Photo by Scott Bourne

Why DSLR over Point-And-Shoot?

Shutter lag is the interminable span of time between the moment you trigger the shutter and the moment the camera actually captures the image. You won’t face this problem on a high-end SLR but point-and-shoot cameras are commonly slow. If your goal is to capture spur of the moment and candid opportunities, you’ll have far greater success with the SLR. This is especially important in wildlife, sports, baby and some other forms of photography. It’s impossible to calculate the number of times I’ve waited for a subject to move just a few inches this way or that. Having access to instant response in the shutter release is absolutely essential in such cases.

TTL or through the lens is the term used to describe what happens when you look through the viewfinder of an SLR. You’ll see the actual composition recorded on the sensor. With point-and-shoot film cameras (most digitals have an LCD view screen), you’re usually looking through a viewfinder and not through the lens itself. This factor can introduce something called parallax error, a visual distortion resulting from the difference in apparent direction of an object as seen from two different points. In other words, you’ll photograph a slightly different picture than what you saw through the viewfinder. Parallax error increases as distance to your subject decreases. This makes photographing close-ups without TTL problematic. While many newer cameras use “live view” to show you what the lens sees on the camera’s LCD, this is hard for some people to get used to, so TTL is the best choice.

Lenses – With SLR cameras, you have a wider range of lenses available. Whether you need a macro lens for close-ups or long telephoto lens to pull in wildlife, you’ll be able to attach one to your SLR body. This is something you can’t do with a point-and-shoot camera. Yes, there are macro attachments and digital zoom available on point-and-shoot cameras, but they are almost always for appearance sake and are quality compromises due to low-quality optics.

F/stops – By using a variety of interchangeable lenses, you’ll have a wider range of available f/stops to work with, giving you greater creative control with depth of field.

Shutter Speeds – SLR bodies also offer a wider range of shutter speeds, often from 30 seconds to 1/8000 of a second, as well as bulb setting. A wide range of shutter speed settings is a requirement for good general photography. Most point-and-shoots have a very limited shutter speed.

Metering – SLR bodies have more sophisticated metering systems. They also give you the choice between different metering patterns such as matrix metering, spot metering, and center-weighted metering. Many even permit you to shift the point of focus.

Auto focus – SLR bodies will give you faster auto focus. This is especially useful if you want to include fast-moving subjects in your photography. Most point-and-shoot cameras won’t permit manual focusing, something that is essential for landscape and close-up photography.

Filters – Lenses on many P/S cameras don’t allow for the use of filters. At a minimum, you’ll need to be able to attach a polarizing filter.

Flash – A modern SLR camera body gives you much greater creative control when using flash. You’ll be able to use more than one flash, and you’ll have other creative controls, such as rear-curtain sync and repeating flash.

Depth of Field Preview Button – A main reason I recommend the SLR camera over a point-and-shoot camera is the depth-of-field preview button. The DOF preview button shows the effect of your chosen f/stop on your image. You see what the film or sensor will see. This way you can fine-tune your image before pressing the shutter and avoid unpleasant surprises in the final image. I don’t know of any point-and-shoot camera that features a depth-of-field preview button, but most midrange to pro-level SLRs offer one. If you’re serious about any sort of outdoor or nature photography, I don’t recommend buying a camera without this feature.

In the next installment of this series, I’ll discuss more specific features to look for in a DSLR body.

Join the conversation! 6 Comments

  1. As for the DoF preview, I dont understand why you think that SLR are superior to PS since they actually show a live preview of the image you are getting. Am I missing something?

    Also lens adapter are not as useless as you think. The lost of light is minimal, they dont take much room in a bag and with them you can cover a huge zoom range. That is why my girlfriend is getting the x2 for her G9: everytime we went for a walk and I did not bring my 5D&400mm, we saw the most awesome birds which would be gone the next time I passed.

    Btw, some PS (like G9) have much higher flash sync speed than any other SLR (1/2000+) out of the box. This can be a big plus for some people, if you manage the shutter lag…

    Good article!

  2. @Alain not all cameras have live preview – I agree that once this is a standard feature, it will probably minimize the advantage of DOF Preview buttons – but for those of used to looking through the viewfinder and seeing that DOF preview, it’s just a different experience.

    We’ll just have to agree to disagree on the lens adapters. For amateur stuff they’re fine – but I have yet to see one that’s optically sufficient to regularly deliver professional quality, publishable photos.

    And yes the G9 is probably the closest exception to the rule because it has all these cool features, but noise and shutter lag keep it from competing head-to-head with DSLR in a pro environment.

    We’re not there yet with P&S but we’re close.

  3. I am of the opinion that there are really three camera body choices for the enthusiast. Something really small to always have available, something larger with more features, and a DSLR. For a pro photographer there may be a need to have two different DSLRs, one for the posed photos and one for action photos. I do not think there is one camera out there that will cover all the needs of a photography enthusiast or professional, my DSLR kit box weighs about 30 lbs without tripod and that is a lot to carry around everywhere. The best camera is the one you have with you.

  4. I think another thing worth noting about point and shoots has to do with their sensor size (again, this is typical of what’s out there and I’m sure there are exceptions).

    The smaller sensor, as you know, has an increased propensity for noisy images – particular when the megapixel count is jacked up.

    But more importantly, from a creative perspective, is that the small sensor means a small image size – which translates to increased depth of field. This might sound like a good thing, and for point-and-shoot photography you can argue that it is. But when you want to stretch into more creative images, the inability to shorten that depth of field becomes a “show stopper” as it is very difficult for the optics to compensate for this effect. (Oh sure, you can photoshop in a blur, but that’s gets old pretty quickly.)

    So the typically larger sensors of DSLRs provide improved image quality and increased creative options.

    – dave

  5. There are going to be those that argue that some of Point and Shoots, particularly the models that are “SuperZooms” have a competitive set of tools. At one time, I was one of those people (and in some cases it may be “good enough”) I have a Canon S5 that manages many of these features, with the exception of the DoF Preview. (I chose it over the G9 for the Zoom, and I hate the “feel” of a basic point and shoot).

    @Alain most P&S, don’t have a true “Live View” in the same sense as a DSLR, but rather depend on EVF (Electronic View Finder) technology, which while useful to overcome parallax issues, has its own issues. (I hope I am not jumping the gun again here)

    Simply put, they are like buying a knockoff watch. It may look the same, it may even do a similar job. But in the end it simply is not the same quality, and you will be able to see the difference.

    Looking forward to Part III.

  6. Good articles, the next time some one asks what to buy I will point them here.

    There are only two points I would make:

    1) Every serious photographer I know carries a P&S .
    2) A true beginner may not know what they want to shoot.

    Clearly, P&S do have a place in both the beginner’s choices and the pros. My next camera will be a DSLR, but because of my time with my P&S I have a much better idea what I am looking for.

Comments are closed.


Technique & Tutorials