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So I've been with my old camera for a few years now. It's a Canon SX150 IS, 16.1 mp, with 16x optical zoom I believe. I really like it, but I feel recently like I want to upgrade, so I've been looking at DSLRS, in the lower price brackets.

I primarily use my camera for wildlife photography, anywhere from macro to about 100m range generally, so that big zoom really comes in handy. What I'm confused about, are the actual trade offs between a DSLR, and a bridge. My current thoughts:

-If I get a DSLR, it will most likely be 12 megapixel. However, DSLRs are generally accepted to be better quality anyway (especially full frame ones), so I'm not sure whether that's actually a problem.

  • Zoom: most lenses, even really long ones, seem to have very small zoom as opposed to my Canon. I'm not sure whether this is really bad, because I have seen, especially with full-frames, that its easy to crop images without losing quality for DSLRs. But then again, the quality on my current camera, while not terrible, definitely doesn't look as good at long ranges. E.g. see below, around 30 meters away, no editing. Cormorant

  • AF points: again, due to budget reasons, I'll probably have an average of 11 points if I get a new DSLR. I think on my Canon it's 7. So notably an improvement, but still not the best for wildlife photography.

All in all, I'm really just looking for some advice. How is it, transitioning from a bridge to DSLR for nature photography? Is it worth it, if, like me, you're looking for a budget camera? I'm not really keyed up on how DSLRs really work, e.g. like the zoom, so it'd be nice to see if my current thoughts (above) are well founded.

Thank you so much for reading, sorry for the length! Appreciate any help, big or small.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I know you mentioned low end DSLRs due to budget limitations, but the future seems to be mirrorless cameras and not DSLRs. This is good and bad for you. It drives down the cost of second hand DSLRs, but sends you down a path with a limited future (says me who is lusting after a $3.5k film camera right now) \$\endgroup\$
    – Peter M
    Commented Jan 9 at 18:23
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Peter M thanks for the reply! Yeah I'm definitely going to be looking at a mirrorless in the future I think, currently I'm looking for something that doesn't put too much of a whole into my pocket haha, but I will definitely take this advice onboard when upgrading in the future. Thanks again :) \$\endgroup\$
    – user114142
    Commented Jan 9 at 18:55
  • \$\begingroup\$ Downgrade from 5k to 4k? Why do these old photos look so good? oh yeah, they have four million more pixels.... \$\endgroup\$
    – Mazura
    Commented Jan 10 at 2:06
  • \$\begingroup\$ "DSLRs are generally accepted to be better quality anyway (especially full frame ones)" - You've identified the reason for the quality difference there, and it's the "full frame" part rather than the "DSLR" part. The larger the sensor, the better the quality. Full-frame sensors are more common in the DSLR space, though not exclusive to DSLR's. And for a given sensor size you'll get about the same level of quality, whether or not the camera has a fancy mirror inside. \$\endgroup\$
    – aroth
    Commented Jan 10 at 4:16
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    \$\begingroup\$ You mentioned "budget", but not what budget means for you. I don't know the crosspoint where DSLR/mirrorless gets better for your use case, but I am quite sure 100$ is too little and 1k$ is more than enough. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jan 10 at 19:46

7 Answers 7

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I primarily use my camera for wildlife photography

This would alone be a reason to switch. Generally bridge cameras don't have as marvelously perfect autofocus as DSLRs / mirrorless camera. However, wildlife photography isn't the most budget-friendly hobby. Ideally you'd have a good coverage of autofocus points and rapid burst shot rate, which won't be found in the cheapest DSLRs.

What I'm confused about, are the actual trade offs between a DSLR, and a bridge.

DSLR / mirrorless generally has much, much better autofocus, whereas cheaper cameras often hunt for focus so long that you miss shots unless the animals you shoot are very static.

Also the lenses have better optical quality, zoom is faster since it happens by rotating the lens barrel not by a motor.

