SLR vs All-in-one: Which way to go?
By Shawn Barnett
The digital camera market has changed in the last three years. Quality digital cameras that used to cost $500 are now available for between $200 and $300. Digital SLRs that used to cost well above $2,000 without a lens are now available between $700 and $1,000, complete with lens. The former high-end prosumer digicam that used to occupy the $600 to $1,200 range has been eclipsed, with most users interested in upgrading their digital camera now looking at either a Long Zoom Family digicam (generally available for between $400 and $500) or a Digital SLR.
So the question is, with such quality and variety now within your economic means, which is for you? An SLR with interchangeable lenses and a big sensor, or a highly-capable All-in-one model that packs loads of functionality into a more compact package? The answer depends on several factors, and you need to know a few basics about both All-in-one digicams and digital SLRs before you can choose what you really need. The separate categories do exist for a reason, as we'll see.
(I'm using the term "All-in-one" here to refer to the typical consumer digicams that have the lens built into their body, rather than as a detachable unit, as with SLRs. For convenience, I'll use the terms "All-in-one" and "digicam" interchangeably.)
Some Quick Points for Readers in a Hurry
In the text below, I go into the advantages and disadvantages of both All-in-one digicams and SLRs in a fair bit of depth. If you're on the horns of this dilemma, you'll want to read on. For those who want to get all the answers up front, I've summarized key pro/con points for each type of camera in the two tables below.
The Digital SLR
Interchangeable lenses, faster focus, and larger sensors
Through the 1990s, the popularity and quality of small point-and-shoot 35mm cameras pretty well drove the film SLR camera out of most people's minds. The small cameras were pocketable, fun to use, and produced pleasing pictures. That trend continued as folks began switching to digital cameras around the turn of the millennium for a very simple reason: Digital SLRs were priced from between $5,000 to $15,000. Smaller pocket-sized digital cameras usually included zoom lenses and a flash built right in, just like their film-based predecessors, offered good quality, and gave people unprecedented control over their images. They could email and print their own pictures, as well as post them to the Web, all with a camera that was small enough to fit in a handbag or pocket.
The price of the digital SLR changed dramatically with the introduction of the Canon Digital Rebel for $1,000, and since then other manufacturers have brought out competing cameras in an attempt to revive interest in their own SLR lens and accessory catalogs. Now users can have access to better lenses and larger sensors, with all the improved speed and quality these bring.
That 35mm point-and-shoot camera I mentioned earlier had an advantage that today's digicam does not: it used the same 35mm film as the SLRs of the day. Unlike the 110 and Disc cameras of the past, these little cameras had the same large surface area to work with, and as long as the lens got everything focused on the film plane, the images looked comparable to SLR images (at least to the consumer eye). Modern digicam sensors on the other hand are very small, some only a few millimeters across. While they work remarkably well for their size, the simple fact is that the larger pixels on digital SLR sensors are physically able to gather more light per pixel. More light means the camera can make a better-informed decision about what color and intensity to assign that pixel when building the image. Better decisions mean a more accurate final image.
When you take pictures with any digital camera at high ISO and zoom in on the image, you'll notice little off-color dots in areas where there should be solid color. This is called noise. Blue skies will usually be speckled with multiple colors and light and dark areas where there should be only blue. This noise enters our pictures because internal electrical noise within the camera and sensor circuitry is competing with the brightness information coming from the scene.
Every electronic image sensor, regardless of size, has some variability in its signal from pixel to pixel. Some of this is consistent in each pixel, and can be mapped-out to reduce the impact, but some of it changes based on environmental factors, like temperature, and even crosstalk from other electrical signals in the camera. When you set the camera to a higher ISO, you've asked it to base its decisions on less light than is optimal for the sensor. If the sensor is also small, as it is with most All-in-one digital cameras, the camera will be basing its decisions on less light per pixel than the larger SLR sensor, and the noisy pixels will produce more incorrect interpretations of the light. As a result, the larger SLR sensor can reach higher ISO settings--in the range of ISO 1600 to 3200 before noise has a serious effect on the image--than their smaller cousins, which are generally limited to ISO 400. Other factors do come into play, but for the purposes of this article, that explains why the larger sensors in digital SLRs produce cleaner images.
The images above show the relative sizes of the sensor on a typical entry-level digital SLR and the sensor from a high-end All-in-one camera. As dramatic as this size difference is, the sensors in many consumer digicams are even smaller than that of the Canon G6, used in the example above.
