Do you really need a DSLR?

You love to take photos. Your photos get compliments from family and friends, and—don’t be modest—you like them yourself. But when you compare them with some of the stuff in National Geographic, it’s obvious that the fixed-lens, compact camera you’re shooting with is holding you back. You think that a newer, bigger, interchangeable-lens camera like the pros use will help you take your photos to the next level. You need to step up to a DSLR.

At least, that’s what the makers of the big cameras want you to think. But before you reach for your credit card, make sure you aren’t just suffering from technolust.

The bigger-sensor, interchangeable-lens cameras that companies produce today under various acronyms—DSLR (digital single-lens reflex), DSLT (digital single-lens translucent), MFT (Micro Four-Thirds), and EVIL (electronic viewfinder with interchangeable lens)—are mostly terrific cameras. But every technological decision entails a compromise; and next to the best compact, fixed-lens cameras, the bigger cameras have cons as well as pros. Shooting with a bigger camera when you don’t really need one is not just expensive, it may actually produce worse photos than what you captured before. It can even dampen your interest in photography. Here are a few things to consider.

1. More control means more work Bigger cameras generally have many more options than compact cameras do, and while compact cameras hide many of their options in menus, bigger cameras put more controls on the outside of the body in the form of buttons, switches, and dials. Getting comfortable with these controls is like learning to drive a car with a stick shift—but much harder.

2. Blurry, fuzzy photos Other things being equal, the bigger sensors in DSLRs mean a shallower depth of field—and that means, among other things, that minor autofocusing errors matter less with a compact camera than they may with a larger one.

Then you have to consider the problem of blur caused by camera movement. Most compact cameras have some kind of image stabilization built in. A handheld camera is never as steady as one mounted on a tripod; image stabilization reduces the number of photos the camera movement ruins. Sony and Pentax DSLT/DSLR bodies have image stabilization built in, but the more popular Canon and Nikon DSLRs do not. Getting image stabilization with those brands requires using special stabilized lenses, and the DSLR you purchase might or might not come with such a lens.

Snapshot of Ruthie taken with the Sony DSC-RX100. The RX100 fits in a pocket easily, but it has a larger sensor than most compacts do, which means it's possible to get the shallow depth of field (illustrated here) that portrait photographers often prefer.
William Porter

3. Interchangeable lenses mean money—and dust The lens is arguably a more important factor in the technical quality of your photos than the body it’s attached to. Pros buy interchangeable-lens cameras so that they can use the best lens for each session. But the ability to change lenses is a mixed blessing for the average photographer.

For one thing, the lens on a high-end compact camera may be better than the lens on a low-end DSLR. For example, the fixed lens on my Panasonic Lumix LX5 is made by Leica, and it’s a really good lens: It's optically superior and fast (f/2.0), with a terrific zoom range. The 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 kit lens that comes with the average new DSLR, on the other hand, is probably merely decent.

Usually you can buy only the body and purchase a really good lens separately. But you might end up paying as much for the lens as for the body—or more. And that’s just your first lens. To get the most out of your interchangeable-lens system, you’ll want to buy more lenses, as good as you can afford. Most serious photographers spend a lot more money on lenses than on bodies.

And of course, changing lenses introduces a serious problem: dust. When you change lenses, you expose your camera’s sensor and mirror to dust. Dust on the sensor can mar your photos; cleaning your sensor can be expensive, or at least a pain in the neck.

4. Small is beautiful, bigger is bigger Larger cameras are less portable, and—especially if you’re an amateur shooting when the spirit hits you—there’s wisdom in the saying that “the best camera is the one you have with you.” Time and time again, I’ve seen people buy a DSLR and play with it for a while, only to put it on the shelf and go back to using a compact camera for daily shooting. And this makes sense to me: I use my DSLRs for work, but I carry a point-and-shoot camera everywhere.

5. Workarounds defeat the purpose Yes, some of these problems have workarounds. Your DSLR doesn’t have to be difficult. You can’t get rid of all those buttons on the outside, but you can ignore them and just use the camera in Auto or P mode. You can slap a “superzoom” (18-250mm or similar) lens on your DSLR and never take it off.

But if you do such things, you’re surrendering nearly all of the peculiar advantages of the DSLR. What you end up with is basically a heavier, less portable, and more expensive point-and-shoot. And since superzoom lenses aren’t as good optically as fixed-focal-length lenses, or even zooms with a shorter zoom range, it isn’t even a particularly good point-and-shoot.

Juanita Edwards at 95, taken with a Panasonic DMC-FZ35. The FZ35's sensor is smaller than the Sony RX100's and much smaller than the sensors in DSLRs, so with the FZ35 you get lots of depth of field whether you want it or not. The upside is that you can count on your photos to be well focused in the central areas.
William Porter

6. Shoot well and be happy You may very well be one of those people who truly need a big-sensor, interchangeable-lens camera. I’ve daydreamed about shooting a wedding with my LX5, but I would never actually do it. A camera is a tool, and certain jobs require certain tools.

But if, like most people, you mostly photograph your kids, your pets, your friends, and your vacations, at least consider the possibility that you might be happier with a good compact camera.

A $400 food processor won’t make you a better cook—and by the same token, if you can’t take great photos with a Panasonic LX5, a Canon G12, or the slightly pricier Sony RX100, trust me, you won’t be able to take great photos with a much more expensive Sony A77, Canon 7D, or Nikon D7000.

If you really want to improve your photos, buy a good book on photography or take a course. Or simply take your next vacation someplace really beautiful. You’ll be amazed at how much better your photos turn out.

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