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Should you buy a DSLR or a Compact?

If you’re shopping for a new digital camera one of the biggest decisions to make is whether to go for a digital SLR or a compact / superzoom model. Each has distinct pros and cons so it’s important to understand both the benefits and downsides in order to buy the right camera for your kind of photography.

Canon 400D / Rebel XTi   Panasonic Lumix TZ3

The question ‘to DSLR or not’ is one of the most commonly posed on the Cameralabs forums so we’ve provided this article to help you make the right decision. By asking yourself a few simple questions, you’ll soon discover what type of camera will be most appropriate for your requirements, after which you can check out our Buyers Guides to find the top models in each category.

Ultimately you can take pictures of people, landscapes, or close-ups with any camera, but some models are better-suited to specific types of photography than others – not to mention being better-suited for certain types of photographers. So what follows is a list of key questions you should be asking yourself when deciding what type of camera to buy – they’ll help you make the important decision of whether to go for a DSLR, a compact or a super-zoom digital camera.

Q: Do you need a camera which responds very quickly?

Action photography

A: If you’re into action photography, or are simply frustrated by any delay between pressing the button and your picture being taken, then you should seriously consider a DSLR. There are a handful of unusually quick compacts or superzooms, but generally speaking a DSLR will startup and respond much quicker than a compact, not to mention offer superior continuous shooting capabilities. Auto-focusing on DSLRs is also normally quicker, although this is greatly influenced by the type of lens you fit, so if you’re serious about shooting wildlife, sports – or even just fast-moving kids – then consider upgrading the supplied ‘kit’ lens to a quicker model. Note some compacts like the Canon PowerShot SX1 IS and Sony Cyber-shot HX1 now offer fast continuous shooting, but normally with some restrictions such as a limited number of frames or locked focusing during the sequence - so again if action's your thing, a DSLR remains the best bet.

Winner: DSLR (although you may need to upgrade the kit lens for the quickest focusing)

Q: Do you like composing photos using the colour screen?

Live View

A: Composing photos with a nice big colour screen is one of the joys of digital photography, but sadly it’s something which traditional DSLRs find tricky; indeed until recently it wasn't even possible at all. Most new DSLRs are however being equipped with Live View facilities which allow them to compose using their main colour screen, but there are compromises. If the main sensor is used for Live View, the mirror has to get out the way and the shutter open first, causing delay and noise. Additionally, this then bypasses the AF system of most DSLRs, forcing them to either temporarily flip the mirror down again to take a reading, or employ a slower contrast-based AF system. So composing with the screen on a DSLR is possible, but there are compromises and it's not as slick or smooth an operation as using a compact or superzoom. For an example of a traditional DSLR Live View system, see our Nikon D5000 and Canon EOS 500D / T1i reviews, while for a quicker but less accurate approach, see our Sony Alpha A330 and Alpha A380 reviews.

As for DSLRs without Live View, you'll need to press your eye up to the traditional optical viewfinder to compose your shot. In practice a DSLR viewfinder actually allows you to check the focusing much better than a colour screen, but if you want the smoothest experience when composing with the screen, you’ll be better-off buying a compact or super-zoom.

Winner: Compact or Superzoom (All but the cheapest new DSLRs offer Live View facilities, but involve compromises)

Q: How important is taking photos in low light?

Low light photography

A: DSLRs have physically much larger sensors than most compacts or superzooms, which allows them to be more sensitive to light. This in turn means much better picture quality at higher sensitivities (the bigger ISO numbers) whether you’re shooting under low light conditions or with the fastest shutter speeds to freeze action. This is a key advantage of DSLRs and for an example of what happens to the picture quality of a compact and a DSLR as you increase the sensitivity, see our Canon PowerShot G10 results - and remember this is not an isolated case. So if decent quality at high sensitivities is important to you, go for a DSLR every time. Note: recent Micro Four Thirds models are an interesting alternative as they squeeze a DSLR-sized sensor into a relatively compact body - the smallest ones are the Olympus E-P1 and Panasonic GF1.

Winner: DSLR (or Micro Four Thirds) by a mile

Q: Are you unwilling to clean your camera or images for dust?

Eliminating dust

A: The ability to swap lenses is a key advantage of DSLRs, but equally their Achilles Heel as dust particles can settle in front of the sensor and cause tiny dark marks on your photos. Many DSLRs now boast anti-dust facilities (and of them all, the Olympus SSWF is the best), but in our experience none have proven 100% infallible.

