F-Stop Cafe - SLR, SLT, and Advanced Compact Cameras

November 08, 2012  •  Leave a Comment

All about the camera - SLR, SLT and Advanced Compact Cameras

I get asked a lot about the type of camera I use and what is the best to buy etc etc.  I almost universally respond with "it depends."  Then I usually launch into a series of questions around what kind of pictures you want to take.  I ask those questions because it can greatly change the perspective of your needs and which cameras will be suitable to your type of picture taking.  This post is the final post in the series discussing the types of cameras available today and their pros and cons to hopefully help you determine the best choice for your hard earned dollars.  This post will discuss the most advanced segment of the industry.  The SLR, SLT and advanced compacts.

SLR and SLT - whats the big deal?

While SLR's and SLT's share a lot of the same DNA I will discuss the major differences between then a little later, for the majority of this post I will simply refer to them as SLR cameras for simplicity sake.  So whats the big deal?  Why have they become so popular lately?  SLR cameras have traditionally been the domain of professional and advanced photographers primarily due to the cost of entry into the equipment and the complexity of their operation.  The cost continues to fall and the complexity continues to be obscured behind automatic modes that allow someone with no training to pick up a camera and use it with some level of success.  However, compared to the compact cameras they can still be quite daunting to use once out of the automatic modes.  The other reason that SLR's are becoming more popular is the idea that the image quality will simply be better than with the point and shoot.  With larger sensors, interchangeable lenses and more sophisticated image processors, SLR's certainly do have the potential to produce much higher quality images then most point and shoot cameras. 

How much better?

SLR's do have the potential to provide superior images to a standard point and shoot.  This is due to the fact that they generally have larger sensors, more sophisticated and powerful image processors and much more capable lenses.  SLR's also tend to be quite a bit more responsive in that they start up faster, take pictures faster and can crank off rapid fire bursts of exposures.  In addition to the raw performance capabilities there is the fact that they also have many different lenses available for very specific needs. Nikon for example has 75 lenses to choose from across both the DX and FX sensor range.  DX and FX you ask?  Yes we will discuss that later.  However back to the lenses, lens construction is all about compromises and there is not a single lens that does everything perfect.  SLR's are able to be configured to provide the best possible tool to capture an image.  Ultra wide angle to long range zoom, fisheye to macro lens there are choices to make when picking the lens for job, which gives SLR's every advantage in the ability to snap that amazing picture.  

SLR's also generally have multiple operational modes, scene modes borrowed from the point and shoot world and manual mode strait from the earliest days of photography.  Add to that the ability to choose form a variety of focus modes, exposure modes and release modes.  Some of the higher end systems are built like tanks and can take a fair amount of abuse and shoot in some of the harshest environments.  So yes they are a tool and when setup and configured properly can produce some absolutely jaw dropping images.  Many now also include a little mode on the dial called automatic which turns that glorious four pound beast into the biggest most powerful point and shoot you can buy.  

So the bottom line is this.  Can a SLR/SLT get you better pictures?  Yes, but not immediately.  Cameras on this end of the spectrum are tools, in some cases very complicated tools that require getting over a learning curve.  Even then, you will still constantly be learning how to use the tool.  If your going to stick it in auto mode then get a bridge camera it will work much better for you in the long run.  Having an SLR or SLT with interchangeable lenses requires work and effort to get the best images.  As of the writing of this blog post there are several bridge and Point and shoot cameras that have just as capable sensors in them as some of the SLR's they simply omit a lot of the control aspect.  I have seen it far to often, someone goes out and blows $5,000 to $6,000 on a great body and that smokin 85mm f1.4 and end up asking why their pictures look so bad.  :)  

Shameless plug time:  If you have found yourself with a SLR and cant really figure out what it does or how to make it work for you, I do offer a photography 101 class from time to time to help people learn how to use their cameras to get great shots.  

SLR or SLT?  Which system to buy?  There is a system? I am confused....

