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I'm really interested in getting into serious or even professional photography. I've read some articles about fundamental concepts like aperture, exposure, ISO sensitivity, etc., and I want to get the feeling of how changing different setting affects the resulting picture.

My point-and-shot camera has a manual mode but it seems like no matter what kind of settings I select, I always get worse results than if I shoot in auto mode.

Some people claim that manual mode on point-and-shoots is a joke. Should I get a "real camera"?

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possible duplicate of Is an SLR camera a must when learning? –  mattdm Oct 26 '11 at 13:44

8 Answers 8

up vote 10 down vote accepted

You might want to try borrowing or renting a camera first. Even the cheapest DSLR will cost several hundred dollars, which can be a lot of money if you aren't sure it is right for you.

That being said, DSLRs now are a lot better than they were in pure auto mode, which can make it pretty easy to jump right in. I went from a P&S to a DSLR not all that long ago and really enjoyed it pretty much right away.

One big consideration when thinking about switching to a DSLR is the pure size of the camera. You will no longer have something you can stick in a pocket or throw in a bag. They are much bigger, much heavier and much more fragile. They are also a lot more expensive to buy, repair and upgrade.

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There are many "truths" in photography, and you'll hear them a lot, variations of:

  • The best camera you have is the one you have on you
  • A great camera does not a great photographer make
  • etc etc. (more variations of how the equipment does not matter)

To a large extend, the feelings above are true. HOWEVER, I believe that to be a great photographer you must know the rules, even if you intend to break them all. You can only bend and subvert rules if you know them to begin with.

The SLR camera is not the be all and end all of photography, however it is extremely popular and provides you, the photographer, a really manual and mechanical access to all the basic notions of photography. From an SLR you can really learn a great deal, especially if you're disciplined enough to leave it on Manual at the beginning.

Yes, I recommend you get a DSLR (because digital can give you an easy entry into experimentation, without the cost/time of film), as you'll learn a lot... and then once you've learned, you can move to whatever camera you prefer.

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You're not going to get better shots simply by switching to a DSLR. In fact, they may get noticeably worse as you start fiddling with the settings.

What you (and everyone else) really need is practice and study.

This graph is meant to be funny, but it's also frighteningly true.

As for a DSLR: it really comes down to how much money you want to spend, especially spend right now. If you're certain you're going to stick with it, then you might as well start spending now. (And spend you will!) However, if you're at all unsure, take a good point and shoot and spend your efforts on practice and study instead.

The camera does not make the photographer. Want proof? Here's a fashion shoot done with an iPhone camera.

A DSLR mostly raises the upper limit of how good you can be. But it doesn't actually make you better.

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+1 for the graph! That's a classic. –  Reid Jul 16 '10 at 2:24
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Unfortunately the fashion shoot video ignores the fact that they wouldn't be able to do it without tons of expensive lighting equipment. –  che Jul 30 '10 at 10:36
    
@che: a very good point, and it illustrates why it's better to sink your money into lighting vs a camera. –  Craig Walker Aug 2 '10 at 20:43

I found that when I switched to a DSLR from a point-and-shoot digital, the quality of my photos improved dramatically. Not because the camera made me a better photographer, but because the camera was more capable: less shutter lag, better auto focus, etc. It meant that when I started playing with a single setting at a time, I could really concentrate on playing with that setting (let's say, shutter speed).

For instance, when I wanted to explore water photography, and how much flow was interesting, versus how much began to look like fuzz (and how slowly I could hand hold), I didn't have to worry about focus, aperture, or any of the other settings, knowing the camera was competent to take care of those settings. When I've tried this on point-and-shoots, I've always come up with far less satisfactory results. It's not that those cameras can't do it...it's that, in my experience, they don't.

I'd argue against using film as a learning tool. The greatest thing about digital, to my mind, is the lack of a per photo cost. That means you can experiment freely (so to speak), and learn a huge amount about what doesn't work. Of course, that means you have to go through all those photos, look at what you did (another advantage of a dslr is that it tells you what settings you used for a given photo), and critique yourself harshly.

