of the SX50, or check out some photos.
The Panasonic FZ300By limiting the new FZ300K to about 12 megapixels, Panasonic didn't make the same mistake Canon did with the SX60.
Small-sensor bridge cameras have hit a resolution plateau, but that's quite alright. Barring some incredible new technology in sensor design, there are not going to be any major improvements in resolution or IQ here.
Individual pixels are already tiny at 12 MP. Thanks to diffraction, the resolution actually degrades when the pixels are any smaller. You can offset this to a limited extent with some fancy designs and special processing, but it's an uphill battle.
The FZ300, then, is sort of like an FZ200 with 4K video. The FZ300 also has improved AF, and it's dust- and splash-proof. To top it off, the EVF has been improved considerably. The FZ200 has about a 1.3M-dot finder, while the FZ300 has a 1.4M-dot finder. The real improvement is the magnification, which is now 0.7x. On the FZ200 it was 0.46x, and I remember noticing it was a bit cramped. Not terrible, but there was room for improvement.
If the contest came down to the SX60 versus the FZ300, I'd absolutely go for the FZ300.
As it is, the FZ70 and the FZ200 are in my opinion better cameras than the SX60. (And for what you get, I think the SX60 is a little too expensive.)
The small sensor of a bridge camera leaves almost no margin for error. There's no slop factor. Make one design mistake, one poor implementation of something, and the image quality degrades quickly.
The other players in the bridge camera market-- Olympus, Samsung, Sony, etc-- have some good things to offer, but they all lag behind Canon and Panasonic in the image quality department. (Possible exception: Fujifilm. Keep reading.)
Sony with the HX400 is not terribly far behind; they also have the distinction of cramming about 20 megapixels onto that tiny sensor without the catastrophic loss of detail that would probably have happened to anyone else.
Sony's been at the sensor-manufacturing game for a while.
There are readers who would say that the Sony is actually the best bridge camera on the market; the image quality is good enough that I can at least see where they're coming from.
The main gripe: the camera has to do some serious processing to render fine detail. Basically, it's trying to compensate for diffraction losses. The details start to look a bit more artificial. That said, you might not notice, as long as you're not zooming in to 200% on your computer screen. The detail artifacts are not going to be visible at Web JPG resolutions, or at small enlargements (8x10).
If you need 20 megapixels with GPS and Wi-Fi... it's Sony.
The Finepix S1, introduced in 2014, is a pretty darned good camera.
A reader reminds me that I should have also mentioned the HS50EXR, also from Fujifilm. I actually was going to do that, but I mistakenly thought they weren't making that camera anymore (was looking on the wrong place on Fujifilm's website.) In fact, it's the SL1000 which was discontinued. (Update 2017: looks like they discontinued the HS50EXR, too.)
Fujifilm had introduced the SL1000 alongside the HS50EXR in 2013. I guess Fuji decided they had too many confusing bridge camera models or something.
The HS50 EXR is still being made. It's a major competitor to the SX50, FZ70, etc. In the original Bridge Cameras article, the HS50EXR figured prominently. And in 2015-2016, the HS50EXR is still a strong choice. A reader reminds me that there's a large base of enthusiasts for the HS50EXR.
Leaves. Bokeh. Happy.
Aperture probably f/2.8
Why didn't I give Nikon much space here?
Maybe it has to do with my years-long aversion to Nikon bridge cameras. One of these days I'll buy a Nikon superzoom and break the spell.
Actually, many (or most?) Nikon bridge cameras lack a flash hotshoe. I use that feature very often.
Aside from that, Nikon has always had great image quality. They're Nikon, after all.
If I were going to buy a Nikon, readers tell me the Coolpix P900 is great. With Wi-Fi, NFC, and a whopping 83x optical zoom, the P900 has some impressive specs if you're looking for the latest technology in bridge cameras. At nearly $1,000 new, though, it would make more sense to buy a good upper-mid-range DSLR first, if you don't have one already.
Then again... 83x optical zoom?? Is that even possible?
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The Market Tomorrow
Many of us have been conditioned to think that "progress" always leads somewhere better than here.
That's not necessarily the case. There is no inherent law of nature that guarantees that. Profitability is the main thing that drives new technology; everything else is incidental. (This is why electronics companies can't even seem to make a proper radio anymore.)
With compact digital cameras, a number of people are starting to find out the newer models can be disappointing.
Unless there's some amazing new invention, 1/2.3 sensors are about as good as they'll ever get. It may well be that the height of bridge camera technology was in 2012-'13: about ten years after Fujifilm introduced their great S7000.
There is still room for stuff like better EVF's, better autofocus, and that sort of thing. And of course, the companies are always trying to figure out ways to increase the zoom range. That old S7000 would not even be a "superzoom" by today's standards.
It's possible that larger-sensor smartphones will draw away some bridge camera users. Don't count on that being permanent, though. Even as a full-frame digital shooter, there are many situations where I really would prefer to carry a bridge camera. Even when a larger sensor is available in something else.
The market for smartphones will also begin to saturate eventually, just as the market for tablets already pretty much has. And many of those buyers will realize there's an advantage to having a specialized camera-only device.
Often I see professionals in various fields with smartphone selfies on their business cards, websites, or stationery. They thought they could save a few bucks with some DIY photography. It's a false sense of economy. Even a "toy" bridge camera in the hands of a skilled photographer could have made them look better.
There are many reasons why tomorrow's market should still offer bridge cameras.
They are more fun than just about any other digital camera in existence, and they make pretty nice pictures, too.
ISO 1600 Test Photo
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Choosing a Bridge CameraThe peak of image quality has already been
attained in a 1/2.3" sensor. Beyond that, it's a contest of
features, control layouts, and overall handling.
Even there, a certain handful of cameras will be tough to beat:
Still The Winners!
- Canon SX50 HS
- Panasonic FZ70
- Panasonic FZ200
Probably Also Going To Be Awesome:
- Panasonic FZ300
- Canon SX60 HS
- Sony HX400
- Fujifilm Finepix S1
- Fujifjilm HS50EXR
When something works well, there's no reason to move on to some other technology. The refinements you'll probably see in bridge cameras will be more about better viewfinders and 4K video, rather than squeezing any more resolution out of the tiny sensors.
And that's OK by me.
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