A question about DSLRs and taking my photography to the next level
February 3, 2013 12:43 PM   Subscribe

Do I have to own a DSLR to be a real photographer?

I want to take my photography in a new direction. I've worked with point-and-shoots for several years now and been reasonably happy with the results. I'm wondering if the time is right to buy a DSLR. What does a DSLR offer me that a point-and-shoot does not? For that matter, what does a DSLR offer that the prosumer cameras cannot? And while I'm on the topic, are there some things I should be aware of as potential pitfalls as a new DSLR owner?

I'm wondering because a DSLR seems to be mandatory equipment for most of the halfway serious camera courses out there.

Many thanks in advance.
posted by jason's_planet to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (24 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I'm not familiar with prosumer cameras, but as someone who bought a DSLR in the last year or so, I've noticed 4 big differences:

1. Quick and easy control over the 3 basic variables that change what your photos look like: aperture, ISO and shutter speed. P&S give you limited or no control over these and they are the primary tools for giving different looks out of the same scenes and subjects.

2. A much bigger sensor. This gives you the ability to have shallower depth of field that a P&S will never have. The biggest difference I see between most snapshots vs really engaging photographs is a clear focus on the subject and shallow DoF achieves that really well.

3. Interchangeable lenses. This gives you the flexibility to focus on the kind of things you want to shoot, whether it's fast action, macro, portrait or landscape. There are some really good lenses that do a number of things well, but there's not one that will be best for everything.

4. Low light situations. The reality of P&S is that you'll never get a good-looking shot in any kind of low light because the sensors aren't good enough to get good images without a flash and the flashes they provide are terrible. DSLRs have much higher sensitivity and can thus capture really nice shots in low light without a flash. They also have support for the more sophisticated flash units which will actually provide pleasing illumination.

The main downside of a DSLR is that it's not nearly so portable, so you're not going to bring it on a whim. However, if there are things you know you want to shoot, you can get a decent body for well under $1,000 these days. It's definitely made a big difference in my photography.
posted by Cogito at 12:58 PM on February 3, 2013 [3 favorites]

Best answer: You do not, but using a DSLR does make photography easier, faster, and is often more durable.

I shot P&S cameras for 15 years before switching to a DSLR last year. My photography game has upped significantly in that year, but mostly because I've shot a whole lot more in that time (18K shots).

Advantages (vs P&S, because I never used a NEX-style camera):
- Better controls: Most DSLRs have physical controls for things like aperture, focus, shooting mode, exposure adjustment, etc. As well as easy access to things like ISO, white balance, AF mode, etc. This makes changing things on the fly faster than with a P&S where you usually have to dig through menus.
- More lens: DSLRs have a much wider selection of lenses than P&S (which often don't offer a choice anyways) and mirrorless cameras. Lenses have a pretty big impact on the character of your photos, versatility in low light, distortion, color, etc. This is also a potential money pit.
- Speedier: I switched over from a P&S (which was a pretty good Canon S90) to a DSLR when I realized that I couldn't keep up with 5 year olds at a birthday party. If they were on the run (and they're always on the run) then it was hard to get a good shot before they were out of the frame with a P&S.
- More lighting options: Many P&S don't offer a hot shoe or an easy way to sync up with external flashes or lights. DSLRs open up a whole avenue of lighting options, which can really have a powerful impact on your photography. This was a big deal for me.
- Bigger sensors: There aren't a lot of P&S cameras that have bigger sensors. This can have a big impact on image quality. It's not the be-all-end-all of photography, but it's noticeable. For a good time, skip 35mm-style DSLRs and move directly up to medium or large format photography!

- Money go down the hole: If you think DSLR bodies are pricy, look at the lenses. It's easy to spend money quick. Also, the bodies lose value quickly but the lenses tend to hold value over time. There's also a trap where you feel that if you just spent more money for that one lens or accessory you'd be able to take that amazing photograph...
- Boat anchorism: Are you ready to drag it everywhere? How about that plus three lenses and a flash? Do you have somewhere to keep it?
- Unsubtly: People notice when you use a DSLR. It's big, the lens is big, and it makes a lot of noise. Their reaction might not be what you're looking for.
- Accessory creep: Suddenly you'll need a bag, a bigger computer, a cleaning kit, a flash memory holder, more flash memory, another battery, a flash, a flash modifier, an even bigger bag, a padded case, a tripod... Curb that impulse, but budget for some of it.
- Techno-wow!: It's easy to confuse the technical wizardry possible with DSLRs with actual good photography. People can get caught up trying to stamp out pixel noise or maximize dynamic range or squeeze out sharpness that they forget what makes a photograph compelling even to themselves.

