Wednesday, November 15, 2006

What to buy: compact superzoom or dslr?

Superzoom or DSLR?

Should I buy a digital single-lens reflex (dslr) camera or a high-end point and shoot camera? I ask the question for myself, but you may be asking the same question. I speak as a moderately serious hobbyist, which is to say, I am emphatically not a professional photographer. I want to add further that this essay has a heavy undertow of special pleading. I have already made my decision and answered in favor of the non-dslr (specifically, the Canon PowerShot Pro Series S3 IS). Although I have years of desultory experience with film slr cameras in the past, I do not now own, nor have I ever owned, a digital slr. But I have done my research and I share here what I have learned and think to be true.

What's a "moderately serious hobbyist"?

This essay is addressed to moderately serious hobbyists, folks who not only enjoy taking photos, but moreover, want to take better ones and are willing to spend not just money, but time and effort learning. Now, if you are a really serious hobbyist, then go away; you will have your own opinions on these matters and will only want to argue with me. For those of us who are only moderately serious, photography is a keen interest rather than a passion. The moderately serious hobbyist may aspire to have a photograph bought and/or published (I've had both honors), but moderately serious hobbyists do not think of quitting their day jobs and becoming professional photographers. And more to the central point of this essay, moderately serious hobbyists, for the most part, are on tighter budgets than very serious hobbyists. There are exceptions, of course. Some people just have lots of money to spend on their toys.

Now some people are not hobbyists at all; some people are not "serious" in the way I'm using the term. If you are a professional photographer, you will almost certainly need the advantages of the dslr and you will find a way to pay for them. You may also want a compact camera for carrying around, but for you, this would be a second camera, so you don't face the either-or choice this article discusses, and thus I am not talking to you. On the other hand, if you are mainly a birthday-party snapshot taker, well, there is nothing at all wrong with that, and in fact, you are really in luck, because you have better cameras available to you cheaply than have ever been available before, and also because you certainly do not need a dslr. You don't need to read further, either.

"Point and shoot"?

Before I get to dslrs, let me say a word about the alternatives. These are often called "point and shoot" and cameras. I dislike the term, not just because the disparagement implied in the term is no longer justified, but even more because the literal meaning of the words "point and shoot" is simply inappropriate. For one thing, you can pick up a dslr and point and shoot and I suspect many amateurs do. But my feeling is that, if you just want to point and shoot, you shouldn't spend $1000 or even $400. Buy a mainstream consumer-level compact camera for about $150. In my view, if you're planning to spend three times that much for a high-end non-dslr camera like the Canon PowerShot S3 IS or the Panasonic Lumix FZ7, you should be aware that these cameras come with nearly as many technical options and controls as more expensive dslr cameras, and if you buy one of these excellent non-dslr cameras, you owe it to yourself and to the camera to learn how to make use of those options. The fact is, the non-dslr cameras are not appreciably easier to use than dslr cameras are. In fact, the opposite may be the case. So I want to frame the contrast as between dslr cameras and cameras that I will simply call high-end non-dslrs. Rob Sheppard, in his Digital Zoom Camera Handbook (2005), calls the non-dslrs "compact cameras." I can go with that term, too.

