Often I’m asked what camera to buy. Of course no single answer works for everyone; the budget, the intended purpose, etc. determine the answer. Not everyone can handle the tonnage or the price tag of a Canon 5D II (1.8 lbs body only without the battery) and the timeless classic Canon 24-70/2.8L (2.1 lbs!) and to be frank, very few people need that level of equipment.
One such recent questioner runs her own business in gemstones and crystals, and she needs to photograph her creations. She’s also a photography enthusiast, and likes to shoot a wide variety of subjects. For such an enthusiast, a digital SLR and a couple of lenses will obviously deliver great results, but there’s also enormous value offered by prosumer-type cameras these days. There’s a third class of premium compact cameras, which I’ll throw into the mix. In this post I want to compare and contrast the three. Since most of my experience is with Canon equipment, I’ll stick to their product line here, but what I say will apply to Nikon, Pentax, Sony, etc. Here’s what I’m comparing:
DSLR: For starters I’ll stick with a recent Canon EOS Digital Rebel for this comparison (Rebel T1i or T2i, also sold as the 500D or 550D respectively). For the lens I’d start with the kit lens if the budget is constrained, or a Tamron 17-50/2.8 lens — the new version with vibration compensation. If there’s more to spare in the bank, the Tamron 18-270/3.5-5.6 is also quite appealing as an all-in-one solution that spans a huge focal length range.
Prosumer: Canon’s recently announced PowerShot SX30IS or last year’s SX20IS is what I have in mind. Or in the Nikon camp, there’s the Coolpix P100. These cost between $300 and $400 US, and have wide-to-tele zoom lenses.
Premium Compact: Canon’s PowerShot G cameras going way back have always been highly regarded; the newest incarnation is the G12. Nikon’s recently announced offering in this space is the P7000, and Panasonic has their Lumix-LX series (LX5). They too cost between $300 and $400 US, and have wide-to-tele zoom lenses.
Here’s how I’d rate them against each other:
Cost: Premium compacts and prosumer cameras cost less. DSLRs cost more because of the flexibility they offer in changing lenses, and because their sensor is significantly larger, so they cost more to manufacture. And with a DSLR you have to pay for the lens separately.
Sensor Image Quality: DSLRs are usually the best here, because their image sensors are much larger than the others. The sensor in a Canon Rebel DSLR is almost 12 times larger in area than the Canon SX20 prosumer sensor and 8 times larger than the Canon G12 premium compact sensor. All that extra space means more light is being captured by the DSLR. Low-light photography yields much better results with a DSLR.
Sensor Megapixels: We’re used to double-digit megapixel counts in both classes of cameras nowadays, so pixel counts are probably a tie. However, due to sensor size differences (see my above paragraph), each pixel in a digital SLR is bigger (hence better) than that in a premium compact or a prosumer camera. A brief deep-dive into the physics of light capture is enlightening here. There is the analog amplifier which amplifies the voltage captured by the sensor; a smaller camera requires more amplification, hence the noise is higher, hence the image quality is lower, etc. Forgive me for belaboring this point…
Lens Image Quality: With an SLR you can slap on any lens you want, so over time you can accumulate the best optics that you want to spend on. With a premium compact or prosumer camera you’re stuck with the lens that shipped with the camera. However modern optics has come a long way, and unless you’re looking for super-duper fine detail in your images for National Geographic-type print applications, most premium compact and prosumer camera lenses will perform adequately. Many prosumer cameras even ship with acceptable macro modes for close-up photography, though I dare say that a DSLR and dedicated 1:1 macro lens will provide better results in skilled hands. Changing lenses in DSLRs is a double-edged sword, by the way. You get more flexibility but you also pay the price of additional work, as anyone who has changed lenses back and forth during a hike in a national park with a spouse in tow knows. 🙂 One last note for this section: with a DSLR you get the luxury of buying constant-f-number zoom lenses, which is what I shoot with, almost exclusively. If you don’t know what that means, it won’t matter to you.