However, DSLRs are generally accepted to be better quality anyway (especially full frame ones)

Not for wildlife (full frame I mean). For wildlife, generally you prefer crop cameras although Canon has managed to make a full frame 800mm f/11 lens that might make full frame cameras acceptable for medium-budget wildlife photography if you have the funds for mirrorless. But at least with DLSRs (not mirrorless), you want crop, since lenses are usually f/5.6 or f/6.3 at the very least for autofocus to work, and 400mm f/5.6 gives so much better reach with crop cameras than it does with full frame cameras. Generally for wildlife, crop cameras are preferable. On the very high end, there are full frame cameras with such huge megapixel count that pixel density equals that of crop cameras, but you don't use those usually for wildlife, since huge megapixel count means shooting speed in burst isn't fast anymore.

Zoom: most lenses, even really long ones, seem to have very small zoom as opposed to my Canon. I'm not sure whether this is really bad, because I have seen, especially with full-frames, that its easy to crop images without losing quality for DSLRs.

The key here is that you select the lens for the usage. For example 55-250mm lens on a crop camera is 88-400mm full frame equivalent. Would it be better to have 25-400mm 16x zoom? No, because a 25-400mm lens is heavier, more expensive, has smaller aperture and worse optical quality than a lens built to be a real tele lens. Lenses aren't jacks of all trades. You select a lens for the usage. So-called superzooms are available too but then you limit your reach at the tele end, have to pay a lot of money for them, have to carry lot of weight for you, have to accept small aperture and poor optical quality. Usually those who use DLSRs / mirrorless cameras don't want them, but maybe if you're on a vacation, traveling light, and don't want to change lenses, you might prefer one.

AF points: again, due to budget reasons, I'll probably have an average of 11 points if I get a new DSLR. I think on my Canon it's 7. So notably an improvement, but still not the best for wildlife photography.

This is what you want to focus on (pun intended). Also, you want to buy a camera with "lens drive when AF impossible" option in the menu. I would recommend a used Canon 70D for example. It has reasonable burst rate, good autofocus and the "lens drive when AF impossible" option allowing you to stop hunting for focus when it doesn't help. Also, it's a crop camera which means a 400mm prime makes a marvelously long reach lens for example. You can buy a Canon 70D for ~300-400 EUR used where I live (adjust for currency and tax rates for other areas), but that obviously doesn't come with a lens. Add another ~350 EUR and you get yourself a new 55-250mm lens, or ~150 EUR for a used 55-250mm IS II which I would avoid due to its older focus motor technology.

However, wildlife photography is a neverending money pit. Once you get the 70D and 55-250, you will start lusting after a 400mm f/5.6 which is only available used as the new ones have been discontinued. Some time ago, you would expect to pay over 1000EUR for a used quality one, but today many photographers are moving to EOS R mirrorless, meaning quality EF glass can be bought used for good prices, maybe even as cheaply as 650EUR if you can find a good deal.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Thank you so much @juhist, this is fantastic! Really appreciate the depth you've gone into (and the pun haha ;). So this definitely shows me DSLR and cropped is the way to go, I'll be sure to have a hunt for the features you've said. Incidentally, and please feel free not to reply if you don't want too, can I ask, is there a minimum number of AF-points you'd recommend for wildlife photography? I've not found my 7 on my bridge to be overly bad, but is there a limit? Also, Canon says there cropped sensor magnify by 1.6x. So for a 4x lens, is that going to be 6.4x total, or adding on to get 5.6? \$\endgroup\$
    – user114142
    Commented Jan 9 at 19:25
  • \$\begingroup\$ Might want to amend your final sentence, since EF lenses are dropping in price thanks to the EOS R system. MPB has an EF 400/5.6L USM in "good" condition listed for €649. \$\endgroup\$
    – inkista
    Commented Jan 9 at 21:00
  • \$\begingroup\$ @user114142 The 1.6 crop factor means that a 400mm lens on a Canon crop body will be equivalent to 640mm on a full-frame body; a 55–250mm zoom lens will be equivalent to 88–400mm. The difference isn’t in the zoom factor, which will be about 4.5× in both cases, but in how zoomed in any given point on the zoom scale is in absolute terms. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jan 10 at 2:04
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    \$\begingroup\$ Not a full answer, @user114142, but for this reason some professional wildlife photographers prefer M4/3 format: You're going to want the crop anyway, and the lighter glass is both easier to hike with and quicker to move to follow the subject. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jan 10 at 17:26
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Moving from a bridge camera to a large-sensor interchangeable lens camera has quite a number of drawbacks:

