Like David vs. Goliath, only if David had gotten thoroughly whupped
These days it seems like everybody has a camera. A teeny-tiny inexpensive camera. You'll find them built into cell and smart phones. You'll find them in notebooks, tablets, and personal music players. And the dedicated compact camera market has never had such selection. One look at prominent online retailers reveals, literally, thousands of point and shoot models – some that are so slim and so lightweight they'll virtually disappear in your pocket.
So, if you have a camera integrated into your personal device or if you can get a perfectly decent purpose-built compact model for less than three hundred bucks (which you can), why on earth would you even consider dropping five, ten, even twenty times that much money on a full-blown SLR that's not only several times larger and several times heavier but also sucks up even more bucks when you start buying good lenses for it?
Because with your iPhone or your CyberShot or your PowerShot, it's much, much harder or downright impossible to get a pic like this:
Okay, so you won't get results like that without a little judicious post-processing either, but the point is that only with an SLR will you have the distance, the speed, the perspective, the depth of field (more on that shortly), the low-light performance, the quality of image capture, and the weatherproofing you need to ensure you can catch virtually any subject at any time.
While many photographers jump into the hobby with a compact point and shoot and stay with that format forever, others inevitably feel frustrated over its limitations and make the ultimate leap to the big leagues. Yes, there are numerous concessions to be made, but for the truly addicted, and the truly passionate, those concessions are worth it.
So…what exactly do you get with an SLR that you don't with a point and shoot? Let us count the ways…
At the heart of every digital camera ever made is a device called a sensor. A silicon chip housing millions of miniature pixels, the sensor is the device upon which the image is captured. The shutter button is depressed, et voila, the sensor captures the light that's allowed in. Like the cubic inches of a muscle car's engine or the speed of a computer's CPU or the length of a man's…er, thumb, the camera sensor has long been a bragging point amongst more macho types. "Dude, how many megapixels is your camera?"
Yet it's not just the number of megapixels, but the physical size of the sensor (and therefore the pixels on that sensor) that really means something. And because the sensor in an SLR is several times that of a compact camera, it is thusly that much better at capturing light – an especially valuable attribute when a photographer is working in less than ideal conditions. Ultimately, SLRs take better, cleaner pictures, particularly in shadowy situations, than their compact brethren. The following shot was taken when the lighting was very poor indeed:
Ah, but that's not the end of the sensor issue. Some SLRs have bigger, better sensors than others. For example, "full frame" SLRs such as the Canon EOS 5D Mark II have bigger sensors than those you'll see in "crop" SLRs such as the Canon EOS 7D or the Canon EOS 1D series. But these are topics for another time.
The key thing to remember is that SLRs = bigger sensors = bigger pixels = better pictures, better performance, and less visible "noise." And crisper enlargements too.
There's clearly something to be said for lining up your images through the LCD screen of a compact "point and shoot" camera versus pressing your eye to the optical viewfinder of an SLR. For starters, using an LCD means you don't have to scrunch a whole camera up to your face – a real annoyance for those who treat their camera as a fashion accessory. Perhaps more importantly, many people find it more comfortable composing their photos – figuring out the artful side of their images – by looking at a screen held at a distance.
There are practical benefits too. If, for instance, you find yourself shooting over the top of a crowd of people, holding your camera above your head, there's no way a viewfinder will work for you. In cases like this, an LCD is the only way to go.
But the optical viewfinder of an SLR has several appealing perks, the most obvious of which is focusing. Simply, it's easier to judge when your subject is clear and pinpoint sharp when you're peering directly at a particular scene rather than a digital representation of it. And with an SLR, that's exactly what you're doing.
Moreover, unlike the LCD of a compact camera – or even the electronic viewfinder found in some compact models – an SLR's optical viewfinder conveys precisely what your camera sees. It isn't marginally above or to the side, and it won't wash out in bright sunlight. And, because it isn't electronic, it won't deplete your batteries.
Using a viewfinder also means you'll better stabilize your camera while you shoot. Think of it this way – a camera supported by two hands and a face is likely to be less shaky than a camera supported at arm's length. The less vibration, the sharper your photo.
