What Type of DSLR Should I Buy? PDF Print E-mail
Written by Edward Eastman   

Point-and-Shoot or Digital SLR? Which one should I buy?

Digital photography today is populated with an amazing number of cameras. Which one is best suited to your needs is no easy decision.

Point-and-Shoot cameras provide a wide array of options in a small, light, compact body. The zoom lens range is getting greater and greater. I read about one the other day that provided a 50X zoom with a fixed lens. That is the equivalent of a 24 - 2000mm focal length range. That range was impossible in the days of film cameras and until today, even DSLR cameras!

Does this mean it is the perfect camera? As I teach in my courses, photography is all about give and take. To get one thing you must give up something else. The above mentioned lens probably does not have the resolution of a prime lens (not having tested it myself, I can't say for sure), but if fine image sharpness is not a big deal for you, then why worry about it.

Digital SLR (Single Lens Reflex)

Digital SLR cameras let you see through the image taking lens. A 45 degree angled mirror reflects the image up through a pentaprism to the Viewfinder.

When you press the Shutter Release, the mirror flips up out of the way and the sensor records the image. The DSLR is a very popular type of camera. Canon, Nikon and Sony are the top three manufacturers. These cameras come in "consumer" models and "professional" models. The consumer model is generally more economical, has a "cropped" sensor (smaller) and comes with a 18-55mm kit zoom lens. The professional models have a full-frame sensor (large), are more expensive and lenses are usually bought separately depending on the photographers need.

Improvements in camera sensor technology make these cameras an excellent choice to the serious amateur. Choosing between a cropped sensor or a full-frame sensor model is a matter of the size of your pocket book and what size prints you want to make. The full-frame sensor models are a better choice if you are looking to make large, framed wall mounted prints.

All these cameras use interchangeable lenses. The newest Nikon D800 and D800E produce the largest image file.

Electronic Viewfinder Cameras

There is a digital camera system on the market called the Compact System Camera (CSC). CSC cameras are making a lot of noise right now. These cameras use an electronic Viewfinder to display the image. The lack of the pentaprism makes these cameras lighter and more compact. Their lenses are also lighter and smaller. Theses cameras are also referred to as mirror-less. That is because the mirror in a traditional DSLR has be removed. The image is split with part sent to the Viewfinder and, when you press the Shutter Release, the rest goes to the sensor.

The Sony and Fuji are two manufacturers that put out some excellent cameras. Of course, the major players - Canon and Nikon - play in this space as well. I decided some time ago to purchase the Fuji XPro-1 and a series of lenses. And I must say, I am very pleased with the results. The camera is not a DSLR and so takes some getting used to and you have to be prepared to learn how to use the camera. The lenses are very sharp and camera body quite durable and compact. It fits very nicely in the hand. You might want to purchase a thumb support to make the camera even easier to handle. If so, email me and I can tell you what I bought and how much I like it.

Don't ignore the Compact System Camera sector of the market.

The point of this article is not to review all the digital cameras on the market. This purpose of this article is to pose a series of questions that when answered for themselves, they should be able to make a more informed buying decision. For informed unbiased reviews of digital cameras, I recommend www.dpreview.com. Check out their website. I use it frequently.

What digital camera should I buy?

This is, perhaps, the most frequent question people ask when it comes to digital photography. And it can be the toughest one to give a meaningful answer to. You see, the simple answer is "it depends".

There is no one digital camera that meets everyone's needs, contrary to what the camera ads preach.

Digital still image and video capture have merged. Modern Point-and-Shoot and digital SLR cameras now provide both features. Some cameras are better than others. But like any marriage of convenience, there are always compromises to be made. The camera manufacturers want you to buy their make and model. The camera stores simply want you to buy a camera - any camera. Oh and don't forget all the extras - memory cards, filters, extra lenses, a camera bag, a tripod, etc.- to go with you new razzle-dazzle digital camera.

You can find all kinds of opinions on the web, in magazines or in your local camera store about which camera is the "best", but opinions are just that opinions; nothing more. We are inundated with "expert opinions" all the time. In any field you care to mention, someone knows someone who is an expert and has "the" answer.

So rather than give you my opinion right now, I'll give you some questions to ask yourself. How you answer these questions will help you make a more informed decision and a knowledgeable purchase.

How passionate are you about your photography?

Passion is a relative emotion. When we buy something new we are very passionate at first. (Just look at cell phones.) If you are new to photography, but always carry one around with you "just in case a good pic presents itself", then I'd suggest you are more passionate than most. If you have certain photographer's you love and would die to be that good, I'd suggest you are passionate. If you just have to have the newest camera or lens and that really great flash accessory, then I'd suggest you are a budding gear-head.

To me, passion about photography is not living it night and day, that's obsession. Photographic passion is understanding that the camera/lens is a tool. Image processing software is a tool. The computer is a tool. Rules of composition are tools. Passion is a desire to learn about photography that never really dies. It may go to sleep for a short period, but when it awakens again, you just have to grab your camera and begin creating pictures.