  • increased cost. Like in four figures for both the body and the lens.
  • bigger/heavier to get a supertelephoto lens
  • equivalent "reach" can be smaller (if you're using something like an FZ80 which was 20-1200mm equivalency)
  • loss of macro capability without a specialized macro lens
  • having to lug a camera bag if you want to cover the same focal length range as a superzoom bridge.
  • possibly having to lug a monopod/tripod depending on the supertelephoto lens you get

But it also has a number of advantages:

  • higher image quality
  • overall feature set gives you more control (RAW, flash hotshoe, shutter release port, etc.)
  • faster responsiveness / less shutter lag
  • faster, more accurate autofocus system: easier to catch birds in flight/motion, not just perched or standing
  • interchangeable lenses means the camera can be used for other purposes with other lenses

And an even newer mirrorless system from Canon or Sony would have AI-trained animal eye detection/tracking autofocus systems that most wildlife/bird photographers consider a gamechanger. Also silent shutter modes. And the Canon EOS R mount also offers some slower f/8 and f/11 lenses that are smaller, lighter, and less expensive options for 400mm, 600mm, and 800mm lenses than we ever saw for dSLRs.

Keep in mind your SX's "supertelephoto" equivalent reach of 28-336mm is actually done with a 5.6x crop factor and a 5-60mm lens. A 400mm lens has much more magnification than a 60mm lens. And using the EF 400/5.6L USM on an 8MP ancient [2005 model] 350D/XT, I could get bird images like this:

brown pelican in flight image taken with 350D/XT and EF 400mm f/5.6L USM

On a 1.6x crop body like a Canon dRebel, a 400mm lens is 640mm-equivalent. Quite a bit more "zooming in" than your XS's lens gives you, now. Now, the XT was far from ideal for birding, having a primitive AF system and slow (3 fps) burst rate, so I would recommend getting something nicer/newer. But it was doable.

But. That lens cost me $1100 back in the day. Today [Jan 2024], used, you can find it for around $600-$700 dollars. But that may still be more than you want to spend on top of getting a camera body to put it on. So your definition of "budget" is going to make a difference, here.

Another possible option to consider would be a newer (the SX150 IS is a 2011 camera; sensor tech has moved a lot in the dozen years since), better superzoom bridge camera with a bigger sensor. Something like a Panasonic FZ1000 series, or Sony RX10 series camera. These are fixed-lens, but use a bigger 1"-format sensor (2.7x crop) and have much larger zoom factors than your SX. They are bigger, bulkier, and more expensive. But could give you better results than you're currently getting, with slightly more reach on the lens (the FZ1000 has a 24-400mm equivalent lens; an RX10 III has 24-600mm equivalency).

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  • \$\begingroup\$ +1 here for Sony rx10 iv. Used can be found under $1000 and I have seen one for $650 with one of the connector covers not closing otherwise fine. It has excellent AF very fast, and incredible lens and a decent sensor. No it does not rival full frame cameras in terms of image quality but guess what's coming with me when I travel or go out not specifically to take photos? It's not just versatility. There is a lot the big boy cameras can't do that this one can. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jan 12 at 0:02
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First things first, you should get out of the mentality of thinking about zoom ratios... 4x / 6x / 16x whatever – this isn't important – that's really just a marketing buzzword for cameras without interchangeable lenses. What is important is the focal length (or range of focal lengths) of the lens (in combination with the sensor size). Many wildlife photographers use high-quality lenses that don't zoom at all. You should read and understand this article from Nikon for example... Understanding Focal Length.