I want to add one more small point about the cameras I'm putting up against the dslr. I'm thinking mainly of a class of advanced compacts usually called superzooms or megazooms. These include the Canon PowerShot S3 IS and the Panasonic Lumix LZ7. The superzoom is distinguished by the presence of a built-in moderately high-power optical zoom lens, usually 10x or 12x. The 12x zoom on a PowerShot S3 is said to be the equivalent of a 432mm zoom lens for a conventional slr - in other words, a pretty powerful lens for non-professional photographers to have at their disposal. And if that's not enough for you, there are converter lenses available that will take that 12x image and multiply it by a factor of 1.5, or 1.7 (a lens from Sony), or 2.2 (the Raynox DC2020). Canon's 1.5x converter lens for the S3 gives the user the 35mm equivalent of a focal length of 648mm and the results are excellent. But it's not just about the telephoto range; the cameras I'm talking about also have truly outstanding macro and super-macro capabilities. So the superzoom offers, in one compact camera, the versatility of a full dslr kit - that is, a dslr with several different lenses. I'm focusing on the superzooms because the dilemma is heightened when the user (like me) wants maximum versatility. The Canon PowerShot G7 is a 10 megapixel advanced compact camera that has a great number of features in common with the PowerShot S3 IS - but the G7 costs more than the S3, and the G7 does not have a 12x zoom. If you don't care about the zoom, you might very well ask yourself whether you should get a G7 or a dslr, but in my opinion, if you're choosing between a G7 and a dslr, the advantages are starting to break in favor of the dslr, which, without additional lenses, is closer in price and capabilities to the G7 than it is to the superzoom S3. In short, if I didn't care about the zoom lens so much, there's a good chance I'd have bought a dslr already.

What is so special about dslr cameras?

Which brings us inevitably to the questions, what is a dslr? and what makes it special or different? A dslr is a digital camera that is designed on the same optical principles as the old-fashioned film slr or "single lens reflex" camera. The key advantage of the original slr was that you actually looked through the lens when you composed your shot; in other cameras of the time, you generally looked through some sort of rangefinder or a second lens. Looking at the subject through the camera's lens eliminated the problem of parallax, that is, the slight difference in perspective between what the lens down here sees and what your eye sees through a viewfinder up here, about three inches away from the lens. Parallax isn't a huge problem if you're photographing sunsets or seascapes, but it can be when you're shooting candids up close. The film slr also made focusing and eventually metering more precise and more intuitive or natural. The digital slr works the same way: what you see in the viewfinder is precisely what you will capture when you click the shutter. The fact that, with the original slrs, you used the camera while facing your subject, made them especially good choices for quick shooting, news photography and candids. The slr was, in fact, the original point and shoot camera.

But forget about all that. We don't care about the original slr, we're talking about the digital slr. And the truth is, the slr qualities of the dslr are not the qualities that matter the most. These days, the dslr differs from the high-end point and shoot cameras in a number of simple, practical ways that have little to do with the way that the optics work - at least down here in the under-$1000 market. What distinguishes dslrs in this market from the high-end compact cameras? Lots of things, but three matter to the moderately serious hobbyist the most: lenses, size and price.


The single most compelling distinction of dslr cameras today is that dslrs allow you to purchase and use a very wide range of lenses. They allow this because dslrs have lens mounts that have been standardized for decades. Many dslr cameras (like the Pentax K110D) will actually take lenses that were made decades ago, in other words, lenses you might already own, if you used to take pictures with a conventional slr camera. If you already have a collection of lenses that can be used with a modern dslr, well, you have a strong incentive to buy a dslr now. Even if you do not, if you spend $600 today on a Nikon D50 with a built-in lens, and you then spend a couple hundred dollars more for an additional lens or two, you may throw away the body of the D50 in a year or two, but the lenses you have now will work with the dslr you upgrade to in a couple of years, in other words, next time you buy, you'll be looking a buying just the camera body without the lens. When you are only spending a couple hundred dollars for a lens, this may not be such a big deal. But a major reason to get into dslr photography is so that you can start investing in very good (expensive) lenses with the idea that you're amortizing the cost of the lens over the next ten or twenty years. If you buy a cheap dslr now and a couple of pretty good (cheap) lenses, you may find yourself wanting in a year or two to upgrade everything, not just the camera body.

In the world of non-dslr cameras, on the other hand, there is always a built-in lens. (For that reason, these are sometimes called fixed-lens cameras.) And while many of the superzoom cameras (certainly the Canon S3) accept add-ons in the form of converter lenses, there are no widely-shared standard lens mounts, which means that your options are severely limited and your lens purchase cannot be regarded as an investment. I am happy that the Canon converter lenses I bought for my S2 work just as well with my S3, but as far as I know, the Canon converter lenses for the S2 and S3 do not work with any non-Canon cameras, and I have no guarantee that they will even work with the S4, if such a camera is released, or any other advanced compact camera I might buy in the future. And when in the future I do move up to a dslr, well, none of my current equipment moves with me. As a practical matter, this means I'm less willing to spend a lot on add-on lenses, because I am not sure I will be able to use them for more than a couple of years. And my reluctance to spend much for lenses translates into a reluctance on the part of manufacturers to develop a wide range of high quality, expensive add-on lenses for non-dslr cameras. Better lenses mean sharper, clearer pictures - other things being equal.

