Bridge cameras - what are they and who are they for?

In the early hours of this morning (if you're in Europe), Ricoh announced a new bridge camera, the Pentax XG-1. But what exactly is a bridge camera, and who constitutes the target market?

Spanning the gap

It's all in the name, really. A bridge camera spans the gap from small compact cameras with fixed lenses to larger and heavier dSLRs with interchangeable lenses. They're fixed lens cameras that enjoy impressive optical zoom capabilities—in the case of the XG-1 a 52× zoom or the 35mm equivalent of 24 to 1,248mm—and the full manual control that you'd expect from a dSLR. However, although they might share a similar shape to a dSLR with its characteristic pentaprism hump, they don't share the mirror and the optical viewfinder mechanism. They function akin to compact cameras, making them smaller and lighter than their dSLR cousins.

Ricoh's new Pentax XG-1 bridge camera

Benefits of bridge cameras

Although a bridge camera usually comes in bigger and heavier than a compact camera, they're smaller and lighter than dSLRs; this means you get the advantages of manual control and impressive telephoto prowess but without the bulk. As the lens with all the optical zoom is built into the camera body, there aren't any expensive, bulky lenses to schlep about, either. You can switch from wide angle to telephoto with the movement of a button, rather than the inconvenience of a lens change and the potential of subjecting your sensor to dust and dirt. If you're shooting in dirty or dusty conditions, a bridge camera might be preferable to an interchangeable lens model.

Bridge cameras present you with control and magnification in a neat, cheap package. The new Pentax XG-1 is priced at £250 £280*; the Canon, Nikon, Fujifilm, and Olympus equivalents aren't too far off that mark and have generally similar specs.

Drawbacks to bridge cameras

My 70-200mm zoom lens doesn't extend nearly as far as the 1,248mm of the Pentax XG-1. But it does have a fixed maximum aperture of ƒ/2.8. So whether I'm zoomed in or out, I can open my aperture as wide as ƒ/2.8. This isn't usually the case with bridge cameras. At its maximum zoom, the XG-1 has a maximum aperture of ƒ/5.6. (When it is zoomed out, the XG-1 has a maximum aperture of ƒ/2.8.) While this might not be a terrible state of affairs where depth-of-field is concerned because the magnification factor is so high, it can be an issue with respect to letting in sufficient light.

With such an enormous zoom, camera shake is a big issue for bridge cameras and to help mitigate that, you need a fast shutter speed assisted by a large aperture. Most bridge cameras do have image stabilisation to help prevent camera shake making itself obvious in your photos, but that smaller aperture at maximum zoom can be problematic.

The huge zoom can you close to the action with a bridge camera, but they don't always enjoy lightning fast autofocus and the EVF can be slow to refresh if you're shooting action scenes. That might mean the difference between shot made and a shot lost, particularly if you're trying to photograph sports or anything fast-moving.

Most bridge cameras use a 1/2.3" sensor. Although that gives them more klout than many compact cameras, they aren't as well endowed as dSLRs, which come with APS-C or full-frame sensors. This can be detrimental to image quality, with noise rearing its ugly head in images.

Bridge cameras versus EVIL cameras

While both bridge and EVIL cameras tend to be smaller than dSLRs, there remain significant differences that set apart the two groups. EVIL cameras come with a range of different sensor sizes, but they need separate lenses. They're also more expensive than bridge cameras, particularly when you factor in lenses, which doesn't place them in direct competition.

So bridge cameras are meant for...

People who want the flexibility of manual controls, incredible zoom, and a lightweight camera are the ideal consumers for bridge cameras. They're excellent for travel, even if they can struggle in low-light and be a little slow to focus. Bridge cameras don't require an arsenal of lenses, but do get you close to your subjects. And they tend to be afforable, too.

* We received a price correction from Ricoh on Tuesday 22 July