Monday, August 3, 2015

Compact or DSLR camera? An Interesting Survey

A couple of weeks or so ago, I wrote an article on Giving Up on DSLR Photography. In it, I explained the reasons, the whys, the whens, the hows, of going (back?) to using a compact camera or even your mobile phone rather than a DSLR. Something amazing happened. There was an immediate, unexpected, and very significant traffic to that article (which continues as I'm typing this). What's going on? Have we reached a threshold? Have people become fed up with DSLRs? I decided to look more into it, so - as you might recall, if you follow AmateurNikon on Twitter, Facebook, or Google+ - I asked you to participate in a survey.

The questions of that survey were:

1) Do you currently own a Nikon DSLR camera?
2) How satisfied are you with a) your camera & lenses; b) your photography
3) If you own one or more DSLR cameras, how many lenses do you own?
4) If you had to choose ONLY one lens to keep, that would be...
5) What were the most important reasons you chose a DSLR over e.g. a compact

I received a bit under a thousand replies, thank you all for your participation. The results are very revealing, in my opinion. Let's first see the replies, and then I will proceed to interpreting the results.


1) Do you currently own a Nikon DSLR camera?

About 20% of you replied: Yes, one entry-level body (e.g. D3300, D5500, etc.) 
About 20% replied: Yes, one advanced body (e.g. D7200, or an FX body such as D700, D610, or higher)
About 25% replied: Yes, more than one bodies (all DX or all FX)
About 5% replied: Yes, more than one bodies (both DX and FX)
About 15% replied: No, I do not own a Nikon DSLR (but I own a DSLR of another brand)
About 15% replied: No, and I do not own any kind of DSLR camera (but I use another kind of camera, e.g. compact or a mobile phone cam)
There was also another option, No, and I do not own ANY kind of camera (not even a mobile phone cam), which essentially received no replies (there were 2 such replies, which become statistically insignificant)

(note: just to clarify, it is entirely normal that we see so many people owning a Nikon DSLR, because the overwhelming majority of my readers/followers are indeed Nikon users. The survey is not scientific in that respect - i.e. it was offered/targeted primarily to Nikon users)

2) How satisfied are you with a) your camera & lenses; b) your photography

Here things become interesting. The options were ranging from "very disappointed" to "very satisfied" - with "disappointed", "undecided", and "satisfied" in-between.

In regard to a) equipment:
About 10% were "very disappointed" and "disappointed"
About 20% were "undecided"
The rest, about 70%, were "satisfied" and "very satisfied" - and I must mention, about 50% is "very satisfied".

In regard to b) photography:
About 5% were "very disappointed" and "disappointed"
About 45% were "undecided"
About 50% were "satisfied" and "very satisfied" - but we have a reversal of trends: almost 40% are "satisfied", and only 10% are "very satisfied".

3) If you own one or more DSLR cameras, how many lenses do you own?

Only about 5% replied: I own the kit lens that came with my camera (e.g. 18-55, 18-105, or similar for DX; 24-85, 24-120, or similar for FX)
About 60% owns 2-4 lenses
About 35% owns more than 4 lenses.

(I should mention that, puzzlingly, the option I do NOT own any DSLR cameras received less votes than the 15% that answered  they don't own a DSLR camera in the question no.1 - I wonder, do these people own lenses but not the cameras?!)

4) If you had to choose ONLY one lens to keep, that would be...

Only about 10% would pick a basic kit zoom (e.g. 18-55, 18-140 etc.)
About 40% would choose a superzoom - important, we'll get back to this
About 20% would choose a fast, pro zoom (e.g. 17-55 f/2.8 or, for FX, 24-70 f/2.8)
About 30% would choose a prime lens

(Again, the option I do not own a DSLR camera received less votes than the 15%)

5) What were the most important reasons you chose a DSLR over e.g. a compact

In this question I asked you to order from the most important to the least important some reasons - here are the results, from most important to least important:

1) Better image quality overall
2) Better image quality in low light
3) I can use different lenses
4) Better functionality (more customization & features)
5) Better auto-focus
6) The physically larger sensor gives me better isolation capabilities


I want to start by clarifying some things. Most of the people owning and using a DSLR camera are amateurs - that is, photography for them is a hobby, not a profession. This statement is irrelevant to their abilities or degree of engagement with the hobby. Having said that, and as I said in the Giving Up on DSLR Photography article, a hobby is supposed to bring you joy, satisfaction, and pleasure.