Lens Zoom: Prosumer and premium compacts now ship with lenses that zoom from normal-wide (24mm equivalent) to quite a lot on the long tele end (200 mm equivalent, some prosumer cameras have 500 mm or longer). For digital SLR cameras there are lenses shipping now that have similar capabilities; Tamron’s 18-270 lens (28-432 mm equivalent) is a well-regarded example. If you’re a purist, please ignore this paragraph and go back to shooting with your 50mm f/1.4 prime lens. 🙂 If you’re a real estate agent who needs to shoot interiors and tight spaces, you’ll need a wider lens. Look for at least 24mm equivalent at the wide end, or opt for a DSLR and an ultra-wide lens. If you are into nature photography, you’ll love the long zooms. You’ll need a steady hand or image stabilization, and lots of light to use fast shutter speeds.
Creative flexibility: These days it’s more or less a tie, since most prosumer and premium compact cameras have P-A-S-M modes of creative exposure, and a hotshoe for external flash. Very few non-DSLR cameras record RAW files for post-processing in software, so if that’s a priority then chalk up another win for DSLR here. If you’ve never done RAW processing, you should know that it takes a lot of dedication and time to post-process RAW files individually; even most DSLR owners don’t bother with RAW and shoot JPEGs instead. I alternate between RAW and JPEG depending on the occasion.
Lighting: A hotshoe for external flash is a must, in my opinion. Most pictures benefit from better lighting than the on-camera flash provides. More on that topic later. All the three categories of cameras we’re considering will typically have hotshoes for external flash.
Portability: Premium compacts weigh in at about 300 grams, followed by prosumer cameras at about 600 grams, followed by DSLR cameras where the sky is the limit for weight.
Image Stabilization (IS): With Canon and Nikon DSLRs, you don’t get image stabilization in the body; you have to buy lenses with IS if you need that feature. Most prosumer and premium compact cameras have IS standard these days. However I consider it a tie, since with a DSLR I can push the ISO higher and still get hand-hold-able shutter speeds and smooth images, which you can’t do in other classes of camera. I don’t have any IS lenses, and I’ve never felt limited by lack of IS. After years of practice, I have a fairly steady hand.
Responsiveness: DSLRs win hands down. There is something uniquely satisfying about the slap of the mirror and the physical travel of the shutter in a DSLR, also because it happens almost instantly as you hit the shutter button. Earlier compact cameras (even the PowerShot G4 in its day) used to drive me nuts with shutter lag: they were S-L-O-W! Modern cameras are getting better, but switching from review mode to live view to shooting mode is still too slow and all too awkward, and the soul-sapping brain-dead “click” sound emitted through a speaker after the picture has been taken has zero purpose or refinement. The difference between a premium compact and a DSLR is like night and day in this regard. I haven’t had any recent experience with the prosumer super-zooms so I won’t comment on their responsiveness; I expect it’s midway between the two extremes. After a few years of using a DSLR, you’ll never go back to a compact full-time; I know I won’t. And we’re not even talking about the dinky zoom buttons in the compacts and prosumer cameras yet; in DSLR zoom lenses, you have a real zoom ring that you can twist…
To sum up, you should buy a:
DSLR if you can put up with higher cost, weight, and size, and in return be rewarded with flexibility of interchangeable lenses, silky-smooth images under a variety of lighting conditions, fast responsive operation, and RAW images to work on. With a DSLR you have to work and spend more to get more out of your photography. Example kit: Canon EOS Digital Rebel T2i and Tamron 18-270/3.5-5.6 or Canon 15-85/3.5-5.6 or Tamron 17-50/2.8 VC lens. Which lens should you buy — that’s a whole another 1500-word blog post!
Prosumer camera if you want super-zoom capability with a fixed lens and can live with less-than-stellar image quality in low-light shooting. Example: Canon PowerShot SX20 IS (or wait for the updated SX30).
Premium compact if you like it small and light with some degree of creative flexibility, and can live with a slightly smaller (but still very impressive) zoom range. Example: Canon PowerShot G11 (or wait for the updated G12).
Whichever camera you buy, I’d suggest that the capability of the photographer is any day more important than the capability of the equipment, so take the time to develop your technique and skill. Learn what aperture width and shutter speed are, and how they affect your pictures. Learn to see the quality and quantity of light you are capturing. Learn why some compositions are elegant and some boring. Learn how you can introduce color and mood. Learn how you can light scenes with a dedicated flash unit rather than relying on the harsh direct light of an on-camera flash. Each of the last five sentences was about a year of learning for me. Shoot lots and showcase your work online, no matter what you consider your own skill level to be. Happy shooting and sharing!