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I have a point and shoot camera which cost 13k (about $200 US). Wedding photographers have cameras in the 500k range ($8000).

What is the fundamental difference between our cameras? Why this huge difference in price?

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What is the difference between both our cameras?

Fundamentally, the biggest difference is the sensor. Your camera probably has a what is called a 1/2.3" sensor, which is 6.3mm × 4.7mm for a total size of about 30mm2. Just about every professional wedding photographer will be using a camera with a full-frame sensor - 36mm x 24mm for a total area of 864mm2. That's about 30x bigger, and due to the complexities of manufacturing electronic devices, means the cost of the sensor is a lot more than 30x the cost of your sensor.

There's a lot of other differences as well, particularly in terms of things like autofocus ability, shooting speed (frames per second) and burst depth (number of shots you can take before the FPS slows down).

Why this huge difference in price?

Because professionals are prepared to pay lots of money for professional quality gear as their business is absolutely dependent on getting the best pictures available. A professional photographer who gets images which are not quite as good quality because they didn't buy a "professional level" camera will very rapidly discover that they don't get any business and aren't a professional photographer any more.

  • i think your answer would benefit from discussing what is "professional quality". I would say it is robustness of AF, reproducible exposure/WB, sturdiness/ability to withstand physical abuse... – Oct18 is day of silence on SE Aug 2 '17 at 17:23
  • Lenses made for larger sensors are also much more expensive (for a variety of reasons - materials cost, design considerations, manufacturing tolerances) than lenses made for smaller sensors. – Michael C Aug 3 '17 at 8:40
  • @MichaelClark Agreed entirely - but the question asked about cameras, not lenses. Although I suppose I may be being overly literal about what the OP means by a "camera" :-) – Philip Kendall Aug 3 '17 at 9:18
  • Since the cheaper camera includes a lens... one would assume he OP means 'camera (including lens) as there aren't many $8000 cameras on the market. The Nikon D5 and Canon 1D X are only about $6000 each, as is the new Sony 'pro' body. – Michael C Aug 4 '17 at 0:27
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DSLRs tend to be more expensive than point and shoot cameras because they give you more control and flexibility - and usually have bigger sensors, which helps give you better quality images (and since you can switch lenses, you can get better lenses than most point and shoot cameras - though the lenses can be expensive (Nothing to stop you putting a really good lens on a point and shoot, of course, but the price tag would probably severely limit sales).

What generally pushes the price up as you go to higher end DSLRs are better features and build quality.

More expensive DSLRs will often have better weatherproofing, more durable body material, better exposure metering, better sensors (more pixels or better low light performance, or higher image quality (lower noise, more dynamic range)) , faster autofocus, more Autofocus points, longer shutter life, and so on.

For many applications that's not a critical difference - you can still take great pictures with an entry level DSLR, if you have time to focus, work out the exposure and compose the shot - but for professional users, having something that can stand up to heavy use, or features that make it easier to get correctly exposed shots in trickier lighting, or allow you to get shots that you might not be able to get (for example low light) or shots that you might otherwise miss (faster AF / more choice of focus points / better automatic metering) can justify the extra expense.

Typically, higher end DSLRs will also allow you to take more pictures per second in continuous shooting mode - so if you want a higher chance of catching the critical moment in a stream of shots, then that can be another reason to spend more.

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Flexibility

I could almost stop there.

As you start to become more and more familiar with photography and DSLRs you'll see a huge amount of time and energy in reviews and gadgeteers and even photographers spend insane amounts of energy in clearly demonstrating minor technical differences in equipment. Dynamic range, microcontrast, distortion, bokeh, noise at the latest insane ISOs, and examples of how awesome the $10,000 lens on the $8,000 camera looks (a real bargain even since you don't even need to own a medium format camera!)

And there is a real science to why a DSLR takes a better image. Everything from the height of lightwave, to the SNR of densely packed sets of RGB sensors. The way light refracts and diffuses.

These things matter, they really do. But even more importantly is all of things are under the control of the photographer.

For example concepts like manual zoom, focus points, manual over-ride. These are the things that can make an image possible at all sometimes.

Release cables, wireless remotes, external lighting, underwater housing. It's an ecosystem to make sure you can get your camera where you need to be.

Batteries. A single charged battery can easily last 1000 shots over several days with the camera always ready. Additionally many grips let you use regular AA batteries. So if you can't charge you can carry cheap batteries too.

Flexibility for the perfect lens. A lot of wedding photographers stick a prime 50mm or 85mm on their camera for an entire event. It compresses and flatters and can shoot in some very dim conditions.

Memory cards: Many cameras let you run 2 cards. Some people use the second card for backups, others shoot RAW + JPEG. JPEG is easy to work with and space efficient, whereas RAW will let you recover some shots you thought you really messed up. (If you've ever taken "the shot" to only later realize your white balance was way off, this can matter way more than the dynamic range of camera A vs B would)

Buttons: I can change anything with a button and a scroll. Not having to dig through menus can save you from missing a shot.

RAW. RAW IMO is a little over rated. But it really can save the day. And having the option is critical.

Weather Sealing: You can take certain cameras anywhere, from the Alps to the dessert.

If all you care about is getting the absolute best image per dollar spent, a DSLR might not be the best option. The technical difference between a $200 camera and a $20,000 in a camera, and a lens or two is fairly minor. But if you are flying around the world and miss "the shot" because your equipment booted too slowly, or misfocused, or __________ (fill in the blank) there is subjectively a lot more at stake than the $19,800 price difference.