Anyways... get the DSLR. It's a nice tool, and one that most people use when figuring out what they want to do with photography. You can always sell it in favor of different equipment.
posted by Mercaptan at 1:17 PM on February 3, 2013 [3 favorites]

Best answer: It depends on what you mean by "be a real photographer", if you want to do pro jobs then no one will take you seriously if you don't have more serious equipment, regardless of the quality of your output. If you just mean you want to keep taking photos, but want to take better ones, then use whatever makes you happy.

Not all DSLRs are created equal, you need to look at reviews (but don't get too deep on pixel peeping) and decide how much you want to spend.

In any case, once you get past the base models, lenses are much more important to the outcome, and will probably end up costing you an awful lot more (and trap you with a particular brand of camera once you have a sufficient investment).

I've been shooting with DSLRs for a couple of years, including travelling with one. They're annoying to carry around, but when you want to take great photos it's pretty much the only choice.

There's a lot more to taking good photos than the camera. Lighting, composition, and putting yourself into interesting situations where it's worth taking photos, are all things you can play with using whatever camera you have.

DSLR also makes it really easy to take terrible photos - manual controls that let you really express your ideas also let you cock things up in rather embarrassing ways. (Hence I almost never shoot in full manual mode anymore.)

Having the greatest camera around won't guarantee anything - I have a friend with a Canon 1D mk IV (which is quite a high-end model), and many thousands of dollars of gorgeous lenses, he carries the camera everywhere, but hardly takes any photos, so his photos just aren't that great. He's shown me better photos taken on his phone, because he uses it more often. (No I won't ever point this out to him.)

Everything Cogito said was pretty much bang on.
posted by The Monkey at 1:19 PM on February 3, 2013

Best answer: As a professional photographer, I've worked with a ton of different gear over the years. I can absolutely assure you that you do not HAVE to use a dslr to be a "real" photographer - but it might be a darn good idea.
Every tool has its best uses and its limitations.
The compromises you're able/willing to make about your images will help shape your tool choice.

Personally, I've shelved my Canon 1 and 5 series bodies and boxed up a full set of L-glass in favor of working with Fujifilm's X-Pro 1 and X100. Would that be reasonable for everyone? Of course not, but it suits my current work perfectly.

Your challenge here is to first determine what you want. And if you can't do that, then choose the most versatile tool, which is likely a DSLR.
posted by blaneyphoto at 1:22 PM on February 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Hey there, I think people can sometimes rush into this decision, but honestly you sound like you're in a good place to buy a DSLR now, and there are a couple of very good deals around at the moment.

To answer your questions:

What does a DSLR offer me that a point-and-shoot does not?

1. Low light performance. The sensor in even the smallest DSLR or mirrorless camera (like the linked one above, for example) is much, much larger than what you get in compacts. More sensor = more light hitting sensor = less need for flash in darker situations and better performance in low light.

2. Depth of field. Those photos people take where the background has a lovely blur? That's because they are using lens with a low aperture (lik f1.4, 2.8 etc). This means the lens itself is comparitively large, and lets lots of light in. In addition to background blur ("bokeh"), it also helps in low-light situations.

3. Lens selection in general. You have lots more options for lenses and lighting too, for that matter. It's not something you need to rush into, but as you discover what kind of photographer you are, there will be a wide ranges of lenses to help you get the kind of photo you like.

4. Size of pictures. Bigger sensor typically means bigger images, which means you can print up bigger images to put on your walls, gift people etc. If you never do big images on canvas or whatever, you could think about starting.

5. Sometimes, better colour management. DSLR generally more powerful and sophisticated "jpeg engines", which means the default settings and images that come straight from the camera tend to have nice colour.

6. More control in general. There are lots of settings that can change the look and feel of your photos; DSLRs give you access to far more of these than even the most sophisticated point and shoot. likewise, they give you access to proper flashes, that can make a huge difference to some types of photo.

7. No delay, and sometimes better autofocus. These sound trivial, but having a picture arrive as soon as you press the button makes it much, much easier to catch one-off moments than the P&S experience. It's probably my favourite thing about my DSLR. I press the button, the camera takes the picture. It's also ready for the next picture much faster than a P&S.

