Monday 16 April 2018

CAMERAS - Part 2 to the Bridge Camera vs DSLR post

A reader recently commented on my ‘BIG ZOOMS Bridge Camera vs DSLR – Bird Photography (Part 1)’ post asking if I ever followed it up with a part 2. I wrote that post back in May 2016 so there should probably have been a couple of follow-ups by now, but I never got around to it. This delay however means there is certainly plenty to write about now.

I will open by stating the obvious; bridge cameras and DSLRs with big lenses are 'different animals' and not generally intended for the same purpose/market, but they are both used in birding and wildlife photography so there is a point to stacking them against each other. I'll also add the conclusion here so you know where the post is going. Bridge cameras can be excellent tools for long distance subjects, but they are restrictive in terms of conditions in which they perform well and a high-end DSLR with a 500mm or 600mm prime attached will nearly always outperform a bridge camera for long distance photography. As such, I rarely use a bridge camera other than for travelling when portability is a priority. CSC & MILC systems however, have become a little more tempting in recent years.

A few things I won't talk about here as the post will get too bloated are file formats, focussing capability, speed/flexibility in use, low-light performance and video capabilities. They are all relevant, but I'll just say that generally DSLRs come out comfortably on top in all of these except perhaps video where the bridge cams hold up well (and some DSLRs lose continuous autofocus etc).

This isn’t aimed at photographers who have a genuinely thorough knowledge of the various types of cameras (DSLR, CSC, MILC etc); there will be little or nothing to learn here so no need for you to waste a few minutes of your time, unless you really want to have a read through anyway of course. I wrote the ‘Part 1’ post because hearing (quite frankly, uninformed) people talk nonsense about big lenses and seeing things which some were writing online was an all too frequent occurrence. It’s worth clicking on the link on the first line of this post to see what I was on about in the original post. It was primarily about focal length and magnification achievable with two different but both commonly used camera systems - bridge cameras and DSLRs (plus the lens). The below pic sums it up; the physically larger of the two camera systems here does not have a longer focal length. 

It may seem like I’m excessively ‘talking up’ one system over the other in the next section but bear with me, it'll balance out at the end.

I will use the Nikon P900 (not pictured) as the example for comparison as this is one of the best and most widely used bridge cameras currently available for wildlife photography and/or twitching. I will compare it to the Canon 600mm f4L IS II USM lens which is probably the best lens currently available for wildlife photography (except perhaps for paid setups/hide work), mounted on a 1DX ii. This is a fairly extreme example but it does illustrate the point. 

Bridge example vs DSLR example (prices accurate at time of writing)

COST                           £479.00  vs  £16,328.00        Bridge camera is approx. 97% cheaper

WEIGHT                        899 g    vs  5,567 g               Bridge camera is approx. 84% lighter

FOCAL LENGTH     2000 mm  vs  600 mm               Bridge camera has approx. 333% MORE focal length

So (and this is something many people fail to get their head around), when you see ‘Person A’ with a bridge camera and ‘Person B’ with a large lens taking pics of the same subject from the same distance (at full zoom on the bridge camera), ‘Person A’ with the small camera may be getting frame-fillers whilst the long lens ‘Person B’ may be getting only a fairly small area of the frame filled with the intended subject. I mention weight in the above stats because most photographers/people cannot handhold a 1DXii with the 600mm ii lens as they simply don’t have the strength, but hey, tripods, ledges and fence posts can be very useful!

This is making a bridge camera sound like the obvious choice then? Well no, far from it. They may be cheaper, they may be lighter and they may have significantly more reach than a DSLR setup, but they do not produce the same sort of still image quality. The sensors are not capable of performing like a larger sensor in a DSLR, and the built-in zoom lenses will not perform as well as the fixed focal length beasts you can buy for interchangeable lens systems. In simple terms, bridge cameras have smaller sensors than DSLRs, many of them being 1/2.3 inch sensors with a few newer models increasing that size to 1 inch. These small sensors give the cameras a ‘crop factor’ vs full frame which essentially allows a big ‘focal length’ in a small package. All focal lengths quoted here are in terms of 35mm equivalence; I've written 'focal length' in inverted commas in places because the lens itself doesn’t achieve this i.e. the P900 doesn’t have a 2000mm lens but has the equivalent of a 2000mm lens due to the crop factor of the sensor. This is where the big compromise is. Small sensors typically gather significantly less light than larger sensors; a smaller sensor surface area means that the individual pixels must be smaller for the same resolution, and are therefore capable of capturing less photons in a set time period. As everyone who uses a camera should know, light has a profound impact on the end result. This is also where big lenses come in. A lot of lenses aren’t ‘big’ because of the focal length (obviously some are, to an extent), but more so because of the aperture of the lenses. Take the Canon 400mm f2.8L IS II USM compared to the Canon 400m f5.6L for example. They have the same focal length, yet the f2.8 version is over 3x the weight, significantly longer and nearly double the max diameter. Herein lies an incredibly common misconception, that big lenses get you close-up pics. They usually don’t. Take mine for example; I have a big lens but also have the equal least equivalent focal length of all the local patch bloggers/photographers here. However, the light gathering benefits of such a lens are profound.