Nevertheless, I hasten to add that it does not appear to be true that lenses for dslr cameras are simply better, say, because they are bigger. Advanced compact cameras now have very good lenses indeed, due to advances in lens-making technology, and these lenses are capable of taking very good pictures. My brother-in-law, who is an outstanding amateur landscape photographer, put it nicely: "I think people say that dslr's have better lenses, but I expect they mean that better lenses are available for a dslr, but at an exorbitant price."

Size (and its implications)

Which brings us to size. Go to a store where they sell both types of cameras (say, Circuit City or Best Buy) and you can identify the dslrs from 50 feet away, because they are much bigger. Size matters, although it's not an unqualified plus.

The dslr can't be much smaller than it is and accommodate all those conventional lenses. And if you start with the lenses as a given, well, the next thing you know, you've got to make the CCD or sensor in the dslr bigger than the one in the advanced compact, in order for the conventional lenses to produce images at the appropriate size. Here's how Rob Sheppard puts it, just after he has noted that advanced compact cameras (non-dslrs) have very small sensors:

Lenses only need to produce an image on that small area, so they don't need to be as physically large [as the lenses used in traditional 35mm cameras]. The smaller, the sensor, the smaller the lens needs to be. As lenses decrease in size, focusing mounts and other parts of the lens structure diminish physically as well.

So when we're asking the chicken vs egg question about dslrs - which came first, the larger sensor or the lenses - the answer is clearly, the lenses. You cannot stick a lens designed for a conventional 35mm lens on a compact digital camera. Dslrs are physically bigger because they have to be to accommodate those lenses, and once the lenses are in there, you've got to have the bigger CCD. Now, there may be an inherent advantage to a bigger CCD, especially as the number of megapixels gets larger. Now, there are already 10 megapixel cameras (like the Canon G7) available for consumers; but most experts believe this is overkill. Remember, the Nikon D50 entry-level dslr is only a 6 megapixel camera. Unless you're printing posters of your photographs, 6 megapixels is a perfectly reasonable resolution for hobbyists.

Is the dslr's bigger camera body better than small body of the consumer point and shoot or the medium-sized body of the superzoom? Depends. For many ordinary folks, the small size of the lower-priced point and shoot cameras is a plus, because they want to put the camera in their pocket or their purse. For other users, the larger size of the dslr or even the advanced compact cameras like the superzoom is an advantage, as it provides a better grip, support for add-on lenses, and more controls on the back. Because the Nikon D50 is so much bigger than the Canon S3, the Nikon can leave some space empty on the back of the camera for your thumb and the ball of your hand to rest. The back of the Canon S3, on the other hand, is crowded with buttons, and there's a chance that you'll hit one of them by accident. But these differences, too, seem somewhat accidental. The Canon S3's form factor (like every other aspect of the camera) is a nice compromise: it's big enough to have a nice feel in hand, but small enough to carry with you almost everywhere - just not in your pocket! If you could get a lens for the compact camera that was just as powerful as a lens for a dslr but half the size, why would you not? The question is hypothetical, of course. I cannot get the equivalent of a 3000mm lens for my Canon S3. But I ask the question in order to make the point that size, in itself, is not necessarily an advantage. The original slr swept the field in part because it was smaller than the large-format cameras that were common before it. The large-format cameras had their advantages and continue to this day to be used for certain kinds of photography. But the relatively compact slr was a nice compromise between size and image quality. The same can now be said of the advanced compact cameras.

