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Choice of a Photo Camera
SLR vs. P&S vs. Digital

If you are reading this text while trying to choose a new camera, you are an amateur. Professionals do not need my advice. The question is — should you trust my words? Well, I recommend that you consider as many opinions as possible. Only you (and nobody else but you) know what you need. In addition, it is up to you to decide.

First, I would like to give you a warning. Be skeptical about noisy, obtrusive, and categorical statements. Remember that there is no right choice. Everything has its advantages and drawbacks. Making a choice always means making a compromise.

Moreover, my opinion is not objective. It is only my humble opinion and nothing else. With this in mind, let us discuss the subject matter.

First, I would like to say a couple of words about digital cameras. I am not going to advise you against buying them. However, some drawbacks are obvious.

  • Both digital cameras and prints from digital sources are relatively expensive compared to film cameras.
  • Batteries discharge quite quickly. Thus, you must keep your batteries charged. To have a spare battery is also a good idea.
  • If you are taking pictures while traveling, you will have to decide where to store the images. For example, you may carry your notebook computer for this purpose. Other options are also available. Just do not fail to consider this issue.
  • You will need a computer with a CD-RW drive for digital processing. This purpose also implies image-processing software.
  • CCD sensors of affordable digital cameras are smaller than regular film frames. Because of this, their lenses have smaller focal lengths at the same angle of view. As a result, digital photographs have larger depth of field. This is not always good. For example, you may want to have a blurred background when making a portrait. In general, it is more difficult to control sharpness in digital photography.
  • Film cameras still outperform widespread digital cameras in terms of quality. However, the difference can be seen only on large prints. You will not have to worry about it, if your prints are 4 x 6".

If you do not see any problems in the above statements, then a digital camera is your choice. Moreover, it has many advantages. I will mention only a couple of them.

  • With a digital camera, you get the results very quickly. If you do not like the image, you will immediately erase it and make another attempt. Incorrect exposure and somebody's winking are no problems any longer. Quick results are also important in many other cases, e. g. if you want to send a picture by e-mail straight away.
  • You will not have to spend money on rolls of film and developing. If you are going to take many pictures, this can be a powerful argument for going digital.

Now let us consider film cameras. The main dilemma is P&S vs. SLR? Contrary to popular myth, SLR cameras do not always produce pictures of better quality. Some people say: “Their lenses are that big! They must outperform any small devices!” An SLR camera has a mirror between the lens and the film. That is why their lenses are bigger. Moreover, it is by far more difficult to produce a high-quality big lens. Nevertheless, you may still insist on SLR superiority: “I saw pictures made with a P&S camera, and their quality was poor.” The answer to this is simple. The quality was poor, because it was a cheap P&S camera. Up-to-date high quality devices produce truly perfect images.

What P&S cameras are good? How to make a good choice?

  • First, good P&S cameras must have a glass (not plastic) lens. Although modern zooms are very good, I recommend that a camera with a prime lens be chosen. There has to be a certain trade-off between quality and functionality in zooms. On the other hand, if you do not make large artistic prints, you may find quality of zooms to be quite good. Personally, I prefer high quality prime lenses.
  • A good P&S camera must have a multi-step AF (auto focus) system. The larger the number of steps, the better.
  • It must also have a large number of shutter speeds and f-stops (e. g. 1/700 sec to 1 sec and F4 to F16).
  • Any bells and whistles are not important. Any camera that complies with the first three requirements has all the necessary features. Any additional functions are not used often, but cost a lot.

After that, you may ask: “Why do professional photographers do not use those perfect P&S cameras?” The fact is that they need additional functionality. An SLR camera allows them to change lenses, to use DOF preview, to control exposure manually, and to use many other useful options. In short, it gives them almost total control over the parameters. As a result, a photographer can do exactly what he needs in any particular situation. Another advantage of an SLR camera is its ability to operate with modern intelligent flash units.


1. If you need just good photographs for your album, if you do not intend to learn the photographic theory, if manual modes make you feel sad, if only results matter for you — then buy a good P&S camera.

2. If you are very keen on photography, if you like not only the results but the procedures too, if you intend to take special pictures like macro shots — then you need an SLR camera.

3. If neither idea suits you, then maybe you want to buy a camera to project an image of yourself as a professional photographer. If so, just go to the nearest shop and tell the salesperson the sum you want to spend. I believe he will willingly sell you something impressive.

I deliberately avoid giving advice on any particular brand name. If you go to any photo exhibition or visit photographers' web sites on the Internet, you will see that any good camera from a reputable manufacturer can produce wonderful images. Feel free to choose whatever you like. After all, it is the photographer who takes pictures, not his camera.

Now it is time to make the last but not least remark. Remember that images are produced by lenses. Camera bodies just open their shutter for a while. Thus, do not save on a good lens, and you will never regret it.


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Igor Yefremov, 2002, all rights reserved

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