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Digital SLRs: Pleading their case

By The Vann’s Editorial Team
Last revised October 12th, 2009

In general terms, there are two different types of digital cameras — fixed lens (point-and-shoot) and SLR (Single-Lens Reflex). Each type of camera offers its own distinct advantages, but when it comes to image quality and flexibility, the SLR comes out on top every time. As you’ll see, digital SLR cameras are capable of delivering better quality images and providing more expandability than their point-and-shoot counterparts.

Basic differences between SLR and point-and-shoot

A point-and-shoot digital camera has a lens that is permanently attached and features continuous viewing through the CCD image sensor — usually less than an inch across in size — via an LCD screen. There is a wide range of megapixel and feature options available in this category, but the general facts listed above always remain true. Point-and-shoot cameras are small in size and therefore handy for taking with you everywhere you go.

SLR stands for single-lens reflex. True digital SLRs have interchangeable lenses, reflex mirrors, direct ground glass viewing and much larger image sensors than point-and-shoots. The reflex mirror reflects light from the lens to a viewing screen, which you see when you focus and compose shots. When you press the shutter button, the lens flips out of the way, allowing the shutter to expose the CCD. Because of these factors, you use a traditional viewfinder instead of the LCD to compose your shots. SLR cameras are certainly the bulkier of the two types, but the advantages (described below) compensate for the extra weight of the camera.

My pixels can beat up your pixels

Although some point-and-shoot cameras approach the megapixel ratings of digital SLRs, there are other factors that make for quality image capture. The image sensor in digital point-and-shoot cameras has to be small in order to accommodate the tiny bodies that give them the shirt-pocket convenience they’re known for. The image sensors in digital SLRs, on the other hand, are much larger. As a matter of fact, the image sensors of some SLR cameras have as much as 25 times the area of sensors in point-and-shoot cameras. The pixels are larger, helping you capture every photon of light so that even at high ISO settings the images are much cleaner than those captured by their smaller cousins.

The SLR’s larger image sensor delivers higher light sensitivity, resulting in clearer pictures taken in low light. The measure of light sensitivity (ISO) in a digital SLR generally ranges from ISO 100 to 1600. The ISO range for a compact point-and-shoot is often between ISO 50 and 400. Higher ISO ratings correspond to the greater sensitivity to light and better performance in capturing images in low light. Because they feature higher ISO ratings, digital SLRs can capture pictures in lower light conditions with greater detail.

Don’t lag behind

One common complaint made by those who use digital point-and-shoot cameras is shutter lag. The problem is that the internal electronics just aren’t fast enough for instant operation.

Forgive us for stating the obvious, but moments are called moments because they’re momentary. You want to capture your little girl when she’s smiling, not a couple of moments later when the smile turns upside down and her eyes close. You want to have a picture of your son kicking the winning goal in his soccer game. With a point-and-shoot, it’s likely that you won’t get it, and your slideshow narration will be, “Here’s Johnny just after kicking the winning goal. Here’s Claudia, and just a moment before this she had the cutest expression on her face.” Not exactly what you had in mind.

A digital SLR will help you capture those perfect moments. When you press the shutter button, the camera takes a picture — immediately. Life moves fast. Why not have a camera that operates just as fast? With an SLR, you’ll capture moments that you might miss with a digital point-and-shoot. If a picture is worth a thousand words, you don’t want them to be nasty words uttered in frustration.

Take it further

A digital SLR also gives you the freedom to expand your photographic capabilities. A true digital SLR has a detachable lens, enabling you to attach other lenses and take advantage of more creative possibilities. You can purchase different lenses as you become interested in different types of photography. You can add a zoom lens, a wide-angle lens, or a macro lens to capture completely different styles of images. With a point-and-shoot camera, you’re limited to the fixed lens that comes built into the camera. And maybe you already have a collection of lenses for your 35mm camera. If you check, you may find out that these same lenses will fit a digital SLR of the same brand.

Digital SLR cameras also have an accessory shoe on the top of the body. This allows you to add an optional flash unit that gives you more light-condition freedom than that provided by a camera’s built-in flash unit.

The decision of which camera you purchase comes down to how serious you are about photography — how much room you want your camera to give you to grow as a photographer. Digital point-and-shoot cameras are handy to carry around, and perfectly capable of taking great pictures in more casual contexts. But if you want the creative control and immediate response you need to take your shutter-bugging to the next level, you'd be best to invest in a digital SLR, and enjoy its added image quality, speed, and expandability.

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