There's one final point to make about size, or rather, about the relationship of size to lenses and the kinds of pictures you can take. The smaller lenses found in advanced compact cameras have fewer aperture choices and shorter focal lengths compared to dslr lenses taking the same shot. The PowerShot S3 IS has a widest f-stop of f/2.8 and a smallest f-stop of f/8. Because of these technical limitations, the compact cameras have, by default, much greater depth of field than digital slrs. This can be a good thing. In snapshots, we often want maximum depth of field, so that everybody in the picture is in focus. It's easier with a dslr to go wrong here than with a compact camera, one of the things that slr photographers work hard at is getting greater depth of field. On the compact camera, however, as you get better at taking photos, you will have the opposite problem, that is, you'll find yourself working hard to restrict depth of field. Perhaps you want to focus on Grandmother as she blows out the candles on her cake, and you want everybody standing behind her to be a bit blurry. That's much harder to achieve with a compact camera. One way to increase the depth of field is to step away from the subject and increase the focal length, by using the camera's built-in zoom. But moving away from the subject and shooting with the zoom may be hard to do if you are shooting in your dining room.

Buying a dslr

At the present time, the single biggest difference between dslr cameras and the advanced compacts as consumer products is price. This is a bit like saying that the main difference between a Jaguar and a Honda is price. The Honda will get you where you are going, too, but there has to be a reason people keep buying Jaguars. I hasten to add that, when I speak of the price of the digital slr, I do not mean the base price of the body plus a basic 18-55mm lens; I mean rather the price you would have to pay to come close to matching the overall capabilities of the superzoom, both in terms of image quality and in terms of the various kinds of photos you can take.

The current rock-bottom price to break into the dslr game with a new camera seems to be about $600 - although if you catch a bargain online, you can pay less than that. For this amount, you will get you a Nikon D50 (if you find a bargain) or a Pentax K110D - both excellent cameras, to judge by the reviews. But for that price, you get one lens, and it's a very basic, standard purpose mid-range lens (probably 18-55mm), good for taking standard shots, but not a lens you'll be able to use to shoot wildlife or across-the-street candids. And for this price, you may not get a flash, optical image stabilization, macro capability. And you certainly won't get video, as this is simply not a capability of dslr cameras.

Some of these defects are either less important than they seem or easily remedied. If the dslr you buy has only a hot-shoe for a flash attachment, well, those attachments aren't expensive and you can shoot without until you can afford one; but it does add to the overall cost. I don't honestly care much about video, either, and would be happy to sacrifice that capability in order to get a better camera for still photography.

The lack of optical image stabilization (OIS) in the lowest-priced dslrs is more problematic. It would not keep me from buying either the Nikon or the Pentax, but I think I'd miss it. You can get OIS in the Pentax model K100D for $100 more than the K110D, but you won't need it initially. Image stabilization isn't a big deal if you're shooting in good light and close up. You need it mainly when the light is bad or, especially, when you're using a high-power zoom, which these cameras don't come with. The excellent OIS in the Canon PowerShot S3 IS makes it possible for me to use the 12x zoom while holding the camera in my hands, provided I can manage to stand still and shoot with a fast shutter. Nikon's lack of built-in OIS means that, if I wanted it, I'd have to pay considerably more for lenses that have this feature. For this reason, if I were going to buy a dslr today, I think I'd probably buy the Pentax K100D. That in-camera IS will make it possible for me to buy high-quality used lenses at reasonable prices and have the benefit of image stabilization with all of them. On the other hand, the more I use my camera, the more clearly I see that a good tripod is a photographer's most valuable accessory.

So, $600 gets you equipment with which you can step outside on a nice day and take very nice photos. I should add that, with this camera, you will be able to take a range of shots - not just snapshots from 8 ft away, but vacation pictures including beautiful landscapes. You can even expect to take decent action shots, say, your daughter playing volleyball. Here the dslr's advantage in ISO, aperture and shutter speed will to some extent offset the fact that you don't have a zoom lens. However, the quality of those shots will not be noticeably (perhaps not even technically) superior to the same shots taken by a competent photographer using an advanced compact camera.

