120studio.com
June 2014



I like bridge cameras.  Sometimes they'll let you get shots like this.

The downside is that you'll miss a lot of the bursts,
maybe even wishing you brought a film camera.

By the way:  the 35mm-equivalent focal length here was 329 mm.

Background

You may have seen my Bridge Cameras article.   I also have a handy comparison page for several current (2014) bridge cameras.

This July 4th, I decided to use a bridge camera to get some shots of distant fireworks.  The shoot yielded a few good photos (like the one shown above), but it wasn't easy.   There were certain technical limitations we'll talk about in this article.

I love bridge cameras, but I also want to see you pick the best camera for your application.   If you're shopping for a camera and haven't quite decided, here's some stuff to consider.


In This Article


What Bridge Cameras Are Good For


What They're Not As Good For

Photographing The Kids

Sports Photography

Two Cameras For Almost Everything

Conclusion






What They're Good For 

I've already covered this topic pretty well in the bridge cameras article and the Canon SX50 review.  There's also the photo gallery...


SX50 Photo Gallery

Bridge cameras are great where you have plenty of light, enabling you to use low ISO settings.  If you have to use a bridge camera indoors or at night, you have two realistic alternatives. 

(A.) use a tripod and ISO 80 or 100 with a very slow shutter speed, or

(B.) use flash. 

For the Canon SX50 I would go straight for the Canon Speedlite 430EX II, because if you later buy a Canon DSLR you will be glad you have this one.  Why not just use the on-camera flash?  Well, for outdoor fill flash work it's great, but for indoors or night shots, a direct on-camera flash can look too harsh.  That's why I usually recommend just getting an external flash unit if you're serious about photography.




What They're Not As Good For

You may have seen elsewhere on this site that I'm very enthusiastic for film.  Still am.  (Here's a list of articles on the subject).  For taking pictures of fireworks, film is still the best.

Compact digital cameras, including bridge cameras, typically have three major drawbacks:

1.)  Tiny sensor means poor low-light performance

2.)  Shutter lag

3.)  Write lag  (slow write times to the memory card)

These drawbacks, combined with the fact that many bridge cameras lack "Bulb" shutter mode, ensures that you'd be better off picking something else for fireworks displays.  (Such as film.)  


How Not To Photograph Fireworks

4th of July 2014

By this time, I was so distracted with the slow write speeds that I didn't bother to make sure the camera was in focus. 

This was the grand finale, and as you can see, the bursts ran together.  That's because many point-and-shoot cameras (including bridge cams) lack a Bulb mode. If you can't open and close the shutter exactly when you want, this is what can happen.

Bridge cameras are great, but you should know their limitations before buying a camera.

Shutter lag wasn't really the issue here.  The two things that made it really difficult were the memory card lag (i.e., write delay), and lack of Bulb mode.   You'd literally miss 50% of the fireworks show, because that time was spent writing the pictures to the memory card.  During that time you cannot take another picture.  Long exposures on a bridge camera (actually, any digital camera) cause long write times.   DSLR's are designed to be somewhat faster in this respect, but bridge cameras are S-L-O-W. 

All digital cameras have slower write times when they have to do stuff like noise reduction.  You could turn off noise reduction, but with a bridge camera you're going to get some pretty noisy images if you've been using very slow shutter speeds.  Smaller sensors get noisy much faster.

Lack of bulb mode is a problem because you either miss bursts or you get too many of them, as happened during the finale.  It's possible to get good bursts (as you can see in the first photo on the page), but there are better cameras for the job.  Last time I was out photographing fireworks seriously, I shot probably four or five rolls of film, and the vast majority of shots were keepers.

When I tried the same thing on a bridge camera, I'd say only a few pictures were worth displaying.

Bulb mode would have increased the keeper ratio, but the long write times would still be problematic.

Most DSLR's have a Bulb setting;  we'll talk about these shortly.



Photographing the Kids

Fireworks are maybe once or twice a year, but if you have kids you're going to want to take pictures a lot more often.  This is where I'd seriously consider a DSLR with a fast lens. 

Even a DSLR with kit lens will give better indoor pictures than a bridge camera. 

Up to about ISO 800 you can get very usable pictures in ambient light with a bridge camera, and most of them (including the Canon) do have burst mode.  But you will sooner or later wish you could take high-quality photos at ISO 1600 and 3200.  That's not going to happen with a bridge camera, not until they start making ones with bigger sensors. 

Well, actually they already have.

Right now there's the Sony RX10 and the new Panasonic FZ1000.  If you want to stay with a bridge camera (so you don't have to carry a bunch of lenses), these are surely the most capable choices out of all the current offerings. 

Because these two cameras are fairly expensive, most buyers would probably go for a DSLR first.  Even so, there's still that "all-in-one" quality that the DSLR doesn't have... and these high-end bridge cameras have the low-light performance to go with it.  A one-inch (nominal) sensor is still not as good as what you'd get with a DSLR, but it's better in dim lighting situations than a regular bridge camera or point & shoot.

