Why Upgrade To A DSLR?

Canon Digital Rebel XTSo, it never ceases to amaze me when I’m out taking photos with my DSLR where someone will come up and try to argue that their $300 point and shoot (PnS) is better than my [expensive] DSLR equipment. Hmmm…I say…I guess I just threw away a lot of money. Errr…did I?

Well, I own both a DSLR and an average PnS. There’s no doubt that the cheap PnS cameras are both high quality and can produce excellent results…for most people, that’s exactly what they need. Why did I upgrade then? Well, frankly, I was hitting the ceiling of capabilities a little too often with the inexpensive PnS. What capabilities, you ask…they both take pictures, right?

I learned rather quickly when I really started picking up photography that the camera is not what makes better pictures. A crappy camera, in capable hands, can produce fantastic results and even the best gear, in the hands of an inexperienced person, will produce high quality, yet dismal results. I was aiming for “just above dismal” with extensive study of composition, exposure, lighting, and post-processing techniques. All of these items apply to all but the cheapest of digital cameras.

Yet, I still found myself cursing the PnS when it wouldn’t do what I needed it to do. So, without futher delay, here are the reasons that I abandoned the cheap PnS for a (wallet draining) DSLR camera:

  • Speed. Frankly, I was getting tired of waiting around for my PnS to process images. Sometimes it took upwards of 5-10 seconds to capture an image and I was missing shots while my camera was screwing around trying to store the images. DSLR’s are built for speed. I didn’t need 12 frames per second, but the entry-level DSLR’s provide a much improved level of speed over any PnS.
  • Custom glass. With a PnS, you’re stuck with the lens it comes with and maybe have the option of a couple pricey modifiers. I wanted more reach as well as well as the creative possibilities available with the wide range of lenses available for DSLR’s. With two lenses, a 24-70mm and a 70-200mm, I’ve acheived the range of the average PnS 12x zoom camera. I added a 1.4x teleconverter (max 320mm) and all of a sudden I leave the PnS behind…a 2.0x teleconverter will extend my reach to 400mm with just the minor cost of 2 F-stops. (Oh, and the associated wallet drain…)
  • Fast glass. Oh, how I loathed the performance of PnS indoors. Now, even with fast f/2.8 glass, this is still a problem, but it’s *much* improved over the PnS performance. I learned an early lesson diving into DSLR’s…if you can afford it, go with the fastest glass you can buy. I’ve never regretted the decision to go with fast, f/2.8 lenses, despite the vomit-inducing price tags of the faster glass. When you need fast glass, there is simply no other equivalent replacement.
  • Quality. The CCD sensor of a DSLR is about twice as large as the average PnS. This means two things: better quality images (even with the same or less number of megapixels) as well as lower noise in the images. At ISO 400, the average PnS becomes unusable…the noise just creeps in and serves up a distracting image. The DSLR doesn’t have this same noise threshhold until it breaks the ISO 800 barrier. This means faster shuter speeds (read: hand held) in low light environments are possible when combined with fast glass.
  • More options. I was tired of being boxed in to the limitations of a camera with little option for growth. With the DSLR, the creative possibilities are much more extensive. From camera flashes, to lenses, to wireless addons, to battery packs and others, there’s a wide variety of 1st and 3rd party addons to extend your creative control. With a modular type approach, if you’re not happy with a DSLR body, you can upgrade just the body. If you want a wider range, you can get a different lens. If you want to play with off-camera lighting, a DSLR is designed to work with that. It just came down to more flexibility.
  • Better ratio. I never got why the PnS cameras used a 4×5 ratio as opposed to a 2×3 ratio. Almost all photographic storage and image presentation materials are made for a 2×3 ratio. Admittedly, one could crop a 4×5 image down to 2×3, but you’re just wasting megapixels and it screws with image composition when you have to compensate for the differences in ratios.

Now, for what I miss about the PnS cameras in my move to the DSLR. After owning a very decent, prosumer level, 8 megapixel PnS, I found myself missing some features in the jump to DSLR. I’ve managed to get by and “see the light”…but there’s still some features that I’d love to see enter the DSLR market.

  • Live LCD Preview. I liked being able to hold the camera at arm’s distance to get the framing of a picture. It allowed much more flexible framing as it didn’t require you to become a contortionist just to get a creative angle. The newest DSLR’s have this feature, so it’s just a matter of time until the trickle-down effect occurs and I can get this in a reasonably priced DSLR body.
  • Rotating LCD. Again, just like the live LCD preview, the rotatable LCD is a God-send to the photographer that desires creative angles. Whether it’s taking group photos by pointing the camera towards you at arm’s length to ground-level shots, I miss being able to rotate the LCD so I can see what the camera is going to capture. DSLR’s work on a TTL (through the lens) concept, so your only option is look through the view finder or simply experiment until you get it right.
  • Composition assistance. My last PnS had a feature called composition assistance. It would throw up a grid, allowing one to quickly visualize composition and aim for adherence to the “rule of thirds.” Though composition has become somewhat second nature for me, it was still nice to know exactly where the “rule of thirds” were. This was nice, though it’s forced me to constantly think about this when using a DSLR.
  • Compactness. What good is a camera if you don’t take it with you? Frankly, there are some times where the size of my DSLR is prohibitive and I’d much rather pack a small PnS. Well, I guess this isn’t so much of a drawback as I have both for this very reason.
  • Cheapness. Well, ’nuff said…you can get a decked out PnS camera for much, much, much less than a pimped out DSLR. Heck, with what I’ve invested into my DSLR setup, I could’ve had five PnS cameras and enough bacon cheeseburgers to cause a heart attack.
  • Less time at the computer. DSLR’s are designed to require manual post-processing to get the best quality image. PnS cameras do in-camera post processing and can provide fantastic results with minimal computer time. For a person that doesn’t want to screw around in Photoshop, the PnS will give you better “straight out of the camera” results than a DSLR. If you’re not prepared to do post-processing, the DSLR will likely disappoint you when you find out your images are neither as sharp, nor as vivid as your run-of-the-mill PnS.

Well, so what’s to learn here? It doesn’t take a DSLR to make great pictures. You can get quality results with all but the cheapest of digital cameras. If you’re considering a DSLR and you’ve never used a digital PnS, definately start with the PnS…your wallet will thank you. A capable DSLR setup will set you back quite a few bones, so if you’re just entering photography, it’s better to cut your teeth for a fraction of the cost.

If, after you’ve taken thousands of images on a PnS and you find yourself constantly banging against it’s capabilities, I’m afraid you only have one choice. For me, my level of interest could justify the expense…but for the average joe that just wants to grab some pictures, I would be hard pressed to recommend a DSLR. It just comes down to where you’re at with photography and what you want to be able to do.

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