April 12, 2023

Don’t buy a bridge camera

A bridge camera isn’t the best way to start your photography journey. Don’t listen to the guy in the electronics department.

I see lots of new photographers who come on my Switch to Manual workshops. I have run over 700 of these sessions, so I have seen cameras of all shapes and sizes. Some people turn up with the latest mirrorless cameras, some with older DSLR’s and quite a few have bridge cameras. I always feel slightly sad when someone has the latter type of camera because the story is always the same. They have walked into (usually) a department store electronics department and asked for a simple camera to help them take better pictures than their phones. The person walking the floor who also sells laptops, televisions, sound systems and fitness watches points them toward the bridge cameras and sells the benefits.

Bridge cameras are light and have a huge zoom range from wide angles for landscape shots to super-zooms for when you are on safari and want to shoot lions in the distance. They also have lots of pre-sets, so if you want to take a portrait, there’s a setting for that; a flower shot has a setting, too, as does a speeding motor car. Just twist the dial, and the camera does it for you. Those things are all theoretically true. However, as many of my workshop attendees have discovered, the reality is slightly further from the truth. Read on to find out why you shouldn’t buy a bridge camera.

The problem with an ultra-zoom

The most obvious thing about a bridge camera is that you can’t change the lens. It is permanently attached to the camera body, so manufacturers often add a lens that can cover a vast focal distance. It’s not unusual to see the zoom have a 60x magnification from the widest angle to the longest.  While this seems like a good thing and means not carting around huge lenses, there are hidden issues that Mr Generic Electronics guy either didn’t tell you or, more likely, didn’t know.

A feature of the super-zoom lenses is that as you extend the zoom to take those lions in the African savannah, the lens physically extends. This becomes an issue if you want to shoot with a wide-open aperture. At the widest angle of a bridge camera’s zoom, you are likely to be able to use an aperture of f/2.8. Because the lens extends physically, if you continued to shoot with the same size of hole, then you would start to see the inside of the lens. The way camera manufacturers prevent this is to make the biggest aperture at the longest zoom much smaller. For example, the Panasonic FZ82 only has an aperture range available at the longest end of the zoom from f/5.9 to f/8 – less than one stop of a difference and hardly makes any difference to your photographs.

If you use a low-price version of a DSLR long zoom, say a 70-300mm lens, the aperture range will typically be from around f/6.3 to f/22. While I don’t recommend using the smallest apertures beyond f/16, as the lens starts to diffract light and affects the image quality, we still have nearly three stops of light difference at f/16 or four stops at f/22. Much more usable.

Beware of digital zooms

One of the ways that camera manufacturers make it appear that they have longer zooms than they actually offer is to use something called digital zoom. The ‘normal’ zoom uses the glass optics in the lens to show less of the subject and make the visible elements appear bigger. This is known as optical zoom.

At some point, some bridge camera lenses will switch from optical zoom to digital zoom. From that point, the glass optics can no longer zoom any further and instead, the camera gives the appearance of zooming by cropping the centre of the image and then re-sizing it to fill the same-sized frame. Whilst this does give the appearance of a longer zoom, it also affects the quality of the image and not in a good way.

They never talk about sensors

Another difference in a bridge camera is a little less obvious. The sensor size inside a bridge camera is very small. The smaller the sensor is, the less pixel definition we will see in our images. The result is that when you look closely at an image taken on a bridge camera, the quality will appear pixelated. You’ll probably not see it too much on the back of the camera. When you transfer the photo to the computer to edit, you will definitely notice the poor quality of the photo.

Let’s combine this knowledge with what we now know about digital zooms. Combining a poor-quality sensor with the cropping and resizing of an image to give the appearance of a long zoom will only lead to one result. Bad-quality photos that make that majestic lion on a savannah now appear like something made in Minecraft!

But pre-sets make things easier

Theoretically, having a setting that takes a picture in a style we want may be a good thing. The problem with a pre-set is that the camera assumes a certain amount of knowledge. An example of this is the ‘flower setting’ we see on many bridge cameras. I know from experience that the expectation is that the flower will be pin-sharp and the background will be blurry. In most cases, this isn’t what the setting actually delivers. Why is this?

The camera will be using (or misusing) one of my favourite photography myths. The aperture will be set to something like f/2.8, and as the manual states, the lower the f-number is, the blurrier the background will be. Well, kind of. Other things influence the depth of field and not just the aperture. The distance from the subject and the amount of zoom also impact the image we get from the camera. Even if you have the widest aperture at f/2.8 set but standing 4 meters away from the flower, everything will still be sharp. You’ll only get that blurry background effect by standing nice and close and zooming in as much as possible.

It’s much easier to understand the principles of photography by attending a session like Switch to Manual than relying on your camera to give you half the answer without any additional guidance.

What do you recommend instead of a bridge camera?

I’m going to hate myself for the first piece of advice. You probably already have a camera with as much capability as a bridge camera—your mobile phone. If you don’t want to learn how to use a ‘proper’ camera, a phone made in the last 2 or 3 years will have as much capability as a bridge camera you’ll buy at your local camera store. Look at when the big manufacturers last brought out a bridge camera. The latest Canon bridge camera is the PowerShot SX70 HS – it came out in November 2018. Nikon’s Coolpix 950P came out in the Spring of 2020. The last Sony bridge camera was released in 2014. When camera manufacturers stop making new models, you know they realise the market is dead. Why buy something that is old stock and is no longer being invested in?

The other alternative is to think about buying a DSLR or mirrorless camera. Yes, it may be a little more expensive. It will be a bit heavier. It probably won’t have the equivalent zooms. However, you get a better sensor, more flexibility to add different lenses suited to what you need and, most importantly, better-quality photographs. Spend some money on training to use your new camera, and you’ll soon be taking the pictures you want.

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About the author

As well as running Edinburgh Photography Workshop, Rich Dyson is a professional photographer. His photographs are regularly used in newspapers such as The Times, Guardian and Daily Telegraph. He also had two solo exhibitions and was featured in a members-sponsored exhibition in the Scottish Parliament. You can see and buy his photography at richdysonphotography.com.