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DSLR vs. Super Zoom: A user’s dilemma

When my regular point-and-shoot died, I was faced with a dilemma of whether I should go for a DSLR or a Super Zoom camera. When I was analyzing the differences between a point-and-shoot, Super Zoom, and a DSLR, the following information confused me the most:

  • Point and shoot: 10 Megapixels
  • Super Zoom: 10 Megapixels
  • DSLR: 10 Megapixels

How could three different cameras, with varied features, give the same 10 Megapixel output? (What is a Megapixel, by the way?)

I found it prudent to approach this confusion with some logical reasoning. Obviously, I needed some answers before I could pick a camera. I was looking for simple information, which was hard to find on the Internet. The information available on the Internet had too many technical details (ISO, f –stops, crop factor, depth of field) and jargons (Single-lens reflex, APS-C sensor, micro four thirds). The information available on the Internet is aimed at people who understand the nuances of photography and not end-users. Being an end-user, I wanted to cut through the jargon.

Some of the questions that I needed answered were:

  • What is a DSLR or a Super Zoom camera? (without too many technical details)
  • What are the main characteristics of each camera?
  • How are they different? (without the jargon)
  • Which one will best suit my needs?

(A) How is an image created in a digital camera?

Before going into camera types, let us look at how an image is created in a typical digital camera:

  1. Light: The essence of a photograph – light falls on the object.
  2. Object: The inspiration behind the photograph – the object, which is being photographed, reflects light onto the lens.
  3. Lens: The eye of the camera – light enters the lens.
  4. Shutter: The gatekeeper – the shutter opens for a fraction of a second to let the light in.
  5. Sensor: A Pixel is born! –light falls on the sensor and is converted into pixels. A pixel is 1 unit of the photo captured by the sensor. A photo is made up of many pixels (and hence the term Megapixel which is equal to one million pixels). Cameras had films in the past, which has now been replaced by a sensor.
  6. Processor: A byte born! –pixels are analyzed by the processor and converted to data (bytes).
  7. Storage: The photo is saved – the photo is stored as data on the memory card or internal camera memory.

Now, let us talk about different types of cameras – DSLR and Super Zoom.

(B) What is a DSLR?

A DSLR has the following characteristics:

  1. Shutter – A DSLR has a mechanical shutter. When you press the shutter release button, the shutter opens for a fraction of a second to let the light in. Anything that does not have a mechanical shutter is not a DSLR. The DSLR gives out a loud Clack sound when you press the shutter release button.
  2. Interchangeable Lenses – A DSLR has the feature of interchangeable lenses. You can use a Wide Angle lens (18-55mm) or a Zoom lens (100-300mm) depending upon your requirement. For example, if you want to shoot a large landscape view of a mountain, you could use a Wide Angle lens. If you want to go closer to an object, you could use a Zoom lens.
  3. Larger Sensor – DSLRs typically have larger sensors.

(C) What is a Super Zoom (also known as Bridge or a Hybrid Camera)?

A Super Zoom camera has the following characteristics:

  • Electronic Shutter – Super Zoom cameras do not have a mechanical shutter. The shutter is entirely electronic.
  • Single Lens – Super Zoom cameras have a single lens that can go from 24mm (Wide Angle) to 840mm (Super Zoom – and hence the name). You cannot change the lens.
  • Smaller Sensor – Super Zoom cameras have smaller sensors than a DSLR.

Super Zoom is also called a Bridge camera since a user moves from a point-and-shoot to a Super Zoom and then a DSLR. Since the Super Zoom basically, acts as a ‘bridge’ between the two types of cameras, it is called as Bridge. Also, Super Zooms have excellent lenses (comparable to entry-level DSLRs), but smaller sensor sizes. Since they perform like a point and shoot with some characteristics of a DLSR (good lens), they are also called Hybrid cameras.

(D) What is the difference in quality of photos between DSLR and Super Zoom?

With all the above information, I was still unable to figure out the exact difference between a DSLR and Super Zoom. Assuming the DLSR uses the same lens as a Super Zoom (to compare apples to apples), what does a larger sensor actually mean if both cameras are 10 Megapixels?

