After months of study, I thought I would pass on kind of a summary of my camera buying thoughts.
Bridge cameras run about $450. The bridge/superzoom camera category is just below a DSLR, but offers many of the same features. They are lighter, smaller, and have a wide range of focal lengths. It would require more money in one lens of a DSLR to get the zoom that these cameras offer. Most point and shoots compress images into JPEG files. This allows a camera card to store many times the number of pictures on a camera card. DSLRs let you store the image data in a RAW file and control the compression on your computer. The differences are seldom noticeable unless you would really crop the picture in closely and then you might see the difference. Most bridge cameras don’t offer RAW images so they don’t offer the opportunity to learn these post-processing tricks. The main disadvantages of bridge cameras is that their sensors are quite a bit smaller than DSLRs. This seems to have the greatest impact on low light shots. Sony tries to overcome this with 6 image overlays in a couple of their shooting modes. The six images are taken virtually at the same time. They use the overlays to form one image cancelling out the noise that would be there in any one image. It works fairly well relative to not having it but it still doesn’t perform as well as a DSLR. (I’ve shot the same shot with and without in low light, but got up in the early morning to do the tests and the “model”, me, wasn’t presentable so I’m not sharing.) You have virtually all of the manual controls of a DSLR and can learn how to apply all the principles of photography with this camera. If you become comfortable with this, sell the camera and move up or just master it and park here.
The next link is to the conclusion of a very technical review of the Sony bridge camera. Many pros throw the Canon camera, to which it is compared, in their bags along with their professional equipment.
Next up from the bridge cameras are the mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras (ILCs). The guts (particularly the sensors) are quite similar to a DSLR but there is no optical view finder. They either have only an LCD display or an LCD display and an electronic viewfinder (EVF). Even their bodies are more expensive than a bridge camera. Then there is the expense of the lenses. The bodies range from about $500 to $1200. An 18-200mm lens runs from $580 to $800 for “kit” level lens and well over a $1000 for a quality lens. A 35-50mm portrait lens runs from $150 to $300 for a “kit” level lens. The sensor size/processor combo is half the story of picture quality. The lens is the other half. Most ILCs have the option of purchase with a kit lens in the 18-55mm range for a nominal cost of $100-$200 over the cost of the body. They don’t use the same lens (without an adapter anyway) as full size DSLRs and they generally have proprietary accessories. So, later, if you want to move up, none of your “extras” will work. For still images only, I would recommend the Sony NEX-C3 as a value leader. It can be had with the kit lens for $650. At the other end of the spectrum is the Sony NEX-7 which comes with a kit lens for $1350. You could shoot a movie with this puppy since it offers complete manual control while shooting video as well as stills. In my opinion Sony is the only way to go in this class if you want to do any low light shooting. The Sony ILCs have the same size sensor as DSLRs. I might consider the Olympus E-P3 for outdoor shooting. It has a much smaller sensor (~2/3) but the lenses are quite nice.
Here is a Sony video promo of the 5N
The cropped sensor DSLRs are the next step up. Their bodies range from $450 to $2100. Lens costs are comparable to the ILCs. They are bigger and heavier than ILCs. However, they may outperform the ILCs particularly in focus speed and easy access to picture setting controls. My choice would be the new Sony A65, coming out October 19, as an entrly level DSLR. For portrait or long-exposure night photography I would also consider the Nikon D5100. It has very good low light performance but the images are usually a little “soft” for my taste.
Full frame (same size as 35mm film) sensor DSLRs run from about $2100 and up with the Canon 5D MkII being my fave. With a sensor 1.5x to 2x the size of an ILC or cropped sensor DSLR, these offer the highest picture quality (PQ) out there and these are the choice of pros. The bigger the sensor the bigger the lens required to get a tighter (more zoomed in shot). A 200mm lens on a Sony ILC is equivalent to a 300mm lens on the 5D. It’s isn’t just the money. These lenses get large and heavy. (Of course, if you’re only doing portrait photography who cares.) Pros usually have assistants and one of their primary functions is to carry stuff.
A bridge camera makes a great learning tool and would be more camera than any casual shooter would probably want since you can’t stick it in your pocket. Step up to an ILC and you will get much better PQ, especially for low light shooting, but getting any kind of “zoom” becomes pricey fast. An entry-level DSLR gives you all of the advantages of an ILC in a bulkier body but you’ll get more performance for your money and if you go Sony or Canon you have lenses and accessories you can keep if you want to go full frame later. (Nikon uses different lenses for their crop frame DSLRs than for the full frame cameras.)
I don’t ever expect to go to the pro level cameras so I don’t need upwardly mobile accessories and lenses. I think I’ve learned most of what I could learn from a bridge camera from my HX5V already. I like the variety of accessories that work with a DSLR, but I think I’m going to go with a more compact ILC. I’m trying to decide between the Sony NEX-5N and NEX-7 because video is important as well as indoor shooting.
Without further fanfare, here are the purchasing recommendations of myself, someone with no photographic credentials whatsoever:
I plan to have my new camera in time to shoot Thanksgiving. What factor am I overlooking?