Red Corvette at the Drive-InCanon SX50 HS
Digital Reviews & Guides
IntroductionBridge cameras, also known as superzooms, are fun.
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 these digital 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 (that one's from back in 2014 but still useful) / Original Bridge Cameras article
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In This Article
Why Bridge Cameras?
The Market Now
The Market Tomorrow
Choosing a Bridge Camera / Superzoom
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.
That makes very little sense, because actually the sensor size is comparable.
In fact, some smartphones have even smaller sensors than bridge cameras do. The Apple iPhone 6 Plus was a case-in-point; its 1/3" sensor is considerably smaller than the 1/2.3" sensor that's in almost every bridge camera. The iPhone 8 seems to have a 1/3" sensor, or thereabouts, as well.
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
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. 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.
With that said, there is still an advantage to the FZ1000 (and FZ2500). It's self-contained; you don't have to buy lenses or carry lenses. It's ready to go.
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 (or used to make) 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; that aspect has not changed very much.
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, with higher MP counts actually decreasing image quality sometimes.
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. Sony may have the edge in the high-end (1" sensor cameras), but at a premium.
Canon was making the SX50 HS and are now making the SX60 HS. Panasonic had the FZ70 and the FZ200. More recently they started selling the FZ300K (order yours through this link and help keep my site on-line. Thank you!).
As of February 2018, Canon was still listing the SX50 HS (Yay!!!!) and the SX60HS. But now, Amazon lists the SX50 HS only in "Used". Panasonic has the FZ80 and the FZ300, similar to their excellent predecessors but with a few refinements.
So, let's take a closer look at the (mostly-current) offerings. Some of this still needs to be updated, probably, but I've tried to include only those models you can either buy brand-new, or there's still a lot of used / new-old stock around. (But like I said... Canon USA still lists the SX50 HS; still one of the best Powershot cameras, if not the best one, ever made.)
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.
But then, (A.) that might not be noticeable to you, and (B.) there might be some conditions where the pictures actually look sharper.
The SX60 could be the best camera you ever used, in your opinion. And one of these days I might review it; and maybe I'll reach exactly that same conclusion. I just haven't been in a hurry to review the SX60, maybe because the SX50 was so hard to surpass. That, and I've been so impressed with Panasonic bridge cameras (even though I have nothing to do with Panasonic and they don't pay me to say this). I'm glad to see the Canon SX60, and I'd be even happier to see what they could do with a Canon SX70.
To do an SX70 right, that would probably mean staying at 12 to 14 megapixels. And unless they have developed some incredible new processing tech, certainly no more than 16 MP (which the SX60 has right now). 12 MP is still really all you need for a small-sensor 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 for a while longer. 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 FZ300 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. (And by the way, you don't need more than about 8.8 MP for 4K video, so a 20-MP sensor would only degrade still images and do nothing for video anyway.)
The FZ300 also has improved AF, and it's dust- and splash-proof. To top it off, the EVF has been improved a bit over the FZ200. 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, here's the one I'd get.
But then, I may have become biased toward Panasonic because I've had mostly good experiences with them (except for this.)
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-- had some good things to offer, but in my opinion they all lagged behind Canon and Panasonic in the image quality department. (Possible exception: Fujifilm. But now it appears they don't make bridge cameras. Samsung and Olympus don't anymore, either; I think they had difficulty competing with the top bridge camera companies. In early 2018 those are Canon, Panasonic, Sony, and Nikon.)
Sony with the HX400 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.
When you first see the pictures, they do look better in some ways.
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. Very popular camera; just realize that it doesn't actually have 4K video. You still need to get the Panasonic for that.
The Finepix S1, introduced in 2014, is a pretty darned good camera. They're not making it now, as far as I know.
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 no longer being made, as of 2017-2018. Quality-wise, it was a major competitor to the SX50, FZ70, etc. In the original Bridge Cameras article, the HS50EXR figured prominently. A reader reminds me that there's still a large base of enthusiasts for the HS50EXR. (Look for one used, here).
Today (early 2018), Fujifilm is still making the S9900 bridge camera. I haven't tried it yet, but hope to. Looks like a good unit, and remember that Fujifilm was one of the first makers of bridge cameras. Overall I'm still far more interested in their films and film cameras, and always will be as long as they exist. But my old Fuji bridge camera was a good companion for a long time.
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. Originally these were almost $1,000 new, so it made sense to buy a good upper-mid-range DSLR first. But now, the P900 has come down in price a bit (seen them new for $570 to $600 in January 2018).
Wow: 83x optical zoom?? Is that even possible? I'm actually starting to consider one of these.
(Please help support my site-- and perhaps encourage me to do a review of the P900-- by getting yours through any of these links. Thank you in advance!)
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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 that 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.
To be sure, there's still plenty of 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.
Another thing to watch is the large-sensor bridge cameras. When the Sony RX10 debuted, it had only 200mm zoom equivalent. Then Panasonic introduced the FZ1000 with 400mm, followed by the FZ2500 with 480mm. Sony rolled out the RX10 III and RX10 IV, each with 600mm zoom equivalent.
Could they do 650mm? Maybe even 700 eventually? I don't know, but even 400mm zoom equivalent is pretty OK, given the image quality that you get from the relatively large sensor. Read a detailed review of this camera here.
Overall, bridge cameras are probably the most fun sub-category of digital. Their basic design ensures this, no matter what else happens with technology. And they let you make pretty nice pictures, too.
ISO 1600 Test Photo
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Choosing a Superzoom / Bridge Camera
The peak of image quality has probably been attained in a 1/2.3" sensor already. Beyond that, it's largely 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
Also Going To Be Awesome:
- Panasonic FZ80
- Panasonic FZ300
- Canon SX60 HS
- Sony HX400
- Fujifilm Finepix S1
- Fujifjilm HS50EXR, if you can find one
And then we have the high-end bridge cameras. In 2018 the newest models are the Panasonic FZ2500 (480mm zoom equivalent) and the Sony RX10 IV (600mm zoom equivalent). These may be the most all-around useful bridge cameras in existence now. The RX10 IV even has weather sealing.
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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. Besides, the 1" sensor bridge cameras offer a whole new avenue. Same proven design, better image quality. Win!
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