One other thing. Most recent vintage SLRs now offer something called "Live View," a feature that for the most part mimics the LCD of a point and shoot. It isn't quite as convenient because there's a slight delay as Live View engages (the SLR mirror physically flips out of the way), but SLRs with Live View essentially offer the best of both worlds.
These days, the little, fixed lenses permanently attached to compact point and shoot cameras are better than they've ever been. Many offer admirable wide-angle perspectives that are ideal for landscape and real estate photography and for capturing large groups of people. But the real advances have come at the other end of the scale, where long-range telephoto capabilities (great for sports, birds, or anything you want to bring "closer" to the camera) have grown by leaps and bounds. You can now shoot some seriously long range stuff with sub-$400 point and shoots.
But no matter how far the fixed lens of a compact camera extends or retracts, it'll never, ever match the performance or the versatility of an SLR's interchangeable lenses. Never.
Granted, whether that even matters to you will depend on what you want from your photography. If you're in it to document events and vacations or to take web-sized snapshots you can share on sites like Facebook, there are plenty of top-rated compact cameras that'll do a great job. But if you're looking to go beyond the norm and are willing to pay the price to do so, welcome to the world of interchangeable lenses.
Let's first look at wide-angle photography. Though some compacts now "open up" as wide as 24mm – appreciably broader than the 28mm standard of just a couple years ago – they pale in comparison to the 12mm or 10mm or even 9mm focal lengths available in dedicated SLR wide angle lenses. And make no mistake – the difference of even 10mm at the wide end is positively gargantuan.
On the telephoto (long) end, the story is a bit different. Larger super-zoom "bridge" compact cameras such as the Canon SX30IS, at just $400, are equipped with fixed lenses that offer tremendous reach. Indeed, to match the range/distance of the SX30IS in the SLR market, you'd need to spend several thousand dollars on the lens alone. And even then it would weigh so much you'd need a tripod to support it.
But here's the thing. In virtually every way, SLR lenses are superior. They focus more accurately and faster (great for sports photography, wildlife, and essentially anything that moves), they deliver better contrast and colors, they're made of better "glass" and components that will last a lifetime if not abused, and their "optics" are superior. In other words, you'll get none of the distortion or color fringing or inconsistencies you'll find in point and shoots. And you won't kill them with a few raindrops, either.
Also, the pricier/better quality SLR lenses generally offer wider apertures (lens openings), which in turn allows more light to hit the sensor. Combine the bigger sensor of an SLR with a top-notch lens and you'll find you can photograph much darker subjects. Say, for example, you're taking pics of a bird in flight. Sure, the sky all around the bird is bright and easy to deal with. But the underside of the bird, facing the ground as it does, is lost in shadows. You'll need a wide aperture if you ever hope to capture those underside details.
Aperture helps in other ways too. You know those photos where the subject is crisp and sharp yet everything behind and/or in front of it is blurred?
Kinda makes the subject "pop," doesn't it? That's the effect caused by a small "depth of field," and it's precisely what a wide aperture will do for you.
But, believe it or not, interchangeable lenses can be cost effective too. Yes, even a mid-grade lens will cost much more than an entire compact camera setup. But as we said earlier, the good ones are built to last and will always be in demand. Thusly, if you tire of a given lens after a few years or merely want to experiment with a different focal length, you can quite easily sell your current lens on the secondary market for just a wee bit less than you paid for it.
The downside to interchangeable lenses, apart from the obvious additional cost, is a dirty sensor. You see, whenever you change an SLR lens, you essentially open up the camera and expose the interior to whatever conditions currently exist. If those conditions include blowing dust, loose dirt, or precipitation, chances are that some of it will enter your camera and lodge itself on your sensor, where it negatively impacts future photos. You can prevent a dirty sensor by protecting your camera when you change lenses, and you can clean a sensor after the fact, but dirty sensors are simply far less common with compact, fixed-lens cameras.
In compact cameras, the sensor is electronically activated. In an SLR, a real shutter actually opens and closes. The big difference here is the instantaneous response of the latter, a tremendous benefit to photographers needing to capture a fleeting moment or a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
And that's just one of the performance gains you'll find in an SLR. Another is the speed of continuous shooting. Say, for example, you're photographing your son's soccer game. With a compact camera, you can capture two or perhaps three images per second. Though that sounds pretty fast in the grand scheme of things, the reality is that things happen very quickly in the world of sport. Images taken just milliseconds apart can tell very different stories.