Here’s how I understand it – a DSLR has more definition per pixel.

Simply put, when both DSLR and Super Zooms are rated with the same Megapixel count, the DSLR has a larger surface area on the sensor to define the same pixel. Theoretically, if you had to pick out 1 pixel from a photo taken by a DSLR and a Super Zoom, the pixel from the DSLR would have more information about the image.

Let us compare the difference in definition between a DSLR and a Super Zoom to today’s Web and Social Media tools. Let us say I wanted to tell the world the difference between a DSLR and Super Zoom. I could do it in the following ways:

  • Send a Tweet in 140 words.
  • Write a Blog post in 500 or more words.
  • Create an entire Website containing 50 pages with 500 words per page.

I am saying the same thing, but in three different ways. I am getting the same message across, just in different depth. Similarly, a DSLR gives you maximum definition per pixel simply because it is able to capture more information with its larger sensor. A Super Zoom gives slightly less definition for the same image by capturing slightly less information on its smaller sensor.

A DSLR undoubtedly has the best picture quality since it packs more definition per pixel.

(E) Advantages and Disadvantages of a Super Zoom

After a lot of consideration, I finally decided to buy a Super Zoom Camera. Based on my analysis, the Super Zoom had some distinct advantages over DSLRs. The Super Zoom also had quite a few disadvantages when compared to DSLRs.

Advantages of a Super Zoom camera:

  • Compact – easy to carry around. Good for travel.
  • Cheaper – way cheaper than a DSLR.
  • Single lens – you don’t have to buy multiple lenses. You can easily go from 24mm (Wide Angle) to an 840 mm (Super Zoom). Considering the cost of multiple lenses and the inconvenience of carrying an entire bag just for lenses, the DSLR does not make sense.
  • Never lose the moment – since you can quickly go from wide angle to super zoom with the same lens, you need not fumble around for lenses and miss the moment. For example, you can capture portraits, macros, birds, or high-speed boats with equal ease!
  • Great picture quality – good for digital publishing and small-size printing.
  • Easier to maintain – dust particles entering the sensor when you change lenses is one of the greatest drawbacks of a DSLR. Since a Super Zoom has one fixed lens, there is no question of dust entering the sensor.

 Disadvantages of a Super Zoom camera:

  • Smaller sensor – Less definition per pixel. Therefore, you cannot magnify photos like you can in a DSLR. If you plan to print poster-sized photos, a DSLR is the best option.
  • Single lens – A one size-fits all lens can only do so much. Having a portrait and landscape lens helps in a better picture quality, which a Super Zoom can only try to match.
  • Less features – There are some advanced features in a DSLR that are not available in a Super Zoom. For example, a wireless remote shutter release is not available in a Super Zoom.

As far as I am concerned, I am really happy I decided to go with a Super Zoom (a Canon SX 40 HS). Whether you want to buy a DSLR or a Super Zoom really depends on your requirement, taste, budget, and how likely you are to carry the camera around. I hope this information helps you decide whether to go for a DSLR or a Super Zoom.

To see photos taken using my Super Zoom camera, visit my Photo Blog.

Going beyond the device: Expanding the horizons of Super Zoom

Have you ever pushed your device to the limit? Have you ever made your device do what it was not meant to do, like over-clocking your CPU or Jail-breaking your iPhone? I just did something like that. Only it’s something much safer than over-clocking or jail breaking. And I did it to my camera.

I have been using a Super Zoom camera for a while now. A super zoom camera comes with a lens that can go from a Wide Angle to Super Zoom. The Canon SX 40 HS is a good example as it can go from 24mm (wide angle) to 840mm (super zoom).

There are some advanced features that are not available in a Super Zoom. One of the most important missing features is a Remote Shutter Release option. Some DSLRs come with a Wireless Shutter Release option where you can mount your camera on a tripod and take the picture without touching the camera.

