So, you’re on the hunt for a camera – maybe for an upcoming holiday? Maybe photography’s going to a new hobby? Whatever your intent, you have a number of choices when it comes to buying a digital camera.
At the most basic, least sophisticated end of the camera buying spectrum, there are the compact cameras, with fixed lenses that you point at your target subject(s) and then click the shutter button to take your photo (hence why they’re often referred to as “point-and-click” or “point-and-shoot” cameras). If you have a camera in your smart phone, this is essentially a compact, point-and-shoot camera – you wave your phone in someone’s face and, if they haven’t lamped you into the next millennium, you press a button, take their photo, and probably upload it instantly to Twitter or Facebook.
At the most complex, most sophisticated (and more expensive) end of the camera buying spectrum, you have the DSLRs (Digital Single Lens Reflex) cameras. They essentially function in the same way as a compact camera, in that you point the lens towards your subject and then press the shutter button to take the photo. However, it’s the lenses that also help to differentiate DSLRs from your humble compact cameras. When you go to purchase a DSLR, you’re having to make at least TWO purchases – one for the camera body and one for a lens to fit in front of the digital image sensor. Even if you find a “deal” where you can purchase a DSLR with a lens, they’re still two separate units that you connect together to make a fully functioning camera.
DSLR lenses come in various formats or types and they can be just as expensive (or colossally more expensive) to purchase than the camera body – the unit that houses the light sensitive image sensor and all the technological gubbins to turn what you’re pointing the lens at into a nicely replicated digital photograph when you press the shutter button to take the picture. When I bought my Panasonic GH4 DSLR, the body alone cost just under £900 (US$1,290 approx.). The lens, a Lumix G X Vario 35-100mm f2.8, one of the most technologically advanced lenses available from Panasonic, cost £790 (US$1,135 approx). So, quite an investment, but worth it for the potential to create better quality photos.
The benefit of using a DSLR, over a typical compact camera, is greater creative control over how you can craft your photos:
1. You can adjust how much light can enter the lens, by varying the aperture of the lens, in order to make background elements more blurred, which helps to make your target foreground subject stand out more clearly (maybe you have an ugly background that you want to blur out? With the right lens, you can do this with a wider aperture). Conversely, you can narrow the aperture and bring more elements in your scene into greater clarity (this is a good thing for landscape photos, where you typically want to see everything clearly, from the subjects in the foreground, all the way to the horizon or as far as the eye can see).
2. You can adjust how fast the shutter opens and closes, in order to create different effects in your stills photos. For instance, a longer shutter speed will give the image sensor more time to record the light data that’s coming in through the lens. This can be used to help brighten images in low light conditions; it can also be used to smooth out choppy water or capture the movement of all sorts of subjects, such as car headlights or the journey of the stars across the night’s sky. Or, you can go the other way and use a faster shutter speed in order to freeze movement, such as the beating of a bird’s wings in flight.
3. You can purchase a variety of interchangeable lenses that give you different results. Fish Eye lenses take a distorted wide angle view, which can make an ordinary boring photo into something more intriguing. Ordinary Wide Angle lenses are great for landscape photography, as they give you a wider view of the scenery. Zoom and Telescope lenses are great for photographing wild animals in their natural habitat, as they allow you to stay far enough away from subjects that might get spooked easily if you get too close. And then there are Macro Lenses, which are popular with plant and insect lovers alike, as they allow you fill the frame with your subject and take close-up photos in astounding detail.
4. You can purchase filters that go over your lens and create a variety of different effects. Polarizing filters help to cut through haze and glare from the rays of the sun, making colors more rich and vibrant. Ultra dark Neutral Density filters (such as Hoya’s 10-Stop ND) provides extra light reduction, enabling you to keep the shutter open for longer, exposing the camera’s sensor to the constant motion of moving things, such as water and clouds, resulting in motion blur. Water can appear silky smooth, and clouds can look like they’re whooshing through the sky in your image. Then there’s Hoya’s special magenta colored “FLW” filter, which is magnificent for creating silhouetted shots against stunning sunsets or sunrises.