However, focal length isn’t everything. What is the use of huge focal length if the quality of pics produced is poor? What is the use of huge focal length if there isn’t much light available and the camera needs a slow shutter speed that will likely result in blurry images? What is the use of huge focal length if the photographer is handholding but isn’t very stable? Well, you simply wouldn’t benefit from more focal length. Tricky photography conditions lend themselves to cameras with better sensors; they’re more versatile and that can make all the difference. If you nail a shot on a DSLR and get everything right with the settings, you should be able to crop out perhaps 80-90% of the image and still have enough pixels to make use of for websites or small printing. You may have noticed when I post a pic of something very distant, I’ll occasionally say something along the lines of ‘this is cropped to show 2-3% of the original pixels.’ This is something that simply can’t be done well with bridge cameras yet. Granted, you may have a bigger subject in the frame straight from the camera, but that doesn’t always translate to the best final result. The pics below show a full image (DSLR) and then a heavily cropped version which still shows enough detail to be of use:

Another area worth mentioning is quality of equipment, and the ‘you get what you pay for’ saying does ring quite true here within each type of camera system. One 400mm lens is not going to get the same results as another 400mm lens of a different aperture or from a different manufacturer. It’s a tricky one to balance with DSLRs as some lenses can produce a higher perceived resolution than the camera body is capable of capturing. This does go both ways though and a very high-resolution sensor on a camera body won’t produce very good results if you are shooting through a mediocre lens. In basic terms, interchangeable lens camera systems are not simple and thought needs to go into what will be the best combo of body and lens to suit your specific requirements. On the subject of quality, if you manage to get a shot composed as you want where no cropping is required (i.e. the subject was very close in the case of wildlife, or if you are going for a scenic/habitat shot), then the quality with a decent DSLR & lens will blow away what is achievable with a bridge camera. Every time. The sensors are simply that much better due to their size and light gathering capabilities. In reality though, it is rare that the original shot from a DSLR will be close enough unless it was a set-up type situation; that's just part of the challenge with wildlife photography.

Perhaps the most significant factor when considering impacts on results from all types of camera systems is knowing your equipment and knowing how to use it effectively in different scenarios. Take pics of the Moon for example, whether taken on a bridge or DSLR type camera. A quick look online will show massive variation in quality of pics from the same type of camera in the hands of different photographers with the main reason being some know how to get the most from the equipment they have, and others don’t (although an immeasureable caveat of this is that not all gear is made equal and two versions of the same model may not produce the same results in the same hands). Have a play around with manual settings rather than relying on auto modes. Play around with ISO settings to see what you are personally happy with as a limit. Play around with different apertures to see the changes it makes to depth of field and consider how you may use this to your advantage. Play around with shutter speeds to see how still you can hold the camera in case you need to use it when light is poor. 

I suppose I need to conclude this in some way, so I'll end with saying that modern cameras are brilliant and photography can be very rewarding, whether you use it for blogging, social media, business or simply for your own personal records. Both bridge cameras and DSLRs have their own set of advantages & disadvantages for wildlife photography and this post is a long way from exhaustive of these (it's already long enough). In terms of the 'mutt's nuts' a £15,000-20,000 + DSLR setup will achieve the best results in most circumstances (in the right hands), but the value & performance for money you get with bridge cameras is incredible. To get close to the performance of a £400-500 bridge camera like the Nikon P900 for very long distance subjects, you will likely need to spend well into four figures on a DSLR system. However, for anything that doesn't require close to full zoom, bridge cameras will lose out.

P.s In part 3, APS-C vs Full Frame sensors within the DSLR category needs to be covered in more detail, as do the different types of interchangeable lens systems. I have a friend who has recently switched from DSLRs to MILCs (mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras, an area that is advancing rapidly) and know some local people who have also made the same switch. I’ll see if I can persuade someone to write a guest post for me with a few pics to help show advantages/disadvantages of each system. This still isn't exhaustive of course, with digiscoping and other options out there! Hopefully I won’t leave it almost 2 years for the follow-up post this time…


  1. That was a very interesting read, seeing as I once owned a P900 for a while. As I also had a Canon kit I found I was chosing the Canon over the P900 nearly every time. The Bidge camera is good for people who have mobility/strength issues and I agree that the Nikon P900 is a really good one to buy. Looking forward to the blog on sensors

    1. Yep same boat as me Steph, my bridge camera also gets very little use now, although it isn't as good as a P900. Interestingly the P900 seems to vary significantly from one camera to the next; I know someone who had a 'good' one and sold it during the product shortage, then bought another one but said it was worse so sold that one too!
      With portability in mind, the CSCs are great pieces of kit now, although they're not cheap either. I imagine you may have seen Tom with his at some point? Interesting tech.

  2. I enjoyed that. Great post Tim.

    1. Many thanks Keith! (Sorry for the late reply).

  3. Yes, I have had a good look at the Olympus. Looks good on portability. Tom says he still uses the Nikon for flight shots though. I may have to go down that route if the Canon finally kills my back!!!

    1. Very good on fairly long distance shots too. Yeah think he has a D500 for his flight stuff but I may be wrong. Olympus better suited to birds in flight and action shots than my current DSLR arrangement, but then mine comes into it's own for static subjects (5DSR my only body).
      My friend has started on his 4/3 vs DSLR post so I'm looking forward to that. He's had great flights shots from his 4/3 gear, as has Sue Smith here.

    2. *its own. Autocorrect on my phone predictably changing something correct for something wrong haha.

  4. Tim hi, an excellent comprehensive article. I made the change from a Nikon D700 + 400 mm f2.8 + x1.4 TC to a Sony RX10 Mkiii, the optical quality doesn’t match but I’m enjoying the flexibility it gives.

    1. Many thanks Paul, and interesting to read about what you moved to and from! Sorry for the late reply.