  • All those things matter indeed but they are not specific to DSLRs; this is 2017. – user29608 Aug 3 '17 at 10:29
  • By the way, the question does not mention DSLRs at all; the fact that you answer it as if it did shows a bias on your part--sadly a very common one. – user29608 Aug 3 '17 at 10:39
  • @fkraiem you are correct, the question doesn't mention DLSRs but $8k is a DSLR price not medium format. Also, are you referring to Mirrorless? Mirrorless may have come a long way, but most "pros" still shoot DSLR. Regardless of my speculation of what you meant, feel free to add more info to your comments and I'd be glad to try and incorporate it into my answer. – AthomSfere Aug 3 '17 at 11:29
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If someone is just interested in walking around to take snapshots, then a point-and-shoot is perfectly capable of satisfying that need. In fact, millions of people are now taking snapshots with cell phones.

What do more expensive cameras offer that a P&S does not have?

Import an image from each camera into post-processing software such as Lightroom and the answer to your question becomes blindingly obvious.

Image Quality!

Image quality is essentially the ability of a camera (and it's lens) to faithfully reproduce electronically what is seen with the human eye. And the more discerning one is, the more obvious it is that technology still has a long way to go before that goal is attained. Even the most technically advanced camera and the most amazing glass out there doesn't come close to "seeing" the dynamic range" of the human eye.

Why do professional Photographers (and semi pro's) pay very high prices for the most advanced camera and lenses out there? Because their customers are willing to pay high prices for the best results possible.

Look at the images in a National Geographic magazine. Those images were taken by highly skilled, patient Photographers, using the very best photographic equipment out there. Yes, I could capture the same scene with my pretty amazing Nikon D810 and a really good lens but if I sent it into Nat Geo, they would laugh at me. I KNOW how to work the camera. But I'm not an artist or a skilled craftsman. I'll never get the results that those guys get although the more I practice the better I get. Certainly, having great gear helps to mask my lack of skill somewhat.

When you move out of the cell phone/P&S realm, there is not a "fundamental difference" between various models of DSLRs. The improvements and features are more incremental. Especially when it comes to lenses. Put a crummy lens on a Nikon D5 and you'll get mediocre results. Put a D5 and a $5,000 lens in the hands of a rank amateur and the photographic results will not be especially amazing. Just switching to RAW (something cheap cameras can't do) will make an amazing difference in one's images. Post-processing can fix or at least minimize the negative aspects of many suboptimal images.

But the technology differences between a cell phone camera and a P&S and a P&S and a DSLR are like night and day. Whether someone notices or cares about those differences is part of their personal purchase decision. If one is just taking snapshots to post on Facebook, the results they get from their iPhone may be 100% acceptable to them. In my case, I am often unhappy with the results I get from my $6,000 USD rig. But in my case it is often my lack of skill as a Photographer that produces disappointing results, not any failure on the part of my gear. YMMV

A comment was made that the Nikon D3300 (an entry level DX camera) has the same image quality as a Nikon D4 which was a top-of-the-line professional camera over 5 years ago. Nothing could be further from the truth and this misperception underscores why the OP's question is such a good one.

The D3300 (or the equivalent Canon or Sony model) is definitely a step up from a phone camera. And a small step up from a P&S although the D3300 is pretty much a DSLR P&S. It's designed for folks who want to take decent images but don't know much about photography. They probably don't know about DoF, the exposure triangle, how to read a histogram and so on. And while the D3300 does shoot full manual and can produce RAW files, 99% of that camera's owners use it exclusively to shoot jpg in full auto or scene mode. While the D3300 can produce respectable images, a D4 in the hands of a knowledgeable photographer can blow it away.

Attaining superior image quality is a LOT more than just the size of the sensor and the number or megapixels. It's also about noise reduction/dynamic range, sharp focus, the camera's software, the quality of the lens attached to the camera and the skill of the person pushing the shutter button. Also, shooting RAW and the skillful use of post-processing software. If this were not the case, wedding photographers would just bring a little Canon P&S to do wedding photography.

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    image quality on Nikon D3300 (~$300) and D4 ($6000) is roughly the same in the same light. – Oct18 is day of silence on SE Aug 2 '17 at 17:24
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    But is that because of image quality, or other factors? – mattdm Aug 2 '17 at 22:24
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    "Image quality is essentially the ability of a camera (and it's lens) to faithfully reproduce electronically what is seen with the human eye." No. The camera, no matter how expensive, does not see things like you do. And that's a good thing, too, photography would be boring if it were just about copying reality. – user29608 Aug 3 '17 at 1:16
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    I think there is a lot of misinformation here. 1. NatGeo's photogs actually use a lot of DSLRs. Some even at a lower tier than your D810. A great photographer with a Nikon D3300 (or D300, or any similar spec camera really) and a kit lens will take great pictures and not worry about so much about distortion, microcontrast, noise etc. for 99% of the shots. Even RAW has nothing to do with taking great shots. RAW may be a crucial tool for many, but it isn't going to make a shot – AthomSfere Aug 3 '17 at 4:09
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    As of this writing, your post has two upvotes and two downvotes. I don't think that's worth quitting over. – mattdm Aug 3 '17 at 4:45

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