If you are a passionate photographer, then understand it really doesn't matter what kind of digital camera you'll buy. You'll learn to work with it; you'll learn to love it; you'll learn to hate it and then buy a better one. The key is to learn.

What kind of pictures do you like/want to take?

  • Do you want to shoot video? How important is the quality of the video to you. Not everyone needs to shoot 1080P movie/tv quality video. If you aspirations are Christmas and birthday parties, vacations at the cottage or down south, your kids sports, dance or theater activities, and the like, then these are never going to make it to the Big Screen.
  • Do you want to shoot still images? If yes, then what do you want to do with those images once you get them out of the camera? Share with family and friends on the web, load them on a digital frame, make small 3x5 prints and put them in a scrap book? Great! Or maybe you want to process them on your computer with the newest image software. Then print them, get them framed and hang them on your wall. Fantastic! You might even want to join a camera club for the fun, social and competitive value. Go for it!

Do you want to process your images?

  • By this I mean do you want to download your images to your computer and use image processing software, e.g. Photoshop or Lightroom, to process your images? If you don't want to process your images, then a large DSLR camera may not be for you. If you do want to learn the ins and outs of image processing and printing, then consider a traditional DSLR, but also look at the new Compact cameras, e.g. Sony and Fuji.
  • What software should I buy? I use Adobe Lightroom (LR) and find it meets 99% of my needs. Currently, LR does not do HDR imaging and does not stitch images together in a panoramic. (But who knows what the future holds.) I use Photoshop to merge HDR exposures into one image file and then import it back into LR to process it. I do the same with panoramic images.

Do you want to print your own images?

  • This opens up a whole other kettle of fish, so to speak. Colour or B&W printing is an expensive and time consuming task. If you are a hobby photographer, then I'd suggest processing your images and use a commercial lab to print them for you. If you are a serious amateur who wants to learn all there is to know about digital photography, then save your money, do some research about colour printing and colour management and be prepared to learn. It can be a lot of fun. I know because I do it. I am always learning and growing as a photographer and an artist. This is the joy of photography for me. But you are not me. So consider your decision carefully.

How much can you afford to spend?

  • You can spend a couple of hundred dollars or thousands of dollars on a digital camera today. Remember, this is an optional purchase. No one needs a digital camera to survive or even to live well. As hard as it may be, try to reduce the emotional input.
  • Excellent Point-and-Shoot cameras can be purchased for a few hundred dollars. Entry consumer level digital SLR-like camera (fixed lens) can be bought for about $500.00 - $700.00. Entry level pro-sumer DSLR cameras will cost you about $700.00 - $1,000.00 (interchangeable lenses).
  • Compact System Cameras (CSC), e.g., Fuji XPRO-1 about $1,300.00, X e-1 about $1,000.00, the new Sony A7 (a 24 megapixel full-frame camera) about $1,700.00, the Olympus OM-D E-M1is a Micro-Four Thirds (MFT) camera about $1,400.00 are all good cameras. The Sony A7 has a very limited series of lenses, but third part lenses can be fitted with an adaptor.

What make is the Best?

  • Again, no simple answer.
  • Point-and-Shoot - Canon, Nikon, Panasonic, Sony, Olympus, Samsung, Leica (in no particular order of preference) are all good brands. You need to answer the first two questions, then touch and feel a couple of cameras and see how they feel.
  • DSLR like (one fixed lens) - Canon, Nikon, Panasonic, Sony, Olympus, Samsung (in no particular order of preference) These types of cameras offer one lens with a wide range zoom lens - 20 - 20+ optical zoom capabilities.
  • DSLR (interchangeable lenses) - Canon, Nikon, Panasonic, Sony, Panasonic (in no particular order of preference) Go out and touch and feel a couple of brands and models and based on your answers to the above questions, make a purchase.

How many megapixels do I need?

  • That depends on what you want to do with the images after you take them. You need about 7 - 9 megapixels to make a decent 8 x 10 print on an inkjet printer. If you're only sharing pictures over the web, emailing them to family and friends or loading them on a digital frame then 5 - 6 megapixels are more than enough. Most cameras today meet this requirement.
  • The MFT cameras produce 16 megapixel image files of excellent quality in JPEG and RAW

These cameras are made by many different manufacturers, i.e. Sony, Panasonic, Olympus, Fuji, Nikon, etc., All are small, light weight, and produce excellent image quality. Most CSC camera produce a 14 - 16 MP sensors. For the average person this is large enough image file. A 16 mega pixel image file will produce a good quality 11"x17" print or a 16"x20" with limited cropping.

That is about it. Sure there is more to digital photography than 8 questions, but at least this information will help you make a more informed decision once you decide to take the plunge.

A final thought, if you are waiting for the next latest and greatest camera to come along before you decide to buy, then you are in for a long wait. Technological advances in digital imaging are made every day. Once you buy your camera and are happy with it, stop looking with envy at the newest camera that comes along next year. I can guarantee you there will be a newer and greater camera in the future, but it will not help you take better pictures. If your goal is better pictures, then you need to look at the person behind the lens; not the camera.


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