First, we jump into our time machine and look into the past…
The digital SLR (Single Len Reflex – basically an interchangeable lens camera) was expensive. Entry was $5,000-$10,000 and only the pros could justify it (and they still had a hard time explaining it to their spouses). So, when the average guy went digital, it was with a compact digicam.
Fast forward to today.
Now you can get an SLR, including lens (no, they don’t always come with one) for around $1000. Your choices are Canon’s 6MP Digital Rebel or Nikon’s 6MP D70. I’ve seen picts from both and they are truly top notch.
When these types of cameras were in the $5K+ range, it was easy to pick – you go compact. Now, for $1000, you can get a high-end compact, or an entry level digital SLR. Hmm. What to do, huh?
As a former professional photographer, I want to scream “GO SLR!”. However, that may not be the right decision for everyone. So, here are some things to consider:
Lenses - Do you want the ability to change lenses? If so, a digital SLR is the only way to go. Sure, you can get the screw in versions for the compact cameras, but it’s just not the same. Plus, with an SLR you can get lenses that compacts can’t touch – extreme wide angle, life size macro, and super telephoto.
On the other hand, many compact cameras have a very adequate range with their built in lens. In fact, most high-end compact cameras have a lot more lens than what’s included with an entry-level digital SLR. So, if you go SLR, you’ll probably end up buying more lenses, a problem that really doesn’t exist for compacts.
Focusing - Here’s where an SLR is going to shine. They generally focus faster, more consistently, and more accurately than compacts. The larger viewfinder helps you spot misfocusing more easily, and manual focusing is far simpler than with a compact (assuming said compact allows any kind of manual focusing to begin with).
Display - Here’s one for the compacts. You know how on the back of a compact digicam you see a “live” presentation of what’s going on? You just hold the camera out, and when the scene on the screen looks good, you take the photo. With a digital SLR you are actually looking through the lens with a traditional viewfinder – no live video displays. If you like the live display, go compact.
Oh, don’t worry – a digital SLR still has the little screen on the back so you can look at the photos once you take ‘em.
Flash - This could be a tie. Many SLRs and all compacts have built in flashes. Every SLR can take an external flash and move it off camera (good-bye red-eye). Some compacts can do the same trick, but SLRs will probably have a slight advantage here. They tend to have more sophisticated flash metering capabilities and you’ll probably see better results.
Size - Score one for the compacts. When it comes to big things in small packages, these own the market. With an SLR, you have to lug around lenses, possibly a flash, and even the camera itself is bulky. If ease of carrying is high on your list, you gotta go compact.
Manual Options - This is almost a tie. Most compacts have the same manual overrides as SLRs (exposure compensation, manual mode, aperture priority, etc). I would say that an SLR might have a slight edge in this category due to control layouts, but only by a nose.
Imaging Options - This is SLR territory. If you’re into reading histograms, shooting in RAW, having oodles of white balance options, then you’ll love most digital SLRs. Sure, some compacts include these features, but the majority do not have them on the same scale a digital SLR does. On the other hand, if you just want to take a snapshot at the next birthday part, go compact.
Ease Of Use - I’d give a slight nod to the compacts in this category. You generally turn ‘em on and use ‘em. Right out of the box they tend to be ready to go. A digital SLR will likely have more controls and may require a short learning curve for you to adjust to it – but they can be just as automatic as a compact once you find auto settings
Response - Our final category goes solidly to the SLRs. If you want a camera with cat-like reflexes, you want an SLR. They “warm up”, focus, zoom, and generally respond quicker than their compact counterparts. If you shoot any kind of action on a regular basis, this is the way to go.
Whew, that’s the main stuff. Overall, if you want control, lots of options, and different lenses, you gotta go SLR. If you’re more into taking snapshots, like a smaller camera, and aren’t interested in lots of lenses and accessories, then a compact is the way to go.
Finally, remember that although the camera helps, it’s the photographer who makes the photos. I’ve seen fantastic images from both compact cameras and digital SLRs. It’s the person behind the camera that makes great photos – you just have to decide what style is right for you.