8. Altogether, these things make it easier to take a good picture. Yes, you will still take tonnes of shit pictures, especially when starting out. The best camera equipment is in your head, and no amount of equipment is substitute for thinking carefully about what kind of picture you want to take, and trying to ensure that external factors (weather, camera settings, composition, etc) match up to that ideal. But the greater control and finer output gives you a greater chance of doing that. You can still do it with a P&S, of course, it's just harder, more restrictive.

And while I'm on the topic, are there some things I should be aware of as potential pitfalls as a new DSLR owner?

GAS - or Gear Acquisition Syndrome. Be wary of hanging out on too many photo forums, especially the brand-orientated ones. Half the people there care more about their equipment than their pictures. You will look at great photos and think, "if only I had that $xxxx piece of kit, I could take that great picture!". Sometimes, this is true, more often, it's not. If you only take a picture that like three times a year, it's especially not. Buy equipment that aligns to the photos you already take, not what you "might" take a lot of, once you have it. And go slow. You only need a regular camera and lens, and maybe a cheap, fastish prime lens starting out. The rest can come with time.

Good luck! It's a lot cheaper to buy into these systems than when I first bought my DSLR, and even more cheap compared to when my Dad bought his first.
posted by smoke at 1:27 PM on February 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: a DSLR is a like a chef's knife.

Lots of not-chefs have them.
Some chefs spend a fortune on theirs.
Some use the same one they've had since they were wee lads or lasses.
Some still use a bajillion gadgets in their kitchens.

It's just a tool that gives them a *lot* of flexibility. Nikon and Canon DSLRs are everywhere, there are a boatload of options, but right out of the box, with the kit lens you will be able to really nice quality shots. You can take them with point and shoots. And some point and shoots are great.

PS: It is a really horrific money sink. And the boat-anchorism thing Mercaptan mentioned is spot on.
posted by DigDoug at 1:28 PM on February 3, 2013

if you want to do pro jobs then no one will take you seriously if you don't have more serious equipment posted by The Monkey

That's a pretty broad generalization - plenty of photographers I know and work with shoot with everything from point and shoots to iPhones to the Canon 1DX and medium format equipment. Its all about the right tool for the job, not "looking the part".
posted by blaneyphoto at 1:28 PM on February 3, 2013

Best answer: What about an SLR? (DSLR minus the digital)

If you want to get into commercial photography, shooting film is not practical, but if this is a hobby, I think you can learn a lot by working with 35mm and 6X7 cameras. They are also pretty cheap.
posted by ablazingsaddle at 1:31 PM on February 3, 2013

Best answer: Oh and Blaney offers a very good point: when deciding what camera to buy, do not underestimate size and how it feels in the hand and in use to you.

Any DSLR you buy is gonna blow your mind after and P&S, I guarantee it. And - despite vociferous oaths by blinded consumer - the models of any brand are, preformance-wise, much of a muchness these days until you start spending serious money. Indeed, the base models often have the same sensor in them so don't spend a lot of time which one is "the best" - they are all great.

Pay attention to how it feels in the hand, do you find the menu system confusing, can you see yourself carrying it around with you everywhere, etc. I think people tend to seriously under-rate the importance of usability of other, more nebulous qualities when assessing cameras.
posted by smoke at 1:31 PM on February 3, 2013

Best answer: Traditionally the main differences between classic point & shoot cameras vs DSLRs are:
  • Easier control over exposure settings
  • A wider range of f/stop settings
  • A ton of lenses to chose from
  • Better manual control over focus
  • Very little shutter lag
  • Longer battery life
  • Saving RAW files
  • A bigger sensor which means:
    • Narrower depth of field
    • Better low light performance
But the camera you linked to is a relatively new type of camera - the mirrorless interchangeable lens camera. The idea is to have the lenses and large sensor of a DSLR, but use the sensor and an electronic viewfinder instead of having to physically move a mirror out of the way every time you take a photo (which is the "reflex" part of "single lens reflex" btw).

It may very well be the future of photography, but so far I believe it's only really competing with entry level DSLRs. I don't know how much of this is because pro photographers are very conservative and how much is that this sort of system legitimately needing time to mature. In theory the main advantages I'd expect SLRs to retain are:
  • Longer battery life (framing a picture in an optical viewfinder uses 0 power)
  • Less shutter lag
while mirrorless cameras could have a number of advantages
  • Smaller
  • Brighter low-light viewfinder
  • Quieter
Bear in mind that as with DSLRs, lenses are not interchangeable between manufacturers - so when you choose one of these you're buying into a system of accessories as much as you are the individual camera.

