dSLR vs. dPointNShoot

I first tried some photogrophy oriented fora but things rapidly got too technical.

I’m trying to decide between a digital Point and Shoot (example: Canon SX20) versus a digital SLR (example: Canon Rebel T1i EOS)

That’s not a perfect example: There’s a 3 megapixel difference between the cameras. But putting that aside, why would I want an SLR over a PnS (Point 'N Shoot)?

The PnS has a 20 power optical zoom and uses AA batteries. It has an extensive menu system that seems to let me control at least all the things I would probably want to control.

The dSLR costs twice as much and uses a proprietary battery pack. (I know, kind of a small thing, but I got caught out once with a failed battery pack and no way to replace it. Besides, in a few years when that battery pack is no longer available, what do you do? Toss a $700 camera body?!)

So other than the ability to change the lenses (and I can’t afford an SLR AF lens that will give me 20x capability anyway), what’s the big draw of the dSLR? Please help me make the right buying decision. I’d rather go dSLR if there’s going to be some benefit I’m just not aware of yet, otherwise I’ll save the money.

Background: I’ve been using a digital PnS and am considering the next step so this isn’t my first foray into digital photography. I mostly take scenery and animal pictures so a wide angle and a telephoto capability are more important than a flash and portraits to me.

Actually, the ability to switch out the lenses and flashes pretty much is the draw for a dSLR. They also typically have better controls for making manual adjustments to how you take your pictures (you can flip a switch and focus manually by twisting the lens barrel itself, you can manually adjust the white balance, exposure time, aperture settings, etc.)

In contrast, the digital point-and-shoot cameras I’ve seen usually tend to be jacks-of-all-trades, able to do many things capably, though not able to go into more specialized things like a dSLR can with the right equipment. dSLRs also can usually take higher-quality pictures (using “Raw” image formats rather than compressed formats like JPG), but for many folks, this can kinda turn into a debate between grabbing the $5 ribeye steak from the grocery store, or buying a $20 porterhouse from a steak house. Sure, one of these is considerably higher quality, but will I care?

I have two digital cameras that I use, a Pentax point-and-shoot, and a Canon Rebel XTi dSLR, depending on what sort of photography I plan to do (and how much I feel like carrying on me). It’s sounding like for what you want to do, a dSLR will probably be your best plan, IMO.

In general digital PnS’s have improved to the point where if you’re not finding yourself limited by what they offer there is no reason to go to a dSLR.

I have and use both in different situations. I would never take the PnS out for a day of primarily taking photos because I change lenses a lot to get the photo I want without climbing over retaining walls and safety fences (as much as I used to). If I’m just out for a day of touristy stuff where the photos are secondary I’ll often just drop my PnS in a pocket. I also regularly go on scouting trips to find the best locations for a true photo trip and depending on my mood that day I could take either camera.

I’m often impressed by the photos I get from the PnS but they’re not consistently good and when I’ve spent 2 hours scouting locations for a good shot and another hour sitting there waiting for the light to be right I want to be sure. I find my dSLR more predictable in that when I make a setting change I know what the impact to my photo will be. The PnS makes more adjustments for me so I can never be sure.

As for the batteries I have a second one for my Canon that I keep charged and in my camera bag all the time. Many times when they update the body they don’t change the battery, but I’ve never been in a situation where I was unable to get a battery for a camera. Canon, and I suspect the other major dSLR manufacturers are great about supporting their older bodies. Customer loyalty is very important to them and the service I’ve received has always shown that.

Some advantages of DSLR are:

[li]Optical TTL viewfinder. It shows you exactly what the digital sensor would see. It doesn’t have any time lag, and is much sharper than any LCD display. [/li][li]The larger physical size, with the larger controls, makes it easier to hold and operate it. A DSLR typically has dials and lots of dedicated buttons, while a point-and-shoot makes you use a menu system to make even the simplest adjustment.[/li][li]You can upgrade the body without replacing the expensive lenses you’ve bought. 30-year old Nikon lenses still work with the latest Nikon and Canon EOS lenses work fine on current DSLR bodies. [/li][li]The DSLR has a much larger sensor, even though the pixel count may be comparable. That means each pixel is much larger, and collects much more light. This results in much lower noise, at least in theory. In practice, it also depends on many other factors, but it’s generally true.[/li][li]The larger sensor also gives you a much shallower depth of focus, which can be used for good effect.[/li][li]There are some exceptions, but most point-and-shoot cameras are slow. My Canon point-and-shoot manages about 1 shot per second at full resolution (video mode is of course faster, but much lower resolution). The Canon T1i does 3.4 shots per second at full resolution, and the Canon D7 does 8.[/li][/ul]

Of course, if none of these are important enough to make up for the higher price and larger size, by all means buy a point-and-shoot. Or both. I have a DSLR but I use a point-and-shoot 90% of the time.

The SX20 looks like a fine camera, and it would do most of what you want to do. But it does have limitations.

