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 Cameras had films in the past, which has now been replaced by a sensor.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.

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14 thoughts on “DSLR vs. Super Zoom: A user’s dilemma

  1. You didn’t mention what, to me, is the single greatest disadvantage of a superzoom compared to a DSLR: the speed with which you can take a picture. Even the best superzoom has a significant shutter lag compared to a DSLR. Superzooms also tend to take longer to save the picture to your digital media and often prevent you from taking pictures while they’re saving. A DSLR, by contrast, snaps the shutter almost the instant you press the button. In my experience, DSLRs save images faster as well.

    People who photograph things that move — e.g. people, pets, wildlife — are likely find the superzoom frustrating. But if you mostly photograph things that don’t move, you may never notice the difference. Even basic point-and-shoots these days will give you good image quality, and the image quality you get from a good superzoom should be excellent.

    Enjoy your new camera!

  2. Thanks for the reply! Those are great shots.

    My experience with superzooms is not so much that they can’t take photos of moving objects. My issue is that when I’m trying to catch a child with a particular expression, or a critter in a particular pose, the moment has passed by the time the shutter actually clicks. The resulting picture might not be the least bit blurry, but it’s not the picture I wanted.

    Have you found a way around this issue?

    Thanks again!

    –Virginia

    • I’m glad you liked the photos! It is very difficult for an end-user to measure the shutter lag. However, CNET test lab states the shutter lag for Canon PowerShot SX40 HS as 0.4 seconds. I am sure this is not much of a problem when taking photos of moving objects (people or animals). I have not any problem with the shutter lag. However, this is where the mechanical shutter of a DSLR would really help since they don’t have any shutter lag.

  3. Hey Raghu this is a nice post. You have taken amazing photos. I am sure you have gone through some of the Photography lessons or books. However would like to recommend below one if you are interested. Just simple photography lessons in simple language.

    “Your Camera Loves You: Learn to Love It Back”

    You can search on Amazon to get more info on this book.

    • I am glad you liked the post and my photos! I am still learning photography and I have not taken any lessons. I am just following the trial and error method of learning. I’ll definitely checkout the book. Thank you once again!

  4. Its really good and explains the difference between a DSLR and a Super Zoom camera. I think it all depends upon individuals choice.After reading this one can give a second thought before purchasing a dslr.

  5. Nice explanation. I am a newbie so although less pricy like cybershot and coolpix offer 10-12x zoom why dslr offer such less zoom like 3-4x? or is there more to zoom in dslrs?

  6. Hey Sri – this is a very useful blog and your photos are fantastic ! I would like to ask you one question. How about night photography with superzoom? One of the reason why i was looking to move to DSLR is the frustrating moments when light is low and you cant click good pics. From whatever i have read so far, with DSLR’s facilities of shutterspeed adjustments, ISO and Aperture adjustment, you can really do good justice to indoor photos or low light situations. How do you deal with these situations with a superzoom camera? Your inputs would be really helpful as i am still contemplating whether to go for DSLR or Superzoom…!

    • Hi Hrishikesh,

      I use a 1 -5 seconds shutter speed on a superzoom camera. This usually takes care of low light situations. That said, please note that the sensor in a superzoom is very small and that’s why a DSLR will give you better resolution for night photography. With a DSLR, you can keep a fraction of the shutter speed and still get the same output. I would recommend trying a superzoom with a tripod and 1-5 second shutter speed.

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