Should I Get a DSLR?

Please understand at the outset, these are my opinions.  If you disagree with them tell your friends, please don’t tell me.  If you find something  factually inaccurate let me know.

I can’t update this article every time new cameras come out, so the cameras mentioned in the article are obsolete now.

Ansel Adams, maybe the worlds most renown photographer said, “The single most important component of a camera is the twelve inches behind it.”  Good photographers make good pictures with any camera — poor ones make poor pictures with the best of equipment.

SLRs were the way to go in film days when there were no reasonable alternatives.  But, those days are long gone.  In the modern world of digital cameras the options are very different.

July 2010 Update People who read this article ask me which Prosumer camera I recommend.  My recommendations are not based on my testing, rather they’re based on reviews by major camera/photo websites. You can see one such article Here.

There’s a lot of misinformation on the web about the difference between DSLR and non-DSLR cameras.  I think much of this stems from snobbery on the part of a few camera buffs who fancy themselves amateur photographers and from marketing motives.  There’s a lot more money to be made in DSLRs than non-DSLRs.

Part of the misinformation is aided by dividing digital cameras into only two groups, DSLRs and P&S (point & shoot).  For the purposes of this article I am going to add a third group between P&S and DSLRs.  For lack of a better term I call it Prosumer (also called DSLR-Like or Super Zoom).  I once understood the term Prosumer to mean what I use it to mean in this article, but apparently it has been misused and discarded.  The term Point & Shoot should be restricted to those digital cameras that are largely or fully automatic — the camera decides everything and you pretty much have to use what it decides.  If you don’t like the word Prosumer substitute ‘bridge-camera’ or DSLR-Like or any word you like for it in this article.  I’m just trying to have a term for a high end one-built-in-lens camera.

When I see comparisons between types of digital cameras they’re almost always between DSLRs and P&S cameras.  I sometimes think they’re written by people who’ve never used a Prosumer camera or don’t know they exist.  They say things like “If you continue to take pictures you will want control over the camera, and that requires a DSLR.”  This is simply wrong.  Prosumer cameras have essentially all the controls a DSLR has.  The ability to control the image creation and camera is not meaningfully different between the two kinds of cameras.  You can control, aperture (F-stop), shutter speed and focus.  You can operate them entirely manually if you choose, but the auto-focus and auto-exposure functions have the same features.  Depending on the Prosumer camera you choose, you can use RAW images.   These comparisons also say, “All DSLRs feature interchangeable lenses, so you can change the focal length to your preference, rather than being stuck with the limited lens common to a point-and-shoot.”  Wrong, wrong, wrong.  In fact it’s exactly the opposite.  The limited camera in this arena is the DSLR.  A Prosumer camera’s zoom lens can go from 28mm to 500 or even 1000mm.  Five hundred millimeters is more telephoto than you’re likely to ever buy or lug around for a DSLR.  In addition to cost, small, light, and long telephoto zoom is the Prosumer camera’s big advantage over DSLRs.

Here are the advantages and disadvantages of DSLRs:

Advantages of DSLR:

  • Less digital noise at high ISOs (though this is changing)
  • Faster shutter response (important for action shots)
  • True through-the-lens manual focusing for close-ups & extension tubes
  • A little larger F-stops (for a price)
  • Shallower depth of field to blur distracting backgrounds/foregrounds

Disadvantages of DSLR:

  • Larger, heavier, bulkier than Prosumer cameras.
  • Have to buy extra lenses to get the range of focus
  • Have to carry these extra lenses (camera bag – not just camera)
  • Dust is more likely to get inside and on sensor
  • Long zoom lenses are larger/heavier/very expensive with less zoom
  • Have to be farther from the subject without special lenses (~ 2′ vs 3-5″ with prosumer)
  • Shallower depth of field: harder to get both far and near objects in focus
  • More expensive than Prosumer cameras

Digital Noise

This is the main advantage of DSLRs over Prosumer cameras.  Digital noise is like grain in film.  The colored specks you see in the image at right are digital noise.  I have deliberately chosen a very noisy picture to show what noise is. This picture was taken at ISO 400 with an older Prosumer camera.

ISO is a number that represents how sensitive the camera is to light. Said another way, it determines how well lighted the subject has to be to take the picture.  The higher the ISO the darker it can be and still take pictures.  On digital cameras you can vary the ISO setting.  If you use a Prosumer camera at normal ISOs (80-100) you aren’t likely to have problems with noise.  But, as you go above 200 the noise gets progressively worse.  Above 400-800 you’re likely to get poor quality images. Whereas with a DSLR you can use ISOs of up to 3200 and still get acceptable quality images.  If you edit your pictures on the computer, there are programs such as NoiseNinja that help remove noise.  But, shooting action, such as sports, after dusk is one of the rare situations where a DSLR with a 400mm lens has a clear
advantage over a Prosumer camera.  And, if it’s your intention to shoot a large proportion of your  pictures in low light without flash a Prosumer may not be the camera for you.  That said,  I took this shot of my grandniece’s ballet recital from the back of a large auditorium with my Prosumer.

Shutter Response

There’s a delay between when you press the Go button on a camera and when the picture is actually taken. This delay is greater on non-DSLR cameras and people taking action shots are often frustrated by it.  This delay is much less today than it was on early non-DSLR digital cameras, but DSLRs are still faster.  However, there’s more than one way avoid this delay when using a Prosumer camera.  I’ll only mention one here.  The delay is due to the camera having to figure out what F-Stop & shutter speed to use and (mostly) where to focus.  Point the camera at the location you intend to shoot and look at the settings the camera has determined (they’re usually shown in the viewfinder), change the mode to manual and set the camera to those same values then set the focusing to continuous.  Now the camera doesn’t have to figure them out, so it shoots about as fast as a DSLR.  If you want to shoot machine gun fashion (shooting picture after picture continuously while holding the shutter release down) the DSLR may (or may not) shoot slightly faster — maybe 5 vs 4 frames per second.