The first limitation that I’d find compared to my DSLR (a Canon T1i) is that the lens isn’t wide-angle enough. The specs say that the 35mm equivalent of that zoom lens is 28mm to 560mm. I often use a 10-22mm zoom on my camera, which has a 35mm equivalent of 16 to 35mm (with the crop sensor) – and I often find myself shooting at the 10mm end of its range, e.g., with this picture: it’s from the other side of a fairly narrow street, so I couldn’t get any further away. A 28mm-equivalent lens would only have included about a quarter of that scene.

Another limitation is the largest aperture of f/2.8: for portraits, it’s nice to use a lens with a aperture of f/2 or larger, so that you have shallow depth of field.

You give up a lot for that 20X zoom in the point and shoot. The only way to make an affordable 20X zoom with respectable quality is to use a very small sensor. Small sensors mean lots of noise and not much light gathering capability. Especially when manufacturers try to impress the rubes by throwing in as many megapixels as possible.

In general, the point and shoot will produce good (or even very good) pictures on a bright sunny day, but low light performance is going to be disappointing. They also focus slowly (because of the long range of the zoom), so there’s usually some frustrating shutter lag. The combination of these things makes them quite bad for sport and wildlife photography – you tend to get blurry shots if you get anything at all. (Shot to shot time for the Lumix ZS series is 2.5 seconds. A DSLR can do five shots in a second.)

Specifically, consider this commercial for the Lumix. Now I don’t have the exact Lumix model in this commercial, I’ve got the TZ5. So they may have decreased the shutter lag. But I’ve been in the same EXACT situation as the smug dipshit in the commercial with the Lumix. Hawk sitting on the ground, ready to fly. Press the shutter. The camera thinks for a while, tries to focus, and I get the ass-end of the bird as it flies out of the frame. I’ve also been in the same position with my Canon 50D with 100-400 zoom (admittedly, a combination that costs 10x what the Lumix cost). I’ll be putting some of * those * pictures in a show later this month.

The single most important difference between a dSLR and a P&S is that the sensor in the dSLR is much larger. This means that, regardless of pixel count, the image quality of shots with the dSLR are leaps and bounds ahead of the P&S. This effect is magnified in low light/high ISO where the dSLR outperforms P&S so much that there’s really no comparison. Both cameras may have an ISO 3200 setting, but the one on the dSLR is actually useful. The one on the P&S is not worth bothering with.

Typically, the focusing mechanism on the dSLR will also be quite a bit better than the P&S. This means that for action and sports shots (again, especially in low light) the dSLR will be able to focus while the P&S is still hunting.

Also, a true optical viewfinder has significant advantages over the electronic viewfinder on the P&S, but for people who use the LCD it may not be a big deal.

The things other folks mentioned are also valid points.

This isn’t to say that an ultrazoom is a poor choice or a poor camera. But it’s not a replacement for a DSLR and will never be because of some basic limitations. The big fixed lens pretty much ensures that the sensor will remain small. If you put a big sensor combined with that zoom range, the camera and lens would be the same size as a dSLR.

Are image quality, low light performance, ability to control all aspects of the camera, and a vast array of lens options important to you? Are you going to carry around all the gear, use the manual controls, shoot in RAW and edit each photo before using it? A dSLR isn’t for everyone, they’re more work but they reward you if you put in the effort.

Ah, forgot to mention shutter lag. In bright light and with high contrast, P&S have little shutter lag. In lower light and with moving objects, the shutter lag on even the best P&S is noticeable, and can make you miss the shot. DSLRs have little or no perceivable shutter lag.

Zoom sucks on P&S.
The ability to quickly frame a shot is an enormous advantage for DSLRs.

Actually, that’s one of the view things that the point and shoots (in the travel zoom category) do well. The tiny little sensor makes it possible to have a very flexible zoom range. Many of them well go from fairly wide (28mm or better equivalent) to super zoom. It looks like the Fuji HS10 covers a range from 24-720mm!

They have great zoom range. The zoom controls suck.
They are all slow and inaccurate, nothing like the physical zoom on an SLR lens.

What other people said.

There are some DSLR’s that take AA’s if its any help, made by Pentax. But the bigger name cameras you dont really have to worry about battery availability, they can be available for years afterwards, particularly via 3rd party battery companies, as they’re often used across multiple camera models.


The hand grip for my T1i will take AA’s. I’ve never yet had to use them, thank goodness! It’s either six or eight, and I don’t suspect that they’d last very long!

Oh, yeah, for the OP, some lower-end DSLR’s (like mine) have hand grips available that allow you to put in two OEM-style batteries for increased life. Then you have another one or two charging, and batteries are never an issue (grips also have the advantage of redundant controls for portrait shots).

Zoom speed and autofocus speed feel instant compared to a P&S. Of course the shots per second makes me want to not go back to P&S (actually the Lumix I destroyed was very, very quick, and its replacement Canon P&S frustrates me because it’s a few years newer and incredibly slow. What a step back!).

