I need to be careful here about using words like "amateur",
"professional", and "better". I also need to apologize in advance
for using so many "air quotes" in this particular post. Let me first say
that I cringe
whenever I hear people speak in an elitist manner about photography
and gear, especially when it comes down to the end result of the
photos captured. The word "amateur" has a poor connotation that we
need to discuss. If you took Latin or French, you'll remember that
the root meaning of "amateur" merely denotes the "love" of
something, not inexperience as it has become synonymous with in modern times.
Photography is so closely tied to art that you have to change how
you define a "good" photo. Granted there are "rules" that one can
take when shooting to ensure proper exposure and composition, the
best photographs are the ones that stay with you personally and
emotionally. I've never heard anyone say they like a photo because
of the composition alone, or only because the exposure was perfect.
subject and tone are what ultimately matter when shooting and
reviewing photographs. Of course, a
"professional" will generally have more expensive gear and
experience, but even they may not share the same vision and
enthusiasm as someone with modest equipment. Maybe you're in love
with the act of taking pictures, but aren't always impressed with your
results and the technical quality of your photos. Perhaps you're
enjoying taking photos on your smartphone or point and shoot but don't
see the merit in stepping up your game a bit. Here are some benefits
you'll gain from making the jump to a DSLR.
To really understand why a DSLR will give you creative freedom over your
smartphone, we first have to understand exposure. This simply means the
amount of light allowed to fall on the camera's sensor based on the
control we have over said light.
There are three main components to
The size of the "hole" we allow the light to pass through as it hits the
sensor. This is extremely important and can be tough to understand when
getting started in photography. All you need to know now is that the
larger the hole, the more light we allow in, and the quicker we can
achieve the proper exposure. Conversely, the smaller the aperture, the
longer it takes to gather the necessary light. Things start to get
complicated when you add the fact that as our aperture gets larger, our
depth of field, or cross-section of the photo that is in focus, becomes
less deep. As we reduce the size of our aperture, you guessed it; our
depth of field becomes wider and more of our photo will be in focus.
This control is one of the key differences between smartphones and most other
cameras. The variable control we gain with a DSLR is not available to us
on a camera phone, as they have "fixed" apertures. Although good
smartphone cameras don't have terrible specs when it comes to aperture
size, control of our aperture gives us the freedom to take creative
liberties with our photos.
This is the duration we allow light to hit our sensor. The faster the
shutter speed, the easier it is to "stop" motion. Similarly, the longer
we leave the shutter open, the more we see the effects of motion in our
pictures. However, as is the case in many poor smartphone photos, these
longer durations are what make photos look blurry. Our hands and arms
move, our subjects move, and we miss moments. Even at speeds that sound
fast, 1/20th or 1/40th of a second, we'll almost always get blurry
results. Smartphone cameras choose shutter speeds automatically based on
the amount of available light and the fixed aperture setting. The sequence below was taken with various shutter speeds while shooting a rolling car to highlight the stopping power of a fast shutter.
brighter the scene, the faster the sensor will be able to gather the
light, and the camera will be able to use a faster shutter speed. On the
other end of this spectrum, dimly lit rooms and shots at night require
much more time to expose the sensor, and we're more likely to be left
with blurry pics. In these night shots especially, you'll start to see
some "noise", or colorful pixels that generally detract from your
photos. This is all tied in with the third area of exposure - ISO.
This third variable deals with the sensitivity of your camera's sensor
to light. When plenty of light is available to us, our sensor doesn't
have to guess or amplify light to provide a nice image. However, in
darker situations, the need to amplify the electronic signal to gather
light introduces unwanted noise - not unlike a microphone at a concert.
ISO numbers typically range from 100 all the way up to 3200 on the iPhone 5, and even higher on high end DSLRs. The higher the number, the more amplification and the more noise you'll see. With smartphones, since we don't have the ability to
"open up" our aperture to gather more light, and if we can't slow down
our shutter to collect the necessary light, the ISO must therefore be
increased, generally resulting in noisy and poor quality images. Of course, we can
take noisy pictures with a DSLR as well, but the expanded control we're afforded allows us to avoid this scenario.
Understanding how these three aspects of exposure work and interact
together is the key to being a technically proficient and confident photographer. Playing and experimenting with these
controls is the greatest benefit of using a DSLR over a smartphone. As
with all creative endeavors, control, possibilities, and options are
key. Control allows you to express your vision without compromise. At
the risk of getting too deep here, loss of controls and variables can often be
beneficial to creative types. Limitations force us to explore
alternate methods and tricks to achieve unique results.
