What's the best bridge camera on the market right now? On paper, that's not such an easy question to answer, especially since two of autumn 2012's bridges really stand out from the rest. That said, they stand out for very different reasons—one has a monster zoom lens while the other has a fast lens with constant aperture. Let's take a closer look at how they compare.
Published: December 27, 2012 3:00 PM
By Franck Mée
Translated by: Catherine Barraclough
The Canon PowerShot SX50 HS is a classic bridge that stands out for its monster 50x zoom lens (24-1200 mm). The Panasonic Lumix FZ200 is a more original kind of bridge, with a lens boasting constant f/2.8 aperture.

Canon powershot sx50 hs
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Panasonic lumix fz200
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BSI CMOS, 12 Mpx, 1/2.3" CMOS, 12 Mpx, 1/2.3"
24-1200 mm f/3.4-6.5 25-600 mm f/2.8 (constant)
Sequential viewfinder, 202,000 dots Sequential viewfinder, 1,312,000 dots
2.8" screen, 461,000 dots, swivel screen 3" screen, 460,000 dots, swivel screen
1080p HD video, 24 fps, stereo sound 1080p HD video, 50 fps, stereo sound
Jpeg and RAW Jpeg and RAW
91 x 123 x 114 mm, 587 g 87 x 125 x 120 mm, 573 g


THE BACKGROUND

If you're looking for this year's record-breaking zoom, look no further! After being the first to hit 35x with 2010's SX30, Canon is at it again, pushing the zoom lens in the SX50 HS up to 50x. From 24 mm at wide-angle to 1200 mm at telephoto, this lens sets a new record for monster zooms.

In comparison, the 24x lens in the FZ200 looks a bit puny, starting at a decent 25 mm wide-angle setting and finishing at a very standard 600 mm telephoto—matched by certain compacts. However, aperture remains at f/2.8 over the whole focal range. Plus, the high-res electronic viewfinder with over a million dots is another standout feature.


The zoom lens is traditionally a key selling point for bridge cameras. With some entry-level models now reaching 20x or more, the most ambitious models are at 40x and 50x. So with its 24x lens, the FZ200 looks a bit like the odd one out.
However, zoom power isn't everything. A difference in focal length is much more noticeable at wide-angle. Plus, while the difference between a 600 mm and a 1200 mm setting looks massive on paper, it actually only works out as a factor of 2, and will be much less noticeable than the difference between the 120 mm setting in an ultra-compact camera and the 600 mm setting in the Panasonic FZ200 (or even between the 35 mm and 105 mm settings in an entry-level compact!).



DESIGN & HANDLING: PANASONIC WINS

Canon SX50 controls and screen

The SX50 is made from reasonably nice plastic and has a decent grip handle. The interface is clear and fairly simple. It's the kind of camera that won't confuse or lose its users, but which still offers relatively direct access to all the main settings.
Note that there's no quick way of switching between the screen and the viewfinder, which can be a bit frustrating. You have to press the Disp button three times to cycle through the various options. Then again, maybe that's not too much of a problem seeing as the viewfinder is small, low-res and prone to visible colour fringing. Ultimately, the viewfinder isn't all that nice to use.

Panasonic fz200 screen and controls

The FZ200 feels like a more advanced camera with its clickable thumb wheel, extra controls (burst button, Fn button, AF lock) and rubbery finish on the grip handle. All in all, it's a bit more practical for anyone who's used to using expert settings.
Here, there's a control for instantly switching between the screen and viewfinder but, more importantly, the higher-res viewfinder screen has six times as many dots. The EVF is therefore much more precise and the eyepiece is better quality. It's much nicer to use. That said, it's still too small compared with the viewfinders in many mirrorless cameras and in certain other bridges.



SENSITIVITY: DRAW ... KINDA

Canon SX50 iso settings

The SX50 has a widely-used 12-Megapixel BSI CMOS sensor. Up to 800 ISO, picture quality is very good, and the results are still usable at 1600 ISO—some noise is present but it's discreet enough to make decent small-sized prints or for onscreen viewing.

