Buying Guide - DSLR v/s Point & Shoot and What about Mirrorless?
This question is very common among new camera buyers who does not have in depth knowledge of the pros and cons of these three types. Three years ago, the question was what to buy - a DSLR or compact point & shoot, but a third category has emerged since last three years namely Mirrorless Cameras. There were some advanced compact camera systems, which still exist, and are called as Bridge Cameras which are nothing but the advanced versions of compact point and shoot cameras. The bridge cameras are mainly used by DSLR owners as a 2nd camera or backup camera for everyday shooting and hence they want it to be light and preferably pocketable. So, camera companies started developing these bridge cameras. Looking at the success of these new systems, two companies Olympus and Panasonic came up with the idea of mirrorless cameras which is now taken up by almost every camera manufacturers. So, going back to the main question - which camera do I need and what features should I look in the available cameras to suit my needs. Let me tell you one thing, "There is no perfect camera in the market and it will never be". But, there are plenty of cameras with many good features which could fulfill your requirements more or less. So, let me start to describe the differences one by one.
The most important part of the camera is its sensor which detects light photons and converts them into electrical signal which is then converted into a digital image by camera electronics. The major difference between a compact point & shoot cameras and DSLRs lies in their sensor size - DSLRs have almost 4 times bigger sensor than compact point & shoots. The sensor size is an important parameter in deciding the quality of images you get as larger sensors have more collecting area which means it collects more light for a given situation. This is a critical issue when you want to capture a good photo in dark conditions like shooting in a dawn/dusk or indoor shooting. So, for such low light conditions, DSLRs are far better than the compact point & shoots. DSLRs collect as much as 13 times more light than the compact cameras as they have bigger sensors.
Large sensors have one more advantage - they separate the background and the object quite easily. What is this background separation and why should you bother it at all? The advanced cameras can defocus everything except the object on or near the focus plane.This separates the object from background and/or foreground and makes the object more prominent and obvious. This is real boon for photography. If you are shooting your spouce in a crowded market then DSLRs will help you like anything. :) But, of course nothing is perfect in this world and there are some disadvantages of large sensors as well. Big sensors require big lenses which makes the system heavy. And some times small sensors have some advantages in some situations like they provide small field of view which is useful to grab small details (in non technical language - have large zoom) while DSLRs require very large lens for this. Also, sometimes the ability not to defocus the background is useful in some situations like macro photography for which special techniques are required on DSLRs.
The second important part of the camera is its lens - rather lens is "The Most Important" part in photography. As you might be knowing it already that the DSLRs have ability to change their lenses while compact cameras come with a fixed lens. One would argue why at all one would want to change the lens of a camera and indeed many entry level DSLR holders have only one lens with them and they do not use the ability of their DSLRs fully. One can certainly take good photographs with the kit lens that comes with the DSLR camera, but it is not the ideal lens made on Earth. Lens and sensor have some of their features common - like camera's ability to separate the object from background is decided by both - the sensor and the lens. Also, the camera's ability to capture good photos in low light is decided by both. You can't change the sensor, but you can change the lens. So, if there is possibility to change the lens in your camera then you have more control over these two parameters. And no lens is perfect - lenses have some defects of which some could be minimised at the expense of others. So, quality of lenses vary a lot and you will require different lenses for different situations. And there are some lenses made for special purposes. So, again DSLRs are more versatile than compact point and shoot in terms of usability of different lenses.
There are vast majority of other differences like good quality optical view finder, more control over differet camera parameters like ISO, Aperture, Exposure, Flash, focussing mode, autofocus technique, etc which are somewhat less stricking than the Sensor and the Lens (apart from this, the compacts now provide many more controls than they usually did few years back). And there is one stricking difference which is on the negative side for DSLRs and obviously on the most positive side for compacts is the size and the weight (and for that matter the price). So, we see, there are huge differences in two camera systems. Camera companies came up then with a new idea - "Let's develope a compact DSLR". It sounds great and simple but, it was a challange to make DSLRs small and yet make it efficient enough for the use of professional camera users. The companies invested huge amounts money in research and developement for this and the new camera system was born and that is "The Mirrorless Cameras".
So what is the mirrorless camera?
The autofocus technique of compacts uses sensor information to focus on the object. It uses iterative process to achieve the focus. This works quite well for small sensors, but takes a lot of time to focus for large sensors. So, DSLRs don't use this system. They use a mirror to split the light - one part goes to the view finder and one part to the dedicated autofocus sensors (which are small). This autofocus technique is out of the scope to explain in this article but, I can only tell you that it is very fast as it tells the lens exactly how much it should move to get the focus (does not require any iterative process at all). This mirror and autofocus technique takes huge amount of space and it is bulky which makes DSLRs heavy and big. So, companies came up with an idea to use the autofocus technique used in compacts for DSLR sensors. This was not possible until the computer processor technology got advanced. So, mirrorless cameras have all the prominent features of DSLRs i.e. big sensor and lens interchangability in much smaller and lighter bodies. This revolutionised the DSLR world. Mirrorless market is growing day by day and at some time it will surely make entry level DSLRs disappear from the market.
So, I would definitely suggest anyone now to buy a mirrorless camera than entry level DSLR because there lies the future. Now, let's come to real world situation. The mirrorless camera system is comparatively new and hence does not have some of the prime features of DSLRs yet though they are on the horizon. For example, the lens selection for mirrorless system is limited but is growing rapidly. But, this may not bother you at the initial stage for sure and by the time you will require one - there might be one available by then for your needs. The other drawback of some mirrorless cameras is lack of view finder. View finder is important for photography and is critical for day time shooting when LCD screen is barely visible. But, there are new mirrorless cameras in the market that have an electronic view finder which is in my opinion better than the optical one in DSLRs. The other real life situation that might bother someone is that the big shots in DSLR market i.e. Cannon and Nikon have very recently came up with thier mirrorless cameras, but they are not at all competative with the mirrorless cameras made by companies like Sony, Olympus, Fuji, Panosonic, Samsung, etc. The leader companies in mirrorless market are Olympus and Sony which have great camera systems in the market.
Compact point & shoot:
Pros: Cheap, light, small
Cons: Small sensors, less controls
Pros: Large sensors, adaptable to various lenses, good controls over paramters, fast autofocus
Cons: Heavy and big, pricy
Pros: Large Sensors, adaptable to various lenses, controls better than point & shoot, light and small
Cons: autofocus speed between DSLRs and compacts, less control buttons/dials than DSLRs, bigger and heavy compared to compacts
It is not possible here to describe pros and cons of one mirrorless system over other and I would write a separate article to describe it in comprehensive manner. But, I hope, I have made my point clear that mirrorless cameras have clear advantage on entry level DSLRs and I will explain you in my next article that there are some mirrorless cameras which compete even with pro level DSLRs. So, keep tuned with my blog for next articles. Comments and critics are welcome.