With regard to that last link, it's worth noting that Nikon uses its own terminology for sensor size. Nikon uses the term "FX format" for what's commonly known as a "full-frame" sensor, and the term "DX format" for a smaller sensor – what's commonly known as an "APS-C" sensor or "cropped" sensor.

At this stage, hopefully you've come to the conclusion that you need a long focal length for wildlife photography. What disappoints many users graduating from a compact/bridge camera up to an interchangeable-lens camera is that flexible, high-quality lenses do not come cheap. Bridge camera users often complain... "But my old camera zooms from 24mm to 2000mm" or something like that. Sorry, but it is simply not trivial to design/manufacture/sell an "equivalent" lens for a large-sensor camera. If you want a good quality lens at this level, you're going to have to pay for it.

Overall your question can't really be answered definitively in a way that will help users in general. There are too many variables... Do you buy new/secondhand, DSLR/mirrorless, and a dozen other questions. But, I guess, if you twist my arm, I'd summarise it like this... Spend some money now in order to avoid disappointment. Buy a modern camera – they're all good. If you want to photograph subjects both near and far, then I think you need a zoom lens. If you really want to also do macro photography, you might need to consider buying two lenses. Learn good technique (which might include shooting from a blind, getting a tripod/monopod, anticipating behaviour of subjects, choosing the right time of day, the right position relative to the sun, etc, etc). Understand exposure. And practice! Don't be dispirited – learn to take advantage of the features your camera offers.

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    \$\begingroup\$ One additional point is that /any/ zoom lens, not to mention those with enormously high ratios, introduce additional optical surfaces. Every optical surface, no matter how well-coated, will serve to lose contrast. Hence for something like this I'd suggest that the very best images will come from a camera which takes interchangeable lenses, plus a collection of lenses with limited (or no) zoom capability. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jan 10 at 8:59
  • \$\begingroup\$ Well, of course prime lenses produce better pictures, but the three lenses or so which would replace a single superzoom maybe three times as expensive, and heavier, and if you want to shoot different things on a single occasion you have to switch lenses in the field etc. Bottom line: A zoom has its uses. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jan 11 at 0:15
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Peter-ReinstateMonica I'm not quite sure what the point of your comment is. I already say in my answer that I think the OP needs a zoom lens (and it should of course be a telephoto zoom). \$\endgroup\$
    – osullic
    Commented Jan 11 at 0:27
  • \$\begingroup\$ I must admit I read sloppily -- the first part seemed to be skeptical of zooms and recommend primes. But I see that you simply recommend long-length zooms and explain why high zoom rates are not an easy option for larger sensors. Fair enough. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jan 11 at 0:41
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Addressing a couple of your sub-questions:

If I get a DSLR, it will most likely be 12 megapixel

Pixel count isn't everything, and bigger pixels have lower noise. Most compact cameras (and even worse phone cameras) have far too many pixels for their optics. This is helpful for digital zoom or extreme cropping, but you shouldn't need to do that with an SLR.

Zoom: most lenses, even really long ones, seem to have very small zoom as opposed to my Canon

That's because you're thinking per lens. SLRs achieve their zoom range by swapping lenses, which means smaller compromises in the lens. I don't get much chance for wildlife photography any more, so my kit is over 10 years old (links that follow are to the current version). But I use a Sigma 120-400 at the long end, and complement that with a Sigma 17-70 macro. So with 2 lenses you can get 23× optical zoom.

