“I’m using a compact point and shoot digital camera and i would like to ask it is worth it to upgrade to a DSLR camera? How huge a difference do DSLR cameras make compared to compact point and shoot digital camera?”
Thanks for the question – I’ll attempt to keep my answer brief and not too technical. This is a question that I’m regularly asked, increasingly so as the price of DSLRs have dropped and become much more in the reach of the average digital photographer’s budget.
Before I start this post you might like to check out two posts looking at the Top DSLR Models and Top Point and Shoot Cameras as voted by our readers.
Let me declare up front that I own both a Point and Shoot digital camera (a Fujifilm FinePix F30) and a DSLR (a Canon EOS 5D). I like having both because I do feel they compliment each other and are each suited for different situations. My preference in terms of quality of shots is with the DSLR but for convenience the point and shoot sometimes wins out.
I also want to say up front that the digital camera industry is constantly evolving and changing. The lines between DSLRs and point and shoots are blurring (or at least this seems to be the intention of manufacturers). What I write below unfortunately will have elements of generalizations in it as I classify hundreds of cameras (each with their own distinctive features) into two camps.
Are Megapixels Everything?
Before I get into the Pros and Cons of DSLRs vs Point and Shoot digital cameras I want to address a common misconception that I regularly hear among digital camera owners – that a cameras megapixel rating is the main thing to consider when determining a camera’s quality.
The fact is that megapixels are NOT everything. Despite point and shoot cameras now coming with up to 10 megapixels (Casio released one last month) their quality level is not necessarily has good as a DSLR with only 8 or so.
The main reason for this (and there are many as we’ll see below) is that the image sensor used in point and shoot digital cameras is generally much smaller than the image sensor used in a DSLR (the difference is often as much as 25 times). This means that the pixels on a point and shoot camera have to be much smaller and (without getting too technical) collect fewer photons (ok I lied about the technicalities). The long and short of it is that because of this point and shoot cameras need to work at slower ISO levels which means that they produce ‘noisier’ (or more grainy) shots.
A lot more could be said on sensor size – but trust me, smaller sensors significantly reduce the quality of an image. I’d much rather have a camera with less megapixels and a larger image sensor than the other way around.
This is one factor that needs to be considered when choosing between a DSLR and point and shoot – but let me run through some more:
A quick definition – unfortunately some camera manufacturers in recent months have released cameras with the DSLR label that technically are not. For the purposes of this article I’ll define DSLR’s as cameras that have removable lenses, that have a reflex mirror which allows live optical viewing through the lens taking the image. ie DSLR’s use a mirror that allows you to see the image you’re about to shoot through the view finder – when you take the shot the mirror flips up allowing the image sensor to capture the image.
Some cameras these days are being touted as DSLRs because you have ‘through lens viewing’ but they are not true DSLR’s – (Digital, Single, Lens, Reflex). This does not necessarily make them a bad camera – but in my opinion it there is a distinction between them.
- Image Quality – I’ve already covered this above in my discussion on megapixels and image sensors – but due to the larger size of image sensors in DSLRs which allows for larger pixel sizes – DSLRs are generally able to be used at a faster ISO which will lead to faster shutter speeds and less grain.
- Adaptability – DSLR’s ability to change lenses opens up a world of possibilities for photographers. While my point and shoot has a nice little 3x Optical Zoom (and many these days have longer ones) my DSLR can be fitted with many high quality lenses ranging from wide angle to super long focal lengths depending upon what I’m photographing (and of course my budget). Add to this a large range of other accessories (flashes, filters etc) and a DSLR can be adapted to many different situations. It should be noted that when it comes to lenses that the diversity in quality of lenses is great. Image quality is impacted greatly by the quality of the lens you use.
- Speed – DSLR’s are generally pretty fast pieces of machinery when it comes to things like start up, focussing and shutter lag.
- Optical Viewfinder – due to the reflex mirror DSLR’s are very much a what you see is what you get operation.
- large ISO range – this varies between cameras but generally DSLRs offer a wide array of ISO settings which lends itself to their flexibility in shooting in different conditions.
