Gear Photography

Get sharper shots with your superzoom

Modern super-zoom bridge cameras offer incredible magnification – here’s how to keep get the best from them

Ever since the introduction of DSLRs and CSCs, people have been saying that bridge cameras – those that combine DSLR-like handling with a built-in zoom lens – are dead. Well, people are often wrong about stuff. Want some proof? Then look no further than bridge camera models like the Canon PowerShot SX70 HS, Nikon P950, and Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX10 IV.

Superzoom bridge cameras are alive and kicking with some great models on the market from the likes of Canon, Nikon and Sony.

These small, light, and powerful cameras can do things that are virtually impossible on a DSLR or CSC. Yes, they have their drawbacks, but when it comes to versatility in framing the subject, they’re unmatched. Typically you’ll get 35mm equivalents of 20mm or 24mm at the wide end, all the way up to 600mm, 1000mm or even 2000mm and beyond at the long end of the zoom. So everything from sweeping landscapes to super telephoto shots of wildlife, sports or action subjects are within your grasp. 
But shooting at very long focal lengths has to be done with care, so how do you get the best from this huge reach? Here are some ways to improve results – and they go for long lenses on DSLRs and CSCs a©s well as compacts…

Used in the right way, superzoom compacts can be used for all sorts of subjects. © Kingsley Singleton.

Use image stabilisation 
Most of the time, image stabilisation should be switched on by default, but it’s well worth making sure that it is. Otherwise, if you’re using focal length equivalents of 600mm, 1000mm or even 2000mm, the subject may be difficult to keep in the frame, let alone sharp when you take the picture.
As you zoom in, the picture is magnified, but so is any vibration coming from the camera. So When shooting at a setting like 800mm, you’d ordinarily want a shutter speed of 1/800sec to off set this, but with modern image stabilisation systems can offer around four or five stops of compensation, typically you could shoot at 1/25sec and still get a sharp shot, assuming there’s little or no subject movement.

Shot at an equivalent of 800mm, one image benefits from image stabilisation, and the other doesn’t.

Don’t forget your handling basics
Even with image stabilisation switched on, poor handling can cause problems – essentially you’re giving the camera more work to do. So remember the basics when handholding. Steady yourself against something if possible, plant your feet securely shoulder width apart, and keep your elbows in. It’s also a good idea to support the lens as close to the end as possible with your hand as this will cut out lots of movement.

Think about subject movement, too
Remember it’s not only camera movement and the way that you focus that affects sharpness. The movement of the subject is just as important. For instance, using image stabilsation and good handling, you might get sharp pictures down to 1/20sec, or similar, but if the subject is moving it’s highly unlikely to be kept sharp at these speeds. 
This isn’t a problem if you’re shooting landscape or architectural images, but if you’re going for a wildlife, sports or action subject, try to set the fastest possible shutter speed to make every part of the picture as clear as possible.

If the subject is moving and you’re shooting with a slow shutter speed, no amount of image stabilisation or good handling will help, so try to keep the speed up. © Kingsley Singleton.

Frame carefully 
At very high magnifications – like those offered by super-zoom bridge cameras – you’ll find that even very small changes to the position of the camera will have a big effect on framing. Even a slight movement can change the composition so that the framing isn’t how you want it, or the subject is completely missing. 
So when using these very long focal lengths, make sure you concentrate on holding the camera as still as possible when pressing the shutter release button. And if possible, use a tripod or monopod to add greater stability.   
Some super-zoom compacts have features that help. For instance, Nikon’s P950 has a neat Nikon’s Snap-Back button that zooms out to a wider setting but retains a frame around the previous focal length, so you can find your subject and release the button to reframe. 

When working at high magnification, take extra care in framing. One small movement can change a lot. © Kingsley Singleton.

Work out where it’s sharpest
The appeal of these cameras is in their versatility, and they’re likely to produce great images at all sorts of focal length and exposure settings, at least when viewed at 100% on your computer screen. 
But if you’re printing or cropping, you may want to investigate where the model is at its best in terms of both optical quality and ISO performance. For instance you might find that the very widest or longest zoom settings see the greatest sharpest or the least vignetting in the image. Or that over a certain ISO setting there’s a little too much noise in the picture. 
It’s easy to test. Just set the camera up on a tripod and pick a non-moving subject with lots of detail. Next take pictures while altering the setting you want to test. Compare these later and you’ll know how the camera behaves and where it’s at its best. 

As good as modern bridge cameras are image quality will always be better in one part of the zoom than another.

Avoid the digital zoom, unless you need it
Most bridge cameras will offer a digital zoom on top of the optical zoom. This means that when you reach the end of what it’s possible to enlarge optically, the camera can interpolate the view to magnify it further. 
These options have come on a lot in recent years, with results almost indistinguishable from the optical results when you use a 2x digital setting, but keep it pushing it further and the picture becomes less and less lifelike, so you’re better off moving your feet.

Stick to the optical zoom if you can, as that’s where the best image quality will be found. © Kingsley Singleton.

Pick the right conditions
If you’re using the longest zoom settings to pick out distant details in the landscape, know that environmental factors will affect image quality as well as the quality of the lens, how you expose and hold the camera. 
Mist, smog, water vapour and heat haze are the most common problems you’ll face, so expect them to affect image sharpness. But if you pick the right conditions things will look clearer. For instance shoot close to dawn, rather than in the middle or end of the day and the sun will cause less heat haze, making distant details stand out more clearly. 

Even in very cold conditions you can notice heat haze and other atmospheric effects when shooting with very long focal lengths. © Kingsley Singleton.

Give yourself a safety net
High end bridge cameras can shoot in RAW image quality mode as well as having very healthy framerates. Make use of both of these and you’re more likely to end up with a sharp and well-exposed image from your shoot. 
For instance, use the fastest burst mode the camera has and you’re far more likely to catch your highly magnified subject in the right position, while shooting in RAW gives you the safety net to improve exposure after the event, letting you concentrate on composition and focus. 

Using Raw image quality mode, or firing a burst of shots is a great safety net for exposure and framing.