The wider lens being (just about) a macro lens is useful on wildlife photography trips - which gives me an excuse to include this cute tree frog (shot in Costa Rica; I was standing in the hotel swimming pool and used a Speedlight 430EX with a passive ring light adaptor on my 40D). Tree frog

The gap in focal lengths doesn't matter too much - shoot at 70mm and crop to overcome it (but I would also carry binoculars, spotting scope, tripod and general hiking gear on wildlife hikes so had an incentive to keep the weight and bulk down). Being able to shoot landscapes - or wildlife in landscapes - is a good way to get more enjoyment from wildlife (photography) trips, so I'd always recommend carrying a lens for that, even if it's just the kit lens.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ The blown highlights bug me on that shot if I look too closely, but it was the only one I had handy in work short of downloading from facebook (and that bugs me in other ways). \$\endgroup\$
    – Chris H
    Commented Jan 10 at 11:36
  • \$\begingroup\$ If pixels aren't everything, and we ignore lenses (and focal length), then all that's left is the sensor? Where any 12mp DSLR will blow a 10yo Canon 16mp out of the water... or not so much? (shutter speed, or w/e, on OP's pic doesn't look like it was fast enough to compare it to anything here. Or is it a perfect example; your pics look like that. The future is now, old man.) \$\endgroup\$
    – Mazura
    Commented Jan 12 at 18:26
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Mazura OK, "pixels aren't everything" is shorthand really, but SLRs end not too have too many stuffed in. Lenses are really important, but the zoom from one lens isn't - that's thinking that has to be put behind if switching to an SLR. I still get good use out of my old 350D and kit lens that I keep in work (documentation etc.). It's not the pixel count that lets it down, but the noise compared to a modern camera \$\endgroup\$
    – Chris H
    Commented Jan 12 at 19:24
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Starting to upgrade equipment is a rabbit-hole where you can dive in for years. Expensive as well. So, from my own experience, here are some well meaning suggestions (not really advice).

Note that it is a system; you need to have things like: camera, lenses, batteries, memory cards, carry bag, tripod, software on your computer.

  1. Check your old photos for what focal length settings you like best. It should be in the metadata of the photo files. This indicates what lenses you want to start investing in first for the new camera system. Good lenses for DSLR never have as large a zoom range as your bridge camera so you will probably end up with several lenses.

  2. The big money spending is generally in the the lenses if you go for quality. And you select one system for the lenses, say Sony, Canon, MFT (micro four third) or whatever. They are in general not compatible (forget about adapters, those are for gearheads). Once you select what system to go for, you will probably want to stay with that.

  3. This year's models of camera bodies are really expensive and marketing works hard on making you want all the fantastic features. A lot of the new features currently are really about video, so twice about whether you want to pay for them. Thankfully you can get used camera bodies of old models for a lot less money. Say up to around 10 to perhaps 15 year old models are still very usable. Once you select a system for your lenses you can always update to a new camera body later when next year's models make this year's models less expensive.

  4. My personal thinking: for outdoor photography I like the equipment to be weather "resistant". This generally means the more expensive end of camera bodies and lenses.

Good luck.

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One of the biggest differences going from a bridge or point-and-shoot to a DSLR or Mirrorless is going to be the performance at high sensitivities. It's possible to get pictures in conditions other than daytime outdoors that are actually usable without necessarily using a flash or tripod.

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Just to add to the multitude of great answers already posted - DSLR gives you a lot more control which is a catch in and of itself.
If you just buy a DSLR with a zoom lens and start comparing results, the uplift will be marginal, especially for the price. But if you are willing to invest the time to learn the craft, and even more money (lenses, filters, lighting), only then you can go beyond the ceiling that your bridge camera is limiting you to.
One final thought, I never owned a "bridge" camera, I went from cheap point and shoot to a second hand DSLR with a bunch manual (M42) lenses and I had a blast with it. Now I have mid-range APSC camera with 3 favorite prime auto-focus lenses and although my wife rolls her eyes when I start rummaging through my bag for a lens, when she just asked me to take a simple photo, I still can't see myself going back.

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