I am not an expert in photography. However, When Deependra asked me to write another post for this blog, I thought of writing about my recent experience of upgrading to a DSLR. In this article I will write briefly about various types of compact cameras and how they differ from a DSLR. Then I’ll point out some of the benefits and drawbacks of using a DSLR. Perhaps someone wanting to upgrade to a DSLR might find this post useful.
I'm sure all of you are familiar with the basics of digital cameras, they have almost completely taken over the camera market, replacing the popular film based cameras of the last century. Current digital cameras can be categorized in to four main types, they are:
- Ultra compact
- Bridge cameras (Also known as Ultra Zoom or full size cameras)
- DSLR (Digital Single Lens Reflex)
Ultra Compact cameras
Then you might ask why pay more and buy a DSLR ?? Well, if you continue reading, you will see what a DSLR has to offer.
DSLRs in contrast are much larger than compact cameras and even considerably larger than bridge cameras when additional accessories are attached (i.e Battery grips, Flash units, remote triggers etc..). The other difference is the cost. When talking about DSLRs there are three cost factors:
- Price of the camera body (normally DSLR cameras are sold without a lens, however there are camera kits that comes with a cheap general purpose lens). An entry level DSLR body will cost around $500, a midrange around $1500 and a high end around $5000.
- Price of the lenses. Building up a good lens collection usually cost a lot more than the camera body. Lenses can cost anywhere from $100 for prime (fixed zoom) lenses all the way up to $10,000 or more for high end telephoto lenses.
- Cost of the accessories.
Advantages of a DSLR
- Since lenses are interchangeable, optical zoom has no limit, for example a DSLR body can even be mounted on a telescope making the telescope its lens. Therefore with a DSLR you have the option from going from a close range macro lens all the way to high zoom telescopic lens. Furthermore, with the correct lens the Field of View can be made much wider than that of a compact camera.
- The ability to take photos with a very shallow Depth of Field is another unique characteristic of a DSLR. A shallow DOF gives more prominence to the subject making the photo look more professional. DOF effect is achieved by changing the aperture of the lens, to have a shallow DOF a lens with a large aperture is needed. Only expensive lenses designed for SLR cameras have large enough apertures to have a clear DOF effect.
- Fast continues shooting ability is another advantage, this is especially important in fast action photography, because you can’t just take one single perfect shot of a fast action sequence, therefore you need to take multiple shots in a quick succession to capture that perfect moment. Continues shooting speeds varies from 3FPS all the way up to 11FPS depending on the camera. In contrast compact cameras don’t have a fast shooting mode; this is partially due to the slow auto focusing techniques they use and due to slow image processing capabilities of the camera.
- Low light sensitivity (High ISO performance) is another benefit you get exclusively with DSLRs. When shooting under extremely low light conditions you have to increase the light sensitivity (ISO value) of the camera. ISO value is an indication of the amount of signal amplification and noise reduction carried out inside the camera to enhance the quality of an image. However signal amplification introduces unwanted artifacts into the image. These artifacts makes an image look grainy or full of small dots that do not have the correct color value. Compared to Compact cameras DSLRs have much better ISO performance, there are many reasons for this : perhaps the biggest reason is the sensor size. A typical entry level DSLR has a 330 sq. mm sensor, a full frame high end DSLR has an even larger 864 sq. mm sensor. Whereas a typical compact has a very small sensor usually having an area of 25 sq. mm to 40 sq. mm, which is smaller than 1/10 of a DSLR. A larger sensor can capture more light; in addition, DSLRs also have much larger lenses with larger apertures that allow more light to come in to the camera. Since photography in essence is the process of capturing light, more light means higher image quality. Sensor technology and signal processing capabilities (image processing microchips) also have a direct impact on ISO performance. As you would expect DSLRs have better sensors with faster and more sophisticated chips, hence the final outcome is better.
- Another feature of DSLRs is the ability to use of RAW files for storing images. A RAW file is simply an uncompressed untouched copy of the sensor data directly saved on to the memory card. In contrast a JPEG is a lossy compression format that causes some of the finer details of an image to be lost forever when saved. When a camera is saving an image in JPEG format it applies all the camera settings (i.e white balance, color controls, exposure compensation etc.). But with a RAW file you have access to the original sensor output which you can later modify using imaging software like Photoshop. This Gives you the ability to change some of the camera setting at a later time on your computer. Therefore professional photographers almost always shoot RAW.
- Ability to use filters and other optical attachments is another benefit. With filters you can take better photographs with nicer effects without post processing on the computer. A filter is a special attachment which you can screw on to the front of the lens to control the light going through to the sensor (i.e : polarizing filters will cut off glare and unwanted reflections off shiny surfaces, UV filters will cut off unwanted UV rays and protect your lens at the same time, there are many other filters like gradient filters, color filters etc..) In addition to filters you can also attach wide angle adaptors and teleconverters to change the optical properties of your lens (to change FOV and Zoom range).
- Then there are loads of other accessories like flash guns (external high power flash units) that can be triggered remotely or internally for better lighting; remote controllers for operating the camera, wireless adaptors to transfer images and video wirelessly in real time, underwater and weather proof shells that allows you to take photos under extreme conditions, the list goes on.
- The ability to capture professional level videos is another new feature that has been introduced in to DSLRs recently. Compact cameras had video capabilities for a while now, but DSLRs did not; all of this changed with the introduction of Nikon D90 in 2008, afterwards many manufacturers quickly picked up on this. The advantages of shooting video on a DSLR lies in the large sensor and high quality lenses. With a DSLR you can now record videos with DOF effect that could previously be only achieved with professional level $10,000 video cameras. As pointedout earlier low light performance is exceptionally well with fast lenses. It has been reported that even some of the professional level videographers are now more interested in using DSLRs for filming video because of the price and versatility they offer. Below you can see a video which was shot entirely with a Canon EOS 1D Mark IV DSLR with no artificial lighting. As you can see, the quality is exceptional compared to a dedicated video camcorder. However current video capable DSLRs do not have good auto focusing features, this is perhaps the biggest drawback of using a DSLR for recording videos right now. But I believe this will be fixed soon.
Advantages of compact cameras
- Much cheaper than DSLRs
- Highly portable, therefore you don’t have to think twice about carrying a compact camera, just pocket it or put it in your hand bag and go. But with a DSLR or sometimes even with a Bridge camera you have to pay special attention. If you buy DSLR then you’ll probably need several lenses and few other accessories, so you will need a separate large camera bag as well. Then you’ll have to be careful when handling the equipment because they are usually pricy.
- Compact cameras are designed for beginners, hence camera controls are easy to use and most functions are automated. Simply point the camera and shoot, due to this, compact cameras are also known as Point and Shoot cameras.
- Till last year DSLRs did not have video capabilities at all, even now only a handful of them supports it. But on the other hand, compact cameras had video recording capabilities for several years. Now they even support full HD video. But DSLRs are catching up, but video recording has some limitations as discussed above.
(*The author, Hasitha Ariyaratne, hails from Colombo, Sri Lanka)