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Choices, Choices…

Digital cameras are for the most part just another item of consumer electronics. They break down, we break them, we start hankerin’ for the next new best thing since sliced bread…

So maybe now or maybe later, you’ll be looking for an upgrade.

What’ll it be?

A compact or ‘point and shoot’ camera? (but they’re not…)

A mirrorless (known also as a ‘four-thirds’) camera?

A single lens reflex digital (DSLR) camera?

There are some considerations that should influence your choices.

  1. If size, weight and simplicity are significant factors, then point and shoot or mirrorless cameras have smaller bodies.

  2. 4/3rds cameras do have interchangeable lenses (just like DSLRs), but they are somewhat smaller. Sort of. 🙂

  3. DSLRs are capable of greater image quality than the others, but at the expense of bulk, weight – and just plain expense.

  4. With any interchangeable lens camera (4/3rds and DSLRs), you are buying into a system. That may be one or more camera bodies as a start, but will then extend to and include a number of lenses, perhaps a dedicated flash unit, tripod, filters, and remote triggers.

  5. Just because you can change lenses on a camera body, does not mean you should. Do you really want to expose the inside of the camera to the elements on deck while sailing in driving rain? Or in a dust storm in the Simpson Desert?

It might be asked why DSLRs can’t be the size of a compact camera – and as always there is no free lunch. The insides of a DSLR are complicated: a mirror, a prism (for the optical through-the-lens viewfinder) in the better quality models, and a sturdy mount for the lens. Plus there’s a substantial electronics section onboard. That said, the most significant thing that sets a DSLR apart from a compact is the physical size of its sensor.

Sensor size is important. The majority of compact cameras have a sensor the size of a little fingernail. A ‘full-frame’ DSLR’s sensor measures an entire 35 millimetres (same as the earlier film format SLRs).

Mirrorless cameras have sensors approximately half the size of a full-frame DSLR. Most DSLRs though have a sensor that is sized half-way in between 4/3rds and full-frame, and known as ‘APSC’. (Advanced Photo System ‘Classic’ – for those that are curious about the acronym).

Wikipedia gives a good illustration of the differences in sensor sizes here and of the origins of the acronym here

The importance of sensor size comes about like this: For a given sensor area, the designers can squeeze in more pixels, within limits, OR they can make the individual pixels larger. Thus:

A. Larger pixels are more sensitive to light, and thus perform better and produce less digital ‘noise’ that you see in some images (generally as coloured speckles).

B. More pixels mean higher resolution, to a point. And the point is that more and more megapixels in the same sensor size cannot continue forever. The size of the individual pixel (pixel = PIcture X ELement) gets so small that it can no longer capture the desired information, without also incurring an unacceptable penalty in electronic (read visual) noise. Hence the megapixel race hits the unflinching realities of physics, much to the chagrin of the marketers…

These two things are some of the reasons why DSLRs with their much larger sensors have the potential to produce more detailed, high resolution images. (The other main reason is the lens, and that will be covered in a future section.)

Now let's get back to the purpose of this section: Choices.

Clearly, if a compact / point and shoot camera is being contemplated, there's no need for loyalties – out with the old and in with the new. Things are not so simple if there's been an investment in a system! Jumping ship to a different brand here means selling up, and starting again.

Whatever your choice, be assured that there is on-line help at hand. The people at DPReview are arguably the owners of the most comprehensive camera review resource on the web. DPReview also hosts brand specific discussion forums (fora?), along with some related to specific functions such as printing for example. It's a site that has kept many club members (including me) informed and entertained for a decade.

Take a moment now to browse the reviews on that site. Use the drop-down boxes at the top of the page to sort the reviews by category, by date or by brand. Some articles are brief (especially the previews), and some are quite comprehensive. Further, there are articles (for example, enthusiast compacts, ‘super-zooms' and such) that critically compare offerings from various makers. All designed to help you make informed decisions.

There is also a useful article comparing aspects of compact cameras with DSLRs here.

Lastly, a word on compact / ”point and shoot' cameras. This declining market has advanced a very long way, even all the while its market share has been eroded steadily by tablet and smartphones. Point and shoot cameras are just that – if they are used in that fashion. Most of them have plenty of capability to shoot in the same modes offered by DSLRs – even manual modes. Many even provide the ability to capture and record your images in RAW or another ‘loss-less' format, in preference to .jpeg files. While the file size for these formats is much larger, from a post-processing point of view the various RAW and loss-less formats are infinitely preferable! File formats and post-processing will be covered in future instalments.

Often, DSLR shooters will also have a compact camera in their kit, because of their portability. Ultimately, point and shoot cameras are capable of very good output, and can (and should) be controlled by the user to realise that potential.

Next – Lenses: At the Heart of an image 


30 June 2015 – edits, links added