Many a time I’ve really really needed a Remote Shutter Release option. For example, when I take photos of the Moon/Super Moon or when I take artsy pictures at night. My super moon picture:

Downtown Vancouver at night:

[For more photos, visit my Photo Blog]

In such cases, I have either zoomed in quite a bit, or am taking the picture in low light conditions. The slightest shake translates into a very bad picture. To avoid shaking the camera in such cases, I usually activate the 10 second timer. But there is some residual oscillation (shake) which sometimes messes up the photos. Reading the camera’s user guide told me that that there was no inbuilt no Remote Shutter Release option available. I also visited many specialty camera in the hope of finding an external device that could act as a remote shutter release. To my utter disappointment, I could not find such a device.

Then, one fine day, I discovered CHDK – Canon Hack Development Kit. This is an open source community that creates programs for Canon cameras to add capabilities in addition to the existing features, for example, a Remote Shutter Release option. So, I decided to build my own Remote Shutter Release kit. Here’s what I did:

(A) Installed CHDK on my camera (the easy part)

To install CHDK:

  1. Go to the http://chdk.wikia.com/wiki/CHDK
  2. Check the firmware version on your camera.
  3. Download the correct build based on the firmware version. Unzip it on your computer.
  4. Copy the CHDK files on the SD card.
  5. Insert the SD card in the camera and press the Review button.
  6. Go to  Menu and update the firmware.

The program is loaded into the memory temporarily. When you shut off the camera, it is removed from the memory. The program does not interfere with the manufacturer’s original firmware. CHDK also provides a detailed user guide.

(B) Created a physical Remote Shutter Release device (the most difficult part)

I searched the Internet and discovered that I have to build a remote shutter release device on my own. I found a great video of a camera user who had built a shutter release device from scratch. I could not follow the same path since I am not as tech savvy. Imagine the trouble if I were to solder a diode onto a circuit!. Moreover, being a technical writer by profession, I believe in simplicity. I wanted a solution that was simple, easy to implement, easy to use, and of professional quality. I could not build a remote shutter release device, and nobody sold one for my camera. It seemed like a dead end.

Numerous searches on the Internet provided no answers. However, I discovered a few things that helped me create a solution for myself:

  • Send > 4V on the data port of the camera to release the shutter.
  • A very high voltage (> 8V) might damage the camera!

I performed some trial-and-error experiments and discovered a very simple solution for the problem. I used the following readymade components:

  • Duracell USB Battery Backup: I used the Duracell USB Battery Backup to experiment with the Remote Shutter Release feature of CHDK. The Duracell USB Battery Backup is rechargeable, has an ON/OFF switch, and is slightly bigger than a matchbox. It has a USB (output) port for charging external devices and a mini-USB (input) port for charging the backup battery.

  • Mini-USB cable: I used a mini-USB cable for the solution. You can easily use the data cable that came with the camera.

(C) Made the hardware and software work together

To make the hardware and CHDK software work together:

  1. Install CHDK on the SD card and update the Firmware [as explained in (A) above]. Once CHDK is in the memory, go to the CHDK menu and enable Remote Shutter. (Print button + Menu button displays CHDK menu.)
  2. Connect the mini-USB cable to the camera’s data port and the other end to the USB port on the Duracell USB Battery Backup.
  3. Switch ON the Duracell USB Battery Backup and Switch OFF immediately. The camera focuses.
  4. Switch ON the Duracell USB Battery Backup and Switch OFF immediately again. The camera releases the shutter!

And I am sure this solution will not damage the camera. Here’s the simple reason why: The camera is designed to use a mini-USB cable that is connected to a computer’s USB port (which has a ~4V output). The Duracell USB Battery Backup also has the same output since it is basically a USB port without the data transmission capabilities.

I was amazed that another device could work as a remote shutter release for a camera that was not built to use one! Amazon, eBay, camera stores, and photography forums did give me ideas for creating this seemingly simple solution. So I thought I must share this discovery with all the other Super Zoom users out there that are also looking for something similar.

Happy Super Zooming!

More information about the Duracell USB Battery Backup: http://www.duracell.com/en-US/product/instant-usb-charger.jspx

Update: May 12, 2012: If you want to use a clicker-like device, the iGo Anywhere USB Micro/Mini Charger would be ideal. Instead of a switch, you could use the button to release the shutter. For more information about iGo Anywhere USB Micro/Mini Charger, visit the Source website here. I tested it out and it works perfectly fine.

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