While it’s certainly true that most professional photographers opt for the extra-tough build quality and exceptional image quality of a pro-spec DSLR, that doesn’t mean that DSLRs are the best choice for everyone else.
Not only do DSLRs – and DSLR lenses – cost comparatively more than other types of camera, they are also much heavier and bulkier, making them less easy to carry around.
Here we look at a number of alternatives, and what they have to offer.
Compact System Cameras – or CSCs for short – are a relatively new type of camera that combine the smaller form factor of compacts with the bigger sensors, advanced feature sets and interchangeable lens systems of DSLRs.
In addition to full Auto mode, the vast majority of CSCs also allow you to take manual control over the camera, which means you can use them to experiment and develop your photographic skills than with a simple point-and-shoot compact.
There’s no universal standard for CSC sensor size, indeed there’s quite a bit of difference between manufacturers.
Nikon CSCs use one-inch sensors that are about four times the size of a regular compact sensor, whereas Panasonic and Olympus CSCs use Micro Four Thirds sensors that are about eight times bigger. Samsung, Sony, Fuji and Canon, meanwhile, all use APS-C sensors – the same size found inside most DSLRs, and about 13 times bigger than a regular compact camera.
For a good visual comparison of sensor sizes check out this diagram by Marcus GR.
All CSCs are designed for use with interchangeable lenses, which vary largely in size and quality. As a general rule, CSCs with larger sensors will require larger lenses. In addition to physical size, it’s also important to look out for lens availability; some manufacturers only offer a handful of CSC compatible lenses.
You may also be able to fit DSLR lenses to CSCs, although this will require a conversion kit at additional cost.
CSC build quality tends to be pretty good, and while polycarbonate bodies are the norm there are also plenty of CSCs that are treated to a metal outer shell. But as with all cameras and electronic devices you ultimately get what you pay for.
On the whole, compact system cameras represent very good value for money. Although they tend to be more expensive than advanced compacts, they are usually cheaper than enthusiast-grade DSLRs with similar feature sets.
As a guide expect to pay around £350-£500 for an entry-level/mid-range CSC and up to £1,000 for a more advanced, enthusiast-grade model.
Anyone looking for a smaller camera that’s more portable than a DSLR, while developing their photography skills.
Advanced compacts are designed primarily for enthusiasts, such as DSLR users looking for a smaller camera that they can comfortably carry around with them all day. As such they tend to come with slightly bigger sensors, better quality lenses and enhanced feature sets that usually include full manual control and the ability to capture full-resolution RAW images.
Whereas most basic compacts use 1/2.3-inch sensors, advanced compacts generally use 1/1.7-inch or even 2/3-inch sensors. While only slightly larger (think the size of your little fingernail versus the size of your thumbnail for a rough approximation) the extra surface area means the individual light gathering diodes that cover its surface can be larger, which in turn means better image quality, especially in low light.
Most advanced compacts come equipped with a built-in, retractable zoom lens. The reach of these zooms varies considerably, but as a rule they tend to hover around 4-5x, which equates to around 24-100mm or 28-140mm.
Advanced compacts also tend to come with better quality optics and faster maximum apertures, which helps to improve overall image quality as well as making them more flexible in low light.
Advanced compacts come in a range of sizes, although they tend to be slightly larger than regular compacts. Build quality is usually very good, as might be expected for the additional price premium they carry.
You can expect to pay around £250-£400 for a decent advanced compact. That’s quite a bit more than regular compacts, although you are getting a lot more for your money.
Advanced compacts are ideal as a second camera for DSLR owners looking for something that’s easier to carry around, or as a main camera for those wanting a camera that offers greater potential for learning than a regular compact does.
As implied by the name superzoom cameras come fitted with powerful zoom lenses that allow you to take photographs of objects far away. In addition, many superzooms also come with advanced feature sets including full manual control. For this reason they have remained a popular option for those looking for a flexible camera able to cover all angles in a single package.
While superzoom lenses might be super powerful, one thing to bear in mind is that the sensors behind them are usually no bigger than what’s found inside a regular compact. The end result of this is that image quality isn’t generally in the same league as CSCs or advanced compacts, let alone DSLRs.
The maximum telephoto reach of superzoom cameras has been rising rapidly in recent years with current models typically offering optical magnification factors of around 40x, which equates to a focal range of between 28-1120mm.
To cover this range with a standard DSLR and a bag of lenses you would have to spend thousands, if not tens of thousands of pounds.
The downside to cramming so much power into a single, fixed zoom lens is that they can be prone to optical aberrations such as distortion and purple fringing.
Superzooms tend to be quite big cameras. There are exceptions (Canon’s SX50 HS for example) but on the whole they tend to be bigger than CSCs and only marginally smaller than most entry-level DSLRs. Indeed, many superzooms take their styling cues directly from DSLRs with a chunky handgrip usually the norm.
Thanks to increased competition in the sector, superzooms are a comparatively cheap option with decent models available for around £250-£400.
Superzooms represent a good option for anyone seeking a one-size-fits all camera that can cover the majority of situations, whether shooting from near or far. Their only real weak point is image quality, which isn’t generally on a par with the other DSLR alternatives listed here.