Saturday, January 15, 2011

Are You Ready for a DSLR?

Dennis shooting in New Zealand. Photo: Antje Springmann
I was asked yesterday by one of my tour participants for some advice on switching from a compact digital camera to a digital single lens reflex (DSLR) camera. Even though, there are many websites and blogs that offer advice on this topic, I thought I'd add my perspective here so others could share my answer.

When moving from one camera type to the other, you will be trading-off the small size, light weight and convenience of a compact camera for the bulkier, heavier and more demanding DSLR. There is also some new, middle-ground: the mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras represented by Samsung NX11 and the Sony NEX cameras and their ilk. I haven't handled one of these fascinating new cameras so I can't say much about them, but if were I upgrading from a compact digital camera, I would certainly consider one of these.

Now let's consider your existing compact. Ask yourself if you have run up against any limitations with it? Has it frustrated you because it wouldn't perform well? Have you tried to shoot something and could not get the result you would like? If so, do you think the main cause was your ability or the camera? Consider an upgrade when the camera, not your ability, is the main barrier to getting the shots you want. (Of course the situation can also be a factor, such as a moving subject or low light. However, a better camera can reduce the limitations imposed by these situations.) With good photo practices, attention to composition and understanding of your existing camera, excellent photos are possible. However, the truth is: better photos are more likely with a better camera.

Bear in mind that the name "compact camera" covers a broad range of capabilities and qualities. At the high end, many of compacts emulate the control that you can have with a DSLR. However, generally speaking, here are what I think are factors to consider when contemplating an upgrade:

  1. The Sensor. The sensors of DSRLs will give you a better quality picture with respect to sharpness, colour, noise and range of light. By range of light, I'm referring to the ability of the camera to capture a wide range from black to white (aka "dynamic range"). Put another way, a lower quality, smaller sensor, such as that in a compact camera, will not allow you to see as much detail in either the shadow or the highlight areas as the larger sensors of the DSLRs. There may be exceptions, but photo quality is simply better with a DSLR. In my view having a better sensor is the primary reason to switch.
  2. Shutter lag. This is the time it takes from when you squeeze the shutter until the camera captures the image on its sensor. Some compacts are notoriously slow while DSLRs are much faster. This matters when trying to capture a moving object or a fleeting expression. My daughter, who has a compact camera, finds this a serious limitation when trying to capture the expressions of her kids.
  3. Auto focus. Most DSLRs will autofocus better and faster than compacts. As well, their continuous focusing ability for moving objects, aka tracking, is much better. This matters to me quite a bit, but it may not matter so much to you.
  4. Burst or Continuous Shooting Mode. DSLRs generally have faster burst modes. In other words, they can take more photos per second when you hold the shutter down continuously. This matters in situations such as with sports or action, moving animals or objects, or even un-posed people. Expressions are fleeting. When you shoot a rapid sequence in these situations, you will find that the appeal of each photo can vary widely. Compact cameras are not much good at rapid sequences.
  5. RAW File Format. Most compact cameras only shoot JPEGs, which are fine for many common uses, but they are poorer quality than RAW. RAW files capture the maximum visual information available so you have more editing latitude later. This matters most with respect to the range of light that I mentioned earlier. JPEG files will have a narrower range than RAW files. The downside of RAW is that you need a program like Adobe Lightroom to process the files and get the most out of them.
  6. Flash Hot Shoe. DSLRs generally have a hot shoe that allows you to attach an external flash. If you do much indoor shooting, or use a fill-flash for outdoor shooting, this matters because the built-in flashes of compacts are not very good. Having a hot shoe also allows you to attach the flash by a cord, thereby permitting the light source to be off-centre or bounced from a wall or ceiling. The results can be much more appealing than the flat, shadowless look of shots taken with in-camera flashes.
  7. Viewfinder. DSLR viewfinders are simply better. They are optical and allow you to see right out through the lens. If you change lenses or extend the zoom, you see the actual result of the change. They are also bigger and brighter and show you more of what's in the frame. The viewfinders of compact cameras usually crop what the camera is actually going to capture. Some viewfinders in compact cameras are also electronic. What you are looking at is a miniature TV screen. I really dislike these viewfinders.

I think these are the main factors that differentiate DSLRs from compacts. The importance of any one of them for you depends on the type of photographs you like to make, how you might want to use them and how much gear you are prepared to carry. Certainly light weight and convenience may outweigh all of these factors for you.

If you a want to upgrade to a DSLR, but want to keep your kit as light as possible, consider a super-zoom or ultra-zoom lens instead of the standard ones that often come with the camera bodies. Something with a range of 18 to 250 mm covers a vast range of shooting situations. Personally I use a Nikon 18-200 mm lens for a great deal of my shooting.

Good luck with your choice.

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