That eternal question: SLR vs. bridge?

Dru is looking to buy a camera. He’s been debating between an SLR and a “bridge” camera.

Coincidentally, The gaming site, FiringSquad, did a head-to-head comparison between the 20D dSLR and the Lumix DMC-FZ30 bridge camera. I thought we were over this “Leica sparkle” crap, but other than that, it was a very interesting article.

He makes me regret missing Fleet Week last week.

For another point of view, Bill found a similar blog entry comparing the Fuji Finepix S9000 to the Canon 350D.

What Dru wants

Dru wishes there was a website that listed cameras by class from best to worst.

The basic problem for a buyer here is not that the digicams are “bad”, but that they have gotten too “good”: there is no “best” or “worst” camera in the absolute sense. In the case of compacts and ultra-compacts the difference is mostly in style, not substance.

However, I do agree that it would be nice if there were sites out there that pointed out the differences between cameras in practical terms. The specs between two cameras may be the same, but the actual differences between them in usability can be gross. Most reviews perform specification masturbation, and those that don’t are often guilty of making the camera shoot in totally contrived situations. How often a day do I shoot at a test target? And even if I did, how does an acuity test target do anything other than show the Nyquist sampling limits of the sensor (i.e. number of megapixels)? Sure, in the old days manufacturers would cut corners on the anti-aliasing but nowadays the differences between algorithms and methodology, while present, are minimal. For instance, Nikons tend to have higher acuity and have a more natural color space while Canons are less susceptable to moiré and have greater saturation. (Both differences pretty much go out the window when you shoot RAW—with small exception due to the optical anti-aliasing filter and sensor used.)

What sort of practical differences sites could mention? Well as an example in dSLRs: Canon’s philosophy is to make everything bullet-proof. Other than the dial at the top left, everything on a good Canon requires a “press and twist” action making accidental missets impossible; the Nikon philosophy is to make manual control instantly accessible. (Minolta tries to make it so that any control would feel different so that looking away from the TTL is not necessary.) When you see a Nikon reviewer review a Canon dSLR you will see them complain of the “two actions to do anything” inconvenience, while Canon reviewers will complain that Nikon favors a right-handed operation. Which one is right for you? Probably neither or somewhere in between, but if you had to choose one, you will definitely prefer one brand over the other.

Another philosophy difference: Canon focuses on engineering performance; Nikon focuses making sure the camera doesn’t get between the photographer and the picture. These philosophies create different designs. Design-compromises mean each camera is different in real terms. A Canon might have more focusing points and megapixels; a Nikon might have better metering and faster startup. Is it no wonder then that many computer engineers prefer Canon to Nikon?

Maybe that difference isn’t a biggy. Maybe it makes a difference in the shot you take. It really depends on who you are as a photographer. In fact, there are so many models out there, I don’t know the difference sometimes, even among Nikon models. (Later post.)

The bridge camera

A “bridge camera” is a camera that has an SLR-like form factor but the lens is not interchangeable. They used to have a “single-lens reflex” system (meaning a mirror so that you looked “through the lens”) but nowadays that isn’t necessarily true (you can read directly from the sensor and show it through the viewfinder much the same way a video camera does). In general they have much larger optical zoom and better low light performance (larger lens, larger sensor) than a regular point-and-shoot, but it isn’t the perfect lens for the shot because there can only be one zoom lens and the sensor isn’t as big as in an SLR camera. It “bridges” the gap between the two.

In tests a bridge camera will not stack up to a dSLR for reasons I noted above. But the comparison ignores the limitations of the dSLR: I can’t carry my Nikon D70 around with me every day, and yet I do use it far more anyone I know personally—I have over 10,000 clicks with it in the last year (I don’t know the exact number since I had the firmware set incorrectly in the first few months of use).

And when it comes to a particular bridge camera I have less to say since I don’t own one. When I purchased my film bridge camera, there was only one choice (Olympus IS-10). When I purchased my digital bridge camera, there was only one choice (Olympus C-2500L). I have no idea of the differences between models today.