If instead you had a midrange SLR such as the Nikon D7000, you could rattle off six frames per second. A Canon EOS 7D will give you eight. Other, pricier SLRs are faster than that. And let's not forget – the more pics you take in a given moment, the better chance you'll stand of having one or more perfectly in focus.
We've already discussed the superior focusing speed of SLRs, an attribute that has quite a bit to do with the lens currently fitted to the camera. But startup time is faster too, and the memory buffer is bigger. And SLRs, with their comprehensive roster of buttons, rotary wheels, and assorted controls, help keep busy photographers away from perplexing menu screens. Indeed, experienced photogs can take a shot, adjust several key settings, and take the next shot without ever removing their eye from the viewfinder – all because they have an array of mechanical controls at their disposal.
But for some, the magic of the SLR is over in a flash. More precisely, the flash.
Flash photography is one of the most rewarding elements of the hobby. Those who master it will open themselves up to a world of creative lighting possibilities. Problem is that in order to get a handle on quality flash photography, one needs to separate oneself completely from the built-in flash found on most every camera. Not only are built-in flashes comparatively feeble, but they also generate harsh, direct light that does nothing to flatter whoever or whatever you shoot.
Conversely, external flashes can be tailored to be whatever you want. Sure, they pack a wallop that'll flood subjects at distances built-in flashes could never touch. But they're also eminently controllable. You can dial them down so their impact is barely perceptible, you can move them off camera for effects like side-lighting, and you can add extra flash units – controlled with or without cable – to create stunning results even a seasoned pro would be proud of.
But to dive full-speed into the flash photography game, you need a camera with a hot shoe (the mounting device for an external flash). Sadly, whereas all SLRs feature a hot shoe, very few compact cameras do. And even those that are hot shoe-equipped simply don't offer the level of flash control you'll find in an SLR. Thusly, if flash performance is your passion, there's simply no other place to turn.
Manual Control Options
Compact cameras are improving in this regard, and several now offer a bevy of manual control options. However, if you want total command over every facet of your camera's operation, if you have a hankering for photographic creativity, and if your inner artist is making itself known, there's no substitute for an SLR.
With a single lens reflex camera, changing lenses is just the start. In fully manual mode, you can independently adjust all three elements of the "exposure triangle" – shutter speed, aperture, and ISO (the light sensitivity of the sensor, ISO can be increased in darker environments or decreased in full sunlight) – at any time. You can shoot in JPEG and have the camera apply post-processing, or you can shoot in RAW format and later take your images into an editing program to spruce them up.
You can meter an entire scene, a smaller part of that scene, or a pinpoint in the middle of the scene. You can select single shot focusing or opt to have your focusing track moving subjects. You can choose where within the scene your camera focuses (the 7D, for example, offers 19 individual points) and govern the precision of those points. You can instruct the camera to take one shot when you press the shutter button, ask it to churn out a continuous low-speed or high-speed stream of pics, or put it in self-timer or remote-controlled modes.
And you can make countless subtle adjustments to virtually every facet of the camera's operation – a serious boon for those who want to take their hobby beyond the norm.
But Wait – There's Another Option
In this feature, we've covered some of the primary pros and cons of an SLR versus a compact camera. There's a lot more to the story of course, and we'll hopefully address more of it in the near future. But in the meantime, we'd be remiss if we didn't alert you to a third format – a middle ground if you will between the two camps. Developed only recently, it's called "Micro Four Thirds," and it warrants at least cursory investigation.
We'll save a thorough look at the Micro Four Thirds system for another time, but you need to know this: Micro Four Thirds cameras offer interchangeable lenses and many of the capabilities of SLRs, yet are smaller, less cumbersome, and noticeably less expensive. On the downside, Micro Four Thirds sensors are quite a bit smaller than those of SLRs, resulting in "noisier" photos. Furthermore, Micro Four Thirds cameras have no optical viewfinders and, thus far, only a fraction of the lenses available for SLRs.
As we said, there's much more to the discussion. Making the leap from compact camera is not a decision to be taken lightly. Do you due diligence, read as much as you can, and perhaps rent an SLR for a weekend or two before you make a move.