Trough-the-Lens Viewing

With a DSLR you’re actually looking at the subject through the lens of the camera.  With a Prosumer camera you’re looking at an image of what the camera sees on a little monitor in the viewfinder. For great the majority of picture taking you won’t notice the difference and even forget you aren’t looking at the real thing.
But, if you do super close Macro photography — if you want to fill the frame with a bugs eye — focus becomes critical and you may want to do it manually instead of letting the camera focus automatically.  In this case you need to see the real object clearly enough to focus sharply.  Prosumer cameras have features to assist with this, but it’s not like seeing the real thing.  Also, because you can remove the lens, you can put what are called extension tubes between the camera and the lens to create extreme close-ups.  This said, some truly spectacular macro photography is done with Prosumer cameras and some people argue it’s actually better for Macro photography, partly because of the greater depth of field.  Extreme close-ups have a very shallow depth of field.  Also, the resolution of Prosumer view finders are getting better and better.

Shallow Depth of Field

Depth of field is the distance between the object nearest to the camera and the most distance object that are both in focus.  Depth of field is a mixed bag.  Sometimes you want a lot and sometimes you want only a little.   Sometimes you want to make the objects in front or behind the subject go blurry so they don’t detract from what you are trying to show.  In this case you want shallow depth of field.  In the picture at the right you can see the tractor and the closest words in the label are blurry.  Other times you want everything you can get in focus, in which case you want great depth of field.  Greater depth of field is usually an advantage in Macro photography.  The greater depth of field with a Prosumer camera may compensate for the lack of through-the-lens viewing, because DSLRs have quite a bit less depth of field than Prosumer cameras making it hard to get the entire bug’s eye in focus.

Discussion of Cons

With the Prosumer Canon PowerShot SX10 IS (and others) you get a zoom range of of 28-560mm.  (UPDATE: The Nikon Coolpix P100 reaches from 28mm to almost 700mm & the Olympus SP-800 is 28mm to 840mm.  If you could get such a lenses for a DSLR, which you can’t, it would be too heavy to carry.)  To get a 28-500 zoom range with a DSLR you have to buy a wide angle lens and a long telephoto (and one or two more lenses to cover the midrange). A top quality 500mm telephoto from a major manufacturer like Canon can cost $6000 and the lens alone will weigh 8.5 pounds. But, you’re more likely to end up with is a 70-200mm zoom lens which can cost about $1600 and weighs about 4 pounds.  From a cheap lens maker this lens will cost $900.  Together these make for about 6 pounds of camera and lens. You can get a cheaper lighter lens in 70-200mm range but it won’t have an F-Stop advantage over the Prosumer.  To get the 28mm you have to buy another lens.  If you want to get close to your subject (something the size of a Zippo lighter) you have to have a special lens.  All in all you can spend a small fortune on lenses.  Then, you have to carry these lenses with you when you plan to take pictures, and change them as the need changes.  And, when you take the lens on and off a DSLR you expose the inside of the camera to dust or trash blowing into it, and onto the sensor — the heart of picture taking with a digital camera.

Whereas with a Prosumer camera  you can get a zoom range of 28mm-500mm+ all in one complete camera weighing less than 1.5 pounds, for about $450. That’s about what the body alone of a DSLR weighs with no lens. And, it’s the camera manufacturer’s lens (the lens on my Prosumer camera was made by Leica — the prince of lens
makers).  Also, with this lens you can just about fill the picture with that Zippo lighter.

Another advantage of Prosumer cameras is they can use flash at all shutter speeds.  This can be a real advantage if you want to present your subject against an all dark background.  An electronic flash is faster than any shutter speed.  This means you can set the shutter speed on your Prosumer to it’s highest setting and the flash will still light the picture correctly.  There are two advantages to this.  1)  If the area around you is lighted, just not enough to take the picture, if you use a slower shutter speed this existing light will partially light your picture and give a ghost image of the surrounds and a blurry ghost image if you move the camera.  This problem is eliminated if you set the shutter speed high.  2)  You often see close-ups of insects or flowers where the background is dark.  This is a nice effect which you can get by using a shutter speed high enough only the flash will light the object and the more distant

background will go dark.  You can’t do any of these things with a DSLR.  DSLRs use a special kind of shutter called a “focal plane shutter”  that limits the shutter speed with electronic flash.  I have a recent DSLR and the highest shutter speed that can be used with flash is 1/200 second.  A Prosumer camera can use it’s full range of shutter speeds, as high as 1/2000 second or higher.  This will eliminate the ambient light in any interior shot and many exterior ones.

I’m 78 years old and have been taking pictures since I was 14 (actually 6, but I only got something more than a box camera at 14).  I had a wet darkroom in my home during my forties and have probably read a couple or three hundred books on photography.   All this isn’t to say I’m a hotshot photographer, I’m not, rather it’s to explain I’m not a newbie.  If you’re going to devote your free waking life to photography, and are willing to tote a bag of gear and a tripod everywhere you go then by all means gear up with a DSLR, but before you do, get a good Prosumer camera and give it a try for a month or three so you’ll know what you’re really getting for all that pain.

If sensor technology continues to improve, DSLRs may someday become the dinosaur of digital photography.


4 Responses to “Should I Get a DSLR?”

  1. Terry Says:

    Excellent down to earth overview. Very helpful.

  2. Shelli Alekna Says:

    DSLRs nowadays are really great, you can really take pictures in a flash and you can have them developed in a minute or two. ,.”.”

    Yours truly

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