For most point-and-shooters, the 3x to 5x optical zoom built into the typical All-in-one digital camera will be just fine for most photographic encounters. Those who want to enjoy the fun and excitement of a zoom lens will gravitate to the 10 and 12x zooms on the increasingly popular long-zoom digital cameras available today. While those are great, they generally have to compromise in one direction or the other. If it's a long telephoto zoom, it seldom offers a very wide perspective, typically maxing out at around an equivalent focal length of 37mm, a fairly modest wide angle. For good wide angle photography, you really need the equivalent of a 28mm lens, and the cameras that offer 24 and 28mm don't have very good magnification at the telephoto end, stopping at about 100 to 120mm.
Digital SLRs have a similar limit, with only a few exceptions. But the benefit is that you can change the lens from a wide angle to a telephoto very quickly. You can also pick from a range of medium to very high quality lenses, depending on your needs and your budget.
Many SLR photographers will prefer to do their most exacting work with what are called "prime" lenses, meaning a single focal length. 85mm is popular for 35mm portrait work, for example. These lenses offer excellent color and focus precision across the entire image, with far less of the optical distortion (like chromatic abberation) that we see in most zoom lenses. They also have excellent "bokeh," a Japanese term that refers to the tendency to blur backgrounds and foregrounds in an artistically pleasing way, thus isolating the subject in the picture.
Alternately, many SLR photographers choose to attach what we like to call a "vacation lens," that offers very wide to very high telephoto magnification in one lens. These are never as sharp as prime lenses, or even as good as shorter range zooms, but when you're on vacation it's nice to carry just one camera with one lens that you never change. The digital SLR versions of this type of zoom have a wider range than is typically available on digicams, with some reaching from 18-200mm, the rough equivalent of a 28-320mm on a 35mm camera.
Regardless of manufacturer, SLRs also focus faster and more accurately and zoom more quickly than their motorized digicam counterparts. Many All-in-one cameras actually only have a few preset zones to which they focus, relying on their inherently greater depth of field to make up for the difference. At the higher end, and certainly with the long telephotos, there is finer control, but this nevertheless points up another advantage to digital SLRs. The analog zoom control (most are operated by a quick mechanical twist) built into the SLR lens offers much greater speed and control than the button-activated motorized zoom on most digicams, which also operates in only a handful of predefined steps.
A key advantage digital SLRs have is access to a company's wide range of existing SLR lenses--which in the case of Canon and Nikon, numbers around 50 each--as well as lenses from third party manufacturers, like Sigma, Tamron, and Tokina. The variety is compelling, and far exceeds the small line of accessories prepared for a specific All-in-one model. If you buy into a lens line, you have much to choose from. Those who think they will want to take their photography further and build their system over the years should consider a digital SLR for this reason alone.
Professionals generally choose SLRs for a few additional reasons. Seeing a live image through the lens, regardless of zoom, gives them finer control over focus, and they can compare what they see through the lens with what the camera is capturing and displaying on the LCD. Former All-in-one owners will need to get used to this lack of a live LCD preview, however, and will also have to accept that the SLR viewfinder only displays 95% of what the camera will actually capture, while their old digicams usually displayed 100%.
SLRs also typically can capture more frames per second when in continuous mode, and usually offer more sophisticated and rapid focus options, including focus tracking for subjects moving at high speed. Faster focus acquisition also means that SLRs are the better choice for sports photography, with their AF times most often numbered in fractions of a second.
More SLRs than digicams are capable of producing RAW files, which professionals use to give themselves greater post-capture control of their images. RAW is essentially a dump of the raw data that a camera collects from its sensor. Normally, the camera takes this raw data and quickly processes it for color, sharpness, and contrast, and saves it on the memory card in a computer-readable format, like JPEG or TIFF. Consumer cameras are generally tuned to excessively sharpen images, and tweak color and saturation to make a more pleasing photograph right out of the camera, and once these changes are made, they're impossible to reverse. Pro and many advanced amateur photographers want more control. What the pros are doing when they shoot RAW is telling the camera to just grab the data and store it, so they can decide how to process the image later on their computer with special software. There are a few All-in-one digicams that offer this method of image storage and control, but not many.
Finally, SLRs offer a well-established set of accessories to enhance the photographer's ability to get good pictures. From more powerful external flashes and strobes, to vertical grips, filters, and remote controls, the world of the SLR is where the photographer can customize his system to meet his every need. While you won't likely need all of this, access to certain specialty components--especially an external flash that can reach out four times further than most built in flashes--could be good enough reason to pick a digital SLR over most digicams.