Additional Benefits of DSLRs
Beyond the control you gain from manipulating all aspects of exposure, a
DSLR will also allow you to change lenses as necessary. Most entry
level kits provide a standard zoom lens, which will allow you to
photograph a wide variety of subjects. From there, you could choose to
buy an additional lenses depending on what you enjoy shooting or to
assist with tricky shooting situations. For example, one of my favorite
lenses is actually very inexpensive: a 50mm f/1.8. The number followed
by the f denotes the lens's aperture. The lower the number, the larger
the hole for the light to pass through, the faster we can gather light,
and the shallower the depth of field becomes; which is generally a very
pleasing look for portraits. The 50mm focal length is very close to what
the human eye sees, meaning your shots will feel very natural and true
to life. If you want to gain additional reach, your next lens could be a
telephoto zoom lens. An affordable and versatile option would be the
75-300mm f/4-5.6 lens. Between this, the 50mm, and a typical 18mm - 55mm
kit lens, you'll have incredible flexibility. Something important to
keep in mind is that "zooming" done on your smartphone is digital zoom,
which ultimately degrades the image quality and is the equivalent of
enlarging and cropping a file on your computer. Optical zoom through
lenses is a far superior way of bringing the action closer, resulting in
a crisper image.
A RAW file taken from a DSLR contains more data that a flat .jpg file
shot from a smartphone. These files are far more forgiving, even
allowing us to lighten or darken an image's exposure without degrading
its quality. As much as we all love Instagram filters, even the
greatest effect can't bring back an overexposed image back to life.
Sure, smartphones come equipped with a small LED flash, but these pale
in comparison to the flash you'll find built in to most entry level DSLR
kits. Taking this one step further, you can choose to add an external
flash or "speedlight" to your camera to really illuminate the scene.
Learning how to tame and modify light is critical to taking great
pictures, and I'd actually advise against going too flash crazy when
first learning how to wield your new camera. Think of your on camera
flash the same way you do an oxygen mask on an airplane: it's good to
know it's there, but you hope you don't have reason to use it.
I've always hated trying to focus on my subject with a smartphone. Auto
focus is always too slow, and as great as the concept of tap to focus
is, I've been spoiled by the robust focusing systems built in to DSLRs.
Smartphone cameras use contrast detection to discern what is crisp,
while a DSLR uses multiple focus points and projected infrared grids to
gather information about the distance and position of subjects. Although
I don't use it often, I also really appreciate the ability to manually
focus on what I'm shooting. Removing the technological assistance can be
uncomfortable at times, but is ultimately very empowering to be in
complete control of what is in focus. Lastly, a quick auto focus system,
or skilled manual focusing, cuts down on the time between seeing
something worthy of shooting, and taking the actual shot. I can't think
of anything worse than missing a smile or glance from a subject because I
had to wait for my smartphone to clumsily detect what I was trying to
shoot. Second to that frustration is trying to gauge what I'm looking at
on my smartphone's LCD on a blazing sunny day.
Image size and quality
Quality over quantity doesn't just apply to the photos you take and the
lenses you own; it is also a great way of understanding megapixels and
the images you shoot. Although most smartphones boast cameras with 6, 8,
16 and even 41 megapixels, this doesn't mean a whole lot unless they're
pixels. Sensor size means a lot when talking about the quality of pixels and how they're interpreted. A typical smartphone camera sensor is about the size of a Tic-Tac mint, while an entry level DSLR has a sensor closer to the size of a normal postage stamp. Both cameras could offer you a 16 megapixel file, but the larger sensor can more accurately translate what it has seen because the "pixel density" is closer to a 1:1 ratio.
What should I buy?
Without going too in-depth about the merits of every camera released in the last ten years, all I'll say is that you don't need the newest camera on the market to learn and practice photography. In fact, I suggest the opposite; buy the most affordable yet capable DSLR kit you can get your hands on. Don't be afraid to buy a used or refurbished camera, or even one that is a few years old. With the exception of minor enhancements and video features, most entry level cameras haven't improved by leaps and bounds that would matter to someone just starting out. One of my favorite cameras to carry around on a day out is an 8 year old, 8 megapixel Canon that I don't need to worry too much about dropping and abusing. Save your money for an additional "fast" lens, like the 50mm f/1.8 I mentioned earlier. Both Canon and Nikon offer this lens for less than $120. Mine is nearly 10 years old and works as well now as the day I bought it! The most important thing is to buy something you're comfortable with and get out there!
I'm sure that nobody reading this is pretending that their smartphone
can take a better picture (technically speaking) than a DSLR, and it
shouldn't be expected to (yet). Hopefully this post has shed a little
light on the subject of making the exploratory jump to a DSLR if you're
really enjoying the freedom and creativity that your smartphone camera
has afforded you. In the end, the best camera is the one you have with
you, so why not try carrying a better camera with you wherever you go?
Personally, I've had a long time love of photography, and I hope that
anyone trying to flex their creative and artistic chops will take the
leap to photographing with a camera that will best serve their passion.
I've intended this post to be just one in a series of helpful photography lessons. I look forward to exploring more on controlling exposure and thinking differently about how you shoot pictures. The more you understand how your camera functions, the easier it becomes to take great pictures. Thanks for reading!