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What is a bridge camera?
What is a bridge camera?

Sometimes you don't want to lug around a DSLR and an assortment of lenses - you want one camera and one lens that does it all.

This means a feature set that cherry picks the best that a typical DSLR has to offer, including manual control and preferably the ability to shoot in raw format as well as JPEG, along with a lens that offers a very broad focal range, so it won't matter that it can't be swapped.

Enter the superzoom camera, also known as an ultra zoom or bridge camera - so called because it bridges the gap between a point and shoot compact and an all bells and whistles DSLR, in terms of handling and feature set, at least.

Superzoom build

For this reason, superzooms tend to closely resemble DSLRs in terms of look, build and - to an extent - handling, but feature smaller image sensors and, partly because of this, afford physically smaller lenses.

While not a replacement for a DSLR then, the advantage here is that the cameras can offer a very broad focal range; one that, if you were to try and achieve similar with a DSLR, would make for a prohibitively expensive and awkwardly unwieldy combo.

The larger physical size of a bridge camera or superzoom when compared with a snapshot camera may deter some, but there's a lot more creative versatility here in terms of framing choices. A case in point: many models also offer tilt and swivel LCD screens as well as optical or electronic viewfinders. Again, with a bridge camera there is more choice and more options for the photo enthusiast.

So if you are after one jack-of-all-trades digital camera - either instead of a DSLR, or perhaps as a less expensive back up - and you value convenience and flexibility as much as image quality and pixel count, then a bridge or superzoom camera could be your ideal companion. So here we're shining the spotlight on the best of some recent releases.

Sony Cyber-Shot DSC-HX300

Price: £325/US$430/AU$550

Specs: 20.4MP 1/2.3-inch CMOS sensor, 50x zoom with 24-1200mm (equivalent) focal length, 1080p video

Best compact camera 2013
It's very nearly brilliant

There's a lot to love about the Sony. It has a class-leading 20.4Mp image resolution, a fast 10fps burst rate, generous 30-1/4000th-of-a-second shutter-speed range and a big 50x zoom range (24-1200mm equivalent).

It has clever tricks too. For example, as well as a two-speed powered zoom lever by the shutter button, you can also adjust the zoom and focus settings via a control ring on the lens barrel. This alternative zoom method is still motor-controlled but enables greater precision in adjustments.

Further highlights include a high-res 921k pixel LCD that also boasts a tilt facility.

It's good for shooting from very high or low perspectives, either holding the camera above your head or for shooting from ground level without getting muddy knees. However, unlike some Sony tilt screens, it doesn't flip over completely to help with self-portraits.

In other areas, the Sony comes up a bit short. It does have an electronic viewfinder but the unspecified resolution seems pretty poor, on a par with the Canon and Panasonic cameras.

A more surprising shortcoming, given the otherwise advanced collection of creative shooting modes and high-end features, is that 'stills capture' is a JPEG-only affair, without the ability to shoot in raw. There's also no hot shoe, so you're stuck with the fairly minimal power of the pop-up flash.

Back on the plus side, handling is very good overall, with a high-quality build and quick access to plentiful shooting parameters.

Performance

Impressive in most areas, performance benefits from effective autofocus and metering even in tricky conditions.

The optical stabilizer matches those of other cameras in the group, giving consistently sharp handheld images under decent lighting, even at very long zoom settings.

The only real upset is that image noise can be very noticeable in low-light shots, even at the lower end of the ISO range.

Fuji FinePix HS50 EXR

Price: £350/US$450/AU$510

Specs: 16MP 1/2-inch EXR CMOS II sensor, 42x optical zoom with 24-1000mm (equivalent) focal length, 1080p video

Best compact camera 2013
It's a bit of a whopper

Compared with some competitors in the group, the Fujifilm is a real hunk of a camera. It's got a big, beefy body and, unlike some, the lens doesn't retract when the camera is switched off.

Big isn't necessarily bad, however, and the camera feels wonderfully natural with superb handling. It can't quite match the leaders in the group for outright zoom range, but the 42x lens still gives the equivalent of a mighty 24-1000mm span of focal lengths.

Not only does the Fujifilm have an electronic viewfinder, but it's of considerably better quality than any of the other cameras on test, with a super-sharp 920k pixel display. Composition and manual focusing are all the easier for it.

Along with a plethora of basic and advanced shooting modes, both raw and JPEG quality options are available.

Battery life is similarly impressive, with 500 shots available from a full charge, where most competing cameras only last for about 300 shots.

