What advantages do SLR cameras have compared to other types of cameras? Is it worth buying a SLR camera? Is a SLR the right choice for me?
NOTE 1: To give some context, this article is aimed at amateur photographers looking to make an improvement in the quality of their photos, which can be achieved in the technical part or in the artistic area. Many users start with a compact or bridge camera and they consider at some point to switch to a SLR, so we will focus more on the advantages of SLRs with respect to these types of cameras. But we must keep in mind that in the market are high-end compact cameras with incredible performance, at the level of a SLR.
NOTE 2: What we discuss here about SLR cameras is also applicable to EVIL cameras (mirrorless with interchangeable lens). From the point of view of the image quality there is practically no differences. At a professional level the variations can be in the use type that a photographer needs (ergonomics, number of buttons and dials, battery life, focus speed for extreme cases like sports photography), but many professionals are already working with mirrorless equipment. For an amateur user the choice of a SLR or EVIL will be based on the usage criteria or personal preferences.
Reasons for Choosing a SLR
In general, a SLR camera is better than a compact (point and shoot / bridge) because:
– You have the possibility to use the lens that best suits the scene you want to capture. There are plenty of options among lenses, each one for a specific use.
For example for taking photos of birds you will need long range (telephoto) lenses, for very small items it is convenient to have a specific lens for macro photography, for certain scenes you will need a wide-angle one…
Some compact cameras (and especially super zoom cameras) include lenses with a very large focal range (zoom of 20x, 30x, 60x…). This is equivalent to carrying a lot of lenses in a single camera, but we must keep in mind that the bigger the focal length range of a lens, the optical quality will be usually worse. That is, in a prime lens (fixed focal length) optics can be optimized for that focal to achieve a very good quality. In a zoom lens (variable focal length) there is always a compromise between the range of focal length to cover and optical quality. SLR zoom lenses normally have a focal range of 3x (the largest focal is 3 times the smallest one) to get an acceptable optical quality throughout the zoom range. As the zoom range is increased it becomes more complicated to maintain the quality compromise.
That is why the philosophy of SLRs (cameras with interchangeable lenses in general) is to use the right lens for each scene to be photographed.
This does not mean that you must have all the possible lenses, but rather having 2-3 lenses to cover most of the different circumstances.
– In SLR cameras you have a total control of the camera options, the classic manual mode. But also the camera itself is able to give more information about the conditions of the scene and different options to consider, specially when lightning conditions are problematic.
– The sensor in SLR cameras is bigger and of better quality than sensors usually included in compact cameras (except for some high-end compacts).
To be specific, a better sensor is one that manages to capture more light in less time (sensitivity), together with less noise and better color accuracy.
The sensor quality is particularly noticeable when the scene conditions are not ideal. For example, when you need to capture a moving target with low-light. See how the sensor of a digital camera works (link).
For many users, one of the important quality improvements when going for a SLR is to be able to take indoors photographs with natural light, without a flash. Conditions in which a compact would offer pictures with very poor quality.
– The SLR sensor size combined with the use of wide aperture lenses will also allow you to play with the depth of field. For example, to get a blurry effect on the scene background, one of the artistic resources most appreciated in photography, particularly for portraits.
When an amateur photographer first uses a SLR with a bright lens (wide aperture of the diaphragm) undergoes a radical change. It opens up a whole world of artistic possibilities that are very difficult (if not impossible) to achieve with a compact camera.
– Faster auto focus. SLRs cameras use an approach based on an optical principle, Phase Detection Autofocus, which is much faster than the technique to focus by contrast used on compact ones.
The fast autofocus allows us to quickly point and shoot moving objects. For sports event photography this is a key feature.
Even more important than focus speed is the accuracy. The ability to get a sharp and perfectly focused photo when lightning conditions are not ideal. It is very frustrating to arrive home, start looking at the pictures on the computer and realize that most are slightly out of focus or blurry. No camera can guarantee 100% accuracy in autofocus, but SLRs usually present a big advantage over compact ones.
Regarding EVIL cameras, the professional SLRs still have an advantage on this, but when considering the mid-range and entry level ones the difference is not really noticeable.
– Optical viewfinder. This feature, although initially is the one that gives the name to a reflex camera (what the photographer sees is the same that arrives at the sensor through the lens) is perhaps not really important at present time. Anyway, to look through the optical viewfinder still gives a different feeling, rather than looking at the electronic display included in every digital camera.
Criteria for choosing SLR versus mirrorless cameras (EVIL)
As we have mentioned, considering the technical performance and image quality there are very few differences between SLR and EVIL cameras.
Regarding the battery, SLR cameras generally present a much longer life than EVIL ones, as the latter make a more intensive use of the sensor and electronics and their batteries are usually smaller for body size reasons.
In the entry and mid ranges, SLR cameras are normally more complete, as they include more controls, buttons and dials. As they are bigger, there is more physical space to distribute these elements and the grip is usually better on SLRs than for the smaller mirrorless cameras. In these ranges, the price of SLRs is in general below the one of mirrorless cameras given the same features on them.
Nowadays, for these intermediate ranges the SLR would be the safest option, so to speak. In other words, it is a kind of camera format with well established ergonomics, great battery life, a system of very fast and accurate focus, a very wide catalog of lenses (including second hand) …
Many users prefer the optical viewfinder of SLRs and do not get used to rely only on the electronic display (although the electronic viewfinders have evolved a lot since the first models). Other users prefer electronic viewers because they offer more information about the scene (image histogram, exposure and depth of field in real time). This is a matter of personal choice and the best is to try both options to see which is more comfortable for you.
If your priority is to minimize the size and weight of your equipment, then mirrorless may be a better choice for you. But note that this difference is only significant when small lenses are being used.
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