Ok so lets cut to the chase and get to the pros and cons of a SLR\SLT but before we do that lets get some basics out of the way.  So this whole SLR\SLT thing whats it all about?  SLR stands for Single Lens Reflex (SLR) camera and SLT (coined by Sony)  stands for Single Lens Translucent (SLT) camera.  This all has to do with a mirror, when you look through the view finder in a SLR/SLT camera your view is bent via mirrors or prisms and you end up looking through the lens at your subject.  You see exactly what your sensor will see.  This is where the difference comes into play.  In an SLR, the mirror has to flip up and out of the way before the shutter can open and expose the sensor to light.  In an SLT based camera, the mirror is a pellicle (translucent is an inaccurate term but its what they chose) mirror which splits the light allowing a small amount of light to be sent to the view finder and the remainder to be sent to the sensor without having to  move the mirror.  I will discus the major issues here in the pros and cons list shortly but wanted to detail the difference here as they have a significant impact on the way the camera operates. 

Next we have to talk about buying into a system.  When choosing a SLR you should make your decision carefully because once you buy in you are pretty much locked into a particular vendor unless you have endless bags of money laying around.  Very few of the major players in the industry are compatible with each others stuff.  You cannot mix and match systems easily if at all.  While there are third party lens and accessory manufacturers they are not generic in that your Canon lens may not mount on your Nikon body without some form of adapter which will render many features useless.  So when I talk about a "system" its really a manufacturer ie you buy a Nikon camera you will forever be buying Nikon gear.  Its much akin to Ford vs Chevy in a lot of ways.  Each company has several models and performance levels and they also have their fair share of stalwart fans.  They all take great pictures and are differentiated in a variety of ways. To illustrate this concept of a system, the Nikon lineup today has seven bodies (D3200, D5100, D7000, D300, D600, D800 and D4) fairly evenly split between full frame (FX) sensors and crop (DX) sensors, more on that in a minute.  In addition to that add the approximately 70+ lenses available and you can see where this is going.  Its quite the tool kit.  Entry can be cheap with a low end kit (body and lens) costing only $500 to $600 of course with stripped features and performance and run up to the insane with the D4 body at $6000 all by its self and some of the fast large lenses in the five figure range for a single lens.

Deciding which system to step into should be evaluated on a variety of factors.  I suggest looking at feature set, compatibility and cost as well as how the bodies feel in your hand.  They do feel differently from vendor to vendor.  Something uncomfortable to hold will rarely find its way out of the camera bag.  However having said that any of the major players will produce stunning pictures once you get over the learning curve and learn how to use the tool properly and fine tune your technique.

FX or DX?

FX (full frame sensor) or a DX (crop sensor) or APS-C as its more commonly called?  This is not a very strait forward answer.  First a definition.  A full frame sensor is a that is the size of a 35mm film frame.  A crop sensor is a smaller sensor, a "crop" from a full frame sensor, usually around .5 to .6 that of a full frame sensor.  The following image is from a great wikipedia article about sensor sizes where you can learn everything you ever wanted to know about the sensor formats.

In the past this would have been a no brainer, if your budget can support it you would have gained tremendous benefits from going to the full frame sensor.  However I would argue that today's APS-C (crop) sensors are very strong performers and for general use they do quite well.  So why would you choose one over the other?  There are several differences that could influence your decision which will be detailed in the pros and cons section later but I will try and summarize it here. 

Full Frame - Performance in many areas, better image quality and control, better low light (high iso) performance, and greater control over your depth of field.

Crop Sensor - Cost, effective focal range is increased, weight is reduced and decreased file sizes.

I left out a lot of other things but those really are the big hitters.  There are areas where those differences are shrinking but this is generally the case.   However A couple things I would like to point out is that at lower base ISO settings 100-400 the image quality of current sensors are pretty much the same.  However as the ISO goes up the full frame sensor generally starts to pull away from the crop.  Also the crop sensor changes the effective focal length of the lens that is attached.  All lenses are given focal lengths in terms of 35mm equivalent values.  So a 18-55mm lens common for crop sensor kit lens is giving you the field of view of what a 27 - 82mm lens would on a full frame sensor.  So in essence a crop sensor body has more "reach" over a full frame. 

