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Back To the Bridge Camera - with the Fuji 9100

BACK TO THE BRIDGE CAMERA*
A small sensor bridge camera compared to a DSLR

Although most people consider moving Ďupí to a DSLR there are some who - after having taken the leap into the realm of heavy kitbags, changing lenses, no live preview or flip-out LCD Ė start to wonder what it might be like to return to the bridge camera. In this gallery I thought that might be a kind of interesting idea to explore, so Iím sharing what itís like to hang up the DSLR for a while and use a bridge camera again. In this case it's a Fuji 9600 (9100)with a 1:1.6" sensor - probably at the time of writing - the best bridge camera thatís been on the market since the Minolta A2 (with 1:1.5" or 2/3 sensor) and the Sony R1 which actually had an APS-C DSLR sized sensor. The camera will accompany me on a variety of different projects including work where appropriate, and in challenging lighting conditions.

The Fuji 9100 camera has a very promising do-anything specification with its 9 megapixel Fuji sensor, f 2.8-f4.9 28-300mm lens, flip-out LCD, pop-up flash, hot shoe, focus assist light and bright EVF. So whatís it like compared to the KM-5D DSLR I normally use? On first impression the EVF can be rather worrying in the sense that one can no longer see small details as easily with the optical viewfinder of the DSLR, but it is possible to see well in dim light thanks to automatic enhancement and thatís quite an advantage. EVFs give a good impression of what the captured colours will actually be like and, remember, the view through an optical viewfinder is not an indication of what has been captured either; instead one should use one's eyes to select interesting colour compositions and, provided that the exposure is correct, trust the camera to do the rest.

Crucially for me as a glasses wearer, all the exposure info is large enough to see easily - wonderful to be able to control a camera so easily again without taking the eye from the finder! With a DSLR (without a live view EVF or live view LCD) one needs to review the image on the back plate LCD to see what alterations are required, but with this Fuji you can tell instantly in the EVF when the exposure* on a difficult shot is not going to work to best advantage; dial in +/- EV and you'll see how well it is working.

The flip out LCD is also a real treat to use for low shots and overheads, no longer does one think: ďCan I frame that from near ground level?Ē, with this Fuji you can. You can also see the live histogram and thatís a great help.

Ergonomics are excellent and the balance of the camera itself is nice. It could do with being half the size, but then of course it would end up with a very mediocre lens. My DSLR kit bag typically weighs in at 5KG, so this camera at 0.7kg is a pleasure to use as an alternative especially when walking in the hills or on the Coast path.

Manual Focusing, bane of the digital camera without split screen range finder: Yes, it can be done fairly easily with this model, but you have to kind of cheat by selecting MF and then pressing a button on the left side of the camera body to give one touch autofocus. Then select the magnifier - thankfully a button rather than a menu thing - and then rock the manual focus ring backwards and forwards until you see the little yellow arrow at the bottom of the focus circle change direction. Useful for macros. However if you don't use the one-touch autofocus button it can take ages to find the point where the little yellow arrow shows up. I think autofocus is actually very good on this camera.

And what about image quality, noise control, and post-processing? Well, on first impressions the lens is surprisingly sharp and the Fuji sensor is good at ISO 100. In-camera sharpening and noise reduction are quite aggressive on the 9100, so I would advise using RAW on really important shots which will then give almost DSLR quality potential. I've also explored noise characteristics with a series of flower examples shot with DSLR and Fuji.

Wouldnít it be wonderful if this was a camera that made up for the EVF by getting the focus and exposure right most of the time? Maybe it might because already I see better Dynamic Range from the Fuji super CCD. I don't think my ND Graduated filters or Photoshop can be put away any day soon though, curves and layers are still needed for shots with challenging contrast areas, but if one exposes so as not to blow the highlights there is still plenty of detail to bring out in the shadows.


Over the coming months I will put it through its paces and give it a chance to prove itself both at work and also for leisure using it in conjunction with the DSLR. Only time will tell whether or not Going Back To The Bridge is a smart idea...

.... So after 6 months or so was it really a smart idea? Yes, easily so with very few ifs and buts.
I got friendlier (more natural-looking) photos of people in work situations when using the flip out LCD to compose. Not surprising really as they are no longer being 'intimidated' by a face obscured by a big black DSLR. Certainly worth thinking about having a DSLR with live preview screen that's going to be something like using an old fashioned TLR. I found the 9100 to be a nice camera for landscape work, especially backlit, where the exposure info EVF is so much easier to see than in the optical viewfinder on a SLR. But manual metering was often essential to get the shot right. The camera doesn't handle complex lighting any better or worse than my KM 5D DSLR (Actually my little old Canon s400 pocket camera gets the exposures right nearly every time rather than say 75% with this Fuji.) Often it is necessary to dial in some +/-EV, but at least one can see how well it's working there and then without wasting time shooting and checking. Auto White Balance was usually OK, but sometimes I found it was important to set the Fuji to flourescent light WB. On using external flash I missed the TTL flash facility of the DSLR. The pop-up flash was slow to recycle in the dark. I think this is true for all. Use an accessory flash gun instead.

Any Annoying Features? Just two really stood out. Firstly, RAW selector should be in the Function menu, not buried so deep in the main menu; and secondly the camera will not stay with its self-timer mode enabled from one shot to the next. This is very irritating, say, if you have set up a shot resting on a rock rather than using a tripod and remote cable, as one has to enter the menu and then navigate across and down to get to the self-timer. It is not a feature which endears although, given the very useful retro-style cable release socket, Fuji's designers probably thought they had that issue covered.