Panasonic FZ200 iso settings

The FZ200 has a 12-Megapixel CMOS sensor that's probably quite closely related to the sensor used in Canon's bridge. In any case, the results are quite similar—noise is perhaps a touch stronger but the image processor's enhancements are a bit more discreet.



And Aperture?

Don't forget that sensitivity is only one factor when it comes to picture quality. In low light, the speed of the lens (determined by its aperture) is also crucial. At wide-angle, the Canon SX50 has an aperture of f/3.4, whereas Panasonic's FZ200 is at f/2.8. So with the same shutter speed, Panasonic's bridge can stay at 800 ISO when the Canon has to push up to 1180 ISO. And this difference increases as you zoom. At 200 mm, for example, the SX50 lens aperture drops to f/5.6 while the FZ200 stays at f/2.8, letting in four times as much light. The FZ200 can therefore stay at 400 ISO when the Canon SX50 is at 1600 ISO, plus it can shoot at 1/50 ths (a speed at which portraits will generally come out clear and sharp) while its rival will need to drop to 1/12 ths (so you'll have to ask your subjects to strike and hold a pose).



TELEPHOTO: CANON LEADS ... FOR STILL SUBJECTS

Canon SX50 telephoto

Both these photos of part of our camera test scene were taken under the same conditions in our lab. At the maximum zoom setting (announced at 1200 mm), the Canon bridge can fit the whole graphics card into most of the frame. In fact, the card gets so big that the edge of it has been cut off.

Panasonic FZ200 telephoto

With a maximum focal length of 600 mm, the Panasonic bridge logically shoots a zone that's twice as big. It captures a large amount of the test scene around the graphics card at its maximum zoom setting. For users into animal photography, this difference in proximity could be a deciding factor.



Canon SX50 telephoto

If we crop the middle of the image, once again, we can see that the SX50 captures a higher level of detail. Here, for example, the writing on the components seems clearer and easier to read.

Panasonic FZ200 telephoto

The FZ200 performs better in the corners of the frame. But, generally speaking, when you're shooting at this kind of focal length, your subject is usually far off and in the middle of the frame.


Autofocus is Important Too!

The maximum focal length isn't the only factor that determines the level of detail captured with a far-off subject. Focusing also has a key role to play, as if the image isn't focused properly, it doesn't matter how big your subject looks, it'll still come out looking blurred.
The autofocus in the FZ200 is much more effective and reliable at long focal lengths than the SX50, which sometimes refuses to focus at all or shoots a poorly focused image. This is often the case with moving subjects, such as animals or people. At the maximum zoom setting, you therefore stand a greater chance of getting a duff shot with the Canon than with the Panasonic. But when it does focus, you'll get a closer-looking and more detailed photo with the Canon.



PRICE: VICTORY FOR CANON

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Note that price isn't taken into account in our reviews or our scoring systems. However, when comparing two products directly like this, it can be a deciding factor for some users. At the time or writing (December 2012), the Canon SX50 is less expensive than the Panasonic FZ200.

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In fact, there's almost £100 difference between the two cameras, which is enough to make some people think twice. However, the kind of users this camera is aimed at may be willing to invest a little more cash to get a better camera.



CONCLUSION: PANASONIC WINS

Pentax K10D dos 280

The Canon PowerShot SX50 HS is a good bridge camera. In fact, it's one of the best "classic" bridges (where the main selling point is the powerful zoom) out there at the moment. It's a pleasant and easy to use camera, and for users who need that extraordinary 1200 mm focal length, it's a good choice ... so long as you can work within its limits. The slightly unreliable autofocus can make it tricky to line up shots at long focal lengths. Plus, the other specs fall slightly behind those of the FZ200.

Pentax K 5 dos 280

Photography is all about light. And when it comes to lens speed, the Panasonic Lumix FZ200 clearly leads the SX50. With its constant aperture, Panasonic's "faster" lens lets in more light, which in turn makes for a better autofocus and allows the camera to stay at reasonable shutter speeds and low ISO settings in all conditions. On the whole, it's a more reliable camera for shooting far-off subjects. On top of that, build quality is a cut above. There's no doubt about which model we'd choose. Even though it doesn't zoom as much, we think the FZ200 is worth that extra £100.
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