Why buy a digital single lens reflex camera?

Digital single lens reflex cameras offer many of the same options as compact digital cameras: control of aperture, shutter speed, scene modes and changeable ISO.

Digital SLR CameraWhile compact digital cameras have gotten better through the years, there are things about them that can be frustrating for a serious photographer.

Two primary issues are difficulty of focusing in low light and the need to wait to take the next picture because of focus lag.

Why I bought a DSLR

Before buying a DSLR, I often missed wonderful photo opportunities when using a compact digital camera. With a compact, I couldn’t consistently click at the peak moment. I had to wait while a picture was being saved to the memory card or the flash was busy recycling.

Speaking of flash, some of my compact digital cameras do not have hot shoes for external flashes that could be bounced off the ceiling, dooming me to inevitable red-eye problems.

DSRLs excel in low light

Another problem I had with compact digital cameras was getting good pictures in low light. (Note: some of the newer premium compact cameras have larger sensors and perform better in low light, though still not on par with a DSLR).

Unlike DSLRs, most compacts have limited light sensitivity. Pictures taken at ISO numbers higher than 100 can show excessive visual noise, colored speckles that would be the equivalent of “grain” on film.  Besides, my pets aren’t thrilled with flash, so I prefer to photograph them with available light. My DSLRs have much better image quality at higher ISO.

Other benefits of DSLRs

I yearned for a camera that would have subjects in good focus, but beautifully blur the background, know as bokeh. This effect can be difficult to achieve with a compact digital camera because it has a deep area of focus (depth of field).

I also yearned for a camera with which I could use different lenses to capture a wide range of subjects, for example, a wide angle lens for mountain vistas, a telephoto to shoot dog agility, and a macro to capture insect life and flowers in my garden.

A digital single lens reflex camera meets those needs, plus offers additional benefits:

  • DSLRs have very fast shot-to-shot time that enables you to capture sports and other fast motion activities much more easily than with a compact digital camera.
  • If you photograph wildlife that is far away from the camera and need super telephoto capability, your best images come from a DSLR.
  • If you like to photograph tiny things that you want to look large and have stunning detail, nothing beats a DSLR with a good macro lens.

Shortcomings of Digital Single Lens Reflex cameras

Digital single lens reflex cameras are larger and bulkier…and more expensive…than compacts. If you think you’ll find one with the perfect lens to take all the pictures you want to take, forget it!  You will need more than one lens!

For DSLRs that lack a “Live View,” you can’t use the LCD for composing a picture. Even for DSLRs with Live View, framing a shot via the LCD is near impossible when hand-holding a camera with a heavy lens attached. You must hold the camera to your eye and compose and shoot using the viewfinder. On those cameras, the LCD is used primarily to review photos already taken.

Today’s DSLRs are also audibly NOISY. The combination of the mirror slap* and shutter sound are enough to send a cat flying.

*A digital single reflex camera has a mirror that snaps up momentarily when taking a photo so light can hit the sensor. When the mirror moves out of the way, it makes a slapping sound.

DSLR challenges

Before investing in a digital single lens reflex camera there are a few other things you should know:

DSLR images require more editing

Straight out of the camera, images require more editing than I have with compact digital camera images. While there are auto modes on DSLRs and images can be saved as jpg files, it is much better to take the images in raw mode. Don’t be scared about processing raw images – it’s a lot easier than the directions might make you believe.

Obtaining deep depth of field is more difficult

Using a large aperture, such as f/2.8, on a compact digital camera gives me great depth of field, the area of a picture that’s in focus from near to far. Using the same aperture with my DSLR will give me less area in focus. For example, when photographing my dog only his nose and eyes are in focus. The rest of his body will be a blur.

The sensor may require cleaning

Unless a DSLR has a built-in anti-dust system, the sensor inside the camera has to be cleaned!  Volumes are written about different products for performing this scary process. I’ve changed my DSLR lenses hundreds of times, opening up the sensor to dreaded dust spots, each time I did it.

I must admit I’ve cleaned sensors only three times. If there is a spot on an image, I fix it very easily with my photo editing program. For the faint-hearted, you can have the sensor professionally cleaned.

Before buying a DSLR

Before switching from a compact to a digital single lens reflex camera, also consider the following:

  • Good lenses aren’t cheap, so it pays to do research. I visit the DSLR forums at dpreview and also check the reviews at Fred Miranda’s site. The advantage of buying a good lens is that it will retain much of its value if you decide to sell.
  • Some lenses are more useful than others, so choose carefully!  Currently I’m finding my 17-55mm* f/2.8 lens the most widely useful of any I own. [Types of DSLR lenses]
  • It helps to love post processing (editing) photos. Images don’t always come out of the camera the way you want them. Being able to edit creatively and competently has saved many a shot that might otherwise have been discarded.
  • Not surprisingly, many DSLRs and lenses weigh a whole lot more than compact digital cameras!

If you are an adventurous sort who wants to get into digital photography as well as photo editing more deeply, a DSLR and a good editing program are definitely for you.

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