Ask David: Bridge Camera or Digital SLR? :: Digital Photo Secrets

Ask David: Bridge Camera or Digital SLR?

by David Peterson 10 comments

This week’s Ask David question comes from Ernie Everest. He’s an avid photographer looking to upgrade his point-and-shoot setup to something with a little more power. He wonders why people purchase digital SLRs when there are a lot of cheaper and lighter solutions.

See the image above? Notice how the background and foreground are blurred out. To get this effect, you need to use a very big aperture, something you just can’t do with a point-and-shoot or “bridge camera.' If you don't know, a 'bridge camera' is a camera inbetween a Point and Shoot camera and a full DSLR.

Ernie asks:

“A good bridge camera seems to me to possess all the characteristics of an SLR with several lenses, and is a lot cheaper, no to mention lighter. However, most opt for the SLR. What am I missing?”

A few things. With a digital SLR you get a faster frame capture rate for continuous shooting, a more accurate viewfinder that allows you to see through the lens itself, the ability to switch from automatic to manual focus, zoom and wide angle lenses that surpass a bridge camera’s ability to zoom in or out, and less shutter delay so you can capture the image the second you press the shutter button.

Digital SLRs, in my experience, have an overall professional feel to them that’s quite different from any point-and-shoot you’ve used. It’s difficult to quantify exactly what it is, but I think it amounts to an increased responsiveness to everything you do. Digital SLRs “boot up” faster, so you don’t have to wait for the camera to get ready every time you turn it on. And, because the frame capture rate is much faster, you feel more like the camera is in sync with what you want to do.

The component quality is generally better with a full DSLR camera too, which you pay for with the higher price.

Regarding your point about lenses, I don’t think a good bridge camera will ever possess the same zoom capabilities as a consumer-end digital SLR. That’s because you can only fit so much of the zoom range into such a tiny space without sacrificing some of the things that can truly make an image stand out.

In this case, I’m talking about aperture. With a digital SLR, you can get larger apertures like F4, something that really comes in handy when you’re taking portraits. Most bridge cameras stop somewhere around F5.6, which isn’t bad. It’s just not great. It isn’t enough to blur out a good portion of the background, an effect that can make someone’s face stand out a lot more, creating good contrast in the image. (For a detailed runthrough of how Aperture influences what's in focus of your image, see my Depth Of Field Secrets course.)

A digital SLR may or may not be the camera for you. It all depends on what you want to do. Most people do end up purchasing more camera than they need, but a camera’s overall build quality, and the feeling you get when you use it, do amount to something that’s not insignificant. Responsiveness is one of the most overlooked features of higher end cameras.

At the end of the day, you need to ask yourself if you can still get the shot with a bridge camera. When you go by that criterion, the answer is likely to be yes. As long as you aren’t taking long action sequences, getting portraits with the background blurred out, or zooming across the ocean to catch a surfer catching a wave, you should be okay.

But if you’ve got the money, and responsiveness / professional feel are important to you, by all means get a digital SLR. You’ll definitely notice the difference.

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  1. suresh says:

    Hi... thanks for the info about bridge and slr... but i read an article which says bigger the pixels in slr, higher would be noise ratio.. is it a similar case even for bridge camera..
    Would you suggest bridge camera like sony hx400v or a dslr like canon eos 100d or nikon d3300 for enthusiastic beginner's..... let me know your views.

    • David Peterson says:

      Yes, the noise is higher for smaller sensors. However, at low ISOs the difference is negligible. Unless you're always taking photos in very low light (needing an ISO higher than 1600), I would go for the cheaper cameras that have a smaller sensor.


  2. Cathy says:

    Thank you for publishing this! I'm currently using a GE HZ15 (more commonly known as the X5) bridge, and I was starting to get really frustrated with my landscape/architecture shots. Even on a low ISO of 100, which should be reducing noise, I'm still getting it. Not massive amounts, and not necessarily something the ordinary viewer would spot, but enough to make me question the image quality. Conversely, the quality of close up shots is particularly amazing given that it is only a bridge, the only downside being it doesn't shoot RAW. But, now I know, thanks to this article, that it's just the camera's limitations, not mine. Have now put a deposit down on a Nikon D3000. So excited!