A lot of beginning courses will focus heavily on the technical side of it, and how to use those to create the image you want. So having a wide range of f/stops and manual focus at your fingertips is important. I would expect the camera you linked to be fine in this regard.

I'd expect for a photography class the camera you linked to would probably work fine. I personally would start with a cheap DSLR, from Canon or Nikon. The Rebel T4i with a similar lens is only $1 more expensive. But go to a camera store and see how a bunch of them feel in your hand first. Also, if you do get a DSLR, consider going back a generation and buy a used one, and put the extra money into more or better lenses.
posted by aubilenon at 1:43 PM on February 3, 2013

Oh, also, to address the question above the break:

People who haven't seen your pictures will often judge you based on your gear. Because that's all they can see. But for the most part getting a better camera or more expensive lenses is about removing the obstacles that prevent you from getting the shots you want. It doesn't make you a better photographer.

"Real" photographers should be judged on their work. Pointing your camera at the right things is a lot more important than which camera you point at them.
posted by aubilenon at 2:01 PM on February 3, 2013

Best answer: My philosophy has been, if you are into imagery - if you think of photography as a craft, and especially if you plan on taking classes - get a camera that will teach you how to do this. Manual dSLR's are the way to go. Do you need a dSLR to be a real photographer? Of course not. You could become famous for taking pictures on a potato. But it is a good starting point because of the convergence of quality, technical control and creative flexibility.

If you really want to do yourself a favor, be humble - do not buy any zoom lenses and start with a 50mm only. This will teach you how to move your feet. You will learn what a lens can or can't do. Failure is a huge part of learning how to photograph well.

I can tell you as someone who has photographed for years, I splurged quite a bit on new equipment in the beginning and ended up reselling a lot of it. The end result is the equipment that I am left with - you would have to pry it off my cold, dead fingers. There is only so much that can be said about buying "the right" equipment - it's an intensely personal decision. If you do buy good equipment, chances are it will hold its value a little bit better. And other photographers are always looking for discounts.

I currently own a 16-35mm, a 50mm, an 85mm, and a 100mm macro. My go-to lenses are the 100mm and shockingly, my relatively cheap 50mm/1.4 has by far been the best bang for my buck. It's been so good I'm considering upgrading to the f/1.2 version. If you are not poor and you like Canon I would go so far as to recommend the full-frame 5D Mark II, which at something like $1,400 used, is a hell of a steal.
posted by phaedon at 2:13 PM on February 3, 2013

If I don't know what I'm going out after, or if I'm going to be out for a day or more, despite my best endeavours my camera bag (which is now a rucksack) weighs in at 11 kg and has to be insured for £3500. If I'm flying, it *is* my hand luggage. And that's just my body, one tele zoom, one super wide, one macro, one 50mm prime, flash, chargers and cleaning kit. You can add another couple of kilos and a headache for a tripod.

It's great fun, works flawlessly (at least I'm the limiting factor, always) and is all bombproof. But it's not agile.
posted by cromagnon at 4:07 PM on February 3, 2013

Best answer: Just to add, I shoot with both an NEX-7 and D800 along with a variety of other film cameras. The NEX is a very fine camera. The only "prosumer" aspect that slightly lets it down is it's not a water resistant set up. I use it (and the original NEX-5) extensively for street and documentary work. A lot of it in lot light and dusty conditions. There's essentially no shutter lag if you set it up correctly.

I love my D800 and I have a ton of gold-ring glass. It takes luscious pictures. If I wanted to look like a photographer, I could load it up with a big lens and a speed light. But you know? None of that matters. It's the shot.

I think the essence of the decision ties in with the new direction you want to go. If it's studio or portrait work, then the dSLR will have significant advantages. Landscape might be a wash unless you go very high end. Anything dealing with people in candid, close in work? I'd carry my NEX.
posted by michswiss at 4:56 PM on February 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: popped in to reccomend the nikon d5100...prob the lowest price nikon with all the 'pro' features you'll need for a photo class...lots of 'pros' (INCREDIBLE low light performance, tons of options and controls, relatively good (5fps) burst shooting, and nikon's lowest price model with 1080p video recording...if you think thats something you'll want to try) only one 'con'...no built-in focus motor (older autofocus cameras (and higher-end, more$$$, newer ones) had the focus motor in the camera body...now they're putting them in the lens...this limits the number of (older) lenses that will auto-focus...though, TBH, this hasn't been an issue for me, and most beginner classes will focus (ha) on doing as much manually as possible...it's not an issue for me because i sneer at autofocus anyway...i want to focus on what I think is important, not what some computer chip does) (also, i prefer nikon b/c the f-mount is a few years older than canon's mount (1950s vs 1960s) and thus theres a bunch more groovy old lenses out there...but canons are good too)

