In the past there was huge difference between amateur and professional cameras, but due to the market demand, companies are producing cheap professional (DSLR) cameras, and more advanced compact cameras.

The price of a DSLR is much higher (e.g. twice) than the price of a compact camera with the same specifications; for example Canon PowerShot and EOS XX0D.

Apart from flexibility of using professional lenses, what is the practical advantage of an expensive DSLR over a cheaper compact camera? The audience of both cameras are ordinary people who wish to take more professional pictures.

Is the quality of pictures substantially different?

Are the pictures taken with Canon EOS or Sony Alpha dominantly better than those taken with Canon PowerShot or Sony CyberShot?

  • I don't think it's at all true to say that the specification of any PowerShot cameras is the same as that of any of Canon's SLRs. The only one which gets even remotely close in sensor size is the G1X, and that's the same price as the low-end SLRs. – Philip Kendall Feb 6 '14 at 21:49
  • The cheapest Canon DSLR with a kit lens is under 300 USD. To keep with the assumed price difference in this question the compact cameras we talk about should stay well below that price level. Right? – Esa Paulasto Feb 6 '14 at 22:51

But of course there is difference. I'll show you a couple of sample photos. Though I don't have a compact camera, so the comparison is between a DSLR and a smartphone camera. You know, smartphone cameras are nowadays on par with compact cameras.

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^^A low light landscape photo. Notice especially the moon; a DSLR captured the moon almost correctly, whereas the smartphone camera badly overexposed it. The DSLR has more dynamic range, which allows detail to be captured in the darker & brighter areas. You can also see the DSLR sensor gives smoother gradations across the colours in the sky. The DSLR image is also a little sharper, with more fine detail visible where the trees meet the sky.

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^^Here the pool table is blue, but under artificial light the smartphone camera misses the color badly. Also there is not much to see in the background, whereas in the DSLR version the background is more visible.

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^^Here's something that you can't do with a compact, or a smartphone: background blur.

Finally, what can you do with a smartphone, or a compact camera, that you can not do with a DSLR? Let's see these pics for examples:

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^^With a smartphone you can shoot underwater (only certain models).

enter image description here ^^With a compact or smartphone camera you can take a photo of your DSLR.

To sum it up:

  • DSLRs beat compacts in low light, under odd light, with background blur.
  • A compact beats DSLR in size, which means you are more likely to have it with you when a photo opportunity presents itself.
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    Background blur is harder to achieve with compacts, but it can be done, especially in close range as in the example here. Near macro, the deeper DOF might even be an advantage. And a DSLR can be shot with the inevitable backup DSLR :) – Imre Feb 7 '14 at 6:14
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    @Imre - I have been waiting for this comment. Yes it can be done, no problem. With a DSLR you don't have to even try so hard, whereas with a compact you need to pay close attention to get it and even then the result is often not quite satisfying. – Esa Paulasto Feb 7 '14 at 6:16
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    +1 for "With a compact or smartphone camera you can take a photo of your DSLR." :-). – Micha Feb 7 '14 at 6:19
  • Has anyone noticed how the pool tables in the background changed colour between the two? – Rook Feb 7 '14 at 10:09
  • @Idigas, shots are in different direction. There's large snooker tables that are green, and normal pool tables (blue) on the other side of this table. – Esa Paulasto Feb 7 '14 at 11:00

Your assumption is wrong. The specifications are never the same. Sure, there is some overlap as in the number of megapixels or maximum shutter-speed may be the same but this is just one single measure. It's like saying that two cars are the same because the run at the same RPM.

Like with everything else, you have to look at specifications that matter. When it comes to image quality, the trump-card is sensor-size. That is the differentiating factor which puts nearly every small camera at a disadvantage.

Notice I said nearly. There are actually a number of compact cameras with exactly the same sensor size as found in some DSLR. Those are known, unsurprisingly, as large-sensor compacts and those include the Nikon Coolpix A, Fuji X100S and full-frame Sony RX1.

The surface area of a small Powershot can be more than 25X smaller than a DSLR. This gives it much less light gathering ability which translates to more noisy and grainy image. This advantage is much more visible in low-light. Conversely, it is less visible for smaller display sizes as imperfections are rendered smaller. The second impact on image-quality of sensor-size is on dynamic-range. Larger sensors can capture a scene of greater contrast without clipping.

  • Just a note; Nikon Coolpix A is a $1000 camera. That's twice the price of a good entry level DSLR. The question is asking what practical advantages a DSLR gives over a P&S to justify the higher price of the DSLR. – Esa Paulasto Feb 7 '14 at 7:12
  • Evidently, the assumption "DSLR price > P&S price" does not always hold true. This is a good example for how the fact that you can swap lenses and have a viewfinder is not the critical component — and what makes certain cameras invert this assumption. – Cornelius Feb 10 '14 at 12:38

The difference is the same as it has always been. The field has not changed significantly in the last decade, at least comparatively between the categories. Mirrorless system cameras have appears as an attempt to blend between them, but the distinctions remain the same.

Cheap DSLRs offer larger sensors, less shutter lag, better auto focus, better image quality and the option of interchangeable optics. Point and shoots provide more portability and ease of use.

