Wednesday, 10 August 2011

bridge camera on road trip

Fuji HS20
I decided to experiment with taking a single so-called ‘Bridge’ camera for my recent trip, instead of the usual DSLR and lenses. It was partly a space compromise, to keep the backpack reasonably light.
So what worked and what didn’t?
First, the camera I used...It was a Fuji Finepix HS20 EXR, which is a modern 2011 device, which would compete with the (e.g.) Nikon P500 and the Canon HS30. 
I expect the camera buffs will talk about sensor size, chromatic aberration and megapixels, but I simply preferred that the Fuji has a (non exchangeable) manual twist zoom instead of the generally slow electric zooms on the Nikon and Canon models. At a non technical detail level they are all very similar, with (in my opinion) a slightly more robust apparent build quality on the Fuji.
And as a comparison, I’d usually take a Nikon DSLR, probably a D300 and maybe a couple of extra lenses, which would be 2-3 times the bulk of the Fuji.
So what happened?
Firstly, the camera does take pleasant pictures. The colour looks good and there’s enough pixels to mean some cropping is viable. I know, with a good SLR the cropping might not be needed, but its still a matter of balance.
The Fuji also had an automatic mode with a sort of dynamic range enhancer called EXR, which was supposed to stop sky highlight blowout and to improve detail in shadows. I didn’t find this setting to my liking, it seemed to slightly over-expose, so instead I used the ‘P’ mode and set the exposure down by 2/3 of a stop. This kept detail in the sky and although darkening the whole picture it ultimately gave more data to work with.
The camera also has a viewfinder, which was one of the other things I wanted; some of the bridge cameras have removed this, but it is still useful for framing, although the electronic viewfinder on the Fuji had a slow refresh and would go blank at the moment the shutter was pressed.
This leads me to the main drawback of this type of camera. I’d sort of forgotten about ‘shutter lag’ because of using DSLRs and other mechanical shuttered digital cameras. I once had a very smart looking Nikon compact that had a discernible ‘and one and two’ between pushing the button and the picture. This camera has a similar drawback.
What about the defining moment?
Digital photography misses the point if the defining moment of a shot can’t be captured. Cartier Bresson showed this in his work and there’s plenty of other famous examples. 
To illustrate a basic challenge. Driving along the Camino Real it would be fun to take a photo of one of those bell markers that showed the route of the old Mission road. They are about every mile or two and can be seen from a long way away. I’d slow the car to make it easy for my co-pilot to ‘grab’ a shot, but it was surprisingly difficult with this camera. Firstly, it would power down and take 3 seconds to awake. Secondly, it would confuse itself about whether to display the image on the back screen or in the viewfinder. It would then take too long to work out the focus. And blank at the moment of picture. The end results were some ‘near misses’ taking these pictures. And this from a camera which includes 'dog' and 'cat' modes...
In general use
For general use in cityscapes, landscapes and general coverage the camera works fine. The built-in flash is also subtle for fill in and the ISO range is quite forgiving and can be set to an auto maximum, which will drop to the lowest sensible setting most of the time.

It could take regular AA batteries which meant not having to worry about running out of power anywhere.
In bright sunlight the back screen wouldn’t show anything clearly and the viewfinder images would be dark if I used the -2/3 setting which I needed to get the best exposure.
So did it work?
Mostly, yes. It handled the main travel pictures well. I learned to handle its peculiarities to get good pictures most of the time. The usual ‘halfway down’ button pressing worked to help the shutter lag, by effectively pre-loading the focus and exposure - although I suspect a lot of people wouldn’t know to do this type of thing.
Would I do it again?
Probably not. I have no regrets about the pictures I’ve taken - most of which have come out fine, but I do feel that the camera presented more of an obstacle than I’d expected. I don’t think I’m ‘blaming the tools’ here or particularly picking on the Fuji; I know I’ve had similar experiences with an equivalent Nikon in the past. 
The camera’s strengths are a lens that runs from 24mm to 720mm with image stabilisation and pretty good colour on plenty of pixels. The best way to use it is to prepare for the shot (I know, I know). 
That’s OK in theory, but not always possible. I know that when we used a pocketable Lumix for a few around town shots there was a sigh of relief that its fixed ‘28mm’ lens gave us shots at the exact moment we wanted them.

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