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2009 Bridge Camera Buyers Guide

By Allan Weitz

For a certain age group of drivers, the car of choice is a tricked-out econo-box with a hopped-up 4-banger under the hood, oversized low-profile tires, flashy rims, spoilers (front and rear), and an exhaust system that makes your presence known throughout the kingdom. Some of these super-sized slot cars are rather cool looking, and in the right hands, they can be a hoot to drive.

Olympus SP-590UZ Tricked-out Econo-box Nikon CoolPix P90

Bridge cameras are kind of the same. Essentially point-and-shoot digicams in the guise of compact DSLRs, bridge cameras are for many shooters the perfect all-in-one shooting solution. Like their 4-wheeled brethren, a few are rather cool-looking, and they can be a hoot to shoot with. And some of them perform tricks even the priciest DSLRs can't do.

Bridge cameras represent different things to different shooters. For those who want to 'step up' from the average point-and-shoot digicam without having to commit to a full-blown DSLR, bridge cameras are tasty alternatives. And for DSLR system owners, bridge cameras make for the ideal one-piece day-tripping camera. Pricewise they lay smack dab in the middle of the better point-and-shoots and any of the entry-level DSLR kits. Some a bit more, some a bit less. Are they right for you (or you-know-who)? Read on.

An additional factor that should be taken into consideration when choosing the best camera for your needs is how it feels in your hands. Do the camera's size, shape, and weight distribution compliment the size and shape of your hand? Is the camera too heavy for you? Too light for you? Are the controls and miscellaneous function buttons positioned sensibly? And don't forget the menus. Are they sensibly laid out, easy to decipher, and formatted for easy use while shooting?

Keep in mind our brains are all wired differently and process information differently and as such there are tactile and perceptive details about one camera over another that might make your nerve endings tingle, but not necessarily the nerve endings of the person sitting next to you.

Bridge cameras are point-and-shoot imaging sensors surrounded by a compact, DSLR-like body that allows you to compose and edit pictures using the camera's fixed or preferably tiltable LCD or an electronic viewfinder (EVF). Each of these cameras feature a fixed zoom lens that keeps you well covered from wide angle to extreme telephoto, and sometimes very extreme.

How extreme? Olympus' SP-590UZ has a 26x zoom with an equivalent focal length of a 26-676mm lens. And it can focus down to 1 cm and opens up to a rather wide f/2.8. The SP-590UZ features a 12Mp CCD sensor, can shoot 10 frame-per-second burst-rates (albeit at 3Mp resolution), and has a Dual Image Stabilization system for smoothing out the bumps especially when shooting at the longer focal lengths.

Other features found on the SP-590UZ include HDMI connectivity for viewing your pictures and videos on compatible HD TVs, Perfect Shot Preview that allows you to preview custom settings on the camera's LCD, full manual override control over exposure and AF, Shadow Adjustment Technology for optimizing shadow details, 3-image stitching for dramatic panoramic images, and a Beauty Mode for smoothing out wrinkles in portraits.

The Nikon CoolPix P90 also features a take-no-prisoners zoom range of about 26 to 624mm. Aside from its extreme optical reach, the P90 sports a 12.1Mp sensor, a 3" Vari-Angle LCD, up to 15 frames-per-second burst-rates, a Best-Shot Selector, ISO ratings up to 6400, and Face Detection for up to 12 of your favorite faces. And it's the size of a tennis ball (if tennis balls had grips).

Casio Exilim Pro EX-F1 Casio Exilim EX-FH20

Need speed? How's 60 frames-per-second for stills (or 7 frames-per-second with TTL flash) and video recording at a choice of 300, 600, or 1200 frames-per-second? Casio's Exilim Pro EX-F1 allows you to capture motion that to the human is merely a blur.

Packing a 6Mp CMOS sensor and a 12x (36-432mm equivalent) zoom lens with sensor-shift image stabilization, the Casio EX-F1 can capture 1080p HD video at full resolution, and up to 1200 f/p/s at lower resolution. Anybody want to analyze their golf swing? To better ensure few-if-any missed moments, the EX-F1 features a pre-record mode that continuously maintains a 5-second live-record buffer that precedes any action that occurs before you 'officially' hit the shutter button when recording video. The Casio EX-F1 can capture stills as JPEGs or RAW.

For those with less caffeinated needs there's the Casio Exilim EX-FH20, which contains a 9Mp sensor, 40 f/p/s burst-rates for stills, 720p HD video including high-speed video recording at up to1000 f/p/s, a 20x zoom lens (26-520mm equivalent), RAW+JPEG capture, and a bright 3" LCD.