Now, there are benefits to using a compact camera, rather than a more sophisticated DSLR camera. The clue is in the name: they’re compact; they fit in your jacket pocket and weigh next to nothing, when compared with the bulky DSLRs. And you probably don’t need me to tell you how ultra convenient it is to have a high megapixel camera integrated into a handy-sized smart phone. More often, these days, really interesting, spontaneous photos are captured on camera smart phones, rather than on sophisticated DSLRs, simply because more people are carrying a camera around with them more of the time. You may here photographer’s quip that “the best camera to have is the one that’s always with you”, or something like that. There is more than a small grain of truth to that stock phrase.
One of the problems with compact cameras, including the ones in smart phones, is that the image sensors are so small that they don’t work all that well in low light conditions; by comparison, the larger sensor DSLRs have less of a problem. Another problem is typically how all the photos end up being compressed – you’re unable to separate foreground subjects from what’s going on in the background and this can lead to some rather cluttered, chaotic photos.
There was a time when your options were limited to either making do with a simple compact camera, or spending both time and money to learn how to use a DSLR camera to try and take more interesting photos. But then along came a new type of camera, one that was aimed at bridging the transition from owning a compact camera, to owning a DSLR. Step forward, then, the imaginatively titled Bridge Cameras. For the most part, these cameras have some of the more sophisticated DSLR features (such as being able to switch the camera into different modes, such as Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, or full Manual mode), but still had most of the simplicity of a point-and-shoot compact camera, where you didn’t have to fuss with interchangeable lenses – the lens systems on Bridge Cameras are fixed and you cannot change them. You could just as easily put the camera into fully automatic mode, let the camera’s algorithms calculate the most appropriate settings, point the lens at your target subject(s) and then press the button to take the photo.
One such Bridge Camera, that I know very well (because I bought one), is the Panasonic FZ1000. This was the first “big”, “sophisticated” and “expensive” camera that I’d ever owned. It has pretty much all of the features that you’d find in any high end DSLR camera: a variety of different modes; ability to attach different filters for different effects; ability to control the Shutter Speed; Aperture; ISO (adjust the image sensor’s sensitivity to light, which can be a good thing in low light conditions and when you don’t want to use a flash); and White Balance. You can set it to shoot in “Burst Mode”, which is great for capturing fast moving subjects; and you have the option of switching it to “Bracketing Mode”, which allows you to press the shutter button once and the camera takes a number of different photos, one at the correct exposure, some lighter, some darker, and then you can use a piece of computer software, such as Photomatix, to combine the photos into what is known as a single High Dynamic Range (HDR) image, which combines the best light and detail from at series of images to produce a single, stunning image that not even the most sophisticated DSLR camera can generate when taking a single photograph.
There are two things that separate the Panasonic FZ1000 from other “proper” DSLR cameras, such as the Panasonic GH4 (the camera that eventually replaced my FZ1000). The first is a smaller sized image sensor. While still larger than your typical compact camera (so it works better in low light conditions), the 1-inch sensor is still smaller than what you find in a DSLR, so the performance in low light is not as good (and you can’t do anything to change this; you’re stuck with the sensor size that’s in the camera when you buy it).
The second difference is the inability to change lenses, because the FZ1000 has been purposefully designed as a Bridge Camera, meaning the lens system is fixed and cannot be changed. So, if I’d wanted or needed a wider lens than the 25mm that was in the FZ1000’s arsenal, or if I’d needed a longer zoom range, or wanted to experiment with Fish Eye lenses… well, I couldn’t, because the lens system cannot be changed. While this throws up a creative drawback, it’s also a financial concern – if you drop your camera and break the lens beyond repair, that’s it, GAME OVER; you would have to buy a new camera. While DSLR lenses are expensive in their own right, if you do damage the lens itself, at least you can purchase a new lens and not have to pay extra for a new body, as well.