The problem I tried to expose with this survey (partly inspired by the massive traffic that article received) is that we often buy into the whole "photography without DSLR is pointless" marketing game without thinking our own priorities. To put it this way, just because Nikon (or Canon, or Olympus) tells you that you ought to own a DSLR otherwise your photography isn't worth a dime, doesn't make it true. Furthermore (despite what the marketing would like you to believe), even if that were true (that is, even if you needed a DSLR for high-quality photography) merely owning and using one would not be necessarily sufficient. If I gave a Nikon D810 and a Nikkor 24-70 f/2.8 to my aunt - who can barely use a traditional mobile phone - and expected results, I'd be mad.

Fair enough, most of you reading this do not belong to this extreme. My goal is not to convince you to give up on DSLR photography - that would be hypocritical, to say the least, since I have been a DSLR user long before I became a professional. Instead, what I want to do is to inspire you to think things through. Think about your priorities. Do you really need that second body? Do you really need that fourth lens? If you're not happy about your photography, is the answer really another lens/camera? Or perhaps something else - like SWAGO and L-O-V-E?

So, with those things in mind, let's talk results...

The most interesting discovery (which I anticipated, so it was more of a verification for me), is that camera users are happier with their equipment than they are with their photography! If you examine the findings of question no.2, you'll see that clearly. What I found somewhat intriguing was that almost 1 in 2 users feels "undecided" about their photography (i.e. if they are happy or not). To me (and I admit, I might be speculating), this sounds more like "I'm actually unhappy, but I don't admit it to myself".

A second interesting element (perhaps even slightly surprising for me) was that only about 5% own only 1 lens - most typically a basic zoom.

A very important discovery (which again, I somewhat anticipated) was how many of you - when asked to choose only one lens for your DSLR - picked "a superzoom". 40% of DSLR users who replied to the survey would pick a superzoom as their only lens. To me, this has "convenience" painted all over it. The question of course is, if convenience is the most important to you, why are you using a DSLR? Let's examine the data of the final question, before we try to see what's going on...

When it comes to the reasons as to why you picked a DSLR over a compact, things are clear. The main deal is this: Image Quality, both generally and in low light in particular. And, indeed, a physically large sensor has a clear advantage when it comes to that. Being able to use different lenses also came high in ranking.

There is a problem, however, in all that - a very fundamental problem, if you think about it. To some extend (more on this in a while), this differentiation between DSLRs and compacts is no longer existent

  • "Compacts have small sensors, so they have poor image quality in low light"
Well, how about this then:

There's a DX-sized sensor in this camera (there are other such compact cameras, too)

  • "DSLRs have better overall image quality"
Well, try to compare the image quality of an image taken with the Nikon DX flagship (don't laugh, the D400 isn't out yet), the D7200 and, say, the 18-55, then let me know which one you prefer, that or the image taken with the Fujifilm X100T above and its brilliant 23mm f/2 lens.

  • " DSLRs have better functionality (more customization & features)"
Well, once again, this myth (i.e. that DSLRs have more features and customization options) is a relic from the time that compact cameras were devoid of any exposure options - basically, just point & shoot. Nowadays, compact cameras more often than not have more options than DSLRs.

  • "DSLRs have better auto-focus"
Although generally true, compacts are more forgiving - due to generally much greater depth of field.

  • "The physically larger sensor gives me better isolation capabilities"
  • "I can use different lenses"
OK, now things are different. And, we've finally come to *drumroll* scope. If you're a landscape shooter (even a serious one), or a casual "all-arounder", whatever it is you need, you can find it (and more) in a compact camera. But, to name one example, what if you need portraits with very short depth of field, for subject isolation? More still, what if you need that just before you need a dedicated macro lens for serious work? Or, a fast zoom for a wedding?

Then, let's face it, a DSLR is not only better suited, but in fact more economical, too. The Fujifilm X100T mentioned above is smaller, lighter, and probably better in just about everything compared to a D3300 with the kit lens. But there's a crucial element: with the DSLR, pop out the 18-55 and mount an 85mm f/1.8, a 70-200 f/2.8, a micro-Nikkor 105mm f/2.8, or just about anything you want, and you have top-class image quality. With the compact, you're stuck with a FOV of 35mm.

So, to wrap this up, like with everything in photography, it all boils down to choices. Just because a DSLR (and some decent lenses) are the obvious go-to tools for some (many? most?) people, it doesn't mean they are for you. If you need a small, discreet camera that can give you excellent holiday photos, superb sunsets, dreamy shots of forest mist, then a compact might be all you need.

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