19 January 2010

Moving from compact digital cameras to DSLR

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
  • Compact
  • Bridge cameras (Also known as Ultra Zoom or full size cameras)
  • DSLR (Digital Single Lens Reflex)
When talking about digital cameras, it is important to understand some of the basic digital camera terminologies. Some of the common terms I have used in the post are listed in the glossary section at the end.

Ultra Compact cameras

These cameras are the smallest and the lightest of them all. Usually have a very thin profile with an average of 3 to 5x optical zoom range. Mega pixel count is relatively low but nowadays averages around 10 or 12 Megapixels. These are generally aimed at average consumers who want a small pocatable camera which they can take out and shoot without worrying too much about camera settings. Price normally varies from $150 to $350.

Compact cameras

Standard compact cameras are somewhat bulkier than the Ultra compacts, but don’t allow any significant improvements in image quality or features. These however have a slightly larger optical zoom range usually ranging from 5x to 10x. Some of them are powered by standard alkaline AA type batteries whereas ultra-compacts exclusively use proprietary rechargeable batteries. Since they are neither thin nor light, price usually is below a comparable ultra-compact (Ranges from $100 to $300 in general).

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.

Bridge cameras

The term bridge camera is used because they help bridge the gap between compacts and DSLRs; these cameras offer many of the features found in DSLRs but with the exception of having a changeable lens. They are also known as Ultra Zoom cameras due to the high optical zoom (ranging from 12x up to 18x), And full size cameras because they have larger lenses which makes them almost as large as an entry level DSLR. Bridge cameras provide many user changeable options (i.e Manual aperture control, manual focusing and various camera settings). Some even has a mount for adding an external flash units and a lens thread for adding filters. Due to the features price is higher than standard compacts, usually varies from $250 to $500.


Perhaps the two main distinguishing features of a DSLR are: ability to change lenses and having a real optical viewfinder. In a DSLR the image you see in the viewfinder is coming through the main lens. In comparison compact cameras either have an electronic view finder, a dummy optical view finder (where the light is not passed though the actual lens, rather through a separate small hole on the camera body), or no view finder at all.

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:
  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. Cost of the accessories.
Note : There is another type of high end cameras that are even more expensive than professional DSLRs, they are called Medium Format Cameras, which are well over $25,000. They have much larger sensors (medium format 1977 sq. mm). I will not talk about those since average consumers don’t use them.

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.

As you can see there are numerous advantages in getting a DSLR, especially if you are keen on getting higher quality photographs. But it comes at a price. Before I conclude this post I will also briefly note some of the advantages of owning a compact camera

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.
Whether you want a DSLR or not entirely depends on your enthusiasm in photography. If you just want a small camera to take an occasional photo of a family trip, of a party, some special occasion or just a funny moment, then perhaps a compact camera is better suited for you. But if you are really interested in photography and you want to capture the true essence and the beauty of a moment then nothing short of a DSLR will do. I don’t think you can replace a Compact with a DSLR because there are many instances where we cannot be bothered to lug around a huge DSLR, therefore it is better to have a cheap compact and a decent DSLR so you can have best of both worlds.


Optical zoom: Magnifying or bringing the subject of interest closer by using optics (lenses). This is the preferred method of zooming since it does not loose detail. The alternative is digital zoom, in which the image is enlarged digitally by interpolating. Digital zoom is same as enlarging a digital image on the computer.

Focal Length: In scientific terms focal length is the distance between the center of the lens and the point in which light from infinity is focused. Since modern camera lenses have many lens elements, the resultant focal of a lens is actually much larger than the distance between the lens and sensor. As far as photography is concerned all we need to know is that lenses with shorter focal lengths have a wider field of view compared to those with longer focal lengths. Focal length of a camera lens is denoted in 35 mm equivalents (compared to how the lens would work projecting the image on to a 35mm film).
This number also has a relation to the zoom factor of a lens. Zoom factor = maximum focal length / Minimum focal length.

Aperture: Aperture is a small adjustable opening (iris) inside the lens that controls the amount of light coming into the camera sensor. Aperture size is denoted by a F-Stop = focal length / diameter of the opening. For this reason larger apertures have a smaller F-Stop number (i.e 1.2) where smaller apertures have a larger F-Stop number (i.e 5.6). Size of the aperture has a direct impact on the amount of light and the depth of field (DOF) of an image

Deapth of field : Is the amount of distance between the nearest and farthest objects that appear in acceptably sharp focus in a photograph. Any object that falls out of the DOF will appear blurry. With a shallow DOF everything that lies away and towards few feet off the focus point will appear blurry where as a with a wide DOF everything will be in focus up to few feet from the lens. Larger apertures have a shallow DOF.

ISO Sensitivity: This is a standardized number representing the sensitivity of the sensor to light. Lower number means less sensitivity. This again is a convention carried on from film cameras. Cameras with high ISO numbers are better at working under low light conditions. However due to the various signal processing techniques images with high ISO settings will have noise.

(*The author, Hasitha Ariyaratne, hails from Colombo, Sri Lanka) 

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Nabin said...

I might want to add phone cameras to the list.

Anonymous said...

Anyone wanting to a buy "high end" compact camera, if the size and portability is not an issue, should "upgrade" straight to a "low end" DSLR.

This post has inspired me to write my experience of upgrading to a DSLR, since past few yrs. I should hopefully be able to post it soon :D


Mukesh on January 20, 2010 at 9:44 AM said...

