Trading up in digital photography - bridge or dSLR?

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It’s a daunting world, that of digital cameras. They were actually voted the 3rd most confusing gadget by the British public in early 2008. My intention here is to try to help people who are thinking of moving from a compact point-and-shoot camera to something more complicated using my own experience. I make no pretence to be a brilliant photographer, for me it’s a hobby, and it’s not long since I traded upwards but I remember how complicated and confusing I found it. This is in no way meant to be a complete critique of every camera system and I will avoid entering into technical details (I might right a different guide for that later) wherever possible.


It is important to remember that every digital camera will take good pictures if you use it properly (it’s the person behind the camera that really counts). It is also very important to remember that while a lot of keen photographers (myself included) use dSLR’s (digital Single Lens Reflex) and will write at length about the better image quality, flexibility, robustness etc., they also carry compact point-and-shoot cameras which get a lot of use. Here I am going to explain my camera history and try to give some simple advice to those people looking at where to go with their new hobby.


I started out with a (now very old) Pentax Optio 33LF, a 3.2 megapixel point-and-shoot compact with 12MB of built in memory. These days a single photo is over 12MB! I have also used a 35mm SLR for many years (a Pentax MZ-50) and once digital prices started to drop, as I was interested furthering my fledgling photographic skills without the cost of film development, I moved to a “bridge” camera (the Canon Powershot S3 IS). After some time using a bridge camera I traded upwards to a dSLR (the Olympus E-510). I spent several months looking at the different entry level dSLR’s available, the pro’s and con’s of each system and, most importantly for most of us, which offered the best value for money.


Bridge cameras are fixed lens (rather than an interchangeable system like you have with an SLR) but are designed to “bridge” the gap between compact point-and-shoot cameras and dSLR’s. To this end, they usually have impressive optical zoom ranges (10X and upwards), hot-shoes for accessories like flashguns, removable bezels at the end of the lens to allow the attachment of convertors and adaptors and the full range of manual controls (including manual focussing).


In my experience, bridge cameras deliver great high quality images (they often use the same processors as their dSLR siblings) in a compact body. They are, however, a compromise of both optical quality and handling. For example, the ability to focus manually is a huge advantage for the keen amateur but with some (not all) bridge cameras this has to be done using a magnified portion of the screen and the up/down or left/right buttons. This doesn’t give the same level of control as you get with a proper focus ring attached to the lens. Optically speaking, asking a single lens to cover very large ranges (such as the 28-400mm found on the Fujifilm FinePix S100fs) is problematic. This can lead to chromatic aberration problems like I found on the Canon Powershot S3 IS, where purple fringing can be seen on high contrast edges. On the plus side, I spent a lot of time using my S3, it was user friendly, had little shutter lag (especially when compared to a compact), had good white balance and auto-focus systems, and was light and easy to carry around.


It took me about 9 months to get annoyed with the limitations of bridge cameras. This WILL NOT be the case for everyone. I wanted better manual focussing abilities and to be able to shoot in RAW format (something that plenty of bridge cameras now do including the Fujifilm FinePix S100fs, Olympus SP-570UZ, Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ28, Kodak P712 and others). It was a difficult decision, buying a dSLR. It’s more than just a camera - it’s a system. You tie yourself into a specific range of lenses and other accessories and this means that choosing a dSLR is more than just choosing a camera.


I looked around at the offerings from Canon, Nikon, Panasonic, Olympus, Pentax, Sony and Samsung. Personally I like the “techy/geeky” side of Nikons, however I felt that their budget/entry level offerings were less well specified than those from other manufacturers. I can’t tell you what to buy but there are a couple of things to bear in mind. Firstly, if you have a 35mm SLR, most of the lenses will work with a dSLR of the same make (you can check this at the manufacturers websites). For example, my old 35mm Pentax K-mount lenses still work on a Pentax dSLR body (with some limitations). If you’ve got a lot of old glass then this could easily make the decision for you. Secondly, look at the level of specification. Although Canon and Nikon have over 75% of the market, they don’t necessarily offer the most suitable system for you. When I was buying, I noticed that most manufacturers had an image stabilisation system in the camera body except for Canon and Nikon. This means you would have to buy either Canons IS (Image Stabilisation) or Nikons VR (Vibration Reduction) lenses if you wanted an image stabilised system and these cost more money than the non-stabilised counterparts.


At the end of the day, if you’re like me, the most important consideration is budget. Look for cameras with a bundled kit lens. With Canon you usually get an 18-55mm kit lens with the option of paying more for the IS version. You may also get a second, longer, kit lens as well. In the end, I opted for the package which gave me the most features for my budget and had a good range of higher quality lenses and accessories to which I could upgrade in the future.


Finally, do your research.  Probably the best place to start is www.dpreview.com.  This site has information on just about every aspect of 

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