There's no power zoom facility but, in practice, the smooth and precise manual zoom and focus rings on the lens enable greater precision, without the constant danger of overshooting the mark and having to yo-yo back and forth. Like only the Canon in this group, the LCD is fully articulated so gives a complete range of pivot functions.

Performance

Autofocus is a bit special; the hybrid phase/contrast system doing better than the contrast-detection systems of competing cameras to track moving targets.

Continuing the speed theme, there's a fast 11fps drive rate available, which increases to 16fps if you limit yourself to medium-sized JPEG capture.

In the standard sensitivity range of ISO 100-3200, noise is well controlled and there's excellent retention of fine detail, even at very high ISO settings. Ultra-high sensitivities of up to ISO 12800 are available in expanded mode, if needed.

Kodak PixPro AZ521

Price: £250 (around US$390/AU$425)

Specs: 16.38MP 1/2.3-inch CMOS sensor, 52x zoom with 24-1248mm (equivalent) focal length, 1080p video

Best compact camera 2013

One of the first launches from new Kodak camera brand license holder JK Imaging hits the ground running by virtue of boasting a 52x optical zoom and requisite DSLR-styling for a budget price. This comes coupled to a 16.38 effective megapixel 1/2.3-inch CMOS sensor.

Gone is the former 'EasyShare' series branding, so now in its place we have the more serious-sounding 'PixPro'.

OK, so we don't get a tilting LCD screen, Wi-Fi or built-in GPS here, but it's really all about that lens, in offering an ultra-broad focal range of 24-1248mm in 35mm terms and maximum f/2.8 aperture.

Like the Sony HX300, it's possible to get clear results very near maximum zoom when shooting handheld, though here it requires a couple of shots to be on the money. However, when shooting wide, detail and colours are as well refined and saturated as you'd expect of any device bearing a Kodak logo. It's a surprisingly good first effort.

Nikon Coolpix L820

Price: £190/US$200/AU$300

Specs: 16.79MP 1/2.3-inch back illuminated CMOS sensor, 30x zoom with 22.5-675mm (equivalent) focal length, 1080p video

Best compact camera 2013
It's more of a point-and-shoot bridge camera

Photographers who use Nikon SLRs are usually rewarded with a wealth of shooting options and customisable functions, available through almost-endless scrolling menus.

The L820 is an entirely different proposition and really quite basic in operation.

You don't have to be eagle-eyed to spot the lack of a shooting mode dial and, indeed, there are no aperture-priority, shutter-priority or metered manual modes.

Instead, you're limited to 'auto', 'easy auto', 'smart portrait', and a number of scene modes and filter options. If you like being in control, it can feel a bit limiting. For example, the only way to get a shutter speed slower than one second is to switch to the 'fireworks' scene mode. At the other end of the scale, shutter speed tops out at just 1/1500th of a second.

Sensitivity only reaches ISO 1600 in the standard range, and ISO 3200 in expanded mode.

Other areas which might be disappointing for accomplished photographers are the lack of a viewfinder or hot shoe and the absence of raw capture.

On the plus side, the Nikon is very compact, helped by the retracting lens which tucks away when the camera is switched off. Then again, the 30x zoom range is the smallest in the group.

With an effective 22.5-675mm focal length range, it's quite generous at the wide-angle end, but loses out for long telephoto shooting. Zooming itself can be a bit hit and miss. Unlike the Canon, Panasonic and Sony cameras, there's just a single-speed (and reasonably fast) power-zoom mechanism which can make precise adjustments a real frustration.

Performance

The Nikon redeems itself somewhat when it comes to image quality, which is generally very good even under dull lighting conditions.

Autofocus isn't particularly rapid but it copes better in tricky conditions than Nikon's high-end Coolpix P7700 compact camera, which we reviewed back in issue 139.

Read our Nikon Coolpix L820 review

Canon PowerShot SX50 HS

Price: £350/US$430/AU$475

Specs: 12.1MP 1/2.3-inch CMOS sensor, 50x zoom with 24-1200mm (equivalent) focal length, 1080p video

Best compact camera 2013
Small but powerful and feature-packed

Slightly smaller and lighter than competing cameras that also feature an electronic viewfinder, the Canon nevertheless boasts a 50x zoom lens, equivalent to 24-1200mm in range.

As one of Canon's 'HS' series cameras, it's intended to give good performance in low lighting conditions, which is why its image resolution is relatively modest. As such, the camera is fitted with a 12.1MP image sensor, whereas most others in the group are between 16MP and 20.4MP.