We belong to digital world and we all are upgrading our needs to smaller electronic products such as computers, cameras, phones, etc. Let's talk about an example of huge ginormous computers from the 1980's to small portable laptops...in the same way..we had a bigger sized phones..now we have very tiny smart phones...it applies to camera as well. DSLR cameras are for photo graphers..not for general people...we want the thin and skinny digital cameras which fits in our small pockets...Overall it was a great post, I really enjoyed reading it....I must say this is very informative post for photo graphers..
Thank you for sharing.

Magali on January 20, 2010 at 5:47 PM said...

Hey nice post! I too recently moved from a Canon Point & Shot to a Canon 1000D. It's difficult, but I'm lovin' every moment of it!

Alok said...

A wonderful article indeed! The author has very precisely described all the features of digital cameras and the reason why one should move to a DSLR. In my opinion the main reasons for switching to a DSLR are: shooting in low light conditions, fast continuous shooting, wide angle coverage etc. However, portability and affordability are the two major issues that discourages use of DSLRs. Nonetheless, DSLRs are no longer 'only for photographers' cameras.

Thank you for writing such an informative article.

Tarun Mitra on January 21, 2010 at 11:24 AM said...

A wonderful article indeed. I do many of the points here but the explanation done here is simple as superb. Especially for the non-science background person like me. I too wish to upgrade but only costs have bogged me down.

Anonymous said...

wonderful info here! gud work dude! what models would you suggest for those guys who're a little bit hesitant in stepping out of point & shoot era and want something that is easy to use?

Prajwol on January 25, 2010 at 10:31 PM said...

FYI: finally able to pen a post on DSLR at my blog .....phew :D


Dilip Acharya on January 26, 2010 at 8:46 AM said...

Well narrated,yet very easy to understand. As I was thinking about upgrading my old digital (compact) camera, this post came as a guideline for me.Thanks for this informative post.

subu.ps on February 1, 2010 at 12:07 PM said...

Thanks to indivine for taking me here. It was really really helpful for me. Thanks once again and keep posting such simple and easy to understand articles :)

Anonymous said...

informative... thanks

Chaitanya on February 11, 2010 at 10:58 AM said...

A very useful information! Thank you Hasitha san and Deependra san!

Kcalpesh on February 12, 2010 at 1:51 PM said...

Informative and very well written. I'm currently using the ultra-compact A710 IS and I have done a course in Digital Photography from NIP. However, I'm still planning to get a Bridge Camera first before thinking of buying my first DSLR camera....

Your Post is very helpful and informative!

Hasitha on February 14, 2010 at 10:44 AM said...

Thanks for all the comments.

DSLRs are no longer exclusively meant for professional photographers, nowadays more and more camera manufacturers are coming up with user friendly low budget DSLRs which are very similar to compact cameras in terms of usability, for example they have full automatic camera controls with scene presets, have live view support (you can compose your photo by looking at the LCD screen on the back, instead of the view finder) and auto focus. Even if you are new to photography you can still end up taking much better looking photos by using automatic modes of a DSLR, therefore anyone who has the slightest interest in photography or at least who wants to take sharper and clearer photos should seriously consider getting a DSLR.

There are many entry level DSLRs at affordable prices, I’d recommend one of those for anyone who is upgrading from a compact camera. If movie mode is important then there are only a handful of models to choose from: Canon 500D (Canon 550D coming out at the end of this month), Nikon D5000 (or slightly expensive semi pro level Nikon D90) and Pentax Kx (or slightly expensive semi pro level Pentax K-7). Apart from those there are mid-range expensive cameras with video like Canon 7D and Nikon D300s and couple of other pro level cameras. However, if video is not a must then you can always get a slightly older variant of the current entry level cameras (like the Canon 450D or 1000D, Nikon D60, Sony Alpha A350, Pentax K200D, Olympus E-520 etc..). There are many more, I’d suggest anyone wanting to buy a camera first visit some online camera review sites like dpreview.com , cameralabs.com,steves-digicams.com, etc.

Personally I prefer Canon and Nikon over other brands mostly due to the availability of a wide range of lenses and accessories. Apart from those two, Pentax also has a good collection of lenses, mainly because they have been using the same lens mount for over 30 years; furthermore, since they incorporate image stabilization system in to the camera body, no need to worry about camera shake when using older lenses, however with old lenses auto focusing will not work.

Dharmendra on June 2, 2010 at 4:45 PM said...

Nice review on moving from compact digital camera to dslr camera. I am also using canon camera and enjoying best quality images.

Minu on June 30, 2010 at 4:53 PM said...

Ya sure. its very good information regarding digital camera that will help to have best one in pocket.

L'Amita on August 8, 2010 at 5:17 PM said...

Nice article:-)

Top Rated Cameras on January 9, 2011 at 2:33 PM said...

That's a very interesting post. This is absolutely a good article between these two types of camera. I think if you have the budget, you can have a good DSLR and get a simple point and shoot camera just in case the situation wouldn't allow you to use your DSLR. And if you really want to get more serious about photography, go get a DSLR and learn how to play with it..but make sure you can handle the consequences like expensive lens, flash and other accessories. So if you have the money and passion on photography, go get a DSLR. Otherwise, get a point and shoot camera. It's just a matter of budget and interest in my opinion. :)

Dean Jonz on March 30, 2011 at 10:59 AM said...

A camera based on the single-lens reflex (SLR) principle uses a mirror to show in a viewfinder the image that will be captured. The cross-section (side-view) of the optical components of an SLR shows how the light passes through the lens assembly, is reflected into the pentaprism by the reflex mirror (which must be at an exact 45 degree angle) and is projected on the matte focusing screen.Aviation Insurance

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Compact Digital Cameras on September 23, 2011 at 6:39 PM said...

Hey good job! I also recently moved from a Canon point and shoot a Canon 1000D. It is difficult, but I love every minute!
Thanks for posting such informative content. Keep posting.

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