Digital Cameras: Compact vs. SLR Cameras – Which Should You Buy


What better place to start discussing the digital camera space than in the midst of a battle that raged long before the advent of the digicam and continues to go on unabated even now – the SLR (single lens reflex) versus the compact camera. The lines of this heated conflict may have blurred somewhat in recent years and months with the appearance of “bridge” cameras and other permutations (more on that later), but the basics of the question generally remain unchanged: Do you want a comparatively inexpensive, user-friendly, fixed lens compact that you can stick in your pocket, or a bulkier, pricier, yet more capable SLR that you’ll likely have to carry around in a bag? Let’s find out…

With all the heavy technology poured into the digital camera market over the past two decades, let’s get one thing straight up-front: We’ve seen a ton of rather remarkable developments. Yet several constants remain. The most obvious is the size and cost differentials between an SLR and a compact camera. So – why is it that SLRs continue to be so big and expensive? And why would anyone want to lug around an SLR beast when they could carry a tidy little compact that’s smaller than their wallet? Here’s the answer in a nutshell.

dslr_sensorInside every camera is a sensor. Essentially a silicon chip housing millions of miniature pixels, the sensor is the device upon which the image is captured. The sensor in an SLR is many times the size of the sensor in a compact, and much better at capturing light. Not only does this contribute to an SLR’s larger dimensions, but it also means that SLR cameras generally take better, cleaner pictures – especially in low-light situations (and it’s one of the reasons SLRs are more adept at taking indoor photos without the aid of a flash).

But the size and quality of the sensor isn’t the only difference. SLRs also take photographs in a different manner than most compacts. We won’t get into the gory, tech-heavy details here, but suffice it to say that an SLRs shutter mechanism is larger and more sophisticated, thus adding to both the cost and size of the unit. The upside? Faster response times. Take a shot with an SLR and the shutter reacts almost instantaneously. Take a burst of shots and you can measure the time between each by the millisecond. The same cannot be said for most compacts.

Moreover, SLR cameras typically contain better parts, better optics, and a real viewfinder. They feature more controls, a larger set of manual options, and superior flash capabilities. And they’re built more sturdily than most compacts to better suit the many professional photographers that use them. Indeed, many veteran picture-takers prefer larger cameras because they feel more substantial.

canon-lensesAnd let’s not forget one of the most important distinctions of all – the lens. Whereas compact cameras feature a single, fixed lens, SLRs offer an interchangeable lens system. This not only allows photographers to get as creative as they want, but also to upgrade in the future to better “glass.”

Still, SLRs are bigger, pricier, and in many ways, less convenient. Furthermore, compacts are quite simply getting better. So good in fact that many professional photographers, most of whom have a full range of SLR gear at their disposal, are now also carrying a compact cam for those times they can’t get at their SLR.

But there are other reasons apart from size and price to select a compact over an SLR – the most obvious being the LCD photo composition screen. While the optical viewfinder of an SLR camera allows for superior focusing, better viewing in bright light, and a more accurate look at the true size of the finished photo, an LCD is easier to use and much more convenient in situations where bringing the camera to the eye is difficult or impossible. Having said that, the SLR camp is making strides in this area with the recent advent of something called “Live View.” More on that later.

And of course, there’s something to be said for having a single, fixed lens that retracts when not in use and delivers a full range of zoom. In fact, some compacts now offer “ultra zoom” capabilities of 20X or more that get you closer to your subject than many SLR owners can ever afford to get.

Check out Optical Zoom Lenses – Is Bigger Better? to find out more.

Also check out our picks for the best digital cameras as picked by our reviewers.