What to Buy: dSLR or Compact Camera

Background

Just a few years ago, the dSLR camera was reserved for professionals or amateurs who were very serious about photography. The cost was high enough that it kept many casual shooters from even considering a dSLR. The price gap isn't what it used to be, however, and it is now possible to get a good dSLR (with a decent lens) for a little more than double what you'd pay for a compact point-and-shoot camera. Should you consider a dSLR for your next digital camera or is a compact right for you? While it is impossible to cover every aspect of such a decision and how they might affect your personal choice, let's take a look at some of the driving factors that distinguish a dSLR from a compact/pocket camera!

Compact "pocket rockets"

The term "compact" camera can cover cameras from purse-size (about the size of a brick or smaller) down to truly compact cameras that fit in a shirt/pants pocket. The latter have become more popular recently just because the technology that drives them has gotten smaller, allowing great photos in a smaller package, and if you are going to buy a small camera, why not buy one really small that can fit in your back pocket? The Sony W-170 is a good example of a modern "pocket rocket".

Unlike years ago when you had to sacrifice a lot of features and quality to shoot with a compact camera, today's compacts offer much the same capability of dSLR's and many offer manual modes that rival the control you'd get when using a dSLR! Also in the compact's favor is the fact that everything is matched and made to work together. The lens is the proper size and quality needed to pair with the imaging sensor, the flash is mated to both the lens and camera capabilities, and so on. Compact cameras often offer user friendly scene selections that allow you to choose "sports", "portrait", "night shot" and other modes and the camera takes care of the settings such as aperture, shutter speed, and sensitivity for you. This allows the casual shooter to choose the right settings for the type of photos they are taking without having to know how each individual parameter affects image capture.

In addition to ease-of-use and features, the compact camera has one major advantage over the dSLR: size! You can only take pictures if you have your camera with you and if your camera fits in your pocket, you are much more likely to have it with you than if you know you have to lug a big camera (with a lens that sometimes weighs more than the camera) around all day with the strap pulling at your neck. If you want to take a camera to the amusement park for example, what are you going to do with your dSLR while you ride the coasters? Your compact can go in your back pocket and take the ride with you. Even when you go out to dinner, where are you going to put your dSLR and will you be sure to remember to get it from under the table when you leave? Also, some sporting events, exhibitions, concerts, and other venues will allow compact cameras but not anything even resembling a professional camera so you might get stopped if you are carrying a dSLR. These are things to consider when you evaluate how you will be using the camera: in what situations and in what type of environment.

It isn't uncommon to buy a dSLR because they are "the talk" on the web only to find out that you leave it home more often than not due the complexity of using it or due to its size, and when you do use it you find that while it does have automatic modes, you need to know a little more about photography than you might with a compact camera. Many of the compact cameras also offer movie and sound capture as well, something very few dSLR's can do. While the video/audio modes of most compacts make them insufficient for good TV quality viewing or ripping to DVD's (except maybe the Canon TX1 and a very few others), they do allow you to capture those moving moments where you would otherwise miss them if you were carrying a dSLR.

The mighty dSLR

Next to step in the ring is the heavyweight champion: the digital single lens reflex (dSLR). The dSLR is a big boy. He's got one heck of a punch when he hits you but the featherweight compact is running circles around him taking shots while the heavyweight is still trying to find the right combo before making his first strike. Of course, this analogy is a bit flawed since just about any dSLR can focus and shoot faster shots in succession than most pocket cameras. Still, the analogy works to some degree since for the casual shooter, it can be easier to set up that initial shot using a compact camera. The dSLR lumbers around waiting and hunting for just the right shot, but when he makes his move, that one shot can be a real knockout! The compact, on the other hand, whisks around taking one "decent" shot after another but unlike the experienced heavyweight, the compact is more likely to take average shots that raise less ooh's and ahh's from the crowd. OK. Enough analogies... back to reality. As far as size, the dSLR isn't one you would carry in a purse or certainly not a pocket. The Nikon D60 is a good example of a "small" dSLR:

dSLR's offer some serious advantages to the serious photographer. Really, there's nothing a compact camera can do (other than video capture) that a dSLR cannot as far as taking the actual photographs, yet there is much that a dSLR can do that most compacts cannot. Hot shoe for bounce flash, wireless/slave and studio flash, interchangeable lenses for super telephoto shots and other "specialty" shots, tethered shooting, and excellent high ISO performance are just a few areas where the dSLR smashes most compact cameras. You have to remember, however, that all of these things come at a cost. If you want to get one of those super telephoto lenses to do some wildlife shots, you may pay more than you paid for your dSLR camera to get a good one! And you may soon find that you need a camera bag as big as a suitcase in order to have all those goodies with you when you need them. A long telephoto lens can easily be more expensive and substantially larger and heavier than the camera it is mounted to, so many lenses have a tripod mount where you actually mount the lens on the tripod and the less bulky camera hangs off the back suspended by the lens. Of course not all lenses are that large, even some good super zooms, but you get the idea.