one thing you probably will encounter in photo class that you can't do with a P&S is what I like to call 'exotic optics' ...filters, bellows, tilt-shift lenses, 'movements', pinhole photography...etc etc...it's the kind of stuff that the class will probably provide just to play with...so you have an idea about what's out there...and there's a lot out there...'accessory creep' is def. a real danger, lol, there's a lot of accessories out there (like kitchen gadgets) that do just one or two 'tricks', but are invaluable if you want to do those 'tricks'...and most of these simply don't exist for P&S, or even 'interchangeable lens' smaller cameras...

Some examples from my collection:
-special effects filters (smaller cameras will generally only have polarizer or IR filters, mainly just for lens protection... 50mm or so filter diameter on up (like on a DSLR) will greatly increase whats out there...also, def hit the 2nd hand camera shop...you can pick up some of these for a song...$5 or so) STAR FILTER!!!! (AKA CS or Cross Screen) ...i use this all the time and love it...works best on things with a few hot point of light, like xmas lights...not so great on glitter...just gets kind of blurry...too many points of light...they make these in 2,4,6,8,and 12-point 'stars'...i use the CS or 4-point the most...less 'busy'.
I also have a linear diffractor that shoots 2 rainbows out of every light source and a circular one that makes rainbows around them, 2-tone and solid color filters for tinting sky and earth...and etc etc...a lot of people insist that this is better done in photoshop, but i like doing it the old-fashioned way...it just looks more 'real'...and thus more actually 'fantastic'

-a 10-20mm super wide angle flat-field zoom lens (around $400, yikes, but i actually use it a lot) it's like a fisheye without all the distortion...i do a lot of interior photography and its really the only way to shoot small spaces like 1/2 bathrooms...it has 110degree field of view, so you can stand in a corner and get both walls...lenses like this just don't exist for P&S and 3/4" cameras

-bellows. (that accordion thing that goes between camera and lens) they're hard to find (got mine on ebay) and hard to learn, but amazingly versatile...they allow you to do 'movements' (shifting and tilting the axis of the lens relative to the film plane) you can: take a picture of a mirror without being in it, correct the perspective when shooting tall buildings (know that poster of the empire state bldg? the one where it looks all tall and straight? thats what they used), make big things look tiny (google image search:tilt-shift photography), keep tiny things in focus (by adjusting the plane of focus), do ultra-closeup photos with a lens reverser (putting the lens on backwards), and (with an adapter) re-photograph slides and negatives...

the toys on my 'wish list':
-a pinhole 'lens'
-a 500 or 100mm mirror lens...the 'bokeh' on these can be really trippy...
-a slide rail...it's a tripod attachment that lets you slide the camera back and forth a few inches...for making 3D steroscopic pairs

buuuuut....yeah the real thing that you want a DSLR for is direct control of exposure time/aperture/ISO...the way those work together to create depth-of-field is the Most Important thing to understand about photography...well, that and knowing EXACTLY WHEN to push the button ;) ...the rest is just icing on the cake...but hey, icing is tasty too.
posted by sexyrobot at 6:32 PM on February 3, 2013

NY Times photog Damon Winter did really serious, award-winning work on the war in Afghanistan, using an iPhone and the hipstamatic app....just another example of the fact that it's not the camera, but the photographer.

A camera that lets you have more control helps your photography because it gives you choices, and that is what photography is--what you choose to photograph, the particular second you choose to press the shutter, just how much you choose to include in the frame. Thinking about those choices is another way to take your photos to the next level, but totally separate from the question of the dslr.
posted by iahtl at 7:03 PM on February 3, 2013

Best answer: People have given you good info. Just to answer your foundation question more explicitly, the reason why most of those photography classes require a DSLR is simple. In order to learn about photography, you need to learn about exposure. The professor is going to teach you about exposure by having you adjust ISO, aperture, and shutter speed. So you need a camera that allows you to control these things.

Most point-&-shoot cameras don't. A few, like the RX100, do.

