Bridge cameras comprise a growing, catchall category that encompasses cameras that "bridge" the gap between casual consumer shooters and enthusiast/pro models (like DSLRs). What they all have in common is portability, providing smaller — radically smaller — versions of what the pros use. That feature demands some sacrifice in image quality, but it can also mean lower prices.
Based on our extensive testing, the Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX100 ($697) is the best compact bridge camera. It packs a sensor almost as large as a DSLR's and 4K video recording, in a body that's easy to tote. If you want to capture the action up close, the Canon PowerShot SX60 HS($480) is an excellent choice. It has a 56x zoom lens and takes highly detailed photos.
Different bridge cameras address different needs, so before you buy, make sure you're getting the one that matches up with what you want to do.
Two Types of Bridge Cameras
Bridge cameras fall into two groups. The first group — advanced models — are small-ish cameras with grown-up features such as large image sensors, very high-quality lenses, top-performing image processors — and sometimes, enthusiast niceties like a crisp electronic viewfinder (EVF). You'll generally have to look for these advanced features, which are available in cameras that are priced from about $450 to over $1,000.
The other type of bridge camera is known as a long-zoom camera (what we call ultrazooms) — easily luggable models with built-in 30x to 80x zoom lenses. These give you the extreme close-ups you would get from those DSLRs on the sidelines of pro sports events that are mounted to lenses that are several feet long. Ultrazooms can range from under $300 to about $600. Canon's ultrazoom cameras, for instance, range from the 42x PowerShot SX420 at about $300, to the 56x zoom PowerShot SX60 HS, at around $480. Nikon's 83x zoom Coolpix P900 sells for about $600.
What to look for in bridge cameras
You could easily spend as much on an advanced bridge camera (about $400 to $800) as on a smartphone. So make sure it's worth it. Look for cameras with large image sensors, typically 1 inch or greater. (For perspective, a 1-inch chip is almost seven times larger than a smartphone camera sensor.) The quality boost is huge, especially when you're shooting in dim light. And in all cases, details will be crisper when you crop a photo (even online) or make a large print.
Look for a great lens too, marked by a large maximum aperture of about f/1.8, or at least f2.2 (smaller numbers denote larger apertures). The main benefit here is that these lenses let in more light for better low-light shooting. A similar-grade lens — just the lens — on a DSLR could cost more than the entire bridge camera.
Performance bridge cameras tend to sport robust construction, often a metal alloy. It's a worthwhile feature for cameras that you'll be carrying around a lot, and sticking in pockets or tossing in bags. Screens that tilt or rotate make it easier to capture shots from creative angles. Touch screens make changing settings and reviewing photos much easier, but they aren't as common as you might expect, so you may have to do without. And 4K video is starting to make its way into these cameras — something that's well worth having if you can get it.
With even pocket point-and-shoots boasting 10x or 20x zooms, you should expect a much longer telephoto lens from an ultrazoom bridge camera. It isn't too much to ask for a 50x lens, and some cameras go much longer, such as 80x. Apertures won't be as large as in the best performance bridge cameras (the physics of a big lens), but you should get one that goes down to at least f/4.5 (smaller number, bigger aperture).
Don't worry about the sensor size in these cameras. They are all pretty small — about 10 percent the size of an entry-level DSLR's; otherwise, the cameras would be several feet long. Most important are the features that make the long lens usable. Zooming in magnifies the effect of camera shake, so an ultrazoom needs to have excellent optical and electronic image stabilization.
A good electronic viewfinder is also important: Placing the camera up to your face allows you to hold it much steadier. You'll want an EVF that's very bright, with pretty rich color and decent resolution (at least 640 x 480 pixels, sometimes called 921,000 dots, since bigger numbers look cooler).
You probably won't get a metal body in an ultrazoom, but you should get an articulating screen — one that flips out to the side and then tilts, typically through about 270 degrees. Don't settle for less. You might not get a touch screen, though.
How We Test Bridge Cameras
As the name indicates, bridge cameras represent a "bridge" between casual consumer pocket cameras and enthusiast/pro models. We take that into consideration by shooting mostly in default settings but making a few judicious tweaks to settings such as aperture or ISO light sensitivity to test certain aspects of the camera.
Bright light is the main environment for these cameras, and they tend to perform similarly in this area. To look for fine detail and shading, we shot close-ups using shutter speeds of 1/100 second or faster and the lowest possible ISO to avoid motion blur or graininess, as well as an aperture of about f/8 or greater so that a shallow depth of field would not obscure detail.
We took wide shots of colorful scenes in order to judge overall color and exposure quality. To do so, we typically kept the cameras in their default picture style mode and with matrix/evaluative meeting that optimized overall lighting across the frame. We also photographed people, because after all, a lot of photos involve people. We also looked for accuracy and detail in skin, hair and eyes.
With the cameras steadied (on a tripod or placed on a table or railing), we shot in twilight conditions through the range of ISO settings, and noted the highest level before graininess became distracting and details were blurred out.
Autofocus tests were done in burst mode (with continuous AF turned on) so we could see how well the camera kept up with a moving subject such as a car, jogger or pet. With people, we often used face recognition, as it tends to be the best way to keep autofocus on a person.
We tested cameras' ability to autofocus during video recording (if the camera had this capability). To do so, we used the tracking-autofocus setting that allowed us to designate the subject on which to focus.
In another test of cameras' video capabilities, we shot scenes with minimal motion by bright and low light — not exciting, but a good way to gauge detail and audio quality.
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