The All-in-one Digicam
Smaller, more versatile, All-in-one solutions
Despite all that a digital SLR avails, there are still many reasons to choose an All-in-one digicam, even those high-end models that are more expensive than some digital SLR cameras. The digicam and digital SLR evolved along very different paths, one catering to the consumer market, and the other catering to pros. For the professional market, it was important to stick with the existing paradigm, using 35mm lenses and accessories in a body that was familiar to pros. Digicam manufacturers, on the other hand, were free to experiment, and they gradually stepped away from making boxes with lenses in the center, as was once dictated by having to move a roll of film from one side of the camera to the other. Articulated bodies were created, where you could swing part of the camera back to face you. Someone eventually figured out that you didn't have to flip half the camera, you could put the LCD in a flipable housing and get even greater flexibility. In another innovation, rather than sticking a lens out the front and placing the sensor at the back, some genius decided to put the sensor at the bottom of the camera and aim the lens up into a mirror, thus eliminating the risk and bulk inherent in protruding lens designs, and resulting in some of the slimmest cameras ever.
Such innovation is due entirely to digital technology, which has changed our way of thinking about imaging. Now we have very slim and light digicams that slip unnoticed into the tightest pockets, and long zoom digicams that are smaller than a softball, yet can zoom further than most camera owners have ever imagined.
Versatility in a small package
I could have titled this section Simplicity, but that would have confused the issue. Modern consumer digital SLRs are just as simple to use as modern digicams, with auto focus and automatic exposure modes that make taking pictures point-and-shoot easy. All-in-one digicams are more versatile for a great many reasons, not the least of which is their size. You get a lot more photographic power and options in a smaller space. No matter how small, almost all worthy digicams have a reasonable zoom, an LCD for both framing and playback, and can be used in a wide array of photographic situations. And you don't have to grab a large camera bag to bring all this power along, just slip it in a purse or pocket.
While I touted the virtues of the digital SLR's larger sensors, it's the digicam's smaller sensor that makes all this innovative and small packaging possible. An SLR lens that achieves 400mm is generally a very long and bulky construction, but digicam owners can get the same magnification from a much shorter lens, thanks to the small, high resolution sensor inside. Yes, there's a light gathering limitation at high ISO in terms of noise, but it's a tradeoff most are happy to make to have a camera that's small enough to bring along.
In addition to being a fun and relaxing way to frame your photographs, using the LCD is often the only way to get the shot. You can get lower, or shoot over crowds and around corners, even if the camera doesn't have a flip out or swivel monitor. When a camera does have a flip out LCD, your photography will take new turns as you start to look at the world from every conceivable angle. Not a single current digital SLR has this capability. (The FujiFilm S3 digital SLR will allow you to use the LCD for digital framing for a few seconds, but the image is monochrome and there is no flip-out screen, so hold those emails ;-)
Everyone considering a digital SLR take notice: You won't be able to use your new SLR to capture movies. SLR sensors aren't designed to record video signals for long periods of time, perhaps due to power consumption constraints or heat dissipation. Whatever the reason, digital SLR makers have not seen fit to overcome the obstacles to bring this to market, so it's just not possible. The All-in-one digicam, on the other hand, has gotten quite good at video capture, with many offering near-DV quality video systems that can record VGA (640x480 pixel) video at 30 frames/second to a digital media card until either the battery runs out or the card fills up. Since most good video, be it of friends or family, is made up of smaller snippets, a digicam can often stand in quite well for the family camcorder, and many new cameras are being designed to make this easier than ever.
That same innovative spirit that has morphed the digicam's physical design has created an array of unique new ways to capture photographs, as well as new uses for them.
One of the more interesting is Nikon's unique BSS mode, which stands for Best Shot Selector. In low light, it's tough to hand-hold a long exposure. If you have BSS though, it's no problem: Just hold the camera as still as possible and hold the shutter down. The camera will fire off ten shots and look at each, saving only the one that has the greatest contrast between pixels, and thus the sharpest focus. Some recent Nikon cameras use the same contrast analysis method to warn you that the photo you just took is blurry, and offer to delete it.