I took an introductory-but-serious photography class at MassArt using a point-&-shoot camera that was relatively sophisticated but didn't allow full manual control. As I recall, I could adjust its ISO but not aperture or shutter speed. This prevented me from doing one of the assignments, but I still got a ton out of the class and ultimately, after giving myself a few months to process what I'd learned, I felt a lot more qualified to choose a more expensive camera (eg, a DSLR) that was right for me.

Good luck with your photography.
posted by cribcage at 7:11 PM on February 3, 2013

Best answer: The best camera is the one you have on you.

I've got a decent micro4/3 camera which sits in a drawer when I'm not on vacation.

But I rather wish I had a tweakable point and shoot like the DSC-RX100, which I'd lug in my backpack everywhere. Either as a replacement or supplement.

If I were taking a class I'd buy, borrow or rent a DSLR to maximize what I learned.
posted by sebastienbailard at 9:43 PM on February 3, 2013

Best answer: popped in to reccomend the nikon d5100

I would counter-recommend the D3200. Roughly the same price, but has the newer generation processor on it. The sensor is newer and has significantly better dynamic range. The only thing the D3200 lacks is the articulated LCD screen, as far as I can tell.

Lots of photographers say things about how the equipment doesn't matter, that it comes down to the person using it and the artistic choices they make. That's mostly true, but it is much easier for them to say that when they have used and built experience on a SLR camera.

My experience is that even if you never change a setting and always leave the camera on automatic mode, you are going to get better shots with a DSLR than anything else. Simply because the sensor is so much better, because the brains of the camera are so much smarter, and because the lenses are so much better. A $500 pro-sumer camera with all the bells and whistles will approach the quality of a DSLR, but that's the best it can do. For $100 more, you can get a D3200 with a kit lens that blows the quality away. Add a $200 35mm f/1.8 lens and you can do almost anything with that camera.

It's the same thing as with any other pursuit that involves equipment. There are bare minimums required to get good, and beyond that only skill matters. You aren't going to make good music on a toy guitar that can't be tuned properly. But your music isn't going to be any better playing on a $5000 Martin versus a $100 used instrument.


- Cost, and all the things that go with that. Will it get stolen, will I break it, if I drop it will my heart stop? What if I buy a Nikon and Nikon lenses, and then decide I like Canon better?

- Convenience. It's not worth having a fancy camera if you don't feel like carrying it around.

- Complication. This is one that I've had trouble with. Once I went down the rabbit hole of tweaking the settings and using various manual controls, I got stuck with *having* to do that. If I set the camera up for indoor shots, I have to remember to change the settings again for outdoor shots.

But the upside is that you aren't going to get shots like this with a point-n-shoot. I took this while playing with the dog. I had the settings mostly wrong and the dog was moving all over the place. But having a good camera allowed me to get the shot where a lesser one wouldn't have. And a lesser one wouldn't have had that nice narrow depth of field.
posted by gjc at 6:07 AM on February 4, 2013

Best answer: OK, let's walk it back a bit.

SLR means "Single Lens Reflex" - you're looking down the lightpath coming into the camera through a series of mirrors and/or optical prisms. A DSLR is a digital camera that's a single lens reflex. That's it.

Until recently, interchangeable lens camera systems, the type favored by "the pros" were all DSLR's, but in two distinct varieties:

- Full-Frame (the sensor is the same size as the old 35MM film frame)
- APS-C and 4/3 sized sensor - the sensor is smaller and therefore cheaper, but also susceptible to a number of subtle image quality disadvantages.

Non-DSLR cameras typically had very tiny sensors, exacerbating those image quality issues, even "prosumer" ones with lots of manual controls. The issues are noise, chromatic fringing, softness due to sensitivity to non-telecentric optical designs, and an overbroad depth of field, preventing the photographer limiting the area of focus with aperture selection. More, most compacts are designed with soft, slow lenses (slow meaning the aperture is small, and requires longer shutter speeds to compensate.) The lens situation is improving on some high end compacts, but the other issues surrounding the small sensor remain.

But, now some interesting things have come onto the market in the past couple years, most notably:

- Large sensor compact cameras like the Sigma DP, Sony RX100 and Fuji x100. These can take photos the match of any APS-C DSLR. The Sony RX1 fixed lens compact is the match of anything this side of a medium format digital rig (tho it's priced like a full-frame DSLR).