Canon offers 2 bridge cameras. The Canon PowerShot SX1 IS features a 10Mp (1/2.3") CCD sensor, 1080p HD video @ 30 frames-per-second, a 20x (28-560mm equivalent) zoom lens, RAW+JPEG capture, a 2.8" Vari-angle LCD, a DIGIC4 image processor, ISO ratings up to 6400, advanced Face Detection, Motion Detection Technology, Optical Image Stabilization, a Smart Auto mode, 25 shooting modes, and 12 Special Scene modes.

Canon PowerShot SX1 IS Canon PowerShot SX20

Canon also offers the Canon PowerShot SX20, which packs a larger 12.1Mp (1/2.3") CCD sensor, a 20x zoom (same as the SX1 IS), a DIGIC 4 image processor, JPEG stills or 720p HD video, a 12.5" Vari-angle LCD, ISO sensitivity up to 3200, advanced Face Detection, Motion Detection Technology, Optical Image Stabilization, and a Smart Auto mode. The Canon PowerShot SX20 runs on AA batteries, conventional or rechargeable.

Another palm-sized wonder is Sony's Cyber-shot DSC-HX1, which was the first Cyber-shot camera to offer Sony's very cool 'sweep panorama' mode, which stitches up to 100 rapid-capture images together as you sweep the camera across the field of view. Depending on whether you pan vertically or horizontally, final images are as wide as 224° across. And that's not all the HX1 can do.

For low-light shooting the Sony HX1 features a Twilight Hand-held mode that captures 6 rapid-sequence images, samples each of them to locate the sharpest, best-detailed portions of each image, and layers them into a single optimized image, in-camera, and in seconds. The 10.1Mp Cyber-shot HX1 can also capture up to 10 (full-resolution) images-per-second, and features an equally impressive 28-560mm equivalent zoom lens. The Cyber-shot HX1 captures JPEG stills and MP4 video.

FujiFilm FinePix S200EXR Sony Cyber-shot HX1

For those who prefer a bit more mass in their mitt, it's worth noting not all bridge cameras are tiny, in fact, a few are rather hefty. The heftiest of the bridge cameras is FujiFilm's FinePix S200EXR, which is dimensionally larger than the smallest compact DSLRs. The S200EXR's 1/1.6" 12Mp Super CCD EXR imaging sensor is also comparatively large for its class as are the full-volume image files it produces.

Using what Fuji tags 3-way Capture Technology, the S200EXR's Super CCD EXR sensor is designed to deliver optimized detail in a choice of 3 modes ( High-Resolution, Wide Dynamic Range, or High Sensitivity/Low Noise) in order to maximize shadow and highlight detail regardless of how bright or not bright, and/or contrasty the light may be. Optics-wise the Fuji S200EXR has a fixed 14.3x Fujinon 7.1-101.5mm (30.5-436mm equivalent) zoom lens.

Panasonic's Lumix DMC-FZ35Panasonic's Lumix DMC-FZ35 is another camera worth considering if you're interested in a bridge camera. Designed around a 12.1Mp CCD sensor, the DMC-FZ35 captures sharp images in a choice of RAW or JPEG, as well as 720p HD video @ 30 frames-per-second. Sporting an 18x Leica-designed zoom lens, the DMC-FZ35 has the 35mm equivalent focal range of a 27 to 486mm lens with focusing down to a truly macro 0.4".

The ISO range of the Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ35 can be set from 80 to 6400, shutter-speeds up to 1/2000th-second, and it can capture up to 2.3 stills-per-second. The camera features a 2.7" LCD and an EVF, both of which display 100% of the image area, and you can expect to shoot about 470 images-per-battery charge. For viewing your stills and video on an HD TV, the FZ-35 features an HDMI port.

As for the deal-breakers of bridge cameras, they lie in 2 areas. First there's the matter of electronic viewfinders, which despite recent gains in LCD technologies and improved resolving power (more dots-per-square inch), still lack the clarity and 'transparency' of optical viewfinders. But then again peering into what amounts to a tiny TV beats squinting at arms-length at an LCD at high noon.

The second downside is despite their ease-of-use and wiz-bang features, at the end of the day the imaging sensor inside bridge cameras are one-and-the-same as the sensors found in your average point-and-shoot camera. Which means under bright lighting conditions, the images sing, but once the light levels start to drop so does the image quality. Unlike the larger sensors found in DSLRs, these tiny wafers can be pushed just so far before your pictures start getting noisy and 'artifacty'.

Still and all, bridge cameras can be creatively liberating. Because if you want to set forth with a light load and still have the ability to capture what the mind's eye sees regardless of how close or how far the scene might be, that's exactly what bridge cameras enable you to do.

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