For me, really trying to learn with anything less than an SLR was an uphill battle, and I think it's a necessary tool (especially for someone who's learning). To take great photos with a point-and-shoot requires a much better photographer.

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I can see experienced photographers getting much better photos with any camera (than beginners) but inexperienced photographers gaining experience more quickly with a DSLR than a P&S. –  Jared Updike Jul 30 '10 at 22:09

Some of the newer point and shoots do great in manual mode. The problem is probably your lack of experience and understanding the fundamentals, which will come with, well, experience :) I made similar comments in this thread. My suggestion is to a> study the tripod of exposure settings, and b> force yourself to shoot in manual. Your shots will be terrible, but you'll get better.

A day will come where you curse your camera for using its flash in auto mode, and you'll know exactly what to do in manual to avoid using it. When that day comes, smile to yourself, and realize you made a big step :)

To directly answer your question, I think an entry level DSLR with a nice lens is a great start. Don't be afraid to shop for refurb's in bodies either. And don't let your past experience with manual on a point and shoot affect your decision - its going to take some time to learn, but you'll get it down, and you'll enjoy doing it.

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The main reason people probably think manual mode in a P&S is a joke is because one of the main variables is quite limiting. You gain a lot of DOF control with a larger sensor camera. There is little to gain in adjusting aperture in a P&S, in fact you're likely to just make your photos look worse due to diffraction. You do get to mess around with shutter speed which is a major part of photography and capturing motion in the way that you want it. –  Eruditass Jul 29 '10 at 21:50

If you are willing to spend time in your investment then I would say yes, go get a consumer grade DSLR to start playing and learning about your equipment.

You are only as capable as your tools and the more knowledge you have in the use of your tools, the more you can push your tools to the limits....

Be aware that I have only just started DSLR photography myself so I am very, very far from being an expert and going to full manual mode results in some terrible photos.

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Well, nearly 2 years down the track I am still very very far from being an expert, but I can go full manual mode without issues. Even doing strobe work with success! –  Wayne Jan 10 '13 at 12:12

Bearing in mind the things already mentioned (great camera ≠ great photographer) I too agree a DSLR is a good way to go. Pick up a one of the Canon Digital Rebels, even an older XT or XTi, to save some cash. I also recommend (If you choose a canon) getting their really cheap ($50 when I bought it) 50mm lens. It's a prime (no zoom), which IMO is a good thing when you're learning. It removes one distraction, and that lens is pretty freakin' amazing.

Here's the kicker. Once you have it, read the manual. Learn the manual. Go to wikipedia and learn all about aperture, exposure, shutter speeds, bokeh, chromatic aberration and the like. If you know your tool, you'll get better faster.

Oh, and I highly recommend joining Flickr and getting into one of those 365 groups. A photograph a day for a year is hard (I've never successfully completed it), but it will force you to learn. And really, it's a lot of fun.

(PS. Use the shoulder strap. Seriously.)

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You could consider an old film SLR - you can pick up some real bargains second hand these days. I learned with my dad's old Olympus OM-1 with a 50mm lens - a fully manual camera. (It did need a battery, but that just powered the light meter in the view finder - everything else was mechanical).

Reasons for:

  • much cheaper to buy the camera
  • not being able to take lots of shots forces you to think about the shot before you press the shutter - this is a really valuable habit to pick up
  • you get to tell the young 'uns "When I started off I didn't have all this technology ..." ;-)

Reasons against:

  • you don't get the instant feedback of the screen, instead having to wait to develop it
  • you don't get the camera settings embedded into your image
  • you can't use photoshop
  • you can't get a zillion photos to try out different things
  • paying for developing film costs money

And even if you do go digital, spend some time with just a prime lens (ie not a zoom) - picking up the habit of having to think about the shot, and having to move around to try different angles and framing is really useful.

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