Buying a superzoom

By contrast, standard street price today (11/13/06) for a Canon PowerShot S3 IS is about $400, and you can get it for less if you search for a bargain online. And consider what you get. The basic S3, right out of the box, gives you many very good features, including

- a good 12x zoom
- image stabilization (useful when you use that zoom)
- outstanding macro and super-macro capabilities
- excellent burst mode (continuous shooting)
- high-quality stereo video at 30fps (or even 60fps, for a smaller image)
- panorama mode, useful at the Grand Canyon and elsewhere
- a flexible LCD that can be pulled out and twisted

In addition to the above excellences, the S3 can take lovely snapshots, has a decent built-in flash, and, of course, has many many modes, including shutter priority, aperture priority, full manual, and a variety of creative modes. In a word, the camera is versatile. And all of this versatility costs $200 less than the basic, much less versatile dslr. To make things even better, you could take the $200 you saved and buy the Canon converter lenses, so that you have the ability to take better wide-angle shots (buildings from across the street), or to zoom in tight from farther away when shooting candids or nature shots. But let's forget about the add-ons available and focus just on what you get out of the box. The 12x zoom lens built into the S3 is said to be the functional equivalent of a 432mm zoom lens on an slr. This comes as part of what you get for $400. By contrast, if I bought the Nikon D50 for $600, the next thing I'd really want would be this 80-400mm zoom lens from Tokina. It's selling today for $640 - just the lens - at, and remember, Amazon's prices are usually among the lowest you can find. My impression is that it's possible to get a 400mm lens for an slr for less money than that, but even if you find one for about $200, you're paying, oh, $800 to get a dslr kit that is still less versatile than the PowerShot S3 that costs half as much - and it does not take better-quality pictures.

And versatility isn't everything. The convenience of the high-end non-dslr can't be matched in a dslr, not at any price. The convenience of the Canon S3 comes from the fact that all these features are built into one relatively compact body. Grab the thing and go. To take good pictures, you will most definitely need to know how to use your camera. But that's true of the dslr as well as the compact superzoom. The more you carry you camera around, the more you shoot, and the more you shoot, the better you get (assuming you're trying hard and paying attention). You won't need to carry around a separate lens bag and change lenses if you see a nice shot that you cannot get close to.

You can't future-proof your purchase

You can't future-proof your purchase, at least not on a tight budget. I suppose that, if you were to spend $10,000 on dslr equipment and lenses, you would be getting stuff you really could use for the next decade or two, stuff that would be reasonably future-proofed. But a $600 dslr is only slightly less likely to be obsolete next year than the $400 compact camera. For example, both of the entry-level dslr cameras I'm talking about take 6 megapixel images. There are much higher-res non-dslr cameras available today (like the 10 megapixel Canon G7). Now, the megapixel count has more to do with selling cameras to naive consumers than with the image quality of the camera's output. But all things being equal, I would like to have more information about every shot rather than less. If in two years, most low-cost consumer cameras have 10 megapixel sensors, well, I'm going to feel bad about my crappy Pentax K110D or Nikon D50 with its measly 6 megapixel resolution. The thought that my daughter's Christmas camera might take a better shot than my dslr will keep me up at night. I might add that, while the Nikon D50 is the choice available today, there have been leaks that the D40 is coming. It's likely to be a step down from the D50, but if I'm looking to get into dslr photography on the cheap, that might be a better choice than the D50. So, the question isn't just, To dslr or not to dslr? You also have to ask, if you think a dslr is in your future sooner or later, is it sooner, or is it later? Just three years ago, Canon made history by releasing a dslr priced at $1000. I could buy a better camera than that original Canon right this minute on for under $500 (after rebate). That price may not be there by the time you read this article, but you see my point. Quality is going up, prices are staying the same or going down.