Another brilliant application of digital technology to a practical problem is Casio's White Board record mode. People at shows and events already use their digital cameras as note-takers, photographing a speaker's slides and notes rather than trying to write it all down while listening. The Casio EXILIM EX-Z50's White Board mode will look for the frame around a display or white board and use that as a guide to correct the aspect ratio of the shot, and crop out everything but the image that appears on the white board. Called "keystoning" the method is also applied in the camera's business card mode.
Canon's PowerShot S2 IS allows you to take a full resolution picture while you're in the middle of shooting high resolution video. The resulting video includes a gap, a shutter sound, and a brief freeze frame of the image captured. They've taken what could have been seen as a flaw and actually made it look pretty cool. The clicks also serve as markers to remind you where you snapped that award-winning shot you have hanging on the wall.
Though digital SLRs could conceivably integrate some of these features, none of the current offerings do; so if you need or want any of these special abilities, a digicam is your only choice.
How about both?
Good as they are, neither type of camera is the best choice for every situation. That's why manufacturers make so many shapes and sizes. The truth is, most consumer buyers only need a simple snapshooter with a 3x zoom, 4 to 5 megapixel imager, priced at around $200 to $300. Some should spend a little more for a nice slim model to slip into a purse or backpack, but only if they can afford it.
If you've read this far in this article, you really might be a candidate for both a mid-range consumer digicam and a digital SLR. You should decide which is most important to your immediate needs, and focus on selecting the best camera type for that purpose, then gradually search for the second camera. Personally, I carry a small pocket digicam (one of those models with folded optics, without a protruding lens) so I have a camera with me everywhere. Then I bring out the digital SLR when conditions warrant. It's really no different from when I shot film. I always had a camera with me. I'm a photographer to the core.
To help determine which type camera is right for you, here are a few words of advice.
Perhaps the most frequent request I get from readers is which camera is best for getting shots of the kids. While the answer is that any camera should work fine if you apply the right strategy, I know what they're asking, because I have kids myself. First I should emphasize that a digital camera of any sort is the right choice for getting good shots of kids, primarily because you can easily delete all the bad shots you're going to get and they don't cost you anything. So shoot liberally and delete liberally. If you are discriminating, you'll toss 80% of what you shoot, and likely end up with a few really choice photographs.
Part of the reason you're going to delete so many is a little thing called shutter lag. Kids move too quickly. A digital camera is a complex piece computing hardware, several times more sophisticated than any film camera has ever been, and only recently have manufacturers been able to make them fast enough to get all the focusing and exposure done before little Billy got bored and left the room. We test and publish shutter lag statistics for every camera we review. Hunt it down in our Picky Details section and find the lowest shutter lag numbers to select your next "kid camera."
Autofocus is by far the largest component of the shutter lag equation, so be sure to look at both the prefocus shutter lag and the full-autofocus shutter lag. Most cameras can be made to serve as good kid cameras if the operator just prefocuses before committing to the full shutter release. Don't just compose and mash the button down. There are two phases to almost every AF camera shutter in existence. Half-press the shutter while junior fiddles. This sets focus and exposure. Wait for the moment to occur onscreen, keeping junior at a set distance and gently press the shutter the rest of the way. Most digicams are dramatically faster when prefocused like this, the shutter lag often dropping from something close to a second to one or two tenths of a second.
A few cameras freeze the onscreen display for a good long time while they're autofocusing. If your purpose is to photograph children, don't consider one of these cameras for a second. It's a serious flaw.
As for whether you should choose an SLR or All-in-one digicam for kid photography, the better choice is an SLR because it focuses faster and more accurately; but a digicam will do just fine if you take care to put the kids in good light (by an open window, for example) and use the flash only occasionally. Likewise, remember the trick of prefocusing the camera, and you'll avoid a lot of missed shots. Take pictures on purpose, and you can make any camera serve.
The requirements here are very similar to the kids category, except a long lens is usually very helpful. If you're shooting professional sports from the stands, you'll want one of these 10x to 12x long zoom cameras with image stabilization. Most of these cameras offer enough exposure control that you should be able to set the camera to a high shutter speed and just shoot. Some offer very high speed capture modes, as high as 30 frames per second, though the image size is usually reduced.
Unless you're shooting a pro sporting event for money, I think a long zoom digicam is just fine for most sports aficionados. Buying an SLR for this purpose would be fun for the hobbyist, but is by no means necessary.
It's when you're shooting your kids in sports, ironically, that an SLR is the better choice. If you're serious about wanting to get good shots, an SLR is more likely to deliver them more often. Faster AF and better performance in low light with higher ISO settings (for indoor and night events) mean you'll more often get an available light shot where a digicam will either blur the image or force you to flash. You're also able to get closer to your subject in most youth sports settings, so you won't always need the extra long lens (depending on the sport; football and other stadium sports being notable exceptions here).