There's another alternative, if you want to stay with bridge cameras and don't want to spend as much money.  Get the Panasonic FZ200.  (See my bridge camera comparison, or get your FZ200 here).  This has a tiny sensor, but it does offer f/2.8 throughout the zoom range.  That's pretty significant.  This can give you up to two or even three stops advantage over other bridge cameras.  That means if you had to use ISO 1600 on a regular bridge camera, you could use ISO 400 on the Panasonic.  Since the images are pretty nice up through ISO 800, you may find the FZ200 will be good enough for what you need. 

In terms of performance it's still not a DSLR, though, and neither is the Sony RX10 or Panasonic FZ1000.


Sports Photography

What's a good camera for fast-action sports?

The slow write times are undesirable here, obviously.  So is slow autofocus.

For indoor sports, the small sensors don't do well at high ISO.

Bridge cameras are good for bright-daylight sports like stock car racing, at least up to a point.  Where it gets really tough is when you have fast-moving objects that are coming toward you, or almost toward you.  Mostly this limitation applies if you're rather close.  However, the depth of field at 1200mm equivalent is still rather short, even with a tiny sensor.  

If you're seated far away, though, a DSLR lens might not be enough (unless you can afford the really expensive ones).   So we're back to the need for a superzoom.

Of these, Panasonic has some of the best autofocus.    The FZ200 is a good choice because of its bright lens (f/2.8 at all focal lengths), but it doesn't have the zoom reach of the Canon SX50.   Here, it really depends on how far away you think you'll be.  If you'll be watching sports on a fully-sunlit day, a Canon SX50 or Sony HX400 will be your best bet, thanks to their longer reach than the FZ200. 

Important:  If you're going to get a Sony HX400, make sure you get the right camera.  The HX400 has a CMOS sensor, which is good.  Sony also makes a lower-quality "H400" that has a CCD sensor... avoid this one.  While some people may like it, the H400 doesn't have the image quality or build quality of the HX400.  And CCD sensors are never as good as CMOS for low-light situations.



Two Cameras For Almost Everything


If you can afford it, consider getting a cheap DSLR and a bridge camera.  With these two cameras, you will be able to cover most of the digital photography you'll ever need to do.   But as I said, if you can only get one camera, decide what you most want to do with it.  For indoor pictures of the kids opening presents and that sort of thing, go with the DSLR.

And so, here are some DSLR recommendations.   Use any of these links to get your stuff, and it helps support my website (it doesn't cost you any extra.)



DSLR Recommendations


Canon

The Camera:  I would probably get a Canon Rebel T3, an SL1, or a T3i.  The T3i does have some more advanced features such as being able to control wireless flashes.  It also has a swing-out LCD, which the other two models don't have.  The regular T3 is still a sweet camera, though (review here;  gallery here.)  If you want to do a lot of video, get the T3i because it has that flip-out LCD.

The main advantage of the SL1 is its compact size, and it also has a touchscreen.  I prefer buttons, but some people really like touchscreens.

Which one out of the bunch?  If you're really on a budget, just get the T3.   I love this camera and use it every day.  At the time I write this, the cheapest, best all-around DSLR bundle I've seen is this one.  You get a T3, an 18-55 IS II, and a 55-250 IS for less than the camera by itself cost maybe a year ago.  I can't even believe this deal.   ("IS" stands for "Image Stabilizer").  Get yourself a fast lens for it (see below) and you have an incredibly versatile camera kit for low-light.  The nice thing about the T3 is that just like any other Canon DSLR,  the camera will work just fine with Canon "L" ("luxury") lenses.   Rebel T3 with L lens is better than expensive camera with cheap lens. 

If you want the best all-around performance, including that handy flip-out LCD for video, get this T3i bundle which includes the 18-55 IS II lens and the 55-250 IS lens.


The Lenses:  The 18-55mm kit lens will cover maybe 85% of your shooting needs (depending, of course, on what you're doing).  For the rest, choose from these affordable lenses:

Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 II - a.k.a. "Plastic Fantastic".  For the price (get it here), it's hard to go wrong with this lens.  The two main drawbacks are plasticky construction and sometimes-distracting bokeh, but for the money it's the best deal out there.  An 18-55 kit lens is typically no better than f/5.0 at 50mm, so that puts the "Plastic Fantastic" at better than three stops brighter.  That's huge.  The 50mm 1.8 is also a very sharp lens.

Canon EF 40mm f/2.8 STM (get yours here) a.k.a. "The Pancake".  This is truly one of my favorite inexpensive lenses of all time.  On an APS-C DSLR it acts about like a 64mm lens would on a full-frame, meaning it's usable for portraits.  It has the best bokeh of any of the low-cost lenses I know of.  You need this lens in your kit.  Later on, if you get a full-frame DSLR such as this one, you will practically have this 40mm lens glued to the camera.  It's fantastic (but not plastic;  it has a real, metal lens mount).

