Lots of people think that to upgrade from a compact camera and get better looking pictures you need to move up to a DSLR.
But a DSLR might not be for you. That’s because every camera comes with pros and cons. And understanding what you need versus what you’re willing to suffer will help you make a better choice.
Let’s check out the 3 categories of cameras you can get today:
Light, compact cameras are great if you want something you can carry around everywhere easily. That’s their main strength, and they’re also the most affordable range of cameras you can get today, and the easiest to use.
They’re usually not very versatile though, so if things like aperture, shutter speed and ISO control are important to you, you might be dissatisfied with a compact camera. They also don’t tend to do well in low-light, with noisy and grainy photographs.
Things are changing though, as the best of them, like the Canon S95 and Panasonic LX5, are offering better image quality and feature manual controls like DSLR cameras.
In the last 3 years we’ve seen the rise of mirror-less interchangeable lens cameras. That’s really a big mouthful and I have no idea why nobody has thought of a better name yet. But these cameras are really something.
They’re bigger than compact cameras, but smaller than DSLR cameras. The smallest among them would still fit easily into a normal bag without any fuss. They’re lighter than DSLR cameras, and they take better looking pictures than compact cameras, so they offer a balance between quality and portability. You can easily carry one of these around on a vacation and you won’t break your back.
Despite taking better looking pictures than compact cameras though, they still can’t compete with the image quality and speed of DSLR cameras. They work great for everyday use, but falter in more specialized types of shooting, like shooting sports which needs fast continuous AF. You also have a smaller selection of lenses, especially for emerging systems like Sony’s NEX and Samsung’s NX cameras.
Despite that, the best thing about this range of cameras now is how it strikes a balance between portability, quality and ease of use.
Here we come to the classic DSLR camera. There’s no doubt about it, the DSLR is king of the hill when it comes to image quality (until we go to medium format cameras, but except for professionals, those cameras are overkill and out of reach for most of us). It’s fast, takes great pictures with less image noise than the previous categories, has a wide selection of lenses and is the most versatile. Most of them are also extremely durable and are built to last - if you're a professional, there really isn't any other choice.
But that power comes with a price, and it’s in the DSLR camera’s size and bulk. If you’ve ever carried one for a long period of time, you know it’s no small matter. People buy bigger bags just to carry the things around! And woe betide you if you ever carry one for a vacation - be prepared to visit a masseur when you come back.
Still, if you plan to really get into photography, a DSLR camera might be the tool for you, because it lets you learn about the technical aspects of photography and gives you the most amount of versatility over time (depending on the particular model).
So the question is; which category of camera is best for you? A compact camera, a mirror-less interchangeable lens camera or a DSLR camera?
It’s quite simple really, you just have to ask yourself which is good enough?
(Unless you have tons of money, in which case just buy one of each!)
Is portability and ease of use most important to you, and you’re totally fine with the image quality of a compact camera?
Is image quality as important to you as portability and ease of use, and you’re willing to make compromises on both for a good balance of each, like with a mirror-less camera?
Or is performance top on your list, no matter the weight or cost? Then yes, a DSLR just might be for you.
Ripping off Steve Jobs, I’d like to leave you with one more thing, and it’s this quote from photographer David duChemin.
“Gear is good, vision is better.”
I’m pretty lucky to have a job where I get to play with lots of new cameras, day in and day out. But you know, just because I used a compact camera yesterday and a DSLR camera today, it doesn’t mean my photographs magically become better.
Cameras don’t take photographs, people take photographs.
Lots of people have the idea that once they buy a better camera, their photos will magically become better. It doesn’t help that every year, it’s the camera manufacturers’ jobs to sell you the next best thing. But you’ll be surprised at the number of professional photographers who aren’t using the latest, most expensive gear and still take great photos. Don't mistake the marketing for the truth.
If you want to take better pictures, a better camera can surely help. But so can going to a class, the library or even the internet, and learning more about the craft of photography.
I like coffee and cameras, but not together.