The reason for choosing either a DSLR or a more-sophisticated Bridge Camera, like the Panasonic FZ1000, over a compact camera, is because you want to be more in control of creating the photos and to be able to use techniques like selective focus and depth of field to creative more interesting photos.
So, why would you purchase a DSLR instead of a Bridge Camera, and vice versa?
Well, having owned both types – the FZ1000 (Bridge Camera) and the GH4 (DSLR), this is my personal opinion…
Why You Might Prefer A DSLR
1. Because you want the choice of using multiple different types of lenses, whether it be Fish Eye lenses, Macro lenses, or various Zoom or Telephoto lenses (perhaps you don’t need anything more than 100-200mm, for doing a mix of portrait photos and general photos of all sorts of subjects; or, maybe you intend to photograph wild animals in their natural habitat, in which case you’ll want maybe a 400-600mm lens or longer, so you can stay hidden and capture the animals totally at ease, without spooking them).
2. Because you want good performance in low light conditions. Larger sensors off this, especially Full Frame digital sensors, which are the equivalent of 35mm film cameras. At the time of writing (March 2016), a 1-inch sensor was the largest most Bridge Cameras offered, and this was a problem for the FZ1000, which didn’t perform all that well in low light; even the Panasonic GH4, with its slightly larger Micro Four Thirds sensor, wasn’t the best performer in low light situations. So, Bridge Cameras aren’t going to be a good choice if you think you may be taking photos in conditions where natural light isn’t adequate.
3. Because you’re thinking of moving up to a DSLR, anyway, at some point. In hindsight, I should have put my money straight into purchasing a proper DSLR, like the Panasonic GH4 I now own, rather than going for the intermediate choice of buying Panasonic’s FZ1000 Bridge Camera. This camera has all the features of a proper DSLR, and I still had to learn how to use them. But, once I’d mastered these features, it wasn’t long before I found I was needing more than the camera could offer – either a longer or wider focal length from the lens, or a narrower aperture to get everything into clear focus (the FZ1000 has an aperture limit of f8; a lot of times, I really could have done with f11, f16 or f22, but I didn’t have that option on the FZ1000 and wasn’t able to switch lenses to solve the problem (the clearest photos were often tantalizingly out of reach of the FZ1000, for a number of situations in which I found myself). After only a year of using the FZ1000, which cost me just under £800 (US$1,150 approx.), I was forced to either accept the limitations of the FZ1000, or dip into my piggy bank and pay a further couple of grand, for a proper DSLR (plus a couple of lenses to get me the range that I had with the single lens system on the FZ1000). If I’d have gone straight for the Panasonic GH4, I would either have saved myself 800 quid, or been able to invest that into an extra lens. In hindsight, knowing what I now know about using the main DSLR features, I wouldn’t have purchased the FZ1000; I would have gone straight for a proper DSLR.
Why You Might Prefer A Bridge Camera
1. Because you’re a casual photographer or may be traveling a lot and don’t want to be burdened by multiple lenses; yet you still want to have a quality camera that can take pretty decent photos. Bridge Cameras, particular those with lens systems that offer a variety of zoom ranges, from wide angle to telephoto, are great, because you can take with you a decent range of lenses in a single camera. Camera’s like the Panasonic FZ1000 and Sony’s RX10 offer DSLR-like performance and image creating technology in an all-in-one package.
This is really the sole, main reason to purchase a Bridge Camera – the convenience of not having to fuss about extra lenses, yet still having a sophisticated image creation machine to take high quality photos. Even as camera technology advances, the FZ1000 will still be a very good, high end camera for the keen photographer. In early 2016, I had another look at the price of this camera, and discovered you can get one brand new for under £500 (US$720, approx.); these good quality cameras are becoming ever more affordable.