Do you want a digital camera that's more capable and produces higher-quality images and videos than a smartphone or a point-and-shoot, but is still fairly compact? If so, you're the perfect candidate for a "bridge" digital camera, which offers higher quality than point-and-shoots but is smaller and cheaper than mirrorless or DSLR cameras.
Their smaller image sensors and performance don’t quite match mirrorless and DSLR cameras. But the reward is a design that’s smaller, lighter, and therefore easier to carry and use than their more expensive counterparts. Many bridge cameras also incorporate built-in, high-zoom lenses (up to 60X), letting you zero in on the action without paying a fortune for comparable lenses on a DSLR or mirrorless camera.
Here are the three best bridge cameras on the market.
Best Ultra-Zoom Compact Bridge Camera: Sony Cyber-Shot DSC-HX50V ($399)
Sometimes you want to get really, really close when you're far, far away. The Sony Cyber-Shot DSC-HX50V is a feature-packed compact camera that boasts a long 30X optical zoom lens that spans from ultrawide to mega-telephoto. This device can also take close-up photos from just 2 inches away. To prevent shakes and spoiled photos, the HX50V employs very effective optical image stabilization.
The HX50V's built-in Wi-Fi not only allows easy uploading to your wireless printer or smartphone (running Android or iOS), it allows the smartphone to serve as a handy remote control. And Sony's dense 20.4-megapixel image sensor is capable of producing poster-size enlargements. Performance is impressive – the HX50V can click off stills at a fast 10 frames per second, as well as record semi-slow-motion 1080p videos.
Sony's pop-up flash raises higher than most built-ins, casting fewer shadows. But for pro-quality lighting, you can attach an optional strobe onto the camera's accessory shoe. Alternatively, you can attach an eye-level electronic viewfinder (for more of a DSLR feel) or an external stereo microphone.
Best Ultra-Zoom Bridge Camera: Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ70 ($399)
Bigger and bulkier than compacts, but smaller and lighter than DSLRs, Panasonic's easy handling Lumix DMC-FZ70 comes with one of the longest zoom lenses made — a 60X monster that ranges from ultrawide to extreme telephoto. You can even focus on objects as close as one-half inch. Like DSLRs, the FZ70 offers a full range of shooting options — full auto, full manual, plus aperture and shutter priority — as well as a variety of program modes.
MORE: Camera Buying Guide
Although its 3-inch screen doesn't offer stunning high-resolution image previews, it also has a convenient built-in, eye-level electronic viewfinder, which means you don't have to hold your camera at arm's length to compose a shot. What's more, you won't have to fumble operating the camera because its buttons, controls and select dial are large and strategically placed. Its video is no slouch, either — it can shoot at full resolution at 30 fps, record stereo sound, and display directly to your HDTV using an HDMI cable.
Best Full-Featured Camera: Nikon P7800 ($549)
Nikon's P7800 is a fully loaded camera featuring a 12-megapixel sensor and a fast f2.0-aperture lens for great results in low light. The 7X zoom lens allows significant telephoto coverage, yet it can also focus on objects just 2 inches away.
The 3-inch, high-res (921,000-pixel) LCD swings out for viewing from almost any angle. The P7800 also provides an electronic viewfinder eyepiece for a more SLR-like experience. Wi-Fi connectivity, however, requires a $49 attachment that plugs into the camera's mini-USB port, whereas rival cameras have it integrated.
The P7800 powers up nearly instantly, has minimal shutter lag, and shoots rapidly at 8 fps. It provides a full range of physical controls and menu options that allow users to micro-adjust technical settings, such as aperture and shutter, exposure bracketing and time-lapse options. As a final touch, the camera can save photos in the RAW format, which preserves higher quality. The P7800 will delight advanced amateurs and even pros when they want to shoot with a small, light backup camera instead of their heavy, bulky DSLRs.
Daniel Grotta has been covering digital photography since its infancy. You can follow him at the DigitalBenchmarks Lab Notes Blog on Grotta.net, on Twitter @TeamGrotta, on Google+and on Facebook. Follow us @tomsguide, on Facebook and on Google+.