I agree with Balthisar, and with the advantage of greater responsiveness outlined in the these posts:

The better performance of the dSLR is due to faster autofocus. (Phase detection vs Contrast measurement: see Autofocus.)

In simple terms, the dSLR system determines the right focus and then adjusts the lens once to achieve that focus. The P&S system adjusts the lens continuously to determine the right focus. (That’s the annoying whirring sound when the camera is “hunting” for the right focus.) As Telemark points out, the dSLR system is much faster in low light and with moving objects.

FWIW, you can eliminate autofocus lag by focusing manually (which makes sense in some situations). The Canon SX20 has manual focus but it’s a awkward to use compared to a dSLR.

Also, this:

I’d like to thank everyone for their reasoned replies. The SX20 seems to be a newer (and step up) from the S2IS that I’m used to.

You guys have hit the shortcomings and advantages of both systems. My thoughts on a couple of the points:
[li]One big thing in favor of the dSLR, as pointed out, is the manual focus. It’s the system I used back in the days of 35mm. The manual focus on my P&S is almost useless.[/li][li]And, yes, a grip is available that will allow AA batteries, but it’s kind of pricey. I like having some assurance that the manufacturers continue to support, and re-issue the proprietary packs.[/li][li]I’ve never found the zoom times on my P&S to be too long. Canon built in two speeds and I’ve always been able to get from one end to the other fast enough to suit me. But then, turning the ring on a dSLR lens is even faster and allows smaller corrections, easier.[/li][li]The optical viewfinder of the dSLR is another strong point; but my P&S, for all intents and purposes, gives me a better picture in some instances since it’s actually an LCD screen and thus, is backlit. One big adjustment I would have to make on a dSLR would be stopping down manually if I want to see what my planned exposure would look like whereas the P&S does this for me when I start to depress the shutter button.[/li][li]Low light performance has never been an issue for me since most of my shots are outside in the desert. But will I spend my entire life, and all my shots here? Heck no![/li][/ul]I think my best step would be to make arrangements to try one (a dSLR) out. Thanks again for all your help.

I got a dSLR (canon rebel XS, on sale for $400) about a year ago, thinking I’d use it for when I wanted to take “artsy” photos and mostly use my P&S for everything else. Instead, I can’t even remember the last time I picked up the P&S (which was a good camera and did allow for quite a bit of manual control, but it was such a pain to change the settings that I never did) because I so enjoy using the dSLR. I’ve only got the one lens that came with it, too (EFS 18-55). It’s just so much more fun to use, and the photos are so much better. The no shutter lag is a big thing.

Anyway, not a very technical point of view, but this non-camera person REALLY loves her nice camera.

It’s worse than that though, the SX20 has an aperture of “f/2.8-5.7”. That means maximum aperture is F/2.8 at the minimum zoom (equivalent to 28mm), and F/5.7 at maximum zoom (equivalent to 560mm). It’s not necessarily a linear relationship, and at a typical zoom setting for portraits (around 80-100mm), it may only do F/4.

Ok, one last question/comparison item:

On my P&S I can look through the LCD viewfinder and compose my shot. If the exposure isn’t exactly what I want, I can shift my viewpoint (usually tilt the camera toward the ground or toward the sky) until I have the exposure I desire. I can see this because the camera is adapting the exposure and showing the result on the viwefinder’s LCD. I can then lock the exposure, aim at what I wanted the picture to be, and shoot.

To me this is much simpler than adjusting the exposure through any menu as I can make my adjustment very quickly–assuming the dirt/sky give me a wide enough range to do this. They usually do.

On any kind of SLR, though, I’m looking through the lens instead of at an LCD. Is there a way to do the same quick exposure trick? Will the depth of field preview button do this?

I know I could look at the LCD on the dSLR, but I want to be using the viewfinder.

ETA: Misread this originally.

Yes, there are exposure lock options on most dSLRs.

ETA2: Specifically, on the T1i, the button marked with an asterisk is the exposure lock button when not in video mode.

Right. But can I see the effects so I know when to lock the exposure?

For example, one of my favorite pictures; I was hiking in the mountains of Colorado and came across an old cabin. Inside the cabin I found a great shot, out through the cabin window to the mountain range outside. I wanted to include the cabin wall in the shot so that the window was centered. Exposure? Gaaa! None of the metering modes gave me what I wanted. Either the window was overexposed or the cabin was underexposed.

So I did the “trick” I described: I composed the picture and panned the camera slowly until what I saw in the viewfinder showed good exposure of the wall and the mountain. Exposure lock, click, fawning admirers. :slight_smile:

So I fully expect to be able to do so with the exposure lock button on the dSLR, but am not sure what steps I would take (short of using the LCD–which in this case would work just fine) to set up my shot.

(I don’t try to be difficult, it just happens.):slight_smile: