Be happy if you’re gearing up to buy a new digital camera – as of press time, there are over 300-plus different options from which to choose! But within the huge crop of available models you’ll find units in all shapes, sizes and colors, with prices ranging anywhere from $79 on up to a whopping $7,999. Need help narrowing down the selection? Not to worry, as here, we’ll help you make a critical first decision—whether to buy a point-and-shoot digital camera or a digital single lens reflex (DSLR) unit instead. The good news: Everything falls more easily into place once this key question is answered.
First though, a quick definition and some broad strokes you’ll need to be aware of before diving into the world of digital photography. To make a long story short, digital single lens reflex cameras let you see your subject directly through the lens using a mirror/viewfinder assembly. All DSLRs feature interchangeable lenses, so you can change the focal length to your preference, rather than being stuck with the limited lens common to a point-and-shoot. Since typical point-and-shoot digicams do not feature a mirror assembly, as a general rule these devices are much smaller, easier to carry in your pocket and are much more affordable. Now let’s dig a little deeper into the pros and cons of the two types of cameras.
The popularity of digital single lens reflex cameras remains strong, even in a down economy. Why is this important? Simply this–price is the one of the key differences between an aim-and-forget camera and a DSLR. The least expensive DSLR, such as a Sony alpha A230, will run you $499, while point-and-shoot alternatives sell for a fraction of the cost. According to industry analysts, the vast majority of cameras sold go for less than $200. Making the leap to a DSLR will definitely set you back, but many shoppers obviously believe that the investment is well worth it.
Sony Alpha A230 is a budget DSLR option
So why would someone spend at least $300 more for a DSLR? Speed is the one of the most critical factors. If you’ve ever used a compact digicam, you know that these devices take time to focus and save images to memory cards. During these delays, you can easily miss a smiling face or a running child. To put things in perspective: Point-and-shoot digital cameras generally capture 1 frame per second, while most DSLRs take 3 frames per second or more, making them better suited for fast action shots or sporting events. The difference between snagging the perfect picture and missing it entirely is one of the biggest factors weighing heavily in DSLR cameras’ favor.
Nikon D3 is one of the fastest DSLRs available
If you simply read camera spec sheets, you’ll see that point-and-shoots and DSLRs have similar megapixel counts (10MP, 12MP and so on). However, this is like saying that a Honda Civic is the same as a 911 Porsche – while both may be cars with four wheels, overall performance and quality between the two is very different. The same holds true with point-and-shoot digital cameras vs. DSLRs.
The Sony Cyber-Shot DSC-T90 and the Nikon D5000 both offer 12 megapixels
Compact cameras use much smaller imaging devices. By cramming so many megapixels on a small chip, digital noise is a constant problem. In our reviews, we always recommend keeping the ISO (sensitivity) of a digicam at 400 or less. DSLRs have much larger APS-C sized imagers, meaning you’ll encounter less noise in low light situations and better picture quality overall. Using one, you can shoot in more dimly lit conditions without a flash with little image degradation. In addition, if huge prints are in your future—or extensive cropping—DSLRs should be in your sights.
Point-and-shoot cameras offer a wide variety of zoom lenses from the basic 3x up to 26x. If you’re thinking compact, you have many options, but we recommend starting out with a basic wide-angle view (28mm or so) then multiplying that to your heart’s content. A 24x model like the Nikon Coolpix P90 even offers 28-624mm options so you can take nice group shots and zoom into subjects you can barely recognize. There are many small cameras with wide focal ranges that are easily toted around—a huge plus for point-and-shoots.
Sony offers a wide variety of Alpha Lenses
Contrastingly, DSLRs are far from compact and typically are supplied with a 3x kit lens. From there you can go crazy, spending a small fortune on interchangeable lenses. Canon and Nikon, the two biggest DSLR sellers by far, each have over 65 to choose from. And these lenses use finer glass than point-and-shoots, adding to overall quality advantage of DSLRs. The downside is that they are much heavier, bulkier and require at least a backpack to lug everything around. Still, for the professional or prosumer, DSLR is the natural fit.
Most point-and-shoot digital cameras offer limited manual options for adjusting aperture (f/stops) and shutter speeds. Granted, the vast majority of amateur paparazzi out there couldn’t care less about this small range of potential adjustments, and will be perfectly happy firing away in Auto mode. But while DSLRs have Auto settings too, they also let you unleash your inner Annie Leibovitz by adjusting depth of field, blurring subjects and going wherever the creative muse takes you. If you’re looking to get more creative with photos, a DSLR is the right choice.
Settings available on a Canon EOS Rebel T1i
If your budget is limited ($300 or less) the choice is moot: You have to buy a point-and-shoot digital camera. But it’s hardly the end of the world, since you can search through our reviews, where we’ve highlighted dozens of speedy models of high caliber. What’s more, there are many selections to choose from, and the vast majority of camera owners out there are more than happy with the range of available choices.
Where things get interesting, though, are with “bridge” cameras, which cost close to entry-level DSLRs yet have many manual options, good built-in lenses and fine overall image quality. Cameras in this class include the Canon PowerShot G10, Panasonic Lumix LX3 and our new recent favorite: The Sony Cyber-shot HX1 with 10 frames-per-second shooting capabilities. Still, at around $400-$500, these options are far from cheap.
The Canon PowerShot G10 and Panasonic Lumix LX3 are good bridge choices
Should you decide even faster response and better quality are imperative, or consider yourself a professional or “prosumer” level user, however, don’t hesitate to purchase a DSLR instead. Once you become familiar with all the capabilities these cameras offer, even models which go for $1,000 will seem like a bargain. Especially, that is, when you start shopping for lenses, flashes and all the cool toys photographers can’t live without.