Why bother with a DSLR?

One of my main hobbies is photography, which I have talked about before [here and here for example]. To me, it is the pictures that matter – taking them myself and looking at images at every opportunity. That might sound obvious, but there are actually quite a few people, who I run into at camera clubs etc., who seem less interested in the pictures than the technology. Often, this is manifest in someone who always has the latest camera/lens/gadget and is for ever “testing” it. Or it might be the geek who knows all the most obscure Photoshop shortcuts and spends more time in front of the screen than with their camera.

I do, however, have some strong feelings about photographic equipment, where I think the best interests of the consumer are not being served and some people may even be put off of photography …

I have written before [here and here] about the way that cameras are getting more and more megapixels, which can result in lowering the quality of images, while costing the user more money and causing more aggravation. But there are other problems with the equipment that we are offered.

Most people take “snaps” on a compact camera or a cell phone. Modern cameras of this type can take amazingly high quality images. It is the perception of most people – and this perception is encouraged by camera manufacturers and salesmen – that the next step, when you want to do some more “serious” photography, is to go for a DSLR. This seems reasonable when you look at the specification of these cameras: large sensor, fast shutter, high quality optics, powerful image processor. All of this comes at a price, of course. The reason why I have reservations can be seen by looking at history.

In the [latter] days of film, the choice of camera was similar: a compact was fine up to a point, but an SLR was the “real deal”. The SLR was a wonderful concept: a complex set of optics and mechanics – the core of which was a 5-sided prism – enabled the user to look through the viewfinder and see exactly what would be shone onto the film when the shutter was released. Some clever mechanics would pull up the mirror and fire the shutter in the blink of an eye. This was great engineering and all made sense.

So, when digital cameras first came along, they were essentially the same as film cameras, but the film was replaced by a digital sensor. That was reasonable, for the first generation of a new technology to build on the tried and tested designs. Compact cameras quickly advanced and soon sported small screens on the back, which would give a precise preview of the image before it was taken. It was actually even better than what an SLR could do, as it could give at least some idea of what the exposure would be like and avoid drastic over- or under-exposure.

DSLRs, however, retained all the complex [and expensive!] mechanics of their film predecessors. Although facilities to show something on the screen were added in recent years, the fact is that a DSLR carries a lot of obsolete baggage, which makes them bulky, heavy and expensive. But people keep buying them because we are told to. They also have ever more complex controls and an enormous feature set, which frightens many users back to using a compact.

However, there is good news. Firstly, various manufacturers introduced “bridge cameras”, which provide a half-way house between a compact and a DSLR. They offer sophisticated controls, good size sensors and quite reasonable optics. Typically, their [fixed] lens has a very wide zoom range [I just saw one with a 42X range], which means that there are compromises, but the improvements over a compact or phone are tremendous.

The exciting development, IMHO, is the appearance of “mirrorless DSLRs” or compact system cameras, which are now offered by most of the major manufacturers. These devices are very similar to compact cameras [small and light], but have sophisticated controls, a fast shutter, large sensor and accept interchangeable good quality lenses. All in all, they offer just about all the functionality of a DSLR with less complexity, weight and cost.

So, if you want to upgrade your photography, do have a look at one of these cameras before blindly purchasing a DSLR. Any questions, do drop me an email.

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This article first appeared on the Siemens Digital Industries Software blog at https://blogs.sw.siemens.com/embedded-software/2012/12/13/why-bother-with-a-dslr/