Westminster fountain at sunset

by Jorge Córdoba

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Why should I put up with the inconvenience of lugging around a DSLR?

They look cool, but is there more substance to it?

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Based on how common and important a question this is, suggest "P&S" is written in full for quicker comprehension among the new users of the site. –  Regmi Mar 19 '13 at 4:26
    

10 Answers 10

  • Larger sensor -> higher ISO, lower noise, better image quality, can shoot in extreme low light conditions
  • Fast focus, no lag -> you can catch moment which is not possible with P&S camera
  • Interchangeable lens, choose one which better fits your needs, conditions, etc
  • More control over DOF, can create portraits with nice looking bokeh, your girl will like it =)
  • You look like a PRO! =)
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It depends on what you wish to do. If all you need is to take a few shots of your friends and family in various life situations, a P&S will serve you well. However, if you wish to have total control over your photos, and are interested in the composition, lighting, and ultimate quality of your shots, a DSLR will serve you better.

I personally don't think of my DSLR as "cool". It is a tool that lets me accomplish something that has value to me. With a DSLR, you don't just get higher megapixels and a heavier camera. You get more features that give you the power and control you need to fine-tune your shots, and capture the moments that you find meaningful in the best way possible.

Here are some of the benefits of a decent DSLR over a P&S:

  • Often have higher megapixel counts
  • Considerably larger sensors, some up to the size of a full-frame 35mm film camera
  • Better ISO sensitivity range, and better control over noise levels
  • Extensive control over the color, tone, and sharpness of your photos
  • The ability to interchange a multitude of powerful lenses
  • A hotshoe to which a variety of devices, such as quality external flash devices, may be attached.
  • The ability to shoot in RAW format, which gives you powerful control over your photos in a post-processing tool like Photoshop, Lightroom, or Aperture
  • Higher (and lower) shutter speeds and shooting rates, allowing you to freeze time, or watch it pass by

A DSLR is an amazing device, and if you have the need for any of the above, it can serve you well. It is certainly not an ad-hoc camera that will let you quickly and cheaply capture those zillions of friend and family moments that happen every day...but it will let you capture those fantastic moments that you pass by on rarer occasions in perfect clarity and quality.

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Megapixel count is not nearly as important as pixel size. My 6 MP SLR produces much, much better pictures than my 10 MP point-and-shoot - even when reduced & viewed in a browser, it's a noticeable difference. –  chris Jul 15 '10 at 22:31
    
@chris: Yes, good point...I didn't directly note that, however the combination of considerably larger sensor size and megapixel count usually results in DSLR's having better control over noise. Since pixel (or rather photon-bucket) size is larger in a DSLR, it requires a lower signal to gather the same amount of light as a smaller sensor. That means a better signal-to-noise ratio. –  jrista Jul 15 '10 at 22:52
    
For me, the most important distinction is DoF control and the possibilities it unlocks for creativity. –  Eruditass Jul 27 '10 at 3:55
    
Oh, I have used several P&S cameras that had a higher megapixel count then my dSLRs, but the photos they took were just crap when compared to what I could do with my dSLR. (Other than the Nikon Coolpix S8000... that little guy is amazing.) –  Matthew Whited Jul 28 '10 at 15:27
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@Matthew: Yeah, some PS cams have higher MP counts than DSLR's. The important difference is not really the MP count but the size of each photosite. Smaller and more densely packed photosites result in noisier images. PS cameras have extremely small sensors, and most of the time tend to have really high noise. A large full-frame sensor with the same MP count as a PS will look worlds better due to the lower density and larger photosites. –  jrista Jul 28 '10 at 17:50

They aren't better per se; They just tend to allow greater artistic control over the result. They're useless for just keeping in your pocket for that surprise sunset, or random performance in town.

I'd advocate having the right camera for you. In my case, I'm quite indecisive so that's a DSLR, film SLR, and a digital compact.

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The best camera is the one that's with you. -- thebestcamera.com/book.html –  Jared Updike Jul 16 '10 at 19:47

To answer my own question, my reasons:

  1. P&S cameras make you wait. I press the button, I wait, the subject loses interest and looks away, the camera takes the picture. in the mean time, the shot is ruined
  2. DSLR cameras can accomodate a 'real' flash. Bouncing light off the ceiling yields an infinitely better picture.
  3. Larger image sensor. It's more forgiving of lower light situations.
  4. RAW. The increased color depth means more options for tweaking the exposure.

The above is not true for all P&S cameras. Please comment on notable exceptions.

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Some DSLR's don't have RAW capability. I don't know of any current models, but I know my old Canon 300D didn't. The 300D was also pretty darn slow (which is why I upgraded to a 30D). –  david Jul 15 '10 at 20:37
    
And some point & shoot cameras can now do RAW. –  chris Jul 15 '10 at 22:33
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The Canon G11 is a P&S with manual controls, fast at taking the shot when you press the shutter, has a hot shoe for a flash gun and shoots RAW... –  matt burns Aug 19 '10 at 23:01

If you're not feeling the limitations of your point-and-shoot camera, then you probably don't need a DSLR. (Not least because, if you're happy with the P&S, you'll probably leave the DSLR at home when you go out!)