- Manual Controls – while many point and shoots come with the ability to shoot in manual mode, a DSLR is designed in such a way that it is assumed that the photographer using it will want to control their own settings. While they do come with good auto modes the manual controls are generally built in in such a way that they are at the photographers finger tips as they are shooting.
- Hold it’s value – some argue that a DSLR will hold it’s value longer than a point and shoot. There is probably some truth in this. DSLR models do not get updated quite as often as point and shoot models (which can be updated twice a year at times). The other factor in favor of DSLRs is that the lenses you buy for them are compatible with other camera bodies if you do choose to upgrade later on (as long as you stay with your brand). This means your investment in lenses is not a waste over the years.
- Depth of Field – one of the things I love about my DSLR is the versatility that it gives me in many areas, especially depth of field. I guess this is really an extension of it’s manual controls and ability to use a variety of lenses but a DSLR can give you depth of field that puts everything from forground to background in focus through to nice blurry backgrounds.
- Quality Optics – I hesitate to add this point as there is a large degree of difference in quality between DSLR lenses (and point and shoot cameras are always improving) but in general the lenses that you’ll find on a DSLR are superior to a point and shoot camera. DSLR lenses are larger (more glass can add to the quality) and many of them have many hours of time put into their manufacture (especially when you get into higher end lenses). I strongly advise DSLR buyers to buy the best quality lenses that they can afford. It it’s the difference between a high end lens on a medium range camera or a medium range lens on a high end camera I’d go for quality lenses every time as they add so much to photos.
- Price – while they are coming down in price (especially at the lower end) DSLR’s are generally more expensive than point and shoot digital cameras. Also consider that you might want to upgrade your lens (as kit lenses are generally not of a super high quality) or you may wish to add more lenses later and that this adds to the cost of a DSLR.
- Size and Weight – the only reason I take my point and shoot out with me is on those occasions when I don’t want to lug my DSLR (and it’s lenses) around with me. DSLRs are heavy and sizable and when you add a lens or two to your kit bag you can end up with quite the load!
- Maintenance – a factor well worth considering if you’re going to use a DSLR with more than one lens is that every time you change lenses you run the risk of letting dust into your camera. Dust on an image sensor is a real annoyance as it will leave your images looking blotchy. Cleaning your image sensor is not a job for the faint hearted and most recommend that you get it done professionally (which of course costs). This is a problem that is being rectified in many new DSLRs which are being released with self cleaning sensors.
- Noise – DSLRs are generally more noisy to use than point and shoots. This will vary depending upon the lens you use but while point and shoots can be almost silent when taking a shot a DSLR will generally have a ‘clunk’ as the mechanisms inside it do their thing. I personally quite like this sound – but it’s something that is a factor for some.
- Complexity – while DSLRs are designed for manual use this of course means you need to know how to use the tools that they give you. Some friends that have bought DSLRs in the past few months have told me that they were a little overwhelmed at first by the array of settings and features. The learning curve can be quite steep. Having said this – all DSLRs have fully Automatic mode and many have the normal array of semi-auto modes that point and shoot digital cameras have.
- No live LCD – in many DSLRs the only way to frame your shot is via the optical viewfinder. Some photographers prefer to use a camera’s LCD for this task. This is another thing that is changing with more and more new DSLRs having a ‘Live View’ LCD which enables you to frame your shots without looking through the view finder (update: please note that Live View isn’t perfect – check out the comments of NormMonkey below who shares more.
So what DSLR do I recommend?
Let me point you to a recent post here at DPS listing the Top 20 DSLRs as owned by our community members. I am a Canon fan myself but the Nikon DSLRs on the list get great reviews as do the others. Also check out the new Canon EOS 40D that’s just been announced (available now for preorder at Amazon).