In either case, you need to learn a bit about your camera to get results you'll be proud of.
A good portrait really is more about the relationship with the subject than about the camera. Any camera will do if you work well with people. But key is knowing your camera so you're able to capture the moment when it happens. Having a backup camera in this case is not a bad idea, and a good way to get a camera that remains familiar is to look at a digital SLR and a high-end digicam. If you're shooting a Canon EOS 20D for example, you might want to have a Canon G6 at the ready with an appropriate adapter lens for portraits or even wide angle so you can get the subject in their setting without changing lenses on the SLR.
You can do portraits with just about any camera, but you'll prefer one with a nice, wide aperture so you can blur the background while maintaining low-light capabilities. You're generally going to get better bokeh with an SLR's prime lenses, though I've also gotten good results with telephoto adapters on a digicamera. AF speed is important if you're working with a real model, as is the ability to choose an AF point so you don't constantly have to reposition the camera. When dealing with a more mature model, from age 12 and up, AF speed is less important than when you're working with wiggly youngsters.
Here, a lot depends on your need for portability. Ansel Adams used a mule in the early days to help him carry the large camera assembly he used for his famous pictures. If you carry a full SLR camera kit into the field, you'll feel a lot like a mule yourself at the end of the day. On the other hand, rare are the digicams that come with wide angle lenses sufficient for good landscape photography. Only a select few even reach to 28mm, still fewer go to 24mm. One of these would be a good choice for the dedicated landscape shooter. Too many people spend money on the greatest zoom magnification they can get, not realizing how much they're sacrificing the wide angle end. When you're on vacation and get to that gorgeous church with the candles and stained glass windows, you're only going to be able to capture the fullness of the scene with a good wide angle lens.
A small SLR with a decent wide angle zoom lens and a good telephoto zoom lens is about the only way to address this need. A "vacation lens," as previously described would be good, but I would personally prefer two separate lenses for this job. You can achieve much the same effect with a good digicam and the wide and telephoto adapter lenses for a little less money, because these accessory lenses are cheaper (between $100 and $200 each), but neither solution is going to handle everything without requiring a camera bag.
Realtors are an obvious market for a wide angle digicamera, and there are finally more offerings for their needs. Unless they're already into digital SLRs, I wouldn't recommend anything but a 24-28mm All-in-one and a wide angle adapter if necessary. A camera with a 24mm lens should handle most of their needs with no adapter at all.
The "Everywhere" camera
I like to call these jewelry cameras, because their beauty is in their compactness, and they are often displayed as signs of wealth. These used to be cameras that compromised on capabilities to be small, but many today are full-featured, the only compromise being their $500 price tag.
The truth is, an Everywhere camera doesn't need to be expensive. More camera companies have been producing inexpensive, lightweight cameras that turn in excellent results while maintaining easy pocketability and a price that is below $250. The avid photographer should consider one of these cameras in addition to his high-end digicam or digital SLR. It's the one you keep in your pack or purse so that you have it with you when a photo op arises. Back in the days of film, battery life that could be measured in years allowed me to keep a small camera in each vehicle, plus one in a pack. Today, I don't leave a digicam in the car, just in the pack, but I have to remember to charge it once a week. That's already a routine I follow daily for my cell phone and PDA, so it's not that tough.
As I always say, it's the camera you have with you that is the most valuable.
The Bottom Line(s)
Though we get many requests to do so, we can't tell you what kind of camera will be right for you, we can only make suggestions and explain what a given camera--and in this case a given type of camera--is good for. Generally speaking, if you are struggling to get the photos you want with the camera you have because it's too slow, you might consider a digital SLR. You have to be willing to carry it with you like you would a smaller camera, but the good news is that the latest offerings are surprisingly small and light.
If you're looking for greater portability, the small All-in-one digicams are the best choice. Those looking for an all-purpose family camera that can take video and stills with ease really should spend that $400 to $500 for an image-stabilized long zoom digicam model. This is the current sweet spot in the market, and I predict it will be so for a while to come, until these features can be integrated into a smaller and slimmer package.
The best news I can tell you is that digital cameras of every sort are getting better and better regardless of category, and the prices continue to fall, so it won't be long before you have a great digital camera for every conceivable photographic situation.