Spot The Difference

To buy a DSLR or a high end ‘point and shoot’ compact? This is a post I’ve been meaning to write for a long time, but  I haven’t gotten round to it. Until now anyway, prompted in part by a comment I received on this post from a few weeks back, and in part from chats I had with the chap who brought me my new FZ35 from the US – he owns a very nice Canon DSLR .  I’ve been constantly agonizing over this question for the last couple of years whenever I’ve decided I’m going to buy a new camera. Which, incidentally, means that my agonizing is a rather full time affair, as I’m permanently planning my next camera purchase! I will also add right now, that the below is all my own opinion, not fact. To save me adding ‘in my opinion’ after every point I make!

One of the arguments against buying a high end compact is that they cost just as much, or only a little less, than an entry level DSLR. That is true, but it’s also a little deceiving, as the compact will come, out of the box, with a feature list longer than the DSLR and a lens that is far more flexible. The ultimate image quality of the DSLR will be superior (although I’ll come to that point again soon), but to match that compact in other areas of capability the DSLR buyer will have to invest in further equipment that rather voids the original argument.

But still, I see on a daily basis tourists strolling around Mexico City with bulky DSLR’s dangling from their necks taking snapshots of everything and everyone they come across. They’ve spent lots of cash on their prized possession, but are they getting value for money? Are they producing photographs any better than those who have a decent compact? I am fairly certain, in the majority of cases, that the answer, in the majority of photographic situations, is no. They’re not taking images that are any better and therefore they aren’t getting value for money.

The key, for me, is in what you do with your photography. Viewing it on a monitor, or an A4 or smaller print? The differences between a DSLR and a compact in most shooting situations can be barely noticeable.  I say most situations, because in low light the DSLR will produce significantly better images. But I’d argue that most shots are taken in good or reasonable light, and that the difference in low light is not necessarily big enough to justify the extra expenditure. Particularly as in low light, to get the best out of a DSLR, the user will want to be using a fast lens – that won’t be one of the kit lens that came with the camera.

If you’re shooting for A3 prints or bigger, on a regular basis, then the cost of a DSLR becomes far more justifiable, as the extra quality begins the show. The bigger you want the final image to be, the better off you’d be with a DSLR. But that’s not how most people are using their photos. Most people upload their photos to Picasa, Facebook, Flickr or SmugMug. And maybe print out the occasional snap at A4 maximum.  A good superzoom will do just fine for that.

My summary would be this. If you have a budget of $1,000 or less, go and buy a compact – you won’t spend your full budget  and can treat yourself to a weekend away somewhere to go and take some great photos. If you’re really a snap shot shooter, or take photos on an irregular basis – perhaps on holidays or family events – then buy a compact. If you’re just going to use your photos to share on the internet or print out at A4 or less, then buy a compact. Even if you are a photographer that wants to capture some great, creative images and are prepared to put in the time, then the above still applies.

At the end of the day a modern high end compact is capable of taking some stunning shots. The gallery below (click here to see the full sized gallery on Flickr) has 18 photos. Nine of them shot with DSLR’s and nine with compacts. Can you tell, instantly, which ones are which? There’s even a shot there taken with a 10 year old 3.3mp Nikon Coolpix 880, and a six year old Nikon Coolpix 8700 – I owned both these models at some stage. Do they stand out straight away? There are a couple of shots there which I would identify with a DSLR, and a couple I would quickly declare compact shots, but the rest are pretty even I would say.

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