General Positives 

  • Flexibility - as I said these are tools as such you have a tremendous amount of flexibility in terms of lens choice and camera control that lets you create what you can visualize in your head.  
  • Performance - In so many areas these bodies are usually much higher performing then their bridge or compact cousins.  Reduced shutter lag, focus speed and number of frames per second to higher performing processors inside the camera allowing the camera to simply work faster overall.
  • Rugged - The very top end bodies are completely encased in magnesium shells and are usually weather sealed to take a beating.  The entry level bodies are usually plastic but are generally more robust than your typical point and shoot unless its a specifically designed rugged version.  
  • Image Quality - Generally speaking SLR's have the potential to produce better images than their smaller cousins due to the sensor technology and the systems behind it and more importantly much higher quality glass in front of it.

General Negatives 

  • Heavy - While a entry level body and kit lens will not be much heavier than a comparable bridge camera as you build your kit of lenses and other accessories the bag will get much heavier.  However, stepping up to the more rugged enthusiast and pro level gear just the body and lens can get to be rather heavy.  Case in point my 24-70 lens alone is two pounds, that does not include the body.
  • Cost - While entry level kits can be had for $500 to $600 you will find very quickly that you are limited by that kit.  You want more reach?  Thats a new lens.  You want wider view? Thats a new lens.  You want better low light natural light capability? Thats another lens.   You start to see the picture.  While flexibility is a key advantage it can also be a disadvantage in that you have to buy all those things.
  • Compromises - Everything is a compromise.  Choosing lenses involves a compromise in speed, image quality and flexibility.  Deep pockets allow you to minimize some but it adds others.  For example the Nikon 70-200mm f2.8 lens is fast focusing, fast in low light (f2.8) has vibration control (lets you hand hold a shot at lower than normal shutter speeds) and has incredible image quality.  thats the good stuff.  The bad is that it weighs 2.5 pounds, is all metal construction, costs $2500 and is 12 inches long ALL THE TIME! :)  In contrast you can get a 55-200mm lens for $400 its slower in focus and in light gathering (higher base f-stop) is significantly shorter (when zoomed out), weighs in at less that half a pound and has decent image quality but nothing like the 70-200.  This same issue of compromise appears in body selection as well.  All of this is why there are so many questions when asked what should I buy.
  • Image Quality - I put this as a negative because so many times I hear folks say I bought this SLR because I wanted better pictures  but they are WORSE than my point and shoot.  As I have said, SLR's have the "potential" to produce better images.  This is due to the fact that SLRs have a significant learning curve and their image quality is subject to so many variables.  For example, a typical mid to high end Sony point and shoot will have a very nice Zeiss lens permanently affixed to it.  Usually pretty fast too in the f2.0 range that the camera is optimized to take advantage of, making changes to photo setting you are unaware of to produce the best possible picture.  The SLR relies on you to configure the camera and fine tune your own technique based on what you have attached and what your shooting.  Putting your SLR on auto helps to some degree but it cant be as fine tuned as a point and shoot with a fixed set of variable. 

Lots to think about there so let me throw a couple more things at you.

SLT\SLR differences 

  • View Finders - SLT bodies usually use a lcd or led display as their view finders where SLR's use a series of mirrors and or prisms.  SLT use displays because the amount of light that is split from the incoming image from the lens is usually about 15 to 20% of the overall light.  Its simply not enough to be able to view properly so they catch it, amplify it and display it on the view finder display.  Simply put your eye has a far greater dynamic range than any display on the market today including those on the back of your cameras body.  This means that you can overload, or "clip" the displays so you dont see an accurate image of what your about to photograph.  This will get better over time but for now I prefer the traditional model in the SLR because I can see exactly what my lens is seeing with no distortion.
  • Mirror Speed - SLR's use a mirror to redirect the light to the view finder.  This mirror must flip out of the way for the image to be taken.  This physical action can and does limit the frame rate the camera can achieve.  In a DX the mirror is smaller so its a little easier to move it quickly, however in a full frame it is much larger and the mechanical challenges around moving that mirror quickly get expensive.  As an example the Nikon D4 can achieve 10 frames per second but it will cost you $6000.  Pretty much all Sony Alpha SLT cameras even the base model at $700 can achieve up to 12 frames per second because there is no mirror to move. 
  • Mirror Light Transmission - Because the the SLT camera does not move the mirror out of the way there is a permanent loss of light from the splitting of the light that happens with the pellical mirror.  This immediately hinders the SLT in lower light performance because it is by default working with less light.  It is rumored that the Nikon D600 and the Sony A99 share the same 24mp sensor. If that is true and assuming that the lens features are the same then the nikon is be default going to perform better.   However there can be some magic performed in the camera to crank up the base sensitivity of the sensor to accomidate for the light loss.  However, that would perform similarly to increasing ISO which in turn would increase noise.  So even if it could take the same picture in low light the SLT would need "help" in the form of noise reduction and other mystical pixie dust kind of things to produce the same image.  Once you start to manipulate the image in camera you lose control and some time quality. 

Model Differences

I wanted to talk briefly about the differences in models as you climb the ladder up the model line up of most system.  Generally speaking in the consumer to enthusiast line of cameras you simply start with a fairly reduced feature set body to keep the price point low.  From there they usually add features and capabilities, also changing sensors and so on to bring the over all performance of the camera up to match the cost of entry.  Some things that can be missing in the lower end bodies are focus motors (reduces lens compatibility), lower number of focus points (less sophisticated auto focus system), the use of a mirror for the view finder vs prisms in the higher end (makes the view finder a little darker).  You look at the highest end they no longer really strip features as much as create specific tools for specific needs.  In Nikons full frame line up there are currently 3 bodies the D600 24mp, D800 36mp and the D4 16mp.  The D800 is a very different animal from the D4 and while they share a lot of similar DNA they are radically different cameras and are designed for very different purposes.  The D4 is all about speed, every aspect of its design is to be fast and accurate.  It is the flagship professional body in the lineup and is the go to body for the photographer who shoots everything from sports to portraiture.  The D800 brings medium format pixel content to the SLR world, where it gives up the speed to the D4 it brings in incredible details that the D4 would struggle to reproduce.  Canon and Sony also have very similar lineups with very similar types of trade-offs.

Advanced Compacts 

I could not complete this discussion without talking about the new category of cameras called advanced compacts.  These are cameras that while small like the compacts and bridge cameras I spoke about in an earlier post.  However, they have one major twist to the design, they have interchangeable lenses like their bigger siblings.  They also have advanced processors in them to take some of the wizardry out of the photo making process.  Nikon and Sony both as of this writing have flavors of the advanced compact cameras in the Nikon V1 and V2 lines and Sony has the NEX series of bodies.  Canon is also working on a similar design.  I believe this will be a significant growth area for these companies because they provide the best of both worlds.  They are compact in size, yet provide the flexibility of multiple lens choices.  The advanced compact truly blends the worlds of the point and shoot with that of the SLR and puts them in single package.

So a quick summary of pros and cons in regards to the Advanced Compacts.

Advanced Compacts Pros

  • Size and Weight - MUCH smaller than your typical SLR body.  You can carry the body in one pocket and a lens or two in the other.  Try that with an SLR.  In addition to the size they are usually much much lighter as well simply due to their general size reduction over their larger counterparts.
  • Cost - Generally speaking they are less expensive for similar feature set as typical SLR bodies.  
  • Simplicity - Most of the advanced compacts are designed to be easily operated and provide some interesting features to help produce great pictures.  The Nikon for example has a mode where it takes 10 shots in succession and you choose the best of the batch.
  • Features - Because these are mainly targeted at the consumer buyer there are many features combined into a single body to make them all in one solutions.  Things such as HDR, Video, in camera editing, and a variety of other features make these some fo the most feature rich cameras out there. 
  • Speed - Usually employing a electronic shutter these cameras can out pace even some of the most expensive SLRs when it comes to speed, clocking in at 7 to 12 frames per second.

Advanced Compacts Cons

  • Size - While being small is great from a portability standpoint, smaller bodies can be challenging to hold properly for certain situations. 
  • Simplicity - Some of the models have removed several manual options in favor of more automatic modes which can limit some of the creative abilities.  Though this is usually mitigated by having a larger number of "scene" modes to choose from to match what you are trying to capture. 
  • Image Quality - Due to the reduced sensor size (some do use larger aps-c sensors found in many DSLR's) the overall image quality will be compromised as you move into lower light situations and the camera has to compensate for the lack of light by amping the sensor up.  However, as with all technology this is becoming less and less of an issue.
  • View Finders - As I mentioned before with electronic view finders they can become overwhelmed in high contrast situations.  Additionally, some provide a range finder type view finder which lest you frame the subject but its not a true representation because you are not looking through the lens.
  • Speed - While more responsive than their point and shoot and bridge cousins as well as some of the entry level DSLR's they fall short of the raw speed you find in the more advanced SLR models when it comes to responsiveness. 
  • Construction - Generally speaking the advanced compact is not going to be as rugged as some of the upper end SLR's and as such may need to be handled a bit more carefully.

 

Summary

Advanced compact cameras make a very strong argument for themselves.  They provide all the benefits of changeable lenses with many of the features you find in point and shoots and other consumer focused models.  They take the "work" out of taking nice pictures and given the right conditions can produce fantastic images and video.  The models range from smaller CX sized sensors up to aps-c and I am sure there will soon be a full frame as there is a full frame bridge camera now in the Sony RX100.  Small in size yet big in performance and  features they have definitely carved out a niche for themselves and absolutely deserve a look when looking for a new camera.

So what should you buy?

This is always a loaded question and I usually follow that up with "it depends."  I then usually start asking a lot of questions about the current intent as well as future goals for your photography.   What kind of pictures you plan on taking, under what conditions etc etc.   I then also reiterate that you are buying into a system.  This is no longer a simple camera choice.  You have to factor in the lens choice for what your planning to shoot.  There are lenses that are stellar sports lenses because they focus really fast, lenses with incredible detail but focus about as fast as rust forms.  So to say you need x camera would be a disservice without understanding what it is you want to shoot to help you get the right equipment in the first place.  


For most people who are most concerned with capturing family memories the new Advanced Compacts or an entry level SLR will definitely do the job.  They provide simplicity and let you capture the moment without having to decide what settings to put the camera in.  And in many cases will produce better images than many SLR's shot in auto mode because they are tuned differently.

If you think that by picking up a SLR you will magically produce professional quality images you may be sadly surprised.  Without significant expense in time and money your images can initially be much worse than those you were getting with your point and shoot.  these are complicated tools that require significant effort to learn how they work and how to use them properly.  With lots of practice you can produce some stunning work.  So as I always say leave the professional work to the pros, its why I don't do plumbing or anything that involves power tools ;)

However if you want the creative flexibility and capabilities that a SLR opens up, and are willing to put in the time then the rest of this post is for you.  When you get started the lions share of your initial investment should be in your glass as without good glass even the best body will produce weak pictures.  I can also say that if your considering just "getting in the door" with entry level body, save your pennies and look a little higher.  You will outgrow the entry level bodies if you want to do anything other than shoot in auto with the kit lens.  If the cost of a good first lens and a body to go with it is still a bit steep go find a used body made with in the last few years and get started with that.  See bodies will age and become obsolete much much much faster than the glass will.  And a competent body will really shine with a strong lens.  Just for reference one a couple of well regarded lenses in the Nikon lineup are the 50mm f1,8 ($200 full frame lens) and the 40mm f2.8 ($275 DX crop lens)   Pick up one of those and the used recent body D90, D700, D2, D7000, D300 etc and you have a fantastic kit that could produce professional grade images in a lot of conditions.  Moving up the quality line you will find lenses like the 24-70 f2.8 for $2000 and the 70-200 f2.8 at $2500 and therein you find the investment in glass.  See, Ansel Adams was quoted as saying " the single most important component of a camera is the twelve inches behind it".   And while I agree with that statement 100%, having good glass gives you the flexibility to capture what your mind sees. 

Please understand that this is a perspective and that when you deal with SLR cameras cons can quickly become pros depending on the application.  Remember these systems are tools, I would not want to lug a five pound sledge hammer around to tap in nails with one shot due to the weight, however I certainly would not want to have to drive a fence post in the ground with a general purpose hammer.   

 

 

 


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