Resolving the dilemma

So, open and shut case - the high-end compact superzoom camera gives you much more for much less, right? Well, yes - maybe. If you buy a dslr, you will get some real advantages. For one thing, the sooner you get into the dslr world, the sooner you start spending money on lenses that you can keep for a very long time. The autofocus in dslrs is supposed to be better, generally, than the autofocus in compact cameras, especially in certain difficult-shooting conditions, like inside a gymnasium. The dslr is likely to support higher ISO settings (1600 or 3200, compared to 800 for the PowerShot S3). The dslr probably has smaller aperture settings (f/16 or higher) and a slightly faster maximum shutter speed (1/4000 for the Nikon D50 vs 1/3200 for the PowerShot S3). The dslr probably takes RAW format pictures. RAW format doesn't make the pictures better, but it does give you more of a chance of saving a shot that was well framed but badly exposed.

But that's not the end of the story, either. You now have to ask whether the superiority of the dslr is significant enough to you for you to abandon the versatility, convenience and price advantage of the non-dslr. This is a question only you can answer. But I'm tempted to say that, if you are unsure, then the answer is no, the superiority of the dslr is not significant enough to you for you to buy into that market today. I want to emphasize that the high-end non-dslr camera is not a toy. Take a look at this web site, which compares pictures taken with a $400 PowerShot S3 and a $5000 Canon 5D dslr.

The bottom line is that the dslr is a costly purchase. Don't be fooled by the $600 price tag. That's like being told that there are dishes on the menu at the gourmet restaurant near downtown that are under $30. Don't think it means you can take your date there and get out for $60! The $30 just buys the entree. Salad, wine, dessert, coffee and possibly even bread will cost extra. If you get out for less than $100, it's because you worried all through dinner about the budget, and how much fun is that? And remember also, if you're on a tight budget, when you switch to a dslr, there's a huge opportunity cost. While you're saving up to buy a decent zoom lens next year, you are missing shots that you simply can't take with the dslr that you could have taken with the superzoom. I could not have taken this picture of a female cardinal, standing eight or ten feet from the bird, without the S3's 12x built-in zoom. And I couldn't have taken these pictures of a great egret fishing without using the S3's zoom + the Canon 1.5x teleconverter lens. True, once I move into the dslr world, I can start to look forward to the day when I can afford a telephoto lens that is much more powerful, and much sharper, than the converter lenses I have for my S3. But a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush, and, to me, anyway, a pretty good bird picture today is worth two really good bird pictures at some indefinite point in the future.

Let's be unreasonable!

There is an intangible here: technolust. Notwithstanding the compelling logic of the argument above, I'm stuck with the fact that the idea of owning a dslr simply has more sex appeal than the idea of owning a camera that I know somebody thinks is for hobbyists. Never mind that I am a hobbyist. Technolust is not rational!

I've been through these arguments again and again with myself. When I began, I certainly believed that digital slr cameras were simply and obviously better, in the same way that a $40 bottle of wine with a nice label is simply and obviously better than a $20 bottle of wine, except that I couldn't afford $40 bottles of wine and didn't get interested in the pretty label until the price dropped closer to $30. I know now that this is an ignorant prejudice. Nevertheless, I confess without hesitation that, if I had $1000 lying around handy, I'd run out tomorrow morning to buy one of the dslrs I've been talking about and an extra lens or two. It would be my way of proving to myself and the world that I'm serious about my hobby.


Perhaps fortunately, I don't have $1000 lying about, at least not handy. Cost is a major factor in my decision, so I have to try to be rational. If the compact superzoom is a compromise, I know that at least it's a very good compromise, because within the $600 to $1200 price range, the quality of my photos has more to do with my skill as a photographer than with the quality of the camera. A lousy camera might keep me from ever taking a good picture, but the advanced compact cameras I've been talking about are not lousy, they are, in fact, good. And now that I've got good equipment, spending more money on great equipment is not going to make me a better photographer. I've read it over and over again, and I believe that it is true: If you are taking mediocre pictures with a decent compact camera, you're going to take mediocre pictures with a dslr. I know it smacks of sour grapes, but until I can afford a dslr, I am taking comfort in the well-known Ken Rockwell article, "The camera does not matter."

About Me

I am an event photographer living in Dallas, Texas.