Point and shoots have gotten marginally faster shutter response, but they still have to do a CDAF after pressing the shutter, so they are still slow.

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    If both compact cameras and SLRs are getting better at the same rate, does it not follow that more and more people will find compact cameras good enough for the kind of photography they do? – Kartick Vaddadi Feb 7 '14 at 13:50
  • @KartickVaddadi - in some characteristics they have, that's why we see so many people only bothering to use their phones as cameras now. For those who actually want to move beyond camera phones though, a lot of the fixed and consistent advantages of DSLRs (such as the narrow depth of field, lower shutter lag and better low light performance) will always give them a significant edge. In those kind of criteria, people are less often looking for "good enough" and more often looking for "best they can afford". – AJ Henderson Feb 7 '14 at 14:18
  • If anything, the progression is destroying the point and shoot market since camera phones can cover the majority of the advantages of point and shoots, but DSLRs that has physical advantages as opposed to technological ones, so it is going to remain a significant improvement because of the laws of physics, thus will always be preferable to a smart phone camera or point and shoot in terms of quality. – AJ Henderson Feb 7 '14 at 14:20
  • When I said compact camera, I also included phones. Similarly, when I said SLRs, I mean all APS-C cameras (mirrorless ones like the NEX or fixed-lens ones). Having said that, I agree with you. I didn't mean to suggest that SLRs will become obsolete. While where will always be people looking for the "best they can afford", I think there will be more people who will say, "If I'm considering buying an NEX, and I can instead get a pocketable camera for the same price that will let me take 99% of the photos the NEX can with an indistinguishable quality, that's even better." – Kartick Vaddadi Feb 8 '14 at 4:07
  • It won't ever be indistinguishable quality though. Physics prevents that. – AJ Henderson Feb 8 '14 at 5:07

The design and construction of cameras is full of tradeoffs. Many of them fall along a single axis with "small, cheap, bad image quality" at one extreme and "big, expensive, great quality" at the other. A given camera/lens unit can be anywhere on this axis.

The compact-vs-DSLR dichtomy is just a crude divison of this continuum into two distinct categories, but they do overlap and there isn't really any specific feature or advantage that one category absolutely cannot have (except the mirror viewfinder, by definition).

A short explanation of some of the tradeffs might help understand:

  • Bigger sensors are more expensive to make but give better images, especially in low light conditions (due to some basic physics).
  • The bigger the sensor, the more focal length for the lens is required to get the same angle of view (often mistakenly called zoom or magnification), and focal length translates pretty directly to physical length (due to optics).
  • The longer the focal length, the wider (in physical size) the lens has to be to get the same amount of light (due to optics).
  • Bigger are more expensive to make, and (of course) bigger and heavier.
  • The mirror for the viewfinder has to fit in somewhere, so you need a certain minimum focal length if you want it.
  • The longer and wider a lens is the smaller the depth of field is (optics again), which you need for background blur but understanding and using it requires some knowledge (and time).
  • So does manually adjusting ISO, aperture, exposure time etc. to get exactly the picture you want (rather than what the auto mode thinks is best). For convenience you want separate physical controls for those, but that again makes the camera bigger and more expensive.

So there you have it: take a small sensor, and you can use a smaller and cheaper lens to make a camera that doesn't cost much and you can take everywhere. Make it do everything automatically with a minimum of controls and your average customer is pretty happy once they've accepted that you just can't take good pictures in low light.

On the other hand, you can take a bigger sensor, the bigger lens it requires and make a camera that costs a lot more and takes much better pictures in some situations, and the people willing to buy it will happily pay extra for any useful feature you add, and it's big enough to fit in that mirror and the manual controls too.

And somewhere in between there is a range where you have cameras that aren't that big or expensive and already take pretty good pictures, and you can satisfy both the people who want "point-and-shoot, but with good quality" (by making a high-end compact that does everything automatically with a single flexible zoom lens) and those who really want to get into photography but don't want to lug around equipment that weighs 2kg and costs $2000 (by making a low-end DSLR or mirrorless system camera).

Oh, but you want to take super-detailed closeup pictures of wildlife 500 meters away at early dawn? Sure, we can do that, but it's gonna cost you six or seven figures and weigh 250kg...


The actual body of the question about the difference in quality has already been answered quite adequately, but as far as the title question goes regarding the practical advantages of compact cameras, I refer to the old adage: "The best camera is the one that you have with you."

I don't bring my DSLR and an extra lens or two with me wherever I go, and I imagine the same could be said for most photographers. But something compact like a Canon S120 is small enough to fit in your purse or pocket, which makes it easier to keep it on you all the time, which makes it great for taking pictures of anything you happen to see as you go about your daily business. And it'll probably beat the pants off of any picture that your smartphone could take, to boot.

An aside: even though the quality of point-and-shoots pales in comparison to something with a larger sensor and interchangeable lenses, you can still fool it into some semblance of creative composition. For example, portrait mode will make the camera use a wider aperture, and landscape mode will use a smaller one--both of which have applications outside of portraits and landscapes, respectively.

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