Another thing to consider when looking at a dSLR versus a compact camera is image quality. How important is image quality to you? Do you plan to do large prints where small imperfections in image quality might show in your prints? If so, there's nothing better than a dSLR for image quality and that may be a factor for you. Nearly any dSLR will beat a compact camera as far as overall image quality is concerned. dSLR cameras have much larger image sensors which allow them to capture photos with less noise and more dynamic range. A typical dSLR can shoot in darker conditions using ISO 400 and produce photos at higher quality (with less noise) than a typical compact shooting the same scene. In fact, most dSLR's have less noise at ISO 400 or even ISO 800 than a compact camera shooting at ISO 100! That's the price you pay for using a small camera with a small lens and a small sensor. We can see this effect by viewing some sample images from compact cameras and dSLR's right here at Steve's:

10 MP compact: Sony W-170 10 MP dSLR: Nikon D80

While there are obvious color and metering differences between the cameras, the above is a good example of the difference in quality you might expect when comparing photos from a compact camera to those from a dSLR: in this case, a 10 megapixel compact versus a 10 megapixel dSLR. The above are crops from the original shots blown up by 200% (2x) to bring out fine low level detail. Notice how the dSLR (right) renders much smoother, cleaner, and crisper detail. The compact camera (left) renders the same part of the image with more noise and less visible detail. The above is pretty typical when comparing image quality from compact cameras versus dSLR cameras and if the photos are printed large enough, a trained eye can frequently spot whether the photo came from a compact camera or a dSLR.

The relevant question at this point becomes: how noticeable are the quality differences in actual printed photos. To answer that question, you have to ask how large you plan to print and how closely your observers tend to scrutinize the prints. While the above shows a significant advantage in quality to the dSLR, that difference may not be evident until you print a 13x20 photo and examine it closely. How often will you be doing that? Will the difference still show (even if not as much) on a print with about half that effective "blowup": say 8x10? Unfortunately this is a gray area where there is no clear cut answer. In my experience, I can usually tell a dSLR photo from a compact camera photo by just holding an 8x10 from both. At sizes smaller than 8x10, it can be very difficult to discern which is better. While the dSLR photo may not jump out at you as being much better and the compact camera photo may not jump out as being noisy, many may see the dSLR photo as looking very clean or silky smooth, and just looking more like a professional photo even if you can't quite verbalize exactly why. There is often simply a more "professional look" to dSLR photos while compact cameras tend to produce photos that look more like snapshots. Some people equate the difference as the dSLR photos looking like real photographs and compact camera photos looking more like video captures. Again though, that's really not noticeable until you start printing large photos. Whether or not that is relevant to your own photo shooting is a matter of personal taste.

Summary

There are many factors to consider when buying a camera and if you're in the market and you don't know exactly what you want (or need) and you are considering both a compact "pocket rocket" and a dSLR, you might consider the points listed in this article. In a nutshell, they are:

A dSLR may be better for you if you:

  • Need maximum manual control over shooting parameters.

  • Often operate in a studio environment or other "controlled" environment.

  • Shoot in a wide variety of conditions where you may need multiple lenses.

  • Frequently shoot under harsh conditions or lighting (high contrast, etc.).

  • Need the best possible image quality.

  • Do a lot of indoor shooting where red-eye and bounce flash are factors.

  • Often shoot in low light where higher sensitivity or better flash are required.

  • Need super fast focus and/or fast shot-to-shot continuous shooting.

  • Plan to make large prints.

  • Don't mind lugging around and keeping track of a larger camera.

A compact/pocket camera may be better for you if you:

  • Would rather have user friendly shooting selections than manual control.

  • Find it inconvenient to have to carry the camera around your neck.

  • Plan to take your camera to sporting events, etc. where dSLR's are prohibited.

  • Normally print smaller photos (8x10 or smaller).

  • Often shoot under "impromptu" conditions and not studio type environments.

  • Shoot mostly landscapes or people where precision/control are not paramount.

  • Think quick focus and fast multiple shots are usually not necessary.

  • Might need to shoot video from time to time.

In the end, good luck with whatever you decide. Through the years I've learned that an acceptable snapshot is better than no shot at all. If you love dSLR's as I do but you find that you often miss photo opportunities because you don't want to lug around the equipment needed to operate a dSLR all day, maybe at some point both would be best! At the end of the day, you can only capture the moment if you have your camera with you. Your dSLR will be next to useless if you find yourself leaving it home often because you don't want a heavy camera pulling at your neck all day or because the event you are attending (sporting event, concert, exhibition, or similar venue) doesn't allow "professional" cameras. The simple answer might be to get both if you can afford them and carry whatever the occasion calls for. Of course, that's not always an option for all of us nor does it even make sense if you're not into "professional" type shooting so if you do have to decide between a compact camera or a dSLR, hopefully this article will help you decide what is best for you. Happy shopping and happy shooting!

-- Mike Chaney