As a photographer, I end up being the go-to person for friends, family and co-workers who are looking at buying new cameras.  As much as I love helping people out, I always leave the conversation feeling like that person now has more questions than answers.  Did I even help at all?

So I started keeping track of the questions I was being asked and I noticed a trend.  This article will be used to answer, very thoroughly, some of these common questions.

Let’s start with the obvious.  The general “I want to get a better camera and I’m thinking of buying a dSLR… what kind should I buy?”.  This is such an open ended question that you can’t possibly answer it without asking several more questions in the process.  Choosing a camera depends on what you plan on using that camera for.  If you simply want a general purpose camera that you can whip out in an instant and snap a memory, buy a point ‘n shoot camera.  Point-and-shoot cameras come in a wide variety of prices and qualities.  If you want to buy a camera where you’ll be able to expand your accessory options and editing options and are willing to put the time into it, then perhaps a dSLR is right for you.  So, to sum it up… if you’re willing to put the work (and the money) into a dSLR then that’s great, but if you simply want a generally good all-purpose camera that you can whip out in a second and not have to fuss with, then choose a higher quality point-and-shoot.

Another popular question seems to be “What’s the main difference between a dSLR and a point-and-shoot?”  All dSLR cameras have a few similar qualities: they have interchangeable lenses, you can add high-powered external flash and triggering systems, you can shoot in a RAW file format (more on that later) and you can shoot in a true manual mode.

Interchangeable Lenses:  Lenses come in a variety of focal lengths and apertures; for the lay-person, this means that your lenses can either zoom wide or zoom in tight and can be really sensitive to light or not-so-sensitive to light.  While you can zoom in and out with your point-and-shoot camera without changing any lenses, major differences in zooming with a dSLR often require lens changes.  Although there are a few “all-purpose” lenses, they are large, expensive, and only a so-so quality (you would never see a professional using these lenses).  Lenses are an investment and you need proper storage for them when you’re not using them.  If you don’t plan on investing and understanding your lenses, stick with the point-and-shoot.

High-Powered External Flashes:  All dSLRs come with a “hot-shoe” attachment where you can add high powered external flash systems. Again, these high-powered flashes are an investment and have a moderate learning curve associated with them.  Although some high-end point-and-shoot cameras also have a hot-shoe, they are meant for mini flash cubes and not a high-powered system.  Again, if you buy a dSLR with the intentions of only ever using the teeny tiny on-camera flash, then maybe you could save some money and go with a high-end point-and-shoot instead.

RAW file format:  All dSLRs give you the option of shooting in different file formats; common are jpeg and RAW (some cameras let you shoot in TIFF, too).  A jpeg file is what a point-and-shoot captures the photo as.  It’s a ready-to-use file that’s been “edited” by the cameras internal processor to give it the “best” colour, contrast and sharpness.  A RAW file, on the other hand, needs to be edited in a computer program such as Photoshop or Lightroom in order to be viewable.  The user has total control over the file: exposure, white balance, contrast, sharpness, clarity, fill light, individual colour channel adjustments, noise reduction and camera calibration, just to name a few.  Using a dSLR simply to shoot in a jpeg file format won’t give you a discernible quality benefit from a high-end point-and-shoot.

Manual Shooting mode:  Being able to shoot in manual means that you have total control over the photos exposure.  You can in charge of the ISO (light sensitivity), aperture size (amount of light that comes through the lenses opening) and the shutter speed (how long the “film” is left exposed to the light).  Shooting in “auto” means that you’re letting the camera decide what the best iso, aperture and shutter speed are.  Buying a dSLR only to ever use it in “auto” is, well, a waste of money.  Sorry for the brutal honesty, but it’s true.

At this point in my conversation with people, they seem to think that I’m trying to talk them out of buying a dSLR.  I always wonder if they think I’m trying to avoid creating future competition or perhaps they think that I don’t think they can handle the challenge of the learning curve a dSLR has.  I don’t know.  But this is the point where the person I’m talking to starts the “quality” discussion.

“But I want the quality of a dSLR camera.”

Yes, the quality of your photo is dependent somewhat on the image sensor inside of it, which is better in dSLR cameras, but the quality of the photo is also dependent on the user who is creating the photo.  If you are going to use standard (non-pro) lenses on an entry level dSLR and shoot a photo in “auto” mode as a jpeg and never edit the photo, then you will never, ever, have the “quality” photo you seem to be looking for.

So if you want high-quality photos and you really want to invest into a dSLR, this is what you also need to invest into:

  • A computer that has a legal copy of Adobe Photoshop and/or Adobe Lightroom
  • A computer that can actually run those hefty programs
  • Appropriate lenses for what you plan on shooting
  • Higher quality lenses (ie: “good glass”)
  • An external flash system that you know the ins and outs of
  • The time to learn how to shoot in full manual mode
  • Know how to edit your photos using the programs above.

If you don’t plan on completing that list of must-haves then you absolutely will not get the quality of photos that you think you will get by simply purchasing a dSLR camera.  It would be a far wiser investment to purchase a high quality point-and-shoot camera at $350-$550 then spend $1,000+ on a dSLR that won’t give you the results you are hoping for (unless you are willing to work for it).

Happy Shopping!