- Mirrorless camera systems. Some of these have a sensor too small for adequate image quality (Pentax Q, Nikon V), others are every inch a match for their SLR brethren. Micro Four Thirds, Sony NEX, Fuji X-mount - these are professional systems that can produce professional results. The Fuji cameras in particular are going to be a cut above in terms of image quality (and they certainly charge for it).

You can put together a rig that gives you "professional" results, with new equipment, for less than $500. That's the cost of an entry-level APS DSLR and kit lens from Canon or Nikon, or a Micro 4/3'ds system from Olympus or Panasonic. You can invest in sharper lenses, fancier flash units or better bodies as interest and budget allows.
posted by Slap*Happy at 6:13 AM on February 4, 2013

Best answer: I would counter-recommend the D3200.

omglol...you see? this technology moves fast...i guess i missed a generation...checked nikon's site and now there's a d5200 too...sigh...camera bodies are CONSTANTLY improving...making the last generation much cheaper in the process...and resale value is def. a thing to consider in photography...lenses, however, keep their value much much much longer...every lens ive ever re-sold ive sold for equal or greater than ive paid for it...

(didn't check the specs on the 3200, but still reccommend the 5100...being last gen, you can get it for much less...amazon lists it 100 less than that 'prosumer camera' you linked to)

aannnd...what slap*happy said...being able to see DIRECTLY THROUGH THE LENS IS EXTREEEEEMELY IMPORTANT!!!....that 'prosumer camera' has no viewfinder...you DO NOT WANT. mainly because
1) what if its super-sunny or you're in an even brighter situation...how do you see what you're shooting? (you can always stop down the lens...you can't outcompete arc-welding with an LCD)
2) you will NEVER get as sharp a manual focus on a digital screen...it's impossible...ask whoever teaches your class about 'focusing screens'
posted by sexyrobot at 9:18 AM on February 4, 2013

Best answer: It's true that camera bodies are constantly being updated, creating a used market of barely-outdated-yet-excellent bodies. However, there's some nuance to figuring out the different product lines. It's not as if Canon and Nikon each have one pro model and one consumer model, and then you just pick between the two. It's more complicated than that, and depending on your style of shooting there might be very good reason to choose a new camera (eg, Canon 6D) over an older yet higher-tier model (eg, Canon 5D Mark II) at comparable prices.

You asked about classes, and as we said, most introductory classes require a camera that can be controlled manually, and there's good reason for that. But most introductory classes will also advertise a caution to the effect of, "Don't go out and spend a lot of money on equipment before taking this class." And again, there is good reason for that. You'll be in a better position to choose from the myriad options when you're standing in a bit deeper water, so to speak.
posted by cribcage at 11:53 AM on February 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: aannnd...what slap*happy said...being able to see DIRECTLY THROUGH THE LENS IS EXTREEEEEMELY IMPORTANT!!!....that 'prosumer camera' has no viewfinder...you DO NOT WANT. mainly because
1) what if its super-sunny or you're in an even brighter situation...how do you see what you're shooting? (you can always stop down the lens...you can't outcompete arc-welding with an LCD)
2) you will NEVER get as sharp a manual focus on a digital screen...it's impossible...ask whoever teaches your class about 'focusing screens'

That's not what I meant to imply - kind of the opposite. To clarify -

1) Modern screens are pretty good in sunlight (and optional viewing shades are popular aftermarket items), and some of the higher end models have built-in or optional high resolution electronic viewfinders.

2) The mirror-prisms that low-end DSLR's use offer a dim and soft view of the scene, and manual focus can be difficult through the viewfinder. Old manual focus film SLR's had bright porro prisms and focus aids like split-screen and microprism focus screens, features modern systems usually lack. Mirrorless systems and large-sensor compacts offer picture-in-picture magnification, focus-peeking, edge-luminance or other focus aids not available through the viewfinder of most SLR's (tho most have it via "live view" - in which your DSLR is effectively acting like a mirrorless system.)

Some people do prefer the "live" look of a DSLR to the "canned" look of a mirrorless camera - try 'em both and see.
posted by Slap*Happy at 1:16 PM on February 4, 2013

Response by poster: I think I've just had an (at least) halfway serious camera course by posting this question!

Wonderful answers! Thank you all very much to everyone who took the time to share their expertise!

Thanks again!
posted by jason's_planet at 4:49 PM on February 4, 2013

« Older Sudden, odd case of insomnia--help me sleep!   |   Comparison of Virgin Atlantic and American... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.