  3. Heidi says:

    What do you think of the nikon coolpix l120 being used to take professional photos?

  4. David Peterson says:


    Yes, the Finepix HS10 is a bridge camera, and an excellent one at that.

  5. Paul says:

    Joe Bowers: ever seen shots from the 20mm pancake prime lens on the Panasonic micro four-thirds range? It stops down to 1.7 if i remember correctly, and the depth of field is fantastic for such a small camera. My brother had a photo featured in National Geographic with that lens...

  6. Paul says:

    I think this is a value-proposition that is rapidly changing. As a happy user of Canon's EOS analogue range, i kept watching prices drop on the digital versions, thinking, "I'll upgrade when the entry level camera drops below $xxxx." As i watched, i played with cheaper digital cameras. I've owned a Canon PowerShot A430, PowerShot A1200, and PowerShot S2 IS. The point & shoot cameras have consistently kept getting better in terms of image quality, although obviously not matching DSLR.

    The S2 IS had a 6-72 mm zoom (roughly equivalent to a 36-432 mm in traditional zoom measurements), and it has given me excellent images over the past 6 years. To get a 400mm+ lens of ANY quality for a DSLR would cost more than i could ever justify spending, and i really loved taking shots at the long end of the zoom range.

    Whilst not a professional camera by any stretch of the imagination, the S2 has been a great camera for me. Now that Panasonic & Olympus have the micro four-thirds range, if i go in search of greater image quality, i'll probably try them before considering DSLR.

    Professionals have very different standards for quality (and rightly so!), but only the user can decide what's "good enough". My bridge camera hits the sweet spot on the value curve for me.

  7. Richard Dornblaser says:

    I have several cameras from PS to Bridge to the new 4/3 Line. The quality of the image improves with the increase cost of the camera. There is a hugh difference in price because of the lenses for the DSLR, so I keep the Bridge for telezoom for certain occasions. Since the PS are small/lite and improving, I usually keep one with me most of the time and it gives me the opportunity for photos I normally would not get, so I get a lot of PS pics. Good editing equipment helps neutralize the differences. So its price and style are the major considerations.

  8. John Hill says:

    Dave, Would you call the Finepix HS10 a bridging camera. ????

  9. Joe Bowers says:

    I used bridge cameras for a long time until I finally bought my first SLR. It is a world of difference! I couldn't believe I waited so long. A bridge is a child's toy compared to an SLR.

    Biggest differences:
    1. With an SLR you can get a large-aperture lens (f/2 or bigger) and create a beautiful soft background which separates your subject from the surroundings. This is what differentiates professional photography from amateurs. Bridge cameras can not do this.

    1. SLRs have larger sensors, which translates into less noise and cleaner, sharper images. Bridge cameras are trying to cram too much data onto their tiny chips and the quality suffers greatly.
    2. Creative freedom. With an SLR you can change lenses depending on the situation to create the effect that you want. While bridge cameras can do close-up (not true macro), wide angle and zoom, the quality of the lenses isn't as good as what you could get with an SLR, and specialty creative lenses like tilt-shift and Lensbabys don't exist for bridge cameras.
    3. More shutter speed options. Most bridge cameras have between 1/2000 and 15" shutter speeds. A typical SLR on the other hand can do between 1/8000 and 30", with a bulb mode for longer exposures. You'd be suprised how often you actually use those expanded shutter speeds. Just yesterday I was on a bus from Laos to southern China and I was taking photos out the window at the local peasants walking along the street. At 1/8000 second I could capture their faces clearly with no motion blur. Others on the bus with bridge cameras and point-and-shoot cameras were only able to get a blurry shot of nothing.

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