A month ago, I tried to gather up my thoughts on the question of whether I should stick with the Canon S3 IS superzoom compact digital camera or consider purchasing one of the recently released, relatively low-price digital SLRS. In that earlier post I took a position that I suppose could fairly be called defensive. I had already purchased the S3. Now I was trying to persuade myself that I had made the right decision and at the same time talk myself out of the itch to get a digital SLR. The observations that I made in that earlier article were generally correct. In particular, I think I did a fair job describing both the advantages of the compact superzoom (cost, versatility, convenience) and the disadvantages of the digital SLR (cost, size, need for multiple lenses). But I think now that I failed then to appreciate the advantages or perhaps I should say the attractions of the digital SLR as well as I do now. What's changed? Well, in the last month, I've actually spent some time with two different digital SLR cameras: my brother-in-law's Canon Rebel XT, and my own brand new Pentax K100D. That's right, I changed my mind, or at least I've come to understand better than I did before the advantages of the digital SLR. I'm writing now not so much to correct what I said earlier, as to argue the other side of the case a little more fairly.
For me, the question now is, Should I keep the S3? What do I see now about the DSLR that I did not see earlier, or, if I saw it, did not regard as compelling?
1. The DSLR feels better
For starters, shooting with the Pentax feels better. I think there are four reasons for this.
First, the DSLR is bigger, and in some important respects, bigger is definitely better. The Pentax is easier to hold properly. I noticed with the Canon S3 that, until I put the converter tube on the base and left it there, it was almost impossible to hold it properly, with my left hand under the lens, partly because the lens kept moving in and out and partly because the whole thing was too small. Even with the converter tube attached, it was too small. The Pentax, on the other hand, fits my left and right hands nicely.
Second, the controls on the Pentax are more conveniently distributed on the body of the camera. The Canon S3 has a lot of very similar buttons plopped all over the case. When your eyes are on the subject rather than the camera, it's a bit tricky to tell the ISO button from the Fn button, or the Menu button from the Set button. It's very easy to hit Set or Menu by accident with your right hand, because there's really no place for the ball of the thumb or the thumb itself to sit on the camera comfortably. Nearly everything is done on the S3 with the right hand - zooming, touching control buttons, pressing the shutter - and this makes gripping the camera firmly a little more difficult. On the Pentax, there's empty space on the back of the camera on the right where my right thumb can lie safely. Zooming is done by the left hand. The other buttons are shared by the hands - Menu is a left-hand button, Fn is a right-hand button.
Third, the sharpness of the DSLR's optical viewfinder is simply much more satisfying than composing it on an LCD. I want to be honest here. This is not such a huge practical difference. After all, even the Pentax's digital viewfinder is a pretty small screen, so to a good extent, you are doing on the Pentax the same thing you do on the Canon S3: composing the shot, and counting on the various meters to get the focus and exposure exactly right. But gosh, seeing what you're photographing so clearly, so realistically, is great. It's tactile. I've gotten used to it very quickly on the Pentax, so much so that the LCD on the S3 strikes me not just as crude, but clumsy. The clarity of the optical viewfinder seems to go hand-in-hand with the fact that you must put your eye right up to the viewfinder and look at the subject straight on. Taking photos with the DSLR is straight shooting.
Fourth, the DSLR's shutter is more immediately responsive. I had gotten used to the "shutter lag" on the Canon S3, in fact, I was pretty good at anticipating facial expressions or poses so that I could depress the shutter a fraction of a second ahead of the shot I wanted to capture. Nonetheless, shooting on the Pentax, where shutter lag is comparatively absent, is like looking through the sharp optical viewfinder - a fact that makes working with the Pentax seem more natural, more direct.
Note that none of the advantages above means that the Pentax necessarily takes better photos. In fact, shooting under "normal" conditions - good lighting and reasonable proximity to a cooperative subject - I suspect that a competent S3 user will be able to take photos that were every bit as good as those taken by a low-end digital SLR. I have seen a fair amount of DSLR chauvinism on certain internet forums; it's ignorant and wrong.
2. The DSLR has some technical advantages
But the next two features do affect the quality of at least some photos.
The bigger CCD in the Pentax doesn't mean that the pictures it takes are sharper or that their color is better. But it does mean that the camera can do more with less light. Now, I have not yet had a chance to give this a real test, by shooting some more photos of my daughter's basketball team playing in the school gym, where the light is lousy and I can't use a flash. Nevertheless, my tests at home in low-light conditions give me confidence that I will be able to get less noisy, equally well-focused action shots.
Perhaps the clearest advantage of the DSLR is in the greater control it gives you over depth of field. The shorter lenses and smaller CCDs of the compact cameras inevitably provide lots of depth of field. The problem on a compact camera is reducing depth of field for artistic reasons. There's just not a lot you can do. To get control over the depth of field in a shot with the Canon S3, you may have to step twenty feet away from your subject and use the zoom lens, and, well, this is not always possible and a hassle even when it is. For a pretty clear demonstration of the superiority of the Pentax here, compare this photo taken by the Pentax K100D with this photo taken by the Canon S3. The goal of the shot was to get the middle ground in focus and have the foreground and background out of focus. It was easy to do on the Pentax; impossible to do on the S3.
In short, shooting with the DSLR feels better, to me, at least. And the DSLR can be pushed harder than the compact camera. The technical limitations of the compact superzoom are more obvious and there's not much you can do about them, besides wait until Canon releases the S4 next year with a handful of minor improvements.
The bottom line
If your budget maxxes out at around $500, then by all means, buy the Canon S3. It's a heckuva camera for the money, more camera than most amateurs need or know what to do with. But what if you have more than that to spend? Then the matter is not so easily decided.