Would I buy the camera again? If a successor were to be made available, and if image quality was as good, yes. I felt at the time of purchase that this may very well be the 'last of the line' and as such might be as good as that type of camera was going to get. Fortunately, they followed up with the announcement of the S100FS model (which unfortunately was panned for its CA/PF handling in a major review at Dpreview.com .... yet judging from from many excellent real-world photos posted so far that criticism is starting to look over-emphasised.) Even so with certain misgivings, the next 'bridge camera' for me might be an entry-level DSLR with live view on an articulating LCD and a 28-300mm equivalent lens. It all depends if the all-in-one solution is not too big, heavy or expensive; but whatever I end up with will have to have that flip out LCD. (Sony announced something like this in late January 2008, but with a mirror based pentaprism, that might tick all the boxes.) I'd still prefer a camera with a good rotating EVF in the style of the old the KM A2. For now I'm more than happy for Fuji 9100 to stay. It will continue to get a LOT of use. For anyone thinking of picking up one while they still can, I think it's excellent value for money and still beats the entry-level DSLR solution in many areas, not least for all-in-one convenience and of course price against a DSLR body plus the 18-200 zoom that would be necessary to compete.

Still Want a DSLR?
Bridge cameras have limitations not least being the greater clarity of DSLR shots when using a good lens. Especially when shooting RAW from a bridge camera you need to become proficient at Curves, Layers and Sharpening (but I find the Photoshop CS Highlights & Shadows feature is usually sufficient) in order to emulate DSLR quality. This might mean that people who are aspiring to owning a DSLR probably need to go there first to experience the better image quality available at higher ISOs and enjoy the benefits which having a kit of interchangeable lenses can bring. Having a DSLR can often make you a better photographer provided that you don't give up without giving it your best shot; it can be exasperating at first as all your mistakes will be much more visible. There is also the very real danger that you might end up leaving the camera at home on the shelf too often as it will lack the 'convenience factor'. After you've 'been there, done it all and got the DSLR 'tee-shirt' only then will you be experienced enough to work around the IQ limitations of a bridge camera to get consistently good results without constantly worrying about a DSLR being 'better'. A more experienced photographer will get good pictures with any camera in his or her hands and will quickly delight in the versatility and convenience of a 9100. So too would someone moving up from P&S who hasn't caught a dose of DSLR must-have fever.

Update: Summer 2009 and the lure of Micro 4:3 systems.
I'm wondering whether one of these might make a suitable 'upgrade' from the 9100 (9600). The Olympus EP1 (Pen) is quite attractive apart from the lack of a viewfinder and onboard flash. The little Panasonic DSLRs are attractive too. However I don't really need to be changing lenses on a walk-around camera - that defeats the object. So I guess the Fuji can stay, and I'm very pleased with its substantial size for use one-handed when walking the new dog on a lead. Never thought I'd say that, but when using the EVF it's nicely braced against your head for stability.

Update: Autumn 2012. Technology has matured and the Bridge Camera has now moved well into APS-C sensor DSLR territory thanks to Sony and their translucent mirror design plus Focus Peaking in manual focus. The Fuji 9100 was accordingly replaced with a 16mp Sony A57. The 24mp SLT A65 with 2.4mp OLED almost made it but offers half a stop less dynamic range and isn't quite so forgiving in low light. Note that the live view in the finder of both A57 and the A65 is as big as it used to be on the old OM2 film camera. Sony A37 is more in line with the form factor of this Fuji Bridge Camera and is well worth considering on a budget. There is a more rugged metal bodied Sony A77 which even lets you adjust back focus on every lens, and an A900 with 35mm sensor. It will be interesting to see if Canon and Nikon take a similar route in years to come and if EVF's eventually get used without prejudice by professionals. So has the bridge camera sucessfully hyrbidized with the DSLR and will the Fuji 9100 be missed? Having a small versatile zoom-lens equipped camera with decent IQ and information packed EVF is already here... at a premium price.

Watch this space: The Fuji Bridge Camera was more practically 'intuitive' to use in difficult lighting though the Sony is way better at intelligent auto. The combo of A57+18-135 (28-200) lens weighs in at just over 1,000 grams opposed to the 750g of the Fuji with its 28-300 .. I'm missing that top end 100mm. To get the same all-in compact weight and reach as the Fuji would require an Olympus OM-D and 14-150 lens.

2017: So what happened when someone offered me an old Fuji 9100 the other day? I picked it up and everything fell instantly into place just like riding a bicycle after a long break. The thumb wheel on the back is positioned perfectly for aperture or shutter etc, the AEL is fantastic, the Area AF moves around the screen like on a mid-range DSLR. The camera grip width and depth is perfect even when one-handed use is needed. It just handles so well. This 10 year old camera has been warmly welcomed back and its going to get some walk-around use. In fact it can stay until it dies of natural causes! After 10 years its capacitor doesn't hold date/time and settings very long so changing batteries has to be quick. It also looks like a couple of small 'springy bits' have cracked off from the bottom of the battery compartment, but a couple of bits of folded tinfoil fixes that. Sadly it looks like its circuit board has finally started to think about giving up the ghost. Maybe I'll find another one some day...


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* What's a Bridge Camera? Cameras that work like an SLR with as many or more technical features, but which do not have a mount for interchangeable lenses. It is possible in some with a suitable filter thread to screw on accessory tele/wide/closeup angle lenses to the end, but this is awkward and degrades the light).

Copyright: John Farrar
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