The bottom line is dust will affect every DSLR owner at some point, so you’d better get used to dealing with it – either by retouching your existing photos, or using a blower to physically dislodge particles; see our anti-dust guide. In contrast, compacts and superzoom cameras are closed devices and virtually impervious to dust getting inside (although in some cases it can eventually make its way in through the lens mechanism). Note DSLR owners can reduce the risk of dust by rarely changing lenses, and this is where superzoom lenses like the Nikkor DX 18-200mm and Canon EF-S 18-200mm can prove a very practical option.

Winner: Compact or Superzoom (although if you rarely swap lenses on a DSLR, the risk is minimised)

Panasonic Lumix FZ8

Q: Do you want a powerful zoom range in a small, light and affordable package?

A: Simple: buy a superzoom camera. These typically offer 10 to 26x optical zoom lenses which can take you from decent wide angle to serious telephoto coverage in a very portable – and affordable – form factor. Most superzooms are much smaller, lighter and cheaper than a DSLR fitted with a basic 3x kit lens. Models like the Panasonic Lumix TZ7 / ZS3 (with a 12x zoom) can even fit in your pocket.

Winner: Superzoom (See our Premium compacts section)

Canon Speedlite 550EX

Q: Do you need to use an external flashgun or studio lighting?

A: While a handful of compacts and superzooms offer flash hotshoes (most notably the Canon PowerShot G11 and Canon PowerShot SX20 IS), the fact is DSLRs are much better equipped to connect with and control external lighting. So if you’re linking multiple flashguns or fancy renting a studio for the day, a DSLR is the camera for you.

Winner: DSLR (although some higher-end compacts and superzooms sport hotshoes)

Q: Is the size and weight of your camera a big issue?

Canon 400D / Rebel XTi and Fujifilm F30

A: Due to their lens mounts and internal mirrors, DSLRs are simply bigger and heavier than most compacts or superzoom cameras. If you want a camera you can slip in a pocket or a small bag, then a compact or a superzoom is the best choice. If you want the smallest possible DSLR though, consider the Olympus E-420 or one of the Micro Four Thirds models which keep the big sensor of a DSLR but dispense with the mirror for a more compact body, such as the Olympus E-P1 and Panasonic GF1.

Winner: Compact or Superzoom

Q: Do you want ultra wide angle coverage or other specialist lenses?

Wide-angle photography

A: A number of compacts and superzooms now boast 28mm wide angle coverage, with a handful even offering 25mm, but if you want to capture an even bigger field of view you’re really looking at having a DSLR with an optional ultra-wide angle lens. Special adapters may increase the coverage of some compacts and superzooms, but they’re bulky and again can’t match what’s possible with a DSLR. This equally applies to other specialist lenses, whether they’re very powerful, designed for low-light conditions, optimised for close-up photography, or even offer control over perspective. If you’re willing to invest in additional lenses (and carry them around), a DSLR offers much greater flexibility.

Winner: DSLR (although you’ll also need to invest in the specialist lenses and carry them around)

Video clips

Q: Do you want the ability to capture video clips?

A: Video capture has long been a standard feature of most compact and superzoom cameras, with the latest models even offering high definition modes. DSLRs have started to get in on the act, but there's still only a handful which offer video, such as Canon's EOS 5D Mark II and EOS 500D / T1i, and Nikon's D90 and D5000. So unless you're aiming for one of these new DSLRs, movie modes predominantly remain in the realm of compacts and superzooms. Note: video recording using a DSLR normally involves a number of compromises though, so check our reviews for full details, and if easy handling and usability are really important to you, buy a camcorder instead.

Winner: Compact or Superzoom (although for the best quality and usability, buy a camcorder)

Q: Do you want complete control over all the settings?

Creative controls

A: Many compacts and superzooms offer manual modes, but most are restricted in what they’ll let you do or achieve. Some settings may only be available under certain conditions, and the longest exposures may be less than a minute. Aperture priority modes on compacts may let you change their f-numbers, but they have such a large depth-of-field to start with that popular out-of-focus background techniques on portraits are difficult or even impossible to achieve.

If you want the maximum control over your camera’s settings, demand shallow depth-of-field effects, or require long exposures for special effects or astro-photography, a DSLR or Micro Four Thirds camera is the only way to go.

Winner: DSLR

Now see our final verdict on whether to buy a DSLR or a compact / superzoom camera...

All words, images, videos and layout, copyright 2005-2017 Gordon Laing. May not be used without permission.

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