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DSLR versus Compact Point-n-Shoot Camera - Ten Reasons to Favor Each

Not that many years ago, compact digital cameras were good for quick snapshots at best. But current models are more than capable of producing excellent results for many needs. If you're in the market, which kind to get depends on your needs of course. But there are plenty of good reasons to favor DSLR cameras over compact point-n-shoot cameras as well as the other way around.

Since I'm primarily a DSLR shooter, let's start with that position:

Bigger sensor
A bigger sensor almost invariably means a better image. Modern technology can shrink most anything, but the limits of physics can't be circumvented. It's not more pixels that make it better either, its better pixels. The more accurately each pixel can do its job, the better your images will be, but when pixels get too small there simply isn't much light that falls on each one during an exposure.

More control
The typical SLR camera offers the user far more control over how images are captured than all but the most expensive compact model. Both aperture and shutter priority, as well as full manual exposure are common on SLR cameras, and SLR models tend to offer better support for spot metering, more focus points, separate histograms for each channel, and so on. You get the idea. If you like to take control while shooting, an SLR is for you.

No shutter lag
Many compact cameras have a notable shutter lag. If you shoot wildlife, or even if you don't get any more adventerous than shooting your kids birthday party, some compact cameras can be endlessly frustrating. You never really know if you got the shot or not. Press the shutter release on an SLR though, and the shutter fires — simple, and quick. This can be a benefit even for landscape shots since the wind does blow sometimes. If you sit and wait for a lull in the breeze, then fire the shutter it's nice to know the camera will actually take a picture before the next gust of wind.

Broader choice of lenses
Both Nikon and Canon make a vast array of lenses compatible with their line of SLR cameras. So do third party manufacturers, regardless of who built your camera. An SLR lets you shoot anywhere from fisheye shots to extreme telephoto. All you need is the right lens. But it doesn't stop there either since you can also choose based on widest aperture, price range, and so on. Then there are specialty lenses like macro, tilt/shift and the like. Once you've bought an SLR body, you can broaden your picture taking horizons by simply investing in a new lens.

Accessories, accessories, accessories
As with lenses, the major SLR manufactures also make a vast assortment of accessories too. Off camera flash is easy with an SLR but may not even be possible with a point and shoot camera. But there are also lens accessories such as teleconverters, extension tubes and the like available to the SLR shooter, as well as right angle viewfinder attachments and plenty more.

TTL viewfinder
When it comes to composition, the true through-the-lens (TTL) viewfinder rules. You see exactly what your camera sees. Yes, most compact cameras and an increasing number of SLR cameras let you compose with a live LCD view, but that can be challenging in bright outdoor light.

Raw capture
Photographers who want to get the best results possible will appreciate the ability to capture the actual raw images shot by your camera. This is fairly standard on SLR models but rare in the compact camera market. If you let your camera convert your images to jpeg for you, they will have already been compressed to 8-bit before you ever get a chance to work on them.

Quick startup
I turn my camera on when I want to shoot with it, but the typical compact camera takes a noticeable amount of time to power itself on and get ready for use. Turn an SLR on and its instantly ready. I like that.

Fits your hand
Ergonomically, the shape of the typical SLR just fits the hand better. You can grip it, and all the control are laid out right where they should be. The smaller size of the typical compact camera means users tend to hold them more with their fingers than with their hands. As such, it's that much harder to operate them since your fingers are already occupied. Think about it.

Better investment protection
While it is less true in the digital era than it once was with film, SLR cameras tend to hold their value better than do compact cameras. Nikon comes out with a new crop of Coolpix models every few months it seems, and older models are hard to sell used. SLR lenses hold value even more than SLR camera bodies do since buying a new SLR camera generally doesn't mean you have to trade in your lenses too. With a compact camera, it's pretty much all or nothing.

But of course a compact camera has its fair share of advantages as well:

While the cost of digital SLR cameras has dropped considerably over the past few years, you can still buy an excellent compact camera for less, especially when you factor in the cost of lenses.

Size and weight
When I go out for a hike with my full SLR rig I'm carrying a good forty pounds on my back. A compact camera with a reasonable zoom range weighs a fraction of that and may well fit in a pocket.

No dust on your sensor!
Having interchangeable lenses on an SLR means that dust can get inside your camera. At least some of that dust is liable to end up on your sensor and cause annoying dust spots on your images. Since the lens of a compact camera can't be removed, you can't get dust in your camera or on your images.

Simplicity when you need it
Sometimes, all you really need or want is a basic camera that takes good images. While an SLR offers more control, that's of little value if you don't want that control.

Great depth of field
The smaller sensor of a digital point and shoot camera inherently means more depth of field at the same aperture when compared with an SLR. That can be a huge benefit for macro shots but it can also come in handy for regular images since you don't need to worry as much about focusing.

Automatically close focusing
That same small sensor means you can automatically get quite close to your subject, another benefit if you like close-up photography. It's just the laws of physics working in your favor.

Not getting locked into a brand
Some Nikon SLR shooters wish they could switch to a Canon camera for various reasons, and vice versa. It's hard to justify jumping ship though since doing so would immediately mean you'd have to buy all new lenses as well. With a compact camera, you can change brands each time you change cameras if you want since the camera comes as a package, body plus lens in one.

Composing via LCD preview
I said above that TTL viewfinders are the best way to compose images, but what if you can't get your face up to the viewfinder? Compact cameras invariably let you compose with the LCD display, meaning you can hold the thing over your head and look up at it, or whatever makes sense in a given situation to get the shot. Some SLR cameras now let you do this as well, but it's not a given since the light ordinarily doesn't even reach the sensor until the shutter opens.

You won't stand out in a crowd
Street photographers and those interested in travel photography will appreciate the low key nature of compact cameras. With an SLR, everyone knows you have a camera. You can't hide it. But a compact camera lets you shoot without attracting so much attention to yourself.

You can't use it if you leave it at home
Perhaps the biggest potential advantage in my mind to the compact camera is portability. No camera is worth much at all if it's too much of a hassle to carry with you. I know people who carry their point and shoot camera with them amost all the time. And they have the shots to prove it. You never know when the sunset will be spectacularly beautiful. Nor when you'll run into Bigfoot on a quick day hike.

Which type of camera you choose is up to you. If you've read this far you may have found yourself more in agreement with the benefits outlined for one kind or the other, in which case your mind may be made up. But consider that it really doesn't have to come down to one or the other. Although I definitely consider myself a DSLR shooter, I do also have a point and shoot camera for those times when it makes more sense. After all, there are times when everyone just needs a convenient way to take pictures.

Date posted: March 21, 2010


Copyright © 2010 Bob Johnson, Earthbound Light - all rights reserved.
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