Point and Shoot or SLR? | Digital Photography insights By Allan Weitz on 11-11-2010 As someone who’s been toting cameras around for so long I have a permanent indentation in my left shoulder blade, I’m often asked to recommend cameras that are "easy to use." And my response is always the same: “They all are… now how much do you want to spend?” Now, most people think I’m just being a smart-alec (as is my nature), but in fact my response is straight-up and honest. Truth be told, you can take almost any camera we sell at B&H, from the simplest point-and-shoot to the priciest, most technically advanced camera we stock (Hasselblad’s H4D-60 at $41,995, if you must know), set the exposure dial to "Program" and the lens to "AF" and you have a point-and-shoot camera, albeit a pricey one. So now that we've put the "ease of use" issue to rest, let's get into the meat and potatoes of the question. Once upon a time (and not all that long ago) point-and-shoot digicams had two buttons—one to turn it on and off and another to take the picture. "'Real" cameras, on the other hand, had all kinds of dials and switches, which pretty much frightened off all but the most intrepid of photo enthusiasts. For everybody else it was back to the weenie-cams. Today the landscape's very different. As already noted, pretty much all of the cameras we sell, regardless of cost, can be dumbed down for ease of use. Conversely, many of the point-and-shoot cameras we sell are deceptively sophisticated in terms of what they can do, and the quality of the pictures—and video—they are capable of capturing is equally impressive. So now, when it comes to purchasing a new camera, the question is: do we go for the shoulder-slung or the pocket-sized number? To best answer this question, let's start by comparing the key attributes of each of these camera types. Note: When referring to DSLRs in this article, I'm specifically addressing entry and mid-level DSLRs, as I doubt if any readers are agonizing over choosing between a snappycam and a Canon EOS 1D Mark IV or a Nikon D3s. The Size of the Imaging Sensor Just as large-format film cameras always produce better-quality pictures, there's no debating the fact a physically larger imaging sensor will always produce a sharper picture containing better detail, contrast and overall tonality in the shadows, highlight and everything in between. True, you can take terrific pictures with point-and-shoot digicams, but the larger the sensor, the better the picture—and that's regardless of how many pixels it contains. To illustrate this point, consider the fact there are 10MP DSLRs and 10MP point-and-shoot cameras, yet the physical size of the sensors used in point and shoots are anywhere from 10 to 20 times smaller than the physical size of imaging sensors used in DSLRs. Now the only way you can squeeze the same number of pixels into a smaller space is to use smaller pixels, and as the pixels get smaller, so does the color range, contrast range, shadow detail, highlight detail and overall sharpness. There are other issues related to sensor size including noise (smaller sensors are more prone to noise at higher ISO ratings and when shooting under low light), selective focus (point-and-shoot digicams have shorter focal-length lenses, which are not condusive to shallow focus, even at f/2), and the ability to crop into the original image file and still maintain good image quality. When digesting this information it's important to consider your output needs. If you are only shooting for the Web, point-and-shoot cameras are more than qualified to do the job. Even for print purposes, more than a few magazine covers have been taken with point-and-shoot cameras, and the average point-and-shoot is easily capable of outputting photo-quality prints from the largest desktop printers. But overall, the average DSLR trumps any pont-and-shoot when it comes to sharpness, color and tonality. (For the record, I've taken more than a few terrific pictures with point-and-shoot cameras.) Optics When it comes to optical flexibility, DSLRs win hands down. Most DSLRs can be purchased with a kit lens, which for compact (APS-C format) DSLRs, is usually in the 18-55mm range. After you take the magnification factor into consideration, this works out to about 28 to 90-or-so millimeters on a full-frame 35mm camera, which is a handy range for capturing landscapes and headshots. The good news with DSLRs is that if you get the itch to go beyond the basics, camera manufacturers offer you dozens of options ranging from fisheye to super telephoto in both fixed focal lengths and zooms. The most basic point-and-shoot cameras have zoom lenses roughly in the same focal range as DSLR kit zooms, some longer, some shorter. As for going wider or longer, some cameras accept accessory lenses that allow you to go wider or longer, but they aren't in the same class as prime lenses and some are better than others. As of late we've been seeing more zoom-lens pocket cameras with zoom ranges up to 10 or 12x. There are also a number of 15x to 35x "super zooms" (or 'bridge cameras') that feature zoom lenses with focal ranges equivalent to a 24 to 840mm lens on a full-frame 35, but don't expect to slip them comfortably into your shirt pocket. Lens speed is another attribute in which most point-and-shoot cameras fall short. While a few point-and-shoot digicams have optics that open up to f/2—or in the case of Samsung's TL500, f/1.8—most open up, at best, to f/3.5. And that's at the wide end of the focal range. At the telephoto end of the focal range light sensitivity falls off to a paltry f/5.6 or less, at which point the camera's autofocus and metering starts to get balky, especially under lower lighting conditions. Note: In all fairness, the average DSLR kit lens isn't any better in the speed department. With DSLRs, you have the option of shooting with faster lenses. Depending on the focal length, DSLR optics can be as fast as f/2, f/1.4, f/1.2, f/1.1and f/0.95. Low-light shooting aside, these wider-aperture optics offer selective focusing possibilities far beyond the range of the fastest point-and-shoot camera. Optical Viewfinders One of the key benefits of shooting with a DSLR (not to mention their very reason for existing in the first place) is their reflex viewing systems. If you've ever shot with a point-and-shoot camera in bright sunlight I don't have to explain to you how frustrating it can be to compose a photograph—or even worse, compose video—while blocking the sun at arm's length. (Straight horizon lines? Ha!) Along with enabling glare-free shooting, optical viewfinders add a great measure of stability by eliminating the need to hold the camera at arm's length while adding your brow as a third, closely-held contact point for the camera. When shooting under low-light conditions without a flash, this is a huge plus. Superzooms, or bridge cameras, which have the same form factor as DSLRs (though with the same small-size imaging sensors used in point-and-shoot cameras) feature electronic viewfinders (EVFs) that offer a similar alternative to LCD viewing. If the idea of an optical finder appeals to you, but you'd prefer to stick to a smaller point-and-shoot format, there are several options including the Canon PowerShot G12 , SD780 IS, and the Nikon CoolPix P7000, each featuring coupled rangefinders. They're "peephole-ish" but they work. And each of the cameras is pretty darn good. Along the similar-but-different lines, Leica's X1 is a pocket-size Leica M look-alike with a fixed, 24mm lens wrapped around an APS-C format sensor. And yes, it has a viewfinder. Weight and Stability Weight is another criterion that commonly goes into the selection process when shopping for both DSLRs and point-and-shoot cameras alike. While we all like to lighten our loads when going about our days, when it comes to picture taking, weight is really an asset. Just as image stabilization and de-caf coffee help steady our hands—especially when holding a camera at arm's length—weight also helps steady our hands when taking pictures, and the heavier the camera, the liklier it is that your pictures will be sharper. And one last thing... As more than a few wise men have noted, the best camera is the one you have with you when you need it. Many of my friends and acquaintences always have a point-and-shoot camera with them at all times. I also know many shooters who, despite weight and bulk factors, always carry a DSLR with at least one lens almost everywhere they go. Personally speaking, there's a small clip-on pouch containing a point-and-shoot hanging off the end of my shoulder bag at all times, and on days when I'm toting lighter loads, I'll often have a DSLR with my "lens of the day" attached to it. The bottom line is, if I see something worth photographing, I'm good to go. And if I miss an opportunity to snag a terrific photograph, I've only myself to blame.