Canon EF-S 55-250mm f/4.0-5.6 IS II (get it here if you don't already get one of the bundles) - this gives some serious zoom power on an APS-C camera.  The 250mm gives you a "35mm zoom equivalent" of 400mm.  That's pretty impressive, and actually that's right up there with the new generation of 1"-sensor bridge cameras.  You could even do wildlife photography with this.   (Just for reference, though, the Canon SX50 gives 1200mm but has a much smaller sensor.  Read this article for more info about sensor size and image quality).   

There are sharper lenses than the 55-250, but they're much more expensive.  At ordinary print sizes and Web resolutions, the 55-250 is plenty sharp.  The 55-250 also has image stabilization.  The only drawback is that this lens is for EF-S mount cameras, meaning it won't work on full-frame DSLR's such as this one.   At this low price, I wouldn't really count that against it, though. 

If you don't have a DSLR or any lenses and are just starting out, I'd recommend just getting this camera bundle, which includes an 18-55 and 55-250 lens.  If you want to spend even less, get this bundle instead.   Then, get either the 50mm f/1.8 or the 40mm f/2.8.

    




Nikon

Like Nikon better?  OK, that's easy.  Get the Nikon D3300 with 18-55mm kit lens.   For your fast prime lens, get the Nikkor 50mm f/1.8 G AF-S (get yours here) or the Nikkor 35mm f/1.8G AF-S DX (get it here).  On a DX camera, that 35mm lens is the same as having a 50mm lens on a full-frame camera.  That makes it a very versatile choice.  (For us 35mm film shooters, 50mm is the all-around goes-everywhere lens.)

For your zoom telephoto, get the Nikkor 55-200 f/4.5-5.6G ED IF AF-S VR (buy it here).   That's a "35mm zoom equivalent" of 300mm (Nikon DX has a crop factor of 1.5, while Canon APS-C is 1.6). 

The Nikon D5100 is still available, and it's a great camera.  Low-light performance is about the same as the D3300, but the D5100 has a couple definite advantages.  It offers much faster startup time (4x faster), auto bracketing, HDR, a flip screen, and better RAW color depth.  On the other hand, the D3300 has higher resolution and shoots video at 60 fps instead of 30.  I really like the faster start-up time, though, because when you're photographing something that changes fast (like the kids running around), you won't want to sit around waiting for a long power-up routine.  (Another reason I like the Canon T3... ultra-fast startup time, rivaled only by the expensive pro models.)

At the time I write this, you can still pick up the Nikon D5100 for not that much more than a D3300.  Right now you can still get the D5100 bundled with 18-55 VR and 55-200 VR lenses, through this link.  



    


Oh, and let's don't forget
Pentax...

You don't hear as much about their digital cameras, because Canikon get so much press today.  The Pentax K-500 is really underrated  Here's why.  Canon and Nikon don't give you custom mode slots on the dial, unless you buy their higher-end models.  That means you can't save your favorite settings and recall them quickly.  The Pentax K-500 has U1 and U2 modes ("User 1" and "User 2").  And it costs about the same as the entry- or low-mid DSLR's from Canon / Nikon.  Even better, the Pentax K-500 accepts AA batteries, so you can use Eneloop rechargeables (or, in a pinch, alkalines).   The custom modes alone could make the Pentax worth getting over any other choice.  I love Canon DSLR's, but if I were not already "into" the Canon system, I would at least consider the Pentax.

Right now you can get the Pentax K-500 bundled with an 18-55mm and a 50-200mm kit lens, through this link.  Pentax may not have quite as many lenses available as Canon / Nikon, but actually they do have a pretty good selection (50mm f/1.8 prime lens available here.)  And Pentax DSLR's have very good image quality. 

For not much more, you can get the even better Pentax K-50, which is basically the same as the K-500, except the K-50 has weather sealing and is cold-resistant.  Oh, and if you shoot landscapes much, it has an electronic level, just like the more expensive Canon and Nikon DSLR's.  

Get the Pentax K-50 bundled with 18-55mm and 50-200mm lenses through this link

Note that both the K-50 and the K-500 have their image stabilization in the camera body, which means you don't have to be constantly making sure you're buying image-stabilized lenses (the way you do with Canikon.......)  Pentax is like the underdog of DSLR's today, and as a result I think they're offering some great features that Canon and Nikon feel they don't have to.



Conclusion

Digital camera shopping involves a set of trade-offs.   In the under-$900 price bracket, you can choose low-light performance, or you can choose focal length versatility. 

That may change as more manufacturers begin to offer bridge cameras with 1" sensors, but overall, a DSLR is the best choice for low-light.

Don't take any of this to mean that I don't like the current bridge cameras.  I've been using this kind of camera for years and love it.  It's just that there is no such thing as a camera that does everything you could possibly want.   That's why there are different cameras!

Right now, you could get a Canon SX50 and a Canon Rebel T3 bundled with 18-55 and 55-250 lens for less than $1,000.  Then, the T3 is upgradeable by just fitting it with better lenses later.  This seems like the best strategy right now, at least if you don't have a huge budget. 

I hope you've found this article helpful.  Please help me out by purchasing your stuff through the links on this page.  It doesn't cost you any extra, but it helps me keep this website going.  Thanks!







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