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New camera status quo

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The hybrid between SLR and compact cameras, known as the bridge or prosumer camera, has finally come into its own, writes BRIAN KOPING

It had to happen. For those who needed photographic excellence there was always only one choice: the single lens reflex (SLR) camera, with an armament of lenses and the obligatory camera bag to carry it all. This cumbersome collection of hardware is now seriously challenged by the new breed of ‚prosumer‚ or ‚bridge‚ camera.

The prosumer is a bridge between the compact consumer camera and the SLR. Typically it has a ¬Ω inch CCD (Charge Coupled Device) sensor as opposed to the much larger APS (Advanced Photo System) size sensor of most digital SLR cameras.

The bridge camera resembles a compact SLR, but the lens is a non-interchangeable zoom ranging from a fair wide angle (about 28mm) to a reasonable telephoto.

Viewing is by two LCD (liquid crystal diode) screens, one for eye-level viewing and the other on the back of the camera. There is usually no provision for external flash.

In the past, performance has been good but limiting and, in truth, a little shy of that attainable by even an entry level SLR. But things have changed. The big brands have launched a new generation of compact cameras, some with interchangeable lenses and impressive performance and some with 30x and more non-interchangeable superzooms. It is these I find exciting.

The usual SLR kit comprises a body and two lenses ranging from 18mm to 200 or 300mm. In 35mm terms, this is 28mm to about 480mm. The 18mm lens one can live with, but if nature photography is your bag, you will need a good bit more than a 480mm lens and these are not cheap. For ‚big sky‚ pictures, 28mm is a little long and 24mm usually fits the bill. This leaves you with a hardware collection of one camera body and three, possibly four lenses, plus a tripod to use with the long lens. This outfit is a little cumbersome and probably weighs 5kg or more.

Now we get to the exciting part. The new generation of bridge cameras have zooms ranging from some 23mm to well over 700mm (35mm terms) and the picture quality is awesome.

I played around with some of these and homed in on the 16 megapixel Fujifilm FinePix HS20. Not particularly small, but comfortable to hold. The zoom control is manual and precise, the camera has a hot shoe for external flash – Fuji have two dedicated flashguns for it ‚ and the front of the lens housing has a 58mm diameter filter thread. The camera also has a full HD video capability and can take stills while shooting video.

The HS20’s 30x zoom is shorter than some of its competitors but, for me, a range of 24‚720mm with a maximum aperture of f2.8 is fine.

Knowing Fuji make top class Fujinon lenses for the professional movie camera industry, I was nevertheless blown away by the picture quality this camera produced. Despite being a 30x zoom, the HS20 easily matched my SLR for quality, focal length for focal length, despite the latter using lenses far more costly than the Fuji camera!

How was this achieved with a ¬Ω inch sensor? Fuji used a CMOS sensor (Complimentary Metal-Oxide Semi-conductor), which is more efficient than a CCD. They use a BSI (Back Side Illuminated) EXR CMOS sensor, moving the wiring from the centre layer where it could block incoming light, to the reverse of the sensor, greatly improving sensitivity and reducing noise.

I often photograph under conditions where the clatter of an SLR camera’s shutter/mirror mechanism is a distinct disadvantage. The HS20 can be set to silent mode.

Admittedly, operation-wise, the Fuji is not as crisp as my SLR. Low light focusing with a long lens length is a pain. But, once focused, the picture quality is great.

Performance with all the new superzoom bridge cameras is impressive and bells and whistles abound.

Frankly, if I have to choose between carrying only a compact do-it-all relatively light superzoom that delivers the quality of image I require and carting a weighty camera-bag of costly gear, my SLR kit will stay at home.

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