In late 2014, Nikon pulled off a coup in the digital bridge camera market, by announcing the Nikon Coolpix P900 – a fixed lens camera with an astonishing 83X optical zoom range (4.3-357 mm – which is equivalent to that of 24-2000mm on a 35 mm camera).
For several years, people had assumed bridge cameras were on their way out because they would not be able to compete with cheaper Digital SLRs and Compact System Cameras; but with the new generation of superzoom ranges, the bridge camera has come of age. For convenience when travelling, it is easy to see the appeal of such a versatile zoom range accompanied by many DSLR type controls and features. This is doubly true when you consider the cost of such a camera may be less than the cost of a single lens of equivalent maximum focal length for a DSLR. So can a DSLR still, really compete?
Can and how would you achieve a similar zoom range in a DSLR? Can you beat it? What would it look like, and how much would it cost?
There have been several excellent reviews of the Nikon and I would recommend Photography Life as the one with the nicest test shots. There is also a youtube video by Lothar Lenz (below) which demonstrates the full range of the zoom.
Given these reviews are already out there – I thought it would be useful to ask, can and how would you achieve a similar zoom range in a DSLR? Can you beat it? What would it look like, and how much would it cost?
As you know, this website is called Shooting on a Shoestring and generally the focus of the blog is budget photography. I should therefore say straight up, that you will almost certainly not be able to achieve such a huge range of focal lengths in a DSLR with equivalent features (autofocus, image stabilization etc.) for the same cost as the Nikon (less than £500 as of August 2015). I do, however, want to focus on the cheapest way of achieving top quality results.
Can you achieve an 83x optical range in a DSLR?
Well… Obviously yes. Though not with a single lens. You will not, therefore, be able to smoothly zoom from the widest angle to the longest tele-focal distance. Indeed, the expense of very wide angle zoom lenses and very long telephoto zoom lenses is such that you may want to consider fixed focal length lenses at the extreme. For some examples, you can check out some older and cheaper ideas here. However it is important to have a decent range of zoom to be practical. So, having considered the challenge, I have come up with a realistic 100x focal length range of lenses for a DSLR setup, giving excellent image quality for less than £1,000.
Having considered the challenge, I have come up with a realistic 100x focal length range DSLR setup giving excellent image quality for less than £1,000.
Let’s start at the wide end: Opteka / Kelda 6.5mm fisheye. I love fisheye lenses and I was really keen to include one in this challenge because the Nikon bridge camera cannot achieve true optical fisheye effects. On my Cannon DSLR (with a 1.6x crop factor), this lens gives an equivalent focal length of 10.5mm, much wider than the 24mm offered by Nikon. True, this lens is manual focus only, but fisheyes offer such a massive depth of field, even at wide apertures, it really causes no problem at all. I picked mine up on ebay back in January (2015) for £120.
This lens is a favourite of mine for wide star-field shots and creating odd viewpoints:
Stepping things up a bit, to really compete with a bridge camera, it’s important to have a versatile lens with a wide zoom range – so a budget super-zoom seems appropriate. In this case, I have plumped for the Sigma 18-250mm F3.5-6.3 DC OS HSM. Note – this is the older version dating back to 2009 (not marked macro) for budget constraint reasons. This lens is an image-stabilized, autofocus lens, which feels sturdy in the hand. It has a 35mm equivalent zoom range of 27-375mm, so is a reasonable wide-angle at the short end and still a good everyday telephoto at the long end. Second hand, you can pick them up for around £150. I bought mine in London Camera Exchange on the Strand for that price, but to demonstrate the point, here is one on ebay today (for £174 including delivery).
This lens is one which I carry with me nearly all the time, as, while image quality is not as good as a prime lens, or even some smaller range zooms, it is still very respectable and it covers a vast array of different situations. Alternatives would include the more expensive Tamron 16-300mm or the similarly priced Tamron 18-270mm lens.
You can then couple this with the Tamron SP 150-600mm F/5-6.3 Di VC USD, which is now readily available on ebay for less than £600. This gives a zoom range equivalent 240-960mm on a full-frame camera.
Alternatives here, include the cheaper Sigma 150-500mm, which frankly, is not such a good lens, and the Sigma 150-600mm, which is nearly identical to the Tamron in spec and handling, but as it is a slightly newer model, it still tends to be a tad more expensive.
So what results can you get with these two in combination?
These photos were taken in far from ideal conditions, but they clearly demonstrate the effectiveness of the Tamron’s image stabilization and sharpness at a wide aperture, as well as the fact it can definitely be used handheld.
“The full range of lenses on cameras? You’d better buy a bigger bag.”
So – having come up with a 100x zoom range for less than £1000 – can you beat even that? Well, yes. Quite easily actually. You might be surprised that the Tamron lens can quite easily be paired with a simple 2x teleconverter (around £100 if you look hard) and still be very effective. True – it won’t allow you to autofocus any more but the manual focus on the Tamron lens is very smooth and easy to use with practice.
The absolute full range of this setup at 6.5mm on the wide end to 1200mm on the long end (nearly a 200x zoom range!) is best shown again, with some photos of the night sky…
So – quite a wide range of focal lengths there.
But what does this all look like?
Conclusion: At the end of the day – there is no denying that a superzoom bridge camera is a pretty nifty bit of kit, and an 83x zoom is still pretty incredible. Would I buy one? Perhaps, if I had the cash… But so far I haven’t and I don’t seem to mind one bit.