In a general comparison between a bridge and an SLR. Bridge cameras have more megapixels but poorer low-light performance. They don’t take specialty lenses but they are a hell of a lot more convenient. They don’t have an optical viewfinder (anymore) but what you see through the lens is more what you get. They’re not pocketable, but sometimes I feel like a dinosaur lugging around all my lenses and equipment. They have the same price as a budget dSLR body, but are a lot cheaper in the long term.

My most general advice has been that if you are using the kit lens that comes with your dSLR, you should have purchased a bridge camera and saved the money and hassle.

When I used a bridge camera, I was really happy with it. If I hadn’t got hit by an ocean wave hiking, I’d still be using my Olympus bridge camera—I wouldn’t be a D70 owner today.

But then, if I hadn’t got salt in my camera, you wouldn’t be reading this entry and have gotten more confused about the bridge v. SLR purchase.

For that, I am sorry.

12 thoughts on “That eternal question: SLR vs. bridge?

  1. Well!!! this article had done nothing but to confuse me more about the selection… now I’ll have to do more research on this… 🙁

  2. For some of us a bridge camera is the best choice. There seems to be an assumption that ALL photographers “REALLY” want an SLR, but can’t afford them, are afraid they won’t know how to use them, etc.

    The real truth is a lot of us using bridge cameras today have already been there, done that with the SLRs. I found it cumbersome to always have to have two or more lenses with me and try to juggle front and rear lens caps while changing lenses in less than ideal conditions. I got tired of carrying pounds and pounds of equipment.

    With my Panasonic FZ8, I have all the focal lengths I need all the time. I can carry it all day with nary a muscle twitch. I can see through the electronic viewfinder without my glasses (it’s vision adjustable) and see exactly what will be in the picture, same as an SLR, without that momentary mirror-flipping blackout. I can easily change either the shutter speed or aperture, or both, with a touch of my thumb.

    The one and ONLY thing about it that I don’t like is that on those rare occasions when I would like to manually focus, the “joystick” method just isn’t anywhere near fine enough. I wish my camera had a real focusing ring. That’s my only complaint. But the autofocus does such a great job 99% of the time that even that isn’t really a big issue.

    This camera does so much more — and so much more easily — than my old film SLRs that I can’t imagine ever going back.

  3. Interesting article.
    I have never been a fan of expert reviews. Simply because i travel. In all sorts of conditions. These reviewers
    sit at home and talk too much about litte things that i dont care about.
    That is why sometimes i value customer opinions more.
    I have a fuji s5600 since 2006. Amazing camera. Yes its images are not as good as DSLR. But considering where i have been to take photos, DSLR would have driven me insane with the weight and size. Also the DSLR with the lenses is too expensive.
    I got my fuji for £170 in 2006. Now it is worth £40 on ebay

  4. I own two “bridge” cameras – another Panasonic DMC-FZ8 and a Fuji Finepix S9000. I’m saving for a DSLR at the moment, but I have pretty much constant access to either a 350D or a 1000D. (Yes, okay, I have a lot of old cameras.)

    I take my bridge cameras /everywhere/. If I’m travelling, I take the FZ8 – slow start up time, but the lens has 12x optical zoom and fits into my (large) pockets. I took it over Australia, America, Rarotonga.. no complaints. If I’m able to settle down somewhere, or if I’m at a function and want to take pictures, I take the Finepix – it has a longer lens, but also has the manual focussing rings and an incredibly fast start-up time.

    On the other hand, if I’m settling down somewhere, really want to reproduce a photo (especially physically) or will want/need that photo decades in the future, I go for the DSLR. It’s a bit less versatile but, well. The 350D and the Finepix came out at around the same time I think and I can honestly say that the 350D wastes the Finepix.

    Of course, you have to think of what you’re using it for. Action photography – a DSLR will ALWAYS be best. They just have so much faster shutter speeds so the photo comes out so much clearer. That’s when I think that looking at the specs is going to help – as an equine photographer (basically I shoot horses jumpin’ and stuffs) I look for that fast shutter speed.

    But if you’re taking general, everyday photos? Save your money and get a bridge.

    Anyway, that’s me necromancing and throwing in my two cents :3

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