The shooting mode dial is packed with wide-ranging scene modes, a full complement of PASM shooting modes, special effects aplenty and two user-defined custom settings. Further direct access controls around the back make it quick and easy to get to important shooting parameters.

Further attractions include a fully articulated LCD screen and a hot shoe for mounting an optional flashgun.

Ultimately, it really does feel like a 'proper' camera. By contrast, the low-resolution electronic viewfinder is a bit lacking in clarity.

With the immense telephoto reach on offer, one nice touch is the pair of buttons on the side of the lens barrel. These enable you to instantly zoom out if you lose a target at extremely long focal lengths, reacquire it, then zoom back in again to take the shot.

For normal operation of zoom, there's a two-stage lever which enables both slow and fast action. The ability to shoot in raw mode as well as JPEG is another plus point for the Canon.

Performance

True to its low-light claims, image noise is well controlled and the longest available shutter speed is better than most, at 15 seconds.

Maximum burst rate is a bit pedestrian at 4.1fps (frames per second) but you can boost this to 13fps if you don't need autofocus after the first shot in a sequence.

Sharpness is good throughout the zoom range and the optical image stabilizer works well.

Read our Canon PowerShot SX50 HS review

Olympus SP-820UZ

Price: £180/US$230/AU$360

Specs: 14MP 1/2.3-inch CMOS sensor, 40x zoom with 22.4-896mm (equivalent) focal length, 1080p video

Best compact camera 2013

Olympus' flagship AA battery-powered bridge/superzoom camera succeeds the SP-810UZ and delivers a 40x optical zoom (as opposed to its predecessor's 36x) with an equivalent focal range of 22.4mm to 896mm.

This ensures that it's the bridge model starting out the widest in the current market. Said zoom comes supported by dual image stabilisation, low light sensitivity up to ISO 6400, plus Olympus' Multi-Motion Movie IS for steady results even if walking while filming.

Like all the others here, we get a 3-inch LCD screen, offering up a 460k-dot resolution, plus a 1cm macro option. Sequential shooting is offered up to 10fps, though at three megapixels, but what makes this model stand out from the crowd is the 10 Magic Filters onboard, digital effects that include the less familiar day-glo 'pink' option along with Miniature and Pop Art.

Compatibility with wireless Eye-Fi media cards and 43MB internal memory round off the package, but really it's all about that zoom.

Fuji FinePix SL1000

Price: £270/US$300/AU$375

Specs: 16MP 1/2.3-inch CMOS sensor, 50x zoom with 24-1200mm (equivalent) focal length, 1080p video

Best compact camera 2013

Classic DSLR styling aside, the main talking point here is the Fuji SL1000's whopping 50x optical zoom. This offers the equivalent focal range of an ultra wide 24-1200mm on a 35mm film camera of old, with an f/2.9 maximum lens aperture for low light/shallow depth-of-field shots.

Add to this a tilting 3-inch, 920k dot LCD screen, back-illuminated 16 megapixel sensor - even if it's a small-ish 1/2.3 inches - plus ISO 12800 maximum light sensitivity and the ability to shoot raw as well as JPEG files.

There's also an EVF, activated via an ultra-responsive eye sensor. An enthusiasts' dream perhaps, yet one with budget pricing? We thought so, despite a few handling niggles.

Image quality was excellent overall (for a bridge model) even if, as expected, we see noise intruding into shots from ISO 800 upwards.

Read our Fujifilm FinePix SL1000 review | Compare the best prices

Nikon Coolpix L320

Price: £150/US$200/AU$230

Specs: 16MP 1/2.3-inch CCD sensor, 26x zoom with 22.5-585mm (equivalent) focal length, 720p video

Best compact camera 2013

Baby brother to the Nikon L820, this 16 megapixel 1/2.3-inch CCD sensored camera doesn't field as broad a focal range as some superzooms - and in present company a 26x reach reads as modest. Nevertheless, this does provide a creatively comprehensive 22.5-585mm equivalent reach in 35mm terms.

Again the design hints at its maker's acclaimed DSLR range, and all for a relatively low asking price.

That budget buys us a camera with a top light sensitivity setting of ISO 1600 and fixed 3-inch LCD screen with 230k dot resolution, and while there's no Wi-Fi built in, the Nikon L320 is compatible with Eye-Fi X2 wireless cards.

In a nutshell this is an above par entry-level superzoom that should suit anyone on a small budget shooting JPEG-only files, who requires the power of a big lens reach.