DSLRs have loads of extra capabilities, but will you actually use them?

I solved this dilemma for myself by taking a weekend photography course with my P&S camera (it has a fairly limited manual mode, which was enough). I learned a lot, took lots of photos that were much better than usual, and I got a really clear idea of what I personally could do with a DSLR. And then I bought my first Canon about a month later...

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  1. More control over settings
  2. More options in lenses
  3. More options in accessories
  4. You don't look silly with a DSLR attached to a big tripod :)
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  • More control over your photos
  • Most DSLRs can shoot RAW, most compacts can't
  • You can change lenses - HUGE advantage
  • Bigger image sensor to offset crazy megapixels
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The "better" camera is the one that best fulfills your needs.

If you want to always carry the camera without being burdened by its weight (and the weight of extra lenses) and be able to take a picture quickly and unnoticed, and IQ is not of paramount importance, then a P&S is better.

If you want to spend time thinking about the perfect shot, set up your tripod, put on filters, figure out individual settings for shutter speed, aperture, iso, etc. and post process the RAW file in an image editing software to create a piece of art, then the SLR is better.

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Basically, a larger and better sensor and the ability to use a variety of lenses, from cheap and crappy to astonishingly expensive and good - which don't always go together. :)

The Micro 4/3 cameras are somewhat of a middle ground.

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Speed has been mentioned. Here is an example of speeds of two P&S and two DSLR from roughly the same price level.

Canon S100 is a pretty nice P&S pocket camera, Samsung EX2F a slightly bigger P&S with features left out from many small pocket cameras, Nikon D5100 a DSLR with optical viewfinder and Sony A37 a DSLR with electronic viewfinder.

Shutter lag is the time camera needs to take the photo from the moment the shutter release is pressed. There is variations in how to do it. Shortest lag usually happens when camera has already focused and only needs to take the shot, which happens when you have the shutter release pressed halfway and focus has locked:

Shutter lag after half-pressing and holding the button:

Canon PowerShot S100 - Samsung EX2F - Nikon D5100 - Sony SLT-A37
 0,071 second        -  0,130 sec   -  0,114 sec  -  0,057 sec

More typical shutter lag for the idea of "point and shoot" would happen when we simply point and press the shutter release down, and the camera takes its time to focus and exposure metering:

Shutter lag after fully pressing the button (with center area autofocus):

Canon PowerShot S100 - Samsung EX2F - Nikon D5100 - Sony SLT-A37
 0,571 second        -  0,380 sec   -  0,273 sec  -  0,109 sec

Next, you have your camera at hand, but power turned off, and you see something you want to take a photo of. Forgetting about the time needed to pull your camera out from pocket or bag, here is the time needed between turning power On and having the first photo captured:

Canon PowerShot S100 - Samsung EX2F - Nikon D5100 - Sony SLT-A37
 2,4 seconds         -  ~1,7 sec    -  ~0,5 sec   -  ~0,9 sec

Here it shows how Nikon D5100 as a true DSLR with optical viewfinder beats them all, and the pocket cameras perform typically slow on power-up. Anyhow, when you know you are going to take a photo, and your target is relatively still, you should let the camera focus itself by half-pressing the shutter release button and wait for your moment. Then you'll have almost the same shutter lag with any one of these four cameras. You will get the hand-shake captured, or whatever it was you waited to happen.

links: Canon PowerShot S100 / Samsung EX2F / Nikon D5100 / Sony SLT-A37

Also remember, Point&Shoot is a photographying style, not really a camera type. You can use an expensive DSLR as a P&S on full Auto mode, and similarly you can go using all the possible manual controls there is on those small pocket cameras. Differences are found in weight, image quality and possibilities. With a DSLR you can do so much more than just point and shoot.


Adding two sample shots. One representing point-n-shoots and one representing entry level DSLRs. Both photos were taken with settings ISO 200 and f/8.0 and lens at maximum zoomed-in. Shutter speeds varied a bit due to them being different cameras, but also roughly the same anyway. Both cameras can take RAW photos, so that was used.

Olympus cropped to 120% pixel size

^^ Olympus SP-550 ultrazoom (18x zoom was "ultra" when released in 2008) - 35 mm equivalent focal length: 500 mm

Sony cropped to 100% pixel size

^^ Sony SLT A37 (released in 2012) with Sigma DG 70-300 mm zoom lens. - 35 mm equivalent focal length: 450 mm


  • Difference in detail is most prominent in the grey lichen just above the small piece of concrete.

  • Difference in noise is obvious in the yellow area. The small size of a sensor in a compact camera is prone to high level of noise, in this case already at ISO 200. The Olympus used here has about the smallest sensor there is in any compact. Sony's sensor is of the typical APS-C size. (sensor size vs. image quality)

  • Image quality is a combination of camera and lens quality (image quality). This comparison here is in fact meaningless, because - the Olympus has only 7 megapixel sensor while the Sony has a 16 megapixel sensor - Olympus is a 5 year old design and not in production anymore, while Sony is almost brand new - Olympus (when purchased) was in the better department of ultrazoom compact cameras, while Sony+Sigma are of the cheapest entry level and still cost twice the price of that Olympus. (No sense in comparison?)

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