Updated and Revised: 30th June 2009
When Digital Cameras were new to the world, DSLRs were expensive to make. They could cost as much as an automobile. After the year 2000, new generations of cheaper, entry level DSLRs appeared. Recently, I have been speaking of a mother category for DSLRs called (Bigger Sensor) Interchangeable Lens Cameras (ILC). Because there are now several cameras that do not have a swinging reflex mirror mechanism and yet have a larger sensor and the lens is not fixed - you can take the lens off and fit another one. Originally called EVIL (Electronic Viewfinder Interchangeable Lens) cameras, Olympus in particular have broken the mould because their innovative PEN EP-1 does not even have an Electroniv Viewfinder. In addition, there are Bigger Sensor Non Interchangeable Cameras (BSNIC) - like the Sigma DP-1 and to some extent, the Panasonic LX-3.
All this evolution and diversity of shape and form in digital cameras is a sign that the industry is gaining some maturity.
What about the (Smaller Sensor) Non Interchangeable Lens Cameras (NILC)? They too have evolved. You can now find thin or small compacts with a 3x optical zoom lens, some, slightly bigger with a 5x zoom lens, some with a 10x zoom lens and then there are the traditional Digital Bridge Cameras - which have grown from a 10x zoom lens via 12x, 16x, 20x and up to 24x. In all this evolution, one category has been fading out, gradually. This is the 5x (or similar) zoom lens, non interchangeable camera with a bright f/no (f/2.8), good sensor quality, sometimes very robust and solid body (think of the Sony R1, the Olympus 8080). These have quietly disappeared from the marketplace, squeezed out by the bigger DSLR at one end, and the 24x ultrazoom on the other end.
If you are graduating from the smallest auto-everything compact camera and want to decide between a Bigger Sensor Interchangeable Lens Camera (which covers entry level DSLRs, EVILs and the PEN EP-1) vs a Smaller Sensor Non Interchangeable Lens Camera (formerly known as a Bridge Camera), there are cultural and technical issues to consider.
Buy an Interchangeable Lens Camera
- If you want the versatility to add more lenses later.
- If you want significantly faster response to snapping the photo after you click the shutter and faster speed of writing JPEG files to the memory card.
- If you know that the dollars you spend on the initial investment - the body and first lens, is only the start - there is more money to be spent eventually, in the lust for additional lenses.
- If, for the same price, you are happy that you get a so-so, limited range kit lens vs the best possible lens all-at-one-time permanently fitted on the Bridge Camera.
- If you want to shoot RAW, no buts.
- If you want better manual focus. Owners of film SLRs will be appalled by the small, dark optical viewfinders with no optical focussing aids in DSLRs.
- If you want a zoom ring (some Bridge Cameras do have a zoom ring).
- If you want the promise of better Image Quality - you have to supply the $$$, skill, extra time, patience and work though. See typical compact camera sharpness vs budget lens on dslr.
- If you want to shoot at least ISO 400, no buts.
- If you are willing to shoot at something other than Full Auto.
- If you want to more easily achieve shallower Depth of Field.
- If you want more Dynamic (Tonal) Range.
Buy a Bridge (Non Interchangeable Lens) Camera
- If you consider that the Interchangeable Lens Cameras are just sinks which will consume your money now and in the future.
- If even the smallest Interchangeable Lens Cameras look too big and too conspicuous to carry and use.
- If you have had a comparative look at the cost of the cheapest Interchangeable Lens Cameras with dark (f/4) kit lenses vs the brighter (f/2.8) lenses on Bridge Cameras.
- If you want all the bells and whistles right now, not much to add / spend in the future.
- If you want a 10x, 12x, 24x all-in-one zoom lens right now. There could be more curvilinear distortion, more purple fringing, softer looking images but you have this one lens that does a wide range of focal lengths.
- If you want Live View that responds to the shutter trigger quickly and prefer not to bring the camera to your eye and face - no buts.
- If you want to shoot movies as an easy option, often being able to automatically focus and being able to shoot without holding the camera to your face / eye.
- If you want a silent camera (you can switch off the simulated "click" sounds)
- If you want deeper Depth of Field easily.
- If you can bear slower response to the shutter clicking and longer "camera busy" times as the images are saved. Note that the Casio H series cameras are unusually and specially engineered to be speed demons.
- Buying one DSLR system and a Point and Shoot compact camera so you have power in one, portability and movies in another.