Point and Shoots
While some people write off all non DSLR’s as inferior I think they’ve got a lot going for them and would highly recommend them depending upon the level of photography that you engage in, your budget, the things that you’ll want to do with your photos and the subject matter that you will be shooting. You’ll also notice below that I note that the Point and Shoot market options available are improving. Some of the weaknesses I note are being improved by manufacturers lately on some of their models. Here’s some Pros and Cons of point and shoot digital cameras.:
Point and Shoot Digital Camera Strengths
- Size and Weight – to be able to slip a camera in a pocket as you dash out the door to a party is a wonderful thing. These days point and shoot cameras can be slim and light – to the point of not even knowing you’ve got them with you. This is great for parties, travel and all manner of situations. Of course some point and shoots can be quite bulky too (especially some of the super zoom models on the market).
- Quiet Operation – this was the thing I noticed about my new point and shoot the most. Not only didn’t my subjects not notice I’d taken shots of them at times, once or twice it was so quiet that even I didn’t notice I’d taken a shot.
- Auto Mode – the quality of images produced in point and shoots varies greatly, but in general they shoot quite well in auto mode. I guess manufacturers presume that this style of camera will be used in auto mode (or one of the other preset modes) mostly and as a result they generally come pretty well optimized for this type of shooting (as do many DSLRs these days).
- Price – in general point and shoot digital cameras are cheaper. Of course you can go to the top of the range and spend as much as you would on a cheaper DSLR, but most are in a much more affordable price bracket.
- LCD Framing – as I mentioned above, many digital camera users prefer to frame their shots using LCDs. Point and Shoots always come with this ability and some even come with ‘flip out’ screens that enable their users to take shots from different angles and still see what they’re shooting.
Point and Shoot Digital Camera Weaknesses
- Image Quality – point and shoots generally have small image sensors which means that the quality that they produce is generally lower. This is slowly changing in some point and shoots but in comparison to DSLRs they still have a way to go. It’s worth saying however – that if you’re not planning on using your images for major enlargements or in professional applications that the quality of point and shoot cameras can be more than enough for the average user. Manufacturers are making improvements all the time in their technology and even in the last year or two I’ve noticed significant image quality improvements.
- Smaller ISO range – once again this is changing slowly (my point and shoot has the ability to shoot to 1600 ISO) but in general ISO ranges are more limited in point and shoot cameras – this limits them in different shooting conditions.
- Speed – point and shoot digital cameras were always notorious for their slowness, particularly their ‘shutter lag’ (the time between pressing the shutter and when the image is taken. This is constantly being improved but the instantaneous feel of many DSLRs is still not there with point and shoots when it comes to shutter lag, start up and even focusing time.
- Reliance upon LCD – most point and shoot digital camera rely almost completely upon their LCD for framing. While some enjoy this others like to use a viewfinder. Most point and shoot cameras have view finders but they are generally so small that they are almost useless. Some models don’t have viewfinders at all (increasingly a trend).
- Manual Controls Limited – many point and shoot cameras do have the ability to play with a full array of manual settings and controls (or at least make it difficult to do so). They often come with ‘aperture priority’ and ‘shutter priority’ modes which are great – but quite often the manual controls are hidden in menu systems and are not as accessible as on a DSLR (if they are there at all).
- Less Adaptable – while they are highly portable point and shoot cameras are generally not very adaptable. What you buy when you first get them is what you are stuck with using for years. Some do have lens adapters to give you wider angles or longer zooms but generally most people don’t go for these accessories.
Which Point and Shoot digital cameras do I recommend?
Once again let me point you to the Top 10 Point and Shoot Digital Cameras as used by the DPS community. There are some fantastic cameras in the list including the Canon PowerShot Pro Series S3 IS.
Should You Buy a DSLR or a Point and Shoot Digital Camera?
This is ultimately a question that you need to answer for yourself. My answer is to have both (I’m fortunate to be able to do so) but if I had to choose between one or the other I’d get a DSLR based upon my experience level, the type of photos I take, my desire to use manual settings and the quality of image that I’m after.
If your situation is different to mine however and you want a portable camera that takes good pictures that you’ll mainly use for small prints and emailing that you’ll mainly shoot in auto mode – you’ll probably be quite happy with a cheaper point and shoot.
Further Reading on DSLRs: