Digital SLRs or Compact System Camera?

Historically the SLR (Single Lens Reflex) camera has always been regarded as the pinnacle of camera technology. It's what the professionals use, and if you wanted to take the best pictures then it was essential to get yourself an SLR. The addition of the 'D' in recent years simply denotes Digital, and DSLR cameras are still regarded as offering the best quality and the most features and functions to allow the user to take full control over the creative process.

One very important reason for this is that DSLR cameras allow the lens to be changed, and the ability to use different lenses means the photographer can change their viewpoint and produce very different pictures without having to move position. Whilst compact cameras may have a zoom lens, allowing some flexibility over framing, the lack of interchangeable lenses can be a serious restriction. Traditionally, only an SLR camera would allow the lens to be changed.

digital slrs

Compact System Cameras

However, there is now an alternative. In the last few years there has been phenomenal growth in the market for a new breed of camera, sometimes called 'hybrids' but now becoming more generally known as CSCs, which stands for Compact System Cameras. Smaller and lighter than a DSLR, CSCs still have interchangeable lenses and offer almost as many features and functions as an SLR. So what exactly is a CSC and what makes it different from a DSLR?

The clue is in the name. The word 'Reflex' in a 'Single Lens Reflex' camera indicates that it has a mirror inside. The camera uses a periscope-like system to reflect the image from the lens, using the mirror and a prism design, up to the viewfinder so that when you look through the viewfinder you are able to see exactly what the lens sees - a true 'what you see is what you get' view. With simpler camera designs, the view offered by the viewfinder is not exactly the same as what the lens sees, making it all too easy to chop off people's heads when composing your picture!

In a DSLR when you press the button to take your picture, the mirror flips up out of the way, allowing the light from the lens to reach the sensor inside the camera. With a CSC there is no mirror, and the image from the lens is instead projected electronically to the viewfinder.

Some users feel that this type of electronic viewfinder (EVF) does not produce a view that is quite as clear or sharp as what you see when looking through the viewfinder of a DSLR, and this may be a consideration for you when choosing. However, the quality of EVF systems is improving all the time and the absence of the mirror has enabled manufacturers to produce smaller, lighter cameras that are, in every other way, just as capable of producing superb results, making them a serious alternative to DSLRs.

Digital SLR Guide Pages

Digital SLR Basics
Digital SLRs and Digital Cameras Key Differences
Digital SLR or Compact System Cameras
Digital SLR Handling
Help for Beginners

Lenses and Accessories
Buying a Camera Lens
Memory Cards
Digital SLR Accessories

Learn More About Features
Resolution and Sensor Size
Sensor Cleaning
Manual Exposure Modes
ISO Range
White Balance
Auto Focus
Drive Modes
Scene Modes
Help With Tricky Lighting
Metering Modes
RAW Mode
Live View and Articulated Screens
Flash Options
Movie Modes
Depth of Field Preview Button
Image Stabilisation
Mirror Lockup

Current and Recommended Models
Summary of Current Models
Recommended Digital SLRs

Digital SLR Guide Author
This guide was written by Ian Younger

Which Type is Right for You?

The big attraction of a Compact System Camera is it is smaller and therefore easier to carry around than a Digital SLR. For subjects such as street photography where being unobtrusive can be an advantage, the smaller size of the camera is another attraction.

The price of Compact System Cameras has fallen. This means that some of the cheaper models now carry a similar price tag to entry level Digital SLRs. Therefore price is no longer the issue it was.

One area where Digital SLRs are still ahead of the game is the sheer variety of accessories that are available. This is especially true when it comes to buying lenses. This will be less of an issue if you do not plan to specialise in any one type of photography. This makes it less likely you will require a specific type of lens.

If all that is holding you back from buying a Compact System Camera is lack of lens choice, you can get round this by buying a lens adapter. A lens adapter will make your camera compatible with lenses that are available for Digital SLRs. The downsides to this approach include it increases the amount you need to spend and the larger Digital SLR lenses reduce the attraction of a small, portable camera.

Olympus and Panasonic were pioneers of this type of camera, but more recently other brands have jumped on the bandwagon. Canon, Nikon and Samsung all offer Compact System Cameras as part of their range. So if you favour a particular brand it is now far more likely that they make a Compact System Camera model or two.

A Digital SLR with a Difference

It is worth mentioning here that there is also another alternative. Sony has pioneered the development of a new kind of mirror, which is translucent. It reflects some of the light from the lens to the viewfinder but, when the shutter is fired, it allows light to pass through the mirror to the sensor instead of having to move the mirror out of the way. Because there is no need to wait for the mirror to move and then drop back into place between shots, this allows much faster continuous shooting, making this type of camera better suited for sports or action photography. Sony have coined a new name for this type of camera - DSLT, to indicate the presence of the translucent mirror rather than the traditional reflex mirror.