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The DSLR Difference

Overview & User Experience

The photographic experience of using a digital SLR differs from that of using a non-SLR digital camera. While it is known that digital SLRs can take better pictures, little has been said about the photographic experience and usability of these types of cameras. The purpose of this article is to fill this gap.

There are many articles available discussing the differences between SLR and non-SLR digital cameras. Most of these articles conclude that the main advantage of a digital SLR is its lower noise-levels, particularly at high ISO sensitivities (not even available on most non-SLR digital cameras). Other significant advantages include a viewfinder that shows focus clearly, a panoply of interchangeable lenses, longer battery-life and generally speedier operation. These conclusions are understood to be valid, so they wont be discussed directly here.

For the purpose of this article, we took the excellent Canon 20D DSLR and the amazing Konica-Minolta Dimage A2 for several photo-shoots and took hundreds of pictures with both cameras under the same conditions. The photographic experience uisng other camera models will vary, but these two cameras represent excellence in their class. The first noticeable difference, before starting to shoot, is the weight and size of these cameras. The 20D requires a larger camera bag and the A2 feels very light after using the 20D extensively with a 200mm lens.

The second difference encountered is with the viewfinder. While differences between each type of viewfinder has already been discussed at length in our viewfinders article, here is a summary of our experience: The exposure-priority live-preview on the A2's LCD is a wonderful feature, it allows to search for the composition very casually and freely. Conversely, an SLR's viewfinder is much less convenient for that since an eye must be brought to the viewfinder's level while checking composition. Then again, that is where the DSLR conserves the most battery power. To precisely control the composition however, one must look through the viewfinder (either EVF or OVF) . Here the EVF's 100% coverage provides the best experience. When it comes to judging focus, despite the EVF's remarkable sharpness, the SLR's optical viewfinder is far superior. With the SLR's OVF, any slight focus error is easily recognized. It would be hard to give up a true SLR viewfinder for anyone who frequently uses manual focusing.

Now the shot is taken. The shutter-release button is pressed halfway, then fully. The SLR always completed these actions faster. It is true that focusing speed depends on the lens used but it always seemed faster with the 20D. There probably isn't a technical reason for the focus to be slower (its probably manufacturers' product differentiation). For the shutter-lag, the non-SLR camera has to flush the charge on the CCD and probably close the shutter before doing that. This could explain why the DSLR reacts faster. The continuous drive on the DSLR is also much better but this seems to be more product differentiation again (since non-SLR cameras are sold for less, they are equipped with less memory buffer and slower internal processors).

Before even inspecting pixels, there are some obvious differences which should be explained. The Digital SLR always shoots in a 3:2 aspect ratio, this is the same aspect ratio as a 35mm film camera. Pictures having 3:2 aspect ratio print exactly on 4"x6" paper without any wasted space or distortion. When displayed on most computer screens, 3:2 pictures do not cover the entire area, they leave empty space at the top and bottom. On the other hand, pictures from most non-SLR digital cameras have an aspect ratio of 4:3 which is exactly the aspect ratio of the majority of computer monitors. Note that the A2 (and some other non-SLR cameras) can shoot in 3:2 aspect ratio by cropping the image in-camera and on the EVF and LCD. Printing 4:3 pictures on 4x6 paper gives 4"x5 1/3" prints bordered by 1/3" stripes on each side. Consequently